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Thursday, 18 December 2014

An Old Polish Christmas by Catherine Czerkawska

The Amber Heart on Kindle - Polish & Christmassy
When I was wondering whether to do a Christmas 'special offer' on one of my books and also wondering which one to choose, I found myself trying to decide between a couple of suitable books. But really, when it came down to choices, it was a no-brainer. It had to be the Amber Heart. Even the cover seems kind of Christmassy and in my heart, when I think about this book, I think about Poland at Christmas.

It is a big doorstop of a book but then it's a big story. Epic. Romantic. Heart rending. When one of my previous agents sent it out, she relayed a letter from an acquisitions editor who said that she had stayed up all night reading it and weeping. They didn't acquire it though. Poland was a non starter as a setting. Now if it had been Russia ...

No point at all in telling them that Eastern European borders have been so fluid and so deadly, in consequence, that this novel, set firmly in that part of mid-nineteenth century Poland called Galicia would, if set in the same physical place today, have to be in the Ukraine.

I grew up with a Polish father and an English/Irish mum. Christmas was one time of the year when we became thoroughly Polish, and celebrated in the Polish way, with a Christmas eve dinner and Polish carols like this one  Lulajze Jezuniu, that always made my late dad cry. Then, on Christmas Day, we did it in the English way as well. Nothing like having the best of both worlds.

But really, in order to celebrate in the Polish way, you need to be in Poland. I spent a couple of Christmases in Poland when I was in my twenties, teaching EFL in Finland and then when I was working for the British Council at Wroclaw University.

Wojciech Kossak - one of the family forebears - was the artist.
I used the setting - and perhaps even these characters - in the novel. 
It was magical.

I still remember wandering through a big indoor market in Warsaw, with it's peculiar scent of horseradish, smoked cheese, apples. I remember the extreme cold, the snow and the plentiful mistletoe for sale on the street flower stalls.

On Christmas Eve my father's cousin and her partner took me to a house in the Zoliborz suburb of the city where the Kossak family - relatives by marriage - still lived. The Christmas Eve meal was traditional and extraordinary: twelve small but delicious 'courses' with beetroot soup, lots of fish but no meat. Lots of flavoured vodkas too. And makowiec - a luscious Christmas cake made with ground poppy seeds and rich yeast pastry. Straw was placed under the tablecloth and if you 'drew the short straw', woe betide you because your life would be a short one as well. To be honest, I think they made sure that all the straws were fairly long!

Great Uncle Karol Kossak: my favourite uncle.
I can't remember everyone who sat around that table but there were lots of them and they were all related in some way, however remotely. They had to place me very firmly within the family - even though for most of them, I was only related by my great aunt Wanda's marriage. I was Julek's daughter, and Julek was the son of Wladyslaw who died in the war, and my Great Uncle Karol (Wladyslaw's friend) had married Wladyslaw's elder sister Wanda and they were the children of ... It went on and on, until they had established exactly who I was and where I belonged in the family hierarchy. I remember too that they kept a tortoise, a large one, that clicked and clattered across the wooden floors as the party progressed.

I think this is actually signed by one of the Kossak family. Note the Galicya name
Christmas Day involved a round of visits to other family members and friends throughout the city. In every house, I was offered a plate of the substantial hunter's stew called bigos and of course it was rude to refuse. I began to feel a bit like Dawn French in that episode of the Vicar of Dibley with all the Christmas Dinners.

It was a busy and blissful time.

But one thing that I remember perhaps more clearly than any other, was a friend of the family taking me around the walls of the old town of Warsaw, a perfect mediaeval town, destroyed by the Nazis not by overhead bombing, but its buildings deliberately and maliciously blown up from the ground, to prevent the people from ever returning.

Warsaw from the air, after the Warsaw Uprising. 
Except that they did return, and rebuilt it. It is a place with the most extraordinarily poignant and beautiful atmosphere. I remember walking along quiet alleyways on a cold, clear night, the twilight just coming on, and the lamps lit. I remember my cousin's friend Michael telling me about his wartime experiences, and how he could not come here now without thinking about all the people he knew who had died, but how he still loved the place anyway. Even now, thinking about it, brings a lump to my throat.

My dad in the snow, in Galicia, Poland.
The Amber Heart is set at a much earlier time - the mid 1800s. But my dad's stories informed it. Fortunately, because he died when he was only 68, I had encouraged him to write things down for me.  I used all kinds of stories that I had been told over the years about our fascinating family history. It's fiction, but it has a basis in some very intriguing facts. It's a snowy novel (but not always). It describes a traditional Christmas - but it describes a traditional Easter too.

All the same, if you read it, I think you'll see what I mean when I say that it always seems to me to be a Christmas novel - or perhaps I mean that it's a good long Christmas read. And for seven days beginning 24th December, you can download it onto your Christmas Kindle for the bargain price of 99p or 99c in the US.

And can I take this opportunity to wish all Authors Electric readers a very happy holiday season - and a new year that brings you all you could hope for.

Catherine Czerkawska

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Getting together with other writers - Elizabeth Kay

The Scattered Authors Society – yes, the other SAS  – recently had a get-together at Folly Farm in Somerset. This is a group of mainly traditionally-published children’s writers, and although this is obviously not open to all, beginners can get similar benefits from joining a creative writing class.

Writers frequently live very isolated lives, beavering away at home on their computers and, at this time of year, rarely acknowledging the light of day unless they need to do some shopping. This was the fifth get-together I’ve attended since 2004, and each one has been thoroughly worthwhile, from the topics we’ve tackled to making new friends. Mixing with other writers is a delight, and the opportunity to do so in such lovely surroundings is fantastic. Friends and relatives, however well-meaning, simply don’t understand the frustrations, moments of euphoria and plain hard grind of an author’s life. Sharing this with others in the same position is brilliant. Of course, it’s not all fricasseed frogs and eel pie. We do some work as well! There are times for people just to go off and work if they want, talks, walks and fab food. I did a Powerpoint presentation about how travel has influenced and inspired my writing.

I used lots of pictures and a wide selection of vodkas to illustrate particular moments. The banoffee vodka was a huge hit, and we got through the whole bottle.
            Workshopping a book that’s got problems is something at which other writers excel. Idea after idea came tumbling out, and I realised that in the manuscript I’d chosen to use I simply had too many themes. Narrowing it down to one will be far more effective, but not something I’d realised on my own. It’s a bit like having a focal point in a painting – too many, and you don’t know where to look and subconsciously feel slightly anxious. We sorted out a better ending, as well. Sometimes an ending doesn’t have to sew up absolutely everything, and it’s better to leave one thread open to keep the reader thinking long after they’ve turned the final page. Of course, all this means I’ll have to dump 40,000 words and re-write what remains but hey – you have to be prepared to do things like this every so often.
            We learned about fan fiction, which was something new for a lot of us (I’ve had one of the characters in Back to the Divide The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, for instance.
killed off in the most gruesome way!) and discovered that it is being taken
more seriously these days. A lot of young writers use it to get started, as their characters are fully-formed and they know the setting. Mind you, glancing at some of it I now realise that mixing together different worlds is a popular pastime…

There were some lovely walks, although we did get lost on one occasion. We saw the most amazing collection of spiders' webs on the grass, which shimmered in the light breeze and looked like a fine silver net.        
              We did a poetry session, which was something I hadn’t dabbled in for a while. We had to come up with a collective noun for something, and incorporate it in a poem. This was my effort:

First there was The Killing,
Then there was The Bridge;
Slots that needed filling,
With bodies in a fridge.
No more Morse or Lewis;
Discreetly ended lives,
Our TV drama has become
A Scandinoir of knives.

            I often use photographs from magazines when I’m trying to describe a setting or a person. We did a fascinating exercise when we took a painting, and analysed the portrait in detail, wondering about the character’s clothes, facial expression, situation, what happened before, what happened after. The National Portrait Gallery is a terrific place to go for all sorts of material. In the days before the internet I used museum libraries, which usually had a dedicated and knowledgeable librarian to point you in the right direction, and you’d come up with all sorts of information that would never otherwise have occurred to you. The British Library is wonderful, although it doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of The Reading Room at the British Museum, which now only remains in my memory as it was from a bygone era. It was there that I discovered the way people sometimes advertised their wares in the past. A builder created an entire mansion so that he could demonstrate his prowess in secret passages and priest-holes. What a pity it was demolished…

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Where Does a Writer Write? by Wendy H. Jones

I have had a great time today as I have been on a day trip to York. This was a round trip of nine hours by train and I loved every minute of it. With my trusty laptop in hand I was able to spend several uninterrupted hours writing. This got me thinking about where do writers actually write and what might be the most unusual place any writer has spent time writing?

Today I wrote in number of places the train being one of them. I also wrote at the station in a cafe, whilst listening to a steel band. Now I'm not sure if I should actually admit to this in a blog, but I actually quickly whipped out a piece of paper and pen and wrote something down whilst in the toilet on the train. One confession too many maybe.

The train gave me many different thoughts and scenarios for future books. This meant I had to interrupt writing my current WIP in order to jot down the ideas for the future. All great stuff though. As I write murder mysteries I will leave it up to you to decide what I have in mind.

I spent a pleasant half hour mulling over the most unusual place I had ever written. In the end it came down to a mud hut, in a Nepalese Jungle, in the middle of a hurricane, by the light of a candle. I thought that couldn't be beaten. I was proved wrong on my return to Dundee. Walking from the station to my car I passed a young woman who was begging. It was 10 pm, freezing cold and dark. Whilst I, and possibly most others, were thinking only of a warm house and bed, she was sitting on the pavement, under a blanket, writing as though her life depended on it.

I think this demonstrates the true nature of a writer. That compulsion to write no matter what. I drove home excited at the prospect of getting all this down in writing.

My question to you is, Where is the most unusual place you have been felt compelled to write? Please share in the comments. I am looking forward to hearing the answers.

Monday, 15 December 2014

A Christmas curse by Jan Needle

I get very jealous when I read all you other writers’ blogs. You all seem so effortlessly serious in your choice of subject and the erudition and application you so generously put in. And here am I, pushing the monthly deadline to its outer limit (not for the first time, or the second, or the third). Look at Dennis. Spends half his life zooming around the planet enjoying himself, and still has time to produce a wonderful new volume, and make me dribble with longing for his buckshee television. And then a spiffing blog on top.

As you can see, deadline or not, I haven't got a thought in my head as to what to write. My brain is wrecked. I'm seven-eighths of the way through revising a big thriller, I've just spent a week doing a final polish on the second of my nautical novellas about Charlie (Craven) Raven, and in the interstices (try saying that to a voice recognition programme!) I've hammered out an outline and pitching document for a novel about Napoleon.

Fascinating chap, even more fascinating as a personality than Horatio himself. Did you know, for instance, that his wife Josephine was not called Josephine, and that he had two other mistresses he called Josephine as well? Weird, or what? And did you know that the Duke of Wellington hopped into bed with both of them? If they taught this sort of history in schools, I suspect we'd be much more educated as a nation.

How I see myself. Handsome, debonair author
What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that I'm tired. Writing fiction, however hard I try to kid myself, is dashed gruelling. I'm jealous of you lot for your seriousness, and I'm jealous of people who write songs. However brilliant they are, they are, like most poems, short. I could do that, I'm bloody sure I could! Except for the times I’ve tried, of course. You wouldn't compare my efforts to a summer's day.

So, I'll leave you with a curse. I know it's almost Christmas, the season of goodwill and all that tosh, but life's too short. I'll tell you an Irish story about a woman whose favourite farmyard beastie was slain by an unknown passerby. People who know the history of that island will tell you that it has a hidden meaning. So what? It's a wonderful piece of sustained cursing, and I dedicate it to all of you. Bah. Humbug.

Nell Flaherty's Drake

Oh my name it is Nell, and truth for to tell,
I come from Coote Hill, which I’ll never deny.
I had a fine drake, and I'd die for his sake,
That my grandmother left me and she going to die.
The dear little fellow, his legs they were yellow,
He could fly like a swallow and swim like a hake.
Till some dirty savage, to grease his white cabbage,
Most wantonly murdered my beautiful drake.

Now his neck it was green, and most fit to be seen,
He was fit for a Queen of the highest degree.
His body was white, and it would you delight,
He was plump, fat, and heavy, and brisk as a bee.
He was wholesome and sound, he would weigh 20 pound,
And the universe round I would roam for his sake.
Bad luck to the robber, be he drunk or sober,
That murdered Nell Flaherty's beautiful drake.

May his spade never dig, made his sow never pig,
May each hair in his wig be well thrashed with a flail.
May his door have no latch, made his roof have no thatch,
May his turkeys not hatch, may the rats eat his meal.
May every old fairy from Cork to Dun Laoghaire
Dip him snug and airy in river or lake.
That the eel and the trout, they may dine on the snout,
Of the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty's drake.

May his pig never grunt, made his cat never hunt,
May a ghost ever haunt him in dead of the night.
May his hens never lay, may his horse never neigh,
May his goat fly away like an old paper kite.
That the flies and the fleas may the wretch ever tease
May the piercing March breeze make him shiver and shake.
May a lump of a stick raise the bumps fast and thick
On the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty's drake.

Now the only good news that I have to enthuse,
Is that the old Paddy Hughes and young Anthony Blake,
Also Johnny Dwyer, and Cornie Maguire,
They each have a grandson of my darling drake.
For my treasure had dozens of nephews and cousins,
And one I must get or my heart it will break.
To set my mind easy or else I'll run crazy,
So ends the whole song of Nell Flaherty’s drake.

I sang it at the Cross Keys last night. With a pint or so of John Willie Lees’s bitter. Made me feel a whole lot better!

Or as others see me?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Prezzy time with a difference - Dennis Hamley.

Spirit of the Place by Dennis Hamley. Artwork: Anastasia Sichkarenko

It's a very long time since I felt excitement about Christmas coming. Contentment perhaps, pleasure
possibly, mildly stirring anticipation conceivably. But excitement? No, not for the last half-century at least.

So why should I feel these little thrills of expectation now? Surely I should know better at my age? You can be the judge of that. I know I've been banging on about this for months but now it really is happening.

Later this week or early next week the first copies will arrive of my limited edition venture. One hundred copies of a good quality  signed and numbered hardback edition of Spirit of the Place. A beautiful object - I hope. No, I don't just hope, I know it will be a beautiful production. I wanted to reproduce the whole dust jacket here, because I think it's great. Anastasia Sichkarenko did another lovely job. However, Blogger seemed to think it was an image too far. and refused to oblige. Even so, the object itself will be something worth having no matter what's inside.

Yes, it's a risk. At £15.99 a copy I should clear £800 if I sell the lot. If I don't - well, the spare bedroom will for a long time be even more difficult to enter than it is now, full as it is with unsold paintings and books and a TV nobody wants despite our efforts to give it away. This is an experiment. Can such a project work? How valid is the Book Beautiful' theory? Have I wasted a fairly considerable sum of money on a folly?

Well, if I have, it would still be worth it because  something worthwhile has been brought into the world. Even so, there is a slight undercurrent of fear accompanying the excitement. To start with, I have to admit that I made a miscalculation. I thought my timetable would allow the main activity to be before Christmas. A big launch party would take place with everybody scrambling to get  a last-minute Christmas present. Fat chance. I should have remembered that the first general rule of planning is that EVERYTHING TAKES LONGER THAN YOU BARGAINED FOR and the first rule specific to this case is EVERYBODY IS BUSY AT CHRISTMAS. Somehow, in that first fine flush of enthusiasm, such petty considerations didn't seem significant.

No matter, I thought when I finally realised that they were. I'll get it all sorted out in the New Year. Then I remembered that everybody will be either exhausted or too busy trying to make their Great New Resolutions last beyond January, so considering obscure limited editions from some bloke in Oxford won't be high among their priorities. And besides, we won't be here. We'll be on the other side of the world for our usual two months in the sun.  So, except for the orders I've already received which I'll sort out before Christmas, all bets are off until the end of February.

Actually, I'm relieved. March will be here, Spring will be springing, the sun will be shining  and life won't be so pressured. The books don't have to be sold overnight so the process can be turned into something long and leisurely. First of all, there WILL be a launch party, it will be in mid-March, I'm negotiating with three possible venues and anybody who goes to it and buys a book there will get a surprise literary goody as well. Anybody who comes having already bought a copy might get two extra goodies.  AND YOU'RE ALL INVITED.  I'll give final details in my next month's blog.

So here's the drill for anybody interested. The book costs £15.99. Postage and packing will be £4. Anybody who'd like one should contact me either through Facebook - to me directly, through the Authors Electric page or (preferably) by email through my website (

I'll take cheques (payable direct to me) or card. When  I hear from you I'll reserve a copy and send you an email with my home address and bank details.  As soon as we're home at the beginning of March I will start sending the copies out.

Authors Electric Dennis Hamley

And whether you buy one or not, may I wish you all a really brilliant Christmas and the sort of New Year we would wish for ourselves.

It's A Cracker! by Ann Evans

 Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet? Got your Christmas crackers? I hope so because you can't have Christmas dinner without a festive cracker to pull, a paper hat to wear and a corny joke to tell, can you?

But have you ever wondered who invented Christmas crackers? Well, if I was to give you two guesses, you'd say either the Romans or the Victorians. And for those of you who guessed the Victorians, you would be absolutely correct.

The man behind the Christmas cracker was a London confectioner named Tom Smith. In 1830 as a young boy he worked selling fondants and pralines in a confectionery shop. He was especially interested in creating wedding cake ornaments and decorations and would experiment in making these in his spare time. He became so successful at it, he was able to set up his own shop in Clerkenwell, East London.

Always looking for fresh ideas to bring to his cake ornamentation, it was in 1847 on a visit to Paris he discovered the 'bon bon' – a sugared almond wrapped up in a twist of tissue paper. 
He brought the idea back to England where it sold well over the Christmas time, but sales dropped off after Christmas. So Tom developed it further by adding a short 'love motto' inside the wrappings. This sold well, and so he concentrated on improving his 'bon bon' treats. 

It was the crackle of a log fire that provided a flash on inspiration – that of the 'crack' when the paper was torn apart. He experimented to find a compound that would provide the necessary 'crack' without causing any damage!

More tweaks and changes including increasing the shape of the 'bon bon' to house the 'cracking mechanism' and he decided to replace the sweet with a surprise gift. While this was a huge success, it was when a European competitor jumped on his idea and copied it, shipping crackers to England in time for Christmas that Tom really pulled out all the stops to market his idea.

He designed eight different kinds of cracker, got his staff working day and night, and managed to distribute stocks of crackers throughout the country in time for Christmas – and never looked back.

Crackers were produced to celebrate every kind of major event and his crackers were given the royal seal of approval. And still are to this day.

So when you pull your crackers this Christmas, remember to raise a toast to their inventor, Tom Smith.

Merry Christmas!

If you've a minute to visit my website, it's:

Friday, 12 December 2014

Cutting Your Hair, Killing Your Spouse and Formatting Your Ebook -- Reb MacRath

Let's start off with hair, since we all love our hair though we're often driven nuts by it. From (t)hair we can move on to killing our mates when they hate the books we love or don't share our craving for pasta. Luck allowing, we'll have time to share a few thoughts about ebooks. Okay!

You have four basic choices for cutting your hair:

1) You can cut it yourself.

2) You can go to the cheapest spot in town.

3) You can go to an old school-style barber who's mastered all the basic cuts and charges only a few dollars more.

4) You can go to a salon and pay designer prices for a more individual and expressive look.

You can shave have your pate or mow your hair down to a passable buzz cut. For anything else, though, you really should dollar to get what is best for your hair. Good, we're making progress here. And, because you're all clever, I know you'll have guessed that the same four options apply to the killing of spouses.

Once again, it pays to have the job done right and rein in our miserly natures. Agreed. But apply the same four options to formatting ebooks? Dissension begins.

Now, I know a few fine writers who do their own formatting. To a man and woman, they're technically adept. And they've taken care to keep their manuscript design very clean and simple. Even so, they're mistaken in claiming that anyone can do it. Even paid professionals can and do bungle the job. (I counted nearly a hundred formatting errors in the ebook version of a well-known writer's novel. Her publisher had formatted it.)

Substantiating evidence

1) After paying $25 to have my first (38,000 word) ebook formatted. I was alarmed to see the text on Kindle's online previewer. There wasn't much that wasn't wrong. The formatter insisted that the text would be perfect in the published version--my previewer was to blame, she said. Still, I pointed out, the formatted Word document she'd sent back to me showed exactly the same errors. Long story short: I spent hours trying to get the formatting corrected, but whatever she changed caused new problems. End result: the published book was readable and earned some fine reviews...but it looked like free verse with the faulty indents and line breaks. It needs to be reformatted by #4, below.

2) I paid $75 for a second formatter, who did my next couple of books. I learned, right off, that I'd been right: the formatted text does reflect what I will see on the previewer. The formatter did a fine job, but one that still required a good deal of fine-tuning. Even more fine-tuning was needed for the next book, but she made all changes quickly.  Moreover, I enjoyed the salon treatment--she connected me with some reviewers and touted my work on her website. But she was determined to retire in France by age forty--and she raised her prices dramatically while becoming less accessible. (I've since learned that she's stopped formatting altogether.)

3) The third formatter charged the same $25 as my first formatter. But her credentials looked rock solid, and I liked the way she worked: she lined up her projects a month in advance...then devoted herself to the project at hand. She did three books for me--with next to no tuning required. She represented old school barbering at its best. Yet I had to move on again for my new book, Red Champagne. This book required some 'extras' that #3 couldn't provide. I chose a salon with a difference.

4) Formatting of the new novel cost me $60--and, all in all, I couldn't have made a better investment. Red Champagne contained a slew of typographical choices I did not want to abandon. In a tricky story involving different time lines, I'd chosen several strategies for making it clear to the reader. To give you one example: I needed to isolate some sections of dialogue so that readers would know at a glance that a playwright was doing the talking. Decision: I wanted the dialogue in bold with 'stage directions' between her quips in underlined regular type. Formatter #3 had told me this wouldn't work because Amazon's automated what-nots would override the underlining--or, just as bad, underlining would like unprofessional. But formatter #4 insisted that saving the text in MOBI would prevent Amazon from overriding--and that underlining would look fine, far better than italics.. End result: for $60 I received exactly what I wanted...with a handful of glitches (all my fault) that were fixed in a matter of hours

 Closing Words in Praise of Pros

When the job has been done right, your baby will have brio. The spirit it conveys will say:

Consider these three points in closing:

1) Self-formatting is hardly free. You need to factor in the time and energy required. Let's say the entire process takes at least 12 hours (for a shorter novel). Are your freedom and time not worth the money it would cost you to have the job done by a pro?

2) Your odds of success at a discounted price are best if your text's style is basic: font: regular, bold and italic...none of Red Champagne's challenging tacks to set off important clues, etc....Your work can be perfectly formatted for far less than you think.

3) Even if you need to get the job done cheaply now, keep the salon option open. What you'll want to know, going in, is if formatting is something the salon owner does on the side or if it's something s/he rightly regards as an art. Next, you'll want to know if s/he can assist in other ways. For example: I have three remaining horror novels, written as Kelley Wilde, that I'd like to issue as ebooks. Unfortunately, they were not saved on discs. I couldn't bear the thought of retyping each from scratch, as I'd done with The Suiting. But my new formatter, Yvonne Betancourt, has the equipment to scan the actual book, converting it to Word. And she is willing to do this at an affordable price. Yvonne has also added proofreading to her menu.

So, let's hear it for good hair days...another night's peace with our partners...and perfectly formatted books.

Here's the link to Red Champagne, the book my fourth formatter proved could be done as I wanted:

Parting Words in Praise of the Number 50

Three writers have inspired me since December 1964, when I discovered them and chose to be a writer. For fifty years I hoped to channel and fuse the Big Three in one book--and I think you'll enjoy the ride. 

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