Categories
Blog Reviews

Death in Delft by Graham Brack – a #17thCentury murder mystery

This is the first Master Mercurius novel I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Set in the immaculately detailed setting of 17th Century Delft, Master Mercurius is a character it is easy to warm to.  An undercover priest as well as a protestant cleric, he is keen to do the right thing in the spirit rather than the letter of the law, and has a dry sense of humour that is a good foil for the beastly business of solving murders.

In this case we have a dead girl and some other missing girls we fear for, and it’s a race against time for Mercurius to discover and flush out the kidnapper, before the dastardly murderer kills another.

One of the joys of this book is all the supporting characters we meet along the way. We get an intimate view of Vermeer described as having: an intensity of gaze I found unsettling, as if he really saw all there was to see, open or concealed.

We also get a view of scientists of the time such as the ‘polite’ Van Leeuwenhoek who is just experimenting with lenses to view what lives in our saliva – to Mercurius’s amazement. Of course there are plenty of clues for him to follow and a satisfactory wrap-up to the plot.

A well-researched, tightly-plotted treat. I highly recommend, and will be reading another soon.

Categories
Blog Writing Craft

Author in Search of a Character – Why James Burke?

I’m delighted to Welcome Tom Williams to my Blog today to tell us about how he came to write the Burke series, described succinctly by Paul Collard as ‘James Bond in Breeches.’ Over to Tom:

Why James Burke? Would it make any sense to say I did it for the money?

If I’m being honest, it can’t really have been for the money, because I know that writing fiction (and particularly historical fiction) is never going to make you rich. But I started writing about Burke as a (sort of) commercial exercise.

Let me explain.

My first novel was The White Rajah. It was based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Like most would-be novelists with my first book, I desperately wanted to write the Great British Novel. I was fascinated by Brooke’s character and the history of how he had come to rule his own kingdom in Borneo and I tied this in with ideas about colonialism and the morality of British rule around the world. Just in case I hadn’t weighted the book down with enough “significance”, Brooke was almost certainly gay and there’s a whole subplot about that. And, as the cherry on the cake, the whole thing is written in the first person and (given that this first person was writing in the mid-19th century) not in the most accessible language.

Despite this, I got an agent! And the agent got rejections from every major publisher he approached. It was, they all claimed, “too difficult” for a first novel. “Why don’t you,” he suggested, “write something more accessible? Still historical, but more the sort of thing people are going to want to read?”

I was stumped. I asked friends for ideas. I even asked Jocelyn, an Alaskan tango dancer I’d met in Buenos Aires (as you do).”Why don’t you,” she said “write about the early European settlers in South America? They have some brilliant tales to tell.”

Jocelyn does not like stories with a lot of violence. I think she was looking more at the explorers and the politicians, or even the ordinary people who left Europe in vast numbers to build a new world in the New World. But when I started randomly looking for European figures in the early colonial history of South America, the one who caught my eye was James Burke.

Burke was a soldier, but we have good reason to believe that he spent most of his time as a spy. The first book I wrote about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, is very close to his true story. Sent to Buenos Aires to scout out the possibility of a British invasion, he explored what is now Chile, Peru and Bolivia, returning to Buenos Aires to assist with the British invasion when it finally came.

I’ve obviously never met Burke, but the little we know about him still gives a strong idea of his character. He was an Irish Catholic who had joined the French army because the British Army did not offer an impecunious Irishman much possibility of advancement. We know he was something of a snob, at one stage changing his name to something that sounded more prestigious than Burke. He ingratiated himself with rich and powerful men, but he does seem to have been good at his job. In any case, there was a James Burke on the Army list long after the Napoleonic wars were over, so he did seem to be kept busy doing whatever it was that he was doing.

It’s this uncertainty about his career that makes him an ideal candidate for a series of books. (If you want to sell nowadays, it’s best to write a series – like Deborah’s excellent trilogy based around Pepys’ life.) He was a spy. He moved in the dark and nobody is quite sure what his missions were. So I can make them up. And what a brilliant period of history it is to make up spy stories about. I’m in a long tradition of sales of derring-do about spies during the wars with France, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin and Iain Gale’s James Keane.

Each Burke story is set around a different Napoleonic campaign. After the British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver) we see him in Egypt’s during Napoleon’s invasion that country (Burke and the Bedouin) and in Paris and Brussels during Napoleon’s textile and returned to power (Burke at Waterloo). The latest story (though not told in chronological order) finds him fighting in the Peninsular War, specifically around the battle of Talavera.

The Burke of Bedouin and Waterloo is entirely fictional, but his adventures in the peninsula are based on another real-life spy, Sir John Waters. In all the books, whether Burke’s adventures are entirely fictional or based on fact, the military and social background is as accurate as I can make it. In fairness I can’t make it all that accurate, but I have gradually found a network of people who really understand the Napoleonic Wars and who have been generous enough to share their understanding with me.

I like James Burke as a hero because he is often far from heroic. Cynical, snobbish, and an inveterate womaniser with an eye for the main chance, it’s easy to dismiss him as an arrogant officer who relies on the solid good sense of his servant, William Brown, to achieve anything. But Brown will be the first to disagree with you, pointing out that when the chips are down Burke will, often reluctantly, always do the right thing. The fact that the right thing isn’t always what his military masters would want him to do, just makes it more interesting. When push comes to shove, he is not only physically but morally brave.

I have come to be quite fond of James Burke. His next adventure will see him in Ireland in 1793 where he is charged with infiltrating the Irish nationalist movement. Perhaps this early mission explains much of his cynicism, for it is his darkest and most morally dubious adventure in the series. But that’s to come. For now, we can relax and enjoy the fun as his schemes, fights, and romances his way through the chaos that is the Peninsular War.

Burke in the Peninsula will be published on 25 September. It is available on Amazon at £3.99 on Kindle and £6.99 in paperback.

You can read more by Tom Williams on his blog, http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/. His Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams and he tweets as @TomCW99.

And The White Rajah did eventually see publication and is worth your time. Here’s the link: mybook.to/TheWhiteRajah

Categories
Blog Writing Craft

Introverts and Extroverts in Historical Fiction

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA

I recently came on a discussion in a facebook group about introverts and extroverts in fiction. (Sorry to whoever started this thread; I can’t find it again now!) But it really made me stop and think, because as a reader I have always been a fan of what I call ‘quiet books’. The more page-turning a book is, the less memorable. So as a writer I need to find a balance between the speed my reader devours the book, and the feeling or memory that the book leaves behind, both of which rely on slowing the pace.

Stakes

The fashion these days in books on the craft of writing is to tell you to concentrate on high action and drama and to have plenty at stake in an external way. This is what we see a lot of in film and TV drama, when the focus is on the physical demonstration of action. In these media, it’s necessary because we have no access to the interior thoughts of the characters.

But novels are different, and as a novelist I’ve always been much more interested the in motivation of my characters. They act, but not necessarily in a high stakes way. The suggestion that some readers might prefer to read about introverted characters, but that most fiction is aimed at extroverts, is a refreshing idea.

What is an introvert, and what might they want to read?

According to Healthline Carl Jung wrote that introverts and extroverts could be separated based on how they regain energy. Introverts prefer a less stimulating environment, and need time on their own to recharge their energy levels, whereas extroverts recharge by social interaction and being with other people.

It made me wonder if introverts prefer reading books written in the first person, where the ‘I’ conveys the inner feelings of the protagonist, and it is as if you are the only person through whom the story is being told. Perhaps a more extrovert reader would prefer multiple points of view and multiple characters which would mimic their preferred way to refuel?

Drawing Room Drama

In historical fiction, the history that has survived is often of the ‘high stakes’ variety. War, bitter battles for control over crown or state, murderous religious divides. Yet one of the most enduring historical fiction periods is the Regency period, presided over by the giant Jane Austen, whose quiet wit, and focus on the drawing room intrigues of societies marriage market, prove endlessly popular.

The Spectrum

As a reader I enjoy both types of fiction, but I couldn’t read an endless diet of historical thrillers. The non-stop breathless action makes me long for a quieter book. I suspect that like most readers, I am on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert, but heading more towards the introvert. As a writer, I need to recharge often after my most dramatic scenes, as I am literally living them as I write.

What do you think? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you like to read about introverted characters, or must they always be the ‘go-getting’ adventurous type? What type of books do you like to read, and would you categorize yourself as an introvert or extrovert?

Categories
Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – the joy of writing extraordinary commoners

I’ve just started a new book and after quite a bit of research, this is the first week of actually typing anything for my new project, book two of a series set in Italy. I’m a pantser, so I just launch straight in and then try to write my first draft as quickly as possible, and allow a lot of time afterwards for editing, refining and re-structuring the story. I have an overarching view of the story in the form of two sheets of A4 paper which are my only outline, plus of course the memory of what happened in Book 1. So far this week I’ve managed just over 7000 words, which is average for me. It gets slower as the story develops in complexity and as I figure out where the characters are taking me and what new research I need to do.

The piles of books on my desk (above)represent the things I am working on. On the left – things I’d like to write about – the writing wish-list. In the middle, books about my last series (in case anyone asks me awkward research questions!) and the next two piles are books about the stories I’m working on right now. There’s a lot about poisons as my main protagonist is a poisoner.

Again, the second book in my ‘Italian’ series is about a commoner. Publishers are often keen that novelists should write about ‘marquee names’ – which means to say people they’ve heard of. They know they can sell any number of books about Anne Boleyn. If the book is about someone people have heard of, its much easier to sell.

This is not actually true. The Girl with the Pearl Earring sold well, despite having an unknown woman at its heart. As did The Miniaturist. Besides,  Royal courts have never much interested me. Instead I’m interested in individuals who have made their mark in history despite being supposedly ‘nobody special.’ My job as a novelist is to make them special and unforgettable. This is a joy, as unlike Anne Boleyn, where there are thousands of interpretations of her life, each of my characters can shine out from her historical past like a gem in a very direct way.

The three women I wrote about from Pepys’ Diary were women he mentioned in passing. Yet now I have re-imagined rich and vibrant lives for Deb Willet, Bess Bagwell and Mary Elizabeth Knepp. You won’t know who they are because they are footnotes in history. The only portrait of them that exists, is in Pepys’ Diary and my books, and so to me these characters are unsullied by other interpretations. I got to know them through my own internal imagination and Pepys’ direct descriptions rather than through some other biographer’s lens. These women now live as more than footnotes and have been given imaginary voices, and I hope voices that concord with their status in the period.

Pepys Library in Cambridge

Because of the fact my characters have no biographers, my research is mostly background. I read very few books that pertain directly to my main characters. I love old maps and take great care with the settings to make them as authentic as possible. Here’s one of old Palermo I used in Book I of my new series. Historical events, and their impact on the people in my stories are my main interest. The cities of Palermo and Naples at that period were subject to earthquakes, rebellions and the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Politics always looks very different from the bottom, rather than from the point of view of those who make the decisions at the top.

My new series is based around the life of Giulia Tofana, an Italian 17th Century poisoner. She allegedly killed 600 men in the cities of Rome and Naples. She is half legend, half real person. Her story has been embroidered and changed over the centuries, but no-one has written a biography of her. So I had to find an internal way to bring her to life, and one of the ways I attempt to do that is to give her a strong setting, and within that to furnish her with a strong set of opinions. For her poisonings to be convincing, her view of the world has to be skewed in some way by her life’s events. In the first book we see these events brought to life, but by book 2 she is now in a very different situation. From being a courtesan in the first book, she now finds herself a nun in charge of a family of young women incarcerated against their will.

The first novel in the series, ‘The Poison Keeper’, is finished and has been contracted to Sapere Books for publication early in 2021. In my first week writing Book 2, I’m wrestling with how much backstory a new reader needs to jump them into the story. I’m also researching the history of the silkworm which will play a big part in the unfolding events. And as always I’m enjoying breathing life into Giulia Tofana, a woman who has not yet been voiced in an English-speaking novel.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

My new WW2 novel will be published soon, and my latest book is here

Categories
Blog Seventeenth Century Life

Ten authors you should know about, who write about the 17th Century #HistFic

The Seventeenth Century is undergoing a bit of a revival, with best-selling authors like Philippa Gregory and Tracy Borman, all getting in on the act. Here is my first of two posts recommending authors who write about this period in European history.

Of course in England the 17th Century is rich pickings with the over-turning of the monarchy, a bitter civil war, new advances in science and medicine, not to mention the witch-hunts and religious persecutions. And London, England’s capital was besieged by war, plague and fire.

But there are many other authors writing about this period whose books should not be overlooked. Here’s a list of ten I can heartily recommend. Click on their names to find all their books.

L.C Tyler – the John Grey mysteries are wonderful who-dunnits and there is a lovely wit and irony to these books.

Alison Stuart – Her Guardians of the Crown series set in the English Civil Wars is full of swashbuckling, difficult choices, and romance.

M J Logue – Her ‘Uncivil War’ series and her Thomazine and Major Russell books have an insider’s view of the period and great characters.

Anna Belfrage – if you like time-travel you will enjoy being transported back to 17th Century Scotland in her gripping nine book series The Graham Saga.

Graham Brack – The Master Mercurius books of the 1670’s featuring a cleric who is both Catholic and Protestant are intricate well-researched mysteries with a dash of humour.

Cryssa Bazos – Her acclaimed romances in the ‘Knot’ series are much more than that. Expect impeccable research plenty of action and a thrilling ride.

Elizabeth St John – lovingly authentic reconstruction of a family’s difficulties through the 17th Century, rich with the real intrigue and political strife of the day.

J G Harlond – The Chosen Man Trilogy is chock full of seafaring, spies and treachery in the 1630s and beyond.

Linda Lafferty – her books about Caravaggio and Atremisia Gentileschi shows us the 17th Century movers and shakers in the art world.

Pamela Belle – The Heron Quartet and The Wintercombe Series provide us with fantastic insights into the life of the English Manor and the changing allegiances of its inhabitants during the 17th Century.

Categories
Blog Uncategorized

Building Blocks of Historical Fiction no 3 – Art and Artifice #HistFic

What does historical novel give you that film or television doesn’t? The answer is a total and intimate immersion. The language we use in a historical novel is what immerses us in time and place. Our word choices matter, and every choice we make impacts the reader from the inside. This doesn’t mean we have to use the language of the chosen period, or there’d be no instantly comprehensible novels about medieval England, as those who have studied Chaucer in the original will testify. (There are one or two notable exceptions to this, but not many.)

Of course if you take the time to study old English it then becomes comprehensible, but most readers want to be ‘inside’ the experience quickly. They don’t want to have to study before they can take the journey into the past. In a way, this explains the popularity of familiar periods over less familiar ones – the reader has already, in some small way, studied the period by reading other novels of the era.

Our job as writers is to make the study of the period effortless; to provide enough detail in the story to convince the reader they are there, walking the streets of a previous century, and this must be done in language that feels appropriate for the era. I have just been reading ‘Fortune’s Hand’ by R N Morris, about Walter Raleigh. (Review soon). It is a fine example of what writing can do that films can’t. For one thing, his opening gives us the point of view that is everywhere and nowhere – the ultimate God’s eye. We see an acorn as it grows to an oak, and then how it is transformed into creaking timber, and finally a ship. The world of the ship is of vital importance to all that Raleigh is and will become.

This is a leap of the imagination that is almost impossible to do in film, for us to transform ourselves in our imagination from a God’s eye view one moment and then to zoom into the inside of an inanimate object the next, and for that object to give us its point of view. What’s more, it can be done in beautiful language – language that you might never experience in every day life.

“The stem writhes as it grows, whipping the air. It is almost too fast for itself, has not the strength to support its vaunting height. Quick, quick, quickening, it girds itself with growth, thickening into an adolescents tremor.
I see the parting and spreading of the roots, the restless subterranean colonisation. It is the nature of all life, the urge to encroach.
I see the orb of the heavens wheel about. I see the Sun on its ceaseless course, a bouncing ball across the horizon. The waxing and waning of countless moons. The slow strophes of an eternal dance sped up into a frantic jig.”

So what is beautiful writing? Hmm. A hard question.

It is like art; hard to define, and one person’s art may be another person’s poison.
It can be a prose poem, as in Fortune’s Hand.
Or it can be much simpler – the exact choice of word used to convey a precise effect that transports you simply and confidently into the scene.
Here is Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk, and barely literate 15 year old Mary in 1831:

“the day it started was not a warm day to begin. no it was a cold day to begin and the frost was on every blade of grass. but then later the sun did come up and the frost went and then the birds were all starting up and it was like the sun was in my legs for i got the feeling that i get. it goes into my legs and then goes up into my head.

 

the sap was rising up through the stems and the leaves were unfurling. and the birds were putting a lining in their nests.”

Notice how bold these extracts are. How they are not like the language that we use every day. In Leyshon’s she has dispensed with capital letters, and allows her protagonist to repeat ‘and’ and ‘then’ the way a young girl might. In Morris’s extract we see language we would never see in a newspaper – ‘vaunting’, ‘girds’, ‘strophes’. The writer is transporting the reader by the use of language. Of course it doesn’t always work, and too much artifice can make a novel tiring to read, but one of the joys for me as a writer is to tread the edge of what might be possible with language. I have even invented words in a few of my novels. (If you spot one, and can tell me what it is, you can have a free copy of my new one when it’s out!)

So my tip for today is to take the risk with your language. Those who write contemporary fiction haven’t nearly so much freedom, as those of us supposedly constrained by the period.

More about Language in Historical Fiction: You might also like to read these longer articles on Language in Historical Fiction: The Historical Novel Society and The History Girls

You might also like: Building Block no 2: Suspicion Versus Suspense

Categories
Blog

Building Blocks of Historical Fiction no 2 – Suspicion versus Suspense #HistFic

FAMsf Cornelis TroostOften writers think that in order to convey mystery, or to keep the reader in suspense, they must withhold information. A typical example is that someone (mystery man) kills/kidnaps a mystery person on page one. In practice, this is just annoying. Much better is to give the maximum amount of detail. Name the character, give us a detailed description, tell us exactly who they are and who the other person is that they are interacting with. That way, we might actually care about the victim, and also care about the man who is perpetrating the crime.

Suspicion: What we don’t want is the reader to think, ‘Who are these people? What the heck is going on? And can I be bothered to find out? I’m suspicious as to whether this author is going to give me a good story.

Suspense: Instead we want them to think, ‘Mr Smith is an interesting character. I wonder why he hates Mrs Jones so much? What has Mrs Jones ever done to him to make him feel this way? If I read on I might find out. I trust this author to tell me everything I need to know for a satisfying story.

Tension is created in a reader when they’re not sure what will happen in a story — and the best way to make tension is to make it between characters of opposing personalities or goals. If your characters are unknown or ‘mysterious’ then instead of gaining tension, the tension is lost. A reader will also lose interest because lack of specificity conveys the idea that what they are reading does not matter to the author enough to give details, or that the author themselves does not know.

Cut the vagueness and mystery from your prose, but keep it in the specifics of your plot. Don’t use ambiguous sentences. Aim for specific concrete details that bring clarity and help the reader visualize your scene. And as historical fiction writers we have a wealth of detail that can be used which will anchor our story in its era. If you pay attention to these details, your reader will also pay attention. If it matters to you; it will matter to them.

Anything that is vague weakens your writing. Here is an example with as much vagueness as I can inject.

Vague:

It was about an hour ago that Mr Greaves had gone away, so Miss Allcott was trying to open the door, but when she pulled the handle it seemed to be stuck. Maybe someone had locked it at some time after she came in. She thought she’d better look through the keyhole, but she couldn’t see anything because apparently the key was somehow still in the other side.

Now I’ve made it more specific:

After Mr Greaves had been gone an hour, Miss Allcott tried to open the door, but when she pulled the handle it was stuck. Someone must have locked it after she came in. She looked through the keyhole, but could see nothing, for the key was still in the other side.

The bare facts, nice and clean without the vagueness. But it lacks period detail.

With more period detail, including the emotions of the character:

The odious Mr Greaves had gone an hour ago, and in that time Miss Allcott had unpacked all her valises, put away her new bombazine riding habit, and was getting hungry. She reached out a lace-gloved hand to the doorknob, and pulled. The door creaked but did not budge, so she twisted the handle again and put both hands to the task, leaning back with the full weight of her five-foot two frame. She frowned. Someone must have locked it after she came in. She hitched up her tight-fitting skirt and bent down to peer into the keyhole. Dark, with a mere glimmer of light on metal. How dare he! The key was still in the lock.

The more specific the detail, the more interested we are in the event.

Did you ask more questions about the third version of events? Did you start to ask why? Did you want to edit it for me? The more specificity, the more curiosity in the reader. I encourage you to add to this fictional scene with more detail, and begin to make it come to life. What do you think might be going on? Do feel free to improvise!

So, make sure your reader is treated to suspense, rather than suspicion.

You might like Building Blocks of Historical Fiction no 1 – Balance

Picture Credit — Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – engraving by Cornelis Troost

Categories
Blog

Tom Williams – ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ #spies #Argentina

Tom Williams is the author of several historical novels, including The White Rajah’ which I really enjoyed. ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ is a tale of spies and skulduggery in the Napoleonic Wars as Britain invades Argentina. You can read about Tom’s research for this novel on his blog.

HiResBurke&TheLandOfSilverJames Burke never set out to be a spy.

But with Napoleon rampaging through Europe, the War Office needs agents and Burke isn’t given a choice. It’s no business for a gentleman, and disguising himself as a Buenos Aires leather merchant is a new low.

His mission, though, means fighting alongside men who see the collapse of the old order giving them a chance to break free of Spanish colonial rule. He falls in love with the country – and with the beautiful Ana.

Burke wants both to forward British interests and to free Argentina from Spain. But his new found selflessness comes up against the realities of international politics. When the British invade, his attempts to parley between the rebels and their new rulers leave everybody suspicious of him. Despised by the British, imprisoned by the Spanish and with Ana leaving him for the rebel leader, it takes all Burke’s resolve and cunning to escape. Only after adventuring through the throne rooms and bedrooms of the Spanish court will he finally come back to Buenos Aires, to see Ana again and avenge himself on the man who betrayed him.

Tom lives in London and when not writing, enjoys skiing, skating, and dancing tango, preferably in Buenos Aires.

Read reviews on Goodreads

Tom’s Website and Blog

PRE-ORDER here

Categories
Blog Reviews

Recent Recommended Reads Private Lives by JG Harlond and Daughters Of India by Jill McGivering

cover193221-mediumWith lockdown in progress, and my new book just finished, I’ve made time for plenty of reading this month. Here are the first two reviews and I’ll be posting the rest of the reviews shortly.

Private Lives by J G Harlond

I read the first of these Bob Robbins mysteries set in WW2 and loved it, so couldn’t wait for more. This is the ultimate cosy read, full of humour, but also hiding some dark and dangerous depths. I think of it as Agatha Christie meets Dad’s Army, but the characters have plenty of depth. The mystery starts from the off, with Bob Robbins witnessing (from afar) what he thinks might be a shotgun murder. But when he searches the spot there is no body to be found, and the person he saw has simply disappeared. Bob is supposed to be on holiday, but of course he can’t help being curious, and is soon sucked into the investigation, forfeiting his longed-for summer break.

A body does eventually appear, but not the man they are looking for, adding to the mystery.

Bob Robbins  is aided in his investigations by raw recruit Laurie Oliver, who has a love of the ladies and of English Literature, and always has an apt quotation to hand. Fun is added by the setting which includes a chintzy seaside boarding house with a group of thespians preparing to entertain the holidaymakers. Nearly all of them have something to hide, and give Bob a run for his money. The vivacious  actress Jessamyn Flowers (who incidentally has several other names) who runs the lodging house is especially enjoyable. Anyone who does ‘Am Dram’ will recognise this world, and appreciate it. The background of wartime England is accurately and evocatively drawn, with preparations for ‘D Day’ going on all the time. Settle down with your cocoa for this ideal slice of entertaining escapism.

 

Daughters Of India by Jill McGivering

71wUcBYYImLI love to read anything set in India and was really impressed by the sense of place in this book. Right from the beginning, McGivering shows us the heat and colour of India then contrasts it with the chilly Yorkshire Dales, where Isabel must spend the holidays at boarding school and then away from her family and her beloved India. These early parts, seen through childhood eyes, add to the feeling of India as a place of golden memory. Later we are treated to the smells and sounds of Delhi, and then the Andaman Islands – a place I had never even heard of, in the Bay of Bengal. I feel now I have a picture of these places in my imagination.

The two main protagonists, Isabel, born into Colonial luxury of the British Raj, but always feeling an outsider, and Asha, a hindu, are both courageous women. From the cover, I thought this might be a light romantic read, but it is a hard-hitting exploration of attitudes during the final days of the Raj, when India looks for self-rule and the Raj looks to maintain control. The politics are well-researched and sensitively handled, the male characters real people not just ciphers. The book deftly explores the difference between what some call murderers and some call freedom fighters. If you want a book that will take you to a different time and place, that will surprise you, shock you and move you, then this is very highly recommended.

 

Categories
Blog

Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries – J.G Harlond on writing about life in wartime England

P jane author shot1 CORRECT VERSION FOR PUBLICITYI’m delighted to welcome J.G Harlond today, for a post about memory and research, and the writing of her cosy Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries.

J.G Harlond is a British author of historical crime novels. After travelling widely, Jane and her Spanish husband are now settled in rural Andalucía, Spain. Do grab a coffee and sit to enjoy this interesting insight into a writer’s process.

Over to Jane:

Like Deborah, I write fiction set in the 17th Century and World War Two. I enjoy the hard work that goes into writing about both epochs, but I have to admit my new story, Private Lives (set 1942), has been challenging. On the surface, writing a cosy historical crime with a touch of black comedy should have been easier than writing The Chosen Man Trilogy, for example, but it wasn’t. 

Ludo da Portovenere’s wicked adventures in Europe and India in the mid-seventeenth century are all based on documented history. Each story includes facts, researched social and commercial data, plus a few lesser known historical details such as what happened to some of the most valuable English Crown Jewels during the English Civil War: what happens to Bob Robbins in Devon and Cornwall during the nineteen-forties also includes researched data and surprising facts, but Bob’s stories also draw on personal memory. Not that I lived through the Second World War: I’m not that old! The background and ambience of Local Resistance and Private Lives, however, rely to an extent on how I interpreted wartime life from my parents’ and grand-parents’ references and anecdotes. This in turn involves a certain amount of speculation on how other ‘ordinary’ families lived in small towns, rural and coastal communities.

imagesIn my mind’s eye, while I am writing, I can see what is happening in those days: the hand-knitted cardigans and walnut-laminated wireless sets, wooden draining boards and rolled newspapers fanning flames out of a few bits of coal. I was a post-war baby, born while the war and food rationing were a recent memory. Little was said in my hearing about the war itself, but the Home Front, that was a different matter. Tales about how goods fell off the back of a lorry, reminders to wear something white at night (to avoid getting run over in the black-out), to make do and mend; anecdotes about fire-watch duties, poker games and local dances . . .  These must have settled into the back of my mind the way popular song lyrics do.

Nobody belittled the difficulties they endured, but in the daily struggle – and it was a struggle – there was a lot of humour. Life was dangerous and unpredictable, even in rural or coastal areas where a random bomber might dump unused bombs on the way back to base. This happened. I remember distinctly being told about a primary school where the only child to survive had been at home in bed with a sore throat.

People were stoic, but not passé, although a survey conducted in London in November 1940 revealed only 40% of the population went into an air-raid shelter on a regular basis. Most Londoners preferred to risk sudden death in their own beds. Anderson shelters constructed in back gardens were chilly, relatively flimsy affairs, and must have been very unpleasant on winter nights. Morrison shelters, large steel tables with inbuilt cages that took up most of the floor space of the average sitting-room were preferable, but offered only limited safety. Larger homes created well-prepared refuge rooms in basements. Londoners who had access to none of these installed themselves in underground Tube stations, where there was no sanitation or comfort beyond the company of strangers. The inhabitants of Plymouth pushed blankets and thermos flasks into babies’ prams or garden wheel-barrows and trekked out of the city to sleep under the stars on Dartmoor.

Think about that for a minute: how did mothers with young children cope? How did the elderly cope with the long walk and discomfort? Yet cope, they did.

In both town and country, people relied on the black-out to keep them safe. Thick black curtains were hung at all windows: no home, no car or bicycle could show a beam of light for fear of attracting enemy bombers. Road accidents on winter evenings were commonplace.

Daily life, the basic domestic round, goes on under the most extreme of circumstances everywhere, of course, even today. Children have to be fed and educated; homes need to be clean and kept warm. Parents in every country involved feared for their offspring at the front between 1939 and 1945, and they themselves had to get to work in appalling circumstances after sleepless nights. But life went on.

In Britain, there was the added, critical risk of imminent invasion. Cinema news reels showed footage of Poland, the Netherlands and Channel Islands: this could happen in Britain. It was a terrifying thought. Something modern film-makers and writers frequently overlook. The detail about the German U-boat surfacing off the Cornish coast to take on fresh water in Local Resistance was taken from a German sailor’s account. I didn’t invent that. 

With all these threats and challenges, how on earth did the British maintain a positive outlook, or morale as it was called then? The answer lies largely in our idiosyncratic sense of humour and capacity for self-mockery, bolstered by light entertainment on the wireless and at the cinema.

Mrs.-Minivers-kitchen-1-611x458Mrs Miniver demonstrated how even the most polite of middle-class women can be as tough as steel when a Nazi appears at their door. 

All this, family anecdotes, academic research, and a particularly English brand of humour slips into my Home Front mysteries. How a Cornish fishing village called on its ancient smuggling tradition to evade rationing while preparing to defend their country when ‘Jerry’ landed forms the background to Local Resistance; how people as diverse as Land Army girls and unemployed London actors coped with the daily drudge three years into the war underlies the shenanigans and criminal activities in Private Lives.  

The Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas has a wonderful line in the opening of his memoir about growing up in Wales during the Great War: beyond his Wales, he says, “lay England, which was London, and a country called ‘The Front’ from which many of our neighbours never came back”. The Front was obviously perilous, but how life went on in unoccupied Britain, how people coped in the face of incessant difficulties and dangers required its own form of bravery, which deserves to be celebrated.

©J.G. Harlond

cover193221-mediumREAD THE OPENING CHAPTER!  Read the first chapter of Private Lives 

Read about ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ in Local Resistance: http://getbook.at/LocalResistance

Read about the criminal activities of Devonshire farmers and London actors in Private Lives: http://viewbook.at/PrivateLives

Find Jane on: www.jgharlond.com

Blog – ‘Reading & Writing’

Picture Credits: The picture of Mrs Miniver’s kitchen

The picture of a farm kitchen is from the Museum of English Rural Life

 

PRIVATE LIVES – Cozy crime with a sinister twist in wartime England.
While reluctant wartime detective Bob Robbins is enjoying a few days’ holiday he becomes involved in a shooting incident on a derelict farm. An elderly farmer lies injured, then disappears. A young man is found dead in the barn. Bob reports the incident to the local police but they are so over-stretched with Home Front duties he finds himself in charge of the case. In urgent need of assistance, Bob requests the help of the young police recruit Laurie Oliver. They take rooms at Peony Villas, an unusual sort of guest house where a troupe of London actors are in residence, and where Bob soon finds himself involved in yet another peculiar mystery.