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Becoming a best-selling storyteller

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Have you always dreamt of putting pen to paper and publishing a family history bestseller? We chatted to author Steve Robinson who proves that this wish can become a reality.

And if you'd like to read Steve's work first-hand, you can download the kindle version of his first genealogical mystery book FREE until Friday 8 November. Go to http://www.ancestryauthor.blogspot.co.uk/ to find out more, or http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00560R3WM/?tag=smarturl-gb-21 directly for your free download. 

Currently working on his fourth book, Steve has recently (September 2013) signed a four-book deal with Amazon. We asked him what makes a great genealogy-based novel and for tips for budding authors.

Family Tree: How do you identify exciting strands from genealogy research to add to your stories? Are there certain themes that you know will work well to provide a page turner?

Steve: I tend to think about the story first, identifying the genealogy research from that. Planning things this way allows me to think about the pace and the intrigue that keeps us turning the pages. Then I usually work backwards from the problem or brick wall my lead character faces. As an example, the past story I wrote for my first book In the Blood required my lead character Jefferson Tayte to work out why a family bloodline seemed to just vanish from recorded history when they left America, bound for England, towards the end of the 18th century. That was the mystery I set out to unravel, and the research methods came from that as I worked out how to reveal what happened and why. Newspaper archives are particularly useful here, and because by definition they contain newsworthy material that can often be sensational, I find that this line of research often adds to the excitement and intrigue, drawing the reader along with Tayte as he finds another clue in what he’s just read. I also find newspaper archives are a good device to help evoke bygone times, such as in the following example taken from my third book The Last Queen of England. It’s an advertisement placed in the Daily Courant, which was published between 1702 and 1735.

‘At the Sign of the Cheshire-Cheese, a Tinshop in Walbrook, near Stocks-Market, Liveth a Gentlewoman, the Daughter of eminent Physician and Royal Society Fellow, Dr Bartholomew Hutton, who has practis’d in London upwards of thirty Years. She has an Ointment call’d the Royal Ointment, for the Gout, and Rheumatick Pains, and of great Ease and Comfort to both Sexes at Home and Abroad. NB. Originally prepar’d by this Gentlewoman, and sold for her no where else.’

It wasn’t the woman that Jefferson Tayte was interested in, but her father. The clue or connection he drew from this newspaper extract was the Royal Society of London.

Family Tree: Does your own family history research provide inspiration for your novels?

Steve: I wish I had more time to work on my own family history, but for now my writing takes up all of my time. I started looking into the mystery of my American GI grandfather recently, though, and in many ways that inspired my second novel To the Grave, which is partly set in 1944. My maternal grandfather went back to America a few years after the war, leaving a young family behind, and until recently I knew very little about him – just his name and that he was from Arkansas. Fortunately he had an unusual middle name, and with that information I traced him via his US Army enlistment record, which I found on the US National Archives & Records Administration website, www.archives.gov. It gave me his all-important Army serial number and lots more useful information besides. A while after that I was contacted by someone who lived in Maine, New England, who wrote to me to say how much she enjoyed reading In the Blood. She’s an amateur genealogist and having read my author biography on Amazon she offered to help take my research further. She took the information I had found and identified his burial place in the military cemetery in Los Angles. Following contact with FindAGrave.com I now even have a photograph of his headstone. He died in 1990, too late for any reunion, but I also now have clues to other family members waiting to be explored further. To the Grave is a work of fiction of course, but several elements are drawn from this part of my own family history.

Family Tree: What tip or tips would you offer to budding authors who are thinking of writing family-history based work for a wider audience than just their own family?

Steve: I think it can become all too easy to let the research get in the way of the story, which is true for any type of fiction where specialist or technical skills are used. The more you know about genealogy, the more likely you are to fill page upon page with detail that isn’t necessary to the story. The art is really about knowing what to leave in and what to take out – or hopefully not put in in the first place as you hone your skills. I fell foul of this with my first book. The first draft was 168,000 words long and I cut almost 60,000 words from it. The genealogy research had got in the way, confusing the story and slowing the pace. I’ve learnt from that time-consuming mistake and now plan things more carefully. So my tip is to be a storyteller first and foremost. The genealogy is a means to help tell the story, not the other way around.

Family Tree: What does getting signed with Amazon Publishing mean to you? And do you have any advice to someone else seeking to get signed?

Steve: Finally being accepted by a publisher after so many years of trying to break through in the traditional way means everything to me. I was made redundant in 2005 and that’s when I decided to have a go at making a full-time career out of my writing. When I self-published my first book for the Kindle in 2011 I was on the brink of giving up. I think I’d accepted that a publishing deal was never going to happen. Then suddenly my books were selling and being read and I had an income again, allowing me to continue to write. A couple of years later a lot of my books were selling, and I even made the Amazon.com top 100 bestseller list with two of my books, which I’m sure is how Amazon Publishing came to notice me. Signing also means the chance to be read more widely than ever before, with foreign translations and audio books, as well as increased visibility in general. Ebooks are changing the way we read books; at least, they’re providing an alternative way to read, and I’m very excited to be working with the company that’s driving that change. I wish I could pass on a secret to getting signed, but there doesn’t seem to be a formula. Determination is definitely a key ingredient. If you feel that writing is in your blood, keep writing, and keep trying to find an audience. It’s a very exciting time to be a writer just now because ebooks have literally opened the door to everyone.

So far Steve has published In the blood, To the grave and The Last Queen of England, and is working on his fourth book.

Find out more about Steve’s books at:

www.steve-robinson.me

www.ancestryauthor.blogspot.com

www.smarturl.it/AmazonSteveRobinson

Steve’s books on Amazon:

In the Blood www.smarturl.it/intheblood

To the Grave www.smarturl.it/TotheGrave

The Last Queen of England www.smarturl.it/LQE

Find out more about writing and publishing your family history in our step-by-step guide in Family Tree. The December issue is on sale now in WH Smiths, leading supermarkets and all good newsagents, or you can download our latest issue as a digital edition right now – visit www.pocketmags.com, the App StoreGoogle Play or Amazon Appstore. Single issues, back issues and subscriptions are available for PC, Mac, eReaders, smartphones and tablets. A free sample is also available for all devices.

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