Monday, January 27, 2014

Researching Historical Data

You know what it’s like. You’re writing an article, or a short story, and you need to know a specific historical detail. You know you have to get right, otherwise readers will be writing in and pointing out the error (because they do do that). Sometimes, though, it can be a little overwhelming knowing where to look for what you want. 

In these always-on-Internet-connected days we assume that we can simply type in our query into Google and within a few milliseconds Google will have returned a few million pages containing the answer we’re looking for. But sometimes Google doesn’t work … or rather, it doesn’t work right for us.

Caroline got in touch with such a problem. She was writing a piece set in the 1960s and she wanted to know the price of specific food items at this time. Like many of us, she’d turned to Google looking for her answers but was a little disappointed when she couldn’t find what she was looking for. 

The problem with Google is that it trains us to expect results in milliseconds. Got a query … Google it … Get answer. 

I ran a few searches to see if I could find anything. Governments keep loads of data, especially where retail prices are concerned, but specific price information seemed hard to come by. An appeal on social media came up with some great suggestions (so that’s always something to bear in mind). People suggested contacting a nostalgia magazine like Best of British and ask the readers to see what they could remember. Others found potential websites abroad and suggested converting to sterling (which might cause further problems - what were the exchange rates then? More searching required!), or alternatively searching some social history archives, such as some of those that the BBC maintain.

But then Caroline had an idea. She got in touch with Unilever, who own many of the food brands she was thinking about. They put her in touch with their archives department who replied with her answers within two days.

So, if Google doesn’t give you what you want, don’t give up. Caroline persisted and got the information she wanted. And she knows she’s got her information from a reliable source, something that Google may not always offer! Remember - there was research before Google, and those research sources can still be valuable today.

Good luck!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Photography for Writers

This week’s post is an unashamed plug … but one I hope that will be of interest to you. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Last week, I took delivery of the author copies of my latest book, Photography for Writers, which isn’t scheduled for publication until 28th March. However, if I have my copies then the chances are it’ll be available to everyone else sooner than the official publication date. 

The aim of the book is to show writers that it’s possible to offer photos with your work, even if all you have is a mobile phone, or a compact camera. Writers who can offer photos with their work stand a greater chance of getting their words published.

I was running a workshop on this subject at a writers’ circle on Saturday (well, I was drumming up support for the book) and part of the workshop involved looking at the letter and filler pages of some of the women’s magazines. We identified that the vast majority of readers letters to a magazine’s letters page were accompanied by photos. Now these weren’t photos taken at a photographer’s studio - they were shots captured on a mobile phone.

We also identified that many of the filler pages (such as those asking for household tips) all used photos. Indeed, eighteen months ago, That’s Life magazine paid £30 for a household tip, but £50 for one including a photo. In last week’s issue they only paid £50 for tips with a photo. In other words, they are no longer interested in word-only tips - they want all submissions to include a photo.

The market is changing. Digital photography means that everyone is capable of taking a publishable photo. And magazines are highly visual products. This means that articles need illustrating too. But don’t just take my word for it. This is what three magazine contributor guidelines say:

Best of British: “Articles that are accompanied by pictures stand a greater chance of publication.” 

Evergreen and This England magazines: “Illustrations, whether photographs or drawings, improve the chances of having your material accepted.” 

The Green Parent magazine: ” The availability of photos enhances the appeal of your article to us.”

Editors are busy people. Finding photos takes time. Writers who can supply some photos to accompany their words are making the editor’s life much easier and are therefore increasing their chances of success.

So, if you want to know answers to questions like:

- Do I insert the photos into my manuscript, or do I send them as separate attachments?
- Do I need to ask people’s permission to take their photograph?
- How do I caption my photographs?
- How do I take better pictures without having to read the camera’s manual?
- How can I use my camera as a digital notebook?

… and many, many more questions, then you might want to take a look at a copy of Photography for Writers.

ISBN: 9781780999357 – £7.99

(An eBook version will appear shortly after publication of the print version.)

Good luck!

Monday, January 13, 2014

It's All In The Timing

 A student emailed the other day to enquire about when was the best time to pitch their ideas to an editor. It’s not an easy question to answer because there is no set rule that everyone plays by, but there are some general guidelines to consider.

Whenever you write a piece it can be useful to give it a topical hook or link it to a specific time period, if you you can. An article about Christmas needs to be considered for the December issue, whilst one recounting the history of the Notting Hill Carnival will work better in an August issue. But if you’re going to pitch an idea suitable for a magazine’s August issue, when is the best time to approach the editor?

Firstly, it depends how frequently your target publication is printed. Most monthly publications work about three months ahead. So, being January now, many editors of monthly publications are currently putting together their April issues. They’ll be planning out the material they need for each page and making their final commissions. Which means if you have an idea suitable for the April issue then you need to have pitched it before January. And don’t forget, when you’ve pitched an idea, you need to allow time for the editor to think about it, make their decision and get back to you. Then, of course, you also need time to write it! So, it doesn’t do any harm to start thinking about ideas six months before publication.

There are, though, some anniversaries that are popular, Christmas being the biggest. Some monthly publications start planning their Christmas issues in June, which means you need to pitch these ideas before then!

Some publications are happy to receive potential material at any time and put it aside for when they want to consider it. They may be happy to receive Christmas articles in January, and put them to one side for when they’re ready to think about that issue, whenever that may be.

Don’t be frightened about contacting a magazine. Drop the editor a brief email and ask them when they prefer to receive pitches, especially those for big issues like Christmas.

Weekly publications tend to work about six to eight weeks in advance. In the middle of January, these editors are planning the issue due to hit the newsstands around the end of February/beginning of March.

Alex Corlett, features editor at The People’s Friend explained in this interview (  about how far in advance they plan: “We certainly do plan a forward features list. We work on issues about six weeks ahead of their 'on sale' date, but we like to get ahead where we can and aim to be at least two months in advance of that in terms of planning. For the big occasions – Easter, Christmas, etc. – we will regularly do a year ahead, writing pieces at events this year for use in a year’s time.

So there you have it. There’s no hard-and-fast rule but the earlier you begin thinking about ideas the better!

Good luck!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Blog Chain

Firstly, thanks to Tracy Fells (read her blog at for inviting me to take part in a blog chain, where I have to answer a series of set questions. So here goes:

1. What Am I Working On?
Well, I’m one of these people who has several projects on the go at any one time. I like to think this improves my productivity. When I get bored with one, I can swap to something else. So, what projects am I currently working on? My nearest deadline is for an article I’m writing for a website of a large investment management company. (And, yes, as its an investment management company, they’re paying me to write something for their website.) It draws upon my experience working for a high street bank over 17 years ago. So, never think that old experiences can’t be drawn upon. They can! I’m also working on two short stories at the moment, one of which is 2,000 words, the other will work out nearer 700 I think. I’m also in the process of chasing responses from companies like Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble for an idea I had over Christmas that could generate at least two articles. And then there is the novel … which is currently standing at 106,000 words and is not finished, but I’m in the process of reviewing what I’ve written so far because I’ve just worked out which bits need cutting! Oh yes, and I’m also working on some promotional articles and pieces for my new book coming out at the end of March (of which you’ll be hearing more of!).

2. How Does My Work Differ From Others Of Its Genre?
Hmmmm, that’s an interesting one. Like Tracy, I’m not sure I work specifically to genres, I just enjoy writing what I write. If you look at my books you’ll see there is a humorous element to many of them, and this carries across in some of articles and short stories too. A lot of the time I like trying different genres because of the challenge. Last year I went to a social event of the Outdoor Writers and Photographer’s Guild, and the topic of ‘what other sorts of things do you write’ came up during the meal, and whilst many outdoor writers also write about other non-fiction subject matters, most didn’t venture into fiction. So when I mentioned I sometimes sit down and write a short story for the women’s magazine market, many thought me completely strange! But then many of you already know that!

3. Why Do I Write What I Do?
Because I do! I think all of us have a need to explain or explore something, which we do through our writing. When I’m writing travel pieces I want to share a place with the reader and explore it with them too. If I’m writing a piece of non-fiction that discusses a complicated topic I want to explain it in a way that everyone will understand.Tracy says that she wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer of a specific genre, and in some ways, neither do I. I like exploring my ideas. I always thinks its worrying when writers have an idea, because other people might think, “Well, where in their brain did that idea come from?” And woe betide anyone trying to work out how a writer’s brain works, especially mine. I’m just grateful I have ideas and I try to do something with them!

4. How Does My Writing Process Work?
I often begin to develop my ideas in my notebook first. (Yes, in one of my many beloved Moleskine notebooks!) I will start writing and then when I encounter a problem I’ll stop, leave a line and then start writing again, but this time I’ll be writing about the problem. Sometimes I continue writing until I come up with a solution and then I go back and pick up where I left off. (If ever someone discovers my notebooks in two hundred years’ time they’ll be thoroughly confused. then again, if anyone read my notebooks tomorrow, they’d be thoroughly confused!) When I have a first draft sort of sorted, then I transfer to computer. I use Literature and Latte’s Scrivener programme (,  which I love. (This blog posting is even written in Scrivener.)

I then print out this version and leave it for a day or so, to give myself a break. Sometimes a piece of text only needs minor amendments, other times it needs complete rewriting. If it doesn’t work, I’ll take to my Moleskine notebook and start writing - free writing - thinking about why it doesn’t work and what do I need to do to make it work. Sometimes a piece of text will go through several drafts like this. I rarely give up on a piece. It may end up completely different to how I first imagined it, but I usually try to get something out of everything I write, even if it is simply a reader’s letter. After reviewing and editing (which includes reading it out aloud), I then send it off into the big wide world … with my fingers crossed.

Well, I hope you found that interesting. I’m delighted to say that three of my friends have agreed to keep the chain rolling. They’ll be posting their answers to these questions next week (13th January) on their own blogs. My baton is being passed to:

Rob Innis
Rob Innis writes about his Expat adventures in Spain, exploring new regions and covering a range of topics. Published monthly in magazines and online, he has a successful eBook ‘Spain Exposed’ and has appeared in many popular anthologies.

Julie Phillips
Julie Phillips is a writer of articles, short stories and has a non-fiction book: The Writers' Group Handbook out 28th Feb 2014. She has been published in both the UK and Australia and soon in the USA. She also founded the Facebook Page Bring Back Fiction to Women's Magazines and has two blogs on BlogSpot.

Diane Perry
Diane Perry is the author of the successful One Hundred Ways For A Chicken To Train Its Human, published by Hodder & Stoughton, and she also writes articles. Last year she self-published her children’s novel, Red Kite.

Good Luck!