This year has not been my most prolific.
I know that I am not the only writer feeling that. Covid has had a terrible impact on people from all professions, and now that things are, hopefully, returning to some sort of normal, my ever-demanding administrator has reminded me of my newslettery duties. And when she cracks her whip, I respond urgently - mostly in terror!
Last year, mainly to try to save some money, I splashed out a fair sum of money on my old iMac to get it serviced. It was growing increasingly unreliable, and very slow, so I had extra memory installed and two terabytes of hard card memory to replace the one terabyte spinning disc. What a good idea that was. Instantly the machine became twice as fast, the extra memory boards proving their worth almost immediately.
Unfortunately the benefits were very short-lived. This year the computer started playing up badly, and at the end of its life it was crashing six times a day. As you can imagine, that was more than a little disruptive. When you have to wonder whether the damn machine will last another ten minutes or not, it's just impossible to write on the thing. So this summer, at the first opportunity, I invested in a new iMac 24 inch. And it is wonderful. Not only have I not had a single crash, it is faster, it gives me more desk space, and it is a cheerful yellow colour that makes me want to sit at it to boot!
Not that I have had too much time to sit at it this year. We've had major works going on, clearing the old hedge, I've managed to severely strain my wrist (better now, thanks), after thrusting a shovel too enthusiastically into a mound of soil, only to discover a very large rock of granite hiding in the middle. That had a really bad impact. I couldn't even pick up a pen or pencil for weeks, it was so painful.
But now I am back in the saddle, as it were, both at my sitting desk, and at my standing desk. This was taken today while I was writing this!
So, what writing have I achieved this year?
First, I have been glad to see the Templar series available again. After a year-long hiatus, the entire series is now available through Headline and Canelo Press. The last novel, City of Fiends, became available again from July 5th (Templar's Acre was already published). It's such a good thing to see the whole series available again, and does mean I intend returning to the series to finish book 33 as soon as I can.
Second, the latest Jack Blackjack novel, The Moorland Murderers is going to be published on 26th August. This was very difficult to write because I was halfway through this when I had to fly to New Zealand to see my brother, Alan, when he was dying from his horrible last illness. Trying to keep the the story cheerful while we were going through that was frankly impossible. Accordingly I left the story alone after quarantine while I was out there, and finished it when I got home. It was good, and meant I could come back to it refreshed. I added more entertaining scenes which lightened the story. After the final draft early this year, I was much happier with it. To be honest, working on Jack Blackjack really helped. He is a rascal, no doubt, but having him look over my shoulder while I wrote and rewrote the story helped me cope with Alan's death. The story is, I think, one of Jack's best outings. If you want a copy, though, you will need to order it quickly - the print run, as with so many books nowadays, is quite small.
I haven't only worked on Jack this year. After finishing that book I returned to another book for which I have high hopes. This is the first in a series set in Shanghai, making use of the characters who really lived there - the amazing Gracie Gale, who ran probably the most notorious brothel in the Far East, and the still more astonishing W. E. Fairbairn, the armourer for the Shanghai Municipal Police. He is credited with inventing Practical Pistol shooting as a sport and means of self defence, with inventing body armour for police, with inventing SWAT-type police teams, and then going on to invent the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando dagger, and training the British Commando units in armed and unarmed combat - before teaching SOE operatives and before emigrating to the US and teaching American military and CIA agents. I hope the book may soon be accepted by a publisher, but in an ever more crowded market, it may not find a home, in which case I will find a way to publish it myself. I really like that story.
Once that book was finished, I went to a past novel. This, which is going under the working title of She Wanted More, is a slightly more humorous crime story with a modern character who I've really enjoyed. The book is a cosy crime novel, so will probably not appeal to most mainstream publishers, but I really like it, and I have a smaller publisher very interested in it. Hopefully I'll get that finished before too long. It's been a rewrite more than an edit, to be honest. There were several holes in the main themes because I was writing about some actual events.
In my village there is a lovely old pub which was run for a little while by a man who was less than scrupulous about paying his bills. In fact, he had previously moved to the area with his then wife, and spent two years in his million pound house doing it up. The problem was, he didn't pay the craftsmen who did the work. Eventually he disappeared amid a flurry of final demands. When he came back and took over the pub, he brought with him a new woman. He had drained his wife of her money. Soon he would do the same to his girlfriend.
His sociopathic tendencies returned. A deeply unpleasant man, who not only refused to pay for works, but also ruined people by persuading them to invest in a scam he was running. I suspect it was a Ponzi-type of investment scheme and almost certainly wasn't legitimate.
In any case, on the morning of the day he was due in court over a noise abatement order he hadn't complied with (he had not paid the electric company and so installed two industrial generators), his body was found. Apparently he had committed suicide, supposedly out of guilt or some sense of the harm he had done to others. I find that frankly incredible. I'd seen chefs from his kitchen whom he had headbutted, heard the stories from barmaids about his behaviour, and seen friends lose their savings from his scams. He never showed any sign of guilt or compassion. And so I began to speculate whether, in a similar situation (or parallel universe) he could have owed money to some serious gentlemen who would take being defrauded rather more seriously. Hopefully that book will be available for you towards the end of the year. I have another few pages to read, three (I think) scenes to add, and a new ending to write as a result. But I'm already very happy with it. Good and twisty, as they say!
As soon as that is completed, I'll be back in the Blackjack saddle. I have to write the seventh Blackjack novel before the end of the year. I'm just at present in two minds as to whether this becomes another London story, or whether it becomes a story out of town. No doubt more on that with the next Newsletter.
Meanwhile I also have responsibilities in terms of dog walking. She wants to go out!
Other work involving writing include my rewrite of The Sniper, which has taken far too long already, but which I hope to complete before the end of this year. Then I also have a non-fiction book which needs editing, and a modern police procedural to rewrite.
And then there is the non-writing work. The biggest two of them are the Swanwick Summer School and the Smithsonian Institute.
Swanwick is always good fun. It's a week-long school and I will be teaching every day, giving lectures and workshops about writing historical fiction. It's daunting, getting a series of lectures written, but I know it will be fun once I get to my feet. Words on the pages are nothing until you see the audience and start to get their involvement and feedback.
The second is the Smithsonian, and their Classic Mystery Lover's England. Two years ago I was invited to lead this tour as an expert in crime writing, and it was enormous fun. I joined some thirty guests at Torquay, giving a talk on Agatha Christie and her life, and then we took a tour of the places around the town that meant a lot to her and which inspired so many of her stories. After that, it was a case of being a tour guide, visiting places that inspired authors as diverse as Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Dick Francis and others. The main thing that really seemed to excite them was hearing how I work, how I interpreted the work of other authors, and any anecdotes I could relate about "authors I have known". However, the best talk, for my money, was not one of mine. One day, when we were held up in a queue of traffic, I managed to prevail upon an elegant lady to give the coach a little Q&A about her work. Why? Because she had been an FBI agent, and worked with John Douglas and the Profiling team as their first female agent. In fact she was the agent who was used as the mould for Clarice Starling. A lovely lady, and fascinating to talk to.
She actually gave us that talk while we were on the way to Oxford. While there, in Blackwell's, we were invited into the little room where Dorothy L. Sayers had worked.
Of course the Smithsonian tours were cancelled last year, but to accommodate the current demand there are two planned for this year, so long as Covid allows. With luck, since the whole of the UK population should have been double-vaccinated by October, when the tours are planned, these can go ahead. It'll be really good to get out of the house and meet people again!
One pastime that is taking more and more time is YouTube. I review pens and inks on my Writerly Witterings channel, and more recently I have started a pen-pals' club, so that people who enjoy using fountain pens and different inks can write to each other. This isn't a fan club, it's just a writing club, really, but the fact is, I have suddenly acquired some seventy friends who are taking quite a little while to keep in contact with! Then again, reviewing books is also eating into my spare time. I've been enormously fortunate to be sent Simon Conway's latest, The Saboteur, which is a fabulous read; Living With Shakespeare is going to be my most essential reading while researching the next Blackjack; Marc Morris's A History of the Anglo-Saxons is proving very distracting, as is Empire of Crime by Tom Newark. If you are interested in the books I am reading now, and want to see what I think of books I'm reviewing, do please look at WriterlyWitterings.com, which is my review blog.
And that is, I think, about all I can talk about. There is just one last thing.
As you will probably know, I am a keen Morris dancer with Tinners' Morris. For the last thirty years I have drunk beer from a leather tankard. It has done enormously well, but after many years of visiting pubs from Cornwall to Guernsey, I have decided it's time to retire the old thing. It needs a rest. So recently I bought some leather from a helpful harness maker, and constructed my own tankard - which I'm very pleased with. A friend in Tinners' Morris liked it so much, he ordered one. Last Sunday we danced at the Devon County Show, and I'm glad to say that neither tankard leaked a drop!
Here's hoping you have a wonderful, dry and healthy summer!