I like history. in case I’ve never said that elsewhere, it’ something you should know about me. And the period I like most is the medieval one. Not really sure why that is the case, but ever since I first started reading about it, there was something which grabbed me. Any time from the period immediately preceding the Norman Conquest to around the middle of the 1400’s is my bag. And, in particular, I am more interested in the British Isles than anywhere else.
I’ve read a lot of books and articles about this time period and have just finished The Medieval Underworld by Andrew McCall, which takes, as you might guess from the title, a new look at the underbelly of society then. Fascinating stuff.
And, like I always do, i read through the sources he used at the back and make mental notes of the books I want to read. But one in particular caught my eye. It mentioned the Ames Foundation, which I admit to not having heard of before.
Which leads me to the title of this article. For the Ames Foundation is based in Harvard and has links with Boston University and, more importantly for me, it concerns itself with collecting and collating legal history. Imagine my surprise then when I found out that they have published (online and in print) many volumes of English Medieval Law reports.
“Oooooh. Wow,” I can hear you saying, totally underwhelmed by this news. But wait a moment! These law reports are fascinating stuff. They contain real people, with real names and real problems and issues which are an absolute cornucopia of plot lines and scandals for me to use however I want in whatever time frame I want.
People back then, just like now, argued about the most amazing things such as who was married to whom and when, or which person should be guardian of a child and why or, if two sisters had equal share of a property, and one of them rented hers out, and later sold it, should the other sister be recompensed in some fashion?
So many plots here! So let’s hear it for medieval law suits, the often anonymous clerks who wrote them up and the august institution of Harvard for compiling them.
We live in an age of wonder! 🙂
Ever since the printing press was invented, the publisher has had a huge say in what got in front of readers. They chose who to market and how to pay them. Some of the better ones even helped in the editing process.
But then came indie publishing. At first, it was confused with vanity publishing, where an author paid to have his or her book in print and then had to work out how to sell the copies. That has now changed so that the stigma of publishing yourself has pretty much gone.
In its place we have a glut of books, many of which are awful in terms of style, plot, cover, editing or all four. But, balanced against that is the freedom to be in control of your own destiny. Instead of having a year between manuscript and publishing, you can get your book out pretty much as soon as you have the cover and blurb ready. Plus, and this is the biggie for most indie authors, you can make more money from your own efforts instead of getting small payments from your publisher occasionally.
In traditional publishing, bookstore placement is vital. Not so in the indie world. Traditional publishing might give you an advance, a smallish one, against future royalties, but it’s rare for any large sums to be handed over. In fact, the truth of traditional publishing is that they have no idea what is going to sell well, and if they think they spot a trend, they’ll jump on it. Remember the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? A strange new genre seemed about to take over. A Swedish writer speaking of a Sweden of extremists. Word went out to find other new Swedish writers. Hardly any were found. But that didn’t stop agents and publishers offering money to them. The point was, it seemed like a good idea, so let’s repeat it!
And then traditional publishers began to catch on. Instead of looking for a new trend, why not find ones which already exist? How to do that? Simple! Look at Amazon’s indie publishers. Find the ones which are already selling well and who have an existing readership (no need to spend a lot on marketing!!) and get them to sign for you. Hence you have Fifty Shades Of Grey and The Martian.
But many indies don’t want to work with traditional publishers because, as I said earlier, it’s too restricting. Plus, as an indie, I get paid every month. Compare and contrast with the traditional model where you can expect a check twice or even four times a year paid out on lower royalty rates.
And don’t forget, nowadays, most traditional publishers won’t do much at all to market your book. That costs money. So, you have to do it yourself anyway.
Finally, let’s say that you make it big with a publisher. What do they want? More of the same. Keep writing in the same genre. But what if you want to break out and try something new? Not so much support for you there as that means you’re back to being an unknown quantity. Publishing houses are in it for the money. That’s not a bad thing. But not so much of that money finds its way down to the author. Which is sad, as without authors, publishers would be out of business.
PS Have you seen what traditional publishers are charging for ebooks?? Sheesh! Costs are virtually zero, but the price doesn’t change. When are they going to wake up?
I’m not necessarily saying you are mad, although who knows? That’s for you to decide. What I am saying is that writers as a group are completely mad.
The facts make it very clear. Writers sit alone in a room talking to themselves, telling themselves stories about things that aren’t real and writing it all down. How is that sane? We don’t speak to others when we’re doing this. It’s all very silent and secretive. We don’t even know if anyone else will even be interested in our efforts, yet still we persist.
What other undertaking, when described like this, would make you say, ‘You need therapy, and lots of it and soon!’?
The word ‘hero’ is bandied about a lot, especially by the media. But the very fact that it is used so much gives me pause for thought.
What is a hero (or heroine)? What makes a man or woman become a hero? I’m interested after all, because I write stories and, sometimes, they have a hero in them. And, in writing, the term ‘hero’ is one which is applied to the principal character in a story. In other words, it’s not quite the same use as when a person in real life is called a hero.
The definition of a hero in real life, surely, is someone who does something amazing and incredibly brave and saves lives through extraordinary means. In fact, a hero is defined as, ‘a man of distinguished bravery’, and heroic as, ‘supremely courageous; using extreme or elaborate means to obtain a desired result, such as the preserving of life’.
Which begs the question, what is bravery? If a person is trained and equipped and knows the dangers of a situation well enough to act according to their training, can that person then be considered to be a hero, or merely brave? I’m thinking of people like firefighters, for example. Don’t get me wrong, I think what they do is very important and scary. But is it distinguished bravery? How about the soldier faced with enemy fire in a carefully planned battle with huge amounts of support and equipment? Without training any soldier would be useless. But sufficiently trained to not run away and instead deal with the issues in front of them? Is that bravery? Sure, it’s not something I am capable of doing, but I haven’t been trained like them.
But what about the man in street? Let’s say that some disaster has occurred and Joe or Josephine Bloggs is nearby. Let’s say a large passenger ship is in danger of capsizing. People from below decks are striving to reach the surface but there is some sort of blockage. Here, without apparently thinking, and certainly with no training, Joe positions himself so that he can be climbed over and those people can reach safety. But it hurts him so much that he can barely make it out alive. And Josephine, elsewhere, spends time when she could be leaving calmly talking to terrified children, reassuring them that all will be OK and passing them along, one by one until they are all safe. Shouldn’t they be heroes? After all, the situation was new and unexpected, plus they had no training or equipment, yet they saved lives.
What if two firemen with equipment had done the same thing? Does that make them equally heroic?
My point is, i think we need to consider what exactly we mean when we use terms like hero or heroine. Because the more we bandy them about, the less meaning they have. A hero or heroine is not normal. There can never be many of them or else we are all heroes. In a book, it’s easy to write heroic actions, to make a character perform the necessary functions to be called a hero. But in real life, perhaps it’s not so easy.
As an end note, the drug heroin is so called because it has an exhilarating effect, and takes its name from the Greek word for hero. Is being a hero truly intoxicating?
I write about people who can do things that most other people can’t do. Being able to heal, to move things without touching them, to see heat or cold: these are things which set them apart. (Read Harmony and you’ll find lots of other talents people can have.)
But, the strange thing is, these are things which every one of us can do to a greater or lesser extent. But, because we don’t all do them, that makes the people who can do them seem different. And different is scary.
When people become scared, they often react by attacking that which scares them. So, in my writing, these outliers, these people who can seem to do strange things, are often seen as targets for people who don’t believe they are capable of doing any such sort of thing themselves.
And that’s often the case with superheroes. They can do wonderful things are are called upon to exercise their talents, but without those times of crisis, they are loners, outcasts and the like. They are the obvious examples.
But my interest is in the less obvious ones; the ordinary people who do things not in a crisis but as a way of life. Those, to me, are more fascinating than anything else, because we’d all like to be a superhero, but we’re more likely to be ordinary, with a talent or two which makes us not fit into the norm.
People who read my Harmony books say that they end up wondering what their talent might be. What I would love to happen is that they then spend time finding out the answer to that question and then go on and use it!
That would be wonderful!
I remember, many years ago when I was a student, sitting and arguing with a friend about music. He was adamant that it was crazy to give various labels to music. Music, he said, is just music. Nothing more, nothing less. Giving it labels forces it into boxes which don’t always fit it.
It was a long argument and some beer was consumed, but I recall it clearly as it opened my mind up to the problems inherent in labeling anything.
Which is where genres come in.
In fiction, there are all sorts of genres. Essentially, they are labels which people (publishers) give to books. Vampire, thriller, crime, romance, cowboy romance, sci-fi, dystopian sci-fi, and on and on and on the labels go.
In fact, there are so many labels or genres that they really serve no purpose any more because with such smaller and smaller divisions it becomes hard to figure out where exactly your novel should fit.
Writing to a specific genre has been said to be the best possible way of ensuring you get eyeballs on your book. And, for some people, having this sort of template might prove helpful. Plot point A here, character B does this here, minor climax here followed by character C doing this here and resolution here after character D reveals something here. It’s formulaic. Follow the formula and you’ve got a novel. And with the novel, you have success.
What about the breakout novels? Things like Outlander by Diana Gabaldon for example? It fits no easy genre. It crosses multiple genres. And yet it succeeds. Writing to a genre doesn’t give you any scope to move away from it. If you have a great idea which doesn’t fit any existing genre does that mean you shouldn’t write it? Of course not. It means you should write it as well as you can.
I’m firmly of the opinion that, like music, writing shouldn’t be chopped up into labels. Fine music is fine music. Fine writing is fine writing. But is my definition of ‘fine’ always the same? No.
Depending on my mood, I’ll listen and enjoy some Mozart or Pink Floyd or Kraftwerk or whoever fits my mood best. And exactly the same with writing. Right now I’m enjoying reading about Medieval cookery. But I’ve also recently enjoyed Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, a book on the intelligence of birds and another about the medieval underworld (yeah, I like the Middle Ages).
In other words, I like what I like and I am happy to dig around and look at any book (within reason) if it gives me what i want at that time. Genres aren’t going to help me that much.
What about you? Do you only read one or two genres? What about the books which don’t fit any genre? They’re the one the big publishing houses are looking for and they haven’t a clue which one is going to be the next Harry Potter (which was rejected so many times).
A genre is, like the Pirate’s Code in Pirates of the Caribbean, only a guideline. Nothing else.