Heretics – latest blurb

Here’s my latest thinking on how to describe Heretics:

A novel of the occult set in 1959 and 1859

You know how the Victorians were very upright, very religious and so prudish that they even covered their table legs? Well it might have been true of a few upper middle class families but for most people the reality was different. Costume dramas perpetuate the idea of the proper Victorian but forget to mention the appalling social conditions, the high infant mortality rate, the prostitution, the violence, the squalor, the baby farms.

The Victorian characters in Heretics are different. They pretend to have the virtues expected of their class but they consider themselves to be heretics for a reason. For a start they practice the occult but they still go to church. They conjure demons but cover their tracks by doing good works. And they are involved in a very dangerous game which could have consequences for the fabric of time itself.

And all of this before Alexander Harrison finds a way to travel back in time from 1959 and join their ranks. Now the race is truly on to stop their common enemy, Bella Nightingale, before it’s too late and she destroys all of their lives…….

Find out more at: www.samsalt.com and darknessbegins.com

Notes

  1. It’s different to previous versions.
  2. It has the key points I want to promote but distorts the storyline somewhat.
  3. The photograph is designed to be eye-catching rather than accurate. The clothes the woman is wearing are more likely to be around 1900 than 1859.
  4. At the Wirksworth book fair the flyer with this photograph and this blurb attracted far more attention than the book I was actually selling.

Blurbs, Loglines, Synopses, Genres, Marketing

Sam after an attack of the blurbs

One of the most difficult tasks faced by an author is constructing short pieces of writing to be used in marketing their work. Whether pitching to an agent or writing suitable blurbs for the back of the book or coming up with a one sentence description of the book it’s never easy to achieve a good result. You might have spent hundreds of hours writing and redrafting your book but it’s never going to get anywhere unless you have the skill to construct pithy sentences that will sell your work in the shortest possible number of words.

So your novel is likely to have 80000 words or more and you have perhaps 100 words to describe it in blurb format that will entice people to look at the whole work. You can’t outline the plot in even general terms and anyway you wouldn’t want to give away key points. It can’t really be a linear description of events. It has to have some key element of the book that will grab a reader and make them think “Yes, I really want to read that.” There might even be a temptation to describe something that really doesn’t feature in the book in the way that cinema trailers used to do. It’s not the sort of thing that you can dash off in minutes. You’ll probably find yourself writing several different versions and even when you settle on the final version you’ll then want to write and rewrite until it says only those things that will convey the essence of your book.

When you’ve solved the blurb problem then you can wrestle with the logline problem (or you could start with this and work up to the blurb). You know how hard it was to condense your megawork into a hundred words? Now you’ve got to do it all over again only this time you get only one sentence. My guess is that it’s not just a sentence from the blurb but a whole new and tortuous problem to be solved. In the case of my book Daughters of Derby I eventually came up with that single sentence in a shamanic trance. That’s right, believe it or not, I had to resort to the mystic realms to get an answer and as it happens I was very pleased with the result.

“In the city where everything is for sale and no-one owns the truth.”

It tells you nothing of the story, except that it’s set in a city, but it conveys the idea that this is a noir-ish tale and that you should expect dark doings.

Assuming you manage to craft a blurb and a logline your next task will be to write a synopsis to submit with your manuscript to an agent or a publisher. And to do this you have to summarise your book in perhaps two sides of A4 and you describe the relevant events probably in chronological order though that is not proscribed in any way. Cue more sleepless nights as you work on this problem.

Now you might think you’re ready to submit to an agent but what genre does your book belong to? In the case of the book I’m currently sending to agents the genre is historical-horror-fantasy-science-fiction-murder-mystery-occult partially Dennis-Wheatley pastiche but updated to a retro-ironic nineteen-fifties slash eighteen-fifties approach (i.e. both pre and post Wheatley). That of course won’t do. A publisher wants to know what the singular genre is to gauge likely markets and marketability. Right now I’ve settled on the following for the genre that Heretics belongs to:

“A novel of the occult set in 1959 and 1859.”

But that’s not a genre, you protest. I know but it’s the best you’re getting right now.

However frustrating all this is you’d better get used to it as a vital part of marketing your book and preparing to send it to agents and publishers. In my next post I’ll share my current thinking on the blurb for Heretics.

At Wirksworth Book Fair

Met some very interesting people today at the Wirksworth Book Fair. I’ve not tried marketing my book Daughters of Derby this way before and it’s quite a strain, psychologically speaking, to put yourself out in public this way. It’s a great pleasure though to meet strangers who are good enough to take a chance on your book and to sign copies for them.

I was particularly pleased to meet another local author Emma Woodcock and I can highly recommend her blog Adventures in indie publishing.

Devil Worship in Britain

I came across this book, which has been in my collection for many years, whilst thinking through my next blog post on witchcraft in Britain and couldn’t resist posting photos of the cover.

DW1 DW2

In case we are left in any doubt as to the sensational nature of the book we are told inside that the authors found it “no easy task to write this book. Warnings and threats followed their attempts to uncover the secrets of Britain’s thriving satanist cults – secrets which are guarded as closely as an insane killer.” It goes on to say that “they persevered in their researches and produced this frightening account of the obscene practices which are so widespread in this country today.”

The book was published in 1964, not long after some of the action which takes place in my novel Heretics. It is fairly typical of the 1950s and 1960s in its approach to any aspect of the occult and has no trouble conflating genuine practices with whatever wild stories will sell another popular book.

At the end of the book the authors include a personal statement as to the veracity of their research and call upon “lawyers and statesmen” to give the people “the legislation they demand.” It all sounds very familiar to other moral panics promoted by the mass media over the years.

There are those who sought to prevent me publishing this blog but I have decided it is my obligation to go ahead whatever the risks to my personal safety!

Witchcraft in Britain Part 1

As I began to think about this blog post I realised that I could not do it justice in a single post and it will need to be split up over several posts. I will begin then by talking briefly about the motivations and relevance of the subject to my writing.

Much of my writing contains references to occult lore and practices and Heretics is no different. My approach has always been to be as accurate as possible in portraying these beliefs and practices. That’s not to say that plot and story become subservient or that I do not invent some details where the story demands them. I do however want to distance myself from the Disneyfication of much modern writing, both fiction and alleged non-fiction. A witch is a witch whether male or female. I’ve had people argue with me that there is no such thing as a male witch and that I should use wizard for the male equivalent. Yes, but only if you watch Disney films and read Harry Potter books. I actually like the Harry Potter books but I deplore the fact that magic in them is reduced to waving a wand and speaking cod-Latin.

In Heretics I have endeavoured to present witchcraft as it was practiced in the 1960s and to represent the way it was reported in the popular press at the time. Broadly speaking we can trace the origins of this type of witchcraft to a single person – Gerald Gardner. Indeed it is often referred to as Gardnerian witchcraft. More of this in a later post.

In the meantime I can strongly recommend The Triumph of the Moon, sub-title “A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,” by Ronald Hutton as the best analysis of witchcraft in Britain currently available.

Writing in Period: 1859

hattrio

(The photographs illustrating this post are both cartes-de-visite (CDVs) though clearly the one with three children is later than 1859 as you can see from the date of the “queen’s prize” of 1871 on the reverse. However, CDVs were produced from about 1854 onwards and would have been at their most popular in the 1860s.)

Many of us think that we have a good idea of what life was like in Victorian Britain. We are so used to seeing depictions on TV and in film that it is hard to not visualise the times as though they were as seen in a BBC costume drama. In setting Heretics in 1859 and 1860 it was necessary for me to research the period carefully to make sure I wasn’t wrong in my assumptions.

One of the things I realised fairly early on was that many of the things we associate with the Victorian period didn’t actually become widespread until later in the nineteenth century. I have scenes set at Christmas 1859 and was expecting to be writing about Christmas cards, presents and turkeys but the reality was different. It was too early for Christmas cards, presents if given were likely be handmade and Christmas dinner was more likely to be similar to our Sunday dinners, featuring beef or ham. The upper classes would adopt the things we think of as Victorian “traditions” first and they would only trickle down to the middle and lower classes only as the century went on.

Clothing was easier to research and there are many contemporary images that can be drawn upon. Still, I found many surprises. For instance, the wristwatch first made an appearance as something women wore and only became available for men much later. One of my main characters, Alex, has travelled back in time from 1959 and has a 1950s crew cut which would have looked quite out of place. Women’s dress went through many changes between 1859 and 1900 and I had to be careful about bustles and boots and the years they were fashionable. I have a young female character, Daisy, and when she first appears I describe her as wearing a grubby dress with bloomers poking out under the hem. Later I found that bloomers were actually a phenomena associated with women’s growing emancipation towards the end of the century and I had to settle for something similar called pantalettes.

The social conditions that existed in 1859 are heavily featured in the novel and I spent a lot of time trying to get these right. One of the most important works to document the lives of ordinary people is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and is an essential reference of the times. However, my work of fiction is set in the Midlands town of Derby and there is a certain amount of extrapolation. There are of course many locally published accounts of Victorian life which can used as references. The picture I draw of Derby in 1859 is one in which utter poverty exists in contrast to the wealth enjoyed by the upper classes. There is a growing middle class but their conditions are not yet much better than their poor neighbours and there is a growing class of industialists whose wealth will soon begin to rival that of those born to riches.

In Heretics you will find many poor people reduced to sleeping in netherskens, low boarding houses where you could share a room with many other people for a small amount of money, a huge criminal underclass and a burgeoning business in prostitution. In 1859 the age of consent was thirteen but was hardly policed at all. In any case the poorest families would often share their lodgings with several other families and children and adults would also share the sleeping space. The kind of rookeries that existed in London also existed in towns and cities across the country and the sanitary conditions in them were appalling.

In the matter of language, the fact that Alex is from 1959 aids explanations of the language used in the Victorian town. When Alex first hears a nethersken mentioned he can simply ask one of the characters, who know of his origins, what the word means. Similarly there are many other expressions peculiar to the time that he can either have explained to him or he can infer the likely meaning. When he first hears the expression “dollymop” it is obvious from the word itself and the context in which he hears it that it means prostitute. The need to explain the meaning of words cuts both ways – when Alex says “OK” or uses a modern word like “psychopath,” his Victorian friends have to ask him what he means. One phrase that surprised me was the use of “scorched earth” which I assumed came from twentieth century wars but was in use in Victorian times and was used when speaking of military tactics used, for instance, in South Africa.

This post just scratches the surface of the research necessary to make life in 1859 as close to reality as possible. The one thing that stands out for me is that the 1859 I thought I knew a great deal about turned out to be different in some surprising and unexpected ways.

Who are Alex and Maxine? Introducing Heretics.

familygroup

All the posts in this blog have been attributed to “alexandmaxine”, but who are they? They are both characters in my forthcoming novel Heretics. Here’s a gentle introduction to them.

1959Alexander Harrison is a man of science working as Head of Department at a Derbyshire Grammar school. In his thirties, he is conventional in his outlook and his dress. He believes in logic, does not suffer fools and is an atheist in a time when that isn’t the norm. Maxine Silver, his girlfriend, professes to be a witch and earns her living as a photographic model. Together they move into an old house built early in the nineteenth century and they discover a camera obscura, a device which enables them to see all that is going on outside the house, hidden in an attic room. Alex becomes obsessed with restoring the camera. He starts to have visions of an old man who tells him that he has “to come back.” But come back where?

1859 – Alexander wakes to find himself transported back in time to the industrial town of Derby. He is shocked by the terrible social conditions he encounters there. He eventually finds his way to the house he will live in one hundred years in the future. The old man takes him in and begins to teach him alchemy and occultism, telling Alex it’s the only way he can find his way back to 1959. Sceptical at first, he begins to learn….

1959 – Maxine eventually learns that Alex is now in the past (could old photographs be involved?) But someone else, Bella Nightingale, has come out of the past and she’s a killer. The only way Bella can be stopped is for Maxine to find a way to work with Alex in the past and for them to pool their resources. But how can that be possible?

As for the family in the photograph, could they actually be some of the characters in Heretics?

Writing in Period: 1959

ruthparis

My forthcoming novel Heretics is set in two different time periods, 1959 and 1859. As the main character finds himself transported from 1959 to 1859 we get to see what is going on in each of the two periods. One of the challenges I faced was to make everything about the two periods as authentic as possible. 1959 is to some extent an alien world to many people alive today and even those of us who were alive then may have imperfect memories of what it was really like. So how did I go about it and what surprising things did I discover along the way?

The first photograph at the top of this post is meant to illustrate women’s fashion of 1959. In fact I believe this photo, from my own collection, is from the early 1960s though it has the look of 50s fashion. (You can find out more about the model Ruth in an album at my Flickr photostream.) It was very tempting to use a more eye-catching photo of a woman in a mini-skirt but that wasn’t around until the mid-60s. A search on the internet yields lots of photos from the 1950s of men’s and women’s fashion but how reliable are they as a guide to what people were really wearing? The second photograph above is from a 1953 fashion shoot though fashions featured in Vogue were unlikely to be what women in a provincial town were wearing.

dad

With men it is perhaps easier as they were more restricted in their choices and their hairstyles. Crew cuts or the ubiquitous short back and sides were everywhere. (There were elaborate pompadours worn by Teddy Boys but that particular sub-culture doesn’t feature in my novels.) The photograph above shows my dad on the left and illustrates the conservative nature of men’s clothing. This actually was taken in the 1950s.

Beyond fashion there were many questions about what the social mores of the time were and how people carried on in public. One of my characters loses his job as a teacher when it is discovered the woman he is living with is not his wife and that she works as a model. It seems impossible that someone could be sacked for living with their partner today but it was entirely possible in the 1950s. There are more female characters than male in Heretics and some their actions are probably unlikely for women of the day when views of what men and women could and should do were different to modern ideas. For instance, the pub was still largely a male preserve and women would be found only in the lounge bar and then most likely with a male companion. Homosexuality was still a crime at this time and attitudes towards it were strongly held. I have a minor character who we would call “gay” today but in the novel he’s referred to as a “poof,” “nancy boy,” or “queer,” all of which were terms used in the 1950s. The word “gay” still meant carefree at that time.

This brings me on to the question of language and it was the thing that took most time and research to come up with a satisfactory approach. There are lots of words and phrases we are used to reading or hearing in current books and films which were either not used or meant something quite different back in the 1950s.  A good example is “cool,” a word which is used so freely today that it has almost lost its meaning. Now I quite frequently hear people use “cool” as a substitute for “yes.” In the 50s “cool” had a much more restricted usage referring to an attitude and a style of dress or type of music. There are many phrases that we hear, particularly in films and TV programmes, that were just not used back then. No one said something was not going to happen “on their watch,” waiters did not serve your dinner whilst saying “there you go” and you didn’t signal that you were responding to someone’s request by saying you were “on it.”

Swearing was different too, though not as much as you might think. There are certain core swearwords that are the same in the 1950s as they are today. Interestingly these core swearwords were also current in the 1850s and earlier. Even “motherfucker,” which I assumed was fairly modern, has been in use since the nineteenth century. Others are of more modern usage. An example is “dickhead” which was first used in the 1960s.

Then there’s the question of what was going on in British culture in general. What music were people listening to, what films were popular, what was the latest trend in cars, how did people act in public? All of this has to be researched and understood to create a believable background. The vast majority of adults in the 1950s were smokers. You could and did smoke in the workplace, on public transport, in cafes and restaurants, in cinemas and pretty much every public space you can think of and therefore you have to factor that into the story. People wore their clothes longer before changing them, deodorants for men were practically unknown, although that was about to change, and together with the ever-present smoking meant that everywhere smelt different to today. If we were to find ourselves back in the 1950s we would probably be surprised at how alien everyday life would be compared to today.

There’s more, much more to know. I find it annoying when I read a period piece or watch a period film to see and hear things which would not have been seen and heard at the time, especially when they have been sanitised. No doubt I have got some details wrong but I do believe it is the writer’s responsibility to put the time and effort into getting period detail, including language patterns, right.

I will discuss the question of how I approached period detail for 1859 in a separate posting.