Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Day

The New Year arrives early in New Zealand, thanks to our position close to the Date Line. So it's already eleven hours old as I write this. 2010 has got off to a pleasant start, including leftover m├ęthode champenoise for breakfast.

Musing over 2009:
- I substantially edited Sentence of Marriage, removing most of what made up the first five chapters and reducing the word count by over 20,000. I also tightened and polished the three later books.
- I joined Authonomy in November 2008, so I've been a member for all of 2009. Sentence of Marriage has been in Authonomy's top 40 for the last few months. More importantly, I've received useful feedback and real encouragement, and have had the chance to read some fine manuscripts. I've also had a lot of fun there.
- I put my books on Smashwords, which has itself made huge progress this year as an increasingly high profile e-book provider. Sentence of Marriage is currently at number 15 on Smashwords' Top 100 list, and has had almost 3,000 downloads.
- I've had fine reviews on WorkingGirlReviews for Sentence of Marriage and Mud and Gold.
- I've made some progress on my WIP, most importantly in getting to know the characters who make their first appearance in this volume.

Looking ahead for 2010:
- I'd like to see a completed first draft of my WIP by the end of the year. It will take the series from 1912 to the mid-1920s, so will include the years of the First World War (though from the point of view of those left at home, not at the Front), a new area of research for me. The whole book is going to demand much research, a thought I relish.
- I'm hoping for more reviews (Sentence of Marriage was accepted for review by a site specialising in historical fiction on 31 December), and to gain more visibility for my books.
- I have a list of ideas for future books that keeps expanding, much to my delight.
- I hope to keep growing and improving as a writer (which, as Mr Collins said to Lizzie, perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier).

Happy New Year to everyone reading this.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas on the farm, 1883

To everyone reading this, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

In Chapter 14 of Sentence of Marriage, we see one family's Christmas Day 126 years ago. For them it was not so very different from any other day of the year. There were cows to milk; cooking to do; children to tend. They went to church in the morning, and at lunchtime sat down to a hot dinner: roast lamb and vegetables, followed by plum pudding. Quite unsuitable for a New Zealand summer, of course, but a hot dinner on Christmas Day was a tradition brought from "Home".

Gifts were simple, and often homemade—Amy has given each of her menfolk a handkerchief embroidered with his initial. This year there's a houseguest: a young man from the city, who's been paying Amy a good deal of attention. She's unable to hide her disappointment when he appears to have no gift for her, but he persuades her to slip outside with him while the rest of the family is lingering over tea and cake.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: Our First A & P Show

On 14 December 1843, an Agricultural and Pastoral Show was held in Auckland, the first in New Zealand. The idea of such shows was at first slow to spread, but from the 1860s onwards they were held in more and more areas of the country.

Agricultural and Pastoral Shows still take place every year in many parts of New Zealand, but in the 19th Century, when rural communities were isolated, they were an eagerly anticipated event. The original aim of these shows was to improve stock breeding and husbandry, but from the early days they also had an important social function.

A & P Shows did not come to the Bay of Plenty until the early 1890s. My fictional version of one of these early shows is in Chapter 30 of Mud and Gold, set in March 1893. Here's an extract:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Book Review - Mud and Gold

Some time ago I had a wonderful review of Sentence of Marriage on the review site WorkingGirlReviews (see link in sidebar). Willow from WGR has just reviewed the second book, Mud and Gold, and once again I'm delighted with her review.

NB: this review contains (unavoidably) a large spoiler for Sentence of Marriage. So if you've yet to read SOM, and think you may read it one day, it might be best to avoid the review for now. But here are its beginning and end:
Picking up where Book I ended, Mud and Gold is the second in the trilogy, Promises to Keep. I purchased this book after reading the first in the series, Sentence of Marriage. The same excellent writing, characterization, and realism make Book II just as riveting.
Mud and Gold is the perfect blend of darkness and light. Ms. Parkinson has created quite a masterpiece with the Promises to Keep series, full of so many interesting characters and intriguing stories. If you love historical fiction, don’t miss these books.

Once again, WorkingGirlReviews has awarded me its highest rating. I'm honoured.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: NZ troops in the Boer War

The first contingent of New Zealand troops embarked for South Africa on the 21st of October 1899. On the 9th of December that year, the New Zealanders had their first engagement with enemy troops.

By the end of the war in 1902, New Zealand had sent almost 6,500 troops and 8,000 horses in ten contingents. To that total I've added one more soldier: in Settling the Account, a young lad's desire for adventure and loathing of home make him long to sail off to South Africa.

It's no easy task for him; not only is he underage, but would-be soldiers had to come up with the daunting sum of £25 for their equipment. My boy does find the money, from a source he would never have thought of. And then there's the question of whether or not he'll manage to smuggle out the horse he thinks of as his own, but about which his father feels quite differently.

Most of the soldiers came home again. None of the horses did.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Toy Soldiers

While wandering along Greytown's main street during our recent visit to the Wairarapa, admiring its Victorian buildings, my attention was caught by a fine display of toy soldiers in a shop window.

Now, I'm not a great fan of buying souvenirs; I really have no need to add to the clutter of my life. But anything with a connection, however tenuous, to my writing demands closer study. Toy soldiers play a part in my later books; a small part, but one with a certain significance. So the thought of having a set of my very own was tempting.

I found that the soldiers are made right there in Greytown, by a small family firm. The next day I went to their tiny shop just off the main street, and after much agonising I chose the Earl of Uxbridge and the Colour Party from the 1st Foot Guard, all from Waterloo. Here they are in as much of their glorious detail as a small picture can show:

A larger version can be seen here.

Imperial Productions doesn't have a website, but a potted history of the firm can be found here, and a few illustrations here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: women vote

On the 28th November 1893, New Zealand women voted in their first General Election, having gained the right to do so when an Electoral Bill was passed two months earlier. Concerns had been expressed by opponents of the Bill, no doubt with varying degrees of sincerity, that women voters might be jostled by unruly fellows when exercising their new right, but the day went smoothly, with no unpleasant incidents, and (despite opponents' claims that few women were interested in voting) a large turnout.

More details of the campaign for women's suffrage can be found on the Women and the Law page of my website. And a fictionalised account of that first voting day is included in Chapter 31 of Mud and Gold.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: Mark Twain's visit

In 1895, Mark Twain spent a month in New Zealand, as part of the year-long lecture tour he made to pay off his debts. He travelled the country, encountering such unexpected events as dogs being brought to his show in the South Island town of Timaru. On the 21st of November he arrived in Auckland, and performed his "At Home" in the city's Opera House to a packed audience. Those attending had paid 1/- (in the Pit), 2/6 (Stalls), or the princely sum of four shillings for seats in the Dress Circle. No dogs were in attendance.

As a supporter of women's suffrage, Twain was particularly impressed that New Zealand women had had the vote for two years by the time of his visit. From his account of the tour, Following the Equator:

In the New Zealand law occurs this: "The word person wherever it occurs throughout the Act includes woman."

That is promotion, you see. By that enlargement of the word, the matron with the garnered wisdom and experience of fifty years becomes at one jump the political equal of her callow kid of twenty-one.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Greeting Saint Brigid

Writing brings many rewards. There's the pleasure of the writing itself, when things are going well. There's the delight of a reader who gets what I've tried to say; who tells me s/he really cares about my characters.

And then there are unexpected pleasures like the gift of seeing the world a little differently because I'm seeing it through the lens of my own sub-creation. Like my small ritual of greeting Saint Brigid.

On Thursday mornings we often walk up the hill to a nearby church for Holy Communion. It's a small, intimate gathering in a chapel behind the main altar; generally only four or five people are there. Afterwards, as we walk out down a side aisle, a row of stained glass windows is illuminated by the pale light of early morning. Each small window shows a saint, and I always pause for a moment before Saint Brigid. Because, without my quite intending it, Brigid (or at least an image of her) has made an appearance in my writing.

There's a character with a minor role in Settling the Account who appears again in A Second Chance; again in a small role, but with a little more page space. Here's an extract:

Bridie was propped up against the pillows. What Frank could see of her looked a good deal cleaner than on the previous occasions they had met, but the skin was stretched taut over the bones of her face. Her hands rested limply on the bedcovers, all knuckle and sinew. Her hair had been cut short; it stuck out around her head like a dark halo.
‘Who’d have thought I’d end up with the nuns, eh? Do you see who I’ve got here?’ A slight tilt of her head directed Frank’s attention to a small painting on the wall above her bed. It showed a young woman dressed as a nun, smiling mildly down as if on the bed’s occupant. ‘That’s Saint Bridget. She’s me name saint, see? The nuns put her up there to keep an eye on me.’ Bridie smiled, and Frank saw a trace of the spark he had once noticed in her dark eyes. ‘Ah, but she’s an Irish lass, so she’ll not be one for passing judgement on the likes of me.’

Brigid (or Bridget; both forms are used) does seem to have been a large-hearted woman, readier to dispense aid than judgement. My mornings seem a little brighter whenever she and I exchange a smile.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This week in New Zealand history: Armistice Day

On the 12th of November 1918 (it was still the 11th in Europe), the official announcement of Armistice was published in New Zealand. After four years of hostilities, the Great War was over. In towns up and down the country, parades with brass bands and decorated floats, returned soldiers and schoolchildren, marched carrying banners and flags.

18,000 New Zealanders had died in the war, out of a population a little over one million; the highest death rate of any country in the British Empire, and one of the highest of any participating nation. Many of those people lining the streets to watch the parades would have been in mourning.

There were no parades in Auckland. The city's Chief Health Officer did not allow any official celebrations for Armistice Day - because crowds were something to fear. The war might be over, but deaths were not. Influenza was ravaging the country.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

An Avenue of Lime Trees

Last month we spent some time in the pretty little Wairarapa settlement of Greytown. From the time it was bypassed by the railway line, "development" left Greytown behind. As a result, it's well-endowed with Victorian buildings, both commercial and residential, and is now a popular spot for weekend visitors.

But what I specially wanted to see was the lime tree avenue in the Soldiers' Memorial Park.

Every town in New Zealand, small or large, has a war memorial of some sort, put up after World War I. Most often it's a tall monument known as a cenotaph. In Greytown the townsfolk did something different: they planted an avenue of lime trees. One tree for every soldier from the district who died in the war. One hundred and seventeen trees.

A town that before the war had a population of 1,123 lost 117 men in that war. There cannot have been a family left unscathed. Not a household that didn't lose a husband, a brother, a son. Girls who lost their sweethearts; women who never did meet the men who might have become their husbands. Farms "let go" because the strong young men who would have worked it never came home. As we walked along that long avenue, speaking in the hush that such a place evokes, it was a more powerful illustration of loss than any page of figures could be.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

This week in New Zealand history

1 November 1898: the New Zealand Old-Age Pensions Act came into law, the first measure of its type in the British Empire.

The pension was modest (£18 a year), carefully means-tested, and had a racist element in its careful exclusion of "Chinese or other Asiatics". It was also limited to persons "deemed to be of good character"; no drunkards or fallen women allowed.

But for those fortunate enough to be eligible, the pension made the difference between destitution and a measure of security. It was the first stirrings of what eventually became New Zealand's social welfare system.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Oldest and youngest

Close to 2,000 people have now downloaded at least one of my books (it helps that the first one's free). Beyond the fact that something about my writing has caught their attention, I don't usually know anything about them. But just sometimes a reader contacts me or leaves a review, and then I'm lucky enough to learn a little more.

A while ago a reader told me that she'd lent her copies to her neighbour's seventeen-year-old daughter, who'd devoured each book in a day. This lass is the youngest reader I know of so far, although one very keen lady (she read all four books, then went back to the beginning and read them all again) has told me she can hardly wait for her daughter to be old enough to share them. Her daughter's only ten, so it'll be a few years yet.

And just this week I heard from a lady who so far holds the record as my most senior reader, at seventy years old. What I found particularly delightful is that this is her first time reading an e-book, and she read four in a row - all mine! And just like my seventeen-year-old reader, she read each one in a day. Here's an extract from her wonderfully enthusiastic review:

An avid reader of thousands of books spanning 70 years and this was my first experience reading an eBook. Thank you for an enjoyable 4-day ride! Each of the four books in this series were read non-stop except for the necessary few breaks one needs. whew! WELL DONE! If I could give you ten stars I would!

I love the fact that readers of such different generations can relate to my characters, and I love the way e-books overcome the tyranny of distance to make my writing available to anyone with a 'net connection.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Going too far for art? "Method writing" laid bare

My characters have a way of being very real to me, but perhaps I identify with them a little too closely at times. I've sometimes had migraines when a character complained of them (mind you, she's always complaining), and when another character was having repeated pregnancies I started suffering the Worst Cramps Ever. But my most recent experience is, I think, the furthest I've gone yet.

I went for my annual check-up. My GP did the usual bits and pieces, then pulled out her stethoscope to listen to my chest. And she went "Hmm..." And listened some more. And said, "I think you may have a heart murmur."

Now, I'm blessed with excellent health. I had an ECG years ago for a job application, and my heart has never given me the least pain, other than metaphorically. My response was to laugh. And then, because my GP is a lovely lady and very easy to talk to, I told her why I was laughing. You see, I'd just given one of my characters a heart murmur - and in her case it was no laughing matter, as she was pregnant. In 1907, a weak heart in a pregnant woman was highly dangerous.

I had an unexpected bonus from sharing this with T. She worked for several years in one of the Pacific Islands that New Zealand has close associations with. Rheumatic fever is common there, and it often leaves a legacy of a damaged heart. Many of the first-time mothers T. was caring for had heart murmurs as a result of rheumatic fever. In a third-world country, this is almost as dangerous as it was in Edwardian New Zealand. We had a fascinating, albeit short, chat.

Oh, and my heart? It turned out that the "heart murmur" I'd caught from my character was a phantom one. I had a few interesting tests at a cardiologist's, and the most interesting thing noted was that I have a very slow (in a good way) heart rate.

I'll have to be more careful about what I put my characters through, though.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

New Website

I have a website with some background information to my novels. Snippets of New Zealand history, as well as a description of the geographical setting.

The site is here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Lost in Translation

Scanning the 'net for news of myself (yes, I admit it. I do this), I found a review of Sentence of Marriage. Well, sort of. The site in question seems to have picked up the wonderful review I got from WorkingGirlReviews, pushed it through an automatic translator and back to something approximating English. Now that I've stopped being completely convulsed with laughter, let me share the joy.

The original is here

And the mangled version is here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Writing about real people

Although I use historical settings, I've studiously avoided using real, historical characters in my works. Over the years I've read and enjoyed many books that do portray real people, but I have an aversion to doing it myself that almost borders on fear. I'd hate to "get it wrong".

Recently I was blog-browsing, following links from one to the next, as you do, until I was so many link-layers in that I can't now remember whose blog it was or how I got there. I do remember that the blog quoted an author whose opinion on the subject helped me crystalise my own: what I feel most unwilling to do is use a real person as a point-of-view character. I simply don't feel comfortable thinking someone else's thoughts for them, when the person is not one of those characters living within that chaotic place I call my mind.

It's good that I've got that straight at last, because it's become increasingly clear to me that in my current work-in-progress I need to include a real, historical figure: the real, historical headmaster of an Auckland school. Oh, I could manipulate matters to avoid this. I could use a different name, but the headmaster at the time was a fairly well-known figure, and the school in question has a building named after him. I could scurry further from the issue and use an imaginary school, but anyone who's at all familiar with Auckland in the early 20th century would know what school I'm referring to. So I've taken the plunge, and am using the real Mr Tibbs (a name I'd hardly dare invent) for a short scene on enrolment day.

I'm fortunate enough to have read the memoirs, retrieved for me from the distant basement stacks of the library, of a man born just a few months after my point-of-view character for these scenes, and who went to this very school. He recorded his memories of his own enrolment day, so I can put words in Mr Tibbs' mouth that he is on record as having said. I've daringly added a few words of my own invention, but I don't think they will have the gentleman turning in his grave. And I've stayed steadfastly out of his head.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My best review ever

So far, anyway.

Sentence of Marriage

I submitted "Sentence of Marriage" to a review site recently, and this morning I received a review that quite literally had me dancing around the room. Perceptive, generous, and responding to the elements of writing that mean the most to me. I'm gobsmacked in the best way.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lines that don't stand in isolation

Recently on Authonomy, someone started a thread for people to post favourite lines from their own books. I leapt on it, fingers poised to post a few of those that never fail to make me laugh or cry (and occasionally both).

And came to a complete standstill. Because taken in isolation, the most animated reaction I could hope for would be along the lines of, "And your point is?"

"Reformed whores, Jack" perhaps retains a certain trace of grim humour, even without its context.

But "This had somehow become his fault", a line from Book Four that the Mr and I often use to each other, gives no sense of the weeks of marital negotiation, sleep deprivation and other game-playing that precede it.

"I’d have to come and get you if you didn’t, you know."
"I know."
comes after years of power play, passive (and not so passive) aggression, and large doses of self-deception, only to appear as a trivial exchange left bare on the page.

On reflection, though, it's not surprising. Clever wordplay, convoluted puns and extended jokes come from Pratchettian pens, and deliver witty one-liners that can raise a chuckle even out of context. But lines said by or about characters whom we've seen grow and interact over years don't have that luxury.

I think I'm in good company. "Reader, I married him" is almost cringeworthy taken on its own. And what could be flatter than this:
" 'Well I'm back,' he said."

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Future of the Book

was the title of a recent radio interview with Ursula Mackenzie, CEO of Little, Brown Book Group. The later part of the interview fits the title more than the earlier; that's when Mackenzie talked about e-books and where she sees them fitting in the world of publishing. She speculated that publishers might test the water with a new book by releasing it first as an e-book, and only if sales warranted it then producing a print run, which is an expensive business.

The interview can be heard by clicking here, then selecting "Future of the Book".

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sympathy for the villain

Yesterday I had an e-mail from a reader who'd just finished the final volume of "Promises to Keep". Her comments were warm and enthusiastic, and she's making her enthusiasm tangible by buying a copy of "A Second Chance", which she wants me to autograph it for her.

All of this is wonderful, but what I was perhaps most pleased about was her attitude to a particular character. He's not a likable character (to put it mildly), and earlier in the book this same reader was wishing him dead. But thoroughly evil characters are mercifully rare in real life, and I don't generally find them interesting in literature. I certainly have no desire to write one. Characters grow, and the reader grows in understanding of them. My correspondent told me almost apologetically that by the end she had tears in her eyes for this man.

It felt good.

The people at Lulu have adjusted their agreement with Amazon so that there's no longer an extra charge to buy my books via Amazon. This seems a good thing.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

As listed on Amazon

Lulu has done a deal with Amazon, which means that three of my books now appear in the Amazon marketplace. I was more chuffed by this than cool logic should suggest. The books are substantially cheaper on Lulu, but there's a certain thrill in having my work appear in the catalogue of such a high-profile retailer.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Reading aloud

Of all the editing techniques I've read of, stumbled across or worked out for myself over the years, the single most useful one is reading aloud; ideally to an interested (or at least tolerant) audience. A passage can be one I've looked at a dozen times before, but when read aloud it leaps off the page and demands to be improved in some way.

At the simplest level, reading aloud reveals typos that have resisted any amount of proof-reading. And it's particularly effective for finding words that are repeated in uncomfortably close succession. The eye can be determined in seeing just what it wants to see, but when the text is slowed down to the level of the spoken voice, many such hidden flaws are revealed.

It's particularly unforgiving, and particularly useful at detecting, what I give the editing abbreviation of "lw" to: long-windedness. Again, the eye can skip over such passages, but when said aloud they're revealed in all their tedium. And they get cut in the very next editing phase.

I like my prose to have a certain rhythm, and reading aloud is a good way of checking this. Even though most of us have gone beyond sounding out the words as we read, dialogue in particular does flow better if it's in a form that it's actually possible to speak. It's an effective way, too, of checking that the various speech patterns of the different characters are consistent.

Monday, March 30, 2009

What's in a name?

The name is usually one of the first things we learn about a character.

Like it or not, readers are inclined to react differently to a character called Chloe or Saffron than to a Mildred or Ethel. First impressions, in fiction as in real life, can be startlingly accurate or blisteringly unfair. They're also inclined to be hard to shift. So characters' names need to be chosen with some care.

I want my characters to have names that suit them; a part of the word picture that paints them. I'm also constrained by the times in which I set my works. I don't believe there were many Chantelles, or Tiffannie-Krystals, in Victorian New Zealand.

Quite a few names from Victorian times are still in current or near-current use, and I've tended to choose from those for my younger characters. Names that sound old-fashioned (at least in 21st century New Zealand) are fine for older characters.

On checking the most popular names given to babies in New Zealand in 2008, I find I've used five out of the top ten names for girls, and seven of the top ten boys' names. Boys' names tend to keep to the traditional a little more, but babies of both sexes are given more of those traditional names than was the case in the 1950s-60s.

The lists, with the ones I've used marked by an asterisk:

Girls - *Sophie, Olivia, Ella, Isabella, *Charlotte, *Lily, *Emma, *Emily, Jessica, Grace.
Boys - *Jack, *James, *William, *Samuel, Joshua, Riley, *Liam, Oliver, *Benjamin, *Daniel.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Beginning

The longest novel begins with a single word. That word is followed by another, and soon we have a whole sentence. Sentences grow into paragraphs, and after a mere few years of mental anguish, a novel appears.

The books I write are historical novels set in New Zealand, with a strong character focus. New Zealand is a place that's exotic to most of my readers. I want them to be able to picture the settings, and picture my characters within those settings. I like to start with a word picture of the scene, and it's never long before the main character makes her appearance.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the first book, "Sentence of Marriage". The year is 1881.

Beyond the farmhouse the ground fell gradually in a series of low hills and flat paddocks, bright green where they had been planted in grass and darker green where the bush remained. The Waituhi creek wound along the valley floor before it disappeared from sight behind a steep bluff. Amy reached the top of a hill and paused, caught as she always was by the beauty of the view.

And beyond the mouth of the valley was the sea. The wide sweep of the Bay of Plenty stretched to the edge of Amy’s sight in either direction, and straight in front of her ocean met sky all along the horizon, broken only by White Island with its constant puff of smoke. Today she could see the island quite clearly through the crisp winter air. The ocean looked blue and mild. Some days it was grey and threatening; but always to Amy it was fascinating. To her it meant the world outside her valley; it meant excitement and adventure, and the lure of the unknown.