Saturday, 27 January 2018

Thank you, Lev Butts. You have been an inspiration.

     My Authors Electric colleagues are always being inspirational and Lev was the latest one at it. Before Christmas 2017, Lev did a blog on ideas for presents to give the writers in your life.
     One of Lev's gift ideas was a book on cover design: Cover Design Secrets Bestselling Authors Use to Sell More Books, by Derek Murphy. (Oooh, those sneaky best-selling authors with their secrets. Murphy is no slouch on 'exactly what it says on the tin' titles either.)
     Lev's blog seems to have been quite a success, since just earlier this month, another AE, Reb MacRath was having a bit of a rave about another of his recommends, Arc customisable notebooks.
     But since I've been spared the notebook obsession that seems to strike so many writers, it was the cover design secrets that grabbed me. It had been nagging in the back of my mind for quite some while that not all of my covers were as, well, grabby as they could be.
      What were those secrets that best-selling authors were hogging to themselves? I needed to know.

     I ended up looking into several books on the subject. Look up Murphy's book on Amazon and you will be shown several others covering the same ground.
     What did I glean? -- as my Scots partner always puts it.
     Well, I'd always known that the cover needs to show the would-be reader the kind of book they'll be getting, whether it's humourous, romantic, historical, thrilling adventure or blood-thirsty crime.

     But this is a factual approach. Here you are: there's a castle and someone in historical clothing on the front: it's historical. Or, there's a fast modern car and a gun, so it's contemporary and a thriller.

     I think what I'd failed to grasp -- surprisingly, considering how I've made my living -- is that there needs to be an emotional connection too, just as in story-telling.
     When we write, we most often start with something that shows the reader the character they'll be connecting with. We construct a scene that lures the reader into identifying with that character, that creates an interest in them. So a cover needs to say, not only: This is X kind of book. It has to also say: Don't you want to know more about this person?

Years ago I was commissioned to write a story set in the Viking Age. The publishers wanted something pacey and exciting but historically accurate. After it went out of print, I republished it myself, and this is the cover it had. (Art work by Andrew Price.)

I looked at it again, and considered it in the light of what I'd been reading about book design. Despite all the axe and sword waving, it seems a little aloof and distant. It says: This is a book set in a time when blokes went about in helmets and mail, looking for trouble.

But there's a bunch of them. Milling. Which one are we supposed to be rooting for?

So I fired up PhotoShop and made some changes.

 Saga of Aslak Slave-Born by Susan Price

This new cover gets in close and personal and leaves no one in any doubt about which one is Aslak, our main man. It also reminds me of the quote from Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 And All That
 'Britain was attacked by waves of Picts (and, of course, Scots) who had recently learnt how to climb the wall, and of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who, landing at Thanet, soon overran the country with fire (and, of course, the sword).'

Another book of mine which I felt was not being sold by its cover was The Bearwood Witch. 

Andrew and I, in designing the cover, had been puzzled what to put on it. There's a witch but it's set, not in fairy-tale forests, but in one of today's grimy inner cities. How to tell the reader that, visually?

We came up with this, but neither of us were very happy with it.

The door-key was supposed to suggest the present day, while the five-pointed star stood for witchcraft. It's quite eye-catching and graphic, but who builds an emotional connection with a key? It doesn't give the reader much idea of what to expect.

Again to PhotoShop. (I know, Karen, I know about PicMonkey but just as the shortest way to a destination is the way you already know well, so is the shortest way to a new cover.)

The Bearwood Witch by Susan Price

I think the new cover (left) does a far better job of connecting a browser with the book and what they can expect from it. Darkness settles over a street of parked cars and terraced housing as we are eyeballed by one of the main characters.

I also discovered that I'd neglected to publish Bearwood Witch as a paperback -- well, that's put right now.

The title of this blog is, of course, inspired by all those ads that keep popping up while you're browsing on-line, with either 'the UK' or the name of some town local to you inserted: Oldbury is going mad for this diet plan!  Smethwick is going crazy for these incontinence pads!

Well, the UK as a whole does seem to have gone a bit giddy just lately but I can assure you that neither Smethwick nor Oldbury goes mad for anything.

Except these books. The UK is going mad for them, I tell you. Mad.

This is the saga of Aslak Ottarssen, born a slave.
Aslak, and his beloved sister, Astrid, are the children of a Norwegian farmer. Their mother was an
English slave.
     Their father chooses to free Aslak. But Astrid remains a slave.
     Aslak promises that he will buy her freedom when he is a man and can earn enough silver. At fifteen, he goes viking to earn his fortune.
     Returning from sea, he finds that his father has died. Worse: his step-brothers have sold his sister.
     Furious, Aslak leaves his home forever, and calls on his ship-brothers to help him find and free his sister.
     He pursues Astrid across the North: a violent and dangerous place in the Viking Age. His hot temper leads to him being sold into slavery himself, in Jorvik, capital of England's Danelaw.
     But, captive among strangers, he finds unexpected help, faces death, sees a ghost— and meets still more danger.
Can Aslak regain his own freedom and rescue his lost sister?
 Kindle              Paperback

Zoe wants her dead boyfriend back. 
She's heard all about Elizabeth Beckerdyke. About her being a witch. About her speaking to the dead.
     Maybe she can raise the dead too?
     So Zoe goes knocking on the witch's door.
                Duncan is homeless, a rough sleeper.
     He's looking for a new life. He fears the witch and he fears for Zoe.
                Elizabeth Beckerdyke wants to prove her power.
     But can she control what she leads back from the land of the dead?

                A dark, disturbing novel of the occult by the award-winning author of The Sterkarm Handshake.

Kindle             Paperback

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Crofting, Seaweed and Iodine

Crofters in the Highlands and islands of Scotland have always had a hard life. Even now, although crofting may be a more rewarding way of life, in many ways, than banking or sales, it’s by no means easy.

In a past stretching back into pre-history, crofters supplied almost all their own needs by their own labour: building and maintaining their steading, raising animals to provide meat, milk and wool, making their own clothes and making or repairing their own tools. They grew oats and vegetables but also fished and gathered wild food.

Almost always, a crofter had to pay rent to the owner of the land they farmed, and that rent had to be paid in hard money. Cash was often needed to supply a few needs they could not make, catch or grow for themselves: a little tobacco, perhaps or raisins and spices for Christmas.

One way to earn money was to drive their cattle to the markets where the highest prices were paid. Another, which I learned about when I researched my book The Drover’s Dogs, was to burn kelp.

Kelp, wikimedia, By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
Kelp is a large and fast-growing seaweed which forms thick kelp forests around rocky coasts. It had been gathered for centuries. Crofters carried it from the beaches on their backs in tall baskets— a heavy load, often carried up steep, hazardous cliff paths. It was spread on fields as fertiliser.

There was also a tradition of burning the kelp to ash and mixing the ash with fat to make an ointment. Because of kelp's high concentration of iodine, it was a quite effective antiseptic.

With the rise of industry, iodine became a far more valuable commodity. It was used in glass-making and pottery as a colouring agent. The cloth trade needed it for bleaching linen. Soap makers used it to turn soap from messy goo into the hard blocks which customers favoured. Iodine was also used in the production of the cleaning agent, soda.

It was easier to import kelp from Europe than to fetch it from the far more remote Scottish Highlands and islands, but European kelp was heavily taxed. So agents made difficult journeys north, offering to buy all the iodine the crofters could produce. Kelp was harvested in Ireland too.

A crofting family would build a kiln. These varied considerably: some were built above ground, somewhat resembling an oven. Others were simple pits. Some, if the crofters could afford it, had an iron grid laid above the pit, on which the kelp was placed and burned.

Kelp was gathered throughout the year, especially in the winter after storms, which tore it from the rocks and washed it up. The seaweed was spread to dry and then piled into stacks, in kelp-ricks which were thatched with heather to keep it dry.

Burning started in June, while the men of the crofting family might be away on a drove. The dried kelp was piled on the iron grid over the pit and set alight.

Crofters burning kelp in Stronsay - Glens of Antrim Historical Society
As the kelp burned to ash, the oil from it dripped into the pit. The smell of the burning seaweed was, it seems, exceptionally powerful and pungent and carried for miles. If you can recall the rank stink of exposed estuary mud on a hot day, imagine that burning and, it seems, you will have a faint idea of the stench.

The end result was a pit full of thick, stinking oil which cooled to a rock-hard substance of greyish, purplish blue. If allowed to go cold, it had to be chipped and chiselled out of the pit, so the burners tried to dig it out before it was completely cold, while it was still easier to work. The iodine blocks were heavy and it was hard, stinking work.

Agents bought these blocks and paid good money for them— though in some parts of Scotland, all the money from the trade went to the local laird. Who did none of the work.

But for those who did profit from this hard, dirty, stinking labour, it was another source of ready cash and for about fifty years, roughly between 1780 and 1830, business was good.

However, in the 1820s, the tax on European seaweed was reduced, and the tax on salt  abolished. This made it much cheaper to import seaweed from Europe and much cheaper to make soda from salt than from kelp. These decisions, made in a southern parliament on behalf of southern industries, destroyed the kelp industry of the Highlands and islands.

It also contributed to depopulation of the Highlands because, at the same time, the droving trade was being killed by railways and landlords were raising the rents of crofts. Caught between rising rents and falling profits, many Highlanders left for Canada and America – where, in dreams, they beheld the Hebrides.

After 1830, demand for iodine from Scotland rose again as industry began producing aniline dyes and photographic plates. The seaweed from Europe was no longer enough, and agents once more came to the Highlands. But the industry was never again as strong as it had been, since so many of the people who would once have collected and burned the kelp had left the crofting life - either by choice or eviction.

This gave me an ending to my book The Drover’s Dogs, whose narrator is a Scot telling his Canadian children how he was rescued by two herd dogs and 'brought home' to Mull.

The Drover's Dogs by Susan Price
The ending rose partly from my own research and partly from the research my Scots partner did into his own family. He had a special interest in Drover's Dogs, since he helped me follow the old drove road to Mull, told me of the 'bondage,' the young hero escapes and also painted the cover picture! (And he doesn't like what I've done with it.) Since a branch of his own family had gone to Canada and become quite wealthy farmers, he was quite keen that the family in the book did too.

So I gave him the ending he wanted, to make up for what I did to his painting

Find The Drover's Dogs on Amazon.