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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

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Two books with #WW2 connections

Of Darkness and Light is an engaging mystery of art and artists set in WW2 Norway. Heidi Eljarbo has certainly given herself a challenge – to write two historical periods in one novel which flow seamlessly from one to another, but the narrative works well and the two timelines inform each other beautifully. We begin the story in WW2 Norway where Soli works in an art shop. We see the shock of the invasion of Norway by the German army and what that means for Soli’s close family and friends.

As the book progresses, the art shop where Soli works is frequented by Nazi collectors of fine art, although the owner does his best to hide the most precious works from these men. When a murder happens right outside the shop, Soli finds herself irresistibly drawn into the mystery of who killed her colleague and why, and the puzzle deepens when Soli discovers that the victim, who she thought she knew well, is also known by another name.

At the same time a painting is missing from auction and Soli must uncover what has happened to it before the Nazis do. I can’t reveal too much of the plot without revealing all the twists and turns, but suffice it to say, Soli and her Art Club are drawn into the Resistance in their bid to save the art world’s cultural heritage from being stolen by the Nazis. Soli is an engaging protagonist, with the skill to tell a real painting from a fake, and the author makes the most of Soli’s ‘eye’ in giving us detailed descriptions of people and places. The reveal of what is inside the walnut and gilded frame is a highlight for me in descriptive writing.

As well as finely drawn detail within WW2 Norway, We are taken back to 17th Century Valetta, Malta, to the studio of Michelangelo known as Caravaggio, and his model Fabiola, again all described in sumptuous detail. If you love the art world and a good mystery, you will really enjoy this well-written book which has plenty of excitement and intrigue to keep you turning the pages.

Find out more about Heidi and her other books.

Endless Skies by Jane Cable is a contemporary romantic novel that harks back to memories of WW2. Archaeologist Rachel Ward’s relationships with men have always been a disaster.  Short-lived, and lacking in commitment. This novel begins to unlock why by gradually letting us into her past. Brought up by her grandmother, Rachel has a natural empathy with Esther, an elderly woman in a care home near where she is working. I really enjoyed the character of Esther, and thought she was drawn well without too much sentimentality.

The men in Rachel’s life are the dreadful, manipulative Ben, one of her students, and Jonathan, who is a property developer. An affair with Ben was always going to be a bad idea, but it also causes Rachel to look back at why she always makes such bad choices. Jonathan asks Rachel to do some work surveying what used to be a local airbase. This links up to Esther’s story, but I won’t give too much away.

One of the delights of the book is the atmospheric setting of the flat Lincolnshire countryside, and the deserted airfield which contributes to the idea that the ghosts of the past still have a bearing on what happens in the present. A thoroughly enjoyable read with multiple interesting strands.

Read more from Jane about the book.

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The Victorian Sickroom – a guest post by Charlotte Betts

cb Charlotte BettsI’m delighted to welcome  Charlotte Betts to my blog today, with her lovely informative article on the Victorian sickroom. Charlotte Betts is a multi-award-winning author of romantic historical novels and draws inspiration from the stories of strong women at turning points in history. Her careful historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place. She is currently working on The Spindrift Trilogy, set in an artists’ community in Cornwall at the turn of the twentieth century.

Charlotte lives on the Hampshire/Berkshire borders in a 17th Century cottage in the woods. A daydreamer and a bookworm, she has enjoyed careers in fashion, interior design and property. She is a member of The Romantic Novelists’ Association, The Society of Authors and The Historical Novels Society.

 

The Victorian Sickroom

‘All women are likely, at some period of their lives, to be called upon to perform the duties of a sick-nurse.’ Mrs Beeton

The duty of nursing the sick within the home has traditionally fallen to the woman of the house, whether she is emptying basins and making cough linctus herself or overseeing her servants while they carry out the necessary tasks. In households where there were a number of children, a maiden aunt or a grandmother might also be called upon to assist in the sickroom if there was a bout of measles or mumps.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management states that the main requirements for a nurse are ‘good temper, compassion for suffering, sympathy with sufferers (which most women possess), neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order, and cleanliness. With these qualifications there will be very little to be wished for; the desire to relieve suffering will inspire a thousand little attentions and surmount the distaste which some of the offices attending the sick-room are apt to create.’

cb Sickbed

From the 1880s, home care manuals advised the importance of cleanliness and separating the sick from the well. Soft furnishings and ornaments were frequently removed from a sickroom to make it easier to keep it clean and free from dust. Fresh air was advised, though the night air was considered dangerous. Items that might be brought into the sickroom were basins and kidney bowls, a commode, flannel for rubbing the patient’s limbs, stone hot water bottles and an oilcloth for protecting the mattress when giving the patient a blanket bath. A rope might be tied from the head to the foot of the bed to assist the patient to sit up without assistance.

Women were deemed fit to carry out the most tedious and mundane of tasks such as sitting by the sickroom bedside all night, emptying the slops and feeding the patient with teaspoons of calf’s foot jelly, toast water or bone broth, but a (male) doctor was often called upon to pronounce the correct course of treatment. In the early Victorian period, this might have included leeches or a purge. Adhering to a prescribed strict diet was advised, or perhaps a poultice or blister applied to the skin to draw out the ‘poison’. As a child, I frequently had chest infections and I remember my mother making hot poultices to place on my chest beneath my liberty bodice.

cb Household Management

Cholera, TB and smallpox were rife at this time and the medicines to cure these diseases didn’t exist until later. Whole families died from TB, or Consumption, as it was then known. Scientists Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur discovered that contagious diseases could be passed from one person to another by microscopic organisms that were too small to see with the naked eye. Once this was understood, the number of infections and deaths fell. Robert Koch built upon Pasteur’s work and in 1882 identified the organisms causing tuberculosis, prompting extensive public health campaigns. Anaesthesia enabled surgeons to operate more slowly and therefore more carefully on patients and, combined with cleaner operating theatres, a patient’s odds of survival improved.

In the home, a medicine chest was an essential item and it was the first port of call when illness struck, in the hope of avoiding the expense of sending for a doctor. Home remedies such as rose hip syrup would often be made by the woman of the house but a wide range of patent medicines were available from a pharmacy. Chloroform, morphia or laudanum, all derived from opium, could be easily purchased and were considered an efficacious treatment for toothache and headaches.

cb Laudanum cb Smedley

Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodine was a popular treatment for indigestion that, even as late as the 1960s, used to be in my family’s bathroom cabinet. Chlorodine contained kaolin and morphia for diarrhoea and stomach pain. I remember it as being very effective. Remedies for infant colic contained opium and, unsurprisingly,were known for successfully calming a baby. Steel’s Aromatic Lozenges promised to ‘repair the evils brought on by debauchery’, a veiled reference to syphilis, but frequently resulted in painful inflammation. Dr James’s Fever Powder contained antimony and ammonia. Coco leaf, from which cocaine is extracted, was available from a pharmacy as a muscle and nerve tonic.

Once the patient had either recovered or died from an infectious disease, the sickroom would be thoroughly cleaned. Bedlinen would be aired in the sunshine, boiled or burned.

Wallpaper was washed down with carbolic acid, stripped from the walls and burned. Then the room was fumigated. It was sealed by pasting paper over the windows and fireplace. Four ounces of sulphur was placed in a metal dish over a bucket of water and a shovelful of hot coals added to it. The door to the room remained sealed for five or six hours. To complete the process, the room was lime-washed and left with the window open for a week or so.

cb A doctor's adviceWomen proficiently managed their households and guided the education of the children. In the sickroom, they were seen as, and expected to be, capable nurses. Despite this, they were considered by men to be frail creatures subject to fits of the vapours and outbursts of hysteria. Reading apparently inflamed a woman’s brain. A doctor had no time for a mere female to question his medical advice and rarely agreed to accept a second opinion from another doctor, even if the patient wasn’t improving.

Many women suffered from headaches and were happy to retire to their bedrooms for a day or two with a bottle of laudanum. Some women, perhaps depressed by being oppressed by a male-dominated society, made a whole career out of being an invalid.

And who can blame them? A few quiet days in bed with a fire glowing in the grate, a new novel secreted under the covers and a tray of tempting morsels at meal times sounds like heaven to me!

cb The Light Within Us cover high resThe Light Within Us from award-winning author Charlotte Betts is the first book of the Spindrift Trilogy.

Talented artist Edith Fairchild is looking forward to a life of newlywed bliss with her charismatic husband Benedict. He has recently inherited Spindrift House near Port Isaac and Edith is inspired by the glorious Cornish light and the wonderful setting overlooking the sea. But then happiness turns to heartbreak. In great distress, Edith turns to an artist friend for comfort. After a bitterly-regretted moment of madness she finds herself pregnant with his child.

Too ashamed to reveal her secret, Edith devotes herself to her art. Joined at Spindrift House by her friends, Clarissa, Dora and Pascal, together they turn the house into a thriving artists’ community. But despite their dreams of an idyllic way of life creating beauty by the sea, it becomes clear that all is not perfect within their tight-knit community. The weight of their secrets could threaten to tear apart their paradise forever . . .

Buy The Light Within Us here: mybook.to/LightWithin   www.charlottebetts.co.uk

Twitter:  @CharlotteBetts1      Facebook: Charlotte Betts – Author     Instagram: charlottebetts.author

Tomorrow’s Tour stop – A 20th Century artist’s colony http://www.charlottebetts.co.uk

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Review – Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain by Andrea Zuvich #SexyStuarts

Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain by Andrea Zuvich – Review

71FkRIbh-DL._SY600_As many of you know, I’ve had an abiding interest in the Stuart period, so I was thrilled to be offered an ARC by Pen and Sword Books for this new non-fiction book by Andrea Zuvich, also known as the Seventeenth Century Lady.

This is a fabulous book, not only about Stuart Sexuality, but also about how attitudes to sexuality affect everything else to do with Stuart life. The Stuarts ruled from 1603 to 1714, and their rule was characterised by enormous changes to rule and government, and attitudes that veered from the most stringent Puritanism to the most licentious and debauched libertinism of the Stuart Restoration.

The text not only covers things like pornography and prostitution, virginity and contraception, but also includes broader sections on courtship and marriage, on dress, hair and make up, on relationships in the Stuart age — including what we know about the sort of relationships which were then taboo. As you might expect, it really highlights how little we have changed, for sexual relationships of all types are represented, including some that might make your toes curl!

Zuvich doesn’t hold back – all the language of the day is here in glorious technicolour, so this is not a book for those who are easily offended by talk of ‘sheathing your sword’. The discussions are frank, knowledgeable, and written with a light touch.

The book is well laid -out in different themes, and takes the form of episodic snatches, with many original quotations from original sources, 18269but one thing I particularly enjoyed was the fact the book has interesting sections on the different monarchs and how their attitudes to sex affected the demeanour of the whole country.

All in all, an excellent book, and although I received a kindle ARC for review, a hard copy certainly deserves a spot on my bookshelf.

You can buy the book here

Go to Andrea’s Website here

Follow her on Twitter @17thCenturyLady

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The Gossip’s Choice, an interview with Sara Read #midwifery #17thCentury

Welcome to Sara Read, whose new book The Gossip’s Choice is out next week. As a fellow enthusiast for the Seventeenth Century, I was particularly keen to Gossip SR Beeston Photointerview her and discover more about her new novel.

The Blurb:

“Call The Midwife for the 17th Century”

Lucie Smith is a respected midwife who is married to Jasper, the town apothecary. They live happily together at the shop with the sign of the Three Doves. But sixteen-sixty-five proves a troublesome year for the couple. Lucie is called to a birth at the local Manor House and Jasper objects to her involvement with their former opponents in the English Civil Wars. Their only-surviving son Simon flees plague-ridden London for his country hometown, only to argue with his father. Lucie also has to manage her husband’s fury at the news of their loyal housemaid’s unplanned pregnancy and its repercussions. The year draws to a close with the first-ever accusation of malpractice against Lucie, which could see her lose her midwifery licence, or even face ex-communication…

What made you want to write a novel, and what was the most difficult moment in the process?

This novel grew out of my day job which is as an academic who researches aspects seventeenth-century women’s lives. I have wanted to write a historical fiction based on the lives of women I have read about over the years but it took me a long time and a few false starts to get it done. On my laptop there are several abandoned versions of the opening chapters going back a decade. Funnily enough, I found that it was not until the title The Gossips’ Choice came to me that the story would come. So the hardest part was getting started. Once I had the title it came together very speedily.

Who is your favourite minor character in the book and why?

This is such a good question, it really made me think about the novel in a different way. The answer has to be Ned the apothecary’s apprentice. He is nineteen and gets into a rowdy crowd of fellow apprentices. He has a lot to put up with since he gets teased when he has to carry the heavy birthing chair around town for his mistress, Lucie Smith. But he still finds ways around the discipline of his puritanical master and sneaks to the tavern in the evening when the rest of the household has gone to bed.

Tell me about an object or place that is important in the novel, and what it signifies.

The novel has a very strong sense of place in that it is all set in and around the Three Doves which is the name of the apothecary shop in which Lucie and her family live. Lucie has lived there all her married life and all the episodes and events which happen in the course of the novel, see her safely back at the Three Doves.  The shop is marked by a hanging sign of the Three Doves which is illustrated on the reverse of the cover of the novel, and Lucie gets a notion that the tatty and worn sign should be revamped as a surprise for her husband as they approach the 30th anniversary of their marriage. The name is taken from an historical apothecary shop in Bucklersbury Street in sixteenth-century London.

What fascinates you about 17th Century midwifery, and can you share some of your sources that helped in the creation of The Gossip’s Choice?

Gossip stool 2I first encountered a seventeenth-century midwife as an undergraduate on a module all about seventeenth-century women’s writing. Jane Sharp is the first named Englishwoman to have written and published a midwifery textbook, The Midwives Book (1671) and although she takes lot of her material from other printed sources, such as Nicholas Culpeper’s books, you can still hear her own voice loud and clear. The ideas about best practice and the recipes for remedies used in the novel are largely taken from Jane Sharp’s book. The second main source was the case notes of a midwife called Sarah Stone who published a set of around forty cases in 1737. Each case is the story of a difficult birth in which she was typically called in to help after others had failed. These cases provided me with a base for a good number of the birth tales in the novel.

Gossip seems to play a part in the novel. What form does this take? If you could have a good old gossip with anyone from the 17th Century, who would it be?

A gossip was a woman who supported another in labour. This female support circle was a major part of the birth experience of women at this time and it was reciprocal, so you would act as a gossip for a friend who would then be a gossip for you in your hour of need. Lucie Smith is the gossips’ choice because she is the midwife of best repute for miles around. However, when events take a dark turn she finds herself the topic on everyone’s lips and is the gossips’ choice for all the wrong reasons. If I could have a good old gossip with anyone from the seventeenth century I would love to do so with a woman called Mary Trye. Trye published a book in 1675 called Medicatrix, or the Female Physician in which she launches into an angry and spirited defence of her late father. This woman knew a lot of gossip, had connections to friends in high places, and was also incredibly witty. You could not want to get on the wrong side of her, but I bet she would be excellent company for a gossipy afternoon!

Huge thanks to Sara for sharing the process of birthing her novel with us!

Dr Sara Read is a lecturer at Loughborough University. She lives in Staffordshire and when not writing or teaching spends much of her time running round after her two-year-old granddaughter. The Gossips’ Choice is her debut novel.
Dr Read has also written many excellent non-fiction books about women in the Early Modern Period – find them all HERE
You can also find her at her website or on Twitter @saralread
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Ailenor of Provence and Queenship by Carol McGrath #medieval

Carol for BlogsI’m delighted to welcome historian and novelist Carol McGrath to my blog today, to tell us about the concept of Queenship as it relates to her new novel The Silken Rose.

Ailenor of Provence and Queenship

Ailenor of Provence was married to twenty-eight year old Henry III when she was only thirteen and he was twenty-eight. It was a dynastic marriage. She was from the cultured Provencal ruling family, a princess who was precocious, intelligent, beautiful and elegant. The marriage took place in Canterbury in January 1236. Ailenor was crowned later that month in Westminster Abbey. Henry had taken her without a dowry and she took her role as Queen of England very seriously. Although she hailed from the impoverished court of Provence, her father instilled in her a sense of her aristocratic bearing. All her long life Ailenor was a queen through and through, not relinquishing her queenly signature after Henry’s death.

During the medieval era there was a subtle interplay between the image of the Virgin Mary and that of a secular queen. Marion symbolism occurred in sculpture, glass, embroidery and illuminated books. There was a huge trade in Marion reliquary such as fingernails and other odd bodily bits. Marion chantries and chapels abounded throughout Europe. The Cult of the Virgin was a High Medieval obsession. Mary was chaste and she was Christ’s mother. Marriage was for the begetting of children, not sex.

Carol HenrytretiThe coronation liturgy stressed the association between queenship and marriage. Ailenor’s job was first and foremost to provide heirs for the royal line. Henry III was so convinced that he possessed a sanctified ancestry from the line of David he had the tree of Jesse depicted on the window of Ailenor’s bedchamber at Windsor Castle. It showed marriage’s priority to beget heirs. Ailenor’s window at Clarendon Castle depicted her kneeling before the Virgin and child. Fecundity and maternity were particularly important to Ailenor’s queenship. When Edward was born in 1239 the celebrations in London were extravagant with wine flowing from fountains, pageants, gifts. Three royal girls and another prince followed.  They became a close family. Ailenor took royal motherhood hands on.

The queen was an authority figure and, without doubt, Ailenor enjoyed this role. The Virgin is often shown bearing a sceptre as the Queen of Heaven beside the figure of Christ. Ailenor’s figure on her first great seal shows her crowned and bearing a sceptre. She exploited her regal position on many occasions and frequently, though not always, was a power behind Henry’s throne, aided and advised by her clever Savoyard uncles.

The Coronation of the Virgin is a medieval image used in particular on embroidery, books, statutory and painted glass. This depiction shows Mary’s humility as she leans towards Christ receiving her crown and it became representative of queenly intercession.  Ailenor interceded effectually for victims with both Henry and her son Edward I.  She could soften Henry’s heart and on many occasions use intercession to influence policy towards the Church and Henry’s difficult barons. Just like Esther of the Old Testament, Ailenor considered she was directing the King towards good. Her enemies, however, perceived her as manipulative.

Carol eleanor-of-provenceQueens had their own household officers. In her heyday, Ailenor commanded around a hundred people- stewards, cooks, knights, a marshal, tailors, nurses, laundresses, grooms etc. She possessed a wardrobe (household administration) which never lost its special identity. Even so, daily accounts were rendered to officials of the king’s household. Ailenor and Henry were both into keeping up appearances and loved gorgeous clothes and ceremony. They were exceptionally extravagant. Queens had control of lands granted to them for their support for their husband’s lifetime and Dower lands to support them after their husband’s death. Queen’s Gold was a royal right, a levy of ten per cent on all fines over ten marks. It enhanced queenly power but for Ailenor this led to conflict. She spent it all.

During the thirteenth century, queens tended to witness writs rather than issue them in their own names. A queen could not be sued by courts of law. Any offence against her could dishonour the king’s dignity.  Ailenor also had the power of patronage, in particular, that of nunneries. She collected ward-ships of noble orphans and married her wards off with her own interests in mind, mostly to Provençals and Savoyards depriving the English noble marriage market of their orphaned heirs and heiresses, and importantly, their estates.

The Silken Rose Final VisualThe fact that Ailenor possessed her own power, lands, knights and household was a huge asset when her personal power was threatened by the arrival of the king’s Lusignan half-brothers. For a time conflict emerged during the 1250s between Queen’s Men and King’s Men, her Savoyards and the King’s Lusignans.

Want to know more?

Read about it in The Silken Rose which is currently on amazon kindle and available on amazon and in bookshops as a paperback on July 23rd.

Finally, Ailenor’s queenship was further challenged when the English barons threatened both the Queen and King during the 1260s. A new Barons’ War led by Simon de Montfort loomed large on England’s horizon. You can read about this in The Damask Rose which continues the She-Wolf-Queen Trilogy and will be published April 2021.

 Find Carol on her website: www.carolmcgrath.co.uk  or twitter @carolmcgrath

Thanks to Carol for her most informative post. I’ve read an ARC of this book and it’s stunning – full of lush historical detail and little-known snippets of medieval life. Don’t forget to BUY THE BOOK.

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July’s Recommended Historical Fiction

Now my next two novels are with their publishers I’ve had more time for reading, and so here are two books that are well-worth your time and money.

Tower 36337228._SY475_The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth StJohn

I’ve a massive interest in the seventeenth century and have written nine books set in that period, so this was always going to be on my list. The novel is based on documents and diaries from Elizabeth StJohn’s family. As such, it could have been another dry memoir or lacking in drive and drama. But this is a well-structured book full of detail and interest. Each chapter begins with extracts from herbal recipes; recipes which relate to the events to follow, and set the atmosphere of the period well. Lucy Apsley was apparently a skilled herbalist who used her knowledge to treat those incarcerated in the Tower of London. Lucy is fortunate in that she moves in court circles and so those she encounters in her life inhabit the larger stage of the court. Here we see the influence of Buckingham on the King, the burgeoning unrest in Parliament, and the young men at court who see breaking hearts as a right and as a game. When Lucy’s own heart is broken, we see her as a woman who doesn’t buckle to fortune but has a certain degree of pragmatism, so that the difficulties that surround her never quite manage to sink her spirit.

My favourite parts of the book are the descriptions of life in the Tower of London. Elizabeth StJohn describes it in such vivid detail; the fact that although it is a prison, those of the upper classes still entertain in lavish style. Those living in the tower must witness the last days of those who are to be executed, and this is well-used in the novel with Walter Raleigh’s fate. All in all, this is a fabulous book, and essential for anyone interested in the Stuart period. The novel is beautifully written and produced, and those who meet Lucy will certainly want to follow her through the next tumultuous years of the Civil War.

Greenest 40331955._SY475_The Greenest Branch by P K Adams

Hildegard von Bingen was a remarkable woman for her time, and although we know she was put into a convent at an early age, gifted by her parents to the Church as many daughters were, we know very little of these early years. P K Adams has brought this medieval period to vibrant life, and made a convincing case for a plausible history of Hildegard’s early years – one which explains her love of music and the fact that she became so well-known as a physician. The ascetic tradition of St Jutta, which involves severe penances such as mortification of the flesh, is what was expected of new converts to the monastery of St Disibod. Hildegard escapes this stultifying atmosphere by finding a way out into the forest. There she reconnects with nature, and meets Volmar, a young man who will become increasingly important in her life, but also provide the greatest challenge to her vows.

Hildegard is thirsty for knowledge and becomes apprenticed to Brother Wigbert in the monks’ infirmary, using herbs gathered from the forest and garden rather than the traditional invasive treatments of bloodletting and surgery. Early success with her methods leads her to gaining more responsibility, especially as her mentor ages and becomes unwell. Hildegard has both friends and enemies within the convent – Prior Helenger does not want the fame of the women’s convent to overshadow that of the men. After Jutta’s death, when Hildegard is the natural choice to lead the nuns, Helenger is determined to stop her.

You may think that life in a convent would be dull, but PK Adams reminds us that monasteries were often targets for thieves who wished to take the treasures from the churches, and that bad relationships often fester within such a small community – leading to violent antagonisms.

In the 12th Century, where a woman who wished to become educated had few options, the contradictions of monastic life were many, and these were quietly explored in this thoughtful and well-written novel. This is a lyrically-written journey into a hidden world, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

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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.

Until…

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.

Except…

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:
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Blog

Author update Summer 2018

My blog has been somewhat neglected for the last couple of months because I have become involved in two exciting new projects, at the same time as releasing my second book in the Pepys Trilogy.

Black DeathThe Black Death

I am collaborating with a group of historical fiction authors to bring you tales from around the world about the Black Death.  My story is finished and you will be able to read ‘The Repentant Thief’ along with the other stories in our anthology soon.

The Repentant Thief

Edinburgh 1645
When 12 year old Irish immigrant Finn O’Donnell steals from his neighbours, he knows it is a sin. So when his father dies of the plague, and his family are cast out from their home, he fears he is to blame. For didn’t the preacher at the kirk warn him that sinners’ families would be visited by famine and pestilence? Determined to save the rest of his family, there is only one thing Finn can do — he must brave the plague-ridden city and return the stolen goods.

The Resistance in WW2

Darkest HourThe second collaboration is with a group of nine authors writing in the era of WW2. Here is our website for The Darkest Hour:  https://thedarkesthouranthology.com.

Do go and take a look, and you’ll find my novella The Occupation, set in Jersey, listed there, along with its own book cover. Some of the novellas are not ready yet, so their individual covers are still to come.

The Occupation

When Nazi forces occupy Jersey, Céline Huber, who is married to a German, must decide where her loyalty lies. Love for her island, and fear for her Jewish friend Rachel, soon propel her into a dangerous double life.

The Darkest Hour is currently available for pre-order at Apple Book store. Because proceeds from this anthology of novellas will go to the Washington Holocaust Museum, we want this anthology to reach as many readers as possible and not only those on Amazon. If you’re interested in reading this or supporting our contribution to the Holocaust Museum, I encourage you to pre-order a copy now. The more copies we can sell on book stores outside of Amazon, the more it will help us to reach a wider, international audience. You can pre-order the copy by clicking here . (On our website you’ll find details of how to get an alert when the book is on general release to other retailers.) Pre-order price is 99c or 99p (for ten novellas!) and the price will increase after the book is released.

The Launch of A Plague on Mr Pepys

A Plague on Mr Pepys - newA Plague on Mr Pepys is out, and the irrepressible and ambitious Bess Bagwell has sprung to life, along with her mild and long-suffering husband Will, her feisty mother Agatha, and Will’s scheming cousin Jack. And Pepys too. Who could possibly forget him?!

‘A novel that transports readers with astonishing and engrossing detail’ Reader’s Favorite 5*

For the launch I have been zipping around the virtual world guesting on other people’s blogs, and you can read just a few of my posts here,  collected together for your interest:

An Interview about A Plague on Mr Pepys

Seven Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Money and House Ownership in 17th Century London

The Institution of Marriage in 17th Century England

Quackery and 17th Century Medicine

A Plague on Mr Pepys: Read a Review and an Extract

BUY THE BOOK

My schedule has quietened down a little now, and I am editing The Occupation as I’m working on the third in the Pepys Trilogy, Entertaining Mr Pepys. Of course I have another life as well as my writing life, and some of the other things I’ve been doing are playing with my drumming performance group, running a Tai Chi Summer School, teaching Yoga and learning to dance Rock n’Roll.  Writing is such a sedentary life that I fill the ‘away from the desk’ hours with as much physical exercise as I can. And my husband and I will have a walking holiday in Wales very soon, so here’s hoping the good weather holds out for us.

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Blog

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