Friday, 28 January 2011

Plas Llanychaer

While browsing about on the web the other day I came across this splendid photo of Cwrt -- or Plas Llanychaer as I call it in the novels.  It is nowadays rather ruinous, and will sooner or later be knocked down, I suppose.  But imagine, if you will, the wicked Squire Price here, or Squire Morgan, or (towards the end of the Saga) Squire Wilmot Gwynne.........

The house is very similar indeed to what I have fixed in my mind for Plas Ingli -- the focal point of all the stories.

Ghostly figure on the Mountain

On the way up the mountain today, in bright sunshine, beneath a blue sky and with hardly a breath of wind, I noticed -- from a fair distance -- something white among the rocks just beneath the summit.  I thought it was moving, but could not be sure.  It was too white to be a sheep, and I thought maybe it was a pony -- but no, a mountain pony would not be grazing just there, among the jagged rocks.   I climbed closer and closer,  with the white thing (which was about the right size for a human being) sometimes in view and sometimes not......  Closer and closer I got, and then finally I clambered over the last rocky eminence to find not a ghostly appirition but a snow-white frozen waterfall in a place where I was not even aware of a water seepage.  It was, after all, rather close to the summit.  Oh, did I forget to mention it?  The temperature was sub-zero, as it has been for the last few days....

That reminded me of this wonderful poem by Robert Graves, set in Criccieth:

by Robert Graves

'But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.'
'What were they? Mermaids? Dragons? Ghosts?'
'Nothing at all of any things like that.'
'What were they, then?'
                                    'All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.'
'Describe just one of them.'
                                        'I am unable.'
'What were their colours?'
                                        'Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you'd like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.'
                                'Tell me, had they legs?'
'Not a leg or foot among them that I saw.'
'But did these things come out in any order?'
What o'clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?'
'I was coming to that. It was half-past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments
Collecting for Caernarvon's (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth's mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail's pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder
Did something recognizably a something.'
'Well, what?'
'It made a noise.'
'A frightening noise?'
'No, no.'
'A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?'
'No, but a very loud, respectable noise —-
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'
'What did the mayor do?'

'I was coming to that.'

Monday, 17 January 2011

Martha and the Smugglers


Smuggling was endemic around all of the coasts of Britain in the first half of the 19th century. Indeed it was considered to be something of a sport to  run rings around the excise men whose task it was to find smugglers, confiscate smuggled goods, and bring those responsible to justice. That was not easy, because many of the magistrates in North Pembrokeshire and elsewhere depended upon the smuggling gangs to provide them with cheap gin, rum, wine and other alcoholic beverages, and also with whichever luxury goods happened to be subject to high taxation at any one moment. Taxation or “duty” was the key, and anything which was heavily taxed and therefore expensive to buy was immediately an attractive proposition from the point of view of those involved in the smuggling trade.

In Wales, smuggling was attractive to the poor people because it provided them with a trading opportunity, and therefore with cash in hand, at a time when there was very little cash in circulation. So they established links with merchants who were involved in the smuggling trade in the taverns of Parrog and Newport and provided the shore parties  who would unload smuggling vessels at dead of night, spirit away the untaxed goods  and then move them on to the middle men who would eventually dispose of them. There were many hiding places in the farms and cottages close to the coast and also in sea caves and in the woods.  The men who were involved literally risked their own lives, especially if they were held to be responsible for injuring an excise man  or a constable during an affray.  Smuggling was also attractive to people like Martha, because they had no great love of the Westminster government and were only too happy to subvert the trading system and to assist in the distribution of illegal goods.

In the pages of the Saga there are a number of episodes related to smuggling and to the nocturnal activities of Will Owen and various other characters whom Martha counts as her friends. She gets too close to the action on one occasion, but she does not to seem to be unduly upset about it, and even after Will  becomes a servant at the Plas she continues to be a good customer for products that might come onto the market at a good price, with few questions asked.

Patty the Prostitute

Patty Ellis (Nicholas)

Patty Ellis appears for the first time in House of Angels, and becomes a key character in the stories from that point to on. Although she is a prostitute when Martha first meets her, the two women are immediately drawn into a close and affectionate relationship. It would have been socially quite unacceptable for the mistress of an estate in the early 19th century to have been seen in the presence of a prostitute, but it is one of Martha’s great strengths that she cares  nothing for wagging tongues and disapproving looks and soon after they meet she even flaunts her friendship with Patty.   Initially the relationship might seem to be a very one-sided one, but there are in fact great mutual benefits in it. Patty initially offers to help Martha because she has information which is of use to her,  and she has no thought at all that she might be repaid in some way.  But as the friendship blossoms, Martha realizes that Patty has suffered appalling at the hands of the evil Joseph Rice, and she also comes to appreciate that Patty is a very strong young woman, with an instinct for survival.

So together the two women plot to and achieve the downfall of Rice and his companions, and after that Martha and Patty develop a much more comfortable friendship.  That friendship also has a business side to it, for as Martha gets older she comes to value greatly her contacts among the most disreputable elements of local society.   She often needs information, and Patty often knows where it can be obtained. And as a sign of her affection - and indeed respect - for Patty she helps her in a number of ways, including the setting up of the church wedding when Patty and Jake Nicholas decide that they wish to be married.

Patty is of course very beautiful, and it is not surprising perhaps that Jake Nicholas, who was originally a client, should fall madly in love with her and should then decide to make a respectable woman of her. Their wedding is quite a bizarre, and Martha loves every minute of it and the celebrations which follow. Later on, as Jake expands his little fishing business and eventually moves into trading activities, Patty does indeed become quite a notable member of the Parrog community and raises a family of two boys and two girls.

I had a lot of fun developing the story of Patty and Jake through the Saga, telling the reader quite a lot to about her initial fall from grace, about her steely determination to defeat her tormentor, and about her subsequent rehabilitation.  She is a strong character and a steadfast friend to Martha, and all good stories need characters like her.

Mountain in the Mist

Been up the mountain today -- for the first time since Christmas.  A bout of flu and its aftermath has made me a bit less active than I would like.  But I took a chance today, and it was delightful.  After 2 days of continuous rain and gale force winds, it was quite calm -- and the sun even tried to come out.  It was one of those magical days with mist coming and going, drifting along the valleys and hollows in streamers, melting away in the sunlight, coming back again and generally behaving in a manner that was quite unpredictable.  It wasn't sea mist rolling in from the coast -- this was condensation mist.  It rolled up over me as I was climbing up past Carningli Lodge -- and although the visibility did not close in completely, the change in moisture in the air was incredible.........

Anyway, I sat up on the summit among the streaming wet rocks and enjoyed a nice cup of cocoa, and pondered on my next book.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Amazon sales rankings

Every now and then, I have a look at my books on the Amazon site, to check if there are any new reviews from readers.  Whenever I look at the sales rankings, I am amazed -- and cannot see any rhyme or reason in what those rankings are.  For example, a book recently published (like "The Strange Affair...") may have a sales rank higher than "On Angel Mountain", which has now sold well over 20,000 copies and which still sells steadily on Amazon.

It's all to do with the strange Amazon algorithm, which can move a book up and down by 100,000 places or more just on the basis that two copies of the book have (or have not) been sold through Amazon during the course of a week.  It's a mad world...... and the best thing, I suppose, is not to worry about it!
This is what Morris Rosenthal says on his interesting web site:
"The new system, while it requires the author/publisher to keep checking over a period of time to establish an average rank, doesn't appear to include any funky constants. A spike in the rank over a couple days is usually due to a special book promotion by the author or publisher. It takes a long term book marketing strategy to actual raise the sales (and average rank) over a long period of time. Unfortunately, establishing an average rank has gotten much harder as the number of books that actually sell a few copies a week has grown. If you check the rank every day and it varies by less than a factor of two (ie, between 5,000 and 10,000 or between 600 and 1,200 or between 100,000 and 200,000) then you can take a week's worth of rankings, divide by 7, and get a reasonable average. But if the rank bounces around much more than that, you'll have to check daily for a few weeks and discard a couple outlying points on the low end and high end or the result could skew badly. For those authors don't want to visit Amazon all the time, you can use to check all of your books at once and also see other important info. Amazon books are selling so many copies these days that a title with an average rank around 40,000 that goes two days without selling a copy may see it's rank drop by more than 150,000 points.The more books Amazon sales, the more violent the rank movements outside the top couple tens of thousands of books that consistently sell multiple copies a day.
Under the new system, the sales ranks of top books don't dip because some title out of left field suddenly sells three copies in an hour, that won't get them past 20,000, and they'll start sliding back towards left field the next hour. Also, as you move outside the top 100,000 titles that sell a copy every day, ranks can bounce around a little without a sale, depending on a weak historical time constant. Under the old system, books in the top 10K were daily reset to a relaxation rank, even with no sales. The sales rank decay rate depends where a book falls in the continuum; strong sellers decay slowly, mediocre sellers decay quickly, and weak sellers decay relatively slowly. All books are now re-ranked every hour."
Morris says he used to include a table giving some equivalent sales numbers for some distinct ranks, but he later dropped it.  He continues: "Nobody outside of Amazon knows EXACTLY how many copies of a given title are sold in a given time period, and since ranks are relative to each other, it's a constantly moving target. The idea behind my reverse-engineering the ranking system was always to give rough idea of how a title was selling, not an exact number. So, don't read an average rank of 10,000 to mean you sold exactly 60 books that week, or a rank of 100,000 to mean you sold ten and a half copies - Amazon doesn't sell half copies."

And what do rankings actually mean?  He gives this useful rule of thumb:  "Read an average rank of 1,000 to mean you have a seriously successful title, an average rank of 10,000 to mean your doing pretty good for a book that's no bestseller, an average rank of 100,000 to mean it's not going to contribute significantly to your income, and an average rank of 1,000,000 to mean you need to take a break from checking sales ranks."

Thanks to Morris for consent to cite the above text.   Check out his site -- there is a lot of very useful material on it.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Literary Walks 2011

Here is the "Literary Walks" programme for 2011:

Easter Sunday, 24th April 2011, 2-5 pm;  Monday 2nd May 2011, 10am - 2 pm (bring packed lunch) (Spring Festival Walk -- booking essential);  Bank Holiday Monday, 30th May 2011, 2 - 5 pm; Sunday 7th August 2011, 10am - 1 pm (bring packed lunch); Sunday 21st August 2011, 10am - 1 pm (bring packed lunch); Bank Holiday Monday, 29th August 2011, 2-5 pm;  Sunday 11th September 2011, 2-5 pm.

Prices as before -- £4 for adults, and £2 for children still at school.  No booking needed.  Further info on the web site. Three picnic walks this year, and three on Sundays.