Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Bluffers' Guide to Horses & Carriages (part 1)

I've joined several forums for historical novelists recently while I've been completing COACHMAN. Reading some of their book previews on Amazon it has dawned on me that while historical novelists seem interested in being authentic about costume and weaponry, I've only found two who have any direct knowledge about horses, and one who understands carriages.

Given that until the start of Victoria's reign (or William IV if you are a Liverpudlian) the fastest means of transport anywhere was either a well bred horse or a well-horsed carriage, this seems rather strange. It's a bit like writing about modern London and not knowing that you can get your character across the city far more easily by Tube than by Ferrari.

Allow me to make some helpful information available!

Even for late medieval knights, war-horses were not huge beasts. (The modern Shire horse of 17 hands or more was developed for agricultural use, well after gunpowder put an end to the mounted armoured knight.) Ann Hyland proposes that the 15th C knight's "destrier" was likely to have been a sturdy cob type of about 15-2 hands. This type of horse was a "square gaited" animal who walked, trotted, cantered or galloped.

Horses for general riding were probably not taller than 15 hands, often smaller, and frequently they were "lateral gaited" or "soft gaited", which means they walked and cantered but their in-between gait was a pace, rack or amble, rather than a trot. All these were more comfortable than a trot; the pace is similar to that of a fast moving camel or giraffe, with the legs on each side moving at the same time (watch videos of harness-racing pacers). The amble was a rapid, level, shuffling movement. Over good going the rack, like the pace, could be quite fast. Horses that moved in this comfortable way were amblers or palfreys, popular mounts for both ladies and gentlemen.

Horses for racing or hunting were "coursers", ie running horses, who moved "square" like the knight's destrier; they trotted when not galloping, and even the racehorses were not large. Many early thoroughbreds were under 14 hands high.

A useful type from Shakespeare's time onward was the Galloway, originally a type from south-west Scotland. Later the term became a generic one (like Hoover for vacuum cleaner) for any sturdy, sensible small cob of 13 to 14-2 hands. They probably looked much like a Highland, Dales or Fell pony, though for practical reasons they probably didn't carry anywhere near as much hair on neck, tail or fetlocks ("foot locks") as their modern counterparts do.

Women travelling would have a choice of riding pillion behind husband or brother; rich ladies could ride side-saddle; or ride in a litter, which was a covered seat carried on 2 long poles, suspended either side of a horse before and behind.

Modern endurance horses ridden intelligently at suitable paces for the terrain can cover anything from 25 to 50 or even 100 miles in a day. This isn't just the racy Arabian types; I know a Fell pony that has completed a 100 miler in less than 18 hours. Bear in mind that the riders don't flog on at full gallop, which being anaerobic activity would rapidly exhaust the horses' energy; they go at the pace that suits the country they have to cover, and much of that is aerobic, steady trotting or cantering, with intervals of walk to allow the horse to have a breather.

Military dispatch riders galloped, of course, and covered short distances of 3 or 4 miles in a quarter of an hour (12 to 16 MPH); but ridden horses for civilian travellers over longer distances would average no more than 6 MPH, so a day's journey was probably no more than sixty miles and often much less if roads were bad. Working horses in a city were often forced to walk because of other traffic, and there were few highway regulations to ease their passage.

Unlike cars, horses do need recuperation time before they can reasonably be expected to make another journey. This involves them being groomed, fed with grain and hay, and given water to drink and a stall under shelter in which they can stand quietly and perhaps sleep - though horses can sleep standing up and tend only to lie down for short periods.

Part 2 will look at travelling by carriage and coach.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The next big thing?

English Historical Fiction Authors on Facebook have been writing blog posts based on ten interview questions about their latest Works in Progress. I thought I'd join in.

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing:

1.) What is the title of your book?

2.) Where did the idea come from for the book?
A neighbour of ours mentioned that her family’s fortunes had been made by her great-grandfather who had been a coach proprietor in London. He was William James Chaplin (no relation to Charlie). In 1994 she asked me to transcribe a letter written by Chaplin, which a bookseller had bought at auction and brought to show her. Neither of them could read his writing, but I could… I wrote an article for “Carriage Driving” magazine about his career, but I wanted to do more with it. And it simply had to be a novel – the themes were too big for anything else.

Some of the phrases Chaplin used in that letter appear in his conversations in Coachman. Our neighbour also gave me a copy of the family tree, and permission to write the novel.

3.) Under what genre does your book fall?
Historical fiction. It isn’t really a romance in the usual sense.

4.) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

George – Tom Ellis. Chaplin – I’d love to see him played by Kenneth Branagh. For Lucy and Sarah – I’m not au fait with the names of young actresses, can’t think why. The main thing would be to portray their character, though.

5.) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Ambitious coachman George Davenport travels to London with his bride to take up a new job, but he discovers that his boss's daughter has designs on him that have nothing to do with his driving.

6.) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’ve self published the last 3 of my books. As it happens, I’ve designed the covers for all my books, including those produced by mainstream publishers. So it has been quite good fun to go it alone. It would be nice if an agent picked it up but for now I’ll slog on with selling myself.

7.) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The idea has been there for 18 years! It took all that time for the internet resources to appear, like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, where I could read the full text of coaching books that were long out of print and hideously expensive to buy secondhand. The MS took about five months, but I kept going back and rewriting, developing the storylines, then putting it away and coming back and rewriting yet again. It’s been the messiest thing I’ve ever written, because I had to do a lot of U turns – into the history, then back to the characters. Lots of “killing my darlings” as the story itself straightened out in my head and much of my research became unnecessary. I probably have half a novel in the “spike” folder on my computer; journeys George made, and people he met, both before and after this story is told.

8.) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Malcolm MacDonald’s “World From Rough Stones” sequence. I don’t know yet whether I will follow George and Lucy any further, but I certainly like them enough to consider it.

9.) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My own great-grandfather was a coachman. I’ve been involved in carriage driving since 1985, and when I’m interested in a subject I read widely round it so I have shelves full of books about the coaching age, plus lots of stuff in PDF format.

There are many historical novels set during the age when the horse was the fastest thing on the road, and a few written about the dawn of the railway age, but there’s nothing – so far as I know, anyway – about what happened to the men who had been the Knights of the Road and whose work suddenly vanished. So I thought it was time to redress the balance. Of course, that one thread as the main theme of the book wasn’t enough; I had to make up characters and relationships that would be interesting, too. I knew I had to invent people whose lives would touch Chaplin’s, so I could show what might have happened to the drivers, stablemen and horses when railways took the heart out of coaching.

My great-grandfather was in domestic service, not on a commercial route, and he lived 50 years after Chaplin’s time, but his existence in my family tree gave me a name to hang my story on: George Davenport. And my great-grandmother really was called Lucy Hennessy, though she didn’t live in Carlisle and my relatives will no doubt be relieved to hear that I have completely invented her unpleasant mother and their unsavoury history. The religious belief that sustains Lucy in the novel is a known factor in the emotional survival of modern victims of child abuse.

Chaplin had a patriarchal number of children, including twin girls, Marianne and Sarah. Sarah was the only one of his children who died unmarried (not counting Rosa who died aged 8 and Horace who died in infancy). Nothing is known of Sarah Chaplin, so I could safely invent whatever reasons I liked to account for her spinster status. I’ve suppressed any mention of her twin sister for the sake of simplicity. My decision to make her obsessed with power sprang from her father’s dedication and the observation of a former coachman, who remarked that Chaplin’s business was founded on “systematic application ... in which the female members of the family were called to assist.”

Many of the drivers mentioned in Coachman were real people in the Golden Age of Coaching: the Ward brothers, for instance, and deaf George Eade. I’ve invented the less attractive ones like Anderson. Some of the real coachmen, such as Cross, wrote autobiographies during their twilight years for the benefit of Coaching Revivalists in later Victorian times. Their works were rich sources for this novel.

10.) What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s a love story about a marriage that survives – not perhaps a popular theme today, but probably true of its time. We think now of 1837/8 as the year of Victoria's Accession and Coronation and the opening of the Victorian age, but it was pivotal in England's history because huge changes began in industry due to the opening of the railways. It’s that change which is the catalyst for many of my book’s central events.

There are threads about abusive family relationships, and about same-sex relationships which were still punishable by hanging at that time; so it’s by no means a fluffy fantasy set in a past era as an excuse for heaving bosoms, tight breeches and randy behaviour. Books like that really annoy me as they are so often inaccurate on the history, habits and behaviour of the time in which they pretend to be set.

Victoria’s Coronation year had lots of celebrations, rather like 2012's Olympics and Diamond Jubilee, so it was fun to set my characters against those colourful backdrops.


For links to other author's blogs please see my Next Big Thing post for November 2012.

HIstorical writers = hysterical

One hasty plea before bed time: I do wish that writers of historical fiction would check their facts before making their heroines attempt anything with horse transport other than sitting decoratively inside or on the box seat.

A man driving a team of 4 horses would have a groom sitting or standing behind on the carriage to attend to them in case of difficulty or breakage. He would not need a heroine to interfere.

Horses attached to carriages cannot be held still by a brake - especially when at the date of the story brakes on wheels were yet to be invented. Even when brakes had been invented, they didn't work as a "parking brake" in order to leave a team unattended, not even if the heroine ties the reins to the pole (not something I would attempt in trousers, let alone in a dress). Our author is thinking carriage = car. Not so.

And for goodness' sake, tidy up typos and wrong words and run-on comma-punctuated sentences before you stick a story onto Amazon Kindle.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Historical Novel - laid bare (Part 1)

No novel has ever taken me so long to write as Coachman, which has gone onto Kindle in the past few days and will be in print shortly. Here is a taster of the background, which is included in full at the back of the novel in both formats.


In the 1990s I had the idea that I would chronicle the life of William James Chaplin, who was a huge force in the London coaching business in the 1820s and 30s.

The Dictionary of National Biography says of him:

Chaplin, William James (1787–1859), transport entrepreneur, was born on 3rd December 1787 at Rochester, Kent, the son of William Chaplin, a coach proprietor on the Dover road, and his wife, Eleanor. Chaplin was educated at Bromley, and on 11 July 1816 married Elizabeth Alston at St Nicholas, Rochester. They had sixteen children.

About 1823 Chaplin succeeded William Waterhouse at the Swan with Two Necks inn, Lad Lane, London, and he was to become the largest ever coach proprietor. In 1827 his coach business employed 300 to 400 horses; by 1835 this had risen to 1200. As well as three London inns, he had extensive stables at Purley, Hounslow, and Whetstone, and was said to employ 2000 people. In 1836 he had ninety-two coaches leaving London every day, serving all the main roads from the city. He horsed fourteen of the twenty-seven mail coaches leaving London each night. His annual turnover was said to be £500,000.

Chaplin’s vision was so clear that when the railways came to change long-distance travel he was able instantly to step back and rebuild his business in relation to the new technology. He liquidated all his coaching assets, though he kept the inns, and he went away for six weeks to Switzerland to do his planning. Once his carrier partnership with Benjamin Worthy Horne was established, he invested heavily in railways.

The few stories about Chaplin that are recorded in books by his contemporaries all show him in an affectionate light. He was largely responsible for the abolition of heavy brutal driving whips in London’s coaching trade, and despite his nickname “Bite-Em-Sly,” everybody he employed seemed to like him. He was elected MP for Salisbury, and at his death his business was worth around £300,000. A thoroughly solid, sound, clever fellow.

When I realised how damn boring that story would be – Dallas with only the nice bits on display – I knew I had to invent someone whose life would touch his, so I could show what might have happened to the drivers, stablemen and horses when railways took the heart out of coaching.

My own great-grandfather was a coachman. He was in domestic service, not on a commercial route, and he lived 50 years after Chaplin’s time, but his existence in my family tree gave me a name to hang my story on: George Davenport. And my great-grandmother really was called Lucy Hennessy, though she didn’t live in Carlisle and my relatives will no doubt be relieved to hear that I have completely invented her unpleasant mother and their unsavoury history.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Kindle Direct Publishing

I've had some books on KDP for a while - they do sell, where paperbacks don't seem to. So... I've taken the plunge and put THE FORTHRIGHT SAGA onto KDP Select - the Amazon promotions thingie - to see how it goes.

I did my first free days of Promotion from 14-16 September, while I got the paperback sorted. Yes, from Friday to Sunday you coulddownload the book FREE!

It was downloaded over 400 times in those 3 days, but whether those were people who were just tasting or people who would have bought it at £2.99, who knows?

Reviews on Amazon or elsewhere would be nice - and if you also let me know where you've reviewed, that would be even nicer.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Driving, dear Google, is not necessarily in a car

OOh you couldn't make it up.... I have just had a phone call from a youngish man wanting driving lessons, and he said he'd found our phone number through Google. I teach carriage driving, and he said he was a beginner, so I listened and looked out an appointment for him.

It wasn't till he asked for 2 consecutive days of lessons *because he wanted to drive to Oxford in the car he had just bought*, that I gently broke the news to him.

I didn't mention the fact that he needed a licence and to pass both his theory and practical driving tests. I thought it might be too much for him to take in all at once.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Time to start making a noise

Our family has a question that instantly sorts potential friends from eejits: "What noise does a bale of hay make?"

Having owned sheep, cows and goats, and currently two Fell ponies, we know that it is perfectly logical to say that a bale of hay makes a noise like breakfast. Take one into a field in winter and you will be surrounded by a drooling, bleating/mooing/whinnying mob.

The parallel question to this is, "What noise does a book make?" Of this I'm not so sure. My own books make noises like horses, most of the time, but there are a lot of people in them, some of whom talk in dialect, others who are equine experts and talk in Horse Code, and some of whom are as wild as I would have liked to be in my Church College youth, where staying out till 1 am was regarded as Wicked and Naughty, likely to get you Bad Grades (I was usually in the As and Bs) and a sign that your future was likely to be Extremely Suspect. I wish it could have fulfilled their expectations.

All of which is really a long way round to saying that Jackdaw E Books is now up and running, in order to publicise the books I have already had published, and get the new ones out there without spending my whole life pitching to agents the way we used to pitch to publishers.

Like many people who write, I dislike having to pigeon-hole what I write and shoe-horn it into a marketable "genre," when what the mind does best is to write outside the formulae.

I turn mythology upside down. I make old women solve crimes by accident instead of by being nosey. My historical hero's career looks promising but then goes downhill amid emotional complications, instead of soaring to cosy success.

I have looked at publishing services as well as vanity outfits who promise to "publish your book on Kindle" or "publish your novel in hardback" for sums that appear to start at £1,000 and roar off into multiples.

But I've taught computing and desktop publishing and web design for years. I've published for other people, including the Fell Pony Society's twice-yearly magazine. I can copy edit, proof, set up files, create covers and produce a book myself. The only things the "services" do that I'm not well accustomed to are marketing and distribution.

Enter the website, the blog and Facebook. The only thing I can't bear is Twitter. (I'm on there, but to me it's just that - twittering. Who has the time to tweet every fifteen minutes, as well as writing? Apart from HM's Press Office, the Government, Stephen Fry, Philip Schofield and Alan Sugar? Not me.) There are services available to get your books listed on the commercial databases, and if you've got a stock of stories to put out there it's much, much cheaper to buy a batch of ISBNs and enlist the services of a good printer and distributor than it is to buy the services of a company who all want your money to pay THEM for doing the same.

I'm determined that my books are not going to be a disgrace to the term "self publishing." They're going to have decent covers, containing accurately produced text that has been heated and hammered and tempered and reheated until it tells the story the right way. They'll have ISBN numbers and be available in bookshops as well as in digital form.

If I get the first few out of the way I have one print-published book that I want to digitise too.

It's truly "pain in the neck" hard work, but self publication and doing the figures myself is a damn sight more satisfying than trying to explain to an agent why I think the way I do. Once I've got these first three out of my hair and persuaded a few people to review them, perhaps I can settle down to write the rest of the stories that are in my head.