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Hello again, Berlin!

I’ve spent the past few weeks, or at least the parts of them that haven’t been taken up with going for therapeutic walks followed by even more therapeutic lie-downs, finding excuses to go out to lunch, and emergency vet’s appointments, editing ‘A Quest in Berlin’, the next novel in the Quest series. Today, to the sound of much rejoicing, I completed the major edits, which included adding 10,000 extra words to the story. I’m now searching for images for the cover, having realised I can’t use the version shown here a few months ago because it depicts the new dome on the Reichstag, which definitely wasn’t there in 1954. This is the problem with most of my own photographs of Berlin. The 1964 set seem to have the Berlin Wall in many of them, while the newer ones all have more modern buildings in various styles either in the foreground or background.

1964-berlin-wall-whereberlin-alexander-platz-fernsehturm

The Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz is a particular nuisance as it tends to loom up in the background unexpectedly in many views.

Anyway, I feel as if I’m now on the finishing straight of what has seemed like a marathon, although actually in terms of real time spent on it I think it has probably been shorter than many of my other novels. The next step (and this is why I’m now focussing on cover images) will be to send off for a printed copy so that I can read through it pretending to be a reader and undoubtedly find all sort of new mistakes that need to be fixed. Once they are fixed there will be very little standing in the way of publication. So I think, assuming I’ve already fixed the really major things such as getting two characters mixed up and rushing through the plot so fast that none of the characters had any idea what their motivation was for doing anything – these two aspects are actually quite closely linked to each other – the projected publication date is likely to be before the middle of March. You heard it here first!

In other news, ‘Pitkirtly on Tour’ has sold over 100 copies on Amazon and has mostly been hovering just outside the top 100 ‘cozy mysteries’, although I am not sure that it really qualifies as either cozy or a mystery. Thanks to anyone who has bought a copy. I promise to make a start on the next full-length Pitkirtly Mystery in April! But I am really pleased to have more or less got this latest Quest book out of my system as I have been wanting to write it for quite a while.

Before plunging back into the dark world of Berlin in the 1950s to finish my November novel ‘A Quest in Berlin’, I decided to work on something a bit lighter, and ‘Pitkirtly on Tour’, now published on Amazon and Smashwords (and eventually destined to reach Kobo, iBooks, B&N and so on), is the result. It’s even lighter and less substantial than the average Pitkirtly story, I suppose, but somehow this was what I needed to see me through this time of year and to encourage me to keep on writing even when I didn’t particularly feel like it.

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First of all, a slightly belated happy New Year to all my readers!

I’m afraid I may have set the tone for the rest of the year by delaying this message, but this time I do have a ready-made excuse for lagging behind, as I had an operation between Christmas and New Year and am just catching up with things now. Actually I’m afraid using the operation as an excuse is something that may last for the rest of the year too! 

One of the other benefits of having been in hospital is that I’ve encountered some new ‘characters’. Not that I usually take characters straight from real life when writing fiction, of course – it’s a bit more complicated than that, and in most cases it’s impossible even for me to tell where people’s personalities have come from. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I find most of them inside my mind somewhere. So there seems to be a kind of several-stage process going on whereby I internalise interesting things about people I meet and throw them into what might either be seen as a compost heap or some sort of soup, depending on whether you prefer cooking or gardening, until the separate parts break down. I’m not sure I like where this analogy is going! It’s starting to make me feel like some kind of a vulture.

Anyway, another benefit of my hospital stay is that I should have more time for writing for the next few weeks, although whether I’ll have the energy to take advantage of that remains to be seen. So on the face of it that should let me take care of all the loose ends from last year. 

I wrote ‘The End’ on the Thing in the Notebook 2 just after Christmas, and that will be first on my list to tidy up. It does have a proper title, ‘Pitkirtly on Tour’ and is of similar length to ‘Mysterious Pitkirtly’. It only exists in hand-written form at the moment but I plan to try and type it up this week on my Kindle Fire.

‘A Quest in Berlin’ is probably next on my list and after that I will attempt to finish a random thing I started last summer. Once all that is out of the way I am guessing it will be time to start a new full-length Pitkirtly Mystery. I don’t think it will be set in a hospital, despite one of the nurses and I having come up with an interesting new murder method while I was waiting to be moved up to a ward! But you never know when that kind of idea will come in useful, I suppose.

histfictionpromotionnov16This post is part of a historical fiction promotion by a number of writers on the 12th and 13th of November 2016.

Here are some links to take you to cheap and free ebooks that fall into the historical category: The 99cent Historical Fiction eBooks  http://www.histfiction.com/history-blog/99-cent-historical-fiction-promotions

The free Historical Fiction: Free Historical Fiction eBooks http://www.histfiction.com/history-blog/free-historical-fiction

You might also be interested in browsing the above-mentioned site for other information and links about history and historical fiction.

Writing about the 1950s

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the 1950s as history, because I lived through the decade, and yet there’s no doubt that it’s now ‘different’ enough from the present day to be regarded as history. When I was at university I studied the 1940s as history, and yet it was only about 20 years in the past at that point. I think as well as the perspective produced by time passing, there has to be another kind of perspective, perhaps that created by major change, for it to make sense to treat a past era as historical.

I’m not one of these people who sees the 1950s as a golden age to which we should aspire to return. Yes, children could play outside from dawn to dusk without even having a mobile phone to provide a lifeline to their parents. We would play on the beach for hours and sometimes, more dangerously, at the local quarry.

Mothers tended not to work outside the home, so they were always around, usually cooking, ironing or doing the family wash, which was a major operation even for people lucky enough to have washing-machines at home. The daily routine, in our family, used to revolve around my father and his work. He would come home for lunch every day and because there was a short train journey involved, he didn’t have much time, so the lunch had to be ready at the right time. Not that he was in any way a domestic tyrant – this was something my mother did because she wanted to and not because he laid down the law about it.

Some of the things I wasn’t so keen on about the 1950s were mostly the result of living in a village. There was very little to do except go to church, unless you went outside the village to do it. I was a keen tennis player but even that came to a stop in the winter. Everybody knew everybody else, but it took several generations for people to be accepted as natives. The library van came round only once a week, so there was only one chance to change your books. We had to go into the nearest town to shop for certain things.

Other things I didn’t like were the result of living in a draughty Victorian house. We could never get warm enough in the winter. During one very cold winter all our water pipes froze in the ground just outside the house and we didn’t have water for several weeks.

As I now know, there were many important events going on nationally and internationally to which I was completely oblivious at the time, so writing about the 1950s and doing some research is a good way to catch up with them. The only events of this kind I can actually remember during that period were the Coronation, the Hungarian Revolution (and that was only because some Hungarian refugees arrived to live in our village – I didn’t really know why at the time) and the 1959 UK general election.

Among the national and world events I completely missed hearing about were the exposure of the Cambridge Spies, the Korean War, the death of Stalin, the East German riots of 1953 and the Suez crisis. I suppose in some of these cases my parents deliberately didn’t mention them in front of me in case they had to go into long explanations – although actually I was quite an incurious child so I probably wouldn’t have asked anything difficult – and in some cases I just wasn’t interested. The only reason I even recall the 1959 election is that I told some people at my primary school that my mother had voted Labour, and they chased me round the playground.  We lived in a staunchly Conservative area in those days.

Having skimmed through the Festival of Britain, the great storm of 1952, the Coronation and my own version of the Cambridge Spies in my Quest series of novels, I am currently writing about Berlin in 1954, which is a particular pleasure for me as it forms a backdrop to my own experience of Berlin in 1964, when I visited it on a school exchange trip. For example, I hadn’t realised until I began my research that the building of the Berlin Wall came as a complete surprise to the British, French, Americans and most Germans as it literally went up overnight without any warning.

1964-willy-brandt-speaks-at-schoneberger-rathaus

I was in the crowd as Willy Brandt spoke at Rathaus Schöneberg

1964-berlin-checkpoint-charlie

and at Checkpoint Charlie well before you could buy souvenir T-shirts there.

Of course there are many traps waiting for anyone who writes about fairly recent history and there is always the risk that someone who actually remembers the relevant time and place reads the novel and notices all the mistakes. It doesn’t help that I tend not to remember details very well, which isn’t a recent development but has always been the case. I got round this when studying history by considering generalisations and not specifics wherever possible. It’s actually quite a lot more difficult to get round this kind of thing while writing fiction, when you suddenly find you need to know what it was like getting the Night Ferry from London to Paris, whether there was more than one berth in the sleeping compartment and what people had for breakfast. But of course that’s what the internet is for!

The significance of the first of November, which unfortunately falls on a Tuesday this year, is of course that it’s the first day of the annual trial of strength known as National Novel Writing Month. When I say trial of strength, I really mean it’s a trial of persistence and stubbornness against all odds. I know it’s only my stubbornness that has carried me through various Novembers. I think the hardest year was when I was writing and directing a children’s play, as well as working full-time and helping with props for a pantomime presented by a different group. I have no idea how I managed to produce a novel at the same time. As far as I can recall, that was the novel that eventually turned into ‘Crime in the Community’, although it started out as ‘Community’ because I used to think one-word titles were really cool in those days. My first three NaNo novels started out as ‘Independence’, ‘Community’ and ‘Reunited’.

I am so organised this year that I’ve already ticked off one of the most important items on my list, which is: buy more coffee. I’ve almost run out of coffee twice recently, and in one case I was only saved from serious caffeine withdrawal symptoms by actually going into work early because I knew there was still some coffee in a jar on my desk there. Anyway, I now have a huge jar of instant, and some ‘real’ Italian coffee as a back-up. Obviously I am too lazy to make real coffee very often, but I do have a special mug that doubles as a cafetiere.

I’ve also just ticked off something else on the list, which was to make a temporary cover design and upload it to the NaNoWriMo website as a sign of my commitment. Here it is, and I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise in advance to regular readers for not writing Pitkirtly XIII in November. (Hmm, maybe I should skip XIII in any case and go straight on to XIV) It will be immediately obvious to many people reading this that I am returning to my 1950s series instead. In mitigation I should explain that I’ve been waiting for well over a year to write a novel set in Berlin, and in fact I organised our whole family holiday round this last year as part of my research. I think I can safely say it was a bit more popular than previous family history research trips to assorted Scottish graveyards! So here is the temporary cover. It may turn out to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the final one.

a-quest-in-berlin-1

There were other things on my to-do list, mostly reading books about Berlin in the 1950s, which weren’t quite as grim and depressing as I expected them to be. Apart from that I should of course have done all the housework and written my Christmas cards, but needless to say both these have gone out the window in favour of taking part in a short story anthology and a historical novel promotion (more on these later).

By the way, in case you were wondering why it is unfortunate that November starts on a Tuesday, that’s because I won’t have the chance to get the novel off to a flying start because of being at work all day and then probably too tired to write much afterwards. However, in anticipation of this I already have the first few lines in my head, although it is strictly against the rules to write them down just yet.

Recently one of the earlier novels in the Pitkirtly series received an excellent review here: http://ignitebooks.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/cecilia-peartree.html (many thanks to the reviewer! – you may enjoy some of her other reviews too). This reminded me that the novel in question was one of my personal favourites of the series. I won’t reveal what my ‘top 3’ are at the moment but I thought I would use the opportunity to ask any readers who come across this which ones they like best. So if I can get the poll option thingy to work, here we go. I think I’ve set it to accept 3 answers, but who knows what may happen? Feel free to let me know if it does anything unexpected.

While we all (including me) wait for ‘Pitkirtly XII’ to be finished, I thought I would write a bit about how I keep track of the characters in the Pitkirtly mystery series. This was something I didn’t even think about until I had already written at least six of the books. It was only then that I realised I was having to go back through previous books to remind myself of certain people’s names. Police officers seemed to be particularly easily forgotten, although I also had trouble with dogs’ names, often within the same book.

blue elephant

(picture for World Elephant Day)

I’m not one of those people who uses an Excel file to keep them organised, unlike one of the finalists in the recent ‘Caravanner of the Year’ contest, who claimed to have all his activities colour-coded. but after ploughing through about six novels on more than one occasion to find a minor character’s last name, I decided to use an Excel file to record a few essential details about the people I had so far encountered in Pitkirtly. Sometimes the bare essentials turn into a little more , so there’s a note against one character’s name saying “May have gone off with Deirdre after ‘A Tasteful Crime'” – and sometimes a little less, as in the case of Christopher’s neighbour, Mr Brownlow who “doesn’t really do anything but is occasionally mentioned”. That would be a very sad epitaph! Not that I’m seeing him as a potential murder victim or anything, I hasten to add.

I should emphasise here that the file isn’t exactly a planning tool, as I don’t usually  update it before writing the next novel,  but it helps to reduce the time I wasted in trying to remember things that should carry over from one book to another. Occasionally the thing I think I should remember isn’t there at all. An example of that is Jan from the woolshop’s last name, which I don’t think has ever been mentioned at all, although for a while I was convinced it had been. (If anyone knows differently please don’t hesitate to let me know!)

That was just a glimpse into my writing methods, for want of a better word. Now I suppose I’d better get back to putting them into practice!