Crooked Mile by Ben Beazley

 My final session in the blog-barrel.


Thanks Caroline for the comments on naming practices, a hundred years on from the period that you are writing about the structuring is I have to say quite fixed.  I think that rather than it being a question of literacy it is probably more to do with the fact that we are now coming into the beginning of the age of bureaucracy.  Definitely mix up forenames and surnames, both to preserve identities and also because some combinations flow much better than others.


When I first set off on what has turned out to be a most enjoyable week I mentioned that, for the uninitiated the road to publication is, (unless you are amazingly lucky or have well placed relatives), at best an uphill climb with a hard furrow to plough, sorry about the mixed metaphors – bloggers license – and that I might come back to the subject before I finally pulled down my tent and made way for Nick Blackstock to have his say. 


It is for that reason that I want to close my week with, as they used to say on American television ‘a few words, not from – but to – our sponsor’, Picnic Publishing.


I have been writing non-fiction material for the last ten years, and like so many others came into fiction work, not so much by accident as by the realisation that I had ‘a novel in me’ that I wanted to share, and a moderate ability to write it.  I knew better than to think in terms of making huge sums of money, believe me if you have written non-fiction you very soon come to that realisation – you do it because you want to.


What came as a huge shock to me once the novel was completed, was the difficulty involved in trying to convince someone in the publishing world to take an interest in it. Naïvely I thought that because I had got one or two non-fiction books behind me I was going to be able to put it into the market place with a fair chance of being successful.


Top selling authors, (one of which I am not),  who have made it onto the shelves will almost without exception tell you that in respect of their first work they made innumerable submissions and got knocked back time after time before getting a lucky break.  This seems to be an immutable and sad fact.


The truth is that historically the industry has become locked into two virtually unbreakable circles of agents and major publishers.  They resemble mutually impenetrable force fields, each feeding off of the energy generated by the other.


For some considerable time now the major publishing houses – and it to these that agents submit work – have concentrated solely on established authors who have a proven track record and have been earning them money for a long time. 


There is a massive and obvious flaw in this ethic.  Writers rely on creativity and after however long, even for the best, this dries up and sooner or later the quality of their work deteriorates.  Initially the reading public accept this situation, generally with the comment, ‘I read his last book, but I didn’t think that it was up to his usual standard’.  After a few below par efforts, sales begin to drop.  This has now become in certain – by no means all I hasten to add – cases progressive, and the industry has begun to stagnate. 


The big houses will tell you that they are looking for new authors to give a chance to, but the truth is that the vast majority are not – it is business as usual, a new author is a risk and costs money, better to get a few more miles out of an established one even if he or she is past their sell-by date.


Agents perpetuate the situation because they are very aware of this policy and an established writer on their list, even if they are a bit tired, is an earner.  For an agent to take a chance on putting forward a new candidate is far too risky a business. Good first time submissions are returned, usually unread with a short note to the effect that ‘we are not accepting new clients’, or ‘our list for this year is full’.  Some do however state in the Writers and Artists Yearbook  that they specialise in ‘packaging first time work by celebrities’ !!!!


There is now however for new authors a bright light at the end of the tunnel.  A sea change is taking place and the big houses are beginning to lose out to a new breed of small publishers who are genuinely interested in first time authors, and are operating without the massive overheads with which the major players have over the years saddled themselves.  A new publishing generation of which Picnic is one, is beginning to emerge. 


Work that is submitted is actually read properly and assessed professionally.  Interestingly – and for me this is what is providing that light at the end of the tunnel – one of the really powerful players – Faber – recognising what is happening, has shaken away from the pack, nailed it’s colours to the mast, and formed the ‘Independent Alliance’, which at present has ten member publishers under it’s aegis and is supplying them in various ways with help and support.


There may be those who think that I am finishing my blog week simply with a sales pitch for publishing houses such as Picnic, and do you know what, you are correct!


I don’t know how long the other authors’ who have contributed to these columns waited to get their first book published, nor is it my business.  I only know how difficult it was for me and still is for others, and just how immensely high are the odds that are firmly stacked against you.  So I will sign off quite simply by saying to Picnic, ‘thank you for publishing ‘Crooked Mile’, and to everyone else who has taken the time to read and respond to my week’s blog – ‘thank you also, and I sincerely hope that you enjoy reading it’.


_   email:


Crooked Mile by Ben Beazley

ben Can I just finish off what I was talking about yesterday in relation to pulling ideas for fiction out of what on the face of it is basically a simple transcription job. 


Let me first explain what I am doing at the Record office.  From the late 1830’s up until well into the next century, local authorities were required to set up local Boards of Guardians to administer the Poor Laws.  A part of this task involved the setting up of Workhouses for the admission of the more extreme examples of those suffering various forms of deprivation.  Sorry to teach those of you who are clued in to suck eggs … I will move on quickly to the bits that are not such common knowledge.


Whenever a family or an individual was admitted to the Workhouse, the fact was entered into a ledger along with details of age; occupation; religion; and the reason for their admission.  All right, pretty basic book keeping, until that is you have been doing it for a while and start to notice anomalies and wonder about certain things.


After a month or so of  burning daylight on Thursday mornings trying to decipher the different handwritings in the legers, the first thing to point out becomes glaringly apparent.  Everyone in those days was not possessed of the ability to produce the beautiful calligraphic script of popular belief !  Some of the hands are of quite poor quality and leads to the inevitable conclusion that, as in the modern day prison system, there were those of the inmates who were regarded as ‘trustees’ and helped out in the reception process by entering up the ledger.


Having written down the same names time after time on the admission and discharge balances, after a while a second fact emerges. The basic stated premis of the Workhouse was that staying there should be infinitely less palatable than being in prison.  However on a regular basis, and we are not talking about casual vagrants seeking a night’s board, whole families were coming into the house, staying for a few days and then being discharged, sometimes to be re-admitted within hours.  So was it then as now – there are those who know how to beat the system ?  It seems so.


Also despite the fact that numbers were understandably higher in the winter than in the summer, suddenly around 1884 there is a dramatic fall in the occupancy of the Leicester Union house, from around a thousand to just over six hundred.  Why?  I suspect that the Guardians ran a cost cutting exercise, (possibly on a national basis), which allowed them to change the ground rules on admission, and tip out a large number who were considered excess to requirements.


Then there is the social dynamic running through everything.  Pregnant women, abandoned by lovers or husbands were admitted apparently at the onset of labour and discharged within days of giving birth.  So a pretty fundamental form of maternity care becomes apparent.  However, quite often the child – who after it’s birth was admitted to the house and recorded simply as a ‘male or female child’ before on the opposite page being discharged with the mother – was not born in the same parish as the workhouse.  So the conclusion must be that the women were shipped out to other premises – a birthing house some distance away – for the confinement.  This brings up another quaint concept as stated in the house rules that, ‘where a child is born to a woman out of wedlock, no liability for the child shall fall upon the father’.  Try that one on the Child Support Agency.


During the summer months numerous children were admitted having been abandoned by their parents.  It becomes apparent that this is in fact an approved process initiated by the poor themselves, to establish a system of foster care for their offspring whilst they go into the country fruit picking and harvesting.  On a different tack, individual children are often taken out ‘to the service of Mr or Mrs so-and-so, at such-and-such an address’ .  When curiosity gets the better of you and you look up the address in Wright’s or Kelly’s directories, you find that it is a shop or manufacturing premises.


So it is easy to see that, with more questions being posed than answered, for someone whose mind is occupied looking for a decent plot, here are a whole series of snapshots that can be factored into a storyline somewhere.


One thing about characters.  The golden rule for me is as far as possible write about things, places, and people you have encountered, or know about.  In putting together the plot for Crooked Mile I really had very little difficulty in finding the players.  I don’t think I mentioned previously that I spent most of my working life as a serving police officer.  That in itself when putting together a murder-mystery is I have to say a pretty big advantage – especially as my early days were in the 1960s before the advent of modern technology – radios, computers, and street lights, which sort of gives me things in common with some of the characters.  I certainly used people who I knew and worked with over the years as the basis for many of those in the book – Detective Inspector Joseph Langley definitely existed, as did the editor of the Kelsford Gazette, Charles Kerrigan-Kemp.  Others, even down to minor characters, were people who over the years I have met – it is so much easier to bring a figure to life if he or she is based in the writer’s mind on fact.   email:


Crooked Mile by Ben Bealzey

 I feel a bit like Scott of the Antarctic, sitting in his tent in 1912 with an icy blizzard howling around outside, scribbling away with a stub of pencil, wondering what to say next …  Captain Oates has just stepped out of the bivvy, having uttered the immortal phrase … ‘I am just going outside and may be some time…  (I have never been quite clear on this one – was he nipping out to take a leak, or have a quiet smoke… I know he didn’t get on with Scott, but what was that all about ?)


Anyway I think I can empathise with Scott who is no doubt thinking, ‘should I pen a few erudite words for the guidance of those who may follow, or tell the truth and say that I wish I had booked a cruise next month on that new boat – the Titanic’. 


Yesterday I mentioned the occurrence of Christian and forenames during the eighteen hundreds.  As in present times, there was definitely a fashion in which certain expected names seem to appear whilst others are missing.  Just as an aside I was equally intrigued to find that most of today’s surnames were in current use then and remain virtually unchanged.


As I said, over recent years I have spent an awful lot of time in my local Record Office doing research, (the head archivist, a lovely lady by the name of Dr Margaret Bonney gets really up tight when people refer to her domain as the ‘Records’ Office, pointing out that HMV and Virgin sell ‘records’), and of late I have become involved in a volunteer scheme to transcribe various areas of material onto electronic data bases.  


My specific job every Thursday morning is to sit down in front of one of the computers which they have designated for the purpose, (I think that they are a bit short of readies because there are only two machines each of which chugs along on Windows 2000), open the dusty ledger that, on one side contains entries of  those unfortunates being admitted ‘to the house’, on a daily basis, and on the opposite those who are either being released at their own request, kicked out because they are ‘casuals’, or have simply legged it with the workhouse clothes.  (The odd variance is an inmate who has either gone completely mental and been carted off to the asylum or been sentenced to seven days with hard labour in gaol for being rude to, or taken a swing at, the Workhouse Master).


The point being that, like the Watch Committee minutes that first set me off on the trail of writing Crooked Mile, this is another wonderful source of names for anyone similar to myself who is involved in attempting to recreate history.  At present we are working on the late 1880’s – a period that apart from being the setting for my present book interests me greatly, and I am quite surprised at the dearth of what I would have thought at that particular time should have been common names.


Some of those that as yet I just have not come across are: Judith, (biblical); Barbara; Julie; Donald … Matilda – we had a Queen Matilda back when Stephen was lobbying to become king in the 1300s. (As a matter of fact – I haven’t seen a Stephen either).  Another thing that I have picked up is that whilst we now take for granted the option to spell names in more than one way, such was not then the case – for instance Elizabeth was never spelt with an ‘s’, always a ‘z’ – Ann never took an ‘e’ as in present times, and so on.


Doubtless, twenty five years on, by the time of the First World War, (when I get to it), trends will have altered once more, and there will be whole new raft of names to play with.  What I am getting at is, I hate picking up books where the author has made a guess at something, or simply not bothered.  I actually recently came across a new work by a particularly renowned author, writing a tale of the middle ages in which there appeared characters named Dave and Ric – in the 1300s’ ?  So I probably spend as much time on background work as I do writing, because the truth is there will always be someone who says… ‘I don’t think so’.


With Crooked Mile coming out early next year, I have not unnaturally been exercising my mind on what to do next, and helping out in a project such as the one that I am involved in at Leicester Record office is probably one of the best ways to stimulate the imagination.


A couple of weeks ago Caroline made the point that her plot for Kill-Grief began to emerge from many of the intriguing details that she turned up in her research into 18th century hospital practices.  Similarly my plot for Crooked Mile began to take form whilst I was researching the history of a police force during the 19th century.  I suspect that there are two kinds of researcher.  Those who treat it as a means to an end, and those who do it because they like it and find it stimulating.  Fact is that if you want to try your hand at writing historical novels, you have got to fall into the latter group.   email:


Crooked Mile by Ben Beazley

ben Having taken over the baton from Andrew and left him taking his well earned sundowner, I find myself at something of a loss to know where to make a start today.  One of the first things I should point out is that like some of the others who have gone before me or are still awaiting their first effort to actually appear on the shelf, as yet my jacket design is not ready, so the first problem is what to put up as being relevant to myself and this week’s discussion. 


First day is pretty obvious – image of one’s self to set the scene and then take it from there, (that particular vision won’t be imposed on you again, I promise). So now that is sorted the next thing is to tell you about my forthcoming novel, Crooked Mile, which is being published in early 2009 – how it came to be, what the story is, and then later on a bit about what makes me tick.


Although I had quite a lot of experience as a non-fiction writer, there is no doubt that the road to achieving publication with a fictional novel is definitely a rocky, uphill, one in three gradient over hot coals, and littered with broken glass.  The task of breaking through the firewalls that agents and publishing houses have built around themselves is monumental – so my absolute message is that if at last you discover a publisher who is genuinely interested in first time fiction writers, you have hit gold – I think that I might save my further thoughts on that one until the end of the week.


Crooked Mile is set in the late 19th century – during the years 1887-8 to be precise – and is basically a murder mystery which on one hand tells the story of a group of  Irish Fenians, and on the other, that of the mysterious ‘Pipeline’, a Jewish network spreading across Europe, whose purpose is to assist émigrés fleeing the pogroms of Tsarist Russia. The story begins in Kelsford, a medium sized market town in the north Midlands between Sheffield and Derby.  On a winter’s night, the bungled robbery of the Shires Canal Company payroll, followed by the murder of one of the gang and the loss of the proceeds of the crime, is the first step in a complex chain of events leading half way around the world.  (If you feel like taking a look, the first half dozen pages setting the scene are on my web page).


Thomas Norton, the detective in charge of the investigation soon finds himself involved with Ruth Samuels, the wealthy widow of a local banker who is deeply involved in the activities of the Pipeline.  The reader travels first with Ruth and her irascible maid ‘Mirka’, across Hapsburg Europe and into the snowy Carpathian Mountains on the dangerous border with Russia.  The story then moves across the Atlantic to New York before taking Norton and Ruth into the slums of Whitechapel in pursuit of Eugene Leschenko, a dangerous psychopath who has utilised the Pipeline to make his way from Russia to England.


What is rarely taken into account by the average reader is the amount of work that goes into the detail required to make a story convincing.  A friend of mine, on discovering that I had moved away from writing non-fiction, and had thrown my hat into the ring with a novel, said – with all of the best intentions – ‘well that will be a lot easier, all you have got to do now is sit down and write it out, no more hours in the archives’. He had absolutely no idea how wrong he was, or for that matter appreciated that had I not already spent so much time in Record Offices, I would never have been able to put together any sort of a credible storyline.  This premis holds good in my opinion for any fictional genre – murder mystery, espionage, industrial chicanery – it doesn’t matter, it has to be accurate.


It was whilst I was ploughing through a pile of  Watch Committee books, (heavy hard backed, leather bound tomes weighing twenty pounds each, that in the absence of a reliable jack could quite safely be shoved under the back axle of a Ford Transit), that I came to realize that I was possibly onto something.  If I jotted down the abundance of names spread across the pages, I would by the time I finished have an accurate database of Victorian and Edwardian names, (I was working on the period beginning 1836 until well into the 20th century), and would have a rough idea of when they came into common usage.


Once I had begun to occupy my mind, and I will say it before someone else does – filled the pockets of my anorak – with this process, it dawned on me that aside from the names thing, I actually knew quite a lot about this period.  Very soon the plot for Crooked Mile began to form, and I started to get things down on paper. From start to finish I suppose, the book took me about twelve months to write.  A large amount of time was taken up, first in checking out historical details and then in reading, re-reading and amending.


So, having explained something about Crooked Mile and how it came into being, I will now go off and wonder what on earth I am going to do for tomorrow’s ‘blog’.  Hopefully before too long, some kind soul will e-mail me with a burning question that will show me in which direction to push on.   email: