[full_width]I set the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries in southern Spain in the area of Andalusia — al-Andalus to the Moors who lived there for over 700 years. After visiting Spain and the Alhambra once when I was 16 years old I did not return for over 30 years, but when I did I fell in love with it. So much so that we now own a small rural house there
This post is the first in a series under the heading Beyond the Beaches which describes my love affair with Andalusia and the real Spain, the one you will find 10 minutes inland, but also the one you can find in one or two cities which sit on the coastal strip.
If you love sand under your toes, warm clear water, restaurants, burgers, cold beer and wine, all the other distractions of the Costa del Sol then this post is not for you. Don’t get me wrong — I like all of that too. There is little that can top eating sardines fresh from the barbecue pit with roasted pepper salad and a cold-beaded glass of cerbeza while sitting a table with sand under your toes. But there are plenty of others who have written about that, and I’m hoping to show you some of the wonders that lie beyond the beach. [/full_width]
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Why do I want to tell you about this aspect of Spain? Primarily because it’s closer to the Spain I write about. Not very close because that Spain no longer exists, but a little remains if you know where to look.
Inland Andalusia is a patchwork of small towns, villages, and isolated houses all nestling in the space between mountains. Everywhere there are houses. They cling to hillsides and sit atop ridges. Almost all are white with small windows to keep out the fierce heat of summer. [/one_half] [one_half_last padding=”0 0 0 6px”]
The Spanish spoken in most Latin American cultures is different to Castilian Spanish. Not enough to make someone from Spain unable to converse with someone from Mexico, but enough to cause the odd stumble. Why should this be, when most of the settlers were Spanish? The answer is that the majority of Spanish sailors who crossed the Atlantic came from Andalusia — the al-Andalus of Moorish Spain that I write about. Here, the language spoken, and the language still spoken, was a mongrel mix of Spanish, Arabic and local dialect. We have a house in Spain, in the heart of the countryside, and can barely understand our neighbours because they speak only Andaluz, a close cousin of this ancient dialect. And boy do they speak it fast!
[/one_half_last] Most of the towns and villages are white too, with streets so precipitous there are times you think you might need crampons. Almost all of these villages will have the necessities of life. A bank, a Correos, or Post Office, a small supermarket and often several, but also a butcher, a panaderia, a ferreteria. And, of course, a bar. In fact, it would be a poor excuse for a Spanish village to possess only the one bar. And in these bars you will be able to enjoy a glass of wine or beer and, likely as not, it will come with a free tapa. And the cost? In my local village, Riogordo, little more than €1.
All of this will be explored in a whole series of posts revelling in the wonder that in Andalusia. But for now, this is just the first part of my opening.In the next post I’ll tell you why I chose this area to set my books, and how I discovered other authors who are also writing about the same time and period. In the next installment I will tell you how I came to start writing the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries.[full_width”][/full_width]
Between April 10th to the 12th the London Book Fair will be running in Earl’s Court, west London.
I have visited before a few years ago, but this year I am attending on two days. On one of those I am part of a panel of authors talking about the advantages of different routes to publish. You can find me as a speaker on The Agony and Ecstacy of becoming a Self-Publisher.
For the first time in three years I am actually in the country for the fantastic Hawksbury Upton Literary Festival, and will be speaking on a panel at 1pm on Six ways to be a writer. This LitFest is small, low-key, and totally free. So if you are in striking distance of Hawksbury Upton in Gloucestershire I would recommend you try to come along. If you do, seek me out and say Hi!
I liked my old covers, I really did. But something about them wasn’t quite right. They didn’t say “Historical” enough–and after all, writing books set in Moorish Spain in the 1480s should say historical, shouldn’t it.
So I commissioned a new set of covers, to coincide with the forthcoming release of The Sin Eater. The fantastic Jessica Bell has done a great job on re-branding the books so now the covers tell you exactly what you can expect inside. A little bit dark, a little bit mysterious, but above all historical. You can see the new covers below, and soon you’ll be able to read The Sin Eater as well.
I was seventeen before I spent my first Christmas apart from family—and I shouldn’t have been there, in more ways than one.
Fairbourne sits in the curve of Wales where it meets the Irish Sea. It’s a small place, and lately getting smaller all the time. It’s also the place where most of my memories of growing up reside.
My parents were the proud owners of a static caravan on a small—some might say primitive—site on the very southern edge of the village. Trapped between the sea, soaring cliffs, a thousand foot mountain and a railway line, the caravan lay no more than forty feet from the sea at high tide.
My earliest memories are of lying in bed with the sound of surf churning and sucking at the pebble bank—the only thing separating us from the waves. Now, fifty odd years later, the bank is damaged and, if another tidal surge occurs the village will be left to its own devices. Sink or swim, as they say. Except, in this case, it will be sink.
Most of us have had a best friend. Mine was a kid called John Walford, who is no longer with us. We spent most weekends together between April and September, and also the long summer break from school. Six whole weeks. My father would deliver us to the coast, a two hour drive in those days and those vehicles, and deposit my mother, myself and my brothers at the caravan. We wouldn’t return home until the day before school started. And for the entire six weeks I was barely indoors. There were cliffs to climb, mountains to explore, fish to be caught, sea to swim in. And a railway bridge.
It spanned—and continues to span—the Mawddach estuary. If you don’t know Wales and don’t know the pronunciation that likely comes out as Mawdak, but it’s softer than that. More like Mowthach except the ch at the end is softer than you think.
The bridge runs for a mile or more, linking the Fairbourne side to Barmouth. It’s fashioned out of thick wooden piles encrusted with barnacles, and if you go there at the right time of year salmon hang lazily in the current before they foray upstream. It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful locations in this world.
The caravan site closes at the end of September and doesn’t open until Easter weekend. Between those dates it is cold, wet, deserted and out of bounds
Except that year when I was seventeen John Walford and I had plans. We were going to spend Christmas at Fairbourne. Whether we were meant to or not.
I took the train because I was only three months into being seventeen and not yet passed my driving test. John, a little older, came on his motorbike. A BSA with learner plates. In those days you could ride a machine up to 250cc on learner plates, so that’s what he did. We met at the caravan site, hoping nobody would discover us. Then we had to decide what to do with ourselves.
The railway line ran above the site, raised on a high boulder bank. When we were younger we’d put pennies on the line and wait for a train to come along. Somebody told us it was dangerous, the coins might derail the train and it would come careening down from its high position. But we did it anyway.
The train would come, roaring and steaming—yes, in those days they steamed—and our pennies would clatter up and outward.
Afterward we went in search of them. If we were lucky they’d be flattened, made twice the size. It was a challenge to put the coin on the line a second, third or fourth time to see how flat, how large they could grow.
But on this Christmas Eve, let loose from family control, we had to go somewhere, do something.
I was too young to drink. Here in the UK you can legally buy and consume alcohol from the age of 18. I wasn’t. But John was.
We both knew there was a public house on the station at the start of the long bridge. In those days it was Barmouth Junction, but now it’s called Morfa Mawddach. Remember the pronunciation? There might be a test later.
We could have ridden there on John’s BSA, but we knew we intended to drink pints of beer. As many as we could manage. It never occurred to us we wouldn’t get served, and in that we were right.
We walked. Along the railway line. Climbing the boulder bank and making our way through the darkness. The last train was due at 10 pm, and we started off at 9. More than enough time. The distance was no more than three or four miles, and that Christmas Eve boasted a clear sky with stars pricking holes through.
At the station we entered the bar, me tentative, John, as always, more confident.
I sat in a wooden chair at a wooden table. John went to the bar. Behind it stood a barmaid. Thirty years old. To me, then, that was old. How things change.
John returned, two pint glasses in hand, and we set to.
When we arrived we were the only customers. Then the last train came through. It stopped. It went on. Two men came into the bar. They glanced around, bought drinks, then took a table across from us. If I thought the barmaid old, these two were ancient. Grizzled men of the hills, farmers or fishermen, we never did find out. But, as the beer continued to flow, they told us the tale of the Ghost Train.
There was a film once, they said, back in the 1940’s. Not a great film, but entertaining all the same. And by coincidence some of the filming took place at the very station, in the very bar, we now sat.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” said John.
“Don’t matter,” one of the old men said. “They don’t much mind if you do or you don’t. They just am.”
John laughed and I, already the worse for wear, giggled along.
“‘Course—it were based on a true tale.”
John laughed again, but it came out uncomfortable this time.
“Line was busier back then,” the man said. “There’d be ten, twelve trains a day. And the station were busier too. People waiting on people coming home. Except one day they waited too long.” He looked at us both with rheumy eyes which had seen everything, including two kids who had no place in a bar on Christmas Eve. “One day the train went over the cliffs south of town. Went tumbling down, taking all the folks with it. Nobody survived. Except…” He paused, maybe for effect, maybe because his glass was empty.
I got up and went to the bar.
The barmaid eyed me. I more than likely looked even younger than my seventeen years, but she poured four pints of bitter anyway. I paid and carried them back, two in each hand.
The man sipped at his, smiled.
“Except,” he said, “the folks waiting saw the train a-coming. Heard it first, o’course. Always do, don’t you? Then the smoke, and finally the train. ’Cept this time she looked different. Not as solid as she should. But her kept on coming. Coming and coming. And then she roared through the station and out over the bridge, trailing smoke and sparks and wisps of grey… something. Until it was gone. ’Twas only later those folks waiting on their kin heard what had happened.”
“Ghost train, it was,” said his companion.
“That’s right. Ghost train.”
I sat back. I listened—for the sound of a distant whistle, for the rumble of something on the tracks. Nothing. But, on this first Christmas Eve on my own, the night felt different. I looked at John. He looked back. We nodded and drank our pints and stood.
The moon silvered the track ahead of us as we stepped from wooden sleeper to wooden sleeper, the distance never quite right, either too short or too long. Behind us silver light illuminated the languid current of the Mawddach estuary.
“Bollocks,” said John. “He was talking bollocks.”
“‘Course he was.”
Our breath plumed the air and white frost decorated the grass beside the line. We came to Fairbourne station and went on, little more than half a mile to go. We didn’t speak again. Our eyes followed the twin tracks of the railway line until they met in the distance. We were watching. Waiting for something to appear.
Of course, nothing did.
We came to the bridge over the roadway and John started down the bank.
I hesitated, feeling in my pocket and pulling out a penny. I knelt and laid it on the line, taking a moment to get it square. They always worked better if they were square to the metal.
John stopped and looked back at me, then climbed up and placed his own coin on the other rail.
We stood for a moment staring at them, the sound of the surf on the beach loud, then we scrambled down and burrowed under the covers and slept the sleep of drunken youth.
Except, at some time in the night, I turned over, disturbed by some sound. I was barely conscious, and more than likely what I heard was nothing more than a dream, but it sounded like a train running fast along the line, rattling and clattering, growing loud, louder, then passing to fade away. A distant whistle sounded and I fell back into sleep.
In the morning we woke late. Remembering the dream I climbed the line in search of my penny, only as I was almost there remembering it was Christmas Day and there were no trains. Except I was wrong.
My penny wasn’t on the line where I had left it, solid and squared.
I looked around. Sometimes they would lie close. Other times they were flicked away, sometimes so far you never did find them. This one I did. Ten feet from the line. My penny lay dull in the grass and I bent to pick it up, turned it over, turned it again. It was wide and flat and thin as a sheet of paper where something heavy had run across it in the night. It was wider and flatter and thinner than any I had ever seen before. And some kind of light clung to it in the grey air of Christmas Day.
I tossed it in the air, caught it and slipped it into my pocket. Good luck or bad? I still don’t know.
Today I interview Mason Cross, author of last year’s breakthrough thriller The Killing Season featuring a new kick-ass hero Carter Blake. His new novel The Samaritan was released last week and we talk about this, his writing, and what lies in store for the future.
My kids will tell you my opinion on self-belief. I admit I might have been a little too successful teaching them that lesson—but if you can do something, even better if you can do it well, why hide the fact?
So when I started writing again a couple of years ago, after a hiatus of 35 years, the world had changed from the one I used to know. Back in the hazy (and yes, as an ex-hippy they are a little hazy) days of the 1970’s there were two ways to get published. Fanzines—which didn’t pay—and books and magazines—which did.
I did both. Started with fanzines and worked myself up through the ranks, put in the hours even though Malcolm Gladwell was only 10 years old, until eventually things began to stick. I got an agent, then a publisher, had stories in Galaxy magazine and Vertex and four novels published over five years. And then I ran out of money. Or rather, I matured and decided I needed to eat at least once a day. I took a day job. Writing became a side project, and then faded… but it was never forgotten.
When I returned to it—and that first love is always something special, isn’t it—it was to a whole new world. Things had changed while I had been away.
There had been vanity presses back in the day, but now Amazon has cracked open the stone wall surrounding the magic kingdom and people can publish themselves. I had a decision to make. Start up in the same way I knew, find an agent, find a publisher, wait, or… something else?
The internet had appeared, too. In 1970, if you wanted an agent you bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book and trawled the pages, you wrote letters (in longhand), enclosed an SAE, and you waited. Now Google is your friend.
So… the old way, or the new way, that was the decision I had to make.
I have to tell you, I was torn.
I’m of the baby-boom generation who sees the validation of a publisher as almost essential to a writer, so it was tough to consider alternatives. But like I said, the world has changed. Oh, has it ever changed.
I looked into the alternatives and discovered that if I published myself I could earn 70% royalty from Amazon, the same from other outlets if I went through Smashwords or direct.
From experience I knew a traditional publisher wouldn’t give me anything like that. But hey, they have overheads too: editors, proofreaders, cover artists… large, prestigious office blocks in London and New York, high-paid executives, lunches…
I looked into what I needed to do to make my book as professional as I could. I already told you about self-belief, so of course I knew it was a great book. To make it greater still I needed an editor, a professional cover, a proofreader. So I went out and found them. And then there’s the marketing. It would be great to leave that up to the publisher, but talking with traditional authors it soon became clear that most of the marketing still needs to be done by yourself. Fine, I’ve run a software company for over 20 years, I can do that too.
Maybe there’s a pattern emerging. I’ve talked on the web with a lot of writers who don’t want all that extra work. They see themselves as writers, period. And it’s great if that is all you want to be. But I can do all this other stuff anyway. Formatting for Kindle doesn’t scare me. Creating a website is what I do in my day job.
But I still had the decision to make, because something continued to nag away at me… agent… publisher… acceptance.
Except—it’s the acceptance of readers I want, not of those other people.
And the deciding factor came down to… control and timing.
I’ve written my book. It’s been edited. A cover created. Proofed. It’s ready. Now.
Find an agent – several months.
Agent sends the manuscript around. Another 6 months.
Publisher accepts (you notice I’ve still got the self-confidence), another 18 months before it sees the bookstands.
That could be anything from two years to three years. And the book is finished. Now! In three years time I want to have written and published a stack of other books.
In the end, it came down to that simple fact. And control. I don’t want to wait. And by going Indie I can control everything. If a reader finds a typo on page 297 I can fix it and upload a new version within minutes.
I’m Indie. Positively Indie. And proud of the fact. Oh, and if you’re interested, you can find the book here and here.
Earlier today I watched Joanna Penn on Sky News talking about making a change in your career, and she said something profound that really struck me.
What she said was: “Think back to what you wanted to be when you were 13 or 14. Are you doing that now?”
Well, at 13 all I ever wanted to be was a writer.
And, even worse, at 23 I was! A real writer, with an agent, a publisher, and a book in the library. Sure, the advance was laughable and I never earned it out, but I had reached my goal in life, and over the next few years I published three more books and a few short stories.
And then… well, I took my eye off the ball. I gave up.
But 2013 was the year I seriously decided to get back into my writing. I’ve been playing around for a while, but I admit now it was only playing. I started in on my first book in 30 years 5 years ago, a detective novel. Later I took down the copies of my old Science Fiction novels and thought, hey, I can scan these in and bring them out as eBooks. Except, when I started reading them through I thought, oh-oh, maybe not.
So I wrote for a while.
I even wrote under a pseudonym to see if I could still make it and sold a few copies of what I wrote, but it wasn’t anything I wanted to tell anyone else about.
Then around a year ago I thought “Well, if you’re really serious, spend a little money and learn what you need to do.”
So last year I did exactly that.
I read what felt like a thousand blogs, bought a score of books, attended a couple of writer’s and reader’s conferences, took several courses, and now I’ve finished the book I was working on. Next month it goes to an editor (yes, more money), and I’m having a cover created as well (you know what I’m going to say).
Over the last year I’ve undertaken the following experiences:
This kick started me to actually finish writing the book I started a year ago. I had been driving my wife mad because I talked about it all the time but I wasn’t getting it done.
This course certainly got it done.
Over a period of less than 30 days I wrote every chance I got and ended up with 100,000 words.
Was it worth the effort? Yes.
Will I do the same again with the next book? No.
I learned a few things about the process of creation over the month, and the biggest thing I learned is that yes, I need to write fast and write with my editing head turned off, but writing as fast as I did had a negative effect afterwards. I was so burned out by the process it took me a few months to get back into it.
But, if you need a kick up the backside to get you to finish a book, I’d recommend everyone try this once.
I enjoyed Chipping Norton, but Harrogate was an epiphany. Here were the people I wanted to hang around with. Everyone there loves books and writing. Everyone. It was like I’d been on a ten year trip and finally arrived home!
At Harrogate I attended a short workshop on plotting, a part of the process I knew needed attention, and this led me to the next phase.
I’ve blogged about this elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself here, other than to say this taught me more than anything else I’ve done all year. If you can find the time, and money, these Masterclasses are recommended.
One thing I did take away from the class that I didn’t mention in my post was the lesson Matthew Hall taught me: Spend time on constructing your story. He says he spends 5 or 6 weeks on plotting before writing anything. And after going through the mill with my new book I intend to follow his advice from now on. Get the plot nailed down first, and then start writing.
And so, after what seems to have been a pretty busy year I’m now sitting here with a finished novel wondering what to do with it.
I thought long and hard about whether to go the traditional route with the book. You know: submit to an agent, hang around to see if anyone’s interested, maybe get a publisher to nibble, hang around another year or eighteen months while it goes through the mill, and I decided… ahh, no, maybe not.
I know how self-publishing works. I know my own weaknesses, hence the editor and cover designer. I also know most traditionally published writers don’t make enough to live off. I’ve reached the stage in my life where I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is time. Time to do what I really want to do. Time to market my own book, and to write another (already plotted) and another after than (also already plotted). After that… oh, I have so many ideas I need a forty year retirement to fit it all in.
Earlier this year I attended the Harrogate Crime Festival and took part in a two hours intensive workshop on character and plot development presented by MR Hall and William Ryan. I was so impressed I wanted more – and this last weekend more is exactly what I got.
I discovered Mathew and William ran a longer version of their course under the Guardian Masterclass banner – two days instead of two hours – so I signed up. The course was held at the Guardian building just around the corner from King’s Cross station. Sitting on the banks of Regent’s Canal, this is a stunning glass sided building, and just walking inside makes you feel special.
The course is only held with small groups – this time there were 12 of us – and it was a fantastic mix of individuals with a stunning range of experience and skills, from a Scandinavian investigative journalist through a Professor of Neurology, through not one but two psychologists, businessmen, journalists… all of us wannabe crime writers.
Despite being held over two longish days – 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. – the course was equally as intense as that first two hour one I attended, because we were all expected to do a lot more thinking and creating.
I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of what we did, because then you might not need to attend this weekend yourself, and if anyone reading this is thinking they have a crime novel or thriller within them I encourage you to sign up and experience it for yourself. What I am going to tell you about are my impressions and what I came away with.
As a writer – and a person – I love to learn new things and explore areas in depth. And especially as a writer I know I have some strengths but also many, many weaknesses. I can write – I have proven this to myself many years ago by publishing four novels – but now I want to be able to write better, and better still. I have been told my writing is good at setting and atmosphere, and I write sympathetic, realistic characters. What I am aware of is a weakness in plotting. In the past I sat (in those days at an old black Royal typewriter) and started at page one and hammered away until I was finished, with no real clue where I was going until I got there. I must have done something right, if only by accident, but I had no idea what it was.
Returning to writing after a long hiatus I knew I wanted to be better, so set out on a journey of discovery and enlightenment. I buy books on craft. I read other writers I admire using a more analytic eye, and I go on courses.
Working on your own may bring some insight, but working with other develops a far deeper level of understanding. And those others you work with challenge your preconceptions. Alone I might push so far and then say, OK, good enough. With eleven others casting a critical but supportive eye over your ideas they do not allow you to say good enough.
Saturday concentrated on explaining the process of writing a crime novel and then we started on character development, with Bill showing us how to build realistic, believable characters that did not conform to the stereotypical protagonist of a crime novel.
We went on to look at the fundamentals of plotting, and spent an uncomfortable (for me) hour acting out dialogue.
As the last session of the day David Headley gave us his thoughts on the work of an agent – something likely of interest to most of us there. Personally I was fascinated and buoyed up by his words, but it appeared on Sunday morning I was in the minority. David told us he receives somewhere around 4,000 submissions a month. That’s 48,000 potential novels a year. And of these he might choose to take on 6. Yes, that’s not a mistake, 6 out of 48,000; which is 1 in 8,000, or 0.0125%.
To most of his audience that was a daunting statistic. To me I heard something different in what he said, which was that the rejection rate is so high because most of those manuscripts break all the rules required of a real novel. And the entire point of the whole weekend was to give us the tools needed to be a part of the tiny percentage that stand a chance of success.
Or maybe I’m just too big-headed to understand when the odds are stacked against me.
By 5 p.m. on Sunday William was standing at a whiteboard putting the final touches to three plots our groups had developed. On another long glass wall Mathew had taped up the character sketches for our protagonists and victims.
Looking at what we managed to develop over such a short period of time was both exciting and inspiring. With a little more work any one of the three plot lines could be turned into a damn good novel. Even better I came away with a toolkit to apply against my current work in progress, and everything I plan for the future.
Sure, I might have come to some of these skills and techniques myself – but how long would it have taken me, and how many mistakes might I have made along the way?
Sometimes writers, or those who aspire to be writers, consider it a singular profession that has to be battled through at a desk, alone. And yes, ultimately, that is where the work gets done, but the great materials, fantastic instruction and wonderful companions of this weekend are going make the job so much easier.
And the main thing I came away with that is going to make me a better writer?
The lesson that writing is a process. Certainly, creativity and originality have a part to play, but if you do not follow the process you will make everything harder for yourself in the long run, and you will never be able to produce enough work to make a living at it, and its unlikely you will ever be accepted by an agent, or published.
So if you want to be a writer and are unsure of your way, you owe it to yourself to check out these masterclasses. You have nothing to lose but months – or years – of lonely struggle.