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Historical Fiction – recent excellent reads #GreatBook

My recent reading. Historical Fiction recommendations.

As you know, I read widely, and here are some books which are definitely worth your time. All are beautifully written. Click the title for the UK buy link.

The Anchoress

This is a contemplative book aimed at young adults. Its powers lie in the description of life as a nun, locked in a hermitage behind four walls, with only the nesting birds for company. This is a book that’s big on small detail, and evokes the medieval period through what is absent rather than what is present. We spend much of the novel inside Sarah’s head, along with her fears of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, sexuality and chastity.

(Bought this from the revolving book stand in Booths Supermarket – much more tempting than the fruit & veg stall)

Olive Kitteridge

Not strictly speaking a historical novel, though it has an old-fashioned aura about it, and covers 25 years of a marriage. Set in Maine, this tells of the small triumphs and disasters of the relationships in a small town in a series of linked vignettes. Each is a separate mini-story, with its own heart, and its own ending. Put together it creates a portrait of Olive Kitteridge – an ordinary woman in a small town – and does it with extraordinary insight and perceptiveness. If you’re curious as to what makes A Pullitzer Prize winner, then here’s your answer!

(Was lent this by a friend who thought I’d like it – I did!)

Plague

A rip-roaring historical crime thriller in which a killer is on the loose in plague-beset London. Not for the faint-hearted, this includes plenty of gore, gruesome descriptions of the plague, and an edge of your seat plot. The pace is relentless and our two heroes – Coke and Pitman must unmask the murderer before he strikes again, risking, of course, death at the hands of the butcher in the process.

(After being on a panel with the author, I ordered this from Amazon)

The Heart of the Night

Epic WW2 fiction spanning counties and continents. At heart a love story between two couples, but also a story of the enduring friendhip of two women. This is not an easy book to condense into a sentence or two, but it covers the fate of Russians in WW2, the occupation of Paris, and the fate of soldiers at the front. Tender and realistic, the writing is seamless and flowing, and the 500+ pages seem to fly by.

(picked this up from a charity bookstall in aid of our local village hall – cost me 50p and worth a lot more for its entertainment value)

None So Blind

A great historical mystery set in Wales in the Victorian era. This is a crime novel with a difference – with an unusual detective , a barrister who is losing his sight, and his sidekick who is a down-to-earth clerk of a very different class. The two both need each other and irritate each other in ways which are believable and feel real. Add to this an unusual case centred around the Rebecca Riots of the 1840’s & 50’s, and you have a dark mystery that’s well worth a read.

(Alis Hawkins, the author, was first published by Macmillan New Writing, as was I, and we’ve stayed in touch. She sent me this as an ARC before it had a publisher – now I’ve got the real thing as a paperback via my local bookshop)

I Stopped Time

Haunting portrait of the Edwardian era told through the idea of the ‘new’ art of photography. Set in Brighton and London, pioneer photgrapher Lottie Pye must apologize on her deathbed to her son James (who thinks she has abandoned him as a child) and explain the story that led her to lead her life without him. When James inherits her photographs they explain to him more than anything else what she felt for him. Fabulous characters, lovely detail, and an engaging plot.

(Read this as an ebook after taking part in a promotion where this author was featured. I like the Edwardians, so thought I’d give it a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. )

Do give some of these books a try.

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Forgetting Tabitha by Julie Dewey

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Thank you for having me on your fabulous blog, Royalty Free Fiction!  I am delighted to be here.

I first heard about the orphan trains in 1990.  I recall seeing a snippet in an article that was written about big moments in U.S. history that went widely unacknowledged.  I kept the article, I am not even sure I knew why I was keeping it, but I did.  Something about it held a great deal of allure, the thought of children being ripped apart from their siblings and spirited out west to find new families was beyond my comprehension. 

Life happens, kids happen, and finally in 2012 when things were quiet, I started my research.  I was not an author at this time, mind you, just a curious American citizen.  I uncovered such incredible stories about the orphan train movement that I felt I had to share this newfound knowledge with the world.

I became obsessed and started to write.  I kept a notepad in my purse and whenever I had a thought about my storyline I jotted it down.  Characters flew into my head and their lives unfolded on my computer screen.  Soon, I had my book, Forgetting Tabitha.  I fleshed it out, then fleshed it out more.  The process was incredible.  But until I gave the ARC to my own book group to read and comment on I didn’t know if there would be interest in the topic.

I was astounded by the encouragement from my reader friends to press forward and make this widely available for readers everywhere.  I was inspired by the children. Theirs were the lives  I thought of, as I wrote, edited, developed a cover, and created a book.

I loved every aspect of the writing process from the research to the promotion and so it made sense that I make a career out of this.  It has been a true joy and I am so grateful.

Buy the Book

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The Apothecary’s Widow – Diane Scott Lewis

 

Apothecary's Widow

A Lady’s Murder in Eighteenth Century Cornwall

When I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego, one of the panels spoke of the future of historical fiction. They agreed that historical mysteries would remain one of the most popular aspects of the genre. I’d written a few historical novels up until then, so decided my next endeavor would be a mystery. Having bought a book on the history of eighteenth century Truro, Cornwall, I decided to set my mystery there.

A murder, a squire’s wife poisoned, the squire’s miserable marriage revealed, all formed in my mind. And of course, a diligent apothecary, a bold-minded woman who’d taken over her husband’s shop after his death. These two people, Branek Pentreath, the squire with a failing estate and resentment toward his arranged, childless marriage, and Jenna Rosedew, who prepared the tinctures for the ailing Lady Pentreath, would become the prime suspects in the lady’s death. Throw in a corrupt constable who has grievances against both of them, and the noose tightens around Branek and Jenna.

At first suspecting one another for the murder, an unbidden attraction forms between these two, but their places in society forbids their acting upon it—or does it? They must fight their feelings and rush to find the real killer before it’s too late.

Set during the war with the American colonies in 1781, the outcome which might ruin Branek, and the tension is rife in my historical mystery, The Apothecary’s Widow.

I delved deep into the history of the area, the eighteenth century (a particular interest of mine) and the detection of poison in a time when medical knowledge was just starting to come out of the dark ages—but was still primitive.

I also researched the apothecaries’ trade, and the medicine preparation which would have been used in the eighteenth century. The use of herbs and spices, along with more dangerous—not to mention strange—ingredients, was fascinating. My editor says she was impressed by my research.

I fell in love with these characters and hated for the story to end. So there might be a sequel—and another murder to solve.

I hope readers will enjoy this novel as much as I loved writing it.

For more information about me and my books, please visit my website:

www.dianescottlewis.org

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Past Encounters by Davina Blake

PastEncounters_Ebook

If you were born in the 1950’s as I was, you will no doubt remember wartime stories passed down to you from your parents.

My parents were not old enough to fight in the second world war, but their stories of gas masks and rationing, dried egg sandwiches, and night-time forays into the Andersen shelter at the bottom of the garden, stuck with me. In particular, one story fascinated me – the one about a neighbour of theirs who was taken prisoner early in the war and spent five years in a forced labour camp for the Germans. He struggled to get over his experience more than those who had actually been fighting, and I always wondered why.

Years later, I moved to a small town ; Carnforth in Lancashire. The town itself used to have a big ironworks, long since gone, but now its one claim to fame is that it was once the scene for the famous film ‘Brief Encounter’ starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.  When I went to look around the Station Heritage Centre and found out more about the filming, I discovered the film was made in the last months of WWII. So now I had two ingredients – the story of a prisoner of war, and the story of the making of ‘Brief Encounter.’

Research led me to discover that  in February 1945,  when David Lean was filming ‘Brief Encounter’, on the very same day  we were sending bombs to decimate the beautiful cultural city of Dresden. What if these two events could be brought together? So, I had the third ingredient and an idea was born, the story of a wartime couple torn apart by war. But not just that – ten years later they are married, but neither has any idea what really went on for the other during their separation, or what it will mean for their future relationship. Wartime stories by necessity deal with larger themes of love and death, and people under extraordinary pressure. Rhoda and Peter have always hidden their pasts from each other, partly from self-preservation, and partly to shield the other from the truth. When Rhoda finds a letter from another woman, and the facts begin to surface, will Rhoda and Peter survive knowing the other’s darkest secret?

I was very attracted by the visual style of the film, ‘Brief Encounter’, its light and shadow, the way it made locations significant and tell their own story, so I have tried to keep that in my descriptions. The theme of the film is that hard choices have to be made about loyalty if a relationship is to survive, and I wanted my book to reflect this.

Whilst writing Past Encounters I interviewed people who remembered wartime Carnforth, and drank more tea and ate more biscuits than is probably good for me, whilst scribbling frantically in my notebook. I was also incredibly grateful for on-line sources such as ‘The People’s War’. Memoirs of prisoners of war and soldiers who endured the Great March of Prisoners of War through frozen Germany, also helped give a backbone to the book.

One of my aims is to show just how amazing ordinary people can be, if you scratch beneath the surface. By the end of the book Rhoda and Peter have found and lost loves, fought for survival, endured tragedy, and discovered the hidden depths that make a bond between two people true and lasting.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

www.davinablake.com

twitter: @davinajblake

blog: www.davinablake.blogspot.com

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Shadow on the Highway by Deborah Swift

Shadow_on_the_Highwa_Cover_for_Kindle
‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas…’

So opens the Alfred Noyes poem, The Highwayman. I loved that poem at school, and have remembered the opening lines ever since I was nine years old. So when I read about Lady Katherine Fanshawe –  the noblewoman who was also a highwaywoman, I could hardly resist researching her fascinating life!  Whilst uncovering Katherine’s story I found that the real history and the legend did not always agree. For one thing, there are discrepancies about Katherine’s date of death and place of burial, and little survives of hard-core evidence as to her activities during the English Civil War.

 

Despite the legend, there is actually nothing of substance to link Lady Katherine with any sort of highway robbery, although it is likely that there was robbery and plunder on the roads at this period because of civil unrest; crimes that could have been attributed to her.

 

The legend however is irresistible. Two films have been based on the idea, both called ‘The Wicked Lady’, in 1945 and 1983. There was also another novel; The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, loosely based on Katherine’s life. The fact that the legend has survived so long is a testament to its appeal.

But could I re-imagine it, paying attention to the facts whilst keeping true to the interest of the legend? Could I keep her exploits as a highwaywoman?

For my story I have drawn on both her real life, and aspects of the legend. Nowhere in the real history is Katherine’s lover, Ralph Chaplin, traceable, although he always features in the retelling of the legend as the person who persuaded her to robbery in the first place. For a novelist, these gifts of mysterious characters with no background fuel the imagination, and Ralph features in my novel and the second part of my Highway Trilogy will be his story, told from his point of view. Of course I have tried to make him as real as possible, and, as many young men were at that time, excited to try new idealistic ways of living, following the break-down of the established order.

I was concerned however to pay attention to the real evidence, and – without giving too much away, to supply likely scenarios which could have led to the interpretation we have today. John Barber, on his excellent website on Lady Katherine, poses the idea that her life may have accrued some of the story of  ‘Maude of Allinghame’ (1833), a Victorian ballad that tells the story of a noblewoman who robs a young suitor and later the Mayor of Redbourne. This seems to be a likely possibility, although parts of Katherine’s legend are undoubtedly true. She was forced to marry tragically early; her stepfather did squander her fortune; the real Markyate Manor does have a secret passage.

Suffice it to say, there is plenty of highway action in Shadow on the Highway – muskets, moonlight and madness.

SHADOW ON THE HIGHWAY is published by Endeavour Press and is aimed at teens and adults from aged 14+

Paperback and ebook

More on Lady Katherine Fanshawe

Deborah’s website 

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Throwing mud at a wall – my writer’s process

Charlotte Betts is another fan of the seventeenth century and writes fantastic award-winning romantic novels set in the Restoration period. She invited me to take part in this writing process blog hop and you can find her blog on her writing process here:

I have done my best to answer the set questions, though it is very tempting to meander off the point!

What am I working on?

I’m working on two things, one a big thick adult novel, and the other a slimmer title suitable for young adults as well as my adult readers. The big novel is a novel based around Pepys’s diary. I have used Pepys’s Diary for so many years as reference material for my other books that I just could not resist! It tells the story of Pepys’s most famous obsession, his wife’s companion Deborah Willett. I have to say, it does feel slightly odd writing about someone with the same first name. Fortunately Pepys himself soon shortens it to Deb, which feels a little more comfortable!

The second smaller novel is part of a series of novellas based around the life of highwaywoman and royalist Lady Katherine Fanshawe – see my previous post. The first volume was told from the point of view of her deaf maid, and is awaiting editing. I’m on the second volume now which includes the Battle of Worcester in the English Civil War, and is written from the point of view of a ghost. This is a slightly scary thing to do, but very enjoyable. I turn to that when I get stuck with the big book, or at night when it’s dark!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Rather than writing about Kings or Queens –  immensely popular in historical fiction, just look at those shelves groaning with books called ‘The Queen’s —‘ (fill in blank, but no, The Queen’s Doughnut’  is not acceptable) – my books are written about ordinary people. I love reading those books though, I recently read ‘The Queen’s Exiles’ by Barbara Kyle and it was a wonderful read.

When I say ordinary, that doesn’t mean the characters are dull, in fact the opposite. They are the movers and shakers that shift society into different ways of thinking. I like to have multiple points of view in my novel, so that a broader view of the historical period is painted for the reader. I often write from the male as well as female perspective, so male readers are often pleasantly surprised to find that the book works for them too.

Book dep slipperMy books embrace themes that matter to me. For example the underlying question in The Lady’s Slipper is: who owns what grows on the land? Is territory something worth fighting for? The setting of the English Civil War, and the battle for the lady’s-slipper orchid’s survival meshed perfectly together to explore these themes. My other two novels, equally, are underpinned by ideas that I wanted to look into for myself. I enjoy meaty, complex reads with adventure and romance and a strong sense of atmosphere, so I expect that’s what I’m trying to produce!

Why do I write what I do?

I fell into writing historical novels by accident, when I was studying for an MA. The first novel started as a writing exercise, but it just kept on growing! By then I’d found that I loved it. Historical fiction uses some of the skills I learned in my previous job as a designer for stage and TV, such as the ability to reearch and plan, and manage my own time, and the ability to think around insurmountable problems (essential when plotting!). I am passionate about the past, and love anything old and interesting. My ideal day out would encompass a visit to a historic house or museum or archives, followed by afternoon tea (with scones and jam, naturally!). When I launched A Divided Inheritance we had exactly that sort of afternoon at Leighton Hall, and I hope my guests enjoyed it as much as I did.

How does your writing process work?

divided_Inheritance_fc_I wish I knew! To be honest I’m a bit chaotic whilst I’m writing. I’m like a magpie, picking up scraps of this and that and scribbling snippets in notebooks. I have a big batch of research books and far too many ‘favourites’ on my google task bar, of things I am reading as part of the initial ‘throw mud at a wall’ process. I’m also really motivated by pictures, so I collect a mass of visual information, postcards, and more web favourites. This can take a few months, but happens whilst I am finishing and editing the previous books. Only by doing this can I know if I have enough material and interesting stuff to sustain a long novel and eighteen months worth of research and writing.

After this, some of the mud sticks (I hope!) and I start to draft. At this point I have a solid idea of the story, and the historical basis for it,  but no details. On my word doc I lay out arbitrary chapter headings and start to fill in the detail. My first draft is what other people might call an outline, and it follows the chronology of the real history I’m writing about. But – if there are scenes that excite me I can’t resist having a go at writing them, so I don’t torture myself, I just go ahead and do it. Once I’ve done that sort of a draft, with some scenes fully written and others just noted as ‘Chapter 5 – Mother dies’, I’m ready for a second go at it. In this draft I try to fathom out how to make the scenes I haven’t written yet more interesting or gripping until I have to write them. This involves more research and book gathering and tinkering with the plot.  And so it goes on, draft after draft. The actual writing is like re-living the scene as I put it onto the screen. Eventually I end up with a full novel, all of which I enjoyed writing. At this point I’ll put it away and work on something else for a bit to get distance.

When I pick it up again I start editing, and this sometimes involves re-structuring and sometimes only nit-picking. Mostly it is about re-ordering the story into a logical flow. This is the point where I realise what the novel is really about, so I go back through it again and re-write with that in mind.

GildedLilySo you can see, it is not exactly a quick, streamlined process, but it’s more of an organic building-up over time, where the plot events accrue significance as I’m working.

I wish I could be the sort of person who sits down with a perfect plan and writes to it, but I’m just not. Initial ideas are always the most obvious ones – I  need the juxtaposition of a lot of different stimuli to delve deep enough and make the right sort of connections to get a juicy story.This is why I think I’d be hopeless at writing crime – where I expect you have to know exactly who has done it from the outset, and why, and everyone’s alibis! My method gives me a lot of ‘wiggle-room’ if I find a better or more interesting idea. I do love books on the craft of writing  though, and fantasising that I’ll be that super-efficient writing machine next time. . .

Next week Eliza Graham will be taking up the baton to tell us about her writing process.

Eliza Graham writes historical fiction under the pen name Anna Lisle. She also writes  fiction set in contemporary times but with a historical twist. Her most recent book is The One I Was.

The One I Was

1939. Youngster Benny Gault, a Kindertransport refugee from Nazi Germany’s anti-semiticism, arrives at Harwich docks, label flapping round his neck, football under his arm, and a guilty secret in his heart. More than half a century later, Benny lies on his deathbed in his beautiful country house, Fairfleet, his secret still unconfessed. Rosamond, his nurse, has a guilty secret of her own concerning her mother’s death in a fire at Fairfleet, years earlier. As Benny and Rosamond unwind the threads binding them together, Rosamond must fight the unfinished violence of the past, now menacing both Fairfleet’s serenity and Benny’s last days.

The One I Was is a novel about shifting identities and whether we can truly reinvent ourselves.