The West Country holds a wealth of stories waiting for an author to bring them to life. How do we go about finding them?
A story may begin with a rumour circulating about a place or an event
Or a snippet in a paper that raises more questions than it answers
Or curiosity about how national events played out here
All three have been starting points for me.
An intriguing rumour provided the inspiration for Seeds of Doubt. I was the director of a murder-mystery company working in Lynmouth, a small coastal village in North Devon, when I first heard a rumour that experimentation with the weather may have been behind the devastating floods there in 1952. I began to delve. The government have always denied any involvement but after 30 years anyone can access top secret documents held at the National Archive at Kew. It was all there in black and white - an irresistible, unbelievable, true basis for a story. Add in a central character with a crucial personal reason to discover the truth - with plenty of twists and turns and jeopardy along the way - and you have Seeds of Doubt.
An intriguing newspaper snippet was the starting point for The Power of Three. 'Wooden Computer invented in North Devon' it read. What? By someone called Thomas Fowler. Who? A self-taught mathematician from Devon who invented a ternary calculating machine - okay, now I see your eyes glazing over! Despite being mathematically challenged I sensed there was a story here to be told. I dedicated myself to trawling university archives in London, Cambridge and Oxford until I had uncovered it. If I'd known it would take quite so long I might have thought twice but I'm so glad I didn't. A heart-breaking story of a brilliant man who was thwarted at every turn began to emerge, a man who, despite dying in 1843, still has a relevance to the twenty-first century.
Curiosity about how national events play out locally prompted my next book, Fire in the Belly, due out in 2017. The recent film Suffragette demonstrated the power of storytelling to bring bare facts to life. The facts tell us that after a child reached 7 the mother had no rights to him or her. The fiction brought us the agony of a mother whose child is given up for adoption and there is nothing she can do to keep him.
Initially it seemed there was no story to find in North Devon but then l began to dig - an appropriate word. The process is much like Time Team, unearthing the stories that lie beneath the surface. There are a lot of false starts and dead ends but also spine-tingling moments that spur you on. I discovered rumours of suffragette arson in Lynton. Why there? A few dusty archives later I had my answer. The judge who sentenced suffragettes to the degradation of Holloway prison had a very personal connection to North Devon. That's the buzz - revealing a story everyone has either forgotten or even better - never knew. And there is always more to discover, adding twists and turns to the story. In Fire in the Belly, you'll walk alongside the main character as she discovers the body on Ilfracombe beach of a lady living under an alias. Who was she? Why hide her true identity? How did she die?
Writing fiction from fact involves suspense, mystery, character development, heightened emotions, jeopardy - all the best building blocks for an author ... but based on real lives, real events, real jeopardy.
I'd like to welcome my guest blogger for today, Elizabeth Ducie.
Elizabeth's debut novel, Gorgito’s Ice Rink, was runner up in Writing Magazine's Self-Published Book of the Year Award so who better to share their tips for anyone considering self-publishing.
I self-published my first book five years ago. At the time, I was struggling to finish my first novel (and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, had another three years to go) but was also writing lots of short stories. They weren’t typical women’s magazine stories and I wanted a way of getting them ‘out there’ for people to read.
My friend and fellow-writer, Sharon Cook, was in the same boat. But we knew the chances were slim of getting an agent, or a traditional publisher, interested; so we decided to put together a small collection and have a go at doing it ourselves. That’s how Life is Not a Trifling Affair was born.
For me there were two additional objectives: to start building my platform in advance of finishing my novel; and to learn about the technology.
This week I self-published my tenth book. I am very happy as an independent author/publisher and have abandoned any thought of looking for a traditional publishing deal. I have learned a lot during the process and still continue to learn every time I engage with this fascinating, continually-evolving world of books.
So here are just some of the lessons I have learned:
Being self-published is NOT about taking short-cuts or doing things easily. It is about taking responsibility, both financially and technically, for the whole project. You take the risks; but on the other hand, you take the rewards as well.
Self-publishing is much more acceptable these days than it was in 2011 when I started. But it still has a reputation with some people for poor quality writing and production. You owe it to yourself and your readers to make your books the best they can be; work towards changing people’s opinions, not reinforcing them.
If you are self-published, you are running a small business. You will need to be prepared to spend as much time on the business side (production and promotion) as you do on the creative aspects (writing).
There will be some things you can do yourself and others you need to sub-contract to others. I buy in the services of cover designer and proof-reader; I barter with other writers for structural editing; and I have a team of volunteer beta-readers. I am very computer literate and do the layout etc myself, but that’s not going to be something everyone will want to do. It’s important to know your limitations and work around them.
There are companies that will provide some or all of the services you need for self-publication. Some of them are excellent; others less so. Some are very expensive; others less so. The best are not always the most expensive; and vice versa. Network with other writers; get recommendations; ask questions. Make your decisions based on facts rather than emotion or gut feel.
Self-publishing should NOT be the choice of last resort when you have given up hope of getting an agent or a traditional publisher. It is just one of the viable options for someone wanting to get their work ‘out there’. See it as a positive choice; and if it’s the one you want to make, then go for it!
Elizabeth Ducie is the author of the prize-winning novel, Gorgito’s Ice Rink, and several collections on short stories. She lectures and writes on business skills for authors and publishes The Business of Writing series. Her latest novel, Counterfeit!, is set in Southern Africa, and is the first in a series of thrillers based in the sometimes murky world of international pharmaceuticals. You can find out more about Elizabeth’s work on her website, on Facebook or on Twitter.
Counterfeit - Out Now
Regulator Suzanne Jones’ mission to stop counterfeiting in Africa becomes personal. But her investigations bring danger ever closer. In Uganda a factory burns; Suzanne’s friend goes missing; and in Swaziland and Zambia, children die.
Who is supplying the fake drugs? What is the Eastern European connection? Can Suzanne stop the counterfeiters before more people die?
Tomorrow - Tuesday 25th July - I'm delighted to be hosting a guest blog from Elizabeth Dulcie on Hints and tips for anyone considering Self Publishing. This is part of her blog tour marking the publication of her latest book, Counterfeit. Drop by tomorrow for some fascinating insights.
Back in 2009 I posted this blog ...
Have you heard of Thomas Fowler, the mathematician and inventor who could have changed the history of computing ? Probably not. Neither had I until I came across an old newspaper cutting a few years back and got hooked. After years buried in dusty archives it dawned on me that this man was as important a player in the history of computing as Charles Babbage. Even more significantly, today's movers and shakers are suggesting that the principles Fowler proposed 150 years ago are actually the future of computing - only no-one seems to know of him.
His story is filled with agonizing examples of bad luck, self-sabotage and prejudice - all of which led to him dying without getting the credit for an inspirational invention. In 1841 he said:
…my greatest wish was to have had a thorough investigation of the whole principle of the Machine and its details as far as I could then explain them, in a way very different from a popular exhibition. - this investigation I hope it will still have by some first rate Man of Science before it be laid aside or adopted.
But it never happened and he died a bitterly disappointed man. Working on the principle of better late than never, my book on the story behind the man and his genius is finally being published on June 25th.
At the launch I'll give a presentation on the extraordinary story of Thomas Fowler. It's a free event so please join me:
Saturday June 25th, 3pm in the gallery at the Plough in Great Torrington