New Covers

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.

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Ghost Train

indiebrag-christmas-blog-hopI 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.

barmouth-bridgeIt 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.


The next stop on the indieBRAG Christmas Blog Hop is on Monday, December 7 with J.B. Hawker

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2013

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2013

I guess I’m just dim. This is the biggest crime writing festival in Europe – possibly, I heard claims, in the world – now in its tenth year ,and I have never heard of it! How come?

Better late than never, I guess.

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I came to the event by a long and convoluted path, but I did get there.

As I said to my wife on my return – this was the second best weekend of my life. She asked what the first was, and of course it was the weekend we got married. Of course.

The event ran over three days, Friday to Sunday, but I also attended the Creative Workshop day on Thursday.

It started with a fantastic session from M.R. Hall and William Ryan on the core elements of a crime novel, with lots of interaction and great presentations. This is a distillation of a 2 day workshop run by them and the agent David Headley. They are running another workshop in October and I might sign up for that one as well.

The second session of the day was on Forensics – suitably gruesome, presented by a professional who has been both on the police and the forensic analysis side.

I almost didn’t attend the first afternoon session presented by a firm of Accountants but am glad I did, because I had no idea a writer can claim all the books they buy back against tax. How fantastic is that?

The penultimate session was by Henry Sutton on what we can learn from the greats of crime writing. Henry is a quiet, polite academic but he certainly knows his crime, including some surprising authors such as Lee Child as well as the more expected ones of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard.

Finally there was Dragon’s Pen, where prospective authors toss their name into a hat for the chance to pitch their novel to a panel of four professionals. This year these were the top UK agent Jane Gregory, Gordon Wise of Curtis Brown, Maria Rejt from Mantle and Jade Chandler from Little Brown. The panel was controlled – if it’s possible to use such a term – by Mark Billingham.

I was a little late getting there, had only just sat down when the first name was called out. And it was me! I’d done a little preparation, but not much, and in the rush I couldn’t find my notes and ended up walking to the mic and speaking for two minutes without any recollection whatsoever what I said.

Hmmm – I guess it was OK though, but if I ever do something like that again I’m going to prepare.

The rest of the weekend was a kind of alcohol and head-buzz whirl. I spoke to more authors than you could shake a stick at, shook Lee Child’s hand and said I admired his writing, then sat next to Ian Rankin for 45 minutes while he chatted to old friends who lived locally. I had my picture taken with Ian, but it’s possibly the worst picture of me ever so I’m not going to show it to anyone else.

Before I came away I went and booked for next year. Yes, I’m definitely coming back!

Chipping Norton – who’d have thought it!

Chipping Norton – who’d have thought it!

I’m recently back from a fantastic weekend at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival. I know, I know… so if you have no interest in writing you can zone out now, because this is all about writing and writers.

I started out booking a couple of workshops on Saturday, then found more I wanted to go to on Sunday so made a complete weekend of it. There was a great atmosphere, and what I loved was the way everyone, from well-known writers to mere mortals like me, simply rubbed shoulders, chatted and got on. Case in point…

ChipLit2

Returning from a walk (I had three hours to kill between sessions) I sat and ate my sandwiches on a bench beneath a tree. Opposite was the Jaffe & Neal bookshop where a couple of my workshops were held, and on the right of the picture sipping tea and eating cake are Val McDermid, Stuart McBride and Mark Billingham – three of the UK’s leading crime writers. As I ate my chicken and salad on granary their conversation occasionally wafted over… “Yeah, I visited this coroner’s office, and you wouldn’t believe the things I saw there…”

So while enjoying a balmy afternoon tea in a pretty Cotswold town possibly the next gory thrillers were being discussed and planned.

And what did I learn, other than even people you consider famous are just people after all (although I think I already knew that)?

Well – I picked up some tips on how to improve my self-publishing, heard a talk by Peter James on his latest book, learned something about weaving historical research into a novel and finished off discovering how to create characters that jump off the page.

Now all I have to do is apply all this. My Spanish detective novel is now started. My vision is set. All I need now is time…

 

 

Keyboards

Keyboards

I’m going to come right out and say it. I’m a keyboard nut. Completely and utterly.
I blame my upbringing.

I started typing when I was 12. One of my earliest writing memories is of sitting outside in the garden – the sun was shining, because when you’re 12 the sun always shines – tapping away at an old portable typewriter. An Olivetti, I think. It belonged to my grandfather, who was typing up his Great War tales of derring do (which is a completely other topic I might post about sometime, because it’s worth hearing about).

Then some time later I bought my own typewriter. An old black Royal. I got it in a sale room, and probably paid no more than £1 for it. I never paid more than £1 for anything. I bought an amazing desk with a fold down lid made of solid oak for £1 which I used for 30 years.

So anyway, the point is that old Royal spoiled me. There was something about the sheer physical effort of pressing the keys and getting words down on paper that made the act of writing something different. I must have written 250,000 words on the Royal before I moved on to a portable and then, later, an electric typewriter. Eventually, and pretty soon after they came out, I bought an Amstrad computer.

However, something all these had in common was solid, clattery keyboards. That’s what I was used to. That’s what I associated with writing.

So… roll the clock forward to 2010, and I’ve been working with computers for 25 years and used keyboards of all kinds, but that was work, not creation. I would use whatever fell to hand (or finger).

But in 2010 I started writing again, and suddenly discovered that none of the keyboards I used was up to the job. There was a disconnect between my somatic memory and the physical act of writing. The keyboards weren’t the right size or shape or… well, feel!

I bought a MacBook, but the keyboard, while OK, wasn’t it.

I bought an Apple keyboard, and then an apple wireless keyboard, and still not it.
The keys were soft and squishy. They didn’t make a noise. And something about putting words on paper (sorry, I mean screen now, don’t I?) and what I use to perform the task didn’t sit right.

I bought keyboard after keyboard until I finally realized buying another one was plain stupid.

So I did some research, trawled the net finding out what the best keyboards were, and finally drove 25 miles down the road to Stroud to actually try one before committing myself (or being committed).

All of this is some kind of prelude to saying I went and bought a Filco keyboard.

Filco Keyboard

It doesn’t have a numeric keypad, because why in hell would a writer want a numeric keypad? They sell it in two models, defined by whether they contain brown or blue key actions (don’t ask). The brown keys (not the actual colour) don’t go click-click-click so if you work in an office you don’t drive everyone around you mad. The blue keys do go click-click-click, and suddenly I was in heaven. I had found the keyboard I lost when I got rid of my old Royal. Except now I don’t need to lift weights to press the keys down, but when I do press them they go click and clack.

Yes, it drives my family crazy if they can hear it, so I close the office door.
But the main thing is, I love this keyboard. Love it to pieces. It’s precise, professional, and it just feels right.

It cost ten times more than most other keyboards, but whatever the price it was worth it because I can type at least 30% faster than before, and I can type with my eyes closed because the keys fall in exactly the right place, and that noise… my God, the noise! I love it!