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.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Toni Mount to the blog with an excerpt from her new novel, The Colour of Evil.
Here’s the blurb;
Every Londoner has money worries, and talented artist and some-time sleuth, Seb Foxley, is no exception. When fellow craftsmen with debts to pay are found dead in the most horrid circumstances, fears escalate. Only Seb can solve the puzzles that baffle the authorities. Seb’s wayward elder brother, Jude, returns unannounced from Italy with a child-bride upon his arm. Shock turns to dismay when life becomes more complicated and troubles multiply. From counterfeit coins to deadly darkness in London’s worst corners. From mysterious thefts to attacks of murderous intent, Seb finds himself embroiled at every turn. With a royal commission to fulfil and heartache to resolve, can our hero win through against the odds? Share Seb Foxley’s latest adventures in the filthy streets of medieval London, join in the Midsummer festivities and meet his fellow citizens, both the respectable and the villainous.
Of a sudden, there came a shout of ‘Stop thief!’ from farther along Bladder Street. That set off the hubbub of the hue-and-cry. Neighbours hastened onto the street, sounding horns, clattering spoons on pots and pans, adding to the din. It meant Adam and I were obliged to join the chase, pursuing the miscreant, whoever he might be. Adam sprinted ahead, fleet of foot, with Gawain running at full speed, thinking this a fine game. They turned up Noble Street, betwixt the precinct of St Martin-le-Grand and the Goldsmiths’ Hall, disappearing from my sight, along with the crowd of others who ran, hoping to apprehend the villain.
Never much of a runner myself, I soon lagged behind, keeping company with a breathless old man and a woman encumbered with a sleeping infant on her shoulder and armed with a hefty ladle. We would ne’er catch the most sluggardly criminal but the law demanded we make the effort, or else be fined for aiding and abetting the same. My hip was hindering my progress, slow as it was, and by the time we reached St Vedast’s Church at the lower end of Noble Street, I had to pause to ease my protesting bones. The old man stopped beside me to catch his breath; the woman too.
It was then that I glanced up the alleyway beside the church. A pile of rubbish half-blocked the narrow passage. All was filth and grime and stank of stale piss. Yet there was just light sufficient to see a flash of red: a good shoe, I realised, protruding from behind the unsavoury heap of detritus.
I pointed it out to the old man, then put my finger to my lips.
The old man nodded his understanding. He and I crept forth, into the alley. Like so many such passages around the city, this one seemed to end in a blank wall beyond the rubbish. There would be no escape for the vermilion-shod thief – if it was he. I stepped around a broken, handle-less bucket and then a collection of rusted metal odds and ends so as not to alert our quarry. When we drew within a yard or two, we both dashed forward, shouting ‘Hold! Hold, villain!’
A middle-aged fellow leaped from his place of concealment and attempted to push us aside. I shoved him in one direction and the old man tripped him. As the culprit staggered back along the alley, into Noble Street, the woman with the infant awaited him. Her skilful use of the ladle without rousing the child was remarkable. She brought it down upon his head, then whacked him across his middle. He went sprawling in the dirt. The clang of metal as he hit the ground revealed his ill-gotten gains, hidden ’neath his jerkin. A gilded candlestick rolled aside, its partner lay sorely dented – mayhap by the ladle blow – beside the fallen fellow. We had caught our thief.
We dragged him to his feet and shook him awake, marching him back to Bladder Street. I had the stolen candlesticks tucked under my arm. The rascal began complaining and attempted to pull free as his senses rallied but the woman threatened him with the ladle and he came quietly, resigned to his fate.
The householder he had robbed greeted us as heroes, the more so when I returned the candlesticks, though he sorrowed at the damage done. We said naught concerning the ladle as the possible cause of the dents.
‘Ale! Ale for all!’ the householder cried as those who had spent their strength in the hue-and-cry began to trickle back, to report that the thief had got clean away. Most seemed delighted that we had apprehended the culprit but a few were annoyed to have gone to so much effort for no purpose. Others – including Adam – were disappointed to have missed out on the moment of capture.
‘There was naught exciting about it, cousin,’ I assured him.
‘Did he put up much of a fight?’ someone else asked.
I was about to tell him ‘nay’ but the old man – Todd by name, as I learned – made answer for me.
‘I’ll say. The devil fought us like… like a devil. Kicking and flailing and yelling filthy words at me, young Seb here, oh, and Alice… her with the babe-in-arms. So we pummelled him and took him by force, didn’t we Seb? He was lashing out, all to no avail. We was too much for him, wasn’t we?’
The event grew in the telling, Todd elaborating and inventing new details to each new listener who asked. He and I became more heroic in our actions as the evening wore on; the woman, Alice, the true heroine with her ladle, became relegated to the role of a mere on-looker. By the time the City Bailiff, my friend Thaddeus Turner, arrived to take the thief into custody, Todd’s tale had become one of knights errant upon some holy quest. He told Thaddeus how we had wrestled the sword-wielding scoundrel of unsurpassed strength to the ground, despite his casting of evil charms upon us, taking many a cut and buffet in exchange – no matter that we bore not a solitary mark from our encounter.
I shook my head behind Todd’s back, such that Thaddeus should see me.
‘I shall make a true report on the morrow,’ I mouthed to him, not wishing to spoil Todd’s hour of glory.
Praise for The Colour of Evil
Samantha Willcoxson,author & historian:
“Toni Mount is simply brilliant. If you love CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake – and I do – you will love Toni’s Sebastian Foxley. From learning how a 15th century scrivener created illuminated manuscripts to venturing within the dank tunnels beneath the Tower of London, Toni is an artist who completely immerses the reader in another time and place and always leaves one eager for the next book.”
Stephanie Churchill, author of historical fiction and epic fantasy:
“Leave it to Seb to unravel another international spiderweb of intrigue, betrayal, murder, and deceit. Our flawed, loveable hero has done it again. And at the end of it all, his future is looking brighter than ever. I cannot wait to find out what happens to him next!”
Sharon Bennet Connoly,author and medieval historian:
“A beautifully crafted mystery that brings the dark, dangerous streets of medieval London to life. Toni Mount is a magician with words, weaving a captivating story in wonderful prose. The Colour of Evil is, to put it simply, a pleasure to read.”
Kathryn Warner,medieval historian and author of numerous books about the fourteenth century, including biographies of Edward II and Isabella of France:
“The ninth instalment of Toni Mount’s popular Seb Foxley series is sure to delight Seb’s many fans. Mount puts her deep knowledge of late medieval England to good use once again, and takes us on another exciting adventure, this time with Seb’s older brother Jude, returned from Italy, in tow. Mount’s detailed world-building, as always, brings fifteenth-century London to life.”
The Colour of Evil is available to read on Kindle Unlimited.
Toni Mount earned her Master’s Degree by completing original research into a unique 15th-century medical manuscript. She is the author of several successful non-fiction books including the number one bestseller, Everyday Life in Medieval England, which reflects her detailed knowledge in the lives of ordinary people in the Middle Ages. Toni’s enthusiastic understanding of the period allows her to create accurate, atmospheric settings and realistic characters for her Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mysteries. Toni’s first career was as a scientist and this brings an extra dimension to her novels. It also led to her new biography of Sir Isaac Newton. She writes regularly for both The Richard III Society and The Tudor Society and is a major contributor of online courses to MedievalCourses.com. As well as writing, Toni teaches history to adults, coordinates a creative writing group and is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association.
I am delighted to welcome H D Coulter to the blog, with a guest post about the research undertaken when writing Ropewalk (isn’t the cover beautiful?) Here we go;
I would like to thank M. J. Porter for allowing to guest post on her blog as I discuss the research process of creating Ropewalk: Rebellion. Love. Survival.
Ropewalk has been the exception. Most of the time I have an idea of characters and then a location would come to mind, which would have a knock-on effect on the character’s background, social situation, living conditions and so on. It would be a domino effect until 70-80% of the plot has formed in my head. For Ropewalk, however, I lived in Ulverston at time and to be honest; I don’t know what came first, the characters or the plot, but I knew the location was an ideal setting.
Once I knew the characters and their basic background, then I start researching where they could live, their finance and the social impact that was happening in the town or country. I would normally end up heading down the research rabbit hole for a while before focusing on the fine details that relate directly to the plot. However, I have found details which have changed the plot entirely or shifting the narrative.
For Ropewalk, I wanted the start of book 1 in the series to be under a spotlight. Then, as the thread of the story knit together, the bigger picture reveals itself. Leading the reader on an adventure with the principal characters, not knowing where they might take them.
Another aspect of researching for a historical novel is discovering all the tiny details. Some historical writers like to give a broad sense of the period but not go into details when I would rather go into the atmosphere and give the reader a sense of walking down Market Street alongside Beatrice Lightfoot, so describe the smell, sights, sound making sure that it all stays true to the time.
“After twenty minutes of walking along the bleak, muddy track with the biting wind on her back, Bea arrived at The Ellers, a narrow street off the primary hub of town. The clean air had turned thick with soot and grime, spilling out of the tall chimneys. She placed her scarf over her mouth and stepped further up the road. It consisted of a row of cottages and two mills. It was also home to another, smaller rope-making business, which had popped up after they built the canal.
Passing the raucous sound issuing from the Corn Mill at the bottom of the street, Bea ambled upwards. The thin street seemed to be vacant of life; the tenants either in the mills or working down at the canal. The only sounds came from the washing billowing on the lines behind the houses and the monotonous ticking from the cotton mill ahead. Bea paused for a moment, staring at the large overbearing building with its foreboding wooden gate. The one thing she was always grateful for was the fact she had never needed to work in the mills. She had heard stories around town of the conditions there, how they employed the forgotten children from the workhouse to run the looms and trapped destitute families into service.”Chapter 2, Ropewalk.
That is one aspect I love about writing historical fiction is the research element. When I researched the process of rope making, it drew me towards the canal which still dominates the area of Ulverston today. How it came about and the difference it made. Bit by bit, characters emerged in my mind. A young woman who lived in a small hamlet on the outskirts of Ulverston, who knew of hardship, family, money issues but who was also naïve to the social conflict happening around her. Stories of adventure and discovering unknown lands issuing from novels and town gossip from a local explorer, Sir John Barrow; created a yearning to change her fate. But when secrets and rebellion are exposed, it causes a dangerous chain of events.
Living in the area, I heard stories passed down through the generation, local historians sharing their knowledge and a treasure quest in discovering the historical plaques on the buildings. Ulverston itself is a character in Ropewalk with cobbles still lining the roads of the town centre. Georgian town houses and narrow alleyways create the maze you become lost in. The small, pokey bookshop crammed with local knowledge or the smell of the freshly brewed coffee coming from the teashop that had been there since the 1800s. It wasn’t hard to imagine the characters I had formed walk the streets beside me. To study the old maps and emerge myself in their world. With researching Ropewalk, it wasn’t one area to look at, rather a blend of elements. Weaver cottage industry overtaken by the Industrial revolution and social conflict during the early reign of William IV with the Reform crisis, all taking place in this once quiet town.
Each of the principal characters represents an element that was happening in the country. Bob Lightfoot, the ropemaker, which was seen as a cottage industry; fought for his rights, like so many of his childhood friends working the mills, shipyards, canal. Beatrice Lightfoot, having her father’s spirit, dreamt of change but is oppressed by the conformity of the time and societal class division. Joshua Mason, the son of a local merchant who became gentry and part of the family who built the canal, sees the plight of the workers thanks to Beatrice. Captain Hanley is a complex character, a sailor like so many men passing through Ulverston and effected from past trading routes including the slave trade, becomes obsessed with Beatrice. Whilst Ulverston itself, the nucleus for change but unable to cope with the demand. All of these threads come together during a volatile period and form the complex tapestry of Ropewalk.
Some of the book resources that might be of interest.
“Ulverston (Images of England)” by Carol Bennett, Peter Lowe. The History Press Ltd 2008.
A local Ulverston Historian, Jennifer Snell, who has recently written a book on the Ulverston Canal. “Ulverston Canal. Its ships, shipbuilders and seamen.” 2020
“The story of rope: The history and the modern development of ropemaking.” Plymouth Cordage Company 2011
“Electoral Reform at work: Local politics and National Parties, 1832 – 1841.” Philip Salmon. 2002.
J.M.W Turner (1825) shows the coach and foot passengers arriving at Hest Bank. Humphrey Head in the background. N.b. the bunches of twigs with which the guide marks the route. The dogs would have had to swim for some of the way.
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s so fascinating to discover the inspiration behind the books and characters that author’s conjure from their imagination and the historical record.
Here’s the blurb;
The North of England, 1831.
The working class are gathering. Rebellion is stirring, and the people are divided.
Beatrice Lightfoot, a young woman fighting her own personal rebellion, is looking for an opportunity to change her luck. When she gains the attention of the enigmatic Captain Hanley, he offers her a tantalising deal to attend the May Day dance. She accepts, unaware of the true price of her own free will.
Her subsequent entanglement with Joshua Mason, the son of a local merchant, draws all three into a destructive and dangerous relationship, which threatens to drag Beatrice, and all she knows into darkness.
Now, Beatrice must choose between rebellion, love and survival before all is lost, and the Northern uprising changes her world forever.
Ropewalk is just 99p/99c at the moment. Take advantage of this fantastic offer.
Signed copies of the paperback can be ordered directly from the author.
Hayley was born and raised in the Lake District and across Cumbria. From a young age, Hayley loved learning about history, visiting castles and discovering local stories from the past. Hayley and her partner lived in Ulverston for three years and spent her weekends walking along the Ropewalk and down by the old harbour. She became inspired by the spirit of the area and stories that had taken place along the historic streets.
As a teacher, Hayley had loved the art of storytelling by studying drama and theatre. The power of the written word, how it can transport the reader to another world or even another time in history. But it wasn’t until living in Ulverston did she discover a story worth telling. From that point, the characters became alive and she fell in love with the story.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome Renee Yancy to the blog with a guest post on the historical research she undertook to write her new book, The Test of Gold.
The true story of Consuelo Vanderbilt inspired my new historical romance, The Test of Gold. Consuelo was a “Dollar Princess,” the nickname coined for heiresses in the late 20th century who possessed multi-million dollar dowries and married cash-poor British and French aristocrats.
The Gilded Age occurred after the American Civil War, from 1870 to the early 1900s, a turbulent time of rapid economic growth in America. Captains of industry such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefelleramassed huge fortunes, but were considered nouveau riche by the patrician bluebloods of New York City. The exclusive list of people who could comfortably fit into the ballroom of the queen of high society, Caroline Astor, was called the famous “400.”
Social climber Alva Vanderbilt craved entrance into the 400, and schemed exactly how to achieve it. First, she built an extravagant “chateau” with one hundred and fifty rooms at 660 Fifth Avenue. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Then she planned a huge costume ball, the cost of which by today’s standard was $6,000,000!
When young Carrie Astor, Caroline’s daughter, didn’t receive an invitation to the ball, Mrs. Astor was forced to “call” on Alva to receive an invitation, and Alva was in.
During the Gilded Age, European aristocrats flooded New York City to find a wealthy bride whose dowries could shore up their crumbling ancestral estates, trading titles for dowries. Have cash, will marry! Consuelo’s mother, our infamous Alva Vanderbilt, forced her daughter at the tender age of eighteen to marry the Duke of Marlborough to obtain a royal title for the Vanderbilt name.
It was a loveless marriage, and in time, Consuelo escaped it and achieved personal happiness with Jacques Balsan, a French aviator and industrialist.
For my research, I explored some amazing estates of the rich and famous, read books about the etiquette of that time, and studied the fabulous gowns of Charles Worth, who was the premier Paris designer of the Gilded Age. I searched out the jewelry designs of Tiffany, Cartier, and Marcus & Co. Such fun and so beautiful to look at!
Doing the research took me into an era of incredible wealth and shocking poverty the likes of which will never be seen again.
My character, Lindy, has a happier ending!
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s fascinating to find out how authors research their characters and chosen period.
Now, here’s the blurb for The Test of Gold.
Raised in the shadow of a mother who defied convention, but won’t allow her own daughter the right to make the same choices, heiress Evangeline Lindenmayer has been groomed since childhood to marry into the British aristocracy.
When Lindy challenges her mother’s long-laid plans by falling in love with a poor seminary student, the explosion is bigger than the Brooklyn Bridge fireworks on Independence Day.
Renee Yancy is a history and archaeology nut who writes the kind of historical fiction she loves to read – stories filled with historical detail that immerse you in another place and time. When she isn’t writing historical fiction or traveling to see the places her characters have lived, she can be found in the wilds of Kentucky with her husband and two rescue mutts named Ellie and Charlie.
Today I’m delighted to welcome the author of A Sword Among Ravens to my blog, with a fantastic excerpt from the novel. But first, things first, here’s the blurb;
In a grave, on the edge of a Roman battlefield, an ancient sword has been discovered. Legend claims it belonged to King David of Israel and carries a curse—those who wield it will tragically die—but not the chosen.
AD 455. Arria Felix and her husband, Garic the Frank, have safely delivered a sacred relic to Emperor Marcian in Constantinople. But now, Arria and Garic will accept a new mission. The emperor has asked them to carry the sword of King David of Israel to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where Arria will dedicate it in her murdered father’s memory.
As Arria and Garic travel into the heart of the Holy Land, they face many challenges and dangers. Their young daughter is missing then found in the company of a strange and suspicious old monk. A brutal killer stalks their path. And a band of cold-blooded thieves is determined to steal the sword for their own gains. But when Arria confronts the question of where the sword should truly rest—old friendships, loyalties, and her duty are put to the test like never before. At every turn, Arria and Garic find themselves caught in a treacherous mission wrapped in mystery, murder, and A Sword Among Ravens.
And here’s an excerpt from the novel,
**Caught in a storm at sea, Arria Felix and her young daughter Licia huddle together in their cabin while Arria hums a tune in an effort to calm Licia’s fears.
THE SHIP VENTUS: A Squall—Day 2, The 21st day of Maius
Arria was not sure of the time or when the gale reached its height. She had lost the measure of it. But after a while, the wind lost its roar and receded to a moan. The ship rose on top of a huge watery billow and then slowly fell. The waves began to calm. Like a bored and impatient warrior in search of new vessels to torment or destroy, the storm sailed away—its anger peaked—the battle won.
An eerie quiet surrounded them. Light ebbed through the cracks in the cabin door. Arria stopped humming and kissed Licia’s cheek. “It’s over, my sweet. The storm is gone.”
Leo sighed and ran his good hand over his face. “Apollo’s balls, I need a drink,” he grumbled. “Excuse me, my lady.” His penitent glance veered toward Licia. “Sorry.”
Licia appeared puzzled.
Arria gave him a stern look but added, “It falls on innocent ears, but say no more.”
Sudden footfalls sounded on the stairs outside the cabin. The door swung open.
Garic stood there, his hair and clothes soaked to the bone, but a tremendous relief shone on his face. “Thank Christus. It’s over. Are you, Licia, and the girl all right?” he directed toward Arria. She nodded, her smile weak. “Brother?” he added. The monk uncurled himself and took a breath. Garic gave Leo a sideways glance. “And you?” The centurion nodded, his face grim.
Arria stood, unwrapping her arms from Licia. “I’m so grateful we’re safe. I need some air.”
“Come, I’ll help you and the girls to the deck. We can all dry out there.”
Garic led Licia and Catalina up the stairs with Arria behind them. Leo and Brother Bruno followed. Once on deck, they raised their faces to the sun and breathed deeply. Catalina found a place to sit. Arria wiped Licia’s brow again and then her own. “Shall we go to the railing and look for some dolphins?” Licia nodded, and they walked to the port side of the ship. A mild breeze floated past them. It seemed hard to believe that just a few minutes past, they huddled in the cabin in fear for their lives.
Their eyes scanned the water when Arria spied a rope hooked farther down the railing toward the stern and thrown over the side. Her eyes followed the line. A man dangled at the end, a hangman’s knot around his neck. His body bumped against the ship’s timbers. Arria covered her mouth. She grabbed Licia’s hand and turned her away. “Sweetheart, come and sit on this box and rest.”
“Can’t we see the dolphins, Mama?”
“Perhaps later. I’ll send Leo to fetch your doll. Play with her for a bit while Mama works with Papa to get things ready for dinner and the night. Can you do this for me?”
Arria called Leo over and whispered what she had seen. He looked surprised. “Tell Garic, and please bring Licia her doll,” she said. The soldier scampered off.
Garic returned and rushed to the railing. Several sailors had also seen the body and were attempting to lift it onto the deck. The guards, Telemachus and Justus, were close by. They had helped in the effort to save the ship as well. Arria brought Licia to Brother Bruno’s deck tent and settled her inside. Once her daughter had her doll and was engaged in play, she moved to the crowd of men surrounding the body and stood beside Garic.
The sailors called him Paolino, a seaman from Hispania. Garic whispered to her that a sailor told him that Paolino had no family and sailed when it suited him or when he needed additional denarii for drinking and whoring. The crew only valued him because, on occasion, he carried drugs, made from juices and powders that brought on euphoria and helped with pain.
Several bruises covered his face, and a bloody patch over his heart implied a stab wound, but what shocked Arria, even more, was the rough cross, carved on his forehead.
A few sailors scratched their heads. Some scowled while others mumbled prayerful words of protection. The ship’s captain looked dark.
Arria understood that the captain knew it would not help their voyage if the men felt fear or let their superstitious minds run wild.
The captain barked, “Get going! Wrap him up!” Finding the monk in the circle of onlookers, he added, “Brother, will you say a short prayer for our shipmate?”
Brother Bruno nodded, stepped forward, and clasped his hands. The seamen followed and bowed their heads. “Lord, may Paolino’s soul find its way to Heaven and rest in eternal peace.” A moment of silence filled the crew, and in the ancient custom, the men repeated the word Vale, farewell, three times.
The captain shouted, “Commit Paolino to the sea!” Two sailors slid him overboard. Afterward, the crew looked toward the captain, who placed his hands on his hips. With a stern gaze and gruff voice, he commanded, “Hear me—I’ll have no vengeance or disputes on my ship. One or maybe more of you murdered him. If anyone knows anything, come to me when you think it’s right. We just fought our way through a storm, and as long as I’m captain, there will be no dissension. Now get back to sailing, and God help you, don’t try anything else.
Cynthia Ripley Miller is a first generation Italian-American writer with a love for history, languages, and books. She has lived in Europe and traveled world-wide, holds two degrees, and taught history and English. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology SummerTapestry, at Orchard Press Mysteries.com,and The Scriptor. She is a Chanticleer International Chatelaine Award finalist with awards from Circle of Books-Rings of Honor and The Coffee Pot Book Club. She has reviewed for UNRV Roman History, and blogs at Historical Happenings and Oddities: A Distant Focus and on her website, www.cynthiaripleymiller.com
Cynthia is the author of On the Edge of Sunrise, The Quest for the Crown of Thorns, and A Sword Among Ravens,books 1-3 in her Long-Hair Saga series set in Late Ancient Rome, France, and Jerusalem. Cynthia lives outside of Chicago with her family, along with a cute but bossy cat.
Today I’m excited to welcome Lelita Baldock, and her book, Widow’s Lace, to the blog, with a post about her approach to research as an historical fiction writer; a process that fascinates me. Widow’s Lace is set in both Australia and England, in two different time periods, so I imagine there was a huge amount of research to complete.
First and foremost, I want to say thank you to MJ Porter for including me and Widow’s Lace on this fabulous blog. I am especially excited about this post as I rarely get to talk about my research process and the resources I used to inspire the descriptions of the historical settings in my novel.
I find my research roughly divides into two major approaches: feeling the location and learning the details.
To do this I like to visit the locations I aim to write about. Even though my story will detail the past, walking the streets of today, whilst thinking of what came before, allows me into the fabric of a time and place.
But visiting locations is only part of their history. I also need books to learn more about the time period. When you aim to write a story set in the past it is quite extraordinary how many little things you need to check up on. Details like what people wore, ate and drank; which train stations and parks existed; did they have electricity or glass windows and so on. I will confess that Google is an invaluable tool for me in exploring how people of the past lived the everyday. Traditionalists often scoff at the use of the internet, certainly when I majored in History at the University of Adelaide it would have been frowned upon, and I agree that it must be used carefully. But it is such a rich source of articles, academic papers, photos and more, that it would be a shame not to tap into this resource. It’s just important to check who wrote the article and cross-check information to ensure your facts are reliable. Google is a wonderful resource to find these smaller details, all of which help you to bring the past to life.
Widow’s Lace is set across multiple timelines and locations. We explore late 1880s South Australia and England as well as pre-WW1 London. The research required for these locations was, naturally, very different. London is a major historical city, much has been written about its history and development. My other UK based locations: Derbyshire and Gloucestershire are similarly well documented. But the remote townships of Finniss and Goolwa in South Australia are less well known.
I think the best approach to detailing my research is to divide this post by location, so I can try and do justice to the individuality of each setting and the work it took to capture it.
Goolwa and the Finniss River
The historical township of Goolwa is located around 50 miles from Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. The town was originally established as a river port. One of the major river systems of the country, the Murray River, meets the sea just down from Goolwa. The idea was that cargo could be transported to a port at Goolwa and swapped between the river boats, called paddle steamers, that could travel up river owing to their flat bottomed hulls, and the large trade vessels that sailed up and down the coast.
As part of this commerce the first rail line in South Australia was built between Adelaide and Goolwa and eventually extended to Victor Harbor further along the Fleurieu Peninsular.
Goolwa Map. A map of the main locations in Widow’s Lace. Sketched by Lelita Baldock
Unfortunately, several factors conspired to undermine this vision and thus the town and trade route did not reach its full potential. In the late 1800s, the time of my novel, the river was tidal. This meant that the waterway that lead to the port was notoriously difficult for ships to traverse. But more importantly, and somewhat ironically, the emergence of the rail network across Australia soon replaced the paddle steamer trade, as it was faster and more reliable.
This history is well documented on plaques around the town of Goolwa. There is even a glass viewing box on the main street that houses a replica of the first train to run between Goolwa and Victor Harbor.
As a child my family holidayed in Goolwa, so much of this general history was something I grew up learning about as we walked the streets, enjoying the area. But to write a novel you need more than just an overall gist. That is where my father, Trevor Baldock, comes in. My dad is passionate about history, and makes it a priority to learn all he can about areas he loves. When I was in my early twenties he purchased a book about the history of the Murray River and paddle steamer trade called The Murray River Pilot by Ronald Baker, Margaret Baker, William Reschke. It detailed the history of the river trade out of the port of Goolwa and surrounds and helped to paint a distinct picture of life in the town in the late 1880s. This book became my research go-to as I pieced together the experiences of my main character Edward Barrington and his wife Rosalind after they moved from England to this remote part of South Australia
The Finniss River. A Photo from the banks of the Finniss River Photo Credit: Lelita Baldock
In addition to The Murray River Pilot and the general information on plaques around the town, I visited the Goolwa museum, which houses all manner of artefacts from the region, ranging from machinery used to winch boats from the river, to kettles used in the kitchens of neighbouring farmhouses. All this was invaluable as a visual resource, a glimpse into what people of the time would have seen and used as they went about their lives.
Though Goolwa has expanded in the intervening years, becoming a favoured holiday location for Adelaidians, many of the original sandstone houses and hotels still line the main street, so it’s not difficult to imagine how the town would have looked all those years ago.
Hathrone Farm on the Finniss river is based on a real property. Along the banks of the river there is an old sandstone farmhouse and sheds. I first saw this beautiful property as a child when sailing the river with my family. But in my early twenties it took on more significance for me. As we wound our way through the patches of reeds that line the river, I watched the farmhouse pass by and was engulfed by the sense of isolation and solitude. It got me wondering about who might have lived there and why? This ruminating inspired the story that would become Widow’s Lace, so it was only natural that this property should form the inspiration for Hathrone Farm.
Sandstone Buildings. Sandstone buildings along the Finniss River. Photo Credit: Trevor Baldock
Of course, there is also the very rich and important history of Australia’s First People in the area. It would not have been right to publish a story of Goolwa and not acknowledge the Ngarrindjeri people who called the Lower Lakes home. The name Goolwa is in fact a Ngarrindjeri word, meaning River’s Elbow, owing to the natural curve of the river in which the town nestles. The local library in Goolwa has a wealth of information on the history of the Ngarrindjeri, which I tapped into to make these aspects of my novel as true and respectful as I could. Additionally, there remains a strong Ngarrindjeri presence in Goolwa and many tradition ceremonies, such as the ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony are still held, offering an invaluable experience of these living traditions.
London, Derbyshire and Gloucestershire
My research for the English locations of Widow’s Lace was similar in many ways. I always visit the locations I intend to use for my novels and have been fortunate enough to be able to move to the United Kingdom and travel widely here, which has exposed me to many beautiful locations that are perfect for historical novels.
In 2010 my husband and I explored the Cotswolds and Bath, and I found the setting for the early 1900s parts of my story. The tranquil beauty I experienced as we explored the windy, cobbled streets was the perfect juxtaposition to the tension and bustle of wartime London.
Cotswolds. Photo of Kingsbridge. Photo credit: Lelita Baldock
Journeying the Cheshire Ring on a narrow boat in 2016 allowed me to dive into the history of the industrial north which formed the backstory for Edward Barrington. Again, the research came naturally, visiting factories and reading about the experiences of workers.
It was also on this trip that I visited Lyme Hall. I loved the feel of this old manor. It felt at once big and formal, but also intimate and homely, mirroring the twin experiences of Edward Barrington. It was the perfect location on which to model the manor house of Hathrone.
Lyme Hall. Lyme Hall, England, Pemberly in the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice. Photo Credit: Lelita Baldock
As these locations are widely visited tourist sites, it was easy to find information about everyday life in the past by reading the provided tourist information. Google was my main go to as a quick reference for important dates.
My research for Widow’s Lace was both active and subconscious. Growing up exploring the Goolwa region and travelling parts of the UK, I learnt much of the history I used passively. This formed a strong backdrop for my story, actively inspiring the storyline, and giving me a platform from which to launch into the more detailed research required to truly bring history to life.
Overall I think I prepare to write a novel through reading widely and by spending time in a location. Walking the streets and talking to the locals adds an authenticity and enables me to get a feel for the place. When combined with research on little details I believe this gives rise to the most effective and realistic portrayals of a different time and place and thus a richer reading experience. At least, that is my hope!
Thank you so much for sharing your research processes. It’s fascinating to discover what inspires people to write their stories. And I agree, the internet is an amazing resource for finding out those weird, and strange little obscure facts that you just can’t write a book without.
Here’s the blurb for Widow’s Lace.
A hundred year old mystery, the widow left behind, a fallen soldier, the abandoned fiancée, an unnamed body and the young student determined to find the truth.
In 1886 famous English poet Edward Barrington moves from Derbyshire, England to a farm on the Finniss River, in South Australia. Two years later he disappears.
25 years later Archie Hargraves abandons his fiancée Clara and travels from England to meet with Edward’s widow, Rosalind. He plans to write a biography and make a name for himself, independent from his wealthy father. Returning to England in 1914 he abandons his work to join the war in Europe. His journal of notes from Australia is never released.
Ellie Cannon, a young PhD candidate at Sydney University, is writing a thesis on one of Barrington’s last known poems, The Fall. It’s not going well. Struggling with her relationship with her mother and loss of her father, Ellie is on the brink of failure.
Then a body is found by the Finniss River, 130 years after Edward’s disappearance. Could it be the famous poet?
The discovery draws Ellie into the worlds of Edward, Archie and Clara, taking her across Australia and England in her search for the truth.
Covering life in remote South Australia, the social pressures of 1900s Britain and the historical role of women, Widow’s Lace is an historical fiction, mystery cross-over dealing with themes of obsession, fear, love, inner-secrets and regret. But also the hope that can come from despair.
Widow’s Lace is also available on Kindle Unlimited.
Meet the Author
Lelita has a passion for stories, especially those with a dark undercurrent, or a twist to be revealed.
She hopes to tell interesting stories that people will find themselves drawn into. Stories that are for entertainment and escape, and hopefully a little thrill of the unexpected. She truly enjoys the experience of writing, exploring human traits and reactions as well as the darkness that can lurk unexpectedly inside anyone.
Born and raised in Adelaide, Australia, Lelita holds a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History from the University of Adelaide and a Bachelor of Education from The University of South Australia. During her twenties she worked as an English teacher in both Australia and the United Kingdom, working with the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
Now Lelita and her husband run a web development business, and she makes time for writing after hours and on weekends. It can mean long days and late nights, but she doesn’t mind, stories are her passion.
Lelita’s long term goal as a writer is to be able to publish her stories regularly and hopefully appeal to a wide range of readers.
Lelita currently resides in the United Kingdom with her husband Ryan and beloved rescue-cat, Jasmine.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome the Historical Fictioneers and their new book, Betrayal, to the blog. Here’s the blurb;
“Betrayal, treachery, treason, deceit, perfidy—all names for the calculated violation of trust. And it’s been rife since humans trod the earth.
A promise broken
A mission betrayed
A lover’s desertion
A parent’s deception
An unwitting act of treason
Betrayal by comrades
Betrayal by friends
Could you resist the forces of misplaced loyalty, power hunger, emotional blackmail, or plain greed? Is there ever redemption, or will the destruction visit future generations and even alter history? These questions are still with us today.
Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges from post Roman Britain to the present day.”
This sounds like a fascinating project, and the authors have been busy answering my questions (yes, all of the authors:)) Enjoy.
How did the collection come about? (whose idea was it)?
The popularity of short fiction has been on the rise, and many of my author acquaintances have been writing shorter works: some as reader magnets they offer for a newsletter sign-up; others for their websites or on retail sites.
I was working on a series of short stories myself when an article landed in my inbox. A group of suspense/mystery writers had collaborated – with great success – on a free anthology. In that case, eight authors contributed to their book. Their individual ‘fans’ were thrilled to get a free story, and at the same time, they introduced their readers to authors they might not know. This sounded like a great way to tempt lovers of historical fiction to sample a new author, a new era. You’ve heard the old adage: ‘don’t re-invent the wheel.’
In November 2019, I broached the idea of an anthology with Cryssa, Annie, and Anna, who I’d met virtually through our work as co-editors of the English Historical Fictions Authors blog. Anna & I also met face-to-face at the HNS Denver conference in 2015, and I met Cryssa at HNS in Oxford, UK, in 2016. This was supposed to be the year I met Annie, but… COVID19.
Fortunately, these ladies were on board for the idea. We created guidelines for the stories and talked themes, word count, cover design, costs, and marketing before reaching out to eight more writers. And lo and behold…we give you Betrayal!
Will Jane Reader devour every story in the anthology? Will Joe Reader discover a new author, a new era, that intrigues. We all hope so!
Why did you choose the theme of “Betrayal” for your books?
When we were considering what could connect all the stories, we couldn’t rely on a unifying event like the Norman Conquest since we all write different eras. This meant that theme needed to be the unifier. Betrayal is a primal emotion. It stirs up our deepest fears. One can’t be betrayed by an enemy. Only those closest to us, the people who know our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses can wield this power against us. Each story explores betrayal in its many facets—shifting alliances, deception, intrigue, vengeance, and treason. Ultimately, they all examine the calculated violation of trust.
What was the once piece of advice you were given about writing historical fiction that has proved invaluable?
Elizabeth St. John
I wish I had been given the advice personally, for it came in an interview I read with Hilary Mantel, a historical fiction author I greatly admire. “My chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives,” she said, shortly after winning the Man Booker prize for Wolf Hall. “From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel.”
That one sentence gave me the confidence to move from extensive research to writing the fiction that became my trilogy, The Lydiard Chronicles. I could use my learnings to form the foundation of my characters, knowing I was free to weave their deeds, loves, friendships and enemies into their thoughts and feelings.
I’d written three books before I was persuaded to employ the services of a professional historical fiction editor. Before then, I’d used a general editor who had an interest in history but focused on spotting typos and making sure the commas were in the right places.
The editor who supports me now is able to take a much deeper view of my writing, as she checks for consistency across a series. Most importantly, she also provides developmental comments to support my revision process, and it able to fact-check details to help with historical accuracy.
This service can be expensive, but in the UK the costs can be reclaimed against tax. Although I find editing one of the least satisfying aspects of the writing process, I always look forward to seeing what comments my editor has made.
Do your research as best as you can, but recognise when it is time to stop researching and start writing.
I come from the formal end of history with a masters’ degree so I’m strict about getting the facts right by using three different sources. That’s the problem, of course. Sometimes there are none. Our job, according to writing friend Conn Iggulden, is to fill those gaps intelligently. So, we are back to thorough research, but fired by our imaginations.
I don’t pay a lot of attention to how-tos, but I did read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. He said something I really took to heart. To paraphrase it, he said your first job is to entertain someone who had a hard day at work and just wants to relax. That statement gave me pause. I’m so worried about getting the story “right” that I sometimes forget that it has to be entertaining. The reader probably doesn’t care about the historical accuracy if it gets in the way of a good story.
The best piece of advice is to remember that historical fiction is not ‘about’ history. Like all fiction, it is about a story. Do your research, but don’t let it swamp the story. Your readers may admire your attention to period detail in descriptions of clothing or buildings, but they won’t be reading your work at all if your story does not hold their interest.
Historical fiction defines when and where your story is set, but that is no substitute for skillful storytelling. Sometimes you have to rein in your interest in history to ensure that every chapter end persuades the reader to follow your tale to the end.
Many years ago, I sent my first WIP to an editor. The lady in question had been one of the teachers at a writing course I took and I really admired her writing, so it took some courage to send her my manuscript. Overall, she was very positive—except for one thing. “Scrap all attempts at writing period dialogue,” she wrote. “You have no idea how they spoke back then, I have no idea, the reader has no idea. The only thing we know for sure is that we probably wouldn’t understand them—or they us. Instead, write vivid and gripping dialogue so as to really hook the reader.” Yes ma’am, I thought, feeling my shoulders sag with relief and have since then concentrated on using dialogue to drive scenes rather than set them.
When I first began writing one of my university professors instilled in us the importance of thorough research. ‘Don’t be sloppy,’ he said, and went on to show us the importance of thoroughly researching from every perspective. Once you’ve read all you can, select the point of view from which you wish to write, and stick to it. I’ve written about many people from the Tudor period and they often appear in more than one book but they are never the same. People change depending on who is viewing them. Margaret Beaufort when written from Elizabeth of York’s perspective in A Song of Sixpence is initially a rather interfering, annoying mother-in-law but in The Beaufort Chronicle, which is written from Margaret’s own point of view, she is quite different. Viewpoint is important. It is also crucial that the opinion of the author does not interfere with that of the protagonist. In the author’s note I sometimes add the codicil, ‘The views expressed in this novel are not the author’s own.’
I’m not sure that I ever have been given advice specifically about writing historical fiction. But one thing I always try to bear in mind is the Dorothy Dunnett Quotation which is used as a banner for the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Award, of which I was the inaugural winner, and for which I am now a judge: “History is all very well, but it’s just the showcase. It is the arena in which your characters will perform, and which supplies the conflicts, stresses, dilemmas and the struggles they’ll get through.”
Live the scene. Walk through the events, not as a historian with the benefit of hindsight, but through the eyes of your character who can’t know that a battle is being lost (and why), or the true cause of a fire that destroys their city. Instead, tap into how your character would be feeling during these key moments, be it fear, rage, tenderness or love. Explore their world through what matters to them. If we look back on the historically momentous occasions of our age, we’ll find that we process these events through the lens of our own limited perspective, and in the end, it’s the people around us who make the most lasting impact on our lives.
A critique partner at my weekly writers group asked why I wasn’t using the real (okay, legendary) Robin Hood when I introduced a very Robin-like character in a story I took for the group for feedback. I had a flimsy excuse: ‘oh, he’s been done before by some very talented writers.’ They convinced me to introduce my own Robin-who-is-not-yet-Hood. I was bringing my own perspective, coming into the legend from a different angle. That story, Robin, and other characters from the legend, ended up being an important part of my novel Men of the Cross and ultimately drove plot arcs for Books II & III of my Battle Scars trilogy. My current work in progress, Rogue, takes the legend a step further.
Early on I was advised to let the research be my guide. While I write outlines, I also know that in the course of doing research, I will go wildly off course and the book will be better for it. So many wonderful characters and plot twists come straight out of history. The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” crosses my mind a lot when I’m doing research. Often I’ll use a sort of collage of real events to come up with a plot point, or I’ll honor a long-forgotten person whose name crops up once in an obscure document by using his or her name in my story. I love those small moments of juxtaposing the real with the imagined.
Why do you think historical fiction continues to fascinate?
Elizabeth St. John
Our fascination with the past often comes as a result of wanting to understand and connect with our present. There is, I believe, a certain reassurance to read of surviving great peril, overcoming terrible odds, enduring overwhelming sadness or loss. When we look for meaning in our own lives, looking back at the past can be consoling, offer hope and inspiration for a way forward. Many of my readers tell me they particularly enjoy the perspective of less well-known people, who may have moved in influential or royal circles, and were observers of great historical events, yet lived and loved much as we do today.
And, I think we all enjoy the travelling through historical fiction into another world, a past that is just out of reach but still evident in ruined castles, captivating portraits and fascinating insights from documents left behind.
The history books offer us the bare facts, and even those are often disputed, but rarely put the flesh on the bones. History is about the lives of real people, who lived and died, and historical fiction can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ in a narrative which for many can be inaccessible.
It’s also intriguing to explore the differences in cultural attitudes to such things as love and marriage, childbirth and death, crime and punishment. I’ve also enjoyed learning about the less well-known people around the central figures, such as kings and queens.
The best historical fiction transports the reader, evoking the sights, sounds and even the smells of a different time and place. For me, the fascination is to begin to understand the motivation of figures from history, and to discover why they acted as they did.
Because, until Back To The Future becomes true, or Dr Who turns up in the TARDIS, it is the only way that we can travel back through time – and not worry about getting home again for dinner.
Wanting to know where we come from is a timeless urge but wanting to have a glimpse in a vivid way about how people in the past lived is a strong part of that. Well-written historical fiction gives us the feel of how people tried to make sense of their lives in vastly different circumstances. They were still people, after all.
Sometimes we take a rather idealised view of the past, but as with anything in fiction, it’s an imagined landscape. And sometimes, we wonder how we would act and behave in those times. Historical fiction gives us, from the safety of our armchairs, an emotional connection to the slaughterfields of Cannae, the elegance of the Belle Époque, the dangerous headiness of Byzantium, being under siege in a medieval castle or caught up in the exciting revolutionary transition of the 19th century.
Speaking for myself, once I discovered that history is about real people and real situations (not just names and dates), about love and hate and deceit and disappointment, I was hooked. I’d much rather learn about an event that really happened than a legend from someone’s head. I’m still not sure most readers feel the same way I do, but since history repeats itself, why not be prepared.
The sheer diversity of historical fiction is what keeps readers coming back to this genre for more. It retains its appeal because of its immense variety and breadth of scope. Readers can enjoy romance, action, thrillers, or crime in stories set in any period of the past – it’s like being in a time machine without all the distracting technology. The contrasts between time periods are stark but whether you want to read about World War Two or Roman Britain, historical fiction offers it all.
The Betrayal anthology illustrates this very well with twelve authors writing stories set over a vast expanse of time and employing different writing styles to tackle the same underlying theme.
I think it offers an element of escape. We also tend to believe that life was simpler then, things less complicated and complex. To some extent, that is probably true as the majority of those alive in the past had little time to spend considering anything but how to find food and somewhere to sleep. But no matter the era, the people who live in the times would laugh out loud at the notion that their lives were simple. Take the political machinations in republican Rome, or the complexities of the English Civil War—whatever else you’d call them, they sure weren’t simple! Still: escaping to the past offers a breather from our time. And well-written historical fiction will not only expand the reader’s knowledge about a period, it will usually shed further light on the human condition as such.
There are many different reasons. As an author, I read a lot of non-fiction as part of my research, and while it informs, it can be quite dry. Historical Fiction not only tells us what happened, it helps us feel it. A non-fiction account of an execution will tell you what happened and why it happened but a fictionalised version, while based on the same contemporary account, makes the reader suffer alongside the victim. Fiction promotes not only understanding but empathy so the reader shares the protagonist’s pain.
I think that reading fiction, generally, is a form of escape. The reader wants to be transported far away from the everyday. And where better to escape to a more simple world, a more romantic world even, than the past? Okay, the past wasn’t always pretty, but isn’t there something more appealing about a horse ride than a trip in a modern car? Perhaps the reality wasn’t so lovely but we can imagine the beautiful houses, built when architecture wasn’t just about functionality. I think there is also an appeal because of the link to the fairy tales we were told as children, which are centuries old, and usually had old-fashioned illustrations, so there is a sense of comforting familiarity, too.
I’ve heard it said that we read to either escape or to learn. Historical fiction allows us to do both. This genre takes us to places where we could otherwise never go. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to go back in time and experience historical events first hand—to be with Elizabeth I as she stares down the Armada or to ride along with Charles II during his nerve-wracking escape from Parliament? But historical fiction also offers opportunities to learn, not just about the past but also to make sense of the present. History tends to be cyclical and it’s not hard to recognize echoes of the past in today’s struggles. There’s always a comfort in having a roadmap.
Historical fiction gives a reader a glimpse of a past they rarely see in history textbooks, textbooks that mainly consist of names, events, and dates. Those texts may – or may not – be accurate or complete, and they rarely factor in the human component. So historical fiction fills in the gaps. It makes history come alive and can transport the reader back in time. Perhaps it reveals more about the famous, or the infamous, but even being introduced to an ordinary person in extraordinary situations brings a better understanding of the past.
Great fiction can bring history to thrilling life. Historical fiction allows us to escape into utterly different worlds that still resonate with the familiar. There is nothing like connecting with a character from the past who is motivated by the same goals and feelings that we have today. We can empathize; we know what it’s like to struggle through life’s challenges and exult in life’s triumphs. But we have the extra bonus of hindsight when we read these stories of the past. Anyone who has nodded off with boredom reading dry history books and then becomes obsessed with the same events and time periods by reading masterful historical fiction knows the power of this genre.
A lifelong history enthusiast, Judith Arnopp holds an honours degree in English/Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies. Judith has written twelve novels to date, nine of which are based in the Tudor period covering women like Elizabeth of York, Anne Boleyn and Mary Tudor, but her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life. The Beaufort Chronicle: The Life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series) covers the transitional period between Bosworth and the death of Henry Tudor. She is currently taking a break from Tudor women and writing from the perspective of Henry VIII in “A Matter of Conscience.”
Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction and a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award.
Anna Belfrage wanted to become a time-traveller but ended up as a financial professional with a passion for writing and history. She has authored the acclaimed time travel series The Graham Saga, set in the 17th century, and the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy, set in 14th century England. Anna has also published The Wanderer, a contemporary romantic suspense trilogy with paranormal ingredients. Her latest release, His Castilian Hawk, is a story of loyalty and love set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales.
Derek Birks lives in Dorset, England, though he spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. For many years he taught history in a large secondary school before turning his hand to writing historical fiction. His stories, set both in the medieval period and late antiquity, are fast-paced and action-packed—almost no character is safe. He has also produced a series of non-fiction podcasts on the War of the Roses. When he is not writing, he enjoys travel, walking and watching films.
First published in 1994, Helen Hollick became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen(titled A Hollow Crown in the UK), with the sequel, Harold the King (U.S: I Am the Chosen King), being novels that explore events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales, and Life of a Smuggler. She lives in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, runs Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, and occasionally gets time to write . . .
Amy Maroney lives in Oregon, U.S.A, with her family. She spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction before turning her hand to historical fiction. When she’s not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, drawing, dancing, traveling, and reading. Amy is the author of the Miramonde Series, a trilogy about a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail.
Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova series featuring modern Praetorian heroines—tough but compassionate women. She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, a Masters in History and an over-vivid imagination. It was hot that afternoon when, staring at a particularly beautiful mosaic, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. Now, Alison blogs, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.
Charlene Newcomb lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian (retired) by trade, a U.S Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not at the library, she is still surrounded by books trying to fill her head with all things medieval and galaxies far, far away. She loves to travel and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar.
Tony Riches is a full-time author based in Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK, and is best known for his Tudor trilogy. After a career in the Royal Air Force he held senior roles in the National Health Service and Local Government. When researching his books Tony likes visiting the actual locations and discovering elusive primary sources. In his spare time he enjoys sailing and sea kayaking.
Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she received her B.A in Literature at the University of Missouri before moving to New York to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended. Today she lives in Sergeantsville, N.J with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
Elizabeth St. John
Elizabeth St. John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An acclaimed author, historian and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Lydiard Park and Nottingham Castle to Richmond Palace and the Tower of London to inspire her novels. Although the family sold a few country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going thee days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them—in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story . . .
Annie Whitehead has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England:To Be A Queen, about the life of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians; Alvar the Kingmaker set in the turbulent tenth century when kings died young and not always of natural causes, and Cometh the Hour, the story of King Penda the pagan king. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books and she was the inaugural winner of the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Award.
“A blazing fire killed her family and devoured her home. A vengeful demon haunted her. Ghosts of the Revolutionary War needed help that only she could provide. A young woman languished, desperate to survive, and teetered on the edge of sanity.
Mehitable grew up in a freshly tamed town, carved from the primeval forest. Family, friends, and working at the mercantile filled her days and warmed her heart. For Mehitable, life was simple and safe, until tragedy struck. When her family perished in their burning home, she retreated into a world of her own making.
As a young girl, she had seen glimmers, glimpses, and flickers of the spirit world. She closed her eyes. She turned her back. She ignored the apparitions that she never spoke of, desperately hoping they would leave her in peace. She was mistaken.
Grief-stricken, Mehitable withdrew from the human world. Ghosts were everywhere. They became bolder. She could no longer turn her back on the spirit world. Her friends feared for her survival. Nobody understood her. She would have to find her own way.
Fans of TV’s Ghost Whisperer and Long Island Medium will especially love She Sees Ghosts. This historical novel features memorable characters and delivers bone-tingling, spine chilling goosebumps. It stands on its own and it is the next installment in the Adirondack Spirit Series by the award-winning author of Wanders Far―An Unlikely Hero’s Journey. David Fitz-Gerald delivers a historical novel with a bittersweet ending that you won’t see coming.
Would she save the spirits’ souls, or would they save her? Only time would tell.”
David Fitz-Gerald writes fiction that is grounded in history and soars with the spirits. Dave enjoys getting lost in the settings he imagines and spending time with the characters he creates. Writing historical fiction is like making paintings of the past. He loves to weave fact and fiction together, stirring in action, adventure, romance, and a heavy dose of the supernatural with the hope of transporting the reader to another time and place. He is an Adirondack 46-er, which means that he has hiked all of the highest peaks in New York State, so it should not be surprising when Dave attempts to glorify hikers as swashbuckling superheroes in his writing. She Sees Ghosts―A Story of a Woman Who Rescues Lost Souls is the next instalment in the Adirondack Spirit Series.
Today, I’m delighted to be hosting the Fire and Ash blog tour by Thomas J Berry, and I’ll be sharing an exciting excerpt from the book. But first, the details.
Here’s the blurb:
“Five men and women in Ancient Greece are set on a dangerous journey of self-discovery during the bitter conflict of the Peloponnesian War.
While mighty Athens struggles to rebuild after a devastating campaign abroad, the feared warriors of Sparta prepare to deliver the final blow in a decades long war. No one is safe anymore as the conflict shifts across the Aegean to the shores of wealthy Persia. Old colonies, once loyal to Athens, are eager to rebel and the Great King is willing to pay anything to regain his control over them. These coastal plains set the stage for massive battles and heartbreaking defeats. This time there will be only one true victor.
The news coming out of Sicily ripples across the cities of Ancient Greece like a thunderbolt and it is left to the poor and desperate to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. One young mother is suddenly faced with a horrible tragedy and struggles against all odds to make a new life for her family. An eager boy looking for adventure enlists in the new Athenian ranks but finds life on campaign a lot more than he bargained for. A Spartan officer in the twilight of his years struggles to adapt to a young man’s army and an exiled Athenian strives to earn his way back into the graces of his beloved city. The harem girls in a Persian court meet a handsome foreigner and one risks everything for a chance at love.
As the conflict between Athens and Sparta builds to a final showdown, five men and women struggle to come to terms with their changing world. What will they find in the ashes when peace finally comes?”
But enough of that. Here’s the excerpt,
“A few moments later, the tent flap opened, and two figures entered. Memo looked up and smiled at the newcomers. Doro and Three-Fingers stood before him looking a bit anxious.
“What’s wrong, fellas? You look like death warmed over.”
“We saw Alcibiades this morning, but he left before we could talk to him,” Fingers stated simply. “Hadn’t heard from the man in years.”
“I spoke with him briefly,” Memo admitted. “But I had to practically throw myself in his path.”
“We noticed you bent his ear a bit,” Doro said enviously. “What did he say? How does he account for himself these days?”
“He and Timandra keep to themselves at Pactye,” Memo explained. “The Thracians are his only friends up in that region.”
“Is that all he said?” Doro asked, sounding a little disappointed.
“Well, he did mention something, but it’s probably not important.”
“Spill it,” Fingers said. “Where Alcibiades is concerned, nothing should be overlooked. He’s a military genius and you know it.”
Memo looked at his friends. “He thinks the Spartans are playing us. Last night, after we retired from the straits, he spotted a pair of their ships lagging behind their main body. They weren’t aggressive, just…hanging out, watching us. He thinks they were spying on our movements for some reason.”
“Lysander doesn’t want to do anything but watch these days! It’s driving me crazy,” Fingers retorted in disgust.
“They can look at us all they want as long as they keep their distance,” Doro muttered. Then he laughed loudly. “Perhaps they wanted to join us for supper!”
“Did he mention this to the Generals?” Three-Fingers inquired.
“I don’t think so. I was close enough to hear much of their exchange and I wrote it down so the Council will receive a report on his surprise visit. I’m sure they’d be interested in hearing what he’s been doing.”
They talked for a little longer but soon Doro and Three-Fingers departed, ready to board Twisted River, a newer trireme captured from the Chians a few months ago. He knew their attitude toward the Spartan leadership was common among the crews. Lysander had developed a reputation as a skilled commander, yet he had turned passive since the Athenians arrived on the scene.
Konon was due back today and perhaps he’d bring some good news with him. Perhaps even a letter from home if my wife was able to get a note off. He had last seen Alexandra when he returned to state his case at the trial of the Generals a year ago. It had been a quick visit, but he had tried to make the most of it. She was 37, nine years his junior, and had spent much of the last decade raising their three children without him. He told himself he was simply doing his part for the war effort. Such excuses rang hollow, however, when he finally saw his 21 year-old-son or his two daughters and wondered where the time had gone.
Julius had matured in many ways, he noticed, especially his height. The young man stood just over six feet tall and could wield a sword and shield if he was pressed into service but preferred more skilled vocations. On his last visit, Memo learned about his legal appointment in the capital. His son was crafting bills and helping to defend poor folk in drafty, marble courtrooms. He was proud of the young man Julius had become and was chagrined at not being there to see him grow up.
Life had changed little for his two youngest. Eurynome was 11 this year and Rhea nine. They spent most days helping their mother and the two family slaves with household chores. Nomy enjoyed working the loom but hated the smell of fresh dye while the little one was being tutored in herbal remedies and poultices by an old practitioner. When this blasted war is over, he thought, I’ll be able to return home and become a father to them once more.
Despite the hardships, he knew his family fared better than most. His own father had been a respected diplomat in the city and accumulated a substantial house, servants, and investments before he passed away years ago. Alexandra now lived frugally off the interest his estate provided and the funds Memo send her from his pay. Somehow, she made it all work, but he knew it wasn’t easy.
He rose from his table and walked outside to a lonely camp. Most of the men were now at sea in one of the 180 warships lined up against their Spartan adversaries. Tydeus was a conservative type but that wasn’t surprising. Most of the democrats had lost their lives on the tympanon boards. There weren’t many to choose from when the city finally cooled off and started looking for replacements.
It seemed ironic how quickly the Assembly had a change of heart after the executions. With their bloodlust satiated for the moment, they realized they needed new leadership for the large fleet still in Persian waters. Konon was the obvious choice but he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. Tydeus was sent forth, together with Menandros, Philokles, and Adeimantos. In true democratic fashion, the five generals were instructed to alternate command between themselves daily to avoid a concentration of power. It was an interesting experiment, Memo thought, but it had its drawbacks.
Tydeus possessed a calm, steady demeanor while Philokles had earned an ignoble reputation with both friend and foe. At the beginning of the summer, he had captured two Chian vessels and threw the crews overboard, drowning hundreds of men. A few years earlier, he made a motion before the Council that all prisoners of war should have their right thumb cut off so they will never pick up a sword against Athens again. Fortunately, the resolution was not passed for it could have led to similar retribution against their own soldiers captured in the field.
As the ships returned that evening with nothing to show for their efforts but empty bellies, Memo met his companions as they disembarked along the sandy beaches. The Twisted River had backed into its position and was lifted onto four logs to dry out overnight. The constant patrol on the water this week had further aggravated some warping along the starboard side and the Captain wanted to add more tar to its hull after the men took their meal. As thousands of sailors started up the narrow paths leading towards distant towns and markets, the work remained unfinished. It would be well after dark before they returned.
The following morning, Memo greeted Konon as he emerged from the officer’s pavilion. His flagship, the Equinox, was being prepped for a day at sea and would join the rest of the armada as they faced off once more against the Spartans. The men were growing hungrier by the day, with little to find away from camp and few provisions coming down from Sestos. He asked the General when things were going to change but he only got a non-committal response.
“Philokles is in command today and I will leave that decision to him,” Konon replied casually. He had eaten his fill at Sestos the night before, so hunger was not a paramount issue at the moment. If Lysander wanted to delay battle, Konon had no objection. He had all the time in the world.
Memo spent the day writing formal letters to the city governor at Byzantium, two island towns bordering on revolution, and a daily report of the fleet’s activities, or lack thereof, in the Hellespont. The Council would soon tire of the General’s patient attitude and force Konon to use his superior numbers for what they were intended. Crush the Spartans and force them to retreat from the region. He added one last letter to the pile as well, a personal note to Alexandra. He smiled as he sat back in his chair. Regular correspondence with family back home was just one of the perks of his job.
The sun was falling from the sky at a slow but steady rate. Helios was guiding his golden chariot towards the western horizon and soon Doro and Three-Fingers would meet him for their evening walk into Sestos. He hated the journey. It was ten miles overland and it took them almost three hours to cross through the deep streams, grassy plains, and thick underbrush to reach the markets before they closed for the day.
He looked out across the water and saw the vessels approaching at a leisurely rate. There were 180 triremes on the water today, including the state ship, Paralus, which had arrived from the capital two days before. It was meant to ferry important dignitaries around and serve as the official ambassador of the empire. Its presence here meant only one thing. Athens was watching Konon’s activities with great interest.
Memo crossed his arms and gazed across the waters, but shadows obscured the distant port of Lampsacus on the opposite coast. He wondered if the two ships Alcibiades had reported were still watching them. Maybe there was a simple answer for it. As the Twisted River was pulled up along the beach next to dozens of other warships, Memo put it out of his mind. His friends disembarked and they headed off through the brush towards the markets at Sestos.
Ten minutes later, he heard a distant shout and turned his head back towards the camp for a second. As he did so, his eyes widened in abject terror. The horizon was full of warships, rowing like the very demon dog of Hades was chasing them. And they were heading straight for the Athenian beach!”
Curious? Then you’ll be pleased to know that the book is available now, using the links below.
Thomas Berry received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from St. Bonaventure University. He takes pleasure in extensively researching both historical fiction and non-fiction stories. In his spare time, he enjoys long distance running and has completed several marathons. He currently lives with his wife and children in New Jersey. You can learn more about Thomas and his historical novels at his website, www.thomas-berry.com.