Wednesday, July 28, 2010

'Bruce' is the new 'Tudor'

Last week I learned that not one, not two, but three - count 'em THREE - established mainstream historical fiction authors are coming out with novels that feature Robert the Bruce or William Wallace. I'm stoked! The last traditionally published author to venture into Bruce territory was Nigel Tranter with his own The Bruce Trilogy (released 1969-1971). (BTW, Tranter wrote a hundred books in his lifetime - wow! To be that prolific . . . )

would I be excited that someone else has written and is releasing a novel about the same historical figure? Because these authors already have loyal readers and their books are only going to increase awareness of the time period, the historical figures and the events surrounding the Scottish War for Independence in the early 14th century. This is such a rich period in history I'm surprised it's taken so long, but better late than never, I say.

Think about this: how many books are there about King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth I or Henry VIII (or any of his assorted wives)? Dozens . . . hundreds maybe? I say Bruce is the new Tudor. Move over Ann Boleyn, the Plantagenets are about to displace you.

The Lion Wakes, by Robert Low
- This story covers the years from 1296 to the Battle of Falkirk. (Harper Collins UK, March 31st, 2011)

Insurrection, by Robyn Young - From the author of The Brethren Triology about the Crusades, this one looks to have an interesting twist to it. (Hodder & Stoughton (UK), Oct. 14th, 2010)

The Forest Laird - William Wallace, by Jack Whyte - Whyte is the author of the Camulod Chronicles and various Templar books. (Tor, Sept. 2010)

There are loads of books out there mimicking Meyer's Twilight books and Rowling's Harry Potter series. Once hooked, readers go in search of more. Certain storylines or styles of writing will appeal more to particular readers. Books are not a one-size-fits-all category. So, for both readers and writers, competition is a good thing. And I'm looking forward to how each of those authors spins the tale of Robert the Bruce.

Happy reading,

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book trailer and Kindle for The Crown in the Heather, a novel of Robert the Bruce

I'm just a teensy bit excited about two new things! First, I finished creating a book trailer for The Crown in the Heather and posted it on YouTube!!! Yes, I feel like a cyber-giant now.

Very soon I'm going to post a list of 'Things I Learned This Year That I Never Thought I'd Need to Know to Get a Book Published'. For short, we'll just call it 'Things I Learned . . .' Anywho, you can add learning how to use Windows MovieMaker to that and setting up an account on YouTube. My daughter got a smidge perturbed that I hogged her laptop for three days while I figured out all the bells and whistles and then made her watch my rough cuts half a dozen times, but she was a good sport. The only really aggravating part was that YouTube wanted to text a verification code to me to set up an account. Call me a Caveman, but I don't have texting. Eventually, they took pity on me and let me through the sacred portal.

This trailer has been in the works for months. Not that it took me that long to actually make - it was more a matter of finding a block of time to do it - but I picked out the soundtrack (Long Road Ahead) a long time ago from Kevin MacLeod's awesome Royalty Free Music site. The pictures are all from iStockphoto. Now all I need is someone with a charming Scottish accent to do a voice-over for the narrative bits. Do you think Gerard Butler is available?

Second, I published The Crown in the Heather to Kindle, thanks to Lisa Yarde's incredibly easy-to-follow D-I-Y with Kindle. Although to fess up, if I had followed her suggestion about adding a '#' or other symbol between scene breaks, I wouldn't have had to already publish a revision, ahem. So Lisa's instructions are spot on. I am just impatient sometimes.

While I hadn't originally planned to make it available on Kindle so soon after releasing the paperback, I believe this is the best way to reach new readers. Kindle people tend to be voraciou readers. BTW, don't forget to check customer tags while you're browsing (i.e. 'Robert the Bruce', 'historical fiction', 'Scottish history', etc.). That makes it even easier for customers to find a particular book. In fact, next time you look at any book there, tag it.

Already I'm selling 1-2 Kindle versions a day. A big Woot! Woot! because I'm pretty sure those are folk I don't even know and I've barely mentioned it anywhere. The Kindle price is just $2.99 for now and if, like me, you don't own a Kindle device, you can download it FOR FREE onto your PC - how cool is that? You can also download Kindle apps for your iPhone, Blackberry, you name it. Imagine that - someone could be on the New York City subway with nothing more than their phone, reading my book. Just click on the link to my book below or go to the Kindle store on and you will see links there.

Lastly, I'd like to thank two super-cool people:

1) Greta van der Rol, who wrote two very informative guest posts for me this week on researching the historical novel and creating characters from historical figures, and

2) Lisa Yarde, who has been hosting a series of posts this past week over at The Brooklyn Scribbler on how Five Self-Starters did it (Peter Johnson, Lisa Yarde, Michelle Gregory, Kristina Eammons, and me). If you're interested in learning about the decisions and experiences of some indie authors, check it out.

Until later,

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Author Greta van der Rol discusses bringing historical figures to life

In the previous post, guest blogger Greta van der Rol talked about her research of the events before and after the wreck of the Dutch ship Batavia. In this one, she'll give us some insight into how she developed her characters from that information:

"Okay, so I had a pretty good idea of the recorded facts and the historical and visual context. But that’s not a novel, is it? Characters make novels.

Always, always I went back to the journal to try to see into these people’s minds. Most historians support the notion that the Batavia’s captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, was in a plot with Cornelisz to hijack the Batavia, kill Pelsaert and go pirating. Drake-Brockman supported that belief, so did Dash, although Godard (another amateur) had his doubts. But it seemed strange to me for many, many reasons, not least because there is no record of Jacobsz having been executed.

My picture of Pelsaert soon became one of a man trying to salvage his own reputation. He and Jacobsz had a history, they despised each other. Reading the early part of the journal, where Pelsaert describes the initial wreck, I raised an eyebrow as Pelsaert used ‘I’, implying he gave orders that would have been given by the captain. The same thing happened during the longboat’s journey as Pelsaert claimed credit for things I felt were beyond his knowledge. Jacobsz deserved the credit and received none. It was also important to remember the man for whom Pelsaert was writing this journal – the formidable Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Governor of the Indies. A harsh and puritanical man, he was unimpressed (to say the least) at the loss of a ship and its cargo. One could expect Pelsaert to be at pains to present his own actions in the best possible light.

In contrast, my picture of the captain was of a tough, strong, capable man. A hard drinker, a womaniser sure enough. But a true leader, somebody these hardened seamen would follow. Zwaantie, the young woman who won Jacobsz’s affection, is depicted in the journal as a tart. But again, some of the evidence for that conjecture comes from Cornelisz. I think the mere fact that Jacobsz took Zwaantie with him in the longboat indicates a little more than a casual fling.

The journal reveals Cornelisz as a psychopath, silver-tongued, charismatic and an accomplished liar who would say anything to save himself. The main evidence for the existence of the piracy plot implicating Jacobsz comes from Cornelisz. There is corroborating evidence given by some of the other henchmen, but men said things like “I didn’t know about a plot until after the wreck” or evidence was extracted through torture. I began to wonder if I could build a case that Cornelisz deliberately wove a tale of a plot to seduce his followers. He needed sailors to pull off his plan to capture a rescue ship and he was a merchant. What better way to add validity to his plan than to implicate the popular captain? Pelsaert, of course, jumped at the notion of a plot.

The other two characters, Lucretia and Wiebbe Hayes, are merely bit players in the journal. Dash and Drake-Brockman gave me the wherewithal to paint Lucretia as a real woman, a grieving mother going off to join her husband in a far-off land. Combine that with the perilous situation of a high-born lady left with a mob of louts and it’s easy enough to imagine how difficult it would be for her. I took the opportunity to use her as the eyes of the victims, if you like, interpreting events on Batavia’s Graveyard from her point of view.

Dash also gave me a start with Hayes, probably a junior son of a fairly well-born family. From there, the unwritten story emerges in the journal. A leader who could pull together such a disparate bunch of men and forge them into a group that could threaten armed thugs.

Of course I made some things up. It’s a novel, after all. I guess every historian has a duty to examine the facts and interpret them and in a way, that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book. One reader (who knew the history) describes the novel as dramatization rather than fiction. I’ll take that, with a bow."


Many, many thanks, Greta! To say that I was impressed by this novel is a huge understatement. It was riveting. A bit adventure and thriller - something you usually don't get in a historical novel. If you haven't yet heard of it, do check it out on or see my review on Die a Dry Death below.

Until later,


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Author Greta van der Rol discusses researching the historical novel

I'm always curious how other writers of historical fiction research not just events, but the people they're writing about. Greta van der Rol, author of Die a Dry Death, was gracious enough to write two guest posts for me. The first one here will examine how she uncovered the detailed events that provided the framework for her fascinating book. The next post will discuss how she got into the minds of the historical figures who took part, to weave those events into a plot driven by said characters.

Here is the first installment:

"Gemi has asked to write about the historical research that went into ‘Die a Dry Death’ my novel about the wreck of the Dutch merchant vessel Batavia in 1629, and then to talk about characterisation in said novel. Now I’ve written this, I find it isn’t a generic ‘this is what you do’. It’s very much a personal story of what I did for this book. So take it as a case study. Maybe there’s something in here for the student.

Research and characterization feed off each other, of course. Especially in this case, where all the people in my book were real. They lived and died and their story has resonated down through the centuries. For me, that gives the author an added responsibility, to try to get it as right as can be.

Having grown up in Western Australia, I heard about the Batavia and the other Dutch wrecks of the 17th and 18th centuries at primary school. That was a long time ago and I think I’ve read most of the non-fiction about all those wrecks. I’ve been to the maritime museum in Fremantle and seen the artefacts recovered from the site, including the Batavia’s actually keel, rebuilt in the basement. I’ve been on the Batavia replica built in Holland (there are some pictures on my website) and I’ve stood on the forbidding cliffs the longboat sailed along. So I’ve been immersed in the story for a long time.

But back to research. Any book about the Batavia is based on one main account of the events – Pelsaert’s journal. Francisco Pelsaert was an employee of the Dutch East India Company, the Upper Merchant in charge of the fleet of which the Batavia was the flagship. So while Adriaen Jacobsz, the ship’s captain, was in command of the ship he was beholden to Pelsaert. (Who was not a sailor.) After the Batavia was wrecked, Pelsaert started a journal to record events. On his return to the Abrolhos islands to rescue the remaining survivors, he documented the trial of Cornelisz and his band of thugs.

Apart from the journal, the only other known contemporary document is a letter written by Predikant Bastiaensz to his family. It is about the only source for what happened in the last few days when the thugs made their final attacks on the soldiers.

Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s Voyage to Disaster (UWA Press, 2006) contains a translation of Pelsaert’s journal, Bastiaensz’s letter and other documents she was able to procure from Holland and Jakarta, such as Coen’s orders to Pelsaert. As an aside, Drake-Brockman, an amateur historian, actually deduced the whereabouts of the wreck from reading the descriptions of locations in the journal and the Predikant’s letter. Archaeologists had been looking on the wrong reef. The ship was finally found in 1963, when her book was first published.

Mike Dash’s wonderful book Batavia’s Graveyard (Phoenix, 2002) is a much more recent work written by a trained historian. The book provided details about life on the ship and life in the colonies. I found out what people ate, discovered the soldiers would have had to buy their own equipment and got a real feel for the rigid layering of society. Dash used records from the other Dutch wrecks to deduce what life might have been like for the survivors; what they may have eaten – and who would have eaten what. He also researched the backgrounds of the main players in the drama – Pelsaert, Cornelisz and Lucretia van der Mijlen in particular. For me, this was fantastic. I could start to see what I was dealing with and put the people into historical context. I augmented impressions with the paintings of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ where one can see clothing, food, interiors – both in Holland and in the city of Batavia. The Dutch national gallery proved to be a wonderful resource. I could see drawings of the fort, sketches of Batavia street life, paintings of the wealthy burghers.

My third main source was The First and Last Voyage of the Batavia by Philippe Godard (Abrolhos Publishing, 1993). Godard’s lavish coffee table book provided photographs and sketches of the Abrolhos islands and its wildlife, coloured pictures of paintings, the layout of the fort at Batavia, the marine archaeology and cross-sections of the ship itself. The author commissioned paintings of the main players, too. But I ignored them. No one knows what any of these people looked like, not even Pelsaert."

Thanks, Greta! To be continued . . .

Until later,

Monday, July 12, 2010

Formatting the interior of your book

One comment that I’ve received frequently is that the interior layout of my historical novel, The Crown in the Heather, is on par with any traditionally published book. Of all the things an indie author can do when putting a book together themselves, formatting the interior is perhaps the easiest thing to do well – and without added cost, since you can do it yourself. In a previous post, I skimmed over some of the elements I used to give my interior a little more pizzazz. Here, I’ll expand on those.

What does it take to create a professional-looking interior layout to your book? Mostly, attention to detail, a little extra time and the willingness to learn about more features of Word than you ever cared to know. Like most writers, my manuscript was formatted in a specific way: 8.5” X 11” paper, Times New Roman font (12 pt.), 1” margins, .5”indents on new paragraphs, left-justified and double-spaced. Obviously, no real book is laid out that way.

How do you transform your manuscript into a professional-looking interior? By first studying books in your genre, using some as templates for your work and then making about a hundred little decisions to customize your interior so that it is uniquely your own. Here’s a list of some – but not all – of the decisions you will need to make:

1. Book size – Go to the library or a bookstore (Wal-Mart will do). What size are books in your genre, typically? Manuals with a lot of pictures, tables or graphs are probably better suited for a larger size like 8.5” X 11”, while paperback novels come in smaller sizes that are easier to tote around.

Initially, I had my book laid out in 5.25” X 8” size. But there were two drawbacks to this. One is that the shorter lines produced more hyphenated words, which meant more finagling to try to reduce how many hyphens were on a page, which led to more wonky spacing problems. Another was that it meant more pages – and like it or not, your printing service will charge you by the page, not the word count. So, I switched to 6” X 9” and got a book that was easier on the eyes and slightly more profitable.

* In Word 2007, simply go to ‘Page Layout’, then ‘Page Setup’, and click on ‘Size’ to choose.

2. Paper type – Although this is something you won’t have to worry about until you go to order your proof, you do need to consider how it will affect your reader. You have two choices: white or crème. White is appropriate for technical manuals or non-fiction with a lot of pictures and tables, but for novels you’ll most likely want to use crème, which has less glare and for long periods of reading is easier on the eyes.

3. Margins – Lightning Source recommends that on the pdf of your text file, that margins be at least .5” on all sides. I’d recommend more and here’s why. People need someplace to put their thumbs to hold the book open and you don’t need them prying apart the spine and cracking it just to see the words in the crease. At the top and bottom, you need a little space for headers and footers. Don’t crowd the page. It may daunt your readers.

* I used .8” margins on the right and left and 1” at the top and bottom.

4. Font – Choose a font appropriate for your genre and one that’s highly readable. You may be able to get away with a sans serif font for non-fiction or a contemporary novel, but Arial wouldn’t be appropriate for a medieval historical. Although we use Times New Roman for our manuscripts, because it was developed for use in newspapers with vertical columns, its letters are narrower and it’s generally not recommended for novels. While you may be thinking this will save you a few pages in the long run, in reality the narrower the font the harder it becomes to read for long periods.

While sans serif (‘without feet’) fonts may look fine and even be preferred on a web site, most novels use serif fonts. Not only are we more used to reading books in those fonts, but the little feet and tails actually make the letters easier to differentiate.

Except for perhaps chapter headings or the occasional brief letter, avoid script fonts.

Some recommended serif fonts for novels are: Garamond (this was my choice), Bookman, Century Schoolbook, and Palatino, but there are many more that work quite well – just don’t get too fancy. The font you choose will also affect your page count, so keep that in mind. Don’t be afraid to try different fonts, print out some pages and see how they look.

5. Point size – Which point size is appropriate will depend on your font. In Garamond, 12 pt. worked well. Obviously, if your book is intended for either very young or very old readers, you’d use a larger point size. Whatever you do, don’t go small just to save on page count. Readers will give up on books with print so small they need a magnifying glass – and I’ve unwittingly bought a few of these online myself.

6. Line spacing – Generally, line spacing of 1.15 works well.

7. Justification and hyphenation – Unlike your left justified manuscript, your book should have paragraphs that are full justified (even on the right and left side). A ragged right edge is the sign of an amateur. Poetry would, of course, be the exception.

Also, I’d suggest you turn hyphenation ‘on’. Without it, you’re likely to have lines that contain longer words get shuffled onto the next line, leaving the previous line with strung-out spacing. But do check each word that Word hyphenates. In mine, it kept hyphenating ‘bishop’ as ‘bis-hop’. Obviously the ‘s’ and the ‘h’ belong on the same line: ‘bish-op’.

8. Widows and orphans – Try to avoid the obvious short word that appears alone on a line of a paragraph or a short, partial sentence on a page by itself. Omitting or adding a word or phrase, breaking larger paragraphs into multiple ones or combining paragraphs can often solve these pesky little problems.

***[Edited to add that I turned 'Widow/orphan control' OFF. Word automatically turns it ON. This can be changed by going to 'Paragraph' in your task bar, then 'Line and page breaks'. Uncheck the box. If you leave it ON, you'll end up with some pages where the last lines of facing pages, left and right, don't line up as Word shuffles things around. Much better looking just to leave it OFF and adjust manually where needed.]

9. Headers and footers – Your headers (at the top of the page) will be your Title and Author Name. Usually, your name goes on the left-hand page and the title on the right. For these, you can choose a slightly fancier font, perhaps one that echoes what you’ve used on the cover, but again, keep it legible. Most often headers are centered, but they can be left/right justified, depending on which side they’re on.

Page numbers generally appear in the footer space (either centered or in the left/right corner), but will sometimes be placed in the upper outside corner. I’ve seen variations on headers and footer arrangements – some work, some don’t. If in doubt, check out several books in your genre and choose what looks best to you. For headers and footers, go to 'Insert', then click on headers or footers. When you click your cursor in the header space on the page, you can edit there.

10. Styles – This is the one feature of Word that, prior to designing my book’s interior, I never knew existed, but now I can’t live without it. Using Styles (shown at the top of your task bar) will allow you to remain consistent about chapter headings, for one. If you want to change which font you use for all your chapter headings or how many lines you put between the chapter number and subheadings, simply right click on the Style you use for that and re-format it to your specifications. This is a huge time-saver.

11. Front and back matter – If you are including acknowledgments, historical notes, a list of resources or anything else that may fall into either of these categories, pay attention to how they are arranged in traditionally published books and then do the same, including the insertion of blank pages to set them apart and whether they appear on the right- or left-hand page.

12. Fancy features – Yes, I get excited about Drop Caps (found under the ‘Insert’ tab). These can add a little flare to your book, but not all books need them. Again, pay attention to whether they are generally used in your genre or not.

I also used small caps (found under the ‘Paragraph’ tab) for the first four words of each scene to signal to the reader that there was a change in setting or time. Again, use selectively. It's possible to get carried away and overdo it.

***[Edited to add:]
13. Section breaks - While it might be tempting to just put page breaks at the end of a chapter, use 'section breaks' instead. This will let you turn headers off on the first page of a chapter, and page numbers off where you might have blank pages between the sections (Part I, Part II) of a book. To create a section break, go to 'Page Layout', then in the 'Page Setup' tab, click on 'Breaks'. You can add a page break that begins on the very next page, or the next odd- or even-numbered page.

To link your page numbers or headers to a previous section, simply click on the header or footer area and you will see a small tab that says 'Same as previous' if you want to repeat the headers. If, for example, you want to turn the page numbers off altogether (like in the back matter of the book), simply click on the 'Design' tab, go to 'Navigation' and unclick the 'Link to previous'.

As Lisa said in the comments to the post, this is one feature that can drive you batty learning it, but it's worth mastering.

There’s even more that I could add here, but these are the basics that you can probably get by with. Do take the time to lay out your book’s interior so that it’s virtually indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. A sloppily prepared interior will only give the self-publishing naysayers one more shell to load into their rifles to shoot indie authors down with.

Set your book above the rest. Take the time, make the effort to do it right, so that anyone who picks up your self-published book and starts reading it has as pleasant an experience as possible.

Happy publishing!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Best Non-Fiction about Robert the Bruce

One wonderful aspect about historical fiction is that it entertains while educating and often inspires readers to learn more about a certain era or historical figure. Remember when the miniseries based on Alex Haley's Roots was on TV and people suddenly started researching their geneology? Okay, maybe some of you aren't as ancient as me, being somewhere past my 39th year, but fictionalized history, whether books or film, can get people excited about HISTORY.

In the many years I spent researching Robert the Bruce, James Douglas and Edward II of England for my Bruce Trilogy, beginning with The Crown in the Heather, I sifted through a lot of non-fiction. Mind you, when I began this project the internet wasn't as ginormous as it is now and we had this wonder of technology called 'dial-up'. Seeing as how I live in backwoods Ohio and scrape by on a perpetual budget, trucking off to panoramic Scotland or merry old England to rifle through dusty primary resources really wasn't an option. I once kept G.W.S. (Geoffrey) Barrow's Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland checked out of my local library for close to three years. I had a system for returning the overdue book in the evening and going back the next day to check it out again. Imagine my panic when somebody else in Sprinfield wanted to read the book, too, and put it on reserve, thereby depriving me of one of my resources for a month. Over time I've collected a small library of my own, most of them by now pitifully dog-eared, highlighted and falling apart at the spine.

I maintain a Listmania list at called "Best non-fiction about Robert the Bruce" and have also included it on the About Robert the Bruce page of my web site. Although fairly comprehensive, it is by no means all-inclusive. If you have recommendations, please send them to me. What I've included are history books that anyone can read. You won't need a PhD in medieval studies to find them enjoyably informative and easy to read.

So, if you'd like to learn more facts about Robert the Bruce, the times he lived in and the events that shaped his life, here's a list worth looking into:

  • Robert the Bruce, King of Scots by Robert McNair Scott - This account of Robert the Bruce's life and times is an indispensable resource. If you only ever get one book on the Bruce, get this one.

    Robert Bruce: And the Community of the Realm of Scotland by G. W. S. Barrow - Details Robert the Bruce's rise to the throne and his forging of a kingdom. (I managed to keep this book checked out of my local library for close to three years by returning it and then going back the next day to check it out again.)

    Robert the Bruce: A Life Chronicled by Chris Brown - Fantastic for its compilation of primary sources. There's even a section devoted to John Barbour's 'The Bruce', written in Scots.

    On the Trail of Robert the Bruce by David R. Ross - As with Ross's other books, this one is highly readable and worth having, especially if you're ever in Scotland and really want to see where history happened.

    Bannockburn by Peter Reese - This book focuses on what is perhaps the most pivotal event in Scottish history with great clarity.

    James the Good: The Black Douglas by David R. Ross - Ross's 'James the Good' pays due homage to the Bruce's most valuable right hand man, James Douglas.

    King Edward II: Edward of Caernarfon His Life, His Reign, and Its Aftermath 1284-1330 by Roy Martin Haines - Not a light read by any means, but highly detailed and thoroughly researched. If you want the specifics of Edward II's life, this is a valuable resource.

    The Three Edwards (A History of the Plantagenets) by Thomas B. Costain - Although much of the information in the book is dated, Costain writes non-fiction in an easy to read, succinct manner.

Happy reading,