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On research and world building

One of the things I always love to see in reviews is a reference to how accurate my setting and the time period are.  I’m a bit of a pedant so I hate finding anachronisms when I’m reading.  It’s even worse when I’m reading my own work.   I’m at the redrafting stage of my work in progress and know I’m bound to find a few things that slipped through the net.

A few weeks ago I was asked to take part in a discussion on the Harlequin blog about creating believable worlds.  I wrote this piece that I’m sharing here.

‘Round about chapter five of my first book, Falling for her Captor, I had the characters sitting round the campfire. The seasoned older soldier, about to dispense some words of wisdom to the hero, lit his pipe and somewhere in Anachronism Central a red light flashed and a siren started wailing. Why? Because my story was set (albeit in a fictional country) in the medieval period, which as we all know means no tobacco. Fortunately I spotted that one and didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of my editor pointing it out but it still makes me cringe.

It does, however, illustrate how important research is to the historical writer. Big inaccuracies can ruin a book from the outset so make sure you’re familiar with the hierarchy of society, forms of address and social conventions for the time you’re writing about. Fortunately there is a wealth of information available online to ensure you get these right.

I love reading historical fiction as well as writing it and for me a convincing world is one where the author has got the small, incidental details right (thought choose your details carefully- your hot medieval duke would almost certainly have had lice and bad teeth but your reader won’t want to know this). The story and characters are naturally the most important element but nothing kills the moment like an anachronism leaping off the page. In the same way that an errant TV aerial can ruin a period drama, the reader’s should be concentrating on the hero slowly teasing the heroine’s shift down over her shoulders, not shouting in annoyance about the fact that cotton wasn’t available in the Middle Ages and she would have worn linen.  And don’t get me started on the Tudor novel where the heroine felt a jolt of electricity run through her!

When trying to find ideas for clothing, food, houses and transport my first port of call is often contemporary art such as illuminated manuscripts and tapestries which can be a wonderful source of detail. Knowing exactly what sort of river ferry existed made it much easier to describe Will in  A Wager for the Widow almost knocking Eleanor over the side when he jumps his horse on board. I also love researching the food characters might have eaten and have some interesting recipes I’m planning to try out as soon as the holidays come around.

I’m naturally obsessive and sometimes researching what should be a small plot point ends up taking a lot more time than it should. My latest heroine inherits a business from her deceased husband so or A Wager for the Widow I ended up so engrossed in oyster farming in Medieval Cornwall I lost hours! Ditto tide times in December that cover the causeway to St Michael’s Mount. I’ve also spent time on Google Maps working out distances and cross referencing them with tables of how far and fast a horse could be expected to travel to ensure my characters could make journeys in the timescale I’ve given them.

So what have I learned? Know your period well before you start to write so you don’t write yourself into a corner. Don’t put the wrong monarch on the throne, don’t have a six-day journey taking a couple of hours. Don’t dress your characters in clothes that weren’t available, and don’t have your knights eating baked potatoes.’

How much do anachronisms bug you?  What is the biggest you’ve spotted in a book or film?

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Celebrating readers and reviewers

‘I finished the book at 2am!! I literally devoured it.’

‘I couldn’t put this book down and didn’t want it to end. It brought a tear to my eye, made me laugh and smile all at the same time.’

‘I forgot my worries and just lost myself in this highly convincing world and romance. William is one of my favourite ever m&b heroes – a rogue whose devil may care attitude hides a broken heart.’

‘It’s gripping and exciting and romantic and sexy and simply a wonderful read!’

A Wager for the Widow has been out since Wednesday.  I’m overwhelmed with the fabulous reviews I’ve received so far (if that hasn’t convinced you to buy it for everyone you know – your mum, your child’s teacher, your next door neighbour, your sister then read the rest here).

http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/B00VS0FV5U/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_top?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=byRankDescending

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has followed my blog for the past year and a half. As a new author who still can’t quite believe I’m being paid to do what I love, getting the ‘likes’ and comments on the blog, Facebook or Twitter means a lot to me, as does everyone who has taken time to read and review.

This week as well as celebrating the release of AWFTW I’ve finished my first draft of my work in progress and am getting ready to start reworking that.  I’m also recovering from Ofsted and am about celebrate (!?!) my 40th with some good friends.  I’ll be raising a glass to everyone who has been with me along for the ride.

Thank you and here’s to the next two years!

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night

When I write there’s usually a particular song going round in my head, or which I play when I get a bit of writer’s block and want to get back into the mood.  For Falling for her Captor it was Intervention by Arcade Fire and with less than a week until release date I wanted to share the song that accompanied writing A Wager for the Widow.

Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen.

It’s one of my all time favourite songs and one that whatever mood I’m in at the start, by the end I’m singing along doing bad harmonies (right around 1.42 on the video if you want to join in).

Before I’d even entered SYTYCW or dreamed I’d ever write more than one book I loved the romance of it.  I saw Springsteen at Wembley a couple of years ago and it was one of the best concerts I’ve been to.  He sang this as the encore, alone on stage with his guitar and it raised goosebumps and made my hair stand on end.

‘Don’t run back inside
darling you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night’

For me the lyrics perfectly capture Eleanor and Will’s story of a woman who has withdrawn from the world (in Eleanor’s case literally as well as metaphorically) and the man who loves her trying to persuade her to open up to him and give romance another go.

‘You can hide ‘neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets’

Life can be sad and bleak and lonely, and even though the narrator says promises will be broken and by his own admission he isn’t hero material, the idea that taking the risk and stepping off the porch can lead to true love is a wonderful fantasy.  You’ll have to read the book to find out if Eleanor takes the chance.  I think I’d be grabbing my bag by the end of the first verse if he turned up at my door.  I’d love to know what you think.  Now I have some singing to do!

BBC Radio Manchester interview

Release date is getting closer so yesterday I paid a visit to Media City in Salford to talk to Becky Want on BBC Radio Manchester about A Wager for the Widow.

Flattering photo on my ID card.
Flattering photo on my ID card.

I had a case of nerves before I went on air and I’m not sure the coffee helped but I enjoyed sitting in Costa beforehand and trying to work out if the man at the next table was famous.

This is the interview.  I haven’t listened to it all as I never like hearing myself but I think it went well.  I managed to remember the names of the characters (thanks to a crib sheet) and had a fun time.  Becky was a great host.

My friend very kindly (and cleverly because I wouldn’t know where to begin) recorded the interview as an MP3 for me.

Catch me on the Becky Want show here

I love the area round the quays and for a change the weather was nice enough to go for a wander around.  The views from the multi-storey are great, taking in most of Salford and outer Manchester.

BBC one side.  ITV the other.  I wonder if the staff give each other hard stares as they look out of the windows?
BBC one side. ITV the other. I wonder if the staff give each other hard stares as they look out of the windows?
Fabulous view from the car park.
Fabulous view from the car park.

A WAGER FOR THE WIDOW by Elisabeth Hobbes

Fantastic first review for A Wager for the Widow from Amanda Shivrattan

Amanda Writes

Elisabeth Hobbs is most definitely an author to look out for. Her second historical novel will1972506_10153290407375306_7679200537964881838_n sweep you away into an era full of attitude, poise, rules and romance of course! Fresh, fast-paced and elegantly written with characters that stand out and command attention…A WAGER FOR THE WIDOW will most certainly have you turning the pages!

Highly Recommended

5/5 Stars

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Sam Vimes -Alpha Male

If you’re reading this post because you follow the blog and are expecting to read about historical romance or Mills & Boon then be aware- this post is different.

It’s only fair to warn you now that this isn’t going to be very coherent because after hearing about Terry Pratchett’s death on Thursday I’m still too sad to articulate properly. I’ve been reading the Discworld series since I first picked up Sourcery back in 1989 and was hooked. I wanted to write something to mark the event which has – no exaggeration – hit me like the loss of a friend and which days later still brings a tear to my eye when I think of it. I could wax lyrical for hours about the humour, warmth, optimism, humanity and anger in the series but there are better writers out there doing a much better job of discussing Sir Terry’s legacy and impact than I could. I’ll just descend into fangirl quoting, try to explain the plots of 40 books and then go off for a cry.

What I do do though is write heroes and throughout the Discworld series I believe one character evolved more than any other. To me he is one of the great alpha male creations in literature and I’ll freely admit to having a huge crush on His Grace, His Excellency, The Duke of Ankh; Commander Sir Samuel Vimes (Blackboard Monitor) and I know I’m far from alone.

A series of books set on a flat world that moves through space on the back of a turtle might seem an unlikely place to find a hero, but the embittered loner fighting his demons is a staple of fiction and I would argue (and will at length if given enough vodka and ginger beer) that had Sam Vimes appeared in any other genre he’d be hailed as one of the great examples of the last half-century. He’s written in the vein of Noir detectives: jaded, cynical and at rock bottom. Like them he needs a purpose in life and the love of a good woman to redeem him and across the Guards strand of novels the story of how he gets these makes compelling reading.

All alphas need a fault to overcome and we first meet Sam Vimes in Guards! Guards!, drunk in a gutter and despairing, having seen the worst and believing there is nothing better to come. He’s been ground down by years of working for psychotic leaders and as we see in Night Watch -to my mind one of the most moving and justifiably angry books written in any genre- from his first days on the job he’s lived through revolution and seen death and loss that would make any man turn to the bottle.

Over the course of Guard! Guards!, in part through his meeting with Lady Sybil, Vimes gradually begins his redemption. This will eventually lead him to become one of the most powerful men in the city while still maintaining his integrity and determination. He’s the archetypal poor kid from the slums made good and throughout the series his innate sense of justice sees him evolve into a knight-errant figure and champion of the underdog (or under goblin) who would not be out of place in any romance novel.

Vimes an anti-authoritarian cynic who constantly sees the worst in humanity (and dwarfantiy and trollanity etc- this is the Discworld after all) yet manages to remain a believer in the need to do the right thing, however hard that might be and however difficult the decisions are. He has swagger and presence; whether facing down the tyrant who rules the city, a gang of backstreet thugs or a group of civic leaders and scheming nobles who still view him as a jumped up slum dweller.

An alpha hero needs to be able to fight. Physically Vimes is tough. He walks the street of the city in battered armour and old boots even when he’s the richest man in the city. He’s capable in a street brawl, battle scarred and often beaten and bruised but gamely carrying on, chewing on his cigar in a manner reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and waving a crossbow or dragon with extreme prejudice. When I wrote the duel between Hugh, the hero of Falling for Her Captor, and the villain Duke Stephen it was at least in part influenced by the image of Vimes wearily pulling himself to his feet for a final showdown.

He isn’t perfect- he has his faults but like all great heroes strives to overcome them. He keeps a bottle of best whiskey in his desk drawer to prove daily he can resist temptation and because these are fantasy, when he battles his inner demons he does so in the very real sense of the word.

Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch

Because these are humorous fantasy novels rather than Romances we don’t get to peek through the keyhole of Sam and Sybil’s bedroom. They aren’t that sort of books. We do, however get a clear insight into their relationship and romance and one thing is absolutely clear- this is a man who simply adores his wife. Who is devoted to her and who will do anything for her (crime solving allowing). This is a man who runs barefoot through the forest, pursued by werewolves to save his wife. A man who will fight across time itself to get back to her. A man who will crawl on his knees through underground caverns to single handedly exact vengeance on a group of fundamentalist conspiracists , all the while screaming the words of a bedtime story he’s promised to read to his son.

I defy any red-blooded woman not to read these books and fall in love with Vimes to some degree.

I first met Vimes at the tender and impressionable age of 14. Terry Pratchett said he imagined the character looking like the late Pete Postlethwaite but to me he was always a little bit Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, a touch of Sean Bean as Sharpe and later on, a bit of House era Hugh Laurie (apparently a popular choice for the role if it ever comes to the screen).

Vimes, along with Lindsey Davis’ M Didius Falco, pretty much set the bar by which all men are judged.

Poor things.

If I could ever write a hero with one tenth of the appeal of Sam Vimes I’ll consider myself a very happy author indeed.

That we’ll never discover what happens to Sam, or any of the other characters is one of the reasons Sir Terry’s death has hit fans so hard. There is a Disc shaped hole in the world and I’m already missing the future books that will never be written.

I’d like to imagine circumstances contriving to necessitate Sam eventually becoming Patrician, a role he’d take reluctantly but one he’d shoulder in order to ensure the lives of Ankh Morpork citizens are worth living. Whatever happens he’s out there in seven books (not counting cameos) wearing old boots, giving chase and aiming to keep the promises he’s made.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to raise a glass of Bearhugger’s Whiskey Cream.

A grumble about teaching English

‘The big ginger cat of London likes eating fish and climbing the curtains.’

‘the enormous marmalade coloured cat of london likes munching his way through mounds of salmon and whizzing up and down the curtains like a yoyo’

Which sentence is correct? Which sentence is better?

According to the new National Curriculum for Year 1, the first is better because the child has achieved the objective of using capital letters for names of places. Never mind the use of descriptive language, we’re not interested in that today. Vocabulary choice isn’t even on the curriculum for Year 1 (5-6 year olds for anyone not from England) and our objectives should be based on the new curriculum and the key skills.

Let me make it clear, I have absolutely no problem with children developing these skills. I think they’re hugely important. As a teacher I work hard to raise attainment in my pupils. I want them to write legibly and grammatically. Children should be able to

write sentences by:
saying out loud what they are going to write about
composing a sentence orally before writing it
sequencing sentences to form short narratives
re-reading what they have written to check that it makes sense
discuss what they have written with the teacher or other pupils
read their writing aloud, clearly enough to be heard by their peers and the teacher

and

leaving spaces between words
joining words and joining clauses using ‘and’
beginning to punctuate sentences using a capital letter and a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark
using a capital letter for names of people, places, the days of the week, and the personal pronoun ‘I’

But surely there is more to writing than that? There is but I decided against cut and pasting the Transcription part of the document. The above was the Composition element. If we all work really hard we might produce a generation of children with accurate grammar and perfect spellings but will we produce children who want to write?

The new curriculum that was taken from came in this academic year. Last year I taught the same topics so had a look through my planning to see what had changed and if I could reuse any ideas. Last year when we wrote poems about the sea, we looked at imagery, we played around with adjectives, wrote sentences on strips of paper, tore them up to change the word order and looked at what happened to the sentence. We watched short films and music videos. Enya’s Orinoco Flow was a favourite as was this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1mX8ptsmBM We created characters and sent them on journeys. One day, when I figure out where he ends up, I’m going to write the pilot’s story myself.

The child who wrote amazing sentences on a wanted poster for their invented pirate got recognition for that even if they had forgotten to capitalise ‘seasick jane, the terror of the west indies’. This year, even with all my best endeavours to make the lessons fun it feels like some of the joy has gone out of it.

As someone who also loves creating stories and images and making a reader feel for a character it all makes me rather sad. Of course I want my writing to be accurate (though I know my lovely editor will pick up on my mistakes and won’t even keep me in at playtime) and wading through an otherwise engrossing book full of typos can be a labour of love, but checking the accuracy is something that comes afterwards. Once my hero has admitted he was too proud and cold to admit his feelings and the heroine has fallen sobbing into his arms after an emotional fight then I’ll go back and check for stray capitals. If all my reviews on Amazon concentrated on the accuracy of my commas I’d probably give up*.

Today Nicky Morgan, the Minister for Education, has announced a war on illiteracy and innumeracy, which is great, because we like funding wars. I just hope she’s planning to fund this war as well as the one on Terror or against places that might affect our oil supply because schools could sure as hell do with the funding! If schools fail to get every child through the tests they risk being turned into academies (taking them out of LA control and giving them to private companies to run) and Headteachers risk being sacked. This is not going to encourage teachers to allow children the freedom to explore language and creativity, or Heads to let them.

Last year I used to get little stories or poems brought in from pupils after the weekend. Not all of them were brilliantly spelled or had the right capitals and full stops but they were fun and showed a genuine pleasure in producing ideas. This year they proudly show me their alphabets written in cursive writing. To me that speaks volumes and none of them have happy endings.

*I won’t- writing is the only plan I have to get out of teaching that doesn’t involve leaving in a box (thank you to you all if you’ve bought my book, if you haven’t please do, I can’t take much more waiting for OFSTED to descend).

The Wonders of the Universe Drinking game rules!

I love Brian Cox and it is a continual disappointment to me that, despite driving past Jodrell Bank twice a day, three times a week, I’ve not yet bumped into him.
Maybe as I’m driving that is a good thing.

Anomalous Distraction

Jusht Cuz.


Stop Press : Apparently Prof Cox is aware of the drinking game. So by not participating, not only will you be letting yourself down, you’ll be letting him down too. Do it. You know it makes sense.

Take 1 finger of drink when Prof Cox says:

Take 2 fingers of drink for:

  • “Billions*”
  • 2nd law of thermodynamics
  • Any use of props (like salt and pepper shakers) or drawing in the sand with a stick (ht Rob and @carolwhead)

Take 3 fingers of drink…

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