Monday, 28 August 2017

Judith Barrow coming full circle

I have written four novels and each has been independent - different settings, different characters, different themes - but I have begun to feel the allure of keeping a story going, beyond the last page of a book. I have written short stories that accompany my novels, but I've never yet been brave enough to take on a whole series.
That is what Judith Barrow has done, with her Howarth Family trilogy, covering the decades from the Second World War to the late sixties, and she has completed it now with a prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, covering the early decades of the 20th century. I am hugely impressed.

Pattern of Shadows is the first of the Howarth family trilogy. Mary is a nursing sister at Lancashire prison camp for the housing and treatment of German POWs. Life at work is difficult but fulfilling, life at home a constant round of arguments, until Frank Shuttleworth, a guard at the camp turns up. Frank is difficult to love but persistent and won't leave until Mary agrees to walk out with him.

Sequel to Pattern of Shadows, Changing Patterns is set in May 1950, Britain is struggling with the hardships of rationing and the aftermath of the Second World War There are many obstacles in the way of Mary’s happiness, not the least of which is her troubled family. When tragedy strikes, Mary hopes it will unite her siblings. Will the family pull together to save one of their own from a common enemy.

The last of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows is set in 1969. There are secrets dating back to the war that still haunt the family, and finding out what lies at their root might be the only way they can escape their murderous consequences.

And so to the prequel: A Hundred Tiny Threads: Winifred is a determined young woman eager for new experiences. When her friend Honora - an Irish girl, with the freedom to do as she pleases - drags Winifred along to a suffragette rally, she realises that there is more to life than the shop and her parents' humdrum lives of work and grumbling.
 Bill Howarth's troubled childhood echoes through his early adult life and the scars linger, affecting his work, his relationships and his health. The only light in his life comes from a chance meeting with Winifred, the daughter of a Lancashire grocer.

For the record, in my opinion, this is a great book, that places two people in the midst of some of the most earth-shattering and horrifying events of the early 20th century but shows it all through their very individual eyes, coloured by their own uniquely troubled situations. And, of course, knowing how it ends in the following trilogy adds a piquant regret to the tale.

Judith, like me, has lived in Pembrokeshire for many years and, like me, came here from a distant galaxy long ago and far away - Well, Yorkshire in her case and Bedfordshire in mine. Here, she tells how she came to Pembrokeshire.

We found Pembrokeshire by accident.
With three children under three, an old cottage half renovated and a small business that had become so successful that we were working seven days a week, we were exhausted. David, my husband, thought we should get off the treadmill; at least for a fortnight.
Pre-children, cottage and business, we always holidayed in Cornwall. But we decided it was too far with a young family and an unreliable van. We’d go to Wales; not too difficult a journey from Lancashire, we thought.
Once that was mentioned, David was eager to see Four Crosses, near Welshpool, where his grandfather originated from.
‘We could stay there,’ he said.
‘But the children will want beaches,’ I protested. ‘And I’ve heard Pembrokeshire has wonderful beaches.
We agreed to toss a coin and Pembrokeshire won. We’d call at Four Crosses on the way home.
I borrowed books on Wales from the library and, balancing our 8-month-old twins, one on each knee, I read as much as I could about the county. It sounded just the place to take children for a holiday. We booked a caravan and, when the big day came, packed the van to the hilt with everything the children would need, remembering only at the last minute, to throw a few clothes in for ourselves.
It took 10 hours.
In 1978 there was no easy route from the North of England to West Wales.
We meandered through small lanes, stopping for emergencies like much needed drinks, picnics, lavatory stops and throwing bread to the ducks whenever our eldest daughter spotted water. I’d learned to keep a bag of stale bread for such times.
The closer we were to our destination the slower we went. In the heat of the day the engine in our old van struggled; we needed to top up the radiator every hour or so. For the last 50 miles we became stuck in traffic jams.
We got lost numerous times.
All this and three ever-increasingly fractious children.

We arrived at the caravan site in the middle of the night so were relieved to find the key in the door.
The owner, a farmer, had given up and gone home.
I woke early. Leaving David in charge of our exhausted and still sleeping family, I crept out.
The sun was already warm; a soft breeze barely moved the leaves on the oak tree nearby. Skylarks flittered and swooped overhead, calling to one another. 
Although the caravan was one of four in the farmer’s field, we were the only people there. It was so quiet, so peaceful.
I walked along a small path. Within minutes I was faced by a panorama of sea. It seemed so still from the top of the cliff, but the water blended turquoise and dark blue with unseen currents, the horizon was a silvery line.
Faint voices from two small fishing boats carried on the air.
The sandstone cliffs curved round in a natural cove. Jagged rocks, surrounded by white ripples of water, jutted up towards the sky.
I fell in love with Pembrokeshire.
I’d always liked living so close to the Pennines. The moors, criss-crossed by ancient stone walls, were glorious with wild rhododendrons in summer, heather in the autumn. Even when brooding under swathes of drifting mist or white-over with snow, I was happy there.
But Pembrokeshire has a powerful glory of its own.
Within months we’d thrown caution, and our past lives, to the wind and moved here, much to the consternation of our extended family; as far as they were concerned we were moving to the ends of the earth.
But it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Up the Amazon without a paddle

My first novel was published as a paperback in September 2012 and a few days later it appeared on Amazon in a Kindle edition, which was, apparently, the way things were going now. I didn’t have a Kindle, but to show my appreciation, I downloaded the free Kindle reader on my laptop. I didn’t really want an electronic version of anything at that stage, but an encounter with Hilary Mantell finally persuaded me to invest in a proper Kindle reader. A hefty hardback edition of Bring Up The Bodies smacking you in the face when you fall asleep, reading, causes serious concussion, whereas a Kindle reader merely bruises the nose. And you don’t lose your place when it slides to the floor and shuts itself.

So yes, I converted to an e-reader and now I use it all the time, at least for fiction. And as an author, I have really learned to appreciate its value. My books have been on Kindle deals and sold A LOT, as a result. I mean, a serious lot. Enough to keep me afloat and writing.

Other e-readers are available, to coin a phrase. I have been on Kobo deals too, and have sold… several. Almost into two figures. What I have learned is that Kindle is the only e-reading platform that matters.

And Amazon knows it. If you want to self-publish, use Amazon. Put your book on Kindle. Easy-peasy, give or take the agonies of formatting, and your book is available to the whole world. Let them publish it as a paperback too. It won’t get into bookshops of course, but bookshops are so yesterday, darling.

My latest novel, Shadows, has been taken on by a publisher who markets books solely through Amazon. Even I, as the author, cannot buy discount copies to pass on at book fairs or talks. (You can’t imagine how amusing I find this.) If you agree to turn your back on all other platforms, Amazon and Kindle will offer you all sorts of promotion options. What’s not to love? Amazon, after all, is the leader so far in the lead, that all the others can’t even be seen for dust. No wonder Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos was listed as the richest man in the world, if only for a few hours. His organisation goes from strength to strength. There is no stopping it. It would be idiotic not to buy into it.

But then, this is now, and as Scarlet O’Hara pointed out, so eloquently, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Remember 2001, A Space Odyssey?  Made in 1968. HAL, a computer, developing a mind of its own, takes on the humans it’s supposed to help and tries to eliminate them. It’s the perennial nightmare of out-of-control technology. Lovers of conspiracy theories have pointed out that if you move up one place in the alphabet, HAL becomes IBM. In 1968, IBM was the computer giant that was going to dominate the world. No-one could compete with it. Until, out of nowhere, Microsoft popped up. And now Microsoft rules the world, until…

My third novel, The Unravelling, is set partly in 1966, which I regret to say I can remember vividly, so no research was needed, and in 2000 or thereabouts, which is only seventeen years ago, but I had to research diligently to remember exactly where we were on our hurtling trajectory into a new world.

In 2000, in Britain, broadband was just being introduced. I didn’t get it until several years later. Accessing the internet, for me, meant hi-jacking the phone line late at night or early morning, and waiting in agony as every web page maliciously containing an image took half an hour to download.

The Unravelling involves a woman, Karen, trying to trace someone from her past. In 1990, what would she have used? Phone books? A trip to the records office in London to trawl through marriage indexes? In 2000 she did have the internet if she could get at a computer. She could try a search engine. The big one was Yahoo, or Alta Vista if you wanted to be really serious. Everyone on the internet used Yahoo, little thinking that a search engine called Google, dreamed up by a couple of Californian students in 1998 would soon sweep Yahoo into the gutter.

There was a new social networking website Karen could use in her search. It was called Friends Reunited, created in 2000. Still a very small thing in the period when my book is set but it grew and grew. It grew huge. So huge that by 2005 it was bought up for £120 million. Nothing was going to stop it. Except that now it no longer exists, because in 2004 a bunch of students including Mark Zuckerberg launched a thing called Facebook. Then there was Twitter. Then there was Instagram. And then, and then, and then…

So, in the publishing world, Amazon is top dog today, but who knows what will pop up tomorrow and leave it as a small smudge on history? Self-interest tells me, as an author, to take whatever it has to offer, because I and other writers, traditionally and self-published, would be fools to resist. But where will we be when the wheel turns and we are left dependent on a company that no longer matters? We need a strategy, to prepare. The trouble is, I have no idea what we should do. Any suggestions?