Which makes it a treat for fans I'm sure, and a temptation for those readers who have never read Michael Jecks before. Now they can read this new book, Templar's Acre, and know nothing has previously transpired that will make things harder to understand by coming in late. Because nothing came before it. It is the book that will set the scene for those other 31 books already in print.
The last few years have been enormously tough for about every author. The mid-listers were always the big profit makers for publishers. Mid-listers were paid tiny advances, they never received marketing budgets or book launch parties, or suffered temper-tantrums, they just worked hard and sometimes brought in fortunes which were then paid (or squandered, depending on your viewpoint) on celebrity memoirs of a spotty youth or washed up ex-comedian.
The mid-listers used to be brought in early in their career and nurtured. In the last ten years, especially since the advent of ebooks, that has largely ceased. Now authors are only ever as good as their last couple of works. If the sales dry up, the author loses the contract and another new writer is brought in. There is no space for sentimentality in publishing. It’s a much harder market.
So, yes, I am delighted that my new publisher wanted to buy my future books, but still happier that they are confident enough in me, and in my readership, to want to buy up the backlist too. It’s a great feeling to know that the series will continue to be published. I just hope that the sales of the older copies will grow again, with the investment Simon and Schuster have put in. Every book is to receive a new cover, each has been meticulously proof-checked, and Simon and Schuster’s sales teams are having a high time sending me all over the country to sign copies in bookshops from Truro to Carlisle and even into Scotland. It is all a proof of their commitment.
It is absolutely vital that anyone can select any of the books and read it on its own. All my contracts have insisted on this, and made it clear that I am expected to write stand-alone stories so that the novice can quickly understand the main aspects of the characters and their motivations.
To an extent, I think it’s a function of the way I write, in any case. I’ve never wanted to write first person text. I always have multi-stranded novels, in which I can look at the world through the eyes of a number of different characters. It’s half the delight for me in writing, this ability to get into someone else’s mindset. I think that this all stems from my background. I was a callow brat at school, and decided I’d be an actuary, because I heard that it was the highest paid profession, and I was good at maths. However, the definition of an actuary (I later learned) was someone who found accountancy too exciting. I didn’t, and neither did I qualify!
Instead I became a computer salesman, working with Wordplex and Wang Laboratories amongst other firms. And the key aspect of a salesman is first and foremost to understand the client. I could, because I could imagine myself in his or her shoes, and look at the world from his or her perspective. Only by doing that could I construct a sales case that would appeal. And now, I am doing a similar job, seeing their world through their eyes.
It’s a different world from my mind, but based on very extensive research, so the details are correct. I’ve been researching my period all my life, and in great depth a huge amount for the last twenty years. To me, it’s a little like watching a DVD, and relaying the soundtrack and describing the scenes to an audience. But yes, I think that casual readers buy into the series because, although they may pick up a book from the middle of the series, they can still identify with the characters. And that, really, is what makes a series work: the involvement of the reader with the lives of the characters depicted.
As a self-employed writer, I’m always looking for the next idea. Medieval Murderers came about because I met with Bernard Knight, Susanna Gregory and Ian Morson and found that they were all interesting and fun to work with. After a while I persuaded them all to meet up, and we created our performance group of authors. It was only after a couple of years of performing in front of appreciative audiences that I suggested we should look at writing together as well, and that resulted in the first of the Medieval Murderer linked novellas, in which we took one consistent theme or storyline, and then developed it over the centuries. It’s worked really well, and now we’re writing the tenth anniversary edition, which is great fun. A novella of 20,000 words gives us so much more space to develop ideas than a short story, and it makes for a much more involving read.
But I’m not only working on the Medieval Murderer stories. I’ve made two collections of my short stories: For The Love of Old Bones, which includes all my medieval stories, and No-one Can Hear You Scream, which has all my other shorts, from Roman England through to the present. They have surprised me and sold really well. At the same time, I’ve written Act of Vengeance, which is a spy thriller, sort of a cross between Tinker Tailor and the Bourne Identity! My very first book I wrote was called The Sniper, which was a modern thriller too, and had lots of bombs, bullets, sex and drugs, because it was all about the IRA. It was accepted over the phone with great excitement by a lovely editor- and rejected the following week, because the IRA had agreed their first ceasefire, and the book was redundant!
Some years ago I helped Conway Stewart pens to create a new range of fountain pens, the Detection Collection, and I’m currently working with a firm I know in Devon, Cult Pens (www.cultpens.co.uk) to write a diary blog about the life of a writer, which is great fun. I’m also working with some friends and the excellent Evesham Hotel to develop a new Literary Festival in that ancient town. That is enormously exciting, because we’re working to a different model compared with most festivals. Instead of getting a load of people crammed into a small town for a weekend, we’re getting smaller numbers every week. Authors will come for two days and speak and run workshops, and the audience will enjoy a more leisurely atmosphere, with more involvement with their favourite authors.
And of course I’m working with the Royal Literary Fund, helping students at Exeter University to write their essays and dissertations. So I am keeping busy!
I’m writing about the fall of Acre in 1291, so it’s a few years before the advent of cannon. That only really began to be exploited in Europe in the middle 1300s, when Edward III took some with him into France and used it at Crécy.
The Mamluks were a terrifying force. They had a commitment and dedication that must have been appalling to the Christians, because although certain Christians could be utterly fanatical (the Templars, the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights, the Knights of St Lazarus etc), the Christians had only small groups of such men. In the case of the Mamluks, they could gather together hordes of men and matériel in vast armies that swept over entire cities like locusts, leaving nothing in their wake. They killed all the people of Tripoli, even chasing after those who escaped to a small island, and slaughtering them all. For some while after, the stench from that island was appalling, we are told.
It was a fascinating time, and I found it thrilling to research and write - I suppose because in part this tale was the jumping off point for the whole of my series, and it’s been in my mind for many years. A time of excitement, terror, horror, and hope. And although the events were shocking in the extreme, I like to think that the aftermath was still worse, with famine, war and plague all striking Europe within fifty years.
No one’s ever asked me that before. I lie.
I was once on a stage with a good friend, who stated categorically that no series could ever stretch beyond about ten or eleven books. The author would have dried up his subject, no one could maintain a decent balance of characters beyond that, or have the enthusiasm to carry on, he said. I said in a very loud stage whisper that I had just finished my twenty first.
At the end of the day, while there are exciting things to write about, the series will continue. I like the idea of continuing into the days of the Black Death and beyond. On the other hand, I like the idea of going back and looking at Baldwin and his life after the end of Acre, too, and seeing what happened to the Templars after their arrest and torture in 1307. There is a lot of mileage in that series. After all, the strength of my series is less the specific times and how they impacted people, but much more the murders and how they affected family and friends. I tend to make use of coroner’s rolls and the courts of the time, but I also always look out for modern cases, and use them extensively to give colour to my books.
So, how long? I don’t know, but longer. Mind you, my next book, Fields of Blood, is a digression. I’m writing two books about the Hundred Years War, looking at how the war was perceived by the English and how the soldiers fought. That has been great fun, and I’m looking forward to getting on with the second in that series, too.
Ach! Social media is the best, most appealing way for any author to waste time. We tell ourselves it’s a form of marketing, when in reality it’s mostly a displacement activity. And yet it does maintain an author’s sanity sometimes.
I use Twitter from preference, and Goodreads, because I can keep an eye on the world and on books from those two. Sadly I also have to be on Facebook, which is a dreadful time waster, I think. Twitter and Goodreads both give me a chance to reach out to readers and writers alike, and generally make new friends, but all social media are interruptions. To be a good novelist, you have to be able to immerse yourself in your stories and write. Social media gets in the way of that. It’s like trying to concentrate on a plot and having someone walk in and try to chat. It stops work. So now I am trying to set aside social media time. In the morning, first thing, at lunch, and at night, I’ll use it. The rest of the time I won’t allow myself the distraction!
My current favourite is probably Sir Guillaume de Beaujeu, the Grand Master of the Temple at Acre. He was a great leader, as is shown by the papers left from his time, but he was also a shrewd political operator. He probably could have saved Acre for a while, had the people been prepared to listen to his ideas. And he was a fierce fighter, not a leader who held himself at the back, but a bold warrior who stormed into the fray. He was inspirational to his men at the time, and I think inspires still.
Mind you, if I were to go for a fictional hero, it would always have to be Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser's brilliant invention. Coward, rascal, cad, and brilliant!
In my own area it’s thriving, with two large sides in Exeter, two on Dartmoor, and two in our village.
Morris is a great fun pastime. I love it because the guys I dance with are all great characters, and the dance is excellent aerobic exercise. Oh, and there is obligatory beer, of course.
But it’s also a fabulous tradition that was lost. During the First World War, in 1914 a load of small clubs joined up as entire units. Men from the volunteer rifle clubs, men from department stores, men from the railway companies, and, of course, Morris sides. All those men went through the training systems, and came out the other end just in time to join the “big push” on the Somme. I know my old rifle club in Surrey lost three quarters of its members in the first two weeks of that battle. The Morris sides were the same. The dance lost almost all the men who knew the music and the dance steps, and Morris was almost eradicated. It was only in the 50s and 60s that it began to recover, as some dance notation was rediscovered. Now, thank God, it’s becoming quite a growing pursuit. There are many youngsters joining, and the future is looking much less bleak!
Here in Devon, the traditions are growing nicely. But I am fortunate, I live in a small village, and we are friends with the organisers of the Dartmoor Folk Festival, so perhaps my own circle is a bit self-selecting!
It has to be paper for me. Ebooks are a pain to use. I like the feel of a book in my hands. I love the way I can go from one point to another in an instant. Rather than a percentage read, I like to see a page number. And as for those who say a book is “sooo” heavy - get a life!
For my research, I have about 3,000 books on my shelves. I can take them down, stick in a bookmark, or leave them upside down, open, and return to them when I need. If I’m working, I may have up to fifteen of them like that, and a dictionary too. Imagine, if I was using ebooks: I’d have to insert an electronic bookmark, close that book, open a new book, go to that bookmark, and so on. It would be a pain in the backside.
I have used ebooks. In fact I am now selling my HTC Flyer tablet because after two years of trying to make it work for me, I can see it’s not worth the bother.
There is one other side, too. There are too many pirated copies of books on the internet. People take ebooks, and then copy and put them onto download sites. For the reader, it’s great to find books for free (until they learn that their ID has been stolen, or their bank account emptied, because most of these sites make money in other ways, if they aren’t charging for the books) - but those sites are killing the publishing industry. Whereas in the past publishers would have a stable of newer, mid-list authors who were being nurtured, now they can’t. Authors are only as good as their last sales, and those who don’t achieve something quickly, are ditched quickly. And much of that is a factor of the ebook revolution.