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histfictionpromotionnov16This post is part of a historical fiction promotion by a number of writers on the 12th and 13th of November 2016.

Here are some links to take you to cheap and free ebooks that fall into the historical category: The 99cent Historical Fiction eBooks  http://www.histfiction.com/history-blog/99-cent-historical-fiction-promotions

The free Historical Fiction: Free Historical Fiction eBooks http://www.histfiction.com/history-blog/free-historical-fiction

You might also be interested in browsing the above-mentioned site for other information and links about history and historical fiction.

Writing about the 1950s

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the 1950s as history, because I lived through the decade, and yet there’s no doubt that it’s now ‘different’ enough from the present day to be regarded as history. When I was at university I studied the 1940s as history, and yet it was only about 20 years in the past at that point. I think as well as the perspective produced by time passing, there has to be another kind of perspective, perhaps that created by major change, for it to make sense to treat a past era as historical.

I’m not one of these people who sees the 1950s as a golden age to which we should aspire to return. Yes, children could play outside from dawn to dusk without even having a mobile phone to provide a lifeline to their parents. We would play on the beach for hours and sometimes, more dangerously, at the local quarry.

Mothers tended not to work outside the home, so they were always around, usually cooking, ironing or doing the family wash, which was a major operation even for people lucky enough to have washing-machines at home. The daily routine, in our family, used to revolve around my father and his work. He would come home for lunch every day and because there was a short train journey involved, he didn’t have much time, so the lunch had to be ready at the right time. Not that he was in any way a domestic tyrant – this was something my mother did because she wanted to and not because he laid down the law about it.

Some of the things I wasn’t so keen on about the 1950s were mostly the result of living in a village. There was very little to do except go to church, unless you went outside the village to do it. I was a keen tennis player but even that came to a stop in the winter. Everybody knew everybody else, but it took several generations for people to be accepted as natives. The library van came round only once a week, so there was only one chance to change your books. We had to go into the nearest town to shop for certain things.

Other things I didn’t like were the result of living in a draughty Victorian house. We could never get warm enough in the winter. During one very cold winter all our water pipes froze in the ground just outside the house and we didn’t have water for several weeks.

As I now know, there were many important events going on nationally and internationally to which I was completely oblivious at the time, so writing about the 1950s and doing some research is a good way to catch up with them. The only events of this kind I can actually remember during that period were the Coronation, the Hungarian Revolution (and that was only because some Hungarian refugees arrived to live in our village – I didn’t really know why at the time) and the 1959 UK general election.

Among the national and world events I completely missed hearing about were the exposure of the Cambridge Spies, the Korean War, the death of Stalin, the East German riots of 1953 and the Suez crisis. I suppose in some of these cases my parents deliberately didn’t mention them in front of me in case they had to go into long explanations – although actually I was quite an incurious child so I probably wouldn’t have asked anything difficult – and in some cases I just wasn’t interested. The only reason I even recall the 1959 election is that I told some people at my primary school that my mother had voted Labour, and they chased me round the playground.  We lived in a staunchly Conservative area in those days.

Having skimmed through the Festival of Britain, the great storm of 1952, the Coronation and my own version of the Cambridge Spies in my Quest series of novels, I am currently writing about Berlin in 1954, which is a particular pleasure for me as it forms a backdrop to my own experience of Berlin in 1964, when I visited it on a school exchange trip. For example, I hadn’t realised until I began my research that the building of the Berlin Wall came as a complete surprise to the British, French, Americans and most Germans as it literally went up overnight without any warning.

1964-willy-brandt-speaks-at-schoneberger-rathaus

I was in the crowd as Willy Brandt spoke at Rathaus Schöneberg

1964-berlin-checkpoint-charlie

and at Checkpoint Charlie well before you could buy souvenir T-shirts there.

Of course there are many traps waiting for anyone who writes about fairly recent history and there is always the risk that someone who actually remembers the relevant time and place reads the novel and notices all the mistakes. It doesn’t help that I tend not to remember details very well, which isn’t a recent development but has always been the case. I got round this when studying history by considering generalisations and not specifics wherever possible. It’s actually quite a lot more difficult to get round this kind of thing while writing fiction, when you suddenly find you need to know what it was like getting the Night Ferry from London to Paris, whether there was more than one berth in the sleeping compartment and what people had for breakfast. But of course that’s what the internet is for!

The significance of the first of November, which unfortunately falls on a Tuesday this year, is of course that it’s the first day of the annual trial of strength known as National Novel Writing Month. When I say trial of strength, I really mean it’s a trial of persistence and stubbornness against all odds. I know it’s only my stubbornness that has carried me through various Novembers. I think the hardest year was when I was writing and directing a children’s play, as well as working full-time and helping with props for a pantomime presented by a different group. I have no idea how I managed to produce a novel at the same time. As far as I can recall, that was the novel that eventually turned into ‘Crime in the Community’, although it started out as ‘Community’ because I used to think one-word titles were really cool in those days. My first three NaNo novels started out as ‘Independence’, ‘Community’ and ‘Reunited’.

I am so organised this year that I’ve already ticked off one of the most important items on my list, which is: buy more coffee. I’ve almost run out of coffee twice recently, and in one case I was only saved from serious caffeine withdrawal symptoms by actually going into work early because I knew there was still some coffee in a jar on my desk there. Anyway, I now have a huge jar of instant, and some ‘real’ Italian coffee as a back-up. Obviously I am too lazy to make real coffee very often, but I do have a special mug that doubles as a cafetiere.

I’ve also just ticked off something else on the list, which was to make a temporary cover design and upload it to the NaNoWriMo website as a sign of my commitment. Here it is, and I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise in advance to regular readers for not writing Pitkirtly XIII in November. (Hmm, maybe I should skip XIII in any case and go straight on to XIV) It will be immediately obvious to many people reading this that I am returning to my 1950s series instead. In mitigation I should explain that I’ve been waiting for well over a year to write a novel set in Berlin, and in fact I organised our whole family holiday round this last year as part of my research. I think I can safely say it was a bit more popular than previous family history research trips to assorted Scottish graveyards! So here is the temporary cover. It may turn out to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the final one.

a-quest-in-berlin-1

There were other things on my to-do list, mostly reading books about Berlin in the 1950s, which weren’t quite as grim and depressing as I expected them to be. Apart from that I should of course have done all the housework and written my Christmas cards, but needless to say both these have gone out the window in favour of taking part in a short story anthology and a historical novel promotion (more on these later).

By the way, in case you were wondering why it is unfortunate that November starts on a Tuesday, that’s because I won’t have the chance to get the novel off to a flying start because of being at work all day and then probably too tired to write much afterwards. However, in anticipation of this I already have the first few lines in my head, although it is strictly against the rules to write them down just yet.

Recently one of the earlier novels in the Pitkirtly series received an excellent review here: http://ignitebooks.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/cecilia-peartree.html (many thanks to the reviewer! – you may enjoy some of her other reviews too). This reminded me that the novel in question was one of my personal favourites of the series. I won’t reveal what my ‘top 3’ are at the moment but I thought I would use the opportunity to ask any readers who come across this which ones they like best. So if I can get the poll option thingy to work, here we go. I think I’ve set it to accept 3 answers, but who knows what may happen? Feel free to let me know if it does anything unexpected.

While we all (including me) wait for ‘Pitkirtly XII’ to be finished, I thought I would write a bit about how I keep track of the characters in the Pitkirtly mystery series. This was something I didn’t even think about until I had already written at least six of the books. It was only then that I realised I was having to go back through previous books to remind myself of certain people’s names. Police officers seemed to be particularly easily forgotten, although I also had trouble with dogs’ names, often within the same book.

blue elephant

(picture for World Elephant Day)

I’m not one of those people who uses an Excel file to keep them organised, unlike one of the finalists in the recent ‘Caravanner of the Year’ contest, who claimed to have all his activities colour-coded. but after ploughing through about six novels on more than one occasion to find a minor character’s last name, I decided to use an Excel file to record a few essential details about the people I had so far encountered in Pitkirtly. Sometimes the bare essentials turn into a little more , so there’s a note against one character’s name saying “May have gone off with Deirdre after ‘A Tasteful Crime'” – and sometimes a little less, as in the case of Christopher’s neighbour, Mr Brownlow who “doesn’t really do anything but is occasionally mentioned”. That would be a very sad epitaph! Not that I’m seeing him as a potential murder victim or anything, I hasten to add.

I should emphasise here that the file isn’t exactly a planning tool, as I don’t usually  update it before writing the next novel,  but it helps to reduce the time I wasted in trying to remember things that should carry over from one book to another. Occasionally the thing I think I should remember isn’t there at all. An example of that is Jan from the woolshop’s last name, which I don’t think has ever been mentioned at all, although for a while I was convinced it had been. (If anyone knows differently please don’t hesitate to let me know!)

That was just a glimpse into my writing methods, for want of a better word. Now I suppose I’d better get back to putting them into practice!

Notebooks

I had a slight panic attack earlier this morning when I realised that my favourite notebook – the one in which I unexpectedly wrote ‘Mysterious Pitkirtly’ – had mysteriously disappeared, probably during The Great De-Cluttering of spring 2016. Last week I had to carry out an excavation to find the little case on wheels without which I can no longer travel anywhere, and I am still looking for the knitting patterns I bought in the fond hope that I would begin a major knitting project in the near future. Of course not being able to find the patterns gives me a watertight, cast-iron excuse for not starting the knitting, so it isn’t all bad!special notebook

There isn’t anything all that special about the notebook, in fact it is probably one of Tesco’s cheapest ones, and I will have to buy a new one soon anyway, because there certainly isn’t enough room left in it to write anything longer than a short story, but I feel it’s quite a lucky notebook and I want to write down my first ideas for ‘Pitkirtly XII’ in it before they vanish. Of course, if story ideas vanish it’s usually because they weren’t any good in the first place, but I think I’ve reached the stage where I can almost begin to pin them down a bit, with a view to starting writing in July. Anyway, the notebook has re-surfaced to the sound of huge sighs of relief all round, or at least from me and the cat.

Until the end of June I will be ploughing on with a completely different thing I started at the end of April while waiting to edit ‘Pitkirtly XI’. I’ve reached over 30,000 words with the other thing but I don’t think anyone will like it so will keep that under wraps for now.

While I was searching for the notebook pictured above, I inadvertently looked inside another notebook which turned out to contain my writing plan for 2016. Well, at least it gave me a good laugh, even if that came out sounding a bit hysterical.

That reminds me that my son and his friends have recently won the Edinburgh edition of the 48 hour film competition for the second year in a row, with their ‘war film’ entitled ‘His Last Words’. I’ve put the words ‘war film’ in quotes for a reason. For anyone who finds the Pitkirtly Mysteries funny, this is your chance to see how humour  travels down the generations (he wrote the script): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qja5wH84AlU&feature=youtu.be

I couldn’t find any pictures that expressed what I wanted to say on the cover of ‘Pitkirtly XI’ so I have had to carry out a special photo-shoot. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that this didn’t involve glamorous partly-dressed models, mocked-up dinosaur landscapes or both. Instead I had to make the supreme sacrifice of buying three whole packets of scones and some miniature Empire biscuits (don’t forget the Empire biscuits as they are more important than they seem), which no doubt somebody will have to eat later on. The things I do for my art!

Normally I source my cover photos from a vast collection taken by my late brother Ian Ogilvy Morrison in various places in Scotland. They usually depict locations in Fife, but occasionally I’ve had to look a bit further afield. In a few cases I’ve used one of my own pictures, but they aren’t usually as good as my brother’s.

The picture shown here is a sort of ‘out-take’ that I added on at the end of the session just for fun, although in fact I think it has come out slightly better than the others, apart from the things in the background, which I see include a card given to me by a neighbour to thank me for lending her a ladder and a ‘Scottish’ teddy bear ornament that came from somewhere in the family. I may be able to fade these out if I do use this one.scone pyramid

Don’t get over-excited at this point if you’re waiting for the book to come out, by the way, as I am still somewhere in the middle of the editing process. I just find if I get the cover organised it helps to motivate me to finish!

Although my latest novel is rather frivolous compared to the real world setting it attempts to depict, I thought some of my readers might be interested to know where I looked for information about the background.

I usually go online first these days to see if I can find any sources that seem both relevant and reliable. Much to my delight, I found some official Cambridge University pages about the history of the Mathematical Laboratory (later known as the Computer Laboratory) and the 50th anniversary of EDSAC 1, the computer I allowed my fictional characters to monkey around with. My favourite page, from a novelist’s point of view, was this one, which includes personal reminiscences:

http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/events/EDSAC99/reminiscences/

As well as the content on this page there are links to other sites with images of the Laboratory and the computers – and some of the people – that inhabited it over the years.

My own programming days were a little later than the time of the EDSACs, but there were still some LEO computers in operation in the organisation I worked for, and I remember paper tape, although our own machine accepted input on punched cards. It seems almost unbelievable that we often punched up our own programs on ancient Hollerith card punches that didn’t have proper keyboards, and that the computer that occupied almost a whole floor of the building was much less powerful than a modern laptop – possibly even less powerful than my Kindle Fire, for all I know.

One of my characters, Andrew, has a background in code-breaking that is so secret that he can’t divulge anything about it, so naturally I had to read about Bletchley Park, where the Enigma codes were broken during the war. I chose a very readable book which focussed on the people involved: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay. I am sure there are many more technical books about how the computers worked and exactly how the codes were broken, but this one told me some of the things I always want to know when writing about past events – i.e. where did the code-breakers live, what was their working life like, and what did they do in their spare time. This was all deep background as far as my novels are concerned – I can’t let Andrew say anything about his past, perhaps for years!

I also re-read a novel I already knew, to refresh my memory about the Playfair Cipher: Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers – still an excellent mystery today. I haven’t explained the cipher half as well as Dorothy Sayers did, so if you want to know the details, read this book.

To find out something about Cambridge in the 1950s, I read another book that focussed on people as opposed to events with wider significance: The Shop Girls by Ellee Seymour. This isn’t great literature and is a light, easy read, but I certainly learned a lot of detail about where people shopped, what sort of places they lived in, where the parks and green spaces were, and what they did in their spare time in 1950s Cambridge. I tried not to put it all in the novel!

XIIf you’ve read this far down the page, you are entitled to know that I haven’t been frittering away my time writing blog posts since publishing the above-mentioned novel. Oh, no. I’ve got out my ‘lucky’ notebook again and the image that goes with this post should give you a clue to what’s happening.