Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Sigurd’s Swords by Eric Schumacher

Today I’m delighted to welcome Eric Schumacher to the blog with a fantastic post about his new book (available for preorder now) Sigurd’s Swords.

Your book, Sigurd’s Sword, is set in a time period I love, but I don’t know as much about events in the land of the Rus as I’d like, or about Olaf Tryggvason’s early years. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories.

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? 

First of all, thank you for having me on your wonderful blog and for your interest in Sigurd’s Swords

My research isn’t as much of a process as it is a series of rabbit holes that I tend to climb down to gather information that I then convert to notes. I keep those notes in the writing program I use so that I can refer to them often as I write. That said, I often go back to the original sources for more information or for clarity. 

It is a bit tricky writing about Vikings, because they did not chronicle their events in writing. There’s was an oral culture. So what information we have comes from outside sources, and usually from sources who wrote their works decades or even centuries after the people lived and the events occurred. Thanks to the Byzantines, Sigurd’s Swords is the only book I have written that actually had a contemporary writer who chronicled some of the events in the book.

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! I usually start in the same place for all of my books. That place is the sagas, and in particular, Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla, or “The Lives of the Norse Kings.” That provides me with the guardrails and the general outline of the story. However, Snorre wrote his series of tales centuries after my character Olaf lived, so I cannot rely on him 100% for the details of my books. Nor does he get into the minutiae that help add flavour and depth to the story, such as weaponry, fighting styles, flora and fauna, food and beverages, the types of dwellings that existed, and so on. For those things, I rely more on individual books or research papers I find online. 

In the case of Olaf and his time in Kievan Rus’, I also turned to other sources that I found. The Russian Primary Chronicle, to which I found a reference on Wikipedia, was a tremendous help. Like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is broken down by year, so it provided me with a better sense of the timing of events and what events my characters may have experienced during their time in that kingdom. That, in turn, led me to other sources for more detailed descriptions of those events. The Byznatines were a great help for this. Civil servant John Sylitzes wrote his “A Synopsis of Byzantine History” in AD 1081, which covered the Siege of Drastar I have in my novel. Leo the Deacon, who was at the siege, also wrote about it in his Historia. The foreign policy of the Byzantines is described in The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, and was also helpful to provide larger context for why certain events might have unfolded the way they did, such as the Siege of Kyiv in AD 968. Having these sources also provided a secondary verification of the timing of things. 

All that said, there was still much I could not unearth about the Rus or Olaf during that time. So I tried to fill in the gaps with plausible plotlines and information based on the research I could find. I hope it all comes together in an enjoyable story for your readers!

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It sounds fascinating, and I will have to hunt some of it down. Good luck with the new book.

Here’s the blurb;

From best-selling historical fiction novelist, Eric Schumacher, comes the second volume in Olaf’s Saga: the adrenaline-charged story of Olaf Tryggvason and his adventures in the kingdom of the Rus.

AD 968. It has been ten summers since the noble sons of the North, Olaf and Torgil, were driven from their homeland by the treachery of the Norse king, Harald Eriksson. Having then escaped the horrors of slavery in Estland, they now fight among the Rus in the company of Olaf’s uncle, Sigurd. 

It will be some of the bloodiest years in Rus history. The Grand Prince, Sviatoslav, is hungry for land, riches, and power, but his unending campaigns are leaving the corpses of thousands in their wakes. From the siege of Konugard to the battlefields of ancient Bulgaria, Olaf and Torgil struggle to stay alive in Sigurd’s Swords, the riveting sequel to Forged by Iron

Pre-order link

Meet the Author

Eric Schumacher (1968 – ) is an American historical novelist who currently resides in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and two children. He was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended college at the University of San Diego.

At a very early age, Schumacher discovered his love for writing and medieval European history, as well as authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Those discoveries continue to fuel his imagination and influence the stories he tells. His first novel, God’s Hammer, was published in 2005.

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Guardians at the Wall by Tim Walker

Today I’m delighted to welcome Tim Walker to the blog with an extract from his new book, Guardians at the Wall, a fascinating time slip novel.

Here’s the blurb:

Archaeology student Noah scrapes the soil near Hadrian’s Wall, once a barrier that divided Roman Britannia from wild Caledonian tribes, in the hope of uncovering an ancient artefact around which he can build a project-defining story.

He makes an intriguing find, but hasn’t anticipated the distraction of becoming the object of desire in a developing love triangle in the isolated academic community at Vindolanda. He’s living his best life, but must learn to prioritise in a race against time to solve an astounding 2,000-year-old riddle, and an artefact theft, as he comes to realise his future career prospects depend on it.

In the same place, almost 2,000 years earlier, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, hungover and unaware of the bloody conflicts that will soon challenge him, is rattled by the hoot of an owl, a bad omen. 

These are the protagonists whose lives will brush together in the alternating strands of this dual timeline historical novel, one commencing his journey and trying to get noticed, the other trying to stay intact as he approaches retirement.

How will the breathless battles fought by a Roman officer influence the fortunes of a twenty-first century archaeology mud rat? Can naive Noah, distracted by the attentions of two very different women, navigate his way to a winning presentation?

Find out in Tim Walker’s thrilling historical dual timeline novel, Guardians at the Wall.

And here’s the excerpt.

Extract 1 – Archaeology in Action

[POV – Noah Jessop, archaeology student on a dig at Hadrian’s Wall]

I turned at the sound of Mike’s approach, his gum boots bouncing on the wooden boards preserving the moorland grass around the outer edge of the dig. Beyond him, white woolly blobs ripped at the tough turf with teeth and jaws suited to the harsh environment.

“Once you’ve photographed it, make an entry in the day log,” he said, before leaving me to check on the four volunteers who were sieving soil for hidden fragments of pots or small coins in a long wooden box outside the marquee.

It was the site of a settlement of wood and mud-daubed huts and their adjacent animal pens built by the Brigante people, next to what had once been the stone walls of the Roman fortress at Vindolanda. The Romans would have referred to the cluster of buildings as a ‘vicus’. Every fort had one. The fortress site had been excavated almost continuously since the 1930s, and had yielded a wealth of finds that revealed a detailed picture of how successive Roman garrisons had lived their lives – including written records and correspondence that had miraculously survived for almost two thousand years entombed in layers of peat and soft clay. Now a number of archaeology undergraduates had come together to excavate and map the vicus that had once serviced the needs of the Roman occupiers.

I returned to my trench and resumed scraping the earth beside the street. After ten minutes, I stopped abruptly as my trowel blade made contact with a solid object. “Another stone,” I muttered. I dug around it, slowly scraping the dark, loamy soil and patches of sticky clay, then I burrowed gently with my fingers to get underneath the object. It was no ordinary stone. I picked up my paint brush and swept away the clinging soil to reveal a carved face on a smooth, rounded stone, its form and facial features exposed to the sun and air for the first time in almost two millennia. And my eyes were the first to behold it. Time froze. The excavation didn’t exist, just my breathless awe at the face that had last been touched by the hands of someone from the Roman era. I embraced our private moment and then my excitement erupted.

“Mike! I’ve found something!” I yelled in the direction of my crouching supervisor.

Mike stood up and strode purposefully towards me, springing on the boards like a March lamb, calling, “I’m coming!” He knelt down and stared at the stone face peering out of the soil. “Yes, you’ve found something alright, young Noah. Brush away the surface and then photograph in situ before easing it out.”

One careful centimetre at a time, I freed the object, and I held it in my calloused hands, gently brushing away the top layer of clinging soil. I raised the carving and saw grooved swirls and inscriptions that would be revealed when it was clean, and the delicate features of the statuette. It was carved from light grey marble, had a flat base, and stood about ten inches tall. I estimated the weight to be about two pounds – a bag of sugar.

The other students and volunteers had stopped what they were doing and now gathered around, making cooing noises or remarking ‘nice’ and ‘lovely’. I brushed some more, exposing details of the impassive face and shrouded body that suggested it was a female form, its hands cradling the mound of its belly. After admiring her for a few seconds, I handed her over to Mike, grinning like a bridegroom.

“Hmmm, it looks like a deity of the Brigante tribe, perhaps a goddess of fertility or one to ward off evil spirits. Could be carved from a lump of marble found in the quarry pits that produced the blocks used to build the fortress walls. There’s a vein of quartz running through it that perhaps influenced its selection. I’ll take it to Professor Wilde to get her opinion. Well done, lad. Now everyone, back to work. Noah’s shown us that there are riches still to be discovered!”

I beamed with pride as if I’d uncovered the tomb of a pharaoh, and as Mike continued the process of recording and tucked up my beautiful goddess nice and safe, my eyes followed his every move, and I nodded as he talked me through it.  

*****

[In the year 180 CE at the same location, Centurion Gaius Atticianus returns to Vindolanda fort after a successful patrol. Kerwyn is his native scout.]

As his unit gathered and men dismounted to clasp each other’s forearms with relief, Kerwyn and his family came to Gaius’s side.

“Sir, I am indebted to you for coming to our aid, although I did not ask for it. I will await your punishment for my disobedience.”

“That punishment will come, Kerwyn, but not today. Be with your family and be thankful to the gods, and your brave wife.”

The scout nodded and pulled his wife forward by her hand. “This is Morwen, who put the mother of our gods to good use in my defence.” 

Morwen, still holding her woollen garment that was torn at the shoulder, held out a rounded stone in her other hand, and looked up sheepishly at the officer from behind an uneven fringe. In response to Gaius’s puzzled expression, she lifted the rock and showed him the carved face and body on its smooth, sculptured side.

Kerwyn explained. “Brigantia is the mother of our people; she is like your goddess, Minerva, and is the great protector of our children.”

“Well, she certainly protected you today!” Gaius laughed.

Kerwyn nodded. “The gods were with us today.” He looked shaken and ill at ease, rotating his felt riding hat through his hands.

Morwen said, “Please take the goddess to watch over your wife and family, sir.” She held the stone carving out, and Gaius hesitated before accepting it.

Gaius noticed that his men had assembled and Paulinus was organising them into two ranks, whilst still holding the reins of their horses. He nodded to Kerwyn and Morwen, then turned away and went to Paulinus. “How many have we lost?”

“I make it twelve Gauls and two Sarmatians,” Paulinus replied with a sigh.

Gaius flinched and took his gold coin from his pouch, burying it in his big fist. He hated the loss of any of his men, and now felt the heavy weight of his responsibility. He knew all the Gauls by name and much of their backgrounds. It was a hard loss to bear – the biggest loss in any single action since he had become cent commander.

Just then, two Gauls came into the square, leading their horses, to tired cheers from the men. It was the whipped troublemaker, Vetonrix, and another younger man with a bandaged head and bloody tunic. The men called out friendly insults in welcome.

“There is a story here,” Gaius whispered to Paulinus. They grinned their shared relief that two more had survived.

“There’s a story in your hand, sir,” Paulinus said, nodding at the stone carving. 

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Meet the Author:

Tim Walker is an independent author living near Windsor in the UK. He grew up in Liverpool where he began his working life as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper. After studying for a degree in Communication studies he moved to London where he worked in the newspaper publishing industry for ten years before relocating to Zambia where, following a period of voluntary work with VSO, he set up his own marketing and publishing business. He returned to the UK in 2009.

His creative writing journey began in earnest in 2013, as a therapeutic activity whilst recovering from cancer treatment. He began writing an historical fiction series, A Light in the Dark Ages, in 2014, inspired by a visit to the part-excavated site of a former Roman town. The series connects the end of Roman Britain to elements of the Arthurian legend and is inspired by historical source material, presenting an imagined history of Britain in the fifth and early sixth centuries.

The last book in the series, Arthur, Rex Brittonum, was published in June 2020. This is a re-imagining of the story of King Arthur and follows on from 2019’s Arthur Dux Bellorum. Both titles are Coffee Pot Book Club recommended reads. The series starts with Abandoned (second edition, 2018); followed by Ambrosius: Last of the Romans (2017); and book three, Uther’s Destiny (2018). Series book covers are designed by Canadian graphic artist, Cathy Walker.

Tim has also written three books of short stories, Thames Valley Tales (2015), Postcards from London (2017) and Perverse (2020); a dystopian thriller, Devil Gate Dawn (2016); and three children’s books, co-authored with his daughter, Cathy – The Adventures of Charly Holmes (2017), Charly & the Superheroes (2018) and Charly in Space (2020).

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Poison Keeper by Deborah Swift

Today I’m delighted to welcome Deborah Swift to the blog with a fascinating post about the historical research she undertook to write her new book, The Poison Keeper.

Researching Giulia Tofana

Finding an Enigma

I first came across Giulia Tofana on the internet when I was researching herbs for a different novel. I was immediately fascinated but somewhat daunted as it was quickly apparent that she was more of a legend than a real historical figure, although undoubtedly that figure was grounded in truth. By far the best and most thorough article about her online is this one by Mike Dash. https://mikedashhistory.com/2015/04/06/aqua-tofana-slow-poisoning-and-husband-killing-in-17th-century-italy/

This was my starting point, and I probably followed his footsteps a lot of the way, but I needed more context because I had a whole society to build, not just one woman. His article contains a thorough list of references most I which I consulted through Academia and JStor, where academic papers are available to subscribers for a fee. This included articles by the British Medical Journal on poisons, and articles about the Seventeenth Century Judiciary, or articles about the poison Giulia Tofana invented, Aqua Tofana. Everyone has theories about what the poison was made of, but no-one has absolute proof. The prime suspect is a combination of arsenic and a crushed herb which is a type of toadflax.

pic of Academic articles

My search for the truth was hampered by the fact that I don’t speak Italian, however I did do Latin at school and that definitely helped when faced with a text in Italian and ‘Google Translate!’

The sources that are available for Giulia Tofana are all secondary, but most are available as on the internet and many written years after her death. From my research it is apparent that there are records for the deaths of Theofania di Adamo in 1633 (probably her mother) and Girolama Spara (her daughter) in 1659, and that they were both executed for their part in the poisonings. Giulia Tofana, although by far the best known of this trio of women is herself a shadow in the background of this story, which is why I chose her as the subject of my book. Here is the diary of Giacinto Gigli on JStor which I found very useful. It makes reference to Giulia Tofana and I used it again especially for the second in this series, The Silkworm Keeper when Giulia goes to Rome. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w76twr.6?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Background Research

The Italians’ reputation as keen poisoners can be traced back as far as the Borgias. I read anything I could find on the Borgias and their ‘cantarella’ or poison. According to the Encyclopaedia of Toxicology this was a mixture of copper, arsenic, and phosphorus, prepared in the decaying carcass of a hog. I also researched antidotes which sounded equally outlandish, Venice Treacle for example contained rotting viper’s flesh, and the use of Bezoar stones which were imported from the East and were stones from the stomach of a yak. 

Apart from this, my main concern was to paint a portrait of a realistic woman who existed in her milieu, and for that I needed mostly books. When researching I always invest in books I might need. One particularly useful book about women of this period is Women in Italy – 1350 -1650 Ideals and Realities by Mary Rogers and Paola Tinagli. For example, one woman’s advice to another woman in a letter:

“If your husband beats you or torments you and keeps bad company, you should blame your bad behaviour, your excessive loquacity and extreme obstinacy, which would be enough to make you unpleasant even in hell.”

The ‘friend’ certainly pulls no punches! But the real extracts from letters give a fantastic insight into the mind-set of the age, and many insights into how repressive the society for women was, and why the cult of poisoning was so strong. I also investigated Italian courtesans in Naples who formed a vast number of the population, and there are several extracts about them in the books I have on my desk. There are currently 27 books on my desk relating to this project,

Research Books

Mapping the Territory

Two things that were incredibly useful to me were the maps of Palermo and Naples that I used to orientate myself to the geography. Have a look at this fantastic map of Naples on Wikimedia here which is dated very close to the time period in which the novel takes place. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Alessandro_Baratta%2C_pianta_di_Napoli_1629.jpg

Maps were particularly useful as my research trip to Naples was cancelled because of Covid. The street names, and landmarks could then be explored on google maps. I am writing the sequel now, and also used online guided tours of The Vatican and Rome. Sometimes video views of Italian works of art with a good guide can be more informative than a real tour where you are wrestling with crowds and the heat.

Map of Palermo (Palermo Wikipedia 1024px-Palermo_-Braun&_Hogenberg,_1588-97)

The novel is born

Of course putting all this together in a novel is like constructing the star on a Christmas tree, there’s a lot holding up the story, but it might not be the focus of the reader’s attention. I am always surprised how little of all this makes its way to the pages, but as a writer I would feel quite unsupported without it all. In the end I invented incident to keep the plot moving, but only where it would fit within the context of the time and place and what was plausibly known of Giulia Tofana. But in the end, this is fiction, and my sincerest wish is for the research not to show!

Thank you so much for hosting me!

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. I find maps incredibly helpful, even when they’re centuries older than the storyline, because they show the old streets which can have changed radically in recent years. Good luck with the new book. Intrigued, here’s the blurb.

Here’s the blurb:

Naples 1633

Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.

Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.

Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.

The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.

Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.

‘Her characters so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society

The Poison Keeper is available with Kindle Unlimited.

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Meet the Author


Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner. 

Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.

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Welcome to today’s stop on the audio tour for The Sterling Directive by Tim Standish

Today I’m delighted to welcome Tim Standish to the blog with a fascinating post about his alternative historical fiction novel, The Sterling Directive.

Weaving with history: developing an alternative Victorian world for The Sterling Directive

A question that I get asked a lot by people when they first read The Sterling Directive is why write an alternative-history rather than a straight history novel? The simple answer is that it’s a genre that has always interested me. I loved the ‘Future Shock’ stories in the comic 2000AD that I read growing up and novels like Fatherland by Robert Harris as well as counterfactual exploration of the more serious kind, for example in the excellent ‘What if?’ series of historical essays.

The first inkling I had of The Sterling Directive, and long before I even knew I was writing a novel, was an idea for a scene of two men duelling on a late Victorian station platform. By then I had come across, and was greatly enjoying, the burgeoning genre of steampunk – its blend of geeky scifi and Victorian society really struck a chord with me and infused this scene from the beginning.

Several years later, when I began to write in earnest, I was consciously sitting down to write an alt-historical novel of the kind that I would enjoy reading – probably a thriller, definitely story-led and in a world that was a recognisable alternative not too far from our own world. 

I wanted to create an alternative history that that supported the story rather than driving the story, one that was alternative but alternative ‘in the background’, as part of a believable world that had evolved organically away from actual history. The science fiction writer William Gibson was a big influence on this choice, as he does a great job of revealing a dystopian future as a world that seems as natural to me as a reader as it does to the characters within it, for example in his novels Count Zero or Virtual Light.

I had read enough Victorian-set fiction, as well as works in the expanding alt-Victorian genre, to have a broad sense of the setting. However, while existing knowledge was enough to get me started, I realised pretty quickly that there would be an ongoing list of research questions large and small that I would need to answer along the way. These ranged from the micro ‘what would an evening gown look like in 1896’ to the macro ‘How might the Confederate States have won the American Civil War?’.

For very specific questions my first port of call was the internet. Given the wider fascination with the Victorian and Edwardian eras, I soon discovered there is a wealth of information to be found on sites ranging from personal blogs to academic research centres. The online catalogues of museums and auction galleries were also a boon when it came to furniture, and other odds and ends for set dressing. From time to time my searching for one thing accidentally led me to something else – the Stirn Waistcoat Camera was one such item that provided a helpful boost to a particular aspect of the plot. 

Social media is also a superb resource for this sort of thing, for example @WikiVictorian on Twitter and @millywdresshistorian on Instagram whose eclectically curated photos are a great source of creative sparks.

The broader questions that needed answering inevitably involved some more in-depth research. 

In The Sterling Directive’s world Babbage’s Difference Engine has given rise to a late Victorian computer age. This is a familiar theme in alt-Victorian fiction, though one that I wanted to firmly root in reality. Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet, exploring the early use of the telegraph and drawing similes to the early internet provided an excellent starting point and something that I returned to time and again. Another is Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age by Mike Hally. Kevin Mitnick’s books describing his experiences as a hacker in the early days of computing were also a great source of anecdotes and personalities. 

In terms of the people and politics of Victorian society, I started with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and read out from there. I also went to a Victorian History symposium at the V&A and the associated book, The Victorian Visionprovided another good jumping off point. Donald Thomas’ The Victorian Underworld was another, as was Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Probably because it has always interested me, and because it is the centre of the protagonist’s world in The Sterling Directive, I did quite a lot of reading into the early days of espionage. Christopher Andrew’s histories of MI6 and MI5 were early influences, particularly the descriptions of the Topographical and Statistical Department which inspired shady off-book agency The Map Room and their governmental antagonists The Bureau of Engine Security in The Sterling Directive. Michael Smith’s The Spying Game was another key source as was John Hughues-Wilson’s The Puppet Masters, a world history of spying.

Image by T Standish

Finally, one key source for everything and anything was my brother. Far more widely read than myself, and with a background in antiquarian books, his encyclopaedic knowledge was invaluable at various stages, from pointing out that a song a character was singing hadn’t been written yet, to recommending books. 

Hopefully that gives you a sense of where the historical aspects of The Sterling Directive came from, but what about the ‘alternative’ part? Having already decided that I wanted something less divergent and fantastical, it struck me that it would be helpful to set a broad frame and to have some rules of thumb in place.

In terms of a frame, I used Charles Babbage’s invention of the Difference and Analytical Engines as a point of divergence; in my timeline the Engines were actually a success and kick-started a Victorian computer age. It’s a relatively common notion in ‘steampunk’ fiction which can lead to wildly differing and often fantastical versions of history. 

I wanted to plot a more organic evolution from this starting point. My first bit of reasoning was that the development of Babbage’s Engines would lead to domestic computers for richer households by 1896 (when The Sterling Directive is set). I saw this as broadly analogous to the time elapsed between the use of the Bletchley Park ‘bombes’ in the second world war and the spread of basic personal computers at home in the mid to late 1980s and early 90s. That time period became my overall benchmark for computing technology and its likely impact on a Victorian world. 

Using this as a broad frame I also developed some principles or rules of thumb to judge alternative ideas ‘out’ or ‘in’:

  1. Access to computing power means calculations and hence research can be accelerated and that new technologies can emerge 15-20 years early. For example: airships are commonplace.
  2. Inventions and ideas that existed but at the fringe can become more mainstream. For example: a mechanised version of Bertillon’s measurement system is the default means of identifying people. 
  3. Wider use of technology will have a destabilising impact on broader societal norms. For example: Suffragettes are an active lobbying group in the 1890s.
  4. Rules are breakable if doing so a) serves the plot or b) is cool. For example: transport devices used in Chapter 20, details of which would be a spoiler! 

Some of the changes I introduced were based on outliers from real history, or by introducing them earlier than in reality. For instance, I decided that Brunel’s wide-gauge railways were a commercial and UK-wide success (and, crucially for one scene, allowed the heroes to have a game of billiards as they travelled).

Some changes were a product of transposing an approximation of the 1980s into an approximation of the 1890s and were often in the background. One of my favourites was based on the Hard Rock café style of themed restaurants that I remember being quite the thing in the 1980s. I wondered what a Victorian version of this would be like and had the idea of a Dickens-themed chain of restaurants called ‘Pickwicks’, that I imagined would be festooned in memorabilia and merchandise and perfect for a low-key lunch in an airport. 

Finally, some changes were a result of the sorts of questions posed by historians in the What-if? series of books. The biggest one of these in The Sterling Directive is ‘What if the Confederates won the Civil War?’ shortly followed by ‘How would that happen?’ and ‘What would that mean for the rest of the world?’. It is a big question that I only begin to answer in The Sterling Directive. It’s one that I’ll continue to tackle as the series progresses, starting with the second book which takes place in The Confederate States of America in 1898. A shelf or two of reading awaits…

Thank you so much for sharing your research and reasoning. It sounds fascinating – playing with ‘history’ in such a way.

Here’s the blurb:

It is 1896. In an alternative history where Babbage’s difference engines have become commonplace, Captain Charles Maddox, wrongly convicted of a murder and newly arrested for treason, is rescued from execution by a covert agency called the Map Room. 

Maddox is given the choice of taking his chances with the authorities or joining the Map Room as an agent and helping them uncover a possible conspiracy surrounding the 1888 Ripper murders. Seeing little choice, Maddox accepts the offer and joins the team of fellow agents Church and Green. With help from the Map Room team, Maddox (now Agent Sterling) and Church investigate the Ripper murders and uncover a closely guarded conspiracy deep within the British Government. Success depends on the two of them quickly forging a successful partnership as agents and following the trail wherever, and to whomever, it leads. 

An espionage thriller set in an alternative late 19th-century London.

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Meet the Author

Tim Standish grew up in England, Scotland and Egypt. Following a degree in Psychology, his career has included teaching English in Spain, working as a researcher on an early computer games project, and working with groups and individuals on business planning, teamworking and personal development.
He has travelled extensively throughout his life and has always valued the importance of a good book to get through long flights and long waits in airports. With a personal preference for historical and science fiction as well as the occasional thriller, he had an idea for a book that would blend all three and The Sterling Directive was created.


When not working or writing, Tim enjoys long walks under big skies and is never one to pass up a jaunt across a field in search of an obscure historic site. He has recently discovered the more-exciting-than-you-would-think world of overly-complicated board games.

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Sterling Directive Blog Tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for the audiobook of The Assassins by Alan Bardos

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Alan Bardos to the blog with a post about the historical research he undertook to write The Assassins.

My main research process is to start by reading every book I can on the subject I’m writing about in order to get an overview of the period and an understanding of the events in the story. My aim is to write a work of fiction based on historical events so I try to remind myself that I’m not writing a textbook every so often. However, there is a lot of background information in The Assassins which was needed to put the events into context.

The first book I read on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was David James Smith’s, ‘One Morning in Sarajevo’, which proved to be a great place to start; providing a detailed introduction to the assassins, what motivated them and the volatile political situation in the Balkans at the time.

It also had an extensive bibliography that led me to Vadmire Dedijer’s, ‘The Road To Sarajevo’, which is the definitive books on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. These two books were the foundation for my research. With other books providing more specialist information.

‘The Archduke and the Assassin’, by Lavender Cassels, is a particularly good biography of Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand and a gold mine of information about the Young Bosnia movement that produced the assassins and Austro-Hungarian intelligence’s failure to detect them; which is a major storyline in my novel. ‘Archduke of Sarajevo: The Romance & Tragedy of Franz Ferdinand of Austria’, by Gordon Brook-Shepherd, is specifically about Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s relationship which formed the heart of the novel.

In terms of the events that led to the outbreak of the First World War: ‘Thirteen Days: The Road to the First World War’, by Clive Ponting, was my main book giving a day by day account of the diplomatic crises that led to the outbreak of the war, from the perspective of all the protagonists. There were other books that helped add detail, but these were my principal go to books in writing The Assassins.

Once I have a clear idea of a story I like to try and find first hand accounts. In my most recent books I’ve gone to the reading room of the Imperial War Museum and the National Archive. Unfortunately I did not have access to these type of resource when writing The Assassins, but the wealth of books on the subject do provide excerpts from primary sources. For example ‘The Road To Sarajevo’, gave extensive firsthand accounts. Including parts of Gavrilo Princip’s interview with the Police after carrying out the assassination. 

The main problem I had when researching The Assassins was that some of the books often contradicted each other and repeated mistakes. So my mantra was, when in doubt do what was best for the story.

This was particularly prevalent when trying to work out where the Assassins were standing when they made their first attempt on Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. This is largely because the assassins themselves gave varying accounts and changed positions.

Once I have a clear idea of the story and where it is set I carry out research trips, to get a flavour of places and to pick up details you could never get from a book.

The centre piece of my research was a trip to Sarajevo, which helped me get a feel for the city and imagine how it would have felt in 1914. It was very humbling to stand in the place where Princip would have stood when he assassinated Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. The main thing that the trip brought home was how close everything was to each other. The boarding house where Princip lived is about 5 minutes walk from the corner where he assassinated Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. 

However many of the streets and buildings had changed in the cities turbulent history. So I had to make educated guesses as to where some of the buildings would have been by studying maps, old postcards and photographs of the time.

1. Graf & Stift car

The Museum of Military History in Vienna, was also a fascinating place to visit, it has the Graf & Stift car in which Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were in when they were shot, as part of an exhibit about the assassination. This includes three of the assassins’ guns, some of the bombs recovered after their arrest, the chaise longue Franz Ferdinand died on and his blood-stained uniform.

2. Pistol

Artstetten Castle in Austria, where Sophie and Franz Ferdinand are buried, is an incredible place to see. It has a museum established by Sophie and Franz Ferdinand’s great-granddaughter and has the feel of walking through a family scrapbook. It has a very good display on the assassination, including the official programme of events for the Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo which was useful when putting together those chapters.

Sophie and Franz Ferdinand’s favourite country seat, Konopiste Castle, is also a beguiling place to visit with a tour of Sophie and Franz Ferdinand’s private apartments. It features a few artefacts from the assassination including the ermine stole and bodice that Sophie was wearing on the 28th June 1914 and the bullet that killed her.

These trips helped to give colour and perspective to the novel, as well as brining home the terrible family tragedy the assassination was, as well as a world shattering event.

Thank you so much for sharing your research. It sounds as though there was a huge amount of source material to wade through.

Intrigued?

Here’s the blurb;

1914.

Tensions are reaching boiling point in Europe and the threat of war is imminent. 

Johnny Swift, a young and brash diplomatic clerk employed by the British embassy is sent to infiltrate the ‘Young Bosnians’, a group of idealistic conspirators planning to murder Franz Ferdinand. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in a bid to liberate their country from the monarchy’s grip.

Swift has been having an affair with his employer’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Smyth. Sir George Smyth dispatches the agent on the dangerous mission, believing that it will be the last he will see of his young rival.

The agent manages to infiltrate the Young Bosnian conspirators’ cell, helped by Lazlo Breitner, a Hungarian Civil Servant.

However, Swift soon realises that he may be in over his head. His gambling debts and taste for beautiful women prove the least of his problems as he struggles to survive on his wits in the increasingly complex – and perilous – world of politics and espionage.

Desperate to advance himself and with the lives of a royal couple unexpectedly in his hands, Swift tries to avert catastrophe.

Praise for The Assassins

‘A cracking read, highly recommended’ – Roger A Price 

‘Written with polished panache, it kept me gripped from the first to last. Five stars from me!’ – A.A. Chaudhuri

‘Part historical fiction, part thriller and part love story, this is a compelling and entertaining read’ – Gary Haynes

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Meet the author

Alan Bardos is a graduate of the MA in TV Script Writing at De Montfort University, he also has a degree in Politics and History from Brunel University. Writing historical fiction combines the first great love of his life, making up stories, with the second, researching historical events and characters. Alan currently live in Oxfordshire with his wife… the other great love of his life.

Despite the amount of material that has been written about the twentieth century there is still a great deal of mystery and debate surrounding many of its events, which Alan explores in his historical fiction series using a certain amount of artistic license to fill in the gaps, while remaining historically accurate. The series will chronicle the first half of the twentieth century from the perspective of Johnny Swift, a disgraced and degenerate diplomat and soldier; starting with the pivotal event of the twentieth century, the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in ‘The Assassins’.

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Essex: Tudor Rebel by Tony Riches

Today, I’m extremely pleased to welcome Tony Riches to the blog to talk about his fantastic new book, Essex: Tudor Rebel.

Your book, Essex, Tudor Rebel, is set in a time I love reading about. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories. 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?

Thank you for inviting me to your blog to talk about my new book.

I particularly wanted to keep Robert Devereux’s story as factually accurate and authentic as possible, so immersed myself in the world of Elizabethan London. I often spend a year tracking down primary sources and visiting actual locations used in my books. 

I was lucky to have access to Robert Devereux’s personal letters, which offer a real insight into his character and state of mind throughout his life.

Letter from Robert Devereux to Queen Elizabeth 

Transcript:

Hast [hasten], paper, to thatt happy presence whence only unhappy I am banished. Kiss thatt fayre correcting hand which layes new plasters to my lighter hurtes, butt to my greatest woond applyeth nothing. Say thou cummest from shaming, languishing, despayring, S.X.

Signed with the unimaginative Essex cipher, he should have known the queen well enough to realise this approach was unlikely to change her mind.

I also visited the Devereux Tower and Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, (where he lies close to Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn).

Devereux memorial

During my research I was amazed to find Robert Devereux lived at Lamphey Palace, twenty minutes from my home in Pembrokeshire!

Picture of Lamphey Palace

Do you have a ‘go to’ book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it?

I studied Walter Bourchier Devereux’s two-volumes of the Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex, a rich source of both primary and secondary details. Interestingly, these books include the author’s own comments and interpretation on the Earl’s letters, which helped me understand the context. 

A lot has been made of the unusual relationship between the aging queen and Robert Devereux, and even at the time, they were so close to the queen many wonder if they are lovers. The truth is far more complex, as each has what the other yearns for. I wanted to keep his story as factually accurate and authentic as possible, so immersed myself in the world of Elizabethan London. I hope readers will be able to tell that this book is one I’ve really enjoyed researching and writing, and that I’ve been able to find some of Robert Devereux’s redeeming qualities.

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s fascinating.

Here’s the blurb:

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is one of the most intriguing men of the Elizabethan period. Tall and handsome, he soon becomes a ‘favourite’ at court, so close to the queen many wonder if they are lovers.

The truth is far more complex, as each has what the other yearns for. Robert Devereux longs for recognition, wealth and influence. His flamboyant naïveté amuses the ageing Queen Elizabeth, like the son she never had, and his vitality makes her feel young.

Robert Devereux’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with the best-selling Tudor trilogy and concludes with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

This novel is free to read with #KindleUnlimited subscription.

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Meet the Author

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling Tudor historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony’s other published historical fiction novels include: Owen – Book One Of The Tudor Trilogy, Jasper – Book Two Of The Tudor Trilogy, Henry – Book Three Of The Tudor Trilogy, Mary – Tudor Princess, Brandon – Tudor Knight and The Secret Diary Of Eleanor Cobham. 

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Cotillion Brigade by Glen Craney

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Glen Craney to the blog with a fascinating post about the historical research that went into writing The Cotillion Brigade.

Thank you, M.J., for inviting me as a guest on your blog.

As part of my research process, I try to travel to the historical locations of my novels. And one of the first things I do is head first for the local cemetery. More than once, I’ve made discoveries from the headstones that changed the trajectory of my stories.

LaGrange, Georgia, is the setting of my latest novel, The Cotillion Brigade, which is based on the true story of the Nancy Hart Rifles, the most famous female militia in American history.

When I pulled into the scenic town of LaGrange to learn more about the Nancy Harts, I parked the car and walked among the monuments of Hillview Cemetery, where many of my characters from The Cotillion Brigade are buried. To my astonishment, and not a little chagrin, my protagonist, Captain Nancy Colquitt Hill Morgan, was nowhere to be found among her comrades in arms. How could she not be buried in the town she helped save?

I learned later that she is buried in Decatur, more than seventy-five miles away. I wondered if this was her wish. Had she moved to Decatur late in life to reside with family? I knew from my research that many Southern families, devastated by the war, could not afford to transport deceased members back to the homesteads.

Nancy Morgan’s Grave

Still feeling a little sad for Captain Nancy in exile, I drove across town to the smaller Stonewall Confederate Cemetery, where I was unprepared for another tragic discovery. Most of the three hundred soldiers buried there died from wounds and disease. After the bloody battle of Chickamauga and during Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, thousands of Confederate wounded were shipped south along the Atlanta and West Point rail line, one of the last surviving transport arteries in the heart of the Confederacy. Cities on the way, like Newnan, LaGrange, and West Point, became hospital centers, and the Nancy Harts took time from their military drills to help nurse the men.

The Stonewall Cemetery sits near the railroad tracks, and as I studied the names on the stones, the horrific reason for this location suddenly dawned on me. Many of the wounded men would not have survived the jarring journey from the battlefields northwest of Atlanta. Their bodies were likely removed from the train cars to be buried immediately.

John Gay-Stonewall Cemetery

Captain Nancy’s close friend, Carolyn Poythress, was widowed very young before the war. She fell in love with another man, Lt. John Gay of the Fourth Georgia infantry regiment, who came back to LaGrange to convalesce from an artillery chest wound received at Antietam. After they married, Lt. Gay returned to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He fell mortally wounded at the siege of Petersburg, only two weeks before the surrender at Appomattox. Caroline, accompanied by the daughter her husband never lived to see, insisted he be buried with his comrades at Stonewall Cemetery. Caroline lies in Hillview.

A thousand miles away, another plot revealed a secret about my second protagonist, Colonel Oscar Hugh LaGrange. The Union officer who confronted Captain Nancy and her militia during the last days of the war lies buried in the Bronx’s Woodland Cemetery. Next to his stone is that of his third wife, Susie Gray LaGrange, who goes unmentioned in the history books. Strange as it seems, the ardent Abolitionist colonel from Wisconsin married not one, but two, Southern plantation belles. That discovery would lead me to a new understanding about the officer’s transformation and the impact the Nancy Harts of Georgia had on him.

Colonel LaGrange’s Grave

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s always fascinating to understand the discoveries made while researching, and how they add to the finished story.

Here’s the blurb

Georgia burns.

Sherman’s Yankees are closing in.

Will the women of LaGrange run or fight?

Based on the true story of the celebrated Nancy Hart Rifles, The Cotillion Brigade is an epic novel of the Civil War’s ravages on family and love, the resilient bonds of sisterhood in devastation, and the miracle of reconciliation between bitter enemies.

“Gone With The Wind meets A League Of Their Own.”

— John Jeter, The Plunder Room

1856. Sixteen-year-old Nannie Colquitt Hill makes her debut in the antebellum society of the Chattahoochee River plantations. A thousand miles north, a Wisconsin farm boy, Hugh LaGrange, joins an Abolitionist crusade to ban slavery in Bleeding Kansas.

Five years later, secession and war against the homefront hurl them toward a confrontation unrivaled in American history.

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Meet the Author

A graduate of Indiana University School of Law and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Glen Craney practiced trial law before joining the Washington, D.C. press corps to write about national politics and the Iran-contra trial for Congressional Quarterly magazine. In 1996, the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences awarded him the Nicholl Fellowship prize for best new screenwriting. His debut historical novel, The Fire and the Light, was named Best New Fiction by the National Indie Excellence Awards. He is a three-time Finalist/Honorable Mention winner of Foreword Magazine’s Book-of-the-Year and a Chaucer Award winner for Historical Fiction. His books have taken readers to Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade, the Scotland of Robert Bruce, Portugal during the Age of Discovery, the trenches of France during World War I, the battlefields of the Civil War, and the American Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. He lives in Malibu, California.

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Today, I’m delighted to welcome back H D Coulter on tour with Saving Grace: Deception. Obsession. Redemption

Today, I’m delighted to welcome back H D Coulter, with a post about the historical research that went into writing Saving Grace.

Saving Grace is the sequel to Ropewalk, and the setting couldn’t be more different – from the North of England to Boston. Could you tell me about how you went about researching the setting for Saving Grace, and why you chose that particular location?

I would like to thank M J Porter for inviting me back again to guest post. Today I am discussing how book 1, Ropewalk, which took place in the north of England but book 2 mostly takes place in Beacon Hill, Boston and in the American deep south state of Georgia. 

I will not go into spoilers here. But at the end of book 1, circumstances happened which meant that Bea and Joshua could no longer live in England and needed to flee. I choose to locate some of Saving Grace in Beacon Hill as it was a flourishing hub of Boston. It was a representation of what was happening across America in the 1830s, with various cultures descending on different areas of the hill. A class divide between north and south slope in wealth, with a sense of unrest bubbling underneath. With Joshua’s background in shipping, it was a natural selection for the character to choose that location with Boston harbour situated on the south slope and possible business connections. It was an area much like Ulverston, with new industrial advancement owned by the rich and yet filled with small clusters of different communities scattered from one street to the next. 

For book 1, Ropewalk, there was a lot of research done locally whilst I lived there and into the Reformer’s. However for book 2, Saving Grace, I had to rely on research more for the locations, history, people and society. Moving the story to America and placing the characters into this alien landscape reflected my own sense of discovery into the local culture and the rules of this unknown society. 

Since I couldn’t walk the streets and see Bea walking beside me, I needed more visual resources so that I could picture it in my mind’s eye. Thankfully, there are still locations in Beacon Hill and Georgia, that seem unchanged from that period. So, I read books, watched TV, You Tube documentaries and films, taking place in those locations. An interesting point I’ve noticed whilst I was researching book 2 and now that I’m deep down the rabbit hole for book 3, is that Georgia, South Carolina and into the wilds surrounding those states are like the fells around Cumbria and the south lakes. Which wouldn’t seem so alien to Bea. 

For Beacon Hill, I gathered all the resources I could to transform the streets into the 1830s. There are a lot of original features still left in Beacon Hill of the time they developed it, like Charles Street and Acorn Street. Whilst I was researching Beacon Hill; I discovered the African Meeting house, which was a hub for the abolitionist movement and a rumoured connection to the underground railroad. Which created a whole new subplot to the novel and leading into book 3. It mirrored that of Bob Lightfoot and yet independent to Bea. Once I discovered the Underground Railroad, the story came to life and the character of Sarah was born; a strong, formidable and caring character who has her own story and their friendship becomes vital for Bea as she finds her voice once more. 

 One aspect I found, the Underground Railroad shows, documentaries and films, fixate on to the late 1840s and 1850s. Around the time the legendary Harriet Tubman escapes on the Underground Railroad to the north but had the strength in the characters to return and free her family and slaves from neighbouring plantations. She was another formidable character and opponent against the slave patrollers and developed the nickname “Mosses” as she delivered people to the promise land. But during the 1850 American congress signed the ‘Fugitive Slave Act’ which brought a new law allowing capture of escaped slaves and blocked the sanctuary in the northern states and allowed patrollers to roam the streets and drag them back down south. 

“They were never really free.”

The more I discovered, the more I researched, looking into the tiny details and become fascinated by the smouldering embers that fuelled the American Civil War. 

“She had been born a coastal cottage girl and now she was a lady. But it was all a lie. It wasn’t how she had thought it would be. She carried so many secret labels that she had given up wondering which one was her true calling; a lace-maker, a cottage girl, a wife, a mother, a murderer; a fugitive?”

Saving Grace, chapter 5.

Each one of the principal characters feels like they are battling their own form of deception, obsession and redemption. Unbeknown Hanley is watching in the shadows, controlling their lives and waiting to make his move. 

Some resources I used: 

  • Beacon Hill (Images of America) Kindle Edition

by Cynthia Chalmers Bartlett (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition.

  • Beacon Hill, Back Bay and the Building of Boston’s Golden Age Kindle Edition

by Ted Clarke (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition. 

  • The Underground Railroad: LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017 Kindle Edition

by Colson Whitehead  (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition. 

  • Passengers: True Stories of the Underground Railroad Kindle Edition

by William Still  (Author), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Introduction).

  • The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts (African American) Kindle Edition

by William Still  (Author), Ian Finseth (Editor).

  • Underground, TV show about a group of slaves trying to escape the south. 

Thank you so much for sharing your research. I do love a good rabbit hole! Good luck with the new book.

Intrigued?

Here’s the blurb;

Beacon Hill, Boston. 1832.

“You are innocent. You are loved. You are mine.”

After surviving the brutal attack and barely escaping death at Lancaster Castle, Beatrice Mason attempts to build a new life with her husband Joshua across the Atlantic in Beacon Hill. But, as Beatrice struggles to cope with the pregnancy and vivid nightmares, she questions whether she is worthy of redemption.

Determined to put the past behind her after the birth of her daughter Grace, Bea embraces her newfound roles of motherhood and being a wife. Nevertheless, when she meets Sarah Bateman, their friendship draws Bea towards the underground railroad and the hidden abolitionist movement, despite the dangerous secrets it poses. Whilst concealed in the shadows, Captain Victor Hanley returns, obsessed with revenge and the desire to lay claim to what is his, exposes deceptions and doubts as he threatens their newly established happiness.

Now, Beatrice must find the strength to fight once more and save Grace, even if it costs her life.

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Ropewalk; Rebellion. Love. Survival (The Ropewalk Series, Book 1) is only 0.99 on ebook during the tour. Here are the buy link

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Meet 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.

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Shadows of Versailles by Cathie Dunn

Today I’m delighted to welcome Cathie Dunn to the blog, with a fascinating post about her new book, The Shadows of Versailles.

Your book, The Shadows of Versailles, sounds fantastic. As a historian first and foremost (I studied Louis XIV for my A Levels), and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories. 

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? 

Thank you very much for hosting me today. I’m thrilled to be here, and to chat about research. And I’m particularly delighted that we share a common interest – the Sun King! 

Although normally a medievalist, I’ve been fascinated by 17th century France since I was young. I’m originally from Heidelberg, where Louis’ sister-in-law, Elisabeth Charlotte, hailed from, and our castle was repeatedly attacked by Louis’ forces in the 1680s and 1690s as he sought to claim the Palatinate for himself. 

We’ve since forgiven the French for destroying our once magnificent castle (which is now a magnificent, and hugely popular, ruin), and my hometown is now twinned with Montpellier, only an hour’s drive away from where I live now, in Carcassonne, in the south of France. I do love how history tends to come full circle. 

But let me get back to the 17th century. As a teenager, I loved reading The Three Musketeers and Anne Golon’s Angelique novels, and watching their incarnations on screen. But only when I read Judith Merkle Riley’s brilliant novel, The Oracle Glass, did I really discover the Affair of the Poisons.

The Affair of the Poisons was an event that stretched over several years. In fact, it really began in the 1660s when the first suspicious deaths were recorded – yet they were not investigated. Over time, a network of fortune-tellers, alchemists, and midwives turned into poisoners, a hugely lucrative business. Having previously sold harmless potions (to gain someone’s love or a coveted position in court, for example), people became more ambitious, and devious. Soon, it wasn’t enough to use a potion; that person had to die!

Authorities slowly began to take notice, but only after the king’s own life deemed under threat did investigations finally get under way. But to the horror of the king, the trail led straight to his own bedroom door – to his mistress of many years, Madame de Montespan. 

And whilst the Affair of the Poisons has always intrigued me, my writing first took me in other directions: Scotland, England, Normandy, and here to Carcassonne. I explored different eras: the early Middle Ages here on the Mediterranean as Charlemagne expanded the Kingdom of the Franks southwards; the high Middle Ages during the Anarchy; and Jacobite Scotland. All utterly fascinating times and places.

But then, after reading Kate Braithwaite’s gripping novel, Charlatan, the Affair of the Poisons called me, and I couldn’t resist any longer. 

Soon, the idea of a series of loosely interlinking novels took shape, and The Shadows of Versailles was the first to emerge. I’m currently working on the second title, The Alchemist’s Daughter. Both books are very different in tone and setting. This is intentional, as I want the series to be not only about ladies at court, and not only about the scheming poisoners in Paris, but how both worlds intertwined. 

In August 2019, I met with relatives in Paris, and we visited Versailles; my first visit since the late 1980s. It was very crowded, and I couldn’t really relish the time inside the palace. I also didn’t have a chance to see all the rooms, so my photos are more of the 18th century chambers where Marie Antoinette whiled away her days. But I brought a wonderful catalogue back home, with great details inside. 

In the 1670s, Versailles was still a building site. The former hunting lodge had already been extended, but rooms like the Hall of Mirrors were not in place yet. Online, I found old maps of the palace construction and the gardens – also still not quite finished – which was wonderful as I was careful not to include features that arrived later. These maps were great in helping me to visualise the place through my protagonists’ eyes, including muddy grounds where construction was still ongoing!

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)?

As regards books, I’ve long had a copy of Anne Somerset’s book about The Affair of the Poisons, and she is still an eminent authority on the subject. I often dive into the pages to retrieve details about some of the persons involved. But apart from hers, there weren’t many sources published in English. 

Images. Françoise de Rochechouart, Marquise de Montespan, public domain, Wikimedia Commons. Other images by Cathie Dunn.

The published letters of Madame de Sévigné, a lady whose letters to her married daughter showed intriguing glimpses into life at court, the scandals and rumours, and the king’s business, are a wonderful source for tidbits to use in a novel. Her tone is very much of the times, which gives you a truly authentic view of life in the late 17th century.

Visiting local bookshops, I discovered books in French, some rather fictionalised accounts, and others strictly non-fiction, which have helped me create a fuller picture. I read about life in Paris under Louis XIV – it was pretty tough for ordinary people. With people flocking to the city from the partly war-ravaged countryside, there wasn’t enough work going round. Starvation was rife, as were crime and prostitution. In contrast, life at Versailles was a glittering ball of luxuries, but often maintained through loans and pretence. It was easy to fall from grace…

I’m also signed up to educational resources, where you can find copies of theses exploring various aspects of Louis’ reign, his policies and wars. These, whilst rather dry, are useful additions to my research hub.

In my approach to a new novel, I conduct some basic research in advance – about the timing and general state of play. Then, as I write, do bits of research about the aspects relevant by chapter. That could be checking for dates of when the king was in Versailles, which he started to use as a base during the 1670s, moving away from the Louvre (and Paris), and when he was with his troops in the north or east, for example. 

Although Louis doesn’t (yet) feature much in my novels, I know there’s an abundance of sources out there showing his movements, so I’m careful not to invent too much. At the end of the day, I write fiction, but I want to be as accurate as possible in my setting.

I love researching. There’s never a dull moment. I could spend hours looking up certain events or reading about people’s lives. Louis’ courtiers are as fascinating as he was, especially those linked to the Affair of the Poisons. And I enjoy bringing them, with all their ambitions and scheming, to life.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my foray into historical research. Thank you again for hosting me on your fabulous blog. 

Thank you so much for such a fascinating post. Good luck with the book.

Here’s the blurb:

Dazzled by Versailles. Broken by tragedy. Consumed by revenge.

When Fleur de La Fontaine attends the court of King Louis XIV for the first time, she is soon besotted with handsome courtier, Philippe de Mortain. She dreams of married life away from her uncaring mother, but Philippe keeps a secret from her.

Nine months later, after the boy she has given birth to in a convent is whisked away, she flees to Paris where she mends gowns in the brothel of Madame Claudette, a woman who helps ‘fallen’ girls back on their feet.

Jacques de Montagnac investigates a spate of abducted children when his path crosses Fleur’s. He searches for her son, but the trail leads to a dead end – and a dreadful realisation.

Her boy’s suspected fate too much to bear, Fleur decides to avenge him. She visits the famous midwife, La Voisin, but it’s not the woman’s skills in childbirth that Fleur seeks.

La Voisin dabbles in poisons.

Will Fleur see her plan through? Or can she save herself from a tragic fate?

Delve into The Shadows of Versailles and enter the sinister world of potions, poisoners and black masses during the Affairs of the Poisons, a real event that stunned the court of the Sun King!

The Shadows of Versailles is available with Kindle Unlimited.

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Meet the Author

Cathie Dunn writes historical fiction, mystery, and romance.

Cathie has been writing for over twenty years. She studied Creative Writing, with a focus on novel writing, which she now teaches in the south of France. She loves researching for her novels, delving into history books, and visiting castles and historic sites.

Her stories have garnered awards and praise from reviewers and readers for their authentic description of the past.

Cathie is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Alliance of Independent Authors.

After nearly two decades in Scotland, she now lives in the historic city of Carcassonne in the south of France with her husband, two cats and a rescue dog. 

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Shadows of Versailles blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.

Today, I’m excited to welcome Anne O’Brien to the blog on tour with her fabulous book The Queen’s Rival

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anne O’Brien to the blog to talk about her fantastic book, The Queen’s Rival, a real favourite of mine. (Find my review here).

I have read Queen’s Rival and I found it riveting. Yet, it is deliciously complex, and there’s a huge amount of both primary and secondary material available for study. 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 to life? 

The complexity of the Wars of the Roses within the story of Cecily Neville was daunting when I first took it on.  Where to start, where to end.  Should I consolidate into one book, or write a sequel?  While I thought about it, all became clear to me.  Because I write about medieval women and form their point of view, many of the political events and battles must dealt with lightly, made only relevant when they had a bearing on Cecily’s experience, and then rarely in grat detail.  To begin: the day that she became a force in her own right – the events at Ludlow after the debacle at Ludford Bridge when she was left to face the rampaging mob of the Lancastrian army, alone with her three younger children.  To end: with the crowning of Richard III when Cecily must come to terms with the political forces that had removed her grandson Edward V from the throne.  

Who to include in Cecily’s story?

Some major figures would have to be short-changed because they did not develop the plot that was Cecily’s life, but were merely people on the periphery of Cecily’s story.  These included such notable characters as Margaret Beaufort,  Anne Neville,  Henry Tudor.  Even Margaret of Anjou might have demanded a more dynamic role although she is not entirely absent.  This may disappoint some readers but these are characters for another book.  There is a finite length to a novel as my editor is keen to tell me; Cecily and her family must take pre-eminence.

Cecily was the youngest of a large family.  To include all her brothers and sisters would definitely be a bad plan.  I deliberately made a choice of those who would be most useful to me   Her brother Richard of Salisbury of course and his son the Earl Warwick.  Two of her sisters, the eldest and the one closest to her in age.  The rest would sadly have to remain anonymous.

Why write in letter format?  I chose to do this to develop the family aspect of the Wars of the Roses.  These were real people who suffered and rejoiced within their families.  I decided that letters would make this a very personal account for Cecily, and thus make the emotion of her losses and achievements even stronger when faced with scandal and treachery.

Mostly when researching I refer to secondary sources.  I do not always find the need to return to primary sources.  For me this would be like re-inventing the wheel since the history of the Wars of the Roses has been magnificently researched by a number of historians, although I admit to being picky over whom I might use. I find myself returning to the works of  Matthew Lewis, Ian Mortimer, Nigel Saul, Anthony Goodman and Michael Jones.  For Cecily herself , when I was was half way through writing, a new long-awaited biography of Cecily was published:  Cecily Duchess of York by J L Laynesmith which proved endlessly useful for tying up a number of loose ends for me.

For primary sources, the chroniclers of the day are fascinating and encouraged me to write my own version of a Chronicle to help the plot to progress in The Queen’s Rival.  Accounts of Cecily’s pious lifestyle in her later years and the vast detail of her will were both excellent.

Taking the facts, together with the reactions of those who knew Cecily, it is then a matter of historical imagination to create an interpretation of her life as accurately as possible.

Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it?

I don’t have a ‘go to’ book when writing because my medieval women span a number of reigns, but one I find myself referring to frequently is The Senses in Late Medieval England by C M Woolgar.  It opens up the medieval world and life in aristocratic households beautifully, from every possible angle.  I also have quite a collection of books on medieval armour and costume – an essential part of my research, as well as medieval poetry and chivalric tales.  And then there  are the general history reference books …  Altogether my bookshelves are groaning from the weight of medieval history books.

Thank you so much for sharing your process with me. It’s fascinating and I’m in awe of how you managed to fit so much into one novel!

(Isn’t the cover beautiful).

Here’s the blurb;

England, 1459. 

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots 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.

Stripped of her lands and imprisoned 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.

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Meet the author

Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.

Today she has sold over 700,000 copies of her books medieval history novels in the UK and internationally. She lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels which breathe life into the forgotten women of medieval history.

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on The Queen’s Rival blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.