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…….
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.
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.
Sometimes I buy single photographs of particular interest to me but I often buy them in lots. I never know exactly what I’ll find in the lots or what studios in what part of the country (or abroad) will be represented. It’s often only when the photos are scanned and enlarged that I can make out the names of studios or photographers. When I saw that this photograph was by JR Giles of Northampton it sounded familiar.
Then I remembered. I’ve been married twice and the photographs at my first wedding were taken by JR Giles and son of Northampton in 1974. Pretty obviously this was the son of the original JR Giles.
A search on the internet turned up a web page showing that JR Giles, the son, had retired in 2013 and handily the page showed the firm had started life in 1908.
It’s always great to know something about the history of studios and photographers and to be able to link this firm to my own life is very satisfying.
Often Cabinet Cards and other old photographs are not in great condition when I acquire them. The question is then what to do with them. As far as the originals are concerned it’s just a matter of storing them in a suitable dry place out of direct sunlight but when it comes to displaying them digitally then I usually make some alterations to the scans. Most frequently I use Photoshop’s autotone feature as it usually brings out more detail and enhances the blacks in particular.
In the case of Gerty Grace and Elsie, a cabbinet card dated on the reverse as December 7th 1905, I went a little further. After autotoning the scan I opened it up in Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 and did some further tweaking. In this case I brightened a rough circle in the centre of the photograph over the girls’ dresses as there was some fading in this area on the original photograph.
Ideally I would like scans to be as near to the original as possible and that would include the sepia toning but, on the other hand, greater detail is revealed when the black and white conversion is viewed. I still have the card so nothing has been done to destroy the original.
For this cabinet card of a girl with a fan I have carried out more restoration on the scanned image. Often photographs of this age suffer from foxing – the appearance of brown patches as seen above left. I removed the foxing using the healing brush tool again though I could have spent more time on this to get even better results as a little of the detail on the dress has been lost during the process. I applied a high structure filter in Silver Efex to arrive at the finished image. You can see how much more detail this has revealed, especially in the background objects and furnishings. You could argue that this version has taken it too far but the beauty of doing this is that I can always go back to the original scan and produce a different version.
At some point most collectors of old photographs develop one or more specialist interests. In my case one of my specialist interests is “vintage dancing girls.” This came about because whenever I sorted through lots of photographs I began to notice that there was nearly always one or two photographs of girls in dance costumes, either solo or in groups. You might expect that these dancers would mostly be small girls appearing in some local production but it turns out that there are also large numbers of older dancers (think professional or semi-professional dancers) and even men in drag as this photograph illustrates!
The three girls in this photograph are typical of this category of Vintage Dancing Girls and they appear to be performing at some open air event with proud parents looking on in the background.
Groups seem to fall into different types. Some are obviously tap dancing groups whilst others clearly favour more impressionistic styles!
Some groups of young dancers were clearly more commercially successful. The Dinky Dots (sometimes spelled Dinkie Dots) were around in the 1930s. Apparently they were active in Bolton for quite a long time. Reminiscences from another young dancer at the Bolton Revisited site notes that ” The Dinky Dots all wore very frilly knickers under their costumes and I was tempted to join them just because I wanted to wear frilly underwear! ”
Another class of “dancer” seems likely to be just young women who like to dress in dance costume or pose like a dancer as this photograph shows.
Here are two more professional or semi-professional groups. The Opal Girls were clearly a successful cabaret act. Their agent was based in Ruislip. The girls in the weird hats were from Egham.
One thing I’ve noticed is that many dancers and dance troupes came from quite unlikely places like Barrow In Furness, like this group. It is likely that these dancers were based at local dance schools.
You can see my complete collection of Vintage Dancing Girls on Flickr. The photographs have been gradually accumulated over more than five years. Once you start a specialised collection such as this it is remarkable how often you come across other photographs which fit the category. The cost of acquiring these photographs can be as little as a few pence each especially when found in larger collections and seldom cost more than a pound or two. Of course, like any other collecting hobby prices are dictated by how many other collectors there are and the supply of “new” items over time. Fortunately there are so many old photographs that the supply is unlikely to exhausted any time soon.
[It’s worth pointing out that there are other specialist subjects that are very expensive to pursue. For instance if you wanted to collect Victorian post mortem photographs you would be lucky to find a good example for less than £100. ]
I admit it. I’m getting distracted. Eventually I will get around to writing about Gardnerian witchcraft and the history of witchcraft but I also have these rather wonderful books on Alex and Maxine Sanders which deserve some comment. Between them they founded a school of Wicca known as Alexandrian Wicca. Alex died in 1988. As far as I know Maxine is still alive though her website doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2004.
You can read about Alex and Maxine via their wikipedia entries.
The reason I mention them here is because there was a definite tendency to link witchcraft with satanism in the 1960s. Indeed Alex Sanders said that he followed the “left-hand path” for some time early in his career. The press also liked to sensationalise stories about witchcraft and satanists and were happiest when they could find salacious photographs to illustrate their exposes. Even these biographies feature several photographs of naked participants in various ceremonies and, as you can see, “Maxine, The Witch Queen” quotes the News of the World on its cover.
Just like “Devil Worship in Britain” these books also feature noteworthy blurbs. For “Maxine”, part of the blurb reads “Maxine Sanders….. has been threatened with death for daring to tell her story. But she will not be silenced!” For “King of the Witches” the blurb tells us “A master of the occult reveals the forbidden secrets of sorcery, witchcraft and black magic.”
It’s only fair to warn you that if you continue to read these posts your own life may be in danger from occult forces beyond your comprehension.
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.
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!
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.