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Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Wizard of Books

My blog usually features writers, but I thought my readers might also be interested in hearing from someone who knows about the other end of the book chain. Peter Snell, an independent bookseller in my local town, Leatherhead, in Surrey, immediately came to mind. His specialities are a warm welcome for every customer, great service, the benefit of a knowledge of books he's been a lifetime acquiring and, last but not least, a mean chocolate cake on book signing days. How could I compete? After a few questions to spark off his ideas, I handed the blog over to him. This is the result:
Harriet asked me how I ended up as a bookseller. I have always been an avid reader and cannot remember learning to read. I do know that I could read The Times before I went to school. My working life was spent in the Insurance industry, covering marine, household, mortgages and pensions. I was also a teacher and worked for IBM. A period of major illness meant I had to start again and slowly fought my way back to health working ever-increasing hours in Corbett's Bookshop in Leatherhead until I ended up as the manager. My wife then bought the business, which I now run for her as Barton's Bookshop. 
My degree in History and time with IBM taught me invaluable database and research skills, which I can use when hunting down a half-remembered title for a customer. My wide-ranging reading over many years has made me into a passable generalist, rather than a specialist in any one field. This is incredibly useful when it comes to identifying just what a customer hopes to get from a particular book.
Apart from knowledge and research skills another difficulty for a bookseller is deciding just what books to have in stock. Obviously some will be very cheap and on special offer from online sources, national book-selling chains and supermarkets. Most of these titles will be best-sellers and are often cheaper for the public to buy from multiples and online than for me to purchase from trade wholesalers and distributors. Counter-intuitively, therefore, I do not tend to stock many of these titles. I feel that one of the roles of independents is to find and nurture new authors and I have a couple of strategies to further this end.  
I have gone through phases of reading different styles and genres over the years but now, apart from favourites like Tolkien, Douglas Adams and Lawrence's “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, which I re-read every few years, I have largely surrender my own choice in reading matter to the market.  I am supplied by publishers with review or proof copies of books three, six or even nine months ahead of publication. I do try to read as many of these as possible and can still manage four to five books a week. This enables me to identify books and authors I can recommend across a diverse range of styles and genres.
 One huge change to have hit the book world in recent years is the massive rise in self-publishing. Whilst ten years ago this was largely dismissed as “vanity publishing” that is now far from the truth. Some mainstream and previously conventionally published authors are producing self-published works. Many new authors have decided to take control of their own books and have pursued a huge variety of self-publishing models.
Some of the best reads I have had in recent years are from indie authors and I am happy to promote their books. Probably the best advice I can give to anyone thinking of self-publishing would be to discuss it with those who have already done it. There are blogs and advice pages online. If you want some contacts just ask me and I can put you in touch with others who have trodden this path with success and who are happy to pass on their lists of hard acquired do's and don'ts.
One of Harriet’s questions was what (if anything) is the single most important thing that attracts buyers to a book. My simple answer would be a trusted recommendation. However, the cover is vital. I know one author with two linked historical novels set in Roman times. One has a fantastic jacket and sells because of the promise of what is within. The second book, just as well written and just as good a read sits sadly on the shelf because of the uninspired jacket design. People do judge a book by its cover.
The great advantage of independent bookshops for customers lies mainly in the booksellers who are committed to finding the right book for you, based upon the sort of skills and knowledge I have outlined above. Parents will bring in non-reading children with a request for help. A prolonged chat enables me to hand-pick a few books for the young person to consider. If after reading the first page, or just a few sentences they reject a title this helps me refine my criteria and enables me to select engaging books... I don't like every book I try and read ( but I often find a second go is worthwhile when I am in a different mood and more susceptible to the volume in question)and I am a firm believer that those who are not readers simply haven't yet found the right books and authors for themselves.

If you want to talk, touch, feel, choose, smell or buy books do come and see me sometime.
Peter, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with readers; I’m sure they’ll find them as interesting as I have.
 (If anyone has any questions or comments for Peter, I’d be happy to pass them on and if you're ever near Leatherhead, why not drop in and experience a bit of Barton's magic for yourself?) 

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Great European Foot Craze.

The earliest known mention of foot fetishism is from around 1200 AD, a time when Europe was suffering from an epidemic of gonorrhoea. In fact many experts think that the fetish was on most occasions encouraged by the fear of STDs. History records that there was another huge increase during the syphilis epidemics of the 16th and 19th centuries. Clearly, lusting over feet was seen as a safe alternative to penetrative sex.

Sigmund Freud regarded the Oriental fashion for foot binding as a sexual fetish
 King Ludwig of Bavaria who was, for several years, the lover of Lola Montez, the subject of my biographical novel, Becoming Lola, had a model made of one of her feet in marble. He kept it on his desk and, so we are told, loved to fondle it in private moments. He rhapsodised that her feet were without equal. Ludwig was probably only one of many fetishists of his day.

In general, the Victorians' attitude to sex was confused and hypocritical. On the one hand, the Victorian wife was regarded as ‘The Angel in the House.’ On the other, it was not always accepted that sexual activity caused venereal disease. Not infrequently, husbands infected their wives with STDs caught during visits to one of the many brothels that flourished in Victorian times, with disastrous consequences for the whole family. If a sexual liaison resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, it was always the woman who was cast out by society. Leopold Egg's painting, Past and Present (below right) vividly depicts a terrible warning. 

Man was seen as a creature who could not be expected to control his animal instincts, to such a degree that even the chairs and tables in polite drawing rooms often had their legs swathed in fabric to avoid inflaming male lust. In William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience, (below) women are reminded of the risks and cost of failing to keep on the straight and narrow way. 


Saturday, 1 February 2014

Books with Pictures - Meet Cathy Brett.

The first time I met Cathy was at an authors' event at our local bookshop, Bartons, in Leatherhead, Surrey. I was very impressed by her amazing ability to sum up a face and sketch a convincing likeness in the time it takes most people to sharpen a pencil. When I got to know her a little better, I discovered that she's not only an accomplished artist, but also a talented author of young adult and graphic novels, who uses her gifts to help 'reluctant' and Dyslexic readers in Surrey schools as well. I’m delighted that Cathy's agreed to come and talk to me today about her work - so, over to you, Cathy.
I'm a frequent visitor to secondary schools, which is great because it gets me out of the studio, but also a humungous challenge - as anyone who spends most of their time in quiet, creative isolation will understand! Schools are noisy, scary places. Especially for shy artists!

I recently published two new books so I’ve been bracing my self and visiting schools again, running workshops – one dealing with teenagers in the First World War and another for ‘reluctant’ and Dyslexic readers. Both workshops are hard work but enormous fun, and you may be surprised to hear, the ‘reluctant’ readers are my favourite audience. Why? Two reasons.

I know how they feel and…

I sometimes prefer drawing to writing.

If you’d told me in Year 7 that one day I’d be a published author I’d have rolled my eyes and grunted a sarcastic, ’Huh! Yeah, right.’ I might even have offered a heart-felt, pre-teen reason why you were so very much mistaken. ‘Duh! Authors are clever people who know loads of clever stuff, and I’m not and I don’t. I’m rubbish at lessons (except art), I can’t concentrate, I often drift off into daydreaming and I doodle all the time. I mean, I didn’t even learn to read ‘til I was 8. There’s no way am I gonna be a writer.’ Then I’d probably roll my eyes again and maybe add a stubborn pout.


This is how I sometimes start my workshops with ‘reluctant’ readers (not with those exact words, but they get the idea) and they are ASTONISHED. Clearly, they are under the same misapprehension that I was. ‘Actually,’ I explain. ‘Authors don’t have to be clever or pass oodles of exams or go to university. They just have to LOVE daydreaming and making stuff up. Like me. And maybe like you.’

Then I talk to them about drawing. I tell them I was an artist first, long before I began to write. I explain that it’s OK to like books with pictures (all my books have pictures in spades) and that adults are wrong about books with pictures being for babies. I tell them that they are a ‘visually sophisticated generation’ so they deserve lots of visually stimulating, age appropriate illustrations to enhance their reading experience.

Once again the pupils are ASTONISHED. They have been led to believe that the sooner they move on to ‘real’ books with nothing but boring old text, the better. I smile to myself and imagine them taking a stack of Graphic Novels home from the school library and telling their parents that an actual, real, published author told them to read them 


I haven’t convinced many adults yet, but I’m working on a couple of YA/crossover novels with age-appropriate ‘visuals’ and hope to launch them on an unsuspecting adult readership in the near future.  Wish me luck. x Cathy.
Cathy's wonderfully zany and colourful blog is at, where you'll find details of all her books and lots more. If you live in Surrey, sign up to be notified of events at Bartons Bookshop that she'll be taking part in and come and meet her in person. You might come home with a masterpiece.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Mary Wood on Success in her Sixties.

Readers with long memories may recall Mary Wesley's bestselling novel from 1984, The Camomile Lawn. It caused a particular stir as being a remarkable instance of a writer in her seventies having an overnight success. In response, Mary Wesley remarked with dry humour that her 'overnight success' had only taken a few decades of honing her craft in relative obscurity to achieve.

I'm pleased to say that, thanks to the e-book revolution and the help it has given to self-publishing authors, my guest this month, author Mary Wood, hasn't had to wait for nearly so long. She has, however, had to wait a while for the mainstream publishing industry to find out what her many readers already knew - that she writes cracking stories. 

 Mary, Welcome and thank you so much for coming to talk to me. It’s very exciting news about your contract to publish seven books with Pan Macmillan. What’s the secret of making the transition from an indie to a mainstream author, and how did you feel when you signed on the dotted line? 
MW For me the transition came out of the blue. An editor at Pan MacMillan was checking daily to see how the books she was involved in were doing on Kindle. Always she would see my book, Time Passes Time, in the charts and began to wonder who I was and what my books were like. One day she downloaded the book and read it. She loved it and contacted me; she asked if I intended to write anymore like it. I didn’t, as the novel was set in a period I didn’t usually deal with – WW2. It came about because I had needed to tell more of the story of one of my characters from The Breckton Trilogy and the timeline had reached the war, so it had been a natural progression.
However, I wasn’t about to miss this chance, so I said, yes. In my email back to her, I was able to include an outline of a book I hadn’t previously thought of writing. Again, she loved what I sent and asked for 100 pages in novel form. Soon, I had an agent knocking on my door, the brilliant Judith Murdoch, and all has happened since.
Signing on the dotted line was thrilling and frightening at the same time. By now I had learnt how different traditional publishing is to self-publishing. The main difference being that everything moves at a much slower pace. I have to wait a long time after finishing a book for it to be published. All my work has to be passed and worked on by a team. I have lost control of my writing life – but, the plus side of that is, I can now get on with my writing… at least, I will be able to once my self-published books come down from Kindle, as for a time, I will still have a foot in each camp.
HS You have written five successful novels, including the bestselling Breckton Trilogy. Much of your writing addresses difficult, often harrowing issues like family betrayal or sexual violence. You deal with them sensitively and the popularity of your novels indicates that they capture the attention of many readers. What do you think is the appeal of such issues?

MW I think readers today, or at least some of them, don’t want issues to be smoothed over. Many live lives steeped in these issues, and they want the world to know what it is like for them. I do get reviews from readers who don't like the detail I go into, but I accept them and understand that for some I may go too far. Or, perhaps, what I write about is too near to the truth for them to cope with.
My tackling such issues stems from my time working for the Probation Service. Yes, my books are set in the past when women and children had no voice, but the same things are going on today and having a voice doesn’t always make a difference. Fear supresses freedom to speak.
Daily, I saw the effects of drug taking, rape, child sex and murder, and always it incensed me how little the public realised the truth behind the headlines. How they could hear of, or read about, these abominations without it touching their lives. This is because they do not realise what the word ‘rape’ encompasses, or what the murdered person suffered before death, or the horrendous injury to the child’s body and mind, or the distress of the addict, and besides this, the wider impact on loved ones. I have a burning need to show it as it is.
HS What set you on the path to writing?
MW I was born to write – not an airy-fairy statement, but a truth based in my ancestry and my childhood. The thirteenth child of an upper middle-class mother and an East End barrow boy – an unlikely combination that worked, I was brought up with a lot of love, but in poverty. The kind of poverty that meant I walked a mile and a half to catch the school bus wearing plimsolls, with many more holes than those meant for the laces, through ankle deep snow.
All of this gave me empathy for the less fortunate, which developed into a fascination for social history – material for the future.
In our home we had shelves full of a legacy from my mother’s past – books. And not just ordinary books, but classics that I became addicted to. No other child of my standing had recourse to such wonderful reading matter, or a highly educated mother to help the appreciation of them.
Mother would often say I took after her grandmother, Dora Langlois, in the way I had my head constantly in a book and made up fantastic tales around simple happenings. Great-Grandmother Dora was an author in the late eighteen and nineteen hundreds, and I’m very proud to be thought to be like her. It gave me enormous pleasure recently to discover her book, In the Shadow of Pamenkh, listed on Amazon – though sadly it is no longer available to purchase.
HS Life hasn’t always been easy for you. Has writing been something that has helped you to keep going through difficult times?
MW Yes. I have taken many knocks, lost many loved ones, young and old, but always I had my writing to take me into another world where I could forget for a time. Writing helped too as I coped with ME and Breast Cancer, but life is like that, full of ups and downs and I have far more ups than downs so I am very lucky. I have a wonderful husband of 50 years standing and four amazing children besides 12 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren, whom I love very much. My life is full of good friends and exciting events – who could wish for more?
HS Do you have favourite novelists who have inspired you?
MW I love Penny Vincenzi. She influenced the style of my writing in the way she gives one chapter to each character even if there is no connection between them at first, and then brings them together in a powerful story. Mostly though, I think I have to give credit to Catherine Cookson. Despite all the classics I read as a child, Catherine was the first author to take me deeply into the story and make me feel a part of it. I became that girl trying to bring up her siblings in a cave, or the maid in the big-house, or the genteel young lady so wrongly used by her suitor as I read Catherine’s books. And I knew what it was to really feel the emotions of the characters. I wanted to do that for my readers.
HS Some writers say that listening to music helps them to access emotions they then use in their writing. Does music play a role for you?
MW No. I need complete silence to allow me to hear my characters and connect to them.
HS What made you chose Ireland and Yorkshire as the settings for your Breckton Trilogy? How much of the detail was based on research and how much on personal experience?
MW In the Yorkshire folk and the Irish, I detect true grit: a sense of having lived life at the raw, and of having experienced the earthy feelings and emotions I wanted to portray. I have friends from both of these areas and they influenced me with their zest for life, no matter what it threw at them.
I think everything we write comes from somewhere within us, I know it does for me. Research is secondary to that – the means of dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s, although facts are still important and support imagination.
HS Writing dialogue in local or historical language is always a risk but you carry it off brilliantly. How did you prepare for it?
MW Listening is the answer to that one. I lived in Leeds for a very short time, and loved the way they spoke, and everyone loves the Irish brogue. I made mental notes of how I would spell the way they pronounced words in order to get the sound over. At first I really overdid it to the point that when one of my daughters read what I had written she was terribly upset and said to her sister, ‘I never knew mum was dyslexic!’ Bless her, she hadn’t realised I was trying to write dialect! After that I learnt to tone it down and just give a flavour of the dialect and I think that is why it works. Also my novels are peopled by rich families too and the way they speak gives a balance.
HS As you’ve said, you come from a large family. Is it hard to find the space and time to write, away from the commitments a large family usually entails?
MW Writing around family and work commitments was never a problem. I didn’t start to write until three of my children had flown the nest. Only my son was still at home at the time and he couldn’t wait to read the next chapter as it came off the typewriter. And the girls waited in anticipation for me to send each instalment. How they all read so many versions I do not know, but they have always been encouraging and very proud of me. Now I am retired and spend a lot of my time in Spain, they understand when they visit that I need even more time to devote to my writing and so they enjoy their holiday around me, though of course I try to spend some part of every day with them. Apart from this I have an amazing husband who completely takes over the running of the home and all that entails, so I am very lucky. 
HS It’s clear from your author and Facebook pages that you very much enjoy contact with readers. Do you think that coming from a large family has made you particularly sociable?
MW Possibly. We were a very happy family and enjoyed interacting with one another. Often we would not leave the table after Sunday dinner until darkness had descended outside as we debated everything under the sun and chatted away. Music filled the house, classical and pop - and laughter and rows vied with each other keeping the noise level high. However, all of this often sent me into my own little world where I loved peace and quiet and I would find somewhere to read and lose myself, as I love my own company too. I am a people person though, and give my love easily and willingly to all, and this comes back to me in abundance.
HS Currently, you live in Spain. Do you have plans to feature your adopted country in your work one day?
MW I don’t think so, though never say never. Spain is a retreat for me, but I remain a British citizen and spend as much time in Britain as I do here. I love the lifestyle in Spain, though. It is relaxed and happy and the sun gives you that feel-good feeling. A good all round environment for a writer.
HS So what’s next? Is there a new novel on the way?
MW Yes, I’m working on a novel which I have to deliver to my publisher by the 1st of December. It’s set between 1910 and 1950, a period of great strife for the world. I’m really enjoying writing and researching it. There is so much material to get to grips with as during these years there wasn’t a family untouched by war, or flu epidemic, or the awful recession of the twenties, or the fight to get women the vote, or the general strikes. And yet amidst it we had the antics of the ‘roaring twenties’, the emergence of cinemas and film stars, big bands and rock ‘n’ roll - an amazing background to pluck many situations from.
Though the even more exciting, ‘what’s next’, is: this is the year when I will see, for the first time, two of my novels in bookshops, libraries and supermarkets. Something I never thought would ever happen, and something I am so looking forward to. It is the realisation of my dreams.
HS Mary, it’s been wonderful talking to you and added an interesting dimension to my reading of your novels. I rejoice with you in your success – long may it continue.
MW Thank you, Harriet, for inviting me to do this interview with you, I’ve really enjoyed it and hope your followers enjoy it too. If anyone has any questions, please let me know and I will be happy to answer them. Best wishes to you and to everyone, Mary.

Mary’s books are available on Amazon:

USA http;//

Visit her blog for Creative Writing Tips: or meet her at Books by Mary Wood on Facebook.



Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Akashic Record - A Fantastic Resource for the Writer or Mumbo-Jumbo?