This has been a brilliant last few months in so many ways. I've had the chance to travel more than any time in the last six years or so, thanks to some brilliant friends in America and Canada, I've had more exciting new opportunities, and I've had the chance to try out different ideas, too.
At the beginning of the year I was still working with the Royal Literary Fund, and they gave me the chance to engage with students at Exeter University, teaching and helping students one-to-one with their work. It was not easy! In any day I would have about seven to nine students, each with an essay in a different discipline, or a thesis, or even a doctoral dissertation. In any day I could have historical, medical, English, foreign language, engineering, religious studies, legal, business studies or any other number of students turning up with essays that I had to absorb quickly and then pull apart (kindly), so as to help them understand how to make their language less 'academic' and easier to read. It was daunting, exhausting, and brilliant fun!
Luckily the Royal Literary Fund were willing to let me have a couple of weeks off, and in February I was taken to New Orleans as the guest of the Krewe of Little Rascals in the Mardi Gras. I was invited to be the Grand Marshal of their parade, the first of the year. I had a wonderful time with Jack and Maureen Spittler and the other organisers, and it was stunningly impressive how well the events were sorted out. The only sour note was my incompetence handling my camera; it slipped from my hand and hit the tarmac and wasn't very happy from that moment - the picture shows me rather over-exposed in so many ways). Four months later I discovered I'd managed to break the aperture mechanism in the lens and had to buy a new unit!
After New Orleans - which is a fabulous city with incredible history behind it - I went on to South Carolina. I had been invited there to give a lecture to the English students at Lander University, Greenwood. However my terrier-like organiser, Connie Edwards, and her long-suffering husband, Jim, looked after me like royalty and I was thoroughly pampered.
Not only that, I was taken out into the woods by a new friend to have a long play with some handguns. Now that was a real delight after fifteen years of pistol deprivation!
Sadly all good things have to end sometime. Before long I was back in the UK with students and deadlines. As my time in Exeter came to an end, I was thrown into a new novel.
This book, to be called Blood on the Sand, is a follow-up to Fields of Glory. Fields is the story of a vintaine of soldiers (think platoon or company) during the Crécy campaign. It tells the story of the battle from the point of view of the common archer, and sticks pretty solidly to the historical record, although there are some additional subplots for dramatic effect, of course!
Blood on the Sand is the story of what happened immediately following the campaign. In this the vintaine is settled in the siege outside Calais, but when they are put on board blockading ships, things go wrong and they are captured. From there we look at the events of the next twelve months or so from the perspective of Berenger Fripper, my vintener. It was a difficult book to write, mainly because there was so much going on at the time, and trying to hold it all in sequence in my head was not easy! However, with the support of my brilliant editor, I think the characters have been forced back into line and gradually obeyed my authorly demands!
Soon I'll be starting my next book (as yet untitled) which will be the last in this trilogy, bringing the men back after a break of ten years to take part in the incredible battle of Poitiers.
As I finished Blood on the Sand, I was called to travel again. This time it was to go to Toronto (one of my favourite cities) to take part in the Crime Writers of Canada annual events as the International Guest of Honour. I was deeply honoured to be asked by the organiser, Cheryl Freedman, and again I was made hugely welcome by the lovely people organising the festival. Not only that, I was privileged to be given the job of holding a microphone after the gala dinner and regaling the audience of my peers with my own take on the industry. Fortunately it all went very well. Perhaps I should give up writing and become a professional speaker. It certainly pays a great deal better!
I have had a number of speaking engagements this year. From a new series of talks all about Sex, Love and Violence (which always seem to pull in large crowds for some reason), to events like the Tavistock Heritage Society, where I spoke in conversation with my old friend Ian Mortimer. I hope we'll be doing more talks together before long. I also had a nice book launch in Topping's in Bath with my friends from Medieval Murderers. We were celebrating the tenth title in our series. Sadly, it is probably our last, but that doesn't mean an end to collaborative works.
Now, I know that people are always asking about Baldwin and Simon and whether they will reappear.
The sad fact is, publishers are worried about the money that they can make from selling books. Hardback sales always used to be a secure income-earner for publishers and authors, with at least 3,000 going straight to libraries. However, with the large number of closures, and with library budgets being cut, those sales have dried up. Instead publishers have to seek to make adjustments and increase paperback sales to compensate. Except the sales have not increased. I think partly because now there are so many opportunities to buy or sell second hand books, many more people go and buy their copies there rather than buying new copies. Although all my books are available as ebooks, the sales of electronic editions has not compensated for the fall in hard- and paperbacks.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the publishers won't put money into a new Baldwin and Simon book yet. However, I am looking at the potential of writing one anyway just for fans of the series. I would probably do it via a Kickstarter project to see how many people I could interest in the idea.
A couple of years ago I wrote Act of Vengeance, and did suggest that if people were interested in a paper version I would seek to get it properly printed. That project is still on-going. We had problems with one publisher increasing costs, and then my editor/project manager/wife had to find a job to supplement our income, and the book had to be put back. Still, it's not gone away and I may put it out as a Kickstarter project in order to move things along a way.
In the meantime, I am getting ideas together for a Sir Richard de Welles collection. I really like him, and the idea of a short collection of stories based around him is very appealing.
At the same time, I was hugely fortunate to fall over a local story, based around a local hotel and pub, which I am writing up now. With luck that will be finished in January. And I have a short story to enter for a new collection with the Crime Writers of Canada, too.
But there are lots of other new moves going on. If you keep an eye on the internet you will notice that there are lots of new book covers materialising. All the middle fifteen stories are being rebranded so that the entire series now looks consistent, which is a very good thing, I reckon.
Many people have asked why the original covers had to go. Well, originally it was because the publishers felt (I think rightly) that after the seventeenth, it was growing difficult for readers (or this gormless author) to spot which were new titles and which were backlist. There are only so many background covers, and the small figures moving about began to look very similar to each other after a while. There is also the other fact, that with ebooks all book covers have to be redesigned. Older covers like mine would not work at all on a one-inch-tall thumbnail. It would be a mere blur. However, with the new formats, each book stands out rather more. That is the thinking, anyway. With luck it may lead to more sales, and that will mean more money coming in, which may just lead to more Baldwin and Simon stories as well as meaning I can afford my mortgage.
Additional ideas that are about to come to a bookseller near you include a brilliant idea from Headline. This will be an electronic book that will have the first chapter of all the middle fifteen titles. It is only a taster, of course, but with that there is more chance again that new readers may find the series and want to read more.
I am sorry to harp on about the money aspect of writing, but it is growing enormously difficult to make a living from writing. For those of a nervous disposition, please skip to the next section...
In the past it was moderately straightforward to make money from selling books. Authors were commissioned to write something and then publishers published and sold the books, paying the author 45 pennies for a paperback sale to £2 for a hardback. During the recession, the market was badly knocked back, and with internet firms demanding ever higher discounts, that income has been hugely reduced. Now income is dependent upon the level of discount demanded. If an importer or retailer demands an 80% discount, the author's income reduces accordingly. However, it gets worse. Retailers depend upon algorithms to promote books, with 'If you liked this, you will like...' offers. But if specific titles aren't commented on or pushed, the sales disappear. Often, existing readers don't hear of new titles, and new readers stand no chance of learning about authors which may appeal, but which they never see presented to them.
Do, please, if you have time, tell friends and others about the books you enjoy. If you enjoy my books, tell others to try them. Personal recommendation is the best way to sell novels - especially when there's no marketing budget!
You can, of course, buy them copies. But please, if you do, remember to buy new copies. The second hand market is forcing writers out of business and out of the business.
That's the negative part.
This year there was another first for me. I and some friends created the AsparaWriting Festival for new aspiring authors. The basic idea was, that authors would have an opportunity to meet - and have their work looked at by - professional scribblers like me.
It was not easy with the first Festival, but these things always tend to grow over time, I think. The second is being organised now, with the main events taking place in Evesham. We are lucky enough to have had interest from Cult Pens and other sponsors, and having enlisted the aid of a marvellous lady who is used to promoting this kind of gig, we are confident of a really strong success this year. If you are interested, do please keep an eye out for the FaceBook page of the Festival or the main AsparaWriting website (which is being updated this week).
Another first for me was to be commissioned to paint watercolours.
I have dabbled with sketching and painting for some years now, but it has been difficult to find the time. However, this year I have been painting various scenes that appeal to me, and to my surprise and delight, I have sold several. So another project I have for the new year is to paint a series, to get them digitised, and then sell them as prints and as cards.
Oddly enough the first I painted and then sold was one of the cottage, West Henstill House, where I had the idea for the series first of all, and in which I then installed Simon as his first house. That picture was quite successful. Now I've sold it, of course, I'll have to repaint it to generate a print.
Anyway, if you think you would like to have a painting or a print, do please let me know.
Oh, and of course I've been doing other things, too. I nearly forgot: my blog at writerlywitterings.com is growing, with a blog post at least once a week (usually!) and sometimes more (when I'm working on a book the blogs go down in number). I've also started a new video channel on YouTube. All the first twenty three titles are covered by a short introduction to the book, what caused me to write it, why I chose the location and various other aspects I think could be of interest. Hope you find them appealing too! Alternatively, go to my titles in print page on my website and go to the book you're interested in. You should find a link connecting you straight to the relevant video from that!
And that is about it. There's been a lot going on, as you can see. Lots of writing, lots of travel, lots of painting and lots of speaking. Next year I have been asked by the Royal Literary Fund to work with them again, although this time it would be to help business people one-on-one with their writing, rather than University students, so as well as pictures, publishing and writing, I'll have another series of projects.
Do wish me luck! I'll need it!
In the meantime, I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, and that 2015 is happy and prosperous for you and your family!