Blog Writing Craft

How a cemetery in Bodmin, Cornwall inspired the idea for a Time Travel novel

I’m delighted to introduce Diane Scott Lewis to talk about her new book, Beyond the Fall, and the visit that inspired it.

A Cemetery in Bodmin, Cornwall inspired the idea for a Time Travel

Over a decade ago my husband and I visited Cornwall, England so I could research a novel. In the city of Bodmin we explored the eighteenth century courthouse and the Bodmin church, St. Petroc’s. St. Petroc is the patron saint of Cornwall. He founded a monastery in Bodmin in the 6th century. The name Bodmin, the largest Cornish settlement recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, may mean “Abode of monks.”

A ruin—which could have been the chapel of St. Thomas Becket from the 1300s—was next to the church were a woman in a large hat and loose gown walked through the overgrowth. When next we looked, she was gone. My husband and I laughed that perhaps she was a ghost.

RuinsBodmin (2)

The church, a wonderful gothic structure, dates back to the fifteenth century. We entered the dim, cool interior, where we inspected the twelfth century Norman font, carved with eyes that are supposed to open during baptisms. The effigy of Prior Vyvyan—a Cornish bishop in the 1500s—lies on a chest, both carved from Catacleuse stone and grey marble. Fine woodwork, a rood screen and bench ends were constructed around this time.

To the side of the church was a cemetery of weathered headstones and Celtic crosses, crooked and ancient-looking in the shadows.

Bodmin cemetery (3)

Years later when I looked at the photograph my husband took, inspiration struck. What if a woman researching her ancestors poked through a neglected cemetery, moved a fallen headstone and was whisked back in time to 1789? How would a modern woman survive in the more primitive eighteenth century where women had few rights? Miners out of work, grain riots, and the French Revolution, all happened in this year. Would she be condemned as a spy, or a witch, with her strange ways and odd clothing?

My recently release novel, Beyond the Fall, a time travel adventure, tells that story.


Blurb: In 2018, Tamara is dumped by her arrogant husband, travels to Cornwall, England and researches her ancestors. In a neglected cemetery, she scrapes two fallen headstones together trying to read the one beneath, faints, and wakes up in 1789, the year of The French Revolution, and grain riots in England. Young Farmer Colum Polwhele comes to her aid. Can a sassy San Francisco gal survive in this primitive time and fall for Colum, a man active in underhanded dealings or will she struggle to return to her own time.

Buy the Book

For more information on Diane’s books, find her on her website:

About Diane: Diane Scott Lewis grew up in California, traveled the world with the navy, edited for magazines and an on-line publisher. She now lives with her husband in Pennsylvania.



Blog Writing Craft

Secrets of Historical Fiction versus Non-Fiction by Annie Whitehead

I’m delighted to welcome Annie Whitehead to my blog today. Annie is both a historical novelist and a historian, and here she lets us into her writing secrets. Over to Annie:Whitehead

September 15 2018 saw the publication of my first full-length nonfiction book. I’m incredibly proud of it, and sometimes look at the pages and think, ‘Did I actually write this? How?’

But then, sometimes I look at my historical novels, and think the same thing, so perhaps it wasn’t that difficult.

I do remember that the research process for the nonfiction book was difficult and, at times, frustrating. Now, I’m not for one minute saying that authors of historical fiction don’t do diligent research, but this was different, somehow. There were many points at which I had to think not ‘Why did this character behave in this way?’ but ‘Do we definitely know that he did this?’ I had to be absolutely sure, or it couldn’t go in the book, at least not without some exploration of the veracity of the source in question. I found the research very stop-start, whereas the fiction research could sometimes be left to one side: I’d write the chapter, and then go back to fill in the details about what the characters would have been eating/drinking/wearing.

I’m sure all fiction authors will be familiar with the brackets, or the red text that will prompt them to go back and fill in exactly how many hours a certain journey might have taken at a given time of year and precisely which type of carriage/horse/train would have been used.

I did find though, that once I had all the research in place, the writing process for the nonfiction was perhaps easier because I had everything I needed; it was then just a question of putting it all in the right places.

So my experience would suggest that:

Fiction = do as much research as you need in order to get the scene written, but don’t let the research slow your flow.

Nonfiction = don’t write a word of your book, not even the introduction, until all your research is done.

Which do I prefer? Well, that’s really difficult. Writing fiction, there were times when I was happy that there was a gap in the records. When characters disappear from the pages of the chronicles, the author is at liberty to make up all sorts of stuff about them behind their backs. Gaps in the records don’t help the nonfiction author much though, leaving little choice but to say, ‘We simply don’t know.’

The reverse is also true: When we know for a fact that a person was in a certain place at a certain time, it makes piecing together the nonfiction story so much eWhitehead 1asier. But it’s very inconvenient if that person’s known and recorded presence gets in the way of a good fiction story arc. Then comes the difficult choice of removing them altogether or changing the dates. Either of those decisions might be frowned upon by readers.

My nonfiction book is a history of Mercia, and by the time I wrote it I’d written three novels all set in this ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom and all written about characters who actually lived. In the course of my research, I discovered new (to me) evidence about some of these people, which I thought might be at odds with my original portrayals, but I found that I was able to keep my nonfiction, historian’s hat on throughout the writing process, and could separate my fictional characters from my factual subjects.


I’d come to an especially tricky period of Mercian history, where kings chopped and changed almost with the days of the week, and at a time when murder was still as good a way as any of removing ones’ political rivals.

In the early eighth century the royal dynasty which had retained power from the middle of the seventh century was on the wane. A successful king, Æthelred, son of the famous pagan king, Penda, had won supremacy over the powerful Northumbrian kings, and decided that his latter years would be better spent in contemplation, so he abdicated and retired to a monastery. He had a hand in choosing his successor and, though he had a son, Ceolred, he chose his nephew, Coenred, to take his place. The nephew reigned for a few years, to be succeeded by Æthelred’s son. It seems Æthelred was right not to pass the kingship immediately to this son, who turned out to be rather feckless and Ceolred seems to have been pretty much universally loathed. Some even think that he was poisoned.

The official history then declares that the crown passed to Æthelbald, who was no direct relation of the previous kings and reigned successfully for the best part of half a century.


Whitehead DSCF4260There is one – just one – mention of another ‘C’ king, by the name of Ceolwald. Was he another son of Æthelred’s? If not, where did he come from? What happened to him? Whoever he was, his reign, according to this particular list, was sandwiched between that of Ceolred and Æthelbald.

Ceolred died in 716, and Æthelbald succeeded in 716. So where did Ceolwald fit in? If he had indeed been related to the ‘C’ kings, and if indeed he became king, then he surely didn’t reign for very long and this hints at some kind of palace coup. And for the historian, that’s it. That’s all we can say about him, unless we follow the example of one eminent historian who simply declared that the one and only source which mentioned him had ‘simply got it wrong.’

But oh, how the novelist part of my brain was whirring! Of course, if he were to be included in the plot of a novel, he’d have to be introduced so much earlier.  Was he the brother of the feckless king? Was it he who administered the poison? How did he then get bumped off? I got quite giddy with the possibilities and, who knows, he might just make an appearance if I write a third novel in my series about Penda and his family.

Research is never wasted. Whether it involves the chasing down of every charter issued by a certain king or finding out when the fork was first used at English dining tables, it all adds to the files. For nonfiction, we can try to pin down every known detail, which is extremely satisfying, and for fiction we can base chapters and chapters on one single record. Both are equally rewarding.

Photograph above is Annie’s own, the Repton Stone, said to depict King Æthelbald.
Find Annie on the links below:
Blog Writing Craft

Shades of Historical Fiction – finding the right tone

Tones starfire-chartThe website Writers Write gives us 155 words to describe a writer’s tone.  There are probably many more than this, as each writer’s tone also conveys what we call ‘voice’.

Tone conveys your attitude towards your subject, your audience, and your personal perspective on life. It is expressed through the structure and length of your sentences, the particular point of view, and the level of formality. An opening page must give the readers the tone of what they will be reading, and this includes its pace, level of tension, amount of historical detail, and authorial involvement.

In historical fiction, the mood, feel and atmosphere of your writing is important, because you are building a world that no longer exists. The mood either reinforces the political, religious and social concerns of the era, or it can undercut them with a more modern interpretation (as in The Judge Hunter).

Below I have copied extracts from three first chapters, to give an idea of how much a reader can glean about the book just from the first pages. Beneath each extract are a few words to condense the impression I got from each of these books. Please feel free to add your own impressions in the comments, and do check out the authors’ books via the title links.

The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley

London, February 1664

Balthasar de St. Michel was contemplating his excellent good fortune at having such an influential brother-in-law as Samuel Pepys when he looked up and saw the head of Oliver Cromwell, mummifying on a pike. Revolting, he thought.

It had been there for—what—three years now? When the late king’s son, Charles II, was restored to the throne, he ordered the moldering corpses of his father’s executioners dug up, hanged, and decapitated. “Symbolic revenge.” Ten of the fifty-nine men who signed the King’s death warrant were rather less fortunate than Cromwell. They got hanged and butchered while alive.

Balthasar shuddered and moved briskly along to his destination, the Navy Office in Seething Lane, a busy warren near the Tower of London.

“Brother Sam!” he said with a heartiness suggesting it was a social call.

Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy, looked up from his desk. His face did not convey delight. He knew from experience that this was not a social call.

“Brother Balty. I fear you find me much occupied.”

“I was passing by. Thought to stick my head in. Say hello.”

“Good of you,” Pepys said heavily.

“What’s the commotion?” Balty said, looking out the window at the bustle in the courtyard below.

“Meetings. So as you see, I am somewhat—”

“Say, how long are they going to leave Cromwell’s head on that pike?”

Pepys sighed. “I wouldn’t know. For as long as it pleases his majesty, I expect.”

“Frightful thing.”

“Yes, I imagine that’s rather the point.”

“Weren’t you present when they”—Balty made a chopping motion—” lopped off the king’s head?”

“Yes. I was sixteen. Played truant from school. And was well whipped for it. Now if you’ll—”

“Didn’t you also see the execution of the first of the regicides? What’s his name . . . Harrison?”

“Yes. Well, good of you to—”

“Must have been ghastly. Hanging, disemboweling, cutting off the privy parts. Then—”

Yes, Balty. It was horrid. So much so that I endeavor not to dwell upon it.”

“People will suspect you’ve a penchant for gruesome entertainments.” He pronounced the word in the French way, himself being half French. Balty and his sister, Pepys’s wife, had the tendency to lapse into their father’s native tongue.

“My penchant, Balty, is to be witness at great events. I do not attend only executions. I remind you that I was aboard the ship that brought his majesty back to England from Holland four years ago.”

Pepys did not mention—to Balty or anyone, for that matter—the diary he’d been keeping since 1660. He wrote it in a shorthand decipherable only to himself, so that he could tell it all.

informal, funny,  smart, swift, pacey, 3rd person – notice how the historical desciption is at a minimum, but the witty dialogue makes this skip along the page. The reader is kept as an amused witness.

Plague Land  by S D Sykes

Somershill Manor, November 1350

If I preserve but one memory at my own death, it shall be the burning of the dog-headed beast. The fire blazed in the field beside the church – its white smoke rising skyward in a twisted billow. Its odor acrid and choking.

‘Let me through.’ I shouted to their backs. At first they didn’t respond, only turning to look at me when I grabbed at their tunics. Perhaps they had forgotten who I was? A young girl asked me to lift her so she might see the sinner die. A ragged boy tried to sell me a faggot of fat for half a penny.

And then a wail cut through the air. It was thin and piteous and came from within the pyre itself – but pushing my way through to the flames, I found no curling and blackened body tied to a stake. No sooty chains or iron hoops. Only the carcass of a bull, with the fire now licking at the brown and white hair of its coat.

The beast had not been skinned and its mouth was jammed open with a thick metal skewer. I recognized the animal immediately. It was my best Simmental bull, Goliath. But why were they burning such a valuable beast? I couldn’t understand. Goliath had sired most of our dairy herd. We could not afford such waste. And then a strange thing caught my eye. Beneath the creature’s distended belly something seemed to move about like a rat inside a sack of barley. I tried to look closer, but the heat repelled me. Then the plaintive call came again. A groan, followed by the high-pitched scream of a vixen. I grasped the man standing next to me. It was my reeve, Featherby.

‘How can the beast be calling?’ I said. ‘Is it still alive?’

He regarded me curiously. ‘No, sire. I slaughtered him myself.’

‘Then what’s making such a noise?’

‘The dog-headed beast. It calls through the neck of the bull.’


‘We’ve sewn it inside, sire.’

I felt nauseated. ‘Whilst still living?’

He nodded. ‘We hoped to hear it beg for forgiveness as it burns. But it only screams and screeches like a devil.’

I grabbed the fool. ‘Put the fire out. Now!’

‘But sire? The sacrifice of our best bull will cleanse the demon of sin.’

‘Who told you this?’

‘The priest.’ These words might once have paralyzed me, but no longer.

Small descriptive details, short sentences, horror, fast-paced, action, suspense,  1st person and close to the unfolding events, dialogue spare and terse.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

St Vitella’s Convent, Loro Ciufenna, August 1528

The Testament of Sister Lucrezia

Chapter 1

Looking back now, I see it more as an act of pride than kindness that my father brought the young painter back with him from the North that spring. The chapel in our palazzo had recently been completed, and for some months he had been searching for the right pair of hands to execute the altar frescoes. It wasn’t as if Florence didn’t have artists enough of her own. The city was filled with the smell of paint and the scratch of ink on the contracts. There were times when you couldn’t walk the streets for fear of falling into some pit or mire left by constant building. Anyone and everyone who had the money was eager to celebrate God and the Republic by creating opportunities for art. What I hear described even now as a golden age was then simply the fashion of the day. But I was young then and, like so many others, dazzled by the feast.

The churches were the best. God was in the very plaster smeared across the walls in readiness for the frescoes: stories of the Gospels made flesh for anyone with eyes to see. And those who looked saw something else as well. Our Lord may have lived and died in Galilee, but his life was re-created in the city of Florence. The Angel Gabriel brought God’s message to Mary under the arches of a Brunelleschian loggia, the Three Kings led processions through the Tuscan countryside, and Christ’s miracles unfolded within our city walls, the sinners and the sick in Florentine dress and the crowds of witnesses dotted with public faces: a host of thick-chinned, big-nosed dignitaries staring down from the frescoes onto their real-life counterparts in the front pews.

Descriptive, religious, contemplative, political, artistic – notice the authorial distance, both in the sense of looking back at something long ago, and the summary of Florence’s history in that last long sentence. The book starts with a leisurely, descriptive prologue of the Nun’s death, which is a tour-de-force and worth seeking out by clicking the book title.

The promise of mood and tone

Much of tone is natural to the writer, but after you have a draft, it’s worth analysing your first pages to see whether they promise the sort of book you have produced, and to use pace, language and syntax to pinpoint its tone. Aim for consistency; a reader will be disappointed if you don’t fulfil their expectations. Your book’s tone will also inspire the mood or tone of its front cover, its blurb, and the way it is sold to readers, so once you have identified the tone, it is worth seeking out books with a similar feel to compare choice of language and point of view.

(Colour chart borrowed from this website)


Historical Fiction – The Ending is in the Beginning

King art-carving-close-up-189528How many of you have found a book has been ruined by its ending? Me too.

Turns out that in fact we are hard-wired to wait for that pay-off, that final few moments of the story when it gives us its meaning. Here’s what a scientific experiment told us about endings:

The Peak-end Rule

The peak–end rule was proposed by Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman. This model dictates that an event is not judged not by the entirety of an experience, (in our case a novel) but by remembered moments (or snapshots) which dominate the actual value of an experience. Fredrickson and Kahneman’s theory was that these snapshots are formed by

a) the most intense moment of an experience and

b)even more often the feeling experienced at the end. (From our point of view; the climax and the ending).

In brief, Kahneman and Frederickson proved this by doing some experiments. In a 1993 study titled “When More Pain Is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End”, participants were subjected to two different versions of a single unpleasant experience. The first version had subjects plunge their hand in freezing water for 60 seconds. The second trial had subjects submerge the other hand in 14 °C water for 60 seconds, but then keep their hand submerged for an additional 30 seconds, during which the temperature was raised to 15 °C.

Subjects were then offered the option of which of these trials to repeat.

Subjects were more willing to repeat the second trial, despite a longer exposure to uncomfortable temperatures, because of its ‘happy ending’. Kahneman’s theory: “subjects chose the long trial simply because they liked the memory of it better than the alternative”, in other words the ending where the temperature was more comfortable, was remembered. From this we can see that the ending is what lets us make sense, or meaning from the story. (For more info on Peak-End Theory go here)

So, how do we make an ending memorable?

For me, one of the first criteria is resonance. The novel has to feel as though it means something, and that it hasn’t just stopped randomly in the middle of events. Series writers often have trouble with this as their book does need to stop in the middle of a plot. Resonance can be achieved by using the key theme and image for a book, and for a series, this image can overarch the series.

Resonance can also be achieved by examining the opening pages of the novel and looking for the promises implicit in them. Many historical novels use their settings and the history to place the story in a greater context at the end. Often the reader knows what happens next, and most readers have great imaginations which can be needled into action by an apt image. For an ending, the image of a character standing at the executioner’s block is usually better than the one describing the execution in graphic detail. Particularly in tragic endings, we can let the reader do the work for us, as with great events, they know what comes next.

In the picture at the top of this post, the moment just before the crown is placed on the head is the poignant one. It would be much less so if the crown were already on the head.

Endings shouldn’t be too neat or they will feel contrived. A reader likes to be left with food for thought, so that the book continues to grow in the mind. This makes for memorable fiction. An understated ending is often better than one which is over-dramatic. Even a small thing can have resonance – your novel builds to this single moment funnelling everything towards it. So make it an image or a sentence or a paragraph to remember. Also try to give it some movement, something upon which the reader can travel out of the book, so that the reader can segue away naturally.

Here’s one of my favourite endings:

‘She stared intently up at the low ridge of hills ahead where rumour had it that the Communists camped out, as if she could keep him safe by sheer force of will alone. She sent out a ripple of her own.

The train growled to a start.’

– Kate Furnivall, The Russian Concubine

It works because it shows an intense emotion. It also has forward movement. The train is taking us out of the world of the book. We are also hopeful that the Lydia sending out her will to Chang An Lo will enable him to survive. As for the ripples – earlier, Lydia says that  ‘Everyone who touched your life sent  a ripple effect through you, and all the ripples interconnected.’

Have you a favourite ending to a book?

My latest History Post – The Problem of Letters for a Historical Novelist is on The History Girls Blog

Want more on writing? Try my posts on the sins of Historical Fiction:

Historical Fiction – deadly sin no 7 – mistaking it for a genre


Of Camels and Napoleon – Burke and The Bedouin

Burke BedouinMy guest today is Tom Williams

When Deborah suggested I write about an object associated with Burke and the Bedouin (published by Endeavour Press), I really struggled to think of one. The story does feature the odd camel (there’s a clue on the cover) but I felt that an olivewood carving dating from a trip to Israel in 1972 didn’t really count. What objects are there that have intimate associations with Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Egypt in 1798? It’s not as if I have any Middle-Eastern Napoleonic artefacts lying round the house.

I don’t, but the impressive Napoleon exhibition at Les Invalides in Paris has a few. When I visited, I think that one of the ones that impressed me most was Napoleon’s telescope.

Ironically, the telescope was made in Britain, but it is supposed to be the one that he used in the Battle of the Pyramids, which features prominently in my book. The Battle of the Pyramids did not actually take place at the pyramids, but they were visible from the site of the battle and “the Battle of the Pyramids” sounds a lot better than “the battle quite near the Nile where you could see the pyramids on the horizon”. There’s not that much interest in it in England, as no British forces were involved, but it was a conclusive affair, ending Mameluke rule in Egypt. When I visited the pyramids, I was able to look towards the Nile and imagine the vast Mameluke army riding across what is now a Cairo suburb, before being turned by the French and driven to their deaths in the river. In Paris I was amazed to look down on the telescope through which Napoleon would have surveyed the fighting. For good measure there is an Arab dagger in the same case, which was also owned by Napoleon. It’s obviously a presentation item, though, rather than a working item, so I feel the telescope brings you closer to the man. Napoleon (like most generals of the time) was a very ‘hands on’ leader and he would have watched the battle, staff officers riding to carry his orders to the units engaging the enemy. A good telescope was an essential tool of his trade.

Burke TelescopeAfter the Battle of the Pyramids, Napoleon was able to occupy Cairo, the remaining Mamelukes retreating south along the Nile. It’s quite possible that Napoleon plans to march his men overland into India. He even suggested that some sort of canal might be possible and engineers did some test diggings which were remarkably close to the modern site of the Suez Canal.

Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt could have been a strategic masterstroke for France, but the destruction of his fleet at the Battle of the Nile left the Army isolated. Nobody knows why the French left their Navy exposed and vulnerable against the Egyptian sure, but Burke and the Bedouin does suggest one possible solution. Although the book is fiction, the idea that Napoleon’s orders for his admiral may have been intercepted en route may well be true. Could it have been the work of a British spy? We will never know.

Burke and the Bedouin is a light-hearted (if occasionally violent) romp where Burke finds himself alone and pitted against the might of Napoleon’s invasion force. Not that he lets a little thing like saving Egypt’s from French domination get in the way of his attempts to free Spanish slave Bernadita from her cruel Turkish master. As in Burke in the Land of Silver, swashes are buckled and bodices ripped before Burke wins the day for Britain. While Burke’s adventures this time are entirely imaginary, the historical background is not. The details of Napoleon’s invasion, the Battle of the Pyramids and the destruction of the French fleet all draw heavily on contemporary accounts.

James Burke: making the history of the Napoleonic Wars painless (and even fun).

Read more about it from Tom in Historia

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In praise of the omnivorous reader

I have always been a voracious reader. I read anything and everything, and don’t care about genre as long as the book is well-written and appeals to me. So since the advent of e-books I am baffled by the idea that readers want to read the same book over and over. I’m also baffled by the idea that only ‘readers of historical fiction’ will like my books. I see rows of identikit covers of thrillers or romances and wonder how anyone can exist on a diet only of this. Like meringues at every meal for seven days in a row. Or refusing to eat anything but liver.

I like a good romance, and I like a good thriller, but not to the point where it’s my sole diet.

Here are a selection of the books I have read recently – all of which I would highly recommend. Great books, every single one, but only one of them is ‘historical’ – The Sewing Machine, and its period is nebulous as it spans the whole of the twentieth century.

[envira-gallery id=”2597″]

I also belong to a book group where we read a variety of books, some historical, some contemporary, and my enjoyment of them doesn’t depend on their genre at all. Nor am I wedded to a particular period. My historical fiction reading goes from Iron Age Britain up to the 1960’s as you can see from my recent historical reads. (All of these are great reads, so do try any one of them.)

[envira-gallery id=”2605″]

Like many other authors I have written a series, at the suggestion of my publisher. As a writer, I actually prefer to write stand-alone stories, though occasionally I have linked books together through a minor character or through the setting. I guess for a writer we just need something to convince us that our book will sell to someone.

The process of why I choose a book as a reader depends on a mysterious alchemy of mood, subject, and the appeal of the cover or blurb. I’m very visually orientated, so the cover must be professional in appearance. I love a good typeface and can be swayed into a purchase by lush typography. The other part, the part where my personal psychology links wth the writer’s subject, is much less predictable. Books about artists – yes. Books about big scientific ideas – yes. Books about poets/playwrights/inventors/any person with a creative process – yes. But even with these as areas of interest, I won’t always buy. And looking at my selections above I can see little in common – neither period nor subject, and though I think I know what I like, many of these don’t even fit my own criteria.

This means I could be wasting my time if I only advertise my own books to a narrow swathe of ‘historical fiction readers who like the 17th Century’.  I suspect you can count those on one hand! And Amazon’s ‘if you like this… you might like this’ argument doesn’t always work on me, the reader. I suspect the same is true of many of us. The publishing industry would like us to be more predictable readers, supplied by more predictable writers.

But I praise the omnivorous reader.

Reading in unfamiliar genres gives far more likelihood that you might discover something that moves you, in a genre you might not know you would enjoy. The omnivorous reader is curious, and willing to try something new – in fact already prepared to be amazed or transported.

And on a selfish note, it also means that my books might be picked up by someone who reads Philippa Gregory one week and Hugh Howey the next.


Fort Howe, protection during the American War of Independence.

DianeI know I have many readers from Canada, so today  I welcome Diane Parkinson to share her research for her new book  ‘On a Stormy Primeval Shore‘. Over to Diane.

In researching my novel set in New Brunswick, Canada, in the eighteenth century, I needed a fort for my heroine’s father to be stationed. Several forts had been built around the Bay of Fundy coast. Unfortunately, none have survived. The French constructed forts during the seventeenth century when France occupied the area they’d named New France. England took possession in 1763 after the Seven Years War (also called the French and Indian War) and built their own forts.

I traveled to the port city of Saint John in New Brunswick in May 2017, and discovered a lone block house on a hill behind the town. Thus, I ferreted out the history.

Park Blockhouse Ft. Howe NB (2)In 1777, Brigade-Major Gilfred Studholme was sent to Parr Town (future Saint John) to ensure the settlement’s security. Two years before the American colonies to the south had erupted in rebellion against Britain. American privateers were raiding the harbor and encampments up the St John River.

On the limestone knoll that overlooked the harbor, Studholme’s detachment along with local inhabitants built Fort Howe, named for General William Howe, commander of the North American British forces.

The fort was surrounded by a palisade of massive, pointed wooden logs. A blockhouse sat on the west side with a barracks and residences in the center. The Royal Fencible Americans, Studholme’s regiment, manned the blockhouse on the eastern side. The coastal end of the Appalachian Mountains formed a part of the fortifications. Fort Howe provided security, and doled out food during starvation conditions, for the area.

Even the famous—or infamous—Benedict Arnold, traitor to some, hero to others, lived at the fort in the later 1780s. General Arnold had started out on the American side, but then, feeling underappreciated, and underpaid, he joined the British forces.

A fire destroyed Fort Howe in 1819. Two hundred years later I stood on the isolated hill where a plaque commemorates the fort. A reconstructed Block House is the only evidence a great fort once existed here.

Park CanadianBrides-NewBrunswick-small

I incorporate life at the fort in my novel, On a Stormy Primeval Shore:

In 1784, Englishwoman Amelia Latimer sails to the new colony of New Brunswick in faraway Canada. She’s to marry a man chosen by her soldier father. Amelia is repulsed by her betrothed, and refuses to marry him. She is attracted to a handsome Acadian trader, Gilbert, a man beneath her in status. Gilbert must fight the incursion of English Loyalists from the American war to hold onto his land and heritage. Will he and Amelia find peace when events seek to destroy their love and lives.

Diane Parkinson (Diane Scott Lewis) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, joined the Navy at nineteen and has written and edited freelance since high school. She writes book reviews for the Historical Novels Review and worked as a historical editor for The Wild Rose Press. She’s had several historical novels published. Diane lives with her husband in Western Pennsylvania.

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Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction 10 Editing Tips: No 10 Feigning Accuracy

I’ve had a reader take me to task – rightly – over an incorrect detail of clothing worn by the hero of my books, the 16th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, even while they seemed quite happy to accept the much more flagrant invention of turning him into a spy who solves murders.

Stephanie Merritt (SJ Parris)

Feigning Accuracy

Feigning accuracy? Surely she means being totally accurate with the historical facts?

Well, I left this post until last because historical accuracy is a lot more complicated than it might seem, and the focus of a never-ending conversational loop for historical novelists. Recently, I was pulled up for inaccuracy by a reader. She had looked up one of my characters – called Koniev – probably on wikipedia, and said I’d spelt it wrong. It should be ‘Konev’.  Yet here is a photo of some of the real newspapers of the period that I used for my research into this character.

1945 research for Past Encounters

So who is right? The answer is neither of us. Or both. But the problem is, my sources are different from my readers. You will always be accused of inaccuracy by someone, not because you haven’t done your research, but often because your research sources may be different from the reader’s.

If you write a unique view of a character, one that a reader knows and loves, if it doesn’t agree with their previous reading on the subject, it might be deemed inaccurate — even though your new interpretation is well-supported by primary historical sources. When editing, it is good to take account of the probable sources of your readers.

I write a lot in the 17th Century. A popular book right now on the period is a very good book called ‘The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain.’ Now I would be foolish to insert facts into my novel that disagreed with this perceived authority, because I would probably then have trouble convincing the reader that my facts were the correct ones. The cost of things for example, is widely contradicted in different books on the Restoration period, because of the fluctuation of currency in the period. But I am aware that the Time Traveller’s Guide will probably be one of my readers’ sources, so that is the secondary source I might choose to use. We are not historians, and yet the ‘man on the street’ presumes we are, and judges us by the ‘facts’ of today’s published historians.

But our job as a writer is to produce truth rather than accuracy. Accurate things may not ring true – inaccurate things might ring truer.

For example: As Sol Stein says about his play Napoleon, in which Talleyrand confronts Napoleon:

‘Talleyrand provokes the younger man (Napoleon) into a flash of anger. Talleyrand couldn’t say, “Don’t get so hot under the collar” or “Cool it” in the argot of today. He says “Save your blood the journey to your face, I meant no harm’. You won’t find anything like that in the recorded conversations of the time. It is dialogue invented to suit a period, as John Fowles said, a form of “cheating” in which writers use a newly-minted language to simulate an old.’

In the past I have used inaccurate dialect for a Northern girl from 17th century Cumbria. She tells her sister not to ‘get into a fratch’. Fratch is 18th century dialogue and therefore not accurate. But it conveyed the spirit of what I wanted more closely than anything else, so I used it. In a historical novel, invented dialogue goes on all the time, with the writer striving to make the characters live and breathe, preferably without sounding like they have come from a pastiche of Victorian literature.

William Powell Frith
Victorian accuracy – King Henry & Anne Boleyn, Deer Shooting in Windsor Forest by William Powell Frith

Accuracy about the internal lives of historical personages is difficult to achieve. Often the novelist is writing about a woman who played an extraordinary role in history. Or a great man – A king, for example. Let’s take Henry VIII. Say I am tempted to put his thoughts on paper. I might use the most obvious; ‘How can I divorce Anne Boleyn?’ But the reality is much bigger than that, and the question much more complex. This is a man who has been enormously well-educated, who has talked with the foreign leaders of the day, who has multiple concerns about the religion and politics of the time, plus a keen sensibility for music and architectural beauty. Your job is to convey the scope of this man within the meagre pages of your book. It is a bold and presumptuous undertaking. A novelist must insert as much subtext as possible to round out the character, and genuinely try to understand the man. Otherwise the character will be a cardboard cipher.

There is nothing more off-putting than realising you have given King Henry VIII the ‘voice of a middle-aged hairdresser from Morecambe’.

To be accurate you must be able to enter the head of your character at that time, but to make him live you must be able to subtly parallel his attitudes with something of today. The Victorian emphasis on Henry VIII might be quite different from our 21st century one.

If you’re not an intellectual, don’t write about a historical genius and expect him to somehow come over as more intelligent than yourself. To do so would need a dash of divine inspiration – to write out of your own socks, so to speak, and it rarely succeeds. I recently read a novel in which one of the main characters was a ground-breaking scientist, and yet his dialogue showing his passion for his work was filled with bland generalities. It just didn’t ring true.  Most writers humbly and sensibly choose to write history from the point of view of an ordinary or minor character within the milieu of the ‘marquee name’ of history.

If you choose a big name like Henry VIII, can you tweak a scene to make it more true?  Can you give the witnesses an agenda which will give it extra emotional impact? The bare facts in the annals of history can be enhanced. Does your scene show the full vigour of the man? Is it truer than the bare facts of history?

You can feign accuracy by adding detail to the facts, as long as the detail is correct – the rough texture of the blindfold worn at the execution will stick in your reader’s mind although that ‘fact’ was never in any historical record. So when editing check that you have complete clarity about what your character is doing and saying, where they are, what they can see, feel, taste, touch. Clarity is what gives the novel truth and therefore the semblance of accuracy.

And actually, what the reader often wants, as well as a sense of history, is emotional accuracy. They want to feel what is was like to live through that particular time; not what it looked like from the outside, but what it felt like to be in someone else’s skin, and to be able to re-live it now. And you can only do that by engaging the heart of the reader.

There are many discussions about accuracy on Goodreads, or anywhere where writers of historical fiction gather. Each of us historical novelists has our own ‘accuracy barometer’, which is set to warn us of fair sailing or stormy weather ahead.

Find my other editing posts on these links:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6 Status No 7 Detail No 8 Suddenly No 9 Change

Susanna Calkins tackles this for Writer’s Digest.

Blog Reviews

The Dressmaker’s Secret – puts the history into historical romance

DressmakersIf you are after a well-written historical romance, then this could be the book for you.

Set in Regency Italy and England in the years from 1819, it is a story about a mother and daughter, Sarah and Emilia. Sarah is on the run from her past in England, and from her violent husband, but Emilia has known no other life than her life with Sarah, which has been one of constantly moving from place to place in their work as itinerant dressmakers.

Now Emilia is tired of never being able to put down roots, and when they find a plum job in the wealthy Italian household of Princess Caroline of Brunswick, Emilia is determined that this time they will stay. Of course the handsome Alessandro, friend of the exiled Princess Caroline, might have something to do with it! A violent incident causing Sarah’s death means Emilia and Alessandro are destined to part, and Emilia needs to leave for England to find her family and unravel her past.

As well as a romance, this is a fascinating look at Princess Caroline, estranged wife of the then Prince Regent – she is a character who comes across as generous-spirited though unconventional. Because of this she both earns the adulation of the populace, and their disgust, and finally their pity. It is an insightful look at the shifting and unstable mob mentality of the era, the chauvinist politics of the British monarchy, and it was also something I knew little about. You cannot help but feel Queen Caroline was a woman ahead of her time, but unsuited for the stringent proprieties of the 19th century royal household. The descriptions of the riots caused by her appearance in England, and the sad furore over her funeral procession are particularly interesting.

Charlotte Betts provides historical notes afterwards to give more context, but seeing Princess Caroline leap off the page in this novel was a treat. Emilia too is a courageous heroine, who has to battle with the discovery of who she is, and the fact her new family may turn out to be both a dream and a nightmare.

The Dressmaker’s Secret is an exciting read, that will keep you turning the pages, but also has more than enough real history about an earlier Princess of Wales to educate as well as entertain.

Thoroughly recommended.


Queen_Caroline_of_BrunswickCaroline of Brunswick was Queen of the United Kingdom by marriage to King George IV from 29 January 1820 until her death in 1821. She was the Princess of Wales from 1795 to 1820

Charlotte Betts’ website is at


Who remembers Shorthand?

00015-Samuel-Pepys-DiaryPepys wrote his famous diary in shorthand, and I wanted to try to get a feel for the way it might have been translated. Pepys used a method that was common at the time, invented by Thomas Shelton.

Shelton taught his system for speed writing over a period of thirty years, improving it from the stenography of John Willis. Shelton published several books about shorthand which he sold from his house – ‘Tachygraphy: The most exact and compendious method of short and swift writing, that hath ever yet been published by any’. Between 1626 and 1710 more than 20 editions of this book were printed. His shorthand was used by Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Newton as well as by Pepys for his famous Diary (left).

Here’s an example (below) of the Lord’s Prayer from Shelton’s 1674 edition in the Folger Collection.

Shelton Lords Prayer

Shelton’s method employs simple straight lines and curves for the consonants and vowels. There is little punctuation in Pepys’ diary, as the commas and dots would interfere with the meaning of his text, when the same marks meant differentiations in vowel sounds. But one of my friends from my tai chi class reminded me of how she had studied Pitman’s shorthand at secretarial college, and that they also used little punctuation. Pitman’s Shorthand was very widely used when offices were run only by men and women worked as secretaries or in the ‘typing pool.’  Before the photocopier and computer, pools of typists were needed to type documents from handwritten manuscripts, re-type documents that had been edited, or type documents from dictaphones that had come from the ‘boss’. The video at the bottom of the page shows the typing pool of a large bank and the kind of work they had to do. Awe-inspiring!


I’ve found a video on youtube which shows some basics of the Pitman method really well, and explains that heavy and light strokes are used, which was effective when using pen and ink, when the system was invented in the early 19th century by Sir Isaac Pitman. The Pitman method is also based on the phonetic sound of the word and not how it is commonly spelled. Shorthand is a skill that is not so much used now, but I think it is fantastic to be able to write at the speed of speech, and shorthand is still used in Courtroom situations. I imagine Pepys used Shelton’s Shorthand because he had to take copious notes of Navy Board meetings and take official government minutes. I’m sure there are many readers out there who still have the skill of shorthand, and I wonder how close Shelton’s method is to Pitman’s.