This was my second year at the Bristol Festival of Literature and I very much enjoyed myself! Unlike the previous year I wasn’t featuring on a panel and, although that was a fabulous opportunity, it was good to simply be a participating writer in attendance. I took along a friend who loves reading and is a regular member of a book club. I find these events are often enhanced by good company and for us, the entire weekend was our special treat.
By the time we arrived on Saturday 29th October, the festival had already been running nicely during the week, with a charming cocktail of writing events. Our room for the night and the main attractions were in the Mercure hotel overlooking Welsh Back. The cobbled streets were strewn with gold and amber leaves from the rows of maple trees along the quayside. The festival was being held in the hotel mezzanine and our first session was on research with an all-female panel of Alison Morton (Roma Nova series), Lucienne Boyce (Dan Foster Mysteries) and Wendy Percival (Esme Quentin Mysteries) moderated by the charming David Ebsworth.
Alison dived straight in with how to research the emotional and psychological effects of trauma and extreme circumstances on characters. Using her own action-packed Roma ova series to provide examples, she mentioned several excellent resources that could provide insight into the effects of extreme situations. For instance, reading explorers’ exploits in remote regions, such as Ranulph Fiennes or polar expeditions and desert crossings. Another suggestion was to obtain a simple psychology ‘101’ fact book from a book store, with which to explore the subconscious and the games it can play. The ‘Emotional Thesaurus’ also entered the discussion and this appeared to be a popular resource for many.
Lucienne Boyce was next up and her advice centred around the inclusion of what many would call ‘ordinary people’. She told us how she prefers to uncover the past and write about it through the eyes of those not-so fortunate or born out of nobility and wealth. Here, as she evidenced through some intriguing historical transcripts, were a plethora of untold tales and alternative versions of the past. However, Lucienne cautioned us to consider these “against the grain” and to always ask ‘why are they writing this?’, ‘who are they?’ and ‘what is the purpose or intention of this piece of evidence?’. Some of the transcripts were written as hate-mail or the last desperate plea of a poor man against a severe criminal sentence.
Last on the panel was Wendy Percival whose research subject was time and place. She reminded us (especially the writers among us) of the pitfalls of marking time and place in a novel. She uses a tabled chart to plot her mysteries, so that if a scene is removed in editing, your sequential timeline doesn’t fall ‘out’ of sequence! I found this a handy hint as I often list my timeline on a sheet and felt the tabled method would be much more useful. Wendy listed most of the things I consider when writing ,y historical fiction, including time of year, weather, phases of the moon, changes of daylight hours with the seasons and passage of time for journeys and general ‘quiet times in novels (eating, sleeping, waiting for vital pieces of evidence or the arrival of an enemy for battle). She gave a humorous example of how passing time over a meal could be botched if the writer did not accurately note the passage of time. A warning to us all!
In addition to the above, Wendy also advised the writer to be aware of time and place in connection with events. For Wendy’s character Esme Quentin, it was to be aware when the archives are closed for her investigations. For me, it is knowing what historical events are coinciding with the lives of my characters. She concluded that we are all “products of our time”; we talk and act as per the time we live within.
David Ebsworth concluded the discussion by thanking the panellists for their research tips and added one of his own: keep a record of where you took your research from, in case you need to refer to it again in the future or need to add it to your book’s acknowledgements.
The final seminar of the day was rounded off very pleasantly with an informal interview with thriller writer Rachel Abbott. Answering questions posed by SilverWood Books owner Helen Hart and publishing assistant Emily Heming, Rachel gave us an insight into how she achieved 2 million book sales as an independent author. Some key points were:-
Awareness – People need to keep seeing and coming across your book and its cover. It can take people 7 times before they consciously recognise your novel’s cover. It is therefore prudent to place your book cover in as many visible places as possible. For instance:
- on the end of emails
- on your Twitter profile
- on your blog
- on your website
- on your Facebook Profile/Page
Social Media – Rachel made maximum use of top social media sites, building Twitter followers, sending review copies to reviewers with a stylish ‘Author Introduction’ sheet and paying for Facebook marketing adverts. She also found places where people ‘talked’ about the kinds of books she writes and joined these discussions. She found readers engaged more on Facebook. Conversely, posts on a Facebook page only reach 6% of your followers, so it is more effective to post on a profile.
Branding – She chose her cover design carefully, wanting to create a brand for her entire series of novels. She picked a single colour to represent each book, but retained the same font and layout on each cover. She explained that it was important to be recognisable, so that readers would see the covers and know it was a ‘Rachel Abbott’ thriller. Reader perception also helped. A high-quality, well-printed paperback meant her books could stand beside those of traditionally published authors and be seen as equal.
I found it an absorbing and informative festival with something for everyone, reader, writer or observer.
Bristol Festival of Literature is on each year in October and details of next year’s event will be on their website nearer the date.
SilverWood Books can be found here.
Photographs: my own Logo: courtesy of unputdownable.org