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Monday, 17 November 2014

A Tour of Nebraska – and a Link to Buffalo Bill


Having now handed Chasing Black Gold over to the publisher, I am free to turn my attention to plans that have been on the back burner for some time. Highest on my list of priorities has been to think about that rash announcement I made a few months ago, that I would make a tour of Nebraska in 2015, promoting The Red House On The Niobrara through a series of lectures. A road-show, no less.  

Fortunately, a bit of head-scratching reminded me of the cardinal rule to be obeyed when planning foolish ventures in far-off places: work your contacts.

Over the past twenty years or so I have made a number of good friends in Nebraska. One of them is a descendant of the Arent family, the Danish homesteaders who built the red house about ninety years ago. He has been delivering copies of the book to friends, to neighbouring ranchers I got to know when I was out in the Sandhills, to scholars in the field, to librarians and hoteliers and the like. Another contact, whom I met at the Mari Sandoz conference in 2010, has urged me to think about giving talks in Boulder, where she lives, and Denver, also of course Lincoln, where I have a number of contacts.

All this throws up the matter of self-promotion, and how to achieve the biggest splash. As I think about the kind of material I want to get out there I am forced to conclude that I must exploit, shamelessly, the man who first got me interested in the Wild West – namely, William F Cody.

I was about five years old when I became aware that we had in our family a set of autographed photos of him and Annie Oakley. They came from my great-great uncle, John Wiltshire, who captained the ship that transported the Wild West Show across the Atlantic on at least one occasion. We always understood that it was the State of Nebraska, and as my studies led me to the Cornhusker state in the early 1990s, that seemed so very appropriate – as if my love of Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, and the  country they wrote about, was simply meant to be.

Many years later, when I was deep in my researches, I found that this story was a myth. The ship in question was under the command of one Captain Braes – and, upon its return voyage, of a Captain Bristow.  I was, of course, bitterly disappointed. But while I was living  the red house, out there in the Sandhills, I was shown this passage in a biography of Little Miss Sure-Shot:   

‘Shortly before Christmas, 1893, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler moved into their new house at 304 Grant Avenue [in Nutley, New Jersey]…. Less than a week after moving in, the Butlers had dinner guests, an event that was duly noted in the social columns of the local newspapers. Invited were J. M. Brown, manager of the Atlantic Transport Company of New York; Louis E Cooke of the Barnum and Bailey Show; and a Mr. and Mrs. Cannon of Newark. Mr. Cannon was a noted one-armed sportsman. Also invited was Captain Wiltshire of the steamship Mohawk, which had carried the Wild West home from Europe the year before.’

So it was true, after all. I aim to extract maximum benefit from that as I sit and draft my publicity material.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

On Keeping A Journal

I’ve kept a daily journal now for twenty years (plus a few months). I started when I got my first desk-top computer in 1994. I was forty-five years old. The early volumes are fat, their content exceeding 100,000 words annually. I printed those out and have stored them in the attic. In later years – perhaps as a result of my life becoming a little more ordered – I found I was cranking out a more modest 50-70,000 words. Most of those volumes are stored on the p.c., and backed up on CD.

Since I started writing a blog I’ve found it harder to maintain the discipline of a daily update. Perhaps it has become less important. Let me correct that: the reason these blog entries have become less frequent is that I decided my journal was important to me.

I’m not sure what first motivated me to keep a daily record of my life. Like a lot of people, I had kept some kind of a diary in my younger days, but only very occasionally and erratically. I know that what I have put in my  journals over the past couple of decades has helped me in various ways to work out my feelings about what was going on my life. Some entries, I am sure, would make me go hot and cold all over were I to dig them out today. They fulfil one very useful function, however, that of a providing me with a simple record. When did I work on this or that article, story, script or book? When did I walk a particular footpath? Or last see a certain friend? Visit a certain town?

Beyond those specifics, and because the  journals span the twenty years during which I have made a living as a writer, I find it immensely helpful to have a record of my  endeavours to stay afloat financially. Buried away in their pages are accounts of some pretty difficult times – times of constant rejection, high hopes and broken promises. In 1999, shortly before I was hired as a script-writer on Britain’s number two TV soap opera, Emmerdale, I was indebted to the tune of some £17,000 – a fact that didn’t become clear to me until some time later when I scrolled back, read the evidence and did the sums. I paid that lot back within six months – to the considerable surprise of one or two debtors, who professed to have forgotten about the loans they’d made to me. Maybe they should have kept journals.

The journals’ greatest use, however, has been in providing me with a record of just how difficult it was in the early days. Back in about 1999 or 2000 I recorded – and I remember deciding to record this – a list of some 32 projects which were still supposedly. These included ideas for radio programmes I was discussing with the BBC; feature ideas that magazine editors were considering – sometimes for as long as two years; short and long fictions, written and merely outlined, that I was trying to sell, and of course a number of ongoing debates with corporate entities who were considering my proposals to write their histories. What always intrigues me about these failed ideas is that I invariably seemed to strike pay-dirt after a call from out of the blue – from a place I hadn’t even tried, a publisher I knew nothing about. How else would I get a commission to write the history of The 41 Club? To ghost the autobiography of a cricketer? To write seven volumes on the life of a country policeman? Or, at the other end of the scale, to write a best man’s speech, or some kid’s application to a prestigious medical school?

I suppose I imagine that there might come a day when someone, somewhere, might like to read about one writer’s attempt to work the oracle – to conjure up enough paying work to allow himself to stay home and do the thing any writer loves best, and that that person will have my journals at his or her disposal.

Monday, 27 October 2014

One Book In, Another Book Out.


One Book In, Another Book Out 


It’s been a lively day. Shortly before lunch there was a knock at the door and there was the postman with a parcel containing ten copies of my latest book (above). I mean, of course, the one I ghosted for ex-PC Pannett, A Likely Tale, Lad.

An hour later I was able to email to my current client the completed, revised and edited version of Chasing Black Gold. He wants to have a final read through before forwarding it to the agent and the publisher.

I was rather touched when he emailed me this morning and confessed that he was having withdrawal symptoms, having agreed last week that we had finished tinkering and that it was now down to me to apply the final polish. So, he asked, could he have a wee look at the first chapter, to which I had applied the most alterations. ‘I need a fix,’ he said – and no sooner had I sent it than he was asking whether I was up for  drafting a film proposal – and an outline for a potential American publisher. The guy obviously has the bug.

With that out of the way I am now free to think about a raft of other projects I have in mind, none more urgent, it seems, than my preparation for the residency in Taos next January.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

I Declare This Day a Holiday (and after five books in less than two years, why not?)

I slept till eight; I got dressed at eleven; I felt no huge compulsion to dash to the keyboard and edit, edit, edit. I reckon I must be on holiday.

The fact is, yesterday afternoon I packaged up a big fat manuscript, hopped on my bike and took it down to Ushaw Moor post office. Considering that I didn’t start work on Chasing Black Gold until the final few days of June, and that I took two weeks out to go tramping around the Arctic Circle, that ain’t bad progress, is it? Thirteen weeks,  roughly sixty working days, and 93,000 words. No doubt about it: my client and I work well as a team.

The completed book – my fifth in 22 months - isn’t on its way to the publisher yet, nor the agent. We have fifteen more days before it’s due at The History Press. Instead, we’ve decided to send it to my good mate Joan Deitch, who will read it through and give us an opinion as to whether it’s working. Nobody asked us to do that, but both I and the guy I’m ghosting for felt it was worth paying her for some independent feedback. We will meet up next week in Edinburgh to discuss her report and give final consideration to any late changes. And I may yet re-write an opening passage which, I feel, falls short of the pacy, exciting stuff that follows.

Quite often when I’ve finished a book I feel huge relief. Sometimes it’s, ‘Thank God that’s over!’ In this case I feel rather like those characters who jump off cliffs in cartoons and hang suspended in mid-air. Gravity isn’t going to kick in until the realisation of where they are hits them. A number of very large fly-wheels in my head are still thrumming away; my metaphor- and image-detectors are still on full alert, and I keep thinking of fantastic bits of material that didn’t make it into the latest edit. I also feel… bereft. I have enjoyed writing about this guy – have relished the opportunity to adopt a voice for him and live, albeit vicariously, the life of a freebooter.

Already I find my mind buzzing around like a fly in an empty jam-jar, trying to decide which of the many ideas that are pressing in on me I will tackle next, while another part of me stands to one side, chin in hand, saying, ‘Would you just form an orderly queue, please.’

I was reading a column penned by footballer-turned-pundit Robbie Savage this morning. He spoke of his final playing days, when he would wake up after a hard game feeling fit as a flea – only to find that the next day his limbs and joints cried out in pain. Maybe that’ll be my writer’s brain tomorrow.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Whoops! I Almost Forgot. Got a New Book Out Today.

I've been so wrapped up in the revisions of Chasing Black Gold that it escaped my attention. Today saw the publication of the Mike Pannett book I was working on earlier in the year.

It's quite shocking to realise how relaxed one can become about a new book. This is somewhere close to my twentieth - and there's another thing: I'm losing count. Too busy to tot them up. I never thought that that would happen.

I think it's a good read. I've tried to evoke the atmosphere of the childhood adventures I had in the 1950s, and apply them to Mike's memories of the 1970s. And, as with all the Now Then, Lad series, it's the feel-good factor we're after. Whatever happens, there's always a safe place to end up in, and a good meal waiting.

It's available from good bookstores, and of course amazon. Give it a try.

Yes, this is one very fuzzy image. When I get my free author copies in the mail I'll take a picture and replace it.