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'The Chieftain' a biography of Detective Chief inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011
'The Chieftain' a biography of Detective Chief inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011

Six years ago I finally achieved one of the main tasks on my 'bucket list':  to complete my research on an ancestor who had worked as a senior detective at Scotland Yard in the Victorian era;  to write a book about his experiences that a commercial publisher would be prepared to take on board, and to see that book on the shelves of  high-street bookstores. Unwrapping the box containing the first copies of the book will always remain with me as a truly memorable experience.

I learnt some lessons  along the way which I thought I would share with other budding authors of non-fiction books.

1. If you get carried away by the fun of research as much as I do, it is essential to discipline yourself.  Don't go off in too many directions at once and make sure that you file the information you obtain in a structured fashion. For my purposes, I assemble the information that emerges from my research, into a chronological order (relevant to the main subject of the book),  and incorporate cross-references to documentary sources, including photocopies, online databases, and my hand-written or electronically-captured notes. It is extremely frustrating, while writing the book, if you are unable to quickly lay your hands on that newspaper clipping, photograph, website or research notes that you remember discovering or writing a year or so previously. There is really no excuse these days for the muttered "where the hell did I put it" comment.  There are  specific software packages and databases available to help authors organise their research, but I have found that creating a  chronological table of relevant events, cross-referenced to my information sources, is perfectly adequate  for those of us whose IT-competence (or lack of it) displays our age.

One page in the working chronology of events in 'The Chieftain's ' life
One page in the working chronology of events in 'The Chieftain's ' life

2. Before you start writing, you need to answer a series of questions about the book, such as the 10 questions posed in Bobbie Linkemer's blog article at If you are going to approach a commercial publisher with your plans, they will expect you to have such information at your fingertips, including a draft book title and subtitle; expected word count; deadline for completion of the text; how many illustrations will be included; why your book will be original; your target market; organisations to which your book should be publicised etc. If you are planning to self-publish, this preparation is still invaluable.  Your ideas will evolve further as you get down to the writing, but I certainly felt better once I had thought about my target audience more, and had set a word limit and time deadline.

3. Writing. You don't have to start a book at the beginning.  I knew that the subject matter in the second chapter of my last book was likely to be easier to write, and would probably provide a better indication  that the book would contain new information.  So when my potential publishers asked for evidence of my writing, I wrote that second chapter and I was fortunate that they rose to the bait and we agreed a contract.  In addition, I now had a good chapter 'under my belt' and felt greatly encouraged as a consequence.

4. We all have different approaches to writing. Once I start, I try to write for at least 3-4 hours a day even when the muse isn't with me. I will then spend an hour or so 'polishing' the text that I've produced that day before metaphorically 'sticking it in a drawer' for  about a week before taking a fresh look at it.  This won't work for everybody and you will need to develop your own rhythm.

5. Give yourself plenty of thinking time, both during the research and writing phases. Taking a dog for a walk in the countryside is the main way in which I create the time to mull things over.  However, don't allow yourself to forget the 'good ideas' that can emerge!

6. It's also a good idea to identify at least a couple of constructive people who will be prepared to read and comment on individual chapters and/or the entire text before you submit your final draft for publication. I test out my drafts on at least two readers who have a general interest in the subject and ideally another one or two who have specific expertise on the subject matter of individual chapters.  This can provide an invaluable set of comments that help remove any substantial 'howlers' from the text, and give you a good guide about the likely interest of the book to general readers and specialists.  If you are like me, your first draft of the book will be longer than the word count that you set out to achieve.  Cutting the text can be painful but has to be done, not least to reduce additional page charges for hard copies of the book. However, make sure that you save any substantial deleted material as you may be able to use it on your website and blog, to help promote the book.

7. OK, so now your final text is with the publisher. Well done; but don't waste the time between submission and publication (which can be short, particularly for self-published material). You need to be working to promote your book even if you have a commercial publisher behind you.  If you haven't already got a website and blog, I would recommend that you do so.  I received excellent mentoring and support for that process from James Kalmakoff at Kalmak Consultancy, and continue to do so. In addition, to help build a target market and to promote my book(s), I use Facebook and LinkedIn and make myself available for talks.

None of this is rocket science, but I hope that my comments will help encourage other budding authors through the process.  I'm now writing my next book, and fitting in research for another, which has been prompted by exciting contacts that I have made via my blog. Keep writing!


Thanks to receiving a large number of old family photographs from my cousin Mike, I've at last got round to investigating the family tree on my mother's side of the family.  Up till now my father's side had provided sufficient entertainment to keep me busy for a few years, including the subject of my  book 'The Chieftain'.  This time however, literally and metaphorically, I've hit the mother lode! Tracing the ancestry of one of my 3x great-grandfathers yesterday afternoon has led me back to the Vikings. Apparently I'm 29 generations removed from a friendly Viking from Orkney called Thorfinn Skull Splitter, and also a few more generations removed from another Viking, Rollo, who fathered William Longsword (William I of Normandy), who himself fathered 'Richard the Fearless'.

How did I find  that out in a single afternoon you may ask? Online searches of course.  Having built my family tree online, the host website's search engines voraciously whirl round and select possible matches between the various family trees that it hosts. I must admit that checking some of these links makes one a bit uneasy when one comes across an ancestor in the middle ages whose birth location according to another 'tree' was apparently in an American township that had not been founded at that time....a sign perhaps that some considerable editorial checking will be needed to ratify my new findings.

However, having decided to check up on Thorfinn and Rollo etc. on other websites I'm pretty convinced that there are enough similarities between us to justify my likely Viking ancestry.  Firstly, I understand that Rollo was known as 'The Walker', apparently because he was so big that no horse could carry him.  That definitely sounds like me. Secondly, it  appears that the Vikings were not without a sense of humour in the nicknames that they bestowed upon people. There was, apparently, a Thorfinn the Short who was actually noted for being very tall, and it is therefore within the bounds of possibility that Thorfinn 'Skullsplitter' was so named because he was a gentle old soul who wouldn't hurt a fly. That I hope provides the definitive proof.  We apparently share the same sense of humour.

I'm a bit worried about the 'Richard the Fearless' connection.  But I suppose being a Viking means that one can 'walk tall'. So just remember - don't mess with me!

The summit, the old Shap Road (A6)

I first encountered the old Shap Road (A6) in 1963 during a 10 day cycling holiday to the Penrith area from London.  In those days, before the M6 was built, it was the main link between north-west England and Scotland, rising to some 1400-1500 feet above sea level at its summit. At the time, I didn't really appreciate its grandeur.  I had been in the saddle for nine days already; my gears (relatively primitive by today's standards) had broken down on my first day out of London and I had been forced to ride a single gear fixed wheel for the remainder of the holiday, including a a 73-mile day in the southern pennines when it had rained non-stop.  I was knackered, and the final ride  from Kendal to a village 6 miles north of Penrith, to meet my parents, was almost the last straw, the shortest option being over the long uphill drag of the Shap pass on the A6 (then a busy trunk road).  At least it didn't rain.  The years since have deadened the pain, and now the memories have shifted instead to a sense of achievement.

Since I moved to Cumbria a few years ago, I have had frequent opportunities to return to the old Shap Road, closeted in the comfort of a car. Now that its traffic has largely been taken by the M6, the old A6 must be one of the most scenic rides and quietest 'A' roads in England.  Its a magical route; no journeys on it are ever the same.  (The photos illustrating this blog-post were taken yesterday). The light varies constantly and the views assume a different perspective from minute to minute; the climate varies from hour to hour ...from sunshine at the bottom and snow showers at the top, even in spring/early summer...a real challenge on a cold winter's night.  The scenery starts with pleasant wall-enclosed lowland pasture at its southern and northern extremes, rising to open tree-less moorland inhabited by cotton grass and other hardy upland plants, sometimes scarred by pylons and stone-quarries that are also  features of the area.  At night, if you are lucky, the reflective eyes of Red Deer can be spotted in your car headlights.

Looking west towards Longsleddale from the old Shap Road

If you've never ridden or driven it, I fully recommend it. If you are on a bike .... congratulations and good luck.  If you are in a car make sure that you stop at some of the many parking places, and at least get out of the car at the road summit to experience the views, the sunshine, the wind, rain and snow.   Bring a map, compass and wet-weather gear; take a walk on some of the footpaths that cross the road.  If you fancy a circular drive, after reaching the summit on the A6,  I can recommend joining the M6 just south of Shap village (junction 39), head south and perhaps stop for refreshment at Tebay

The northward march of the pylons towards the Shap road summit

services, the best motorway service station in England, run by Westmorland farmers, and then drive through the spectacular Lune Valley alongside the Howgill Fells, before exiting for Kendal at junction 37 on one of the few motorway slip roads that has a cattle-grid across it. Very civilised!



I realise that I've been neglecting my Blog in recent weeks and have decided I need to do better.  So from now on, it will be my objective to write something at least every two weeks.  With my principal interests being in 19th and early 20th century family history, and in the associated social and political history of those times, I've therefore decided to concentrate most of my efforts on that period. So in future, you can expect to find comments in my blog relevant to those topics, plus perhaps the occasional 'off-the-wall' commentary when the mood takes me!

Today's offering is about Old Photographs.  I mentioned previously that I had recently inherited some 'new' old photographs from a cousin.  Fortuitously, quite a few of these photographs had been annotated with the names of at least some of the people shown in the images, and sometimes a date....a rare event in most old photo albums.  One of the emerging 'stars' from the albums is one of my maternal grandmothers, Clara Stanbridge  Clara it seems enjoyed standing in front of the camera and has left a legacy of images dating from 1883-1940 that I have now assembled in a photo-gallery on my website.

There are several books and websites that can be of assistance in dating old photographs but you may also find Clara's photo-gallery of some assistance as well.  If you just like looking at old photographs there should also be something of interest for you in the gallery. Now that I've at last worked out how to assemble a photo-gallery on-line (yes, I'm old and not very computer-literate), I plan to add other galleries, including one linked to the subject matter of my recent book 'The Chieftain'.

Taking into account the wonderful set of photographs that my great-grandmother Clara left behind, I am almost prepared to forgive her for committing that otherwise most heinous of family-history crimes....marrying someone called 'Smith'! (For those readers who do not understand my point here, you obviously have not had to trawl through the archives trying to discriminate one William Smith from the multitude of others.)

In my previous blog entry, I possibly gave you, dear readers, some concern about my developing obsession for Amazon's book sales rankings.  If so, you'll be pleased to know that I'm getting over it.  After all, life has to go on.  However, for those of you who are still genuinely interested in  the rankings, I'm pleased to say that, as I write, 'The Chieftain' is ranked 3,175, 368 places above my last book (A Dictionary and Directory of Virology published in 1989), but it still has a long way to go before it features in the top 1000 or so.

Today, I've decided to get away from books for a few moments and tell you about another  activity that has its community of obsessives....members of Audax.  Some of you,  while driving down country lanes in the UK during the shorter summer nights, may  have been startled to come across a lycra-clad cyclist, or even a small group of them, very early  in the morning,  wandering in a slightly-fatigued manner over the road. If so, you have probably just encountered members of Audax, the long-distance cycling association.  I was a member once and it took two years before I was 'cured'.  It truly is a glorious obsession.  If you like cycling you must try Audax.

The check-in card for the rather 'lumpy' Fleet Moss 200km Audax event

The principal objective of Audax UK members is to complete prescribed routes of various length (e.g. 200, 300, 400 and 600km etc.) that must be completed within a set time limit (e.g. about 40 hours for 600km).  For those who ride at my pace, these time limits mean that the events essentially involve  non-stop cycling, apart from getting your card stamped at checkpoints, feeding stops etc., and the occasional brief luxury of a lie-down on a village hall floor, a park bench or in a non-vandalised bus shelter (if any still exist). If you like to be sociable you can turn up to fully organised events.  If you prefer a more solitary existence, some well-known routes (like "Bernie's Long Flat One" a 600km Audax route based around Doncaster, Newark and York) can be achieved alone, provided you can produce a satisfactorily completed check-in card. In my short 'career' as an Audax rider (1994-1995), I gained the mildly-obsessive award of  'Super-Randonneur' i.e. a minimum set of four rides in one year covering 200, 300, 400 and 600km.  I soon discovered that riding such distances alone at night is a sure way of producing hallucinations and night-time terrors!  But the endorphin-rush when you've finished is amazing!

The seriously obsessed (which I'm sad to say I didn't attempt to become) have the opportunity every four years to do the Paris-Brest-Paris 1200 km Audax event.  But to my mind the ultimate accolade in Audax UK, for 'truly glorious obsession', must go to the individual who logs up the most miles  cycled during a single year.  If my memory recalls correctly, in 1994/1995 this award went to a guy who cycled about 25,000 miles in one year on a single gear, fixed-wheel bike. What a man!  Puts my short-term obsessions with  Amazon sales-rankings, into their truly trivial perspective.

Well, 'the book' was formally published this week and it has received it's first feature article at and its first Customer Review at the Amazon website, both of which I'm pleased to say were very positive.  By the law of averages that may change.  So far, however, I am not one of those people who claims never to have read their reviews.  That may come later, at which point of course I will also deny having written these few words.

More-importantly, when checking the Amazon site for 'The Chieftain', I discovered a feature that I had never noticed before; every book is given an Amazon bestsellers ranking and that ranking shifts around every hour or so (or even quicker than that).  As a consequence, I have immediately become addicted to  checking the site regularly to see how the book sales are progressing.  On Monday, when I started this process the book ranked 220,000th or thereabouts; within a couple of days, fluctuating wildly, it reached 9900th.  I was over the moon, but within an hour it had slumped to 12000th...of course that was just before bedtime and I lay awake worrying that it had peaked too soon.  After a sleepless hour, with an iphone by my bedside, I checked again....sales still sliding!

As it turned out, I needn't have worried (yet).  At 3.15 pm this afternoon (Friday) it had reached the dizzy heights of 5947th .  It was also 19th amongst books on London's cultural history, 34th in True Crime biography, and 64th in True Accounts, Society, Politics and Philosophy (notice how I have become obsessively more precise).  By 5pm, however, another slide has set in; its down to 9275th.  Looks like another sleepless night, or can I turn things round and get a life?!

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