‘Now pile your dust upon the quick and the dead,’ laments Laertes in Hamlet as Ophelia is buried. It’s one of those beautifully striking phrases that I’ve remembered from university, up there with bits of Dante (‘midway along the journey of life, I found myself in a dark wood’) and Wat Tyler (‘when Adam delved and Eve span, where was then the pride of man?’). It’s alluring even in an opaque fourteenth century bible version: ‘And thei schulen yyue resoun to hym, that is redi to deme the quyke and the deed.’ Leave judgement of all souls to God, it admonishes us.
Richard van Emden’s book ‘The Quick and the Dead’ is about the fallen soldiers of the Great War and their families, and I had picked it up on the same basis of intrigue and recognition. I have read several of Richard’s books on self-scheduled Breakfast in Bed Research sessions. If you have a good book you don’t wait until finishing your porridge before picking it up. With tautly-bound paperbacks this creates balance issues – bowl and spoon must be handled deftly to keep the book open whilst the porridge goes in your mouth and not all over your pyjamas. When you’re reading books as fascinating as Richard’s, the urgent need to take copious notes complicates this precarious arrangement. One false move for a distant biro and it’s carnage. A few pages have delicately oated watermarks highlighting particularly affecting passages.
So I was keen to attend a workshop based around the themes of the book at Oxford Brookes University. It was led by Richard and heritage consultant Stephen Barker and aimed at people writing about the war. There were around ten of us in attendance, most of whom were women, so I gave myself a talking to for not having challenged my own assumptions about who’s interested in WW1. One was a retired RAF nurse, another a young Asian girl about to start an English literature degree. Several wanted to expand their own family history research. I’d met Patrick Limb, who’s writing a book about a barrister-turned-soldier shot in the Easter Rising, before, and a fair-headed young man called David who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1916 officer’s uniform made up the male contingent. What we all had in common was a quiet relief that we’d outed our Great War habit in a confined and sympathetic environment.
Richard had boundless energy and enthusiasm. He shared a career’s worth of wonderful stories about Great War veterans, the neap tides of publisher’s attentions, and what not to put on your book cover. He was also generous with his hard-won experience, putting someone else’s book, ‘How the Pershore Plum Won the Great War’ on a must-read list for all of us.
It was interesting to come to the workshop at this point in my own Project Lionel and notice that some of the thoughts that were crystallised for me during my own research were echoed in the discussions. The mud, blood and vermin versions of the Great War have become clichés (albeit brutally honest ones) that the media seem unable to let go of, but any writer hoping to attract a thoughtful readership has got to find the light, shade and humour amongst the gore.
We did some good break-out work on book proposals. It was painful to have to cut down to 50 words the 200-word masterpiece I drafted almost a year ago for Pen and Sword – but it was a good exercise in precision pruning. I didn’t quite have the nerve to share some of the flippant titles I’d played with – (Lionel and the Red Baron: Great War, Terrible End) but it was fun to talk about everyone’s ideas for their own projects. One genius title for a book about the Women’s Land Army came up that gave us the giggles, but I’ll leave that to your imagination and tell you all about it when the work is written and published.
I’ve taken home two things in particular. The first: don’t be a lazy author if you want to be commissioned to write again – get out there and sell. Richard had the gift of making this sound like fun instead of the complete vapour-inducing horror I’d been turning it into.
The second was that I’m now desperate for a customised filing system housed in antique walnut, with an A to Z of my archival meanderings, in order to turn all those little nuggets I had to leave out of the book, into Book Number Two.
I’ve also noticed in the acknowledgements of several sober historians of Great War aviation that my addiction to facetious alternative titles is not unusual, so I’ll leave you with a few more. (Disclaimer: these are coming from a place of love and respect and in a long tradition of RFC black humour which I hope will not offend anyone.)
Up the Family Tree and Downed on the Somme
Aunt Lil and the Red Baron: An Ancestor Descends
Farewell to Flesquieres
Croydon and All That
A Sideslip to Obscurity
Half a League from Carshalton
Ill Met By Marcoing
Hun in the Sun, Youth on the Looth (sic)
Icarus in Sheepskin
I Was A Teenage Second Lieutenant
Similar affectionate alternatives are welcomed.
How do you get a publishing contract as a first-time author? First find a really good story involving a legendary historical figure.
I spent hours and hours combing the internet for advice and despaired more than once when I found too much of it. What did convince me was the Your Writer Platform website – a combination of common sense and slightly overwhelming positivity that changed my mindset about the usefulness of an online presence. Previously I’d shied away from anything vaguely resembling self-promotion, but there was something winningly honest about this website’s approach, so I thought, well what I have got to lose?
I then spent hours planning ideal reader profiles and which website building provider to go with. I sought help from my friend Rachel, who is a social media manager. She introduced me to the two-headed monsters of Twitter and Instagram. I began to enjoy the creative buzz. And crucially, I was desperate to share Morris’s story, which made it a much less immodest activity to promote him, rather than me.
Then came the celebrity/serendipity. On Twitter, I followed the brilliant author and battlefield guide, Paul Reed, whose knowledge of the Great War is matched by his empathy for its victims. He had liked a post by the historian/journalist/telly producer Rebecca Rideal, so I saw it by default. Rebecca was offering advice on getting a new non-fiction book published. I emailed her, and she said she’d be happy to help and would get back to me in a few days.
Whilst I was congratulating myself on having been on Twitter at exactly the right time, I saw I had a new follower who was a commissioning editor at Pen and Sword. She emailed me to stay that she’d seen my website and that Morris’s story sounded like just the kind of book she was interested in. If I hadn’t responded publicly on Twitter to Rebecca’s tweet, I wonder if it would have happened at all, let alone so quickly.
Whitgift School had also done a lot of the legwork for me. The astonishing amount of publicity they had achieved for their Remembering 1916 exhibition (which featured Morris so prominently) enabled me to show visitors to my website that there was a good deal of interest in the story already, something the canny commissioning editor at Pen and Sword would not have missed.
Website building proves that the adage ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ theory is frustratingly accurate. I tried to keep mine as simple as possible. I hoped that the power of the story would be clear, without the need to embellish the site with too many fancy visuals and widgets. Not that I could have added them with my level of technological know-how anyway. Finding and paying for decent images of Great War aviation (with all the copyright issues involved) was a whole new ballgame I couldn’t tackle at that stage either. So I concentrated on the quality of the writing. My website isn’t a design triumph, but I think there’s enough authenticity and enthusiasm to engage the limited number of visitors I could reasonably expect as an unknown author. I used Weebly. And wished I’d stuck to WordPress, as I’d had a simple site hosted with them previously that had been simple to use – I got stuck down a few cul-de-sacs of inertia and frustration learning a completely new interface.
The thing I hadn’t expected with Twitter was its ability to not only connect you very quickly to the right people, but how it can make you friends and stretch your creative muscles in such a fun way. There are many days when it feels like you’re talking to yourself in a desperate bid for attention, but there are other days when it’s exhilarating and encouraging and proves another tired adage true – positive things happen to positive people. I’m not sure how many first-time authors hope to get published without a half-decent online presence and a willingness to engage with these kinds of networks.
It’s very easy to feel intimidated by the quantity of information available online. I certainly did. But it is worth taking time to research as much as you can bear - the salient bits become clear on reflection and you can take from it what you think will be achievable and useful.
Now that the book is with the publisher and I’m awaiting an editor’s gimlet-eyed response, I’m spending a lot less time on social media but I’ll be planning a strategic onslaught in the run up to publication next year.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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