Kathy Martin's Blog

April 27, 2015

The Beaulieu Vanishing - Francis Cranley rides again!

I'm delighted to announce that The Beaulieu Vanishing, my second Francis Cranley adventure, is now available on Kindle.

Beginning in May 1473, the story sees Richard of Gloucester's close friend Francis Cranley travelling with Sir James Tyrell to Beaulieu. Their mission is to escort the Countess of Warwick, Richard's mother-in-law, back to Middleham. The Countess has been living in sanctuary at Beaulieu since 1471 but now, at last, Richard has persuaded the King to grant her a measure of freedom.

At Beaulieu, Cranley finds himself drawn to Eleanor Vernon, the Countess's attractive young attendant, and is shocked when the girl goes missing. Has she been murdered or has she eloped with someone? The distraught Countess begs him to find out the truth.

Thus Cranley embarks on an investigation that puts him and his companions in mortal danger as they struggle to unearth the truth about Eleanor Vernon.

The Beaulieu Vanishing will be published in paperback very soon so watch this space. In the meantime, visit Amazon for a free Kindle sample of The Beaulieu Vanishing.
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April 14, 2015

Juggling Non-Fiction & Fiction Projects

Now that The Beaulieu Vanishing, my second historical novel featuring Francis Cranley, is being readied for publication, I have had time to begin work on a new non-fiction title for Pen & Sword Books. Called Famous Brand Names & Their Origins, the book will explore how some of today’s best known brands started out. Expect a trip down memory lane combined with interesting, little known facts about our favourite household items.

While I'm enjoying dipping a toe back into non-fiction after a break of several years, I have no intention of abandoning the novels. In fact, I'm a third of the way through a YA story set in 17th century and present day Cornwall, and am already thinking about the next Francis Cranley. So, busy times all round!

Famous Brand Names & Their Origins is due for publication in November 2016. The Beaulieu Vanishing will be published in early summer 2015.
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March 24, 2015

My Favourite Fictional Heroine

According to my marketing guru, aka my husband Alastair, I missed a trick a few days ago when #womeninfiction was trending on Twitter. Apparently, I should have used it as an excuse to tweet relentlessly about my 2012 book, Who’s Who in Women’s Historical Fiction. I daresay he’s right but, not for the first time, I turned a deaf ear to his sound advice. Instead, I sat down with my own copy of the book and spent a happy half hour revisiting my favourite female characters from historical fiction.

There are many that I love for various different reasons but, after a great deal of deliberation, I came to the conclusion that my absolute favourite has to be Sarah Burton from South Riding by Winifred Holtby. For any readers unfamiliar with the novel, here’s my summary of Sarah as it appears in my book:

“A 39-year-old teacher who has returned to her native South Riding [a fictitious part of Yorkshire] after an absence of many years, Miss Burton is full of enthusiasm when she takes up her new position as headmistress of Kiplington Girls’ High School. The daughter of a drunken blacksmith who accidentally drowned himself and a capable District Nurse, she is lively, competent, and very forward-thinking. Intelligence and hard work have won her degrees from Leeds and Oxford and now, with wide experience gained in London and South Africa, she is eager to run a school of her own.

Modern, enterprising and determined to improve her school, she has an attractive zest for life and a burning desire to equip her pupils with the tools they will need to make the best of their lives. A series of disappointing love affairs has persuaded her that she is better off on her own, but instead of regretting her single status she channels all her energy into her work. Yet her warm, passionate nature is not well suited to a celibate life and before long she finds herself unwillingly drawn to a handsome and troubled adversary.

The character and appearance of Sarah Burton are so vividly drawn that she fairly bounces off the pages. She is a small, slight woman with vivid, wiry red hair and slender ankles. Facially she is not pretty – her nose is too large, her mouth too wide and her light green eyes too small – yet people are attracted to her for the neatness of her figure and vitality of her nature. Her expression is candid and her smile both friendly and challenging.”

Best Sarah Burton quote: “I was born to be a spinster and by God I’m going to spin.”
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Published on March 24, 2015 03:26 Tags: sarah-burton, south-riding, twitter, winifred-holtby, women-in-fiction

March 20, 2015

Mea Culpa

Picture me, if you will, sitting here at my PC hanging my head in shame. Not literally, since that would make it difficult to type, but figuratively. Why? Because I have just realised that a whole year has passed since my last blog post. Of course, I'm not so arrogant as to imagine that my silence has caused anyone to lose sleep; in fact, I rather suspect that nobody has even noticed. But that doesn't stop me from feeling a bit ashamed. That’s because I know writers need discipline. Ideally, we should write for a few hours every day but we should also find some time for social media activities, if only to remind people of our existence. Well, during the last few months I've been writing up a storm while working on my new novel, The Beaulieu Vanishing. Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm for the project I have let things slip with regard to blogging, tweeting and general social interaction. Now that the book is being readied for publication, I’ve had a chance to review my working practices and have resolved to do better from now on. After all, I can’t expect the world to be interested in me if I don’t make an effort to engage with the world.
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Published on March 20, 2015 05:58 Tags: blogging, discipline, social-media, the-beaulieu-vanishing, twitter

March 6, 2014

Hyperbole To Die For

I hardly ever have the television on in the morning. After my daughter has gone to school I listen to the radio while I do some kitchen chores and then turn it off when I sit down to write. Last week, however, I switched the TV on to check the schedules because a friend was due to appear in something later that day. So it was by merest chance that I caught the presenter of a gardening programme winding up his item with the words, “this is a roof garden to die for.” Now, okay, I realise he was using hyperbole but for some reason it struck me as more ludicrous than most such expressions. I can see that some things might be worth dying for, such as family and the greater good of others, but a roof garden? Surely not.

Of course I’m being unfair to the poor chap who was simply trying to express the depth of his admiration and had I been in a less pedantic mood that day I might not have noticed the absurdity of the comment. Indeed, I use hyperbole on a daily basis. I laughed so much I cried; I thought my head would explode; the shopping weighed a ton. None of those statements are strictly true but nobody thinks I’m strange when I say them. So I’m aware that I’m no position to poke fun at others when they use similar expressions. I just think the roof garden incident has made me more aware of the silly things we all say when we want to emphasise a point.

So hyperbole has its place but I do advise caution when using the word ‘literally’. Recently I overheard a girl saying to friends, ‘my heart was literally in my mouth.’ Now I’m no doctor but that sounds serious. And finally, certain broadcasters need to sort out what it means to underestimate something. When the people of the Somerset Levels were being driven from their homes by horrendous flooding, it can’t have been helpful that in a piece to camera a reporter said it was impossible to underestimate the impact of the floods on the community. Not helpful at all.
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Published on March 06, 2014 03:03 Tags: broadcasters, expressions, hyperbole, journalists, literally, rhetoric, television, underestimate

January 29, 2014

The Subversive Power of Superstitions

There’s a room in my house that is currently off limits to visitors and for once it’s not because I’ve been lax with the housework. Instead, it’s because I don’t want anyone to see the Christmas angel that I forgot to pack away with all the other decorations on Twelfth Night. The sensible thing, of course, would have been to take the angel down the moment I realised it was still there but I couldn’t do that because of an old superstition that says that having missed the official take-down day of January 6th, ill-luck will befall me if I remove it before February 2nd, which is the Feast of Candlemas.

The odd thing about this is that I don’t consider myself a particularly superstitious individual. I don’t carry lucky charms, am sceptical about the supernatural and like to think I have a healthy disregard for old wives’ tales. And yet, on closer examination, it becomes apparent that much of my life is governed by them. If I see a lone magpie in my garden, for example, I feel compelled to ask it ‘where’s your wife?’ on the grounds that a ‘married’ magpie will not be alone and as we all know, a lone magpie signifies bad luck.

Perhaps more bizarrely, if I am out and about and notice a monkey puzzle tree, otherwise known as a Chilean pine, my immediate reaction is to touch my collar and say out loud the name of any dog I know. This is because a long time ago someone told me that monkey puzzle trees are bad luck but their damage can be averted by the collar-touching, dog-naming technique. Quite why this perfectly harmless tree should be considered a portent of doom I cannot say, nor why canines and collars should have any power to combat their ill-effects. In any case, I’m fairly certain I have some of the salient details of this particular superstition muddled up but none of this prevents me from leaping into action the moment I catch sight of the Chilean pine’s distinctive branches.

Then there’s the matter of salt. If I happen to spill some salt I can’t just wipe it up and get on; oh, no, that would be far too easy. What I feel I have to do is draw a cross in the salt, scoop some of it up and then hurl it over my left shoulder. It makes no sense at all and in fact just exacerbates the mess caused in the first place by the salt spillage. Nevertheless, that’s what I do because when I was a child I saw someone else do it.

Much the same applies to my tradition of bashing in the bottom of a boiled egg to ensure that ‘the witch can’t go to sea’. I don’t know who the (presumably minuscule) witch is, or why she’d be reckless enough to attempt an ocean excursion in my discarded eggshell, but it’s something I did as a child and old habits die hard. In fact my octogenarian father still practices witch-marine prevention whenever he eats a boiled egg so there’s probably little chance that I’ll ever kick the habit.

Do I genuinely believe that anything bad will happen if I fail to observe any of these superstitions? No, of course I don’t because despite all evidence suggesting the contrary, I am a rational human being. All the same, that angel isn’t coming down a day before Candlemas. Just in case.
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December 10, 2013

Christmas highs and lows in literature

I always enjoy reading about Christmas in novels. I suppose this isn’t surprising, given that I am and always have been a massive cheerleader for the season of goodwill. A part of my enthusiasm for this time of year stems from the fact that my birthday falls four days after Christmas. However, it is mostly due to my wonderful Austrian mother who instilled in me an abiding appreciation for the magic of Christmas. She mixed the central European customs of her childhood with familiar British traditions to create fabulous Christmases that still shine in my memory. After her premature death on 21st December, 1974, the festive season became a difficult time for my father, sisters and me until we learned to embrace those special memories instead of running from them. Now, once again, I am able to enjoy pretty much everything about the run up to Christmas, although I still dash out of shops to avoid hearing ‘Lonely This Christmas’, the song that was No. 1 in the UK pop charts the year Mother died.

But that’s the thing about Christmas – for some it will be a time of jollity and plenty while for others it will be bleak and full of heartache. Both ends of the spectrum are represented in the descriptions of Christmas that feature in some of my favourite books. In 'Demelza', the second in Winston Graham’s Poldark saga, the eponymous heroine’s selfless act of kindness at Christmas results in a terrible personal tragedy. Kindness also leads the March family to donate their much-anticipated Christmas breakfast to the impoverished Hummels in Louisa M. Alcott’s 'Little Women'; their generous act earns them the approval of their rich neighbour who rewards them with a sumptuous supper of ice-cream, cake, fruit and French bonbons. It is a happy time but even so, those familiar with the book know that the seeds of future sadness have been sown in the girls’ interaction with the Hummels.

At the joyful end of the spectrum, there can be fewer more ecstatic reactions in literature to the receiving of a Christmas gift than that of Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s 'Anne of Green Gables'. When Matthew Cuthbert presents her with a new dress, the unexpectedness of the gift, the fashionable cut of the dress and, above all, the glory of its puffed sleeves overwhelm Anne to such a degree that she is temporarily rendered silent, a rare occurrence with the garrulous child. Rapture also awaits the three Fossil sisters, the central characters in Noel Streatfield’s 'Ballet Shoes', the Christmas after they start learning to dance. Pauline, Petrova and Posy receive several presents, the most exciting being wrist-watches with straps of different colours for each of them, but the highlight of their day occurs when a group of caped and hooded carol singers arrive carrying lanterns. Standing beneath the girls’ window, they sing a selection of carols so beautifully that the Fossils give them fifteen shillings for a children’s hospital. Before the arrival of the carol singers the girls had been feeling flat because Christmas was nearly over but the beauty of the singing raises their spirits. It is a simple, understated yet lovely scene.

Finally, in Maeve Binchy’s 'Light A Penny Candle', one of my all-time favourite novels, Christmas in 1940s provincial Ireland is portrayed as a time of bewildered happiness for a lonely English child experiencing the warmth and generosity of her surrogate family; and of tears and violent drama for a transgressing daughter of that same family. If you haven’t read 'Light A Penny Candle', give yourself the gift of it this Christmas. It was Maeve Binchy’s first novel and much as I loved some of her subsequent books I don’t think she ever surpassed this one.
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November 1, 2013

Who calls the shots, the writer or the public?

Firstly, a warning: the following post contains information that might be construed as ‘spoiler-ish’ by anyone who hasn’t read a newspaper, glanced at Twitter or eavesdropped on casual chitchat recently. If that sounds like you and you find spoilers annoying, please do not read on.

For those still with me, thank you, and here comes one of those revelations that prompted me to start with a spoiler notice. In a bold and not universally well received move, author Helen Fielding has killed Mark Darcy in her latest Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy. According to the Daily Mail, fans reacted to the news with ‘sadness and fury’ while the Guardian referred more moderately to the ‘distress of many fans’ and the Huffington Post declared that fans had been ‘left reeling’. Twitter, of course, went a bit insane. Funnily enough, none of that distress and fury has translated into poor sales. Mad About the Boy is currently number one on the Sunday Times bestseller list and is also doing very well on Amazon.

So, despite all the Darcy brouhaha, it seems the public is able to accept that popular fictional characters will occasionally come a cropper. Although not always, since the dust has yet to clear from the recent Downton Abbey furore. Perhaps unfortunate timing is to blame, since it was hard on the heels of the Mark Darcy hysteria that Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes stepped headlong into a maelstrom of criticism with his rape storyline. Once again, shock and outrage dominated the headlines as viewers and some critics vowed they would never watch Downton again. Will the controversy damage the viewing figures in the long-term? Only time will tell (but I doubt it).

Intense as it has been, the anger levelled at Helen Fielding and Julian Fellowes in the last few weeks pales into insignificance compared with the vitriol spewed at Andrew Lloyd Webber a few years ago when he launched his Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies. Ardent Phantom fans went ballistic because the new story moved characters they cared about into situations they deplored. For the record, I thought it was a magnificent show with a hauntingly beautiful score but my opinion was in the minority. After a disappointingly short run it was hustled out of London and transported to Australia where it has been significantly re-worked (to its detriment, in my view), although the storyline that caused so much offence remains largely the same.

I believe the failure of Love Never Dies in London was caused by the refusal of diehard Phantom fans to accept the fate ordained for Christine, Raoul, Meg et al by the show’s creator. This leads me to the question I posed at the start of this post: who calls the shots, the writer or the public? The evidence suggests that it is a brave, possibly even foolhardy writer who kills a much-loved character or places them in intolerable circumstances. Nevertheless I believe it is their prerogative to do so. I also believe it is the prerogative of a disgruntled public to deliver its verdict where it hurts most, at the sales desk.
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October 22, 2013

Does Size Matter?

I cheered when I learned that Eleanor Catton had won the 2013 Man Booker prize for her 800+ page novel, The Luminaries. Not because I know her (I don’t) or have read her book (although I plan to) but because it has been criticised for being too long. Writing for The Observer on October 15th, Robert McCrum called it ‘a doorstop of a novel’ and wished that Catton had remembered Robert Louis Stevenson’s aphorism that ‘the only art is to omit.’

That’s one school of thought. Here’s my opinion. The length of a book bears no relation to its literary value. Wolf Hall, one of my favourite novels in recent years, has around 650 pages and as far as I’m concerned, none of them are superfluous. Far from thinking Hilary Mantel guilty of crimes against brevity, I believe every word is carefully considered. Wolf Hall is big because that is how it needed to be for Mantel to tell the story she wanted to tell.

Consider a few other ‘doorstop’ novels such as War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, Les Misérables and Vanity Fair. Should someone have taken Tolstoy to one side and told him to watch his word count? Would Becky Sharp’s relentless social climbing be as memorable if Thackeray had condensed her tale into 250 pages? I don’t think so but then I’m biased because I dearly love a chunky novel.

Then again, I also love a slim novel, the point being that while various features contribute to my enjoyment of a book - amongst them the plot, prose style, characterisation and sense of place – size is not an issue. Outsize, middling or lean, the only novels I dislike are those that fail to engage me.
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October 15, 2013

Presents, plots and Harry Potter

Forrest Gump’s mama likened life to a box of chocolates because ‘you never know what you’re gonna get’. I think the same can be said for book signings because whenever I do one I know I’m going to have the pleasure of meeting a rich assortment of interesting characters.

My signing in Fishguard last Saturday was no exception. One of the first people I spoke to was a delightful would-be author who told me he had been working sporadically on a novel for fifteen years and was still nowhere near completion. His problem, he said, was that he hadn’t come up with a convincing plot for his book, a work of contemporary fiction set in local government. He was aiming for plenty of twists and turns with a strong femme fatale at the centre of things but try as he might, his ideas simply weren’t working out. Of course I had no neat answer to offer but I did suggest that having come so far, he should push on to the end since his story might resolve itself if he could overcome his reluctance to continue.

A somewhat unexpected encounter was with a woman who creates the most exquisite, period-inspired corsetry. She had brought along a bag full of samples designed to help women achieve wasp waists and heaving bosoms. I thought they looked magnificent but with others waiting to see me, sadly I didn’t have the time to admire them properly.

Happily for authors everywhere, it seems that books remain a very popular gift option. Many of those buying a copy of The Woodville Connection asked me to inscribe a personal message for a loved one, explaining that it was to be given as a birthday or Christmas present. One lady went a step further; she told me that she was going to read the book first, very carefully, and then wrap it up and give it to her friend. I’m sure others do this but I bet few are so open about it.

I’ll finish with a story from a signing I did in Bath a few years ago. There I met a man, a retired publisher, who told me ruefully that he had been one of the editors to turn down J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book. He justified his decision by saying he hadn’t seen anything special in the book. Poor man, I think that’s up there with the record company that rejected The Beatles because ‘guitar groups are on the way out’.
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Published on October 15, 2013 01:57 Tags: book-signings, christmas-presents, corsets, harry-potter, j-k-rowling, plots, the-beatles