Category: Books

Ask Augustus

It’s not long now until my second book is published. Fatal Evidence is the first book-length biography of 19th-century forensic scientist Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor, MD, FRS. Readers of my first book, Poison Panic, may recognise his name, as will anyone who knows anything about Victorian crime.

Augustus, the professor’s assistant (well, ok, me in Victorian drag) will be filming a questions and answers session. It will go on YouTube, and any questions I don’t have time to answer in the video will be answered on this here website.

May I invite questions from all of you out there – who was Professor Taylor, why write a book about him, how can one identify Prussic acid in a dead person, and just what’s a chap to do when he finds a partial skeleton in a carpet bag? That sort of thing.

Don’t be shy. But don’t ask me What’s the best poison to kill someone with? Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.

Please email your questions to contact@helenbarrell.co.uk by Friday 16th June. (Let me know what name you’d like me to use. First name only, full name, your cat’s name, or random made-up name.)

CWA conference – Edinburgh, April 2017

A view of Waterloo Place in Edinburgh's New Town, showing the stunning Georgian architecture.

This was where I stayed. Shame I didn’t have either of my 19th C costumes with me, quite frankly.

I need very little excuse to go to Edinburgh. I love it. I love it because it’s got loads of old stuff, it reminds me a bit of Granada (the old town with a castle on the hill, the new bits cascading away beside), and it is stuffed full of history, much of it involving coffins. And it’s quite a cheerful place, too.

Graves and a castle at Old Calton cemetery, beneath a blue sky

My hotel was almost opposite Old Calton cemetery.

I had never been to a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) conference before. In fact, I’d never been to weekend-long writers’ conference before, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I needn’t have worried, however, as everyone was really friendly.

I met up with Sarah Ward, who I’ve met before as she’s convener for the Midlands Chapter of the CWA, and is also great fun. I met for the first time the extremely affable Vanessa Robertson, an Edinburgh-based bookseller and author; and authors Leigh Russell, Kate Ellis and Paul Gitsham. And lots of other people too!

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Historian? Author? Writer?

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One day, Rebecca Rideal wrote a history book, intended for the general, non-academic reader. You know the type – the sort of person who is interested in history, wants to know about the world they live in and what shaped it, but doesn’t want, isn’t interested in, perhaps hasn’t had the sort of education where they can handle, a dry academic monograph. We should be glad – after all, back in January, we were told that ‘Popular history writing remains a male preserve.’ Good ol’ Rebecca, doing her bit to redress the gender imbalance!

Rideal was interviewed in The Guardian, and The Guardian pulled out some exciting-sounding quotes, because, well, it’s a newspaper, and that’s what they do. Especially now that online newspapers are obsessed with lacing their bylines with as much clickbait as possible. ‘The time of the grand histories is coming to an end,’ Rideal declared. It’s a headline that makes people sit up and take notice, and sit up and take notice, they most certainly did! The Guardian is no doubt raking in much advertising from Rideal’s interview, but unfortunately for Rideal…. well…. Some people on Twitter got upset.1)It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I’m able to say 5 minutes have gone past without some people on Twitter not being upset about something, but there we are.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I’m able to say 5 minutes have gone past without some people on Twitter not being upset about something, but there we are.

Wherein the author poses in a bookshop

 

Helen went to Waterstones

Helen went to Waterstones

Today, I went to Waterstones in Birmingham and saw Poison Panic on the shelf. It was my book! In a book shop! Not only does my book exist, but… it was on a bookshelf! In a shop! So I paused by it, and posed in an awkward fashion, with Tom Hardy’s naked torso just out of shot above my head, Ian Brady leering into the side of the picture, and PD James (gawd bless ‘er) just lurking beneath.

My book. Hurrah! There were more copies on the other shelf. Thanks to the combined forces of coincidence, my surname, and the alphabet, Poison Panic sits next to a book on the Hell’s Angels, written by the bloke who gave Lee Marvin the stripey T-shirt he wore in The Wild One. So I’ve been told.

Appropriately, perhaps, another poisoner can be found beside my Essex ladies – Carol Baxter’s The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable, on Tawell, the “Kwaker”, accused of murdering his mistress with prussic acid. He was caught when the police chased him down using the telegraph, after Tawell had escaped by train. There wasn’t a letter Q on it, hence they spelt Quaker “Kwaker”. You’ll meet him in Fatal Evidence – although Professor Taylor wasn’t an expert witness at the trial, one of his books was. Had there been Waterstone’s in the 1800s, I’m sure Taylor would have stood by his tomes on the shelves too, and asked someone to do a quick sketch as cameras weren’t too quick back then.

Hel's poisons

Hel’s poisons

And so that’s what I did on Saturday.

Live Poison Panic Twitter Q and A

If Victorians did Twitter.

If Victorians did Twitter.

My book Poison Panic is published on Thursday 30th June. Join me between 12pm and 2pm for a live Twitter questions and answers session. Use the hashtag #poisonpanic

If anyone asks something that requires a long answer that Twitter won’t cope with, I’ll reply on here and link to it. I reserve the right not to answer all questions asked.

I look forward to speaking to you!

Bird image from The Graphics Fairy.

How to index a book – or not

Arsenic, arson, Bulwer-Lytton....

Arsenic, arson, Bulwer-Lytton….

Apart from the obvious difference between fiction and non-fiction – one’s pretend and the other isn’t (more or less) – a non-fiction text should have an index. Indices are awesome, a handy way to zip around a book without having to wade through the entire tome, but have you ever stopped to wonder what compiling an index involves?

This is something I have been wondering since I started work on Poison Panic, for the simple reason that my book would need an index. Gulp.

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Birmingham RNA Writers Day

rna-brum

A scribble of writers?

Writing can be a lonely endeavour, so it’s great that there’s ways for us to meet up. There’s local groups, or there’s associations and organisations you can join, depending on what genre you write in. As I write historical crime and fiction with a romantic twist, I’ve joined the Historical Writers’ Association, I plan to join the Crime Writers’ Association, and I hope one day to join the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA).1)To join the HWA and the CWA, you need to have been commissioned to write a book by a publisher. The RNA is similar, but it also has an annual New Writers’ Scheme, whereby you can join after submitting a manuscript to them. The RNA has also opened its membership to self-published authors who have sold a particular number of novels.

I have to say that the RNA are one of the most active (and pro-active), friendly and welcoming groups you could ever wish for. You don’t even have to be a member to attend some of their events. I have been to several lunch meet-ups with the ladies (and a bloke!) and on Saturday, I was one of the presenters at the Birmingham Chapter’s Writers Day. Held in the rather grand environs of the Radisson Blu on Holloway Head, this was a full day with five speakers and opportunities to mingle – and sell books! I think everyone learnt something, be it about planning, revisions, marketing and social media, and how to publish short stories.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. To join the HWA and the CWA, you need to have been commissioned to write a book by a publisher. The RNA is similar, but it also has an annual New Writers’ Scheme, whereby you can join after submitting a manuscript to them. The RNA has also opened its membership to self-published authors who have sold a particular number of novels.

Lament for an Unavailable Spy

spy

At some point, Poison Panic will be available on Amazon. How very exciting. Because I had a couple of minutes in which my brain demanded something to do and because it had no better idea, I searched for my name on Amazon. I wasn’t surprised that it queried if I’d spelled “Barrell” correctly, suggesting I was looking for a Helen of Troy barrel hot brush – but I was surprised that it returned a result for Lament for a Trapped Spy. It’s a novella I wrote as a teen and self-published like a fanzine, some stapled-together photocopied pages. I sent it through the post for a couple of quid, and about 50 were ever produced; it’s been out of print for years. How on earth did it get on Amazon?

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