Kate Allan

The online diary of Kate Allan, author

Monday, February 28, 2005

Heritage and Flashman

Yesterday evening, in a sudden flurry of passion, I wrote a short piece for my local newspaper, The St Albans Observer, comparing the ancient city of Carthage, where I was in last month, to the Roman city of Verulamium, next door to where I live. When it comes down to brass tacks, Verulamium just does not cut the mustard. And it could do. The museum is very good, but the rest is... well, under fields mostly, or being repaired after vandalism. And no one has heard of the Roman theatre.

Better news today... I'm reviewing the new Flashman, Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser, for the Historical Novels Review. Never read a Flashman. I hear such great things, it had better be fun.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Writing to music

Yesterday I sat down to spend an hour or two trying to finish the chapter of BIRDS which has been trailing on over the last two weeks. I automatically clicked to open Media Player and listen to Franz Ferdinand. Listen is not quite the right word. It's there as background.

I've pretty much written most of the BIRDS to Franz Ferdinand. So closely is the opening up of the manuscript Word file imprinted with this particular noise it feels wrong to put any other music on.

Rewriting JOURNEY TO LOVE was done mostly to the clever piano of Elton John. A NOTORIOUS DECEPTION lept forward when I concentrated on selected Mozart and then wrote the emotion.

Why Franz Ferdinand for BIRDS? Two words spring to mind - ambiguity and bittersweet.

I'm sure others write to music. But I wonder whether particular music fastens itself to particular stories? And, if so, why?

Decided to update the organisation of my sidebar links yesterday and went blog-hopping. This blog is brilliant. It should be a book.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Ah! The Proofs! The Proofs!

The postman kindly delivered this morning a package sent down from Northumberland by the other half of Jennifer Lindsay, Michelle Styles, and inside are the printer's proofs for THE LADY SOLDIER. So this is it, the last bastion before the book goes to print, and then whatever typos left in it are delightfully noticed by readers as evidence of incompetence forevermore.

Ok, I need a cup of coffee, very strong, and a ruler...

I suggest you leave me to it, and go and amuse yourself somewhere else in blogland. Here's a great collection of blogs on Roman Times maintained by Mary Harrsch, including a great archive of books and novels of the ancient world.

Friday, February 25, 2005

As I was eating my supper...

... of reheated leftovers (actually chicken in a home-made chargrilled red pepper sauce) it came to me that my leading protagonist in BIRDS, Petra, is given a copy of Country Life magazine (most probably by her brother) and reacts very badly to it.

I felt her shock, and unwillingness to engage with an object that evoked in her mind problems she did not want to have to face. She turns away to try and stop it forming an impression on her mind. She will not even touch it.

I'm pleased to have discovered this vignette, and think I know where it's going to go in the story.

But I'm more pleased that I was able to immediately understand Petra's reactions and be in her shoes. I'm getting under her skin now properly and she's coming alive.

I'm wondering, how do characters change from being cardboard to being real?

I dislike commiting things to paper until I have to, so there is a lot of churning going on in my head it's difficult to retrospectively define. But I guess its like meeting a new person in real life. At first you notice the obvious things - what they look like, how they speak, and walk. Their manner. Are they warm? Shy? Confident?
And then, as you speak to them, or hear others speak of them, and see how they react to all around them, you start to learn more about them - towards the answer to the question, 'what makes them tick?'
Eventually - if you get this far - it's double gin and tonics late into the night, and they bear their soul and childhood scars.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

A day of the past and of the present

Today I went to Buckingham Palace and saw the Queen.

Yes, really!

Official home of the Royal family since 1837, I couldn't help getting a little heavy chested at the sight of the fabulous carpets, guilding and, oh... the paintings! In a room I believe is called the Queen's Gallery was a fantastic seven foot high (est.) portrait of a young and dashing George III. To his right was a delightful pastoral of three of his cherub-like children. And to complete the trio on their right his seven-foot high wife.

Unfortunately there was no real time to linger. I was there as a guest at today's investiture ceremony where people get knighthoods and other awards. The most famous face on the menu was probably Dr Peter Waterman, there for his services to music. Most moving maybe policeman Inspector Michael Tanner, awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for his "actions involving a man brandishing a knife in Finsbury, London." (Official wording in the programme).

The Queen appeared as she must have done on so many occasions before. With dignity, command and reserve. And when a lady came up to collect a military honour on behalf of her late husband, clearly visible pathos.

Our monarch, so it seemed to me, indivisable from her ancestry, and her heritage.

And yet the press were full today of further speculation on her decision not to attend the civil wedding of her son Charles and Mrs Parker-Bowles. Curiously modern seeming problems.

It was about 4C in London today with occasional snow flakes in the air, though they were not settling. We skipped out of the palace actually pretty fast to escape the cold, and went bang up to the present for lunch.

The Wolsey is one of the places to eat at the moment. The food was very good wholesome stuff. I had smoked salmon with soda bread, followed by Wienerschnitzel with French-fry-style chips and buttered spinach, followed by blood orange sorbet with caramelised orange pieces...
On the table next to us were Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser. Two tables down, Sir David Frost, and two tables to the left of him was Lloyd Grossman.

And according to one of our waiters Mrs Parker-Bowles had been in earlier.

A day of the present and of the past.

Lady Tess writes about her obsession with writing historical, and how there is no lure for her to write contemporary. I feel the same. Like the Queen, I cannot sever the present from the past. In the way I see things, our shared and personal histories are always too strong to be ignored. This is one of the themes of BIRDS. It matters to me, and part of the challenge of BIRDS is to a write a story to make it matter to other people.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Another Roman town

We've had the ancient city of Carthage on this blog, and when I'm really bored and there is nothing happening I'll probably start posting stuff about where I live - St Albans (next door to the old Roman capital of England, Verulamium) However, the big NEWS at the moment is nothing to do with me but all about Cirencester where the RNA had its 'Write From The Heart' workshop yesterday.

I wasn't there, but authorbloggers Penny Jordan and Julie Cohen were, and so was the BBC!

International best-selling author Penny Jordan has posted super details of her talk on 'plotting the mainstream novel' (Read it and learn!), and now I'm just waiting for Julie Cohen to spill the beans on her blog and read what she said in her talk on 'writing the naughty bits' that the BBC was able to film... (Come on, Julie! Some of us are stuck in the Home Counties under skitterish snow that's freezing but not bothering to settle.)

I managed a couple of hundred words of BIRDS yesterday. Pathetic, I know. Am going to sit down later tonight and try and finish the scene I'm on, even if it's sketchy.

It occured to me today that Tony (the hero of THE LADY SOLIDER and in red below) seems to bear a passing resemblence to John McEnroe?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Here it is... the cover sketch!

Fanfare of trumpets!

Here it is - the cover sketch for THE LADY SOLDIER:

Reproduced with kind permission of Robert Hale Ltd
Cover sketch for The Lady Soldier by Jennifer Lindsay ISBN 07090 78250

Well, what'ya think? Both Michelle Styles and I are impressed that our publisher takes historical detail seriously and have got the uniforms right.

Now, the artist will be painting the real cover, so there's a bit more nail-biting until that finally arrives.

Precious Bane

Finished yesterday Precious Bane by Mary Webb, which instantly goes in into my top 50 novels of all time, or what is called by North Americans 'a keeper' because in a few years I should like to read it again. A rich, evocative and deeply emotional romantic novel, a Beauty and Beast story - except that it's the heroine who is the beast.
Imagine Thomas Hardy but with richer countryside descriptions, with language as artfully constructed as P G Wodehouse (though different), and Anthony Trollope with characters who even more utterly compelling, convincing, yet contrary, with painful tragedy yet softened with a touch of warm, gentle humour.
Why do we do Jane Eyre at school and not novels like this one?
Googling brought up this information about Precious Bane, and with the e-text available online.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Dentists are good for you

Yesterday, not only did I have to drag myself out of bed early, but I had to drag myself out of bed to get to the dentists for 8.30am for a filling.

I sat back in the dentists chair, trying especially to relax, but...

Today, at least, all the feeling sick and dizziness is gone.

I am being serious - does a local anesthetic mush your brain, or was I still suffering from extreme stress of the whole proceedure all of yesterday?

Last time I had a filling I was six. They say time heals.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Diets, crumbs, coffee and chocolate...

... is what your manuscript has to survive, and if it's still gripping the attention of editorial at Women's Weekly magazine, then chances are you're heading in the right direction, says Gaynor Davies, Fiction Editor.

It's a noisy open-plan office with knitting and next-door's cat being chatted about on the telephones. Your short story has to grip attention despite all that. And still be gripping on a packed commute to work on the London Underground.

Still sure you've got what it takes to write fiction for Women's Weekly?

Ms Davies spoke this evening at a meeting of the Women's Writers Network in London I nipped off to after work. Having been tipped off on our e-mail list there were at least half a dozen RNA members there who I've met before. (Waving if you are reading this!)

The venue was in the rather curious Conway Hall, and we sat in a musty room lined with bookselves and hundred-year-old books. Not really a library - it didn't look as though any of the volumes were ever borrowed. (Bit like my old school library).

So, what did Ms Davies say? It's stuff I've heard before but it's great to hear it again and from the editor herself:

- Leading protagonists the reader identifies with
- Characters must have a problem to solve
- Action, not retrospective
- Character must change during the story, either internally or externally
- Escapist, yet believable
- Happy-ish endings at the very least
- Crime and ghost stores acceptable, but must be cosy
- Not beyond the bedroom door
- No interest in boy meets girl / woman finds old letters in attic / woman wanders along a beach and remembers her holiday romance type of stories

There are quite detailed guidelines available if you send them an SAE.

Ms Davies stressed she was willing to look at stories which were different, and wanted to broaden the range of fiction covered, but it had to be remembered that the core of the audience are 50+ and want optimism and humour, and not to be shocked.

Oh, and they get around 1,000 fiction submissions a month.

To take your mind off that imagined skyscraper of paper, visit Vanessa Jaye's blog.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Retrospective on the week

One thing I realised reading back my blog posts this week, is that I haven't posted much about what I've been up to writing wise.

Probably because the answer has been, not much.

Work was mad this week, leaving room for a brief exchange of e-mails with my editor at Hale, a really interesting get together for a drink with a writer of lad lit. Quite by chance I also met a lady at a magazine who were going to feature THE LADY SOLDIER as a one-liner but purely because we met face to face (at a completely unrelated event) I think she'd interested in doing a feature next issue. So will have to chase that up next month.

You will notice the lack of actual writing acheived. (I bold this to try and shame myself) Friday evening was supposed to be the night I got home and wrote, but the news from DC Thomson made me far too hyper.

This weekend I've done a small amount of planning for THE LADY SOLDIER London book launch party, looked into postcard printing costs and lead-times and mocked up a possible design, drafted a couple of author press releases (so I've at least a template ready), and I've written about 1,000 words of BIRDS.

I've also watched three episodes of the old TV series of Flambards which I got for Christmas on DVD. (Yorkshire Television, 1978). It's super, great theme music and surprisingly compelling. But then I remember the K. M. Peyton books being so. This is research - trust me ~ I'm desperate to know what a pre-WW1 aeroplane looked / sounded / smelled / felt like for BIRDS. There don't seem to be any real ones in existance. (If anyone knows of any in any museums, even replicas would be fine, now is the time to shout!)

Progress check:

BIRDS words written: 13025
Words to go: c100000

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The future of book marketing?

It seems to be official. Books are more sexy than sliced bread. (Thanks Maili for the heads up.)

I've been surfing to see if I can find anything like this concept in the book world - i.e. marketing books not just by the usual title / author / blurb / cover / price combo, but actually selling some more product benefits.

What did I find? Well, nothing on so large a scale. So huzzah for Penguin for stepping outside the box.

Sites where groups of authors have got together have a lot of potential, but so often just end up like this. There is nothing more on the first page than a few book covers of the latest releases. Where is the interest? What can a reader learn here they can't on amazon? Where is the incentive to click-thru and read more?

There should probably be more of this kind of thing, where books with a similar theme are marketed together.

This or this are the kind of websites which are interesting.

Books are entertainment, so start entertaining me, and I'm more likely to buy your book!

Friday, February 11, 2005

Huzzah for DC Thomson!

If you could see me now I'm wearing such a huge smile it's hurting!

Came home to a lovely offer letter from DC Thomson for JOURNEY.

I put a bottle of champagne in the fridge...


After all the work I put in to rewriting the manuscript I'm so glad. This was the first completed manuscript I ever wrote, a Regency romance. It was 2001. I was working in West London for a fantastic media company. But I was three years out of college, and all those started novels were bugging. Couldn't I finish a novel? Get past chapter 5?

It was hard, hard work. I have no idea what I was doing but I tried to tell a story and just keep writing. I reached THE END and couldn't believe it. The fat pile of printed paper when it was printed it out made it real.

Reading it again last year and it was shockingly badly written and utterly unpublishable. But I remembered that story I'd wanted to tell then. Had I the tools, with everything I'd learned, to write it now? So I rewrote the opening chapters and queried it with DCT, then they came back in November wanting to see the complete manuscript. Still in an unpublishable state I've been struggling with it until I finally posted it to them two weeks ago.

JOURNEY TO LOVE (working title), a Regency romance, will be published, I would think, as a My Weekly Story Collection paperback in 2006.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Balancing writing and 'real life'

A very interesting column posted on Romancing the Blog yesterday by author Julie Cohen.
She says, ‘How do you balance your writing you and the workday you?’.

Julie Cohen is a teacher and writes romantic fiction and tells how she has been recently outed by the children at her school who found out her secret by googling. (They obviously don’t read The Times newspaper or they would have found out a lot sooner.)

Like me, Julie writes using her real name. But even with a pen-name I don’t know that you can keep your fiction writing secret. Unless you literally stay at home and never go out and about. The world these days is too small.

I’m always meeting people who know people I know. And this has been increased I think by the internet, allowing you to find out where old contacts are now, and communities such as the aptly named A Small World.

But back to Julie’s original questions. Like Julie, I work full-time. More than full-time actually because while I often ten minutes late in the morning as I use an unreliable train provider, and come into a London station suffering near paralysis between 7.30am and 9am each morning because of redevelopment work, I almost never leave on time in the evenings. And I have to catch up with work things often at the weekends. My typical working day, including travel, is 12 hours long, five days a week.

I love the challenges in my job, I love talking to people, meeting new people, thinking about commercial problems and of new ways to solve them.

At the moment I’m trying to use my spare time as wisely as I can to leave room for writing, but it is hard. Housework has had to go, and so I employ a cleaner. Clothes go to the laundry, and my groceries arrive from ordering them online. Being time efficient is second nature. My only downfall is being an internet community junkie and meeting people in pubs for wine and conversation…. The hours tick by and the next thing I know it's 1am in the morning…. and I have to be up at 6.30am.

The other side of balance is easier probably than people think. I have a work-style I built up over the years and it’s pretty close to the real me and it gets results - humour, new ideas and relentless enthusiasm. My most successful conference presentations were the ones involving Pigs in Space, and a game-show based satire on the secrets of one of Britain's leading retailers' success.

People in business are people. They don’t respond to dry dust, they respond when they are engaged and where there is honesty and trust.

Countless things I’ve learned in business I can use for writing.

And at work I’m using countless things I’ve learned being a writer.

Only a few days ago someone asked me if I was leaving my job as soon as my novel was published. And I had a literary agent who couldn't understand why my writing career plans involved continuing working.

Hello? This is the real world, and I love it! Look, I haven't the time or the energy to hide and cover my traces. There are too many things I want to do.

Oh, and by the way, Paul Kilduff manages to be a bestselling author of thrillers and vice-president of a leading US investment bank.

Authors actually work harder at getting things done in their life and are masters at cost/benefit prioritisation and results-orientated time management. They've got to have these qualities or they would never have got their books written and published. As well as doing whatever else they do.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

emotional angst moment

Oh help.

I've just come home from work to see the cover sketch, beautifully presented in colour by the artist for THE LADY SOLDIER. What is Michelle Styles, my co-author, going to think? What do I think? I'm not sure I even know. How can I love and hate it and be utterly indecisive at the same time???

This is my first novel which will be published. Do other authors get like this? Or it is just me?

It's only a book cover. Why does it matter so much?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Roman ballast from Carthage

Well, people put pictures of their cats and kids and stuff on blogs. I'm interested in historical things so here's a picture taken by me last week of some Roman ballast (also then used as canonballs) from Carthage, Tunisia. So I guess they had balls going into combat, but not coming back?

Roman ballast
(c) K Allan

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Progress check

Today I got back into BIRDS by tinkering, maybe adding 2-300 words to the clock, and thinking about how a scene might work as I went grocery shopping.

BIRDS now: 10760
Words to go: 100000+ ish

Now having to rewrite JOURNEY twice set back any serious progress on BIRDS so far this year, but still.... The overall rate of progress needs to be improved!

Catching up

Been catching up on a few things. Revised the short story I wrote on holiday, but I think it still needs work (or binning), and revised a older short story which I'm going to query tomorrow with a magazine. I have not yet mastered the short story but I live in hope.

Having finished JOURNEY, I now have to get my head back into BIRDS which requires concentration... and the rest of today's writing time was spent sending e-mails and catching up on stuff post-holiday. And dealing with a trojan which invaded my computer... ack! It's gone now, I think.

The Robert Hale catalogue arrived while I was away. And inside appears to be a cover (mocked-up) of The Lady Soldier, and well as blurb, bios and website. All very scary that it's becoming real. The website stats say we've had over 700 visits (although I suspect that 200 of those are the authors).

Now can't wait to see the real cover. I hope it arrives soon as there's an article in the Romantic Novelists Association magazine coming it would be good to have the cover for.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

JOURNEY to Dundee & Journey to Africa

No posts here over the last few days as I've been away on a short holiday. And the good news is that I raced to get JOURNEY edits finished and posted it to DC Thomson from Heathrow Airport Post Office as I was leaving last Saturday. So... now its simply a case of waiting to see whether they like it. Or not.

So, as my manuscript set off north up to DCT's offices in Dundee, I got on a 'plane south to Africa...

Was fascinating. I had not been before. We stayed on Les Cotes De Carthage close to Tunis. An obvious must-visit was Tunis with its ancient Medina as well as various ruins of the ancient cities of Carthage. I also fall for museums ~ I seem to have taken about 30 pictures of 1st-5th century mosiacs, & local architecture ~ 20 pictures of different doors, just from one village!

The great thing about being on holiday is having time for reading:

Fiction: I finished The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd. It was enjoyable, especially as I love anything Regency but it was too short (by about 50 pages at least), and the end a little abrupt. I wasn't 100% convinced by the way the plot panned out. Worth reading though for anyone who likes a peek at lives gritty below the surface.

Non-fiction: Nearly finished The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury. It tells the tales, in a very biographical way, full of human interest, of the early fossil hunters and geologists trying to make sense, and a name for themselves, in the earliest days of 'dinosaur hunting'. An excellent account and very compelling - especially with the Regency cartoon of a lecture room of pleiosaurs regarding a human skull and wondering how the species of 'man' could possibly exist on earth.