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Friday, April 30, 2010


John Lennon's handwritten lyric for the Beatles song "A Day in the Life" will go under the hammer at Sotheby's, New York, on 18 June, 53 years after being released as the last track on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

And, according to a BBC news release, is expected to fetch seven hundred thousand dollars.

For one page of scribbled lines!

Mind you, the page is written on both sides, and has corrections in colored ink.  And the song was controversial in its time.  The BBC banned it in 1967 because someone interpreted the line "I'd like to turn you on" as an invitation to take drugs. Several Asian countries released the disk without the last track, for no stated reason.

And Sotheby's calls it "the revolutionary song that marked the Beatles' transformation from pop icons to artists."

Thursday, April 29, 2010


An important collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, held at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, has been digitalized and is now available on the web.  This is a gorgeous collection, including the earliest of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and the Augustine gospels.  Follow the link to see samples and listen to librarian Suzanne Paul tell some of the amazing and intriguing stories behind the works.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


The Coral Thief, by Rebecca Stott
Selkirk's Island by Diana Souhami

Reading was not entirely neglected while I had my head down with the last lap of Tupaia.  The first book, Rebecca Stott's Coral Thief was sent to me by good friend Martin Evans, of Cambridge, England.  He had heard the first episode of its reading on the BBC Radio 4, and was intrigued enough to want to share it with me.  A quick google confirmed that young Stott's book is the talk of England, and the setting is certainly unusual enough to trigger one's interest. 

In 1815, a few weeks after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Daniel Connor, a young and extraordinarily naive student, is travelling to Paris, to work as one of the assistants of the great Prof. Cuvier.  While on the stagecoach, he is beguiled by a gypsylike female with a baby who defeats dragons (or so the proud mum claims).  He wakes from a dreamlike stupor to find mother and child gone, along with his bag with its priceless collection of coral.  Scared to approach Cuvier without the coral and letters of introduction, Daniel rents a garret and becomes a Bohemian.  The gypsy reappears (of course) and the plot thickens, trailing through a rather marvellous scene in a convent garden where the fate of the decapitated upper class corpses trundled from the guillotine is revealed, to a crashing finale in a set of catacombs I had never heard of before.

There is an opera-like cast of characters; in fact, the whole book is rather like an opera.  Puccini, undoubtedly, would have loved it.  I found the fine research overwhelmed the plot, and it was that, rather than the story and characters, that kept me turning the pages.  But it was definitely worth reading -- for the child who conquered dragons.  While I found the mother very hard to fathom, the daughter is a marvellous creation.

Diana Souhami's Selkirk's Island was loaned to me by a Wellington friend, who declared that I had to read it, being the author of Island of the Lost.  In 1704 Alexander Selkirk was marooned on an uninhabited island in the small Juan Fernandez group, and was not rescued until 1709.  As we all know, he was the inspiration for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, probably the first novel, and an inspiration even now.  (Certainly for Island of the Lost.)

This is a wonderful book.  I have never read anything quite like it.  The characters, all historically real, leap off the pages; Souhami has performed a miracle in bringing the era to life.  It may the most vivid evocation of existence at sea at the time I have ever read. No maritime historian, the writer is wise enough not to let the ships dominate (as she confesses, she doesn't even know them well enough to call them "she"), but she certainly has a grip on life on board, and the nature of seamen.  Pirate enthusiasts will love this book, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone.

I notice both books were published in London by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.  They are to be heartily congratulated at finding such original talent.


Oh damn, I missed it -- a truly centennial event. In the witching hour of April 26, Mark Twain's birthday was marked with a cake and a seance at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Ghost Investigator Lorraine Warren led the tour, and cut the cake.

The seance was orchestrated by Illusionist Todd Robbins, founder of the Church of the Parted Veil.

Mark Twain would have loved it.  Did his ghost turn up to the party?  I guess not, or it would have been on the news.


Before I even finished writing the book, my editor at Praeger Books and his designer were working hard on the jacket. The publishers had already been in touch with me about filling in an Author Questionnaire, which includes every question imaginable that a journalist or reviewer might ask, and is the basic armory in the promotion of your book.  It can be a little intimidating to think up advertising copy for a book you haven't even completed yet, so this is where your original query letter (see post below) comes in handy.

I particularly wanted one of Tupaia's artworks to be featured on the cover, and the one I had in mind was of war canoes off a beach in Tahiti.  Tupaia was an enthusiastic character, very keen to share his privileged knowledge with his new friends, and was willing to pick up a pencil and sketch as he was talking, to help get his message across.  In this instance, he was describing the action on war canoes during battle, and in the throes of his driving excitement, he picked up a sketch he had made already, of a longhouse and trees, which is very reminiscent of certain tattoo designs.  He ruined the balance of the drawing by adding the canoes beneath the beach, but inadvertently provided a wonderful contrast between the careful style of the longhouse etc., and the spontaneity of the battle.    

The designer combined this with an equally eye-catching title, with great effect, in my opinion.

Now, for the jacket copy ....

THE QUERY LETTER: finding an agent, part two.

So, you have a copy of Literary Marketplace or Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents, and you have girded yourself for contacting the agents you have marked on your list.

Your checklist should have been compiled very carefully.  For reasons that are explained at length on a number of valuable internet sites, don't include agents who ask for a reading fee: as a general rule, they are not interested in your book, but in your pocketbook, instead.  Do include agents who want (and sell) books in your genre. DON'T do what I did, once, and send a proposal for a collection of travel stories to an outfit that specializes in cookery books! (True story, and I still haven't worked out how it happened.)  If you write in a specialist nonfiction area, it is a good idea to look through the acknowledgements section of a number of books on the same topic, as authors generally thank their agents, which will give you useful names.  Otherwise, go through the agents directory in the handbook you have bought, and check those who seem to like your kind of book.

Next, the query letter.  Query letters for agent-hunting are the same as query letters for publisher-hunting, as the same rules and format apply.  However, while you (or your agent) can approach a publisher with an idea for a book that is yet to be written, when approaching an agent, it is a good idea to have the book written already.  Unless, of course, you have established a good record for meeting deadlines.

I believe emails are acceptable these days, but proof a post very, very carefully before sending it out.  If you write a letter, put it on good stationery.  Whatever way you do it, make it compelling.  It's a sales pitch for your work, and your agent (when you find one) will use it to make his or her own pitch to chosen publishers. Jeff Herman's fine chapter on writing a query letter is an excellent guide.

Keep it short, keep to the point, keep it positive.  Include your track record in the publishing line -- everything and anything that helps sell your idea, including editing work for your student newspaper, and scholarly papers to academic journals, if relevant to your topic. 

And here, as a sample that might be useful for guidance, is the query letter written for Tupaia, Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator.  (I have a wonderful agent, and a good query letter helps to let her know what kind of project I have in mind.)

Dear [name of the agent, and make sure you get it right]

I am planning to write the biography of Tupaia, who was Captain James Cook's Polynesian navigator on the Endeavour. I won grants from CreativeNewZealand and the Stout Trust to research this book and will be traveling to the States and the UK late this summer to continue that work.  [This is the moment for you to mention your publishing record, if you have one, but keep it short.]

Tupaia, a gifted linguist, a brilliant orator, and a most devious politician, could aptly be called the Machiavelli of Tahiti. Tupaia, being highly skilled in astronomy, navigation, and meteorology, and an expert in the geography of the Pacific, was able to name directional stars and predict landfalls and weather. Though, like all Polynesians, he had no previous knowledge of writing or mapmaking, Tupaia drew a chart of the Pacific that encompassed every major group in Polynesia and extended more than 2,500 miles from the Marquesas to Rotuma and Fiji.

 He was also the ship's translator, able to communicate with all the Polynesian people they met, including New Zealand Maori. As a man of high social ranking, Tupaia performed as an able intermediary, interpreting local rituals and ceremonies. Joseph Banks, the botanist with the expedition, like Captain Cook, is famous for his detailed, perceptive descriptions of the manners and customs of the Polynesian people. Much of the credit for this belongs to Tupaia. Not only did Tupaia become one of the ship's important artists, drawing lively pictures to illustrate what he described, but he could justly be called the Pacific's first anthropologist.

Despite all this, Tupaia has never been part of the popular Captain Cook legend. This is largely because he died of complications from scurvy seven months before the ship arrived home. Once he was gone, his accomplishments were easily forgotten--indeed, by removing Tupaia from the story, what the Europeans had achieved seemed all the greater. James Cook, who could well have resented the fact that Tupaia had been hailed as the "admiral" of the expedition by his fellow Polynesians (the Maori people called the Endeavour "Tupaia's ship"), apparently found it easy to dismiss his memory with a brief, unflattering obituary in his journal. When Cook received his medal from the Royal Society--for his great achievement in bringing the ship home without losing a single man to scurvy!--Tupaia's name went unmentioned.

George Forster, a scientist who sailed with Cook on a later voyage, called Tupaia "an extraordinary genius." No book until the one I plan to write, however, has been devoted entirely to Tupaia.
Let me know if I may send you the proposal. I'll look forward to hearing from you.

And that's it -- or something like it.  If you send the query out by post, include a return envelope, postage paid.  To save time, it is perfectly acceptable to query a number of agents at once.  If you are lucky enough to get a number of requests for your proposal, you must say when you send them out that this is a multiple submission.  Indeed, the fact that you have received interest from other quarters should be an incentive.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Production of a Book, Part One

Those who follow this blog (and say good things about it) deserve an explanation for the long silence since the post about the Well Travelled Bow and the sudden rush of new ones.

I have been Writing.  An intensive two-year slog has resulted in the manuscript of a biography, of a remarkable Tahitian who sailed with Captain James Cook on the Endeavour.  It is called Tupaia, Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator.  While I once edited the journals of Mary Brewster, who sailed on the whaleship Tiger in 1845, and included a potted biography in the commentary, I have never written a biography before.  I have developed a profound respect for biographers.  It is not easy.  Bringing a dead person to life on the page is a challenge.  Goodness knows how they manage with people who are still alive.

Meantime, we have travelled a lot, and communicated with many interesting and helpful people.  The British Library and I have negotiated for images and permissions to use the same -- vastly important, because Tupaia was a remarkable artist.  (Not that they were known as "artists" back then -- artists were skilled craftsmen on shore, and skilled navigators at sea -- and men and women who produced paintings were painters.) 

Anyway, Tupaia has been born, had a remarkably adventurous life, and died, and the manuscript is now on the desks of editors in both the USA (Praeger) and New Zealand (Random House).  What happens next? 


The Wrong Way to Find a Literary Agent

Yesterday, I received a very polite query from an interested reader who described himself as "a struggling writer."  After saying very nice things about the research and writing of In the Wake of Madness, he confided that he had written a book, but now didn't know what to do with the manuscript.  How could he find a publisher?  Did I have any tips?  Should he get an agent?  If so, how would he go about finding one?

Because I have fielded this question (these questions?) so many times before, I wrote back offering to put my answer on this blog, keeping his identity anonymous, and he was happy about that. And yes, one does definitely need an agent.  So here goes:
That was me, when I first set out.  I had a manuscript of a whaling novel, and some kind of publishing history in both New Zealand and the USA, but no idea how to market the project.  So I asked a friend who happened to have a good friend in the London publishing scene, and gratefully accepted his offer to carry the ms along on his next trip north.  Friend of friend's reader loved the book (bless her), so I was told I needed an agent. And guess what, I was handed on to yet another friend.   She, too, loved the book.  So I had a very pleasant agent, who just happened to be a friend of a friend of a friend.  (Muddled, yet?)  She -- guess what --passed it on to a NY friend who agented it.  So I had a NY co-agent who was a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.  Both sold the book, then the NY agent (who, incidentally, had sold it to yet another friend) closed her business.  Impasse.  We had run out of friends of friends of friends of friends.  Then husband and I moved to New York.  Agent and I were in different countries and different markets.  It wasn't ever going to work.  So we shook hands with big smiles and parted ways.
Meantime, though, I had learned something.
Nowadays, there an extraordinary abundance of tips about this on the internet.  An idle google search brought up "Seven Tips for Finding a Reputable Literary Agent," by Steve Thompson; "Five ways to find a literary agent," by Cressida Downing; and "How to find a Literary Agent -- And Avoid Scams," by Dee Power; plus a number of books on  All of it seems interesting and useful. 
That was not available, back then, so I visited a bookstore.  There were two major books available, Literary Marketplace and Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents.  I strongly recommend both.   I bought the one with the longer title, written by Jeff Herman, because it was cheaper.  Then I went through the directory of literary agents marking up the ones that seemed to like the kind of book I was writing at the time.  Then I wrote a short, succinct, beautifully composed, and laboriously polished query letter to them all, following Jeff Herman's tips for writing a query letter to a publisher.


There have been some strange goings-on in the academic book world. Professor Orlando Figes, a historian at Birkbeck College (London) has been caught putting derogatory and dismissive reviews of other historians' books on the Amazon web-site.  As a whole range of British papers have breathlessly revealed,  he rubbished books by Dr Rachel Polonsky, Kate Summerscale and Robert Service under the nickname "Historian."

Dr Polonsky, a Cambridge-based academic, noticed a review of her acclaimed study Molotov's Magic Lantern, condemning it as "dense," "pretentious," and "the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published."  Suspicions loomed, based on the fact that she had written a highly critical review of Figes's book Natasha's Dance, back in 2002.  Was the other academic the grudge-bearing type?  Was he wreaking revenge?

A check of customer reviews of Figes's 2008 book, The Whisperer, confirmed this -- "Historian" called it both "beautiful" and "necessary."   So she contacted Prof. Service, whose book on the history of communism was described as "awful" by "Historian."  Coming to the same dire conclusion, Prof. Service fired off a bunch of emails to eminent academics, with the result that the Truth Came Out.  And amazon removed all the Soviet-style reviews.

Figes tried to say that his wife (a Cambridge academic and lawyer) had posted the bad reviews. Now he has finally admitted that it was not his wife  but he that Dunnit. In the old murder mystery days, the vice-chancellor would summon the offender, leave a rope or bottle of hemlock or loaded revolver on his desk and depart after saying: "Do the decent thing, old chap."  Being much less pragmatic and dramatic, the poor misguided fellow has gone on sick leave, after apologizing to everyone in sight. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Wiki Coffin Kidnapped

I might have had my head down with the last lap of my biography, Tupaia, Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator, but it was a welcome tap on the shoulder from reality when I found that the latest Wiki Coffin short story, "Kidnapped," is featured on the cover of the June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
It first came to my notice when Doug Faunt posted a message to the maritime history discussion list @ Queens University in Canada, announcing that he had glimpsed the jacket when turning out some boxes in a bookstore. Then fellow blogger KiwiCrime posted the great news on his site.
All very nice indeed. Even the editor of the magazine, Linda Landrigan, got in touch with a lovely message about how she loves the Wiki Coffin stories. Then my own copy arrived.
"Kidnapped" is one of my favorite Wiki Coffin stories. He finally makes it home to the Bay of Islands, and jumps from the whaleship that carried him there -- but is hardly reunited with his folks when he is kidnapped onto a humble potato-freighting brig, bound for Jackson Harbour. Who nabbed him, and why? That's one mystery. In Sydney the captain is subpoena-ed onto the jury for a murder trial, and Wiki sets his mind to finding the real killer.

Agatha Christie still reigns

Agatha Christie may have passed away in 1976, but she is still the genre queen.

Tim Masters reports that a Christie short story that most people will have never heard of, let alone read, is being reintroduced to an ever-loyal public as a play.

"Philomel Cottage," published in 1924, is taking on new life. An adaptation, written by Louise Page and called "Love from a Stranger," is playing at the Mill at Sonning theatre in Oxfordshire.

The cast includes ex-Coro Street actress Chloe Newsome, David Michaels, Dido Miles, Peter Moreton and Struan Rodger.

The story is intriguing. A spinster is wooed and won by a mysterious stranger. After the wedding, they take up residence in Philomel Cottage, and strange events unwind as they find out dark secrets about each other.

It might sound old hat, but Agatha Christie could always be depended upon to produce a big surprise.

Down here in New Zealand, we undoubtedly have to wait for the TV version. I look forward to it.