Being ‘hefted’ and the details of landscape

Living as I do in Herdwick sheep country, the idea of sheep being ‘hefted’ is something you take for granted. It means that the sheep are ‘hard-wired’ to remain within a certain terrain and not to roam beyond it, even though they are often on common land on the fells (hills) and unhindered by walls or fences. Lambs born into the flock will learn the details of that landscape and become experienced leaders of the flock later. As well as being useful for farmers, being hefted is a life-saver, when sheep need to find shelter and know which wall would offer the best protection from the wind and snow.

Since I started writing fiction set within this landscape, I’ve realised that people can be hefted too, born and raised in a place that becomes imprinted on the mind, and grows over time. My neighbours can tell me what flowers used to grow in the disused quarry across the road sixty years ago, or when a certain house was extended, or where the old road ran before it was straightened and ‘improved’. I remember my first harvest supper in the village hall, when the after supper entertainment was a quiz: in family teams we were shown slides of the minutiae of the village, a gatepost, a chimney stack, a wood pile, a fence, and asked to say exactly where it was. Some of the teams got all thirty of them correct while recent ‘off comers’ like me struggled to identify half a dozen. That was ten years ago, and I’d be more successful now.

But being intimately familiar with a local environment doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ‘hefted’. The additional criterion, as I understand it, is that you are unwilling to leave and always try to return. I wonder if I pass that test? I love to travel, and do so regularly, but increasingly once I’m off the plane I long to be back in my little patch of heaven in West Cumbria. The final stage of the journey west leads over Corney Fell on a winding single track road, at the summit of which you get the first view of the coast, from Black Combe to the south up to St Bees Head further north, with the Isle of Man on the horizon and the coast of Scotland from the far side of the Solway west towards Kintyre. The view is of course dependent on cloud cover and visibility, but even if I can’t see it, I know it’s there and my heart lifts. 

The place where I live is imprinted on my mind in ever-increasing detail, and now attached to it are the fictional characters that I have scattered around the area. I could show you where my heroine Jessie Whelan lived at almost every stage of her life, where her son John and his wife Maggie first met, walked, and fell in love. There’s the street in Kells where the McSherry family lived, and the route the two women took to work at the Haig Pit.   In the current book, ‘Cruel Tide’, I know the wood where a body was found, and I’ve found the house high on the Furness fells where the final scene takes place. The problem of writing in this way is that the locations are so clear in my own mind that I can forget to describe them fully enough for my readers. 

One of the reasons the books sell so well locally is that readers love to see their familiar territory described and peopled with stories that are authentic and plausible, in terms of their own lives and experience. The joy of shared recognition of a building, or a view gives the reading experience a special  dimension that appeals to the ‘heftedness’ of local readers. The challenge is to provide that same emotional response for others too.

Of course I’d really get a kick out of putting on a ‘Jessie Whelan’ tour for the trilogy, all around its setting ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. For the new book (out in November) and the series that will hopefully follow, the tour would start with the extraordinary landscape of Morecambe Bay. Maybe it’s time to buy a bus.

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Selling books is harder than writing them!

A group asked me to talk about publishing my own books, and I heard myself saying to them ‘Publishing is the easy part, selling is much harder’. For me, that’s true, because getting my work into the hands of readers is part of what motivates me to write in the first place. I’ve been struck recently by the number of people who claim to be writing just for the amusement of family and friends, and don’t appear to be interested in reaching readers beyond that group. That’s not enough for me. Maybe because I’m older, I want something to leave behind me, in the memories and on the bookshelves of as many people as possible.

So how do you sell, and how many is enough? As I write this, James Rebanks ‘The Shepherd’s life’ has been in the best seller charts for weeks and must have sold many thousands. It’s a great book, and I’m not begrudging him that success, but he seems to have had some things going for him that the rest of us might not have. Even before the book was published, for example, he had 40,000 Twitter followers, which has since risen to 60,000. If only 10% of those followers bought a book, that’s still a lot of sales! And either through Twitter or his publishers or agent he’s had massive media coverage, which must have helped too. 

So how do we lesser mortals sell our books? One way that works for me is to sell directly, usually after doing a presentation or visiting a book club group. People like to buy from the author they’ve just heard from. Fortunately, I really enjoy that side of the business. As a professional presenter in education for decades, I’ve had plenty of practice in marshalling ideas and facts quite fluently without notes and love the stimulus of responding to whatever questions people may have. I can also offer ‘deals’ as I think fit, which makes buying the full trilogy an attractive prospect. I love selling the full set, as it means they may read all three books in the right order and get the reading experience as it was designed to be.

Another route to market for me has been through a local wholesale distributor, Hills of Workington. They take a 50% discount, but they service almost every book retailer and tourist outlet in Cumbria, apart from the south-east corner, and selling to them by the carton is more efficient than trying to reach each outlet myself. The first orders were on sale or return, but that’s not really necessary any more as the three books in my trilogy, all set in Cumbria, sell steadily, and do well in the tourist season. The beauty of historical fiction is that it has an almost infinite shelf-life. The books will have the same appeal to visitors in ten years time as they have now.

Listing the books in both paperback and ebook formats on Amazon and Kindle brings in a steady trickle of orders, and the big national and international distributors Bertrams and Neilsen contact me for books too, but it’s a cumbersome business. I’ve done the workshops about how to increase your ebook sales with promotions, manipulating the ‘best seller’ lists and reducing the price to less than a cup of coffee, but I’m not thrilled about that. If writers like me produce something of worth, it demeans the process if we sell our work for peanuts. And I can’t be bothered obsessing about selling as much as possible if it takes too much of the time I want to spend writing. Some of my time obviously must be devoted to marketing and promotion, but not too much.

So I totter along, wishing I could sell more, longing for the feedback from readers that so rarely comes, thinking about how, where and when to organise my own promotions. Most of the time I enjoy it. I dream of being ‘discovered’ and selling the TV and film rights, not to make a fortune but just to see my stuff reach more people. That would be fun. I need to invest in new ways of doing things, using video on my website for example, or making this blog more entertaining, but that would use creative energy that seems to be constantly diverted into the next book. What I really need is a savvy publicist who’s prepared to work for nothing. Dream on.

How many sales is enough? If I cover the costs of self-publishing to my own high standard, involving proper professional help, that’s enough. My accountant reckoned I should aim to make as much profit over five years as I would done if the money had stayed in my current account, and with interest rates at rock bottom that’s not much. ‘Back yourself’, he said, and I liked the sound of that, so I did.

Genre cliche and sex

As you may remember from previous posts, dear reader, I’ve always struggled with the notion of ‘genre’. I’m not keen on stereotypes generally, and genre has often seemed a rather lazy and delimiting way of categorising a book, to make it easier for booksellers to know which shelf to put it on. As a writer of regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction, my irritation may be understandable. ‘Fiction’ is OK, but the rest of the labels are perjorative, and it’s particularly galling when the ‘local’ label condemns my books to the bottom shelf or the back room alongside books about copper mining in Victorian Cumberland.

After a trilogy in the ‘regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction’ category, I decided to try crime fiction, which I read much of myself and have always enjoyed. As usual, I began by trying to learn about this mode of writing, and enjoyed a day at Crimefest in Bristol last summer, to immerse myself briefly and see what I could pick up. Part of it reminded me of a weekend spent at the Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Buxton the previous year. At both events everyone seemed to know everyone else, except me of course, and there was an air of shared language and complacent jollity, with much kissing and expressions of joy. Even the names at Crimefest had a certain pattern: I was struck by the number of Camilla’s and Jocelyn’s, for example, of whom we see very few in West Cumbria. That must be a cultural habit emanating from London. 

The workshop with Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan was really good, as I’ve mentioned before, and focussed mainly on the 3 act structure, that was new to me and quite challenging, which I liked. There was also the interesting idea of a parallel between the external crises in the plot and internal personal crises for the protagonist. I could see how the best of what I’ve read reflected this dual thread. I could also see how the main characters required some personal demons that made them more interesting and vulnerable, and also generated mistakes, false assumptions and some of the blind alleys and red herrings of good crime stories. 

The crime fiction shelves,and especially the Nordic noir variety, are full of depressed, lonely, single men with fraught personal relationships and alcohol problems. When does a recurring idea become a cliche? You can change gender, as MR Hall has bravely done, but still end up with the same formula: Hall’s female coroner is depressed, lonely, single etc etc. Or you can give your hero a very particular setting, as with Bill Ryan’s Korolev in Stalinist Russia, and make him a more sympathetic character, but surround his intrinsic goodness with potentially overwhelming conspiracy and evil doings. 

There is a general absence of joy among current crime fiction ‘heroes’, which inevitably affects one of the genre cliches, the requirement to include at least one sexual encounter. We are led to believe that sex in fiction increases sales. And sex does appear to be de rigeur these days in crime fiction, which is quite a challenge when many of the current protagonists, however physically attractive they may be, are deeply depressed. They are drawn to the most unlikely and unsuitable people, sometimes against all their better instincts, although the apparently inevitable sexual encounter is often described in unspecific euphemisms. We should be grateful for that at least : anything more graphic might be too grotesque. Incidentally, this feature of the genre was never mentioned in Hall and Ryan’s admirable workshop, but there it is in their books.  

So here’s my dilemma as a novice crime writer. Do I absorb the lessons from my more experienced and successful peers and include the obligatory sex scene, even inferentially, or do I eschew it in the interests of the reader’s digestion and stick to the crime stuff – the ‘meat and potatoes’ without the gravy? Much will depend on how I choose to draw my main characters, and I’ve already decided on a rather wild and perverse young woman who finds herself collaborating with a more conventional young man with a less intuitive and more procedural approach. One woman, one man, both relatively young and unattached. The reader’s expectation of sex might be high, but does it have to happen? If a sexual encounter is part of the genre cliche, it would have to be simultaneously provoked by too much alcohol in her case and uncharacteristic lust from him. I could engineer that I suppose by some tricksy plotting, but do I really want to? Is it not possible that two people of different genders can work together without sex? I remember my mother telling me gravely that such a thing was not possible. ‘They’re all the same, dear,’ she said (meaning all men). ‘They only want thing. It’s in their nature.’ I have no clear opinion on this issue.

In each book of my earlier trilogy there was some sex, but I maintain that it was a product of, and necessary to, the development of a character-driven plot. In the current foray into crime fiction, the same must apply. If neither plot nor character would generate a sexual episode naturally, by its own volition, then it won’t happen. Part of me is quite relieved. Trying to write with commitment about something implausible is too difficult. I’m grateful too that as a self-published author I’m under no external pressure to increase sales by giving way to this particular genre cliche. No editorial or marketing voice is whispering in my ear to include something I don’t feel the need for. 

This is not to say that in future books, even those with the same characters, sex might not arise plausibly and find a place in the story. But genre cliche alone will not be enough. If we rightly criticise cliche in other aspects of writing, we shouldn’t let the obsession with genre lead to formulaic structures and plots. If that makes them less likely to be best-sellers, so be it. Most of us will never make a full living from writing anyway, so we might as well hang on to our self-respect and avoid cliche in all its forms.