The Last Warrior is a year old today.

Today, 25th June 2021, is the one year anniversary of the release of The Last Warrior. The anniversary has come round quickly, (I promise not to start doing this with all of my books), and gives me the perfect opportunity to once more say a massive ‘thank you’ to everyone who has read, enjoyed, rated or reviewed the book. I’m blown away by how much readers love Coelwulf and his motley collection of friends, enemies, and horses, and how you eagerly embrace each new episode in their story.

I thought I’d use this as an excuse to give a few updates on the series. Book 1-The Last King is now an audiobook available on Audible. Book 2-The Last Warrior is in the process of becoming one. (I think I worried my narrator so much with The Last Warrior he had to rush to the end to find out what was happening:)).

I am busy finishing off Book 6, The Last Shield, and in the meantime, the first five books are now available in a beautiful hardcase laminate edition from Amazon, and I have to say, they look amazing, especially all together. The hardcase laminate uses the new covers as designed by Flintlock Covers. Amazon doesn’t have the preview showing of the hardcase yet so here’s a few photos, inexpertly taken by me.

In association with The History Quill, on online site for readers and writers of historical fiction, I am running a give-away for a paperback copy The Last King, with some other fab Viking authors, which can be entered here. but the closing date is the 30th June, so be quick.

So, once more, thank you for reading, and I promise to keep on writing as long as you keep reading.

Take care everyone.

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

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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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Book Review – Murder at Madame Tussauds by Jim Eldridge (Victorian mystery)

Here’s the blurb:

London, 1896. Madame Tussauds opens to find one of its nightwatchmen decapitated and his colleague nowhere to be found. To the police, the case seems simple: one killed the other and fled, but workers at the museum aren’t convinced. Although forbidden contact by his superior officer, Scotland Yard detective John Feather secretly enlists ‘The Museum Detectives’ Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton to aid the police investigation.

When the body of the missing nightwatchman is discovered encased within a wax figure, the case suddenly becomes more complex. With questions over rival museums, the dead men’s pasts and a series of bank raids plaguing the city, Wilson and Fenton face their most intriguing and dangerous case yet.

Murder at Madame Tussauds is the first of Jim Eldridge’s Museum Detective series, but it won’t be the last.

This is a very evocative portrayal of late Victorian London, complete with Hansoms and fog, and a terrible crime that needs solving.

A thoroughly enjoyable read with a fantastic conclusion.

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for my review copy. I’ll be hunting down the earlier books in the series now.

Welcome to today’s stop on the new release blog tour for The Serpent King by Tim Hodkinson

Here’s the blurb:

The fight for vengeance has no victors…

AD 936

The great warrior, Einar Unnsson, wants revenge. His mother’s assassin has stolen her severed head and Einar is hungry for his blood. Only one thing holds him back. He is a newly sworn in Wolf Coat, and must accompany them on their latest quest.

The Wolf Coats are a band of fearsome bloodthirsty warriors, who roam the seas, killing any enemies who get in their way. Now they’re determined to destroy their biggest enemy, King Eirik, as he attempts to take the throne of Norway.

Yet, for Einar, the urge to return to Iceland is growing every day. Only there, in his homeland, can he avenge his mother and salve his grief. But what Einar doesn’t know is that this is where an old enemy lurks, and his thirst for vengeance equals Einar’s…

Read Tim Hodkinson’s newest epic Viking adventure.

Here’s my review

The Serpent King by Tim Hodkinson is the fourth instalment in The Whale Road Chronicles, reuniting readers with Einar and the rest of the Wolf Coats.

It is an energetic and fast-paced jaunt through the sea kingdoms of Norway, the Scottish islands, and Iceland, and although we don’t go to Ireland, it’s never far from the characters’ thoughts.

I love this series because the author twists his story through the ‘known facts’ of the time period. I know what’s coming, and many others will also know what’s coming in future books, but the joy is in how we get there.

About the author

Tim Hodkinson was born in 1971 in Northern Ireland. He studied Medieval English and Old Norse Literature at University with a subsidiary in Medieval European History. He has been writing all his life and has a strong interest in the historical, the mystical and the mysterious. After spending several happy years living in New Hampshire, USA, he has now returned to life in Northern Ireland with his wife Trudy and three lovely daughters in a village called Moira.

Tim is currently working on a series of viking novels for Ares Fiction, an imprint of Head of Zeus.

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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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Today, I’m reviewing The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy (Roman historical fiction) as part of its new release blog tour

Here’s the blurb:

AD 105: DACIA

The Dacian kingdom and Rome are at peace, but no one thinks that it will last. Sent to command an isolated fort beyond the Danube, centurion Flavius Ferox can sense that war is coming, but also knows that enemies may be closer to home.

Many of the Brigantes under his command are former rebels and convicts, as likely to kill him as obey an order. And then there is Hadrian, the emperor’s cousin, and a man with plans of his own…

Gritty, gripping and profoundly authentic, The Fort is the first book in a brand new trilogy set in the Roman empire from bestselling historian Adrian Goldsworthy.

The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy is good ‘Roman’ era fiction.

Set in Dacia in AD105, it is the story of ‘The Fort’ under the command of Flavius Ferox, a character some will know from Goldsworthy’s previous trilogy that began with Vindolanda.

Mistakenly thinking this was an entirely new trilogy with all new characters, it took me a while to get into the story. Everyone seemed to know everyone else apart from me. But Ferox is a good character, and he grounded me to what was happening in the immediate vicinity of the Fort, and apart from once or twice, it didn’t really matter what had gone before.

This is a story of suspicions, ambition and lies, and it rumbles along at a good old pace. This isn’t the story of one battle, but rather many, a slow attrition against the Romans by the Dacians.

Overall, this was an enjoyable novel, and some of the fighting scenes were especially exciting. Those with an interest in Roman war craft will especially enjoy it, although, I confess, I don’t know my spatha from my pilum (there is a glossary, fellow readers, so do not fear.)

About the author

Adrian Goldsworthy has a doctorate from Oxford University. His first book, THE ROMAN ARMY AT WAR was recognised by John Keegan as an exceptionally impressive work, original in treatment and impressive in style. He has gone on to write several other books, including THE FALL OF THE WEST, CAESAR, IN THE NAME OF ROME, CANNAE and ROMAN WARFARE, which have sold more than a quarter of a million copies and been translated into more than a dozen languages. A full-time author, he regularly contributes to TV documentaries on Roman themes.

Adrian Goldsworthy , Author , Broadcaster , Historical consultant .

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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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Book Review – The Girl Who Died by Ragnor Jonasson (1980s’s Icelandic mystery)

Here’s the blurb:

Teacher Wanted At the Edge of the World

Una wants nothing more than to teach, but she has been unable to secure steady employment in Reykjavík. Her savings are depleted, her love life is nonexistent, and she cannot face another winter staring at the four walls of her shabby apartment. Celebrating Christmas and ringing in 1986 in the remote fishing hamlet of Skálar seems like a small price to pay for a chance to earn some teaching credentials and get her life back on track.

But Skálar isn’t just one of Iceland’s most isolated villages, it is home to less than a dozen people. Una’s only students are two girls aged seven and nine. Teaching them only occupies so many hours in a day and the few adults she interacts with are civil but distant. She only seems to connect with Thór, a man she shares an attraction with but who is determined to keep her at arm’s length.

As darkness descends throughout the bleak winter, Una finds herself more often than not in her rented attic space – the site of a local legendary haunting – drinking her loneliness away. She is plagued by nightmares of a little girl in a white dress singing a lullaby. And when a sudden tragedy echoes an event long buried in Skálar’s past, the villagers become even more guarded, leaving a suspicious Una seeking to uncover a shocking truth that’s been kept secret for generations.

I’m fascinated by Iceland’s history and that’s why I chose this book (even though it’s not strictly historical at all).I read The Girl Who Died some months ago, and it struck me as a particularly good winter read. Here’s what I had to say at the time.

The Girl Who Died toys with the reader – is it a murder mystery, a ghost story or the story of a woman before her murder? At one point, all of these seem to be possible.

I really enjoyed the story, it kept me up reading, under the covers, long into the night until I had to stop because I was a bit terrified. For a short book, it certainly packs a punch.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

The Girl Who Dies is released today, 10th June 2021, and is available from here.

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Sisters At War by Clare Flynn

Today, I’m excited to share a post from Clare Flynn about the research she undertook when writing Sisters At War, and the particular resources she relied on.

Thanks for hosting me on your blog today. 

You asked me to talk about my research methodology. I hesitate to use the word methodology as that implies I have a strict disciplined and systematic approach, whereas mine tends to be more exploratory and often serendipitous. It seems I’m the opposite to you, MJ, I’m a writer first and then a historian.

I usually start with a big pile of books to read around the subject. While I mostly read fiction on an e-reader, all my non-fiction research books have to be physical copies. I don’t necessarily read everything cover-to-cover although sometimes I do if it warrants it. I tend to begin like a magpie hopping around and grasping things, then I turn into a rabbit and disappear down the research hole! 

For Sisters at War I read a wide range of books – about the merchant navy in general and during World War 2 in particular, about the Liverpool Blitz, general background on the war, on the Wrens, on life on the home front, on the rounding up of Italian “aliens”, etc. I visited Liverpool and bagged a pile of Blitz books – including photographic books from the Museum of Liverpool. The latter – which I visited before I started writing the book ­– also had an excellent photographic exhibition of the Merseyside Blitz with memories of those there. I often find images more helpful than words in creating a believeable canvas on which to paint my story.

REFERENCE BOOKS AND MAPS (author’s own)

A sense of place is very important to me. I was born in Liverpool ten years after the end of the war, then left as a child, and the war changed the cityscape dramatically. I ended up buying about a dozen street maps from pre-war to cover the entire area in detail – I have a bit of a thing for maps and even if I don’t always use actual place names or street names I like to place them exactly. I also look at public transport timetables, and bus routes. I also have detailed maps of the Liverpool docks before and during the war.

Sadly, everyone in my family who was around in the war is now dead, but I drew on what I remembered from my mother’s stories of her childhood – and read accounts in the Museum of Liverpool and listened to testimonies online. 

I do a lot of online research. Unable to visit Liverpool again while writing the book, I discovered the excellent website for the Western Approaches museum. I was able to wander freely around this underground rabbit warren using the excellent virtual tour – almost as good as  being there and without stairs to climb! Western Approaches is a giant underground bunker under the streets of Liverpool and was the nerve centre of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Western Approaches Map Room with permission of photographer, Mark Carline

To immerse myself in the period I also use music – I listen to songs that were popular at the time, films – I’ve always been a fan of old black & white movies and grew up on a diet of old war films, fashions – I have various books on period fashion and supplement them with online research – Pinterest is often a treasure trove as are old sewing patterns.

Part of the book is set in Australia – in Tatura in Victoria where there was an internment camp for civilian enemy aliens shipped out there by Britain, and a little bit in Sydney. I lived briefly  in Sydney so had my own memories to draw on, backed up with online research and Google Earth. I’ve never been to Tatura (a bit of a one-horse town) but the family of my brother’s wife come from nearby Mooropna and I was able to check if I had my impressions of the scenery right – again supplemented with online research. I found a video on YouTube of a train journey between Melbourne and Sydney – edited down to two hours so I was able to experience the scenery for real! I also did a lot of digging to make sure I was having my ships dock at the right quay in Melbourne and again looked at old YouTube videos and maps.

I chanced upon the tragic stories of the Italian ‘aliens’ and their experiences on the two ships, the Arandora Star and the Dunera while reading about Italians in Britain in WW2. That led me to lots more online research – including videoed testimonies from the surviving ‘Dunera Boys’ recorded in the 1980s-90s.

HMT DUNERA IN 1940 – credit Australian War Museum, public domain

While I read, watch, look and listen, I take notes in longhand. I have a dedicated notebook for each novel and go back and highlight the areas I want to include and cross things out once I have used them. I do far more research than I include in any given book and try to wear the research lightly. There is nothing worse than reading novels where you feel you are sitting in a lecture hall as the author displays all their knowledge in front of you. The research is there to serve the story not the other way round. And a lot of research is not used at all – it’s fact checking, making sure dates are correct, checking the tiny details that add flavour and colour, and making sure no anachronisms creep in – particularly in speech. I also try to check every historical reference as often we can make erroneous assumptions. An example – I have a character listening to one of Churchill’s famous speeches on the wireless – the one at the time of Dunkirk – and had assumed the broadcast was the one we are familiar with now with Churchill’s stirring rendition. In fact it was not! When that speech was first brodacast it was read by a BBC announcer. It was only later that Churchill recorded himself for rebroadcasting. That meant I needed to rewrite that scene.

You asked what draws me to ‘play with the facts’ but as I don’t write biographical fiction, I don’t see it as playing with facts. All my characters are fictitious – although their experiences draw on my discoveries about real people’s similar ones in wartime. My characters are also ‘ordinary people’ so the historical facts are dates, times and locations of bombs, etc – all of which form the hard scaffolding on which I hang my entirely fictitious story. I am meticulous about repecting the history.

My approach to research is more as a creative exercise. I’m not someone who locks themselves away in a library for months before they begin writing. I do some reading in advance but for the most part I dip in and out, moving between writing the book and reading around the subject. Frequently, something that crops up in my research feeds the story and takes it in a direction I had not anticipated before starting – so it is a huge aid to creativity. For example I had not planned to write about the experience of Italian aliens – but once I discovered their dramatic and often tragic stories I had to bring back Paolo Tornabene – a minor character in Storms Gather Between Us – and give him a significant role in Sisters at War. As you will have gathered by now, I am not a planner – my stories evolve as I write and research them.

I hope this has given you some insight into how I work and thank you very much, MJ, for giving me the chance to share it. 

Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s always so fascinating to discover how authors go about creating their stories. I’m not one for much planning either. The story comes to me as I write and research. Good luck with Sisters At War.

Here’s the blurb:

1940 Liverpool. The pressures of war threaten to tear apart two sisters traumatised by their father’s murder of their mother.

With her new husband, Will, a merchant seaman, deployed on dangerous Atlantic convoy missions, Hannah needs her younger sister Judith more than ever. But when Mussolini declares war on Britain, Judith’s Italian sweetheart, Paolo is imprisoned as an enemy alien, and Judith’s loyalties are divided.

Each sister wants only to be with the man she loves but, as the war progresses, tensions between them boil over, and they face an impossible decision.

A heart-wrenching page-turner about the everyday bravery of ordinary people during wartime. From heavily blitzed Liverpool to the terrors of the North Atlantic and the scorched plains of Australia, Sisters at War will bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart.

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Meet the Author

Clare Flynn is the author of thirteen historical novels and a collection of short stories. A former International Marketing Director and strategic management consultant, she is now a full-time writer. 

Having lived and worked in London, Paris, Brussels, Milan and Sydney, home is now on the coast, in Sussex, England, where she can watch the sea from her windows. An avid traveler, her books are often set in exotic locations.

Clare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of The Society of Authors, ALLi, and the Romantic Novelists Association. When not writing, she loves to read, quilt, paint and play the piano. 

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Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the Sisters At War blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club

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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Author image taken by Hannah Couzens Photography.

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