I always wanted to write a Galaxy Quick Read. When I met Cathy Rentzenbrink the Quick Reads’ Project Director, at a function and she asked me, I was thrilled. I do care very much about writing as a craft, so the idea was an exciting challenge: these little books were intended originally for adults who had only just learned to read and who found there was nothing available except children’s books. Now they are aimed more widely at all adults who find reading difficult, for whom English is not their first language, or who are just out of practice. Six are published every year. You have to lure your usual publisher into contributing, and as mine (Hodder & Stoughton) had never done one before it was a learning experience for us all.
Apart from the warm glow of helping to advance literacy, the advance is small – but you do get a box of free Galaxy bars…
The point is to make everything easy, so readers are not put off. It must be a short book with short chapters, paragraphs and sentences, and in the beginning with short words that are easy, though as your readers become more confident you can increase the range. This technical side was what appealed to me.
I was delighted to be asked to write mine set in the English Civil War (my ‘real’ historical period). That meant first that I had to find a story, something with adventure if possible. I wanted it to be an exciting page-turner. It would have to be on a vastly different scale from my previous Civil War novel, Rebels and Traitors, which runs to nearly 250,000 words! One specific episode this time, rather than the whole Civil War and Commonwealth.
I decided to use the true story of Parliamentary prisoners jailed in Oxford castle early in the war. It has modern resonance – the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib – because the poor men were regarded as hardly human and very badly mistreated by a notorious bullying jailor. He denied them food and even water; many died, though some made a dramatic breakout through a hole they dug in a castle wall, which would provide the ideal climax. One published their terrible story as propaganda, which meant I could trot to the British Library and look up details.
Quick Reads provide literary advice at the outset and then an expert reads your finished manuscript. It was not ideal that my prisoners came from Marlborough and Cirencester – which are three and four syllables and perhaps the most difficult place names possible! We decided to stick with history on that. I didn’t find the process of writing the book hard and in fact was complimented that I had stuck to the rules so well that my first chapters were almost too simple. Makes you wonder about other writers, but I won’t dwell on it. I dug my heels in when the literary expert wanted to change ‘muskets’ to ‘rifles’ and didn’t like ‘parlours’. The books are supposed to be typical of each author’s work and I am famous for historical accuracy and for not dumbing down when a tricky word or phrased is obvious in context.
Otherwise, it’s like writing a novella, and confirmed to me that less than twenty thousand words is not my natural length. I do like the slower pace of a longer book and a chance to develop characters more. That said, as a one-off I enjoyed it as much as I had hoped. And I can tell you that standing at a table trying to flog books to passers-by, as I have just done in connection with the re-enacted Battle of Nantwich, is a whole lot easier if your book only costs a pound!
©Lindsey Davis 2014
A CRUEL FATE by Lindsey Davis is a Quick Read at £1.00