Reaching New Readers.
We’re delighted to introduce Francis Pryor as our guest blogger – Francis is well known as a television broadcaster, but has also recently embarked on a career as a novelist. In this essay he talks about reaching new audiences using new media. A video featuring Francis talking about his new novel (The Way, the Truth, and the Dead) can be found at the end of the essay.
Sometime in the winter of 1990, I think it was after Christmas, I went to London for a meeting with the Commissioning Editor of the Publisher B.T. Batsford who had formed a partnership with English Heritage to launch a joint series of archaeology books. To my surprise they wanted me to write one about Flag Fen, our waterlogged Bronze Age site, on the Fen-edge of eastern Peterborough, which we had discovered nine years previously. Since then we had opened our excavations to the public and were currently welcoming over 20,000 paying visitors a year. And we tried to do the job properly. Glancing through an old leaflet from this time, I note that we were sponsored by some large corporations and were registered with the English Tourist Board as ‘A Quality Assured Visitor Attraction’, no less. But it was very hard work. Most members of the team worked six-day weeks and for about a decade we very rarely had a weekend off. That fact alone gave one’s life an interesting rhythm, which I still look back on with some nostalgia.
I find it hard to believe now, but I was very surprised by the new commission. Up until that point nearly everything I had written had been academic – mostly lengthy reports. True, I had written some chatty newsletters and a couple of booklets for the then Peterborough Evening Telegraph (whose editor was a good friend), but none could be considered a ‘real’ book. I think my anxiety must have showed, because Peter Kemmis-Betty, who was sitting opposite me in a very pleasant Greek restaurant near Manchester Square, did everything in his power to put me at ease. Over my very first publisher’s lunch he taught me one golden rule, which has guided my writing, blogging and broadcasting ever since: you will only retain your readers’ interest if you tell a story. Or to put it briefly: plot is everything.
This rule is universal, and it worries me that some people don’t think it applies to digital media. OK, I concede if you are simply making a short factual announcement, it may not apply, but even then it might be worth hinting at implications… ‘If this is indeed a post-hole, then it could have been part of a roundhouse’ is a bit more interesting than plain: ‘Context 7715 is a possible post-hole’. Yawn, yawn.
Anyhow, I started work and even though I was writing in the third person I couldn’t help myself from making the words sound conversational. I felt I was talking to that person, my reader, in a quiet way, as if we were having an intimate conversation in the pub, which we didn’t want others to overhear. Sometimes it felt like we were sharing thoughts across the breakfast table. So does that mean that in my minds’ eye, all my readers are female? Strangely, it doesn’t. As I explained in the Afterword to the paperback edition of something (I can’t lay my hands on it at present!), I sometimes imagined I was telling my story to the taxi driver who drove my wife and I to a close friend’s funeral. He (the taxi driver) was such an interested, intelligent and nice man. So I would add that writing has to tell a narrative, a confidential story, to the reader.
I wasn’t at all confident that my Flag Fen book for English Heritage/Batsford would be well received, but strangely it was. Indeed, Professor Richard Bradley, by then a close and supportive friend, was wildly enthusiastic. It was he who urged me to write more popular books – and I have to say I’ve taken his advice. And that Flag Fen book? It was reprinted several times and when the original series ceased, it was taken up by two subsequent publishers, one of whom (Tempus) commissioned a major up-date and re-write in 2005. It has been further up-dated and is still in print (now with The History Press – Flag Fen: Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape).
Rest assured I’m not about to start a review of every book I’ve ever written (as that would break my plot rule), but I’ll have to touch on one or two, just to take the story forward. Now most authors and archaeologists tend to write their autobiographies in their twilight years – for understandable reasons. But for some reason I didn’t. I wrote mine in 2001. And its title – Seahenge – isn’t very helpful, either. But the publishers liked it. It sold quite well, but not brilliantly, which in some respects is sad, as I personally think it’s one of my better books. In it, I push at various boundaries: there are passages of ‘live’ action, taken from my diary. It even features direct speech and flashbacks. And all of this is held together by a very strong narrative thread. I rather thought of it as a film. And it has a very sad ending, which is entirely based on truth. In fact it was this book which gave me the idea of writing fiction – which was suggested to me by an old friend with whom I made several programmes for Radio 4. He liked Seahenge, too, and could see it was half-way towards becoming a novel. But I still had some way to go before I dared to cross that particular, and very daunting, threshold.
I had story-telling and films in mind when I wrote the Britain series of four books for HarperCollins. The first, and by far the longest, was Britain BC. This was very much the story of prehistoric Britain. I really, really, didn’t want to write a textbook – largely because I had never enjoyed reading them when a student: they were things you had to wade through, without any pleasure or satisfaction whatsoever. I won’t say they were as bad as Sir Walter Scott’s lugubrious Old Mortality, which I had to read twice, no less, for my O-Level English Literature, but when you finished them you felt relief: that was one thing you would never have to do again. No, I hoped my readers would want to see more. And that wasn’t just to sell further books. The point is, Britain’s story is still continuing. It didn’t end with the coming of the Romans: archaeology isn’t just a dry succession of facts about the distant past: it’s a living subject that is directly relevant to our lives today.
The sheer diversity of Britain’s story over the past five hundred years, has long held a fascination for me, and I have to say that the archaeologists working in these more recent periods appear far less hide-bound and restricted in their outlook, than some of their prehistorian colleagues. Certainly there are over-confined sub-fields within, for example, post-medieval archaeology: the development of early industrial technology being one. But again, this reflects the modern world. People (and by that I mean men) who enjoy taking steam engines to bits, don’t always care much about the living conditions of the folk who originally operated them. But I’m glad to say that this split between industrial archaeology (mines and machines) and post-medieval archaeology in general is starting to come together. This is well-illustrated in the excellent collection of essays, Crossing Paths or Sharing Tracks? (2009).
I hugely enjoyed my journey into the post-medieval world, as it was leading me back to one of the reasons I took up archaeology in the first place. I had spent my childhood in the Hertfordshire countryside. I could drive a tractor (an old grey Fergie) aged twelve, and was shown how to spot mushrooms in a field even younger. I’ve always known how to tell an oak from an ash from an elm, and not just in summertime, when the leaves are on. I suppose you could say the country landscape is in my blood. But after finishing my degree at Cambridge, I got a job in Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane, London E1 – right in the heart of the East End. The Blind Beggar, where the infamous Cray Twins held court, was just down the road. Not many mushrooms or ash trees around there – and certainly not in the late ‘sixties. Today, of course, it’s very trendy, with nobody over 40 allowed in. But while I was there I began to realise that you could deconstruct the urban landscape too. The brewery had been placed on the edge of the urban sprawl of late 17th century London on land that had very recently been Spital fields. I can remember singing with a drunk crowd in the brewery tap:
When Spitalfields they were still fields,
And Bethnal Green was greeeeener…
Nearly forty years later, and after my initial interest in rural and urban landscapes had had time to mature, I wrote The Making of the British Landscape (2005). It took a long time, but now, ten years later, I’m still happy with it – and I can’t say that about everything I’ve written. My new publishers (Alan Lane Press/Penguin Books) then asked me to write something about the archaeology of the home. Again, this took rather longer than I had anticipated, because I decided to write it from a very personal perspective. In common with other archaeologists (and I can think of at least two others I know personally) my wife and I decided to build our own home.
It was a very rewarding, if at times highly traumatic, process, but it taught us both a huge amount about ourselves, our relationship and the people living round about us. I’m not saying the experience would have been the same in the Bronze Age, but at a certain, quite profound, level there are, I’m sure, parallels. It’s the same with sheep-keeping, which we’ve done semi-professionally for 30-odd years: animals behave in certain ways that people must have understood back in prehistory. It all depends at where you choose to draw your parallels. That book, HOME: a Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory was published in 2014 and will be out in paperback very shortly (October 1st).
Now it’s one thing to nudge at the boundaries separating fiction from non-fiction, but quite another to cross them. So I decided to find a new publisher for my first venture into crime: The Lifers’ Club. I also wanted a publisher that would understand that now that I’ve retired from full-time employment, I want to do things at my own pace. So I decided to approach the first and best British crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake, because far from an easy option, crowd-funding has proved extremely demanding. Having said that, Unbound, its staff and co-authors, have been very supportive. They’ve introduced me to Twitter and Facebook, although I had started my blog (In The Long Run) a year or so before I joined them.
Although crowdfunding has proved harder work than I had anticipated, it has also been vastly more rewarding. For a start, it has taken me far closer to me readers. I shall have the great pleasure of escorting those who subscribe at higher levels to my second crime thriller (The Way, the Truth, and the Dead) around the Seahenge displays at Kings Lynn Museum and my own garden, when it opens for the National Gardens Scheme in mid-September 2016. So is all this extra work worth it? Yes, I’m absolutely convinced it is. And as I said much earlier, writing is about the intimate link between author and reader, some of whom in this Internet age, may come from the other side of the globe. It’s about the meeting of minds and imaginations. And whenever that happens, both people are immeasurably enriched.