It’s finally here! The Last Sword is book 5 in the series featuring Coelwulf, and his warriors. (If you’ve not caught up just yet, book 2, The Last Warrior is on special offer for 99p/99c this week only in the UK and US).
Here’s the blurb;
“The three defeated jarls of Grantabridge might be hiding behind the walls of their settlement as winter storms ravage, but the weather is no deterrent for another adversary, and Coelwulf holds a far more personal grudge against Jarl Halfdan.
King Alfred hovers on the border with Wessex, his intentions impossible to determine; his relationship with the Raiders, problematic.
Exposed to the south, in jeopardy from the north; Coelwulf hasn’t fought his last battle yet.”
Taking Coelwulf into the year 875, The Last Sword will reunite my readers with some fan favourites, and not a little peril.
I hope you all enjoy, and thank you to everyone who’s supported the series so far. You’re all loyal Mercians, and he couldn’t do it without you.
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(This post contains some Amazon Affiliate links – which means that at no cost to you, Amazon may pay me for referring you to their site).
: A delicious 1940s mystery. Birmingham, England, 1943. While the whine of the air raid sirens might no longer be rousing him from bed every night, a two-decade-old unsolved murder case will ensure that Chief Inspector Mason of Erdington Police Station is about to suffer more sleepless nights. Young Robert McFarlane’s body was found outside […]
Today I’m delighted to welcome Chrystyna Lucyk-Bergerand her new book, Two Fatherlands, to my blog, to answer a few questions about the research that went into writing her series.
This sounds like a wonderful book, merging historical fact with a compelling narrative. Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring the historical characters/or events to life?
The research for this series was a journey unlike anything I will ever be able to share in the space available here. It was simply amazing. And daunting.
First, the process. I made the grave mistake of spending almost a decade researching my first novel on Ukraine in WW2, which ended being as much a novel as a documentary is a blockbuster action movie. I was trying to get a grasp on the sheer complexity of a world at war and I lost focus. So, after learning my lesson, I tackled the Reschen Valley series differently. I got the big picture, and had a rough idea of the lay of the land, so to speak, before I started writing. But even that took nearly five years before I could really get started because the majority of my resources were in German, and many more in Italian.
The other extra challenge I made for myself was that I was a pantser. I did not outline and plot out my books in advance. It wasn’t until I was at Bolzano that I had learned to appreciate outlining and I have never looked back. By the time I started Two Fatherlands, which is the fourth book in the main series (excluding the prequel), writing was all about “what happens to my characters next and how do I get them all to meet up again?”. The historical events take a firm background in the series but they are integral to the plot. I chose specific “drivers” for the different parts of the story. From the beginning, Angelo’s father—Colonel Nicolo Grimani—was my Mussolini rep, steering the Fascist agenda that makes up the main conflict in the series. Therefore, it is Angelo’s story that serves as the catalyst for bringing the historical mile markers to the forefront.
As I said, the main resources for my research were in German and Italian. I had the idea back in 2005 to write one book about the reservoir before I even started researching. That was before I had any idea how much was involved in the flooding of that valley! And nobody had really written about South Tyrol’s tragic history in English, except for one professor in Innsbruck whose work happened to have been translated thanks to an exchange program with an American university. The other was a Hungarian diplomat from the Sixties, who had written his memoirs about the South Tyrolean conflict in English. That was it! I had to learn German if I wanted to write this story. At the very least. Because the Italians had their own version…
I live in Austria. I am one of those language learners who learns by doing. I was immersed in German, I visited South Tyrol at least three times a year (I live half-a-day’s drive away), I pulled up all my Latin language knowledge for the Italian and dug in, trying to interpret the foreign information. It took me over 10 years from the first idea to really getting a grasp on the materials. This was long before Google translator, long before DeepL. I was going with what I could and it was like putting together a million-piece jigsaw puzzle. I didn’t get to work until 2010 and gave myself exactly two weeks to plan my characters and timeline. By the end of the two weeks, I had a three-book series planned. NOT plotted, which eventually put me back quite a bit as well.
My greatest sources were a museum in Graun and the eye-witnesses whose accounts I recorded about the valley and the flooding in 1950. That was fantastic. One of them gave me three books: someone had gone through all the trouble of recording every single family, every house, drawing out every piece of equipment they used for farming and cooking and cleaning and living, getting down the heritage, culture and lifestyle of the valley into one book. That was amazing. I use a lot of photos when I do research. I also try to travel to the places I write about. It brings so much to life for me. Other than books and books and books, I got copies of the original letters written from the civil engineering department and the offers sent to the landowners with the ridiculous prices. I had logs of how many cows, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, acres, etc., each farmer had. I got images of the aerial maps. I used the models built by those in the Obervinschgau Valley (the real name of the Reschen Valley) who wanted to demonstrate the absolute annihilation of the valley. I panned the huge model of the towns and villages with a video camera like a filmmaker would. That does not mean I stayed true to all the facts. I put, for example, one of the rivers near Katharina’s farm because I loved the sound that river made and I felt it was important to have her near it. I adjusted the lay of the land and even made her farm up higher than it would have been, because I wanted her to have a bird’s eye view of the valley. There’s plenty I fictionalized, but much, much more that I did not and where I stayed authentic.
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?
Yes, Felix Mitterer’s TV mini-series Verkaufte Heimat(Sold Homeland) was absolutely integral to my research. It provided me with plenty of inspiration and brought so much to life for me including clothing, colors, signage, how the rooms and buildings look, the feel and atmosphere, the body language differences when communicating. I study and train cross cultural communication, and so I am fascinated by how different cultures and personalities communicate; what we understand and what we meant to say, or not. I use these to concoct conflicts. By the time I’d seen the series though, I was already into the second book, The Breach, and had very similar storylines already happening based on anecdotes and eye-witness accounts from other research.
South Tyrolin the 20th Century by Prof. Rolf Steininger and Schöne Welt, Böse Leut (Beautiful World, Evil People) by Claus Gatterer also provided me tons of material. Only about four years ago, I managed to get my hands on a doctoral thesis by Brigitte Mari Pircher specifically related to the Reschensee reservoir and the building of it. Suddenly I had all those pieces about the lake in one very compact, succinct and accessible book. She used a lot of the same resources as I had, but she because she is bilingual, she had suddenly given me access to the Italian materials as well in German, which I am fluent in now. So that was exceptionally helpful. But I’ll tell you one thing, if I hadn’t at least mastered German, this would have been a difficult story to get down.
A couple of years ago, a South Tyrolean publisher expressed interest in translating the series. I got a ten-page questionnaire about the research and got corrected on five or six things that I had in the books (which I changed immediately) but 95% of what I confirmed and explained was spot on. It turned out that the translation costs were too high for them. Which is sad, because since then a lot of interest has been drummed up about the reservoir by both German and Italian authors, documentary filmmakers and even a Netflix series has been filmed on the Reschensee.
On a personal note, as a child I read all of the Chalet School books (they were old then), and this sounds like it follows some similar threads. I was enthralled when they had to escape from the Tyrol.
I just looked that up. That’s amazing. Sounds like the kind of series I would have devoured when I was younger!
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s fascinating.
Here’s the blurb;
It’s a dangerous time to be a dissident…
1938. Northern Italy. Since saving Angelo Grimani’s life 18 years earlier, Katharina is grappling with how their lives have since been entwined. Construction on the Reschen Lake reservoir begins and the Reschen Valley community is torn apart into two fronts – those who want to stay no matter what comes, and those who hold out hope that Hitler will bring Tyrol back into the fold.
Back in Bolzano, Angelo finds one fascist politician who may have the power to help Katharina and her community, but there is a group of corrupt players eager to have a piece of him. When they realise that Angelo and Katharina are joining forces, they turn to a strategy of conquering and dividing to weaken both the community and Angelo’s efforts.
Meanwhile, the daughter Angelo shares with Katharina – Annamarie – has fled to Austria to pursue her acting career but the past she is running away from lands her directly into the arms of a new adversary: the Nazis. She goes as far as Berlin, and as far as Goebbels, to pursue her dreams, only to realise that Germany is darker than any place she’s been before.
Angelo puts aside his prejudices and seeks alliances with old enemies; Katharina finds ingenious ways to preserve what is left of her community, and Annamarie wrests herself from the black forces of Nazism with plans to return home. But when Hitler and Mussolini present the Tyroleans with “The Option”, the residents are forced to choose between Italian and German nationhood with no guarantee that they will be able to stay in Tyrol at all!
Out of the ruins of war, will they be able to find their way back to one another and pick up the pieces?
This blockbuster finale will keep readers glued to the pages. Early readers are calling it, “…engrossing”, “…enlightening” and “…both a heartbreaking and uplifting end to this incredible series!”
Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is an American author living in Austria. Her focus is on historical fiction. She has been a managing editor for a magazine publishing house, has worked as an editor, and has won several awards for her travel narrative, flash fiction and short stories. She lives with her husband in a “Grizzly Adams” hut in the Alps, just as she’d always dreamt she would when she was a child.
I’m really quite bad at remembering all the publication dates of my books, but The Last King has certainly stuck in my mind. What started quite inauspiciously, with a few die-hard fans preordering the book, has become my most popular series, and most popular book to date.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, but I am. The book, a few years in development, burst from me in a flurry of excitement early in 2020, when I opted for a ‘harder’ character, a man who is simply so good at what he does, he doesn’t understand that others can’t do what he can. It’s not arrogance. It’s confidence.
So, why the hesitation? It takes a lot to stomp, and I mean, stomp all over a time period made so famous by another giant of the field – Bernard Cornwell with his Uhtred, or The Last Kingdom books. And yet, I couldn’t move away from the temptation of the little known Coelwulf, and the story of Mercia which has never been told.
Yet, I needed to do it in a different way to BC. I remember handing the first few chapters to my critique partner and editor and saying ‘is this edgier?’, ‘would a warrior speak like this?’ It came back with a ‘yes’ and also some pencil marks and a bit more swearing added in, and a comment that if I was going to cauterise a wound, then I needed to do it properly, gore and all.
I’d previously written what I thought would be an opening scene, while sitting in hospital for an appointment with lots of different bits to it – but while that gave me the characters, it didn’t give me quite what I was looking for. Still, you can read ‘A Meeting of Equals‘ over on my author platform on Aspects of History.
And that was almost it (apart from a dose of my own confidence drawn from watching The Gentlemen by Guy Ritchie – which truly made me think ‘anything goes,’ and gave me the idea for the opening scene – if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean.) Coelwulf reared his head, and so too did a cast of characters that are unique, complex, enjoyable to write about, and often, a bit pushy.
So, how to celebrate a year since book 1? Well, by bringing Coelwulf ‘to life’ of course.
The ‘new’ covers will be going live at points throughout today, and I’m so pleased with the way he’s turned out. Thank you so much to Shaun at Flintlock Covers for being able to bring Coelwulf to life. I especially love the detail on the sword, which shows the double-headed eagle of Mercia!
And that’s not it. Not only a visual Coelwulf, but also the ‘sound’ of Coelwulf. My narrator, Nigel Gore, has finished work on The Last King, and it will be released soon. There’s a sample below – remember, it’s Coelwulf, it’s going to be pretty full-on from the word go. (18 rated)
The Last Warrior is also about to start the journey to audio, and I’m considering producing some hardbacks as well, but I’ve not yet had the time to devote to that task.
And of course, the story hasn’t finished yet. The Last Sword is released on 29th April (preorder here) and I’ll be starting work on Book 6 even as you read this.
So thank you, to all my readers and reviewers, to my beta readers (you know who you are), to the people I’ve collaborated with on ensuring the word gets out there about Coelwulf.
“November 1929. A woman’s dismembered corpse is discovered in a suitcase and police quickly identify her husband, Doctor Ibrahim Aziz, as their chief suspect. Incriminating evidence is discovered at his home and his wife was rumoured to be having an affair, giving him clear motive.
With his reputation for winning hopeless cases, barrister Arthur Skelton is asked to represent the accused. Though Aziz’s guilt does not seem to be in doubt, a question of diplomacy and misplaced larvae soon lead Skelton to suspect there may be more to the victim’s death.
Aided by his loyal clerk Edgar, Skelton soon finds himself seeking justice for both victim and defendant. But can he uncover the truth before an innocent man is put on trial and condemned to the gallows?”
Skelton’s Guide to Suitcase Murders is a wonderfully plotted novel, with a cast of unmissable characters that is an absolute delight to read. And the cover is fantastic too.
It made me laugh out loud on many an occasion, and the eclectic mix of cast and events, keeps the reader hooked as the story progresses, from the guinea pig to the motorcycle ‘bad-boy,’ from London to Leeds to Whitley Bay to Scotland. And oh, how I loved the letters from Cousin Alan.
It trundles along at a wonderful pace, filled with exquisite detail and I would struggle to decide on a favourite character because all of them, even the bit part characters, are so well sketched.
This is genuinely an absolute treat if you enjoy a mystery deeply steeped in the times (1929-1930) and with an unmissable cast. Looking forwards to Book 3. And, I have the joy of knowing I’ve not read Book 1 yet.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.
Skelton’s Guide to Suitcase Murders is released today, 22nd April, and is available from here.
Today I’m delighted to welcome David Loux to the blog to talk about the research for his new book, Chateau Laux.
Your book, Chateau Laux, is set in a time period I wouldn’t even know how to start writing about. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories.
My research did not start out with a novel in mind. It began with an investigation of the Laux family surname in 2005. This research resulted in a lot of information related to the provenance of the name, which I presented in a paper addressed to a Laux family reunion in York, Pennsylvania, in 2010. It subsequently provided the foundational material for Chateau Laux.
Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring your historical landscape to life?
One of the challenges of historical research is that much valuable information is lost over the years—especially the good, warm-blooded stories of individual lives. Fortunately, interest in the Laux name goes back many years, and I was able to benefit from genealogical publications in 1910 that provided information which would have been increasingly difficult to access over time. Another very tangible benefit to my research was that the Laux name was of noble origin, which meant that I was able to discover information that went all the way back to the middle ages. Some of the information was in French and some was in Latin, and the wonderful research assistants at the Bibliothèque Nationale were a big help. I also benefited from connections made through the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno, which put me in touch with researchers familiar with Occitan names and pronunciations. Finally, and most importantly, family group members in southern France were able to provide information from archives that would have been unavailable from other sources.
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?
When I first started my research, I had very little idea of the milieu and other significant associations connected with the name, which means I had to keep an open mind and read anything I could get my hands on. There were many false starts and dead ends. As far as critical resources, I would have to say that Chateau Laux would not have been the same without the research assistance of the Bibliothèque Nationale, as they were able to provide context and authenticity that would otherwise have been elusive. But then again, every resource previously referred to was essential in its own way. It helps that I was able to read French, and to a lesser extent, Spanish, as some of the information was only available in those languages.
Thank you so much for sharing the research you undertook to write your book. It’s so fascinating to find out what makes people write the stories that they do.
Here’s the blurb;
A young entrepreneur from a youthful Philadelphia, chances upon a French aristocrat and his family living on the edge of the frontier. Born to an unwed mother and raised by a disapproving and judgmental grandfather, he is drawn to the close-knit family. As part of his courtship of one of the patriarch’s daughters, he builds a château for her, setting in motion a sequence of events he could not have anticipated.
David Loux is a short story writer who has published under pseudonym and served as past board member of California Poets in the Schools. Chateau Laux is his first novel. He lives in the Eastern Sierra with his wife, Lynn.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Andrea Matthews to the blog to answer my questions about her historical research for Thunder on the Moor.
Thunder on the Moor takes the main character to sixteenth century Scotland. Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring the historical landscape and people of the period to life?
First, to explain how all this came about, I need to mention that Matthews is my pen name. My legal surname is Foster. Up to the early 1990s I had no idea who the Border Reivers were, but around that time, a friend handed me a book entitled The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser. They thought I might be interested since my husband was from the north of England and Foster/Forster was a fairly notorious Border surname.
The story intrigued me. Visions of my husband’s ancestors riding across the moors sparked my imagination. I had to know more about these rugged rogues who placed such value on a sense of honor and loyalty to their families, in spite of their nefarious preoccupation with cattle rustling and blackmail. I started formulating a story in my head, a tale of thunder across the moors and forbidden love.
That book became the basis for my research, my starting point as it were. I eagerly devoured it and anything else I could find about the Border Reivers. Materials were scarce at that time, so I ended up contacting a book seller in Scotland and ordering everything he had on the Border Reivers, including a small booklet of court records. Those records not only gave me an insight into the types of crimes the reivers committed, but also provided a peek at border nicknames. Names like Nebless Clem, Lang Sandy, and Kinmont Willie inspired me to choose nicknames of my own for a few of the characters, and so Bonnie Will Foster was born. All the while, the tale of blood feuds and forbidden love was taking form in my head.
As a librarian, I was able to locate other books from time to time and started to expand my research, and my book collection, to life in the sixteenth century, including food, clothing, and the infamous March Laws, which would ultimately cause a great deal of trouble for my characters.
After completing the basic outline, it was time to fill in specifics, including little customs and traditions that might influence the characters’ lives, as well as more significant events. Gradually, my sixteenth century border world began to emerge.
As I began to flesh out the characters, I realized I needed a way to keep the families straight. Being a genealogist, the easiest way for me to do that was with family trees, so I started building lineages around the main characters, including parents, siblings, nephews, nieces etc. generally covering three generations. Some characters grew in importance as the story progressed, while others stayed in the background, at least for now, but at least I could keep track of who was who.
During these early days, I was able to travel to the north of England a few times, but as it was to visit my husband’s relatives, I didn’t have nearly enough time to explore the way I would have liked. Still, I was able to get a sense of the place and transport myself back to earlier days, until my sons got bored and pulled me back to the twentieth century, that is. Nevertheless, the experience added to my narrative and description, painting Will and Maggie’s world in my mind.
I also wanted to include a hint of the Scottish accent. Listening to my English husband speak over the years had given me a sense of word usage and syntax, but I wanted to make sure certain words would have been used in the sixteenth century. To do this, I added a Scots dictionary and thesaurus to my collection. After Fraser’s book, these were probably the two books I referred to the most.
At this point, I had a shelf full of books and binders full of notes. Organizing them into categories became an important part of the process. As I wrote and questions arose, I wanted to have the answers at the tip of my fingers. There was conflicting information here and then, but I did my best to stay true to the history and try to build my characters’ worldview, so that I would have a general idea of how they would react in any given situation. That required character profile sheets or at least notes on their appearance and personalities.
Now, into the midst of all this came the Internet and instant access to records and papers hitherto difficult to attain. Fortunately, part of my education required I learn how to distinguish reliable websites and databases from those less dependable. One book I came across was The Lord Wardens of the Marches of England and Scotland by Howard Pease, which helped me understand the political and legal situation that existed at the time. Sites like Project Gutenberg offered access to older out of print books such as Border Raids and Reivers by Robert Borland, which was printed in 1898 and made for some interesting reading.
Am I done researching the Border Reivers? Not likely, as I can’t seem to pass by a book on the subject without picking it up. I hope Will, Maggie and company still have a lot of adventures ahead of them. Who knows what tidbit might add just that extra little bit of authenticity to the narrative? Did I romanticize it a bit here and there? Of course. After all, it is a historical romance, and I would have been remiss in my research if I didn’t read the poems of Sir Walter Scott on the subject. However, I did try to stay true to the period as much as possible. My hope is that it may even peak the reader’s interest enough for them to do some non-fiction reading on the subject.
The blood feud, however, was a deadly affair, and an affront to any member of your surname or allied family would be an affront to the whole surname.
And so my plot was taking form. These feuds could go on for years and be sparked by anything from a small slight to a full-blown disagreement. I turned back to my research. And as I learned more riding names, I realized how many famous and infamous people carried border names. Men like Lyndon Johnson and Neil Armstrong and Walter Scott. Which of course led me to the latter’s poetry. I admit, he may have romanticized the period a bit, but then I suppose I did as well. Time and distance gives us that luxury. And there was the final piece to my novel —Time.
Alas, I still haven’t traced the family back far enough to make a direct connection to a specific person, but they were from the North of England, and still today have that strong sense of honor and familial loyalty, so I know it’s there. And so, my quest continues. Who knows there may even be a Will Foster back there somewhere?
Thank you so much for sharing your research, and important books and resources with me. I love hearing how authors discover ‘their’ stories.
Here’s the blurb;
Maggie Armstrong grew up enchanted by her father’s tales of blood feuds and border raids. In fact, she could have easily fallen for the man portrayed in one particular image in his portrait collection. Yet when her father reveals he was himself an infamous Border reiver, she finds it a bit far-fetched—to say the least—especially when he announces his plans to return to his sixteenth century Scottish home with her in tow.
Suspecting it’s just his way of getting her to accompany him on yet another archaeological dig, Maggie agrees to the expedition, only to find herself transported four hundred and fifty years into the past. Though a bit disoriented at first, she discovers her father’s world to be every bit as exciting as his stories, particularly when she’s introduced to Ian Rutherford, the charming son of a neighboring laird. However, when her uncle announces her betrothal to Ian, Maggie’s twentieth-century sensibilities are outraged. She hardly even knows the man. But a refusal of his affections could ignite a blood feud.
Maggie’s worlds are colliding. Though she’s found the family she always wanted, the sixteenth century is a dangerous place. Betrayal, treachery, and a tragic murder have her questioning whether she should remain or try to make her way back to her own time.
To make matters worse, tensions escalate when she stumbles across Bonnie Will Foster, the dashing young man in her father’s portrait collection, only to learn he is a dreaded Englishman. But could he be the hero she’s always dreamed him to be? Or will his need for revenge against Ian shatter more than her heart?
Andrea Matthews is the pseudonym for Inez Foster, a historian and librarian who loves to read and write and search around for her roots, genealogical speaking. In fact, it was while doing some genealogical research that she stumbled across the history of the Border reivers. The idea for her first novel came to mind almost at once, gradually growing into the Thunder on the Moor series. And the rest, as they say, is history…
England, 1459: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, is embroiled in a plot to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne. But when the Yorkists are defeated at the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.
Cecily can only watch as her lands are torn apart and divided up by the ruthless Queen Marguerite. From the towers of her prison in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit – one that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.
This is a story of heartbreak, ambition and treachery, of one woman’s quest to claim the throne during the violence and tragedy of the Wars of the Roses.”
The Queen’s Rival is a stunning look at the ‘later’ life of Cecily Neville from 1459 until 1483. This is not a ‘quiet’ period of history and to cover the tumultuous events, the author adopts the technique of recording the letters of the main protagonists, either from the pen of Cecily or from those who write to her.
It does take a little while to get used to the technique, but the reader is quickly drawn into the story, not perhaps by the events taking place, but rather by the relationship between Cecily and her two sisters, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham and Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The words they share with each other are just what sisters might well say to each other, especially when they’re not likely to see each other soon.
More importantly, the sisters, while fiercely loyal to their Neville inheritance, are not of one mind about who should rule England, and who has the right to rule England. It highlights just how destructive the War of the Roses was, and is a genius way of quickly ensuring the reader appreciates that families were ripped apart by the protracted war.
This is the story of the women of the later 15th century. It’s their voices that we hear, as they try and come to terms with the rises and falls all of them experience. There are moments when the narrative is hard to read, either because you know what’s going to happen, or just because you really feel for Cecily and don’t want her to experience the tribulations than she does.
I am a huge fan of Anne O’Brien and the ‘forgotten’ women of the medieval period in England. While the author may stress that Cecily is not really a forgotten woman, I was not really aware of her before reading this book. The mother of two kings, the grandmother of future kings, and yet she could also have been queen herself. What an interesting life she led.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Virgina Crow to the blog with a post about the historical research she undertook to write The Year We Lived.
Hello and thank you for hosting me and my book on your blog, and for inviting me to share such a fantastic topic with your readers!
I know the research process is slightly different for different writers. The first thing I have to say is that I love research! I would say that, for every statement of historical significance in my book there is about ten-times more research which has gone into the writing of it. In fact, my editor does occasionally point out to me that my readers don’t always need quite so much historiographical details!
Researching so far back in time was quite new to me. Most of the historical fiction I’ve written before has a lot more primary sources to excavate and delve into, especially in those pre-Covid days when a trip to a museum was easily available!
The first thing I had to familiarise myself with was the landscape. I’ve always been surrounded by maps – my dad has a collection of hundreds of them – and some of my favourite books as a child were a massive geography book and the Weetabix atlas! Since my dad is an out-and-out Lincolnshire yellowbelly, I have always known the changing landscape of that particular county! To look at a map of the eleventh century fenlands my characters would have known, it is startlingly different to the lay of the land in the twenty-first century!
This landscape was full of islands, which were often indistinguishable from the rest of the boggy marshes, something which made the hidden Hall in The Year We Lived a very believable concept! When I delved deeper into the case of Hereward, I realised how paranoid William the Conqueror was about the Fens and the threat they posed. It made sense to have the brutal lordship of Henry De Bois situated here in an attempt to crush what William was led to believe were a group of Saxons ready for insurrection.
Next came the characters. For this, I knew I wanted people outside the conventional image of the Normans so, on flicking through various websites and pages about the number of non-Normans on William’s side in the Battle of Hastings, I settled on the possibility of making my French characters Burgundian instead. I loved the headstrong and stubborn trait which seemed to come hand in hand with being from Burgundy, and it’s something I tucked into each of those characters. But the French court at this time was a topic which was totally new to me. When I was studying for my MLitt, I remember my lecturer saying that it was totally acceptable to use Wikipedia as a first port of call providing you checked out everything which was on there, so this was what I did as I researched the major players.
One of the things I love the most about writing historical fiction is how, providing you read around the family and situation, you can convince your audience – and sometimes yourself – of the existence of your characters. Every single one of my Burgundians came from a real family, all of which are referenced in some sneaky way or another. I love weaving little clues into my writing, and I think doing it in a historical setting just makes it all the more fun (but then I could be biased!).
The final thing, which I found perhaps the most fascinating of all, was exploring the superstitions of the time. These were often localised but some things were pretty generally accepted. Having been raised on a diet of myths and legends, this was something I absolutely loved exploring. Something I discovered was that many of these superstitions made sense. A lot of them have their roots in logic, but they were without the understanding of science which we have now. There is no shortage of these words of wisdom, many of which are still in existence today in some shape or form. Perhaps because of the oral nature of these hand-me-downs and the weirdness they relate, these were easier to place in the map and chronology of my research. I tucked into books and theses to uncover some of the most bizarre anecdotes imaginable, and nestling them into The Year We Lived – I hope – helps the plot and characters come to life.
After all, it’s our idiosyncrasies which make us unique!
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s always fascinating to discover what prompts people to write the books they do.
Here’s the blurb;
It is 1074, 8 years after the fateful Battle of Hastings. Lord Henry De Bois is determined to find the secret community of Robert, an Anglo-Saxon thane. Despite his fervour, all his attempts are met with failure.
When he captures Robert’s young sister, Edith, events are set in motion, affecting everyone involved. Edith is forced into a terrible world of cruelty and deceit, but finds friendship there too.
Will Robert ever learn why Henry hates him so much? Will Edith’s new-found friendships be enough to save her from De Bois? And who is the mysterious stranger in the reedbed who can disappear at will?
A gripping historical fiction with an astonishing twist!
Virginia grew up in Orkney, using the breath-taking scenery to fuel her imagination and the writing fire within her. Her favourite genres to write are fantasy and historical fiction, sometimes mixing the two together such as her newly-published book “Caledon”. She enjoys swashbuckling stories such as the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and is still waiting for a screen adaption that lives up to the book!
When she’s not writing, Virginia is usually to be found teaching music, and obtained her MLitt in “History of the Highlands and Islands” last year. She believes wholeheartedly in the power of music, especially as a tool of inspiration. She also helps out with the John O’Groats Book Festival which is celebrating its 3rd year this April.
She now lives in the far flung corner of Scotland, soaking in inspiration from the rugged cliffs and miles of sandy beaches. She loves cheese, music and films, but hates mushrooms.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome Paul Walker to the blog, with a guest post on the historical research he undertook to write State of Treason, set in Elizabethan England, a period that’s a particular favourite of mine.
Here’s what Paul had to say about his research methodologyfor the William Constable spy thrillers.
“I’m not a historian and had read very little history non-fiction in the years leading up to 2018. So, I was under no illusion that writing my first work of historical fiction was going to take a lot of research. It was going to be my second attempt at writing a novel. The first, a recently completed contemporary thriller, had been put to one side as an apprentice piece. It wasn’t very good, but I had learned a lot; enough to convince me that I was ready to tackle historical fiction. Mind you, I didn’t take much convincing. I had harboured that ambition for about 20 years, ever since reading the Patrick O’Brian series of books on the early nineteenth century English navy. I adored O’Brian’s use of language and the way his writing had produced a sharp sense of time and place.
I had selected the period and genre as an Elizabethan spy thriller. I’ll admit that the choice of period was influenced by my relative familiarity with characters and events, but that learning was gathered from reading fiction, watching films, TV series and docu-dramas. I didn’t have the depth of knowledge that would escape the attention of eagle-eyed readers ready to pounce on any error in the timeline of actual events or placement of a real character in the wrong town or country.
Like a game of donkey’s tail, I had stuck a pin in the chronology of English history – now what? I knew I had to do research, but there was no typical, documented way to research historical fiction. Of course, there’s also no standard route to writing a novel. Some plan meticulously with charts and spreadsheets for events, characters, sub-plots, locations, dialogue and action while others simply start tapping on the keyboard or put pen to paper and see where it takes them. I’m not a great planner, but understood that I had to create a structure from my research, which I would use to direct my writing. How that structure would manifest itself, I wasn’t sure.
We have an excellent independent bookshop nearby (David’s of Letchworth if I am allowed to name drop) with an extensive second-hand section on history. At the outset of my research, I purchased 17 books; 3 were biographies of Elizabeth; others covered major historical figures from the period including Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Burghley, Robert Dudley, Doctor Dee and Francis Drake. I didn’t read every page of these books, but I became immersed in more than three months’ reading, note taking and expanding my research library by following up references in the original collection.
I’m fascinated by maps and charts. I purchased a wonderful book titled, London: A History in Maps by Peter Barber, and a large map of Tudor London, which I unfolded and pinned to the wall of my writing shed. I had London as the location and chose the year 1578 as the starting point for my first book. I picked that year as I could find nothing of great importance recorded in the literature, so I was free to invent intrigue and peril. On reflection, that was a strange decision, but as it was my first attempt at writing historical fiction, I probably lacked the confidence to weave the plot around real events. The second and third books in the series have actual historical episodes at the core of their stories.
I had done enough research to create a plot and begin writing. But research never stops and there wasn’t a day’s writing when I didn’t have to check facts, research new possibilities or unearth more detail on a generalisation. Of course, a lot of this research is on the Internet and Wikipedia provides a ‘quick and dirty’ source to check or validate information. There are many other useful websites and documents online, although veracity, objectivity and completeness should always be questioned. Unexpected, and valuable sources of information are held in unpublished academic theses, dissertations and lectures, not least because they can often contain surprising pearls of knowledge.
The first book in the series is titled, State of Treason. The plot developed in a way I didn’t anticipate, involving privateering and an adventure to the ‘New Lands’. For reasons I won’t divulge here, the scholar protagonist, William Constable, invents a device for improving the accuracy of ship navigation. This meant further research and a crash course on celestial navigation, as well as reading up on the explorers and adventurers, John Hawkins and Humphrey Gilbert. The shadow staff mentioned in the book as William’s invention, is an imagined forerunner of the backstaff or Davis Quadrant. Captain John Davis conceived this instrument during his voyage to search for the Northwest Passage and is described in his book Seaman’s Secrets, 1594.
A key incident referenced in the second book, A Necessary Killing, was the Second Desmond Rebellion in Ireland. I was grateful for discovery of a dissertation by C Sasso at the University of Chicago on the Desmond Rebellions, as I regularly delved into its pages to help with the writing.
The third book, The Queen’s Devil, has probably the most complex plot incorporating threads of a number of real occurrences and characters. One of the most interesting and thought-provoking historical characters was Giordano Bruno, a defrocked Dominican Friar turned philosopher and proclaimer of an infinite universe. I was particularly indebted to John Bossy’s book, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair; an enthralling read as well as a mine of information on plots and intrigues in 1580’s England.
So, there you have it; a rundown of the main elements of my research that led to writing the William Constable series of historical fiction. I understand this blog post would have been more interesting if I had taken the trouble to visit the sites in person, absorbed the sensation of time and place from historical objects and examined Walsingham’s original handwritten letters in the British Library. I regret, the truth is more mundane.”
What a fascinating journey into researching the time period. I’m always astounded by how the little pieces of information discovered while researching something else, ultimately worm their way into novels. Thank you, Paul, for sharing your experiences.I agree that a good second hand book shop is a must.
If this has you intrigued, as it does me, here are the details for State of Treason, available now as an audio book, as well as ebook.
William Constable is a scholar of mathematics, astrology and practices as a physician. He receives an unexpected summons to the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham in the middle of the night. He fears for his life when he spies the tortured body of an old friend in the palace precincts.
His meeting with Walsingham takes an unexpected turn when he is charged to assist a renowned Puritan, John Foxe, in uncovering the secrets of a mysterious cabinet containing an astrological chart and coded message. Together, these claim Elizabeth has a hidden, illegitimate child (an “unknowing maid”) who will be declared to the masses and serve as the focus for an invasion.
Constable is swept up in the chase to uncover the identity of the plotters, unaware that he is also under suspicion. He schemes to gain the confidence of the adventurer John Hawkins and a rich merchant. Pressured into taking a role as court physician to pick up unguarded comments from nobles and others, he has become a reluctant intelligencer for Walsingham.
Do the stars and cipher speak true, or is there some other malign intent in the complex web of scheming?
Constable must race to unravel the threads of political manoeuvring for power before a new-found love and perhaps his own life are forfeit.
This book can be read for free with #KindleUnlimited subscription.
Meet the Author
Paul is married and lives in a village 30 miles north of London. Having worked in universities and run his own business, he is now a full-time writer of fiction and part-time director of an education trust. His writing in a garden shed is regularly disrupted by children and a growing number of grandchildren and dogs.
Paul writes historical fiction. He inherited his love of British history and historical fiction from his mother, who was an avid member of Richard III Society. The William Constable series of historical thrillers is based around real characters and events in the late sixteenth century. The first three books in the series are State of Treason; A Necessary Killing; and The Queen’s Devil. He promises more will follow.