A novel experience – and how it happened

On this chilly World Book Day, why not curl up with a hot drink and my new novel? Available instantly on Kindle!

Exchanging peril in Modena for conspiracy, torture and murder in medieval Bologna, ex-choirboy Lorenzo must turn troubadour, spy, lover and killer to survive.

What’s all that about? On this snowy World Book Day, it’s a puff for a new book. My new book. Last week I published (more accurately, self-published) a historical adventure novel, Song for a Spy, on Amazon’s Kindle.

It’s always satisfying to see the appearance in print of something one has written. I’ve written a few books, all on educational themes: the moment when that first copy plops through the letterbox is exciting. Still more gratifying, I think, were my years of writing a weekly column for The (Newcastle) Journal: less than 24 hours after I had emailed in my piece, there it was in the paper. That almost instant publication provided a real buzz (ask a real journalist like Voice of the North’s own David Banks).

So how do I feel about publishing another book, my first novel – not in print at all, but online? It’s different – and strange.

I never meant to write a novel. When, more than a quarter of a century ago, I first spied the tall medieval towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany, where powerful people once lived their lives in lofty exclusion far above the smelly streets inhabited by common folk, I declared that they would provide the basis for a fanciful novel. But I didn’t plan on being the guy who wrote it.

Then, in summer 2015, we spent a few days in Bologna, our first visit there. I was amazed to learn that, although only two towers of any significance remain nowadays, at its height, medieval Bologna boasted 80 or more of the monstrosities. Historians reckon that the mad aristocrats who built them also constructed bridges between them, so that they never needed to descend to earth.

We were fascinated by Bologna and the neighbouring cities we visited in our hire car: Parma, Modena, Ferrara, Ravenna. We loved the spectacular churches with their riotously carved marble pillars: and, of course, the food.

There was still no plan to write a novel! But, a few weeks later we found ourselves in Arras, driving my Dad around the battlefields where his father had fought in 1915-16. For some reason, one night I slept badly as the germ of a novel spun round and round in my head: little more, indeed, than an opening paragraph, the setting of Bologna and an idea for the central character.

Back home, I started researching. Wikipedia is a wonderful starting point, even though we teachers aren’t meant to approve of it! The wonder of it is the speed with which hyperlinks take the researcher from one historical character, place or event to another: and so a story came together set within the politics of thirteenth-century Bologna, its rivalry with Modena, the state of chaos in the Holy Roman Empire, stuck in an interregnum with factions across Europe vying to fill the Emperor’s vacant throne. Finally I find discovered why Bologna possesses the oldest university in Europe, if not in the world, unearthed some surprising historical characters and events, and the book started to take shape.

Getting a novel published was never easy: it’s harder than ever nowadays, as print volumes decline in relation to the amount published on the Internet. I tried some 30 agents, having been on a course to learn how to approach them, but without either success or useful feedback. However, honest and candid opinions from two people who know both writing and publishing motivated me to carry out almost a complete rewrite during 2017. Simultaneously I came across several articles about the trend towards self-publishing (through Amazon’s Kindle App). So I persuaded my nephew James Cave, a talented graphic designer, to create a cover for the book(I love it!), took a deep breath and published.

So there it is. To read it now, for only £2.99, you can click here to go straight to Amazon’s Kindle page.

I enjoyed writing it, despite the hard slog. So now I want people to read and enjoy it. If they do, I have some ideas for sequels!

In the meantime, in the hope of whetting your appetite, I’ll finish this piece with the first page.

“As you wish, Signore,” replied the silky voice. “In order to remove all risk, we should silence him. But we could… merely teach him to fear us.”

“Thank you, Bartolomeo.” The huge man’s voice was a deep rumble. “As ever you put my mind at rest. We shall take the latter course, and avoid the necessity of disposing of a body… though, God knows, that is easily done.”

Naked I cringed against the plank, the straps holding me immobile as I awaited the torment they promised.

I know. It sounds like no more than the slick opening to a story. But have you ever found yourself, perhaps fifteen years old, bound helpless in a stinking prison while powerful men determine whether you should be quietly murdered, or flogged nearly to death instead?

I thought not. As my master always said, do not leap too quickly to judgment.

There – once again I have done it. My master, the most unusual master imaginable, used constantly to complain that I never started at the beginning: “You’re always in such a rush, Lorenzo. Slow down. Think before jumping in.”

Sound advice, often given, rarely heeded: that marks my whole, long life. Had I heeded that oft-proffered wisdom, I might have enjoyed an easier life, though it would have been a less exciting one.

Even in old age as I write this, the thoughts still tumble out in any order except the right one.

Nonetheless, I shall do my best to unravel my thoughts as I unfold my tale.



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