Rolling slideshow will be back soon, meanwhile enjoy these Royalty Free historical fiction choices!

Deborah-Swift's Royalty Free 1 album on Photobucket

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Perhaps Tomorrow by Jean Fullerton

Since I read Katherine by Anya Seton in my early teens I have had a lifelong love of historical fiction so it seemed natural when I started writing nine years ago to set my stories in the past.

I chose the Victorian period as it reflects many of the concerns and issues, such as the introduction of new technology, the impact of scientific and medical advances on society, that we have today. It was also a period when centuries of long-held beliefs were being questioned. Slavery was abolished, Catholics were emancipated, philanthropists pressured successive governments to improve the working conditions of the poor, and women started to challenge the male preserves of education, politics and the professions.

East London, where I was born is a very special place for me and as a fifth generation Cockney I wanted to bring the story of my own ancestors who lived in the vibrant, poverty stricken dockland area to life. My first novel, No Cure for Love, was set in Whitechapel 1832 during a cholera epidemic. The hero was Doctor Robert Munroe, who battled to improve the plight of the poor and the heroine was Ellen O Casey, an Irish pub singer desperately trying to scrape together the passage money to take her family to New York.

My second book, A Glimpse at Happiness, continued the story when Josie O’Casey, Ellen’s daughter, returns to England twelve years later in 1844 and my latest, Perhaps Tomorrow, the third in the Wapping series, is set three years after that. The idea for Mattie’s story in Perhaps Tomorrow came to me as I was writing A Glimpse at Happiness as I felt she needed a handsome hero of her own. All the books are linked but can be read as stand-alone stories.

Mattie is a widow struggling to keep the family coal business solvent and herself and her family out of the workhouse -which, in a time before the welfare state, was a plight many women found themselves in. The situation was made even more difficult by the fact that women weren’t allowed to own property, operate bank accounts or have dealings with commerce of any kind. Of course, there were always women who fought against the odds and built business empires but they had to work doubly hard to succeed.

And for the women who went before us the daily grind was back-breaking. The day started before dawn when you had to rake the ash from the grate and light the fire before drawing your water from a stand pipe in the backyard. You physically did the washing and scrubbed the floor. Before stainless steel you had to keep you baking dishes clean by scrubbing them with sand. There was a constant battle to keep bed-bugs, cockroaches and head lice at bay, not to mention the mice and rats. In addition to this they had to cope with often a yearly round of pregnancy and the dangers of childbirth but surely the most heart-breaking part of their life must have been coping with the loss of a child which almost every mother in the 19th century would have experienced.

Although Perhaps Tomorrow is a fictitious work I have trawled through research papers and contemporary diaries to bring women’s everyday experiences to life. After reading contemporary accounts of their lives I couldn’t help but admire the hundreds of unnamed women, our great-great-great grandmothers in fact, who worked every hour God gave them to put food on the table and keep a roof over their family’s heads. I hope that my book sheds light on their stories and, in a small way, honours their struggles.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

A scribbled sentence in sepia ink; the scrawl of someone who drew the short straw and took the minutes of a meeting in 1756. I was looking through the archives of Chester Infirmary when I found a detail that spoke of lives and stories lost to history.

The note recorded that the infirmary's porter had been sacked for drunkenness. This wasn't a one-off bender – he'd been warned about his drinking before, and had now used up his last chance. The governors paid him his wages plus an extra 10 shillings, and sent him on his way. That note is pretty much the porter's entire contribution to posterity. Without the booze, he wouldn't have left any impression on the historical record at all. And if that had happened, he'd be like most people who have ever lived.

What was he like as a person, I wondered? Why did he drink so heavily? What had happened in his past and where did he go after he was booted out of the hospital? Why did the governors give him that 10 shillings?

This snippet of information inspired the gin theme of Kill-Grief and the porter, Anthony Wells, became one of the main characters. He's not a typical romantic hero. On the contrary, he's wasted much of his past and, to begin with, doesn't see much of a future either. But the story isn't really about him. It's about Mary Helsall, a young woman who becomes a nurse, challenges the prevailing stereotypes about women in medicine, and fights for survival against the shadows of her past and her own flawed character. The inspiration for her, too, came from brief mentions of nurses in the infirmary records. I was intrigued by the fact that a nurse called Mary Kelsall (I changed the spelling for the book) only lasted a few weeks in the job, to be replaced by someone called Mary Jones. What if, I wondered, the two names belonged to the same person?

Eighteenth-century nurses didn't (and still don't) have a great reputation – they are often seen as drunk, incompetent slatterns – but they were individuals coping with exhausting work, inadequate resources and violent patients. It would hardly be surprising if they sought to numb their emotions with alcohol, but I wanted to bring them into the light and portray them as individuals.

Mary finds herself on the receiving end of the stereotype – her perceived lack of morals meets with either disapproval or prurience from others – but although she is sometimes infuriating and self-destructive, she begins to discover just how capable she really is. She and Anthony realise that they don't have to accept what life has dealt them. Instead, they can use the only thing they have left – determination – to carve out their own future.

Although I started out by looking at historical sources, the book is completely fictional. I've no idea whether the real Chester Infirmary had anything to do with smuggling, murder, gin-fuelled romance or dodgy dealings in body parts – but through some tiny snapshots of real lives long forgotten, the characters emerged, and their story took shape around them.


The House of Women by Anne Whitfield

My story ideas are born from all sorts of sources. Usually when I’m doing something mundane, like ironing or washing the floor etc, and ideas will come into my head then. Sometimes they might come from researching. I might be flipping through my research books and I’ll see something interesting that leads to ideas for a story.

I love the Victorian era. It was a time for immense change. Populations were growing rapidly and people were no longer content to stay in their own village. Of course, there were circumstances which forced many people to leave their homes and search for new lives, and this only highlights the way people adapted to new changes. The Victorian era gave women freedom to travel and explore and in many ways educated them beyond their role as mere mothers and wives. A fascinating time.

The House of Women was a great book to write. The idea came from wondering what it would be like to have a young woman at a cross roads of her life. Grace was always busy taking care of everyone else and not listening to her own wants and needs. I loved the idea of a large family all pulling different ways. With a selfish mother, a tyrannical father and seven daughters, the family was complex, but add to that a lost love, a heroic butler and a handsome stranger - well, the real fun began then!
I wanted to know how far I could push Grace. I wanted to see what she would do and how she would react to certain situations. Above all I wanted to show a strong yet vulnerable character, who did what she thought was the best for her family and ultimately herself – only it takes a while for her to really find out what that is and along the way she runs a gauntlet of emotions and experiences.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Testament by Alis Hawkins

Testament started life as the germ of an idea for a radio play – a vague image of a ghost in an Oxford college lodge. The usual questions followed to see if there really was a story there: who was the ghost, why was he there, who was he haunting, why?

The answers to those questions soon exceeded the scope of sixty minutes’ radio drama and my imagination overran the bounds of any real city. So Testament became a novel and I set it, not in Oxford where I would have had to stick to what actually happened there in the fourteenth century, but in an entirely fictitious city - Salster.

My central character is a mason – more than just a mason, actually, a master builder – but I wanted him to be an outsider so I made him something of a pariah within his craft and gave him a patron who, as well as being monumentally rich, was also a heretic. I also gave him the son he and his wife had been waiting twenty years for. But the whole point of the book – the central reason for the book’s existence, in fact - is the boy turns out not to be the son he had hoped for.

Toby, the master mason’s son, was what the ghost in the college had turned into; no longer a ghost but a real live fourteenth century boy. A real live and very different boy.

So far so expansionist. But my imagination hadn’t finished with the narrative yet. I decided not to write it as a straightforward historical novel. No. I wanted to have somebody in our own time looking back on the story, trying to piece it all together, to make sense of it, the way we do with real historical narratives.

So, I needed a device to link two narratives separated by more than six hundred years. But what?
Newly discovered documents? Hackneyed.
Dreams? Flaky.
Time shifts with some kind of vaguely supernatural/quasi-psychological underpinning? Irritating.

A medieval wall painting hidden by circumstance until now? Perfect. Medieval wall paintings are fascinating – often containing little narratives all of their own.

Nothing about the people or the buildings or the circumstances in Testament could be said to be an everyday tale of fourteenth century folk.
The building Simon – my master builder - plans is extraordinary.
His patron is out of the usual run of magnates and is a Lollard heretic.
Simon’s master carpenter is none other than his wife.

Did things like this really happen, people always want to know.
Not often, is my response, and never – as far as I know – in exactly this way; but they could have and that’s the fascination of writing historical fiction. This could have happened.
Women did, in some circumstances, practice male crafts and were even masters.
There were Lollard heretics who – seemingly out of the blue – believed things that differed sharply from the orthodoxy of the day.
The extraordinary building Simon creates could have been built in the city I’ve invented. The university, both very like and utterly dissimilar from Oxford and Cambridge, is a plausible institution.

And, from the point of view of the twenty-first century characters in Testament, all of it did happen. The fourteenth century narrative represents part of the history of Salster, where the college Simon built for his patron still stands. The people who inhabit the college now – twenty-first century people who fill the book with blog-posts and email and cyber-attacks – are as much of their time as Simon and his family are of the fourteenth century and it’s in the meeting of these two times, in the grasping of the present to understand the past, that the key to the book lies.

The reader is privy to Simon’s story in a way that the twenty-first century characters aren’t. From a vantage point of privileged knowledge, the reader watches Simon’s life and work being pieced together by the twenty-first century characters in a patchy, sometimes inaccurate way and that’s the way I wanted it. I didn’t want my contemporary characters to fully understand events in the fourteenth century because, in the real world, that’s never possible. We can understand certain things, see through a glass darkly, but we will never completely understand the past and the people who lived there. We can’t.
Damia Miller – marketing manager to the twenty-first century college and would-be wall-painting decipherer - discovers enough of the mystery of Simon’s life to enable the college, mired in financial difficulties, to move forward confidently into the future; but she doesn’t uncover the whole truth.
Only the reader is given that.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller

Before I started writing novels (this is my second, following The Return of Captain John Emmett, which is a current Richard and Judy book club choice) I wrote about history and travel. These themes all came together when I set my novels in the early 1920’s, with flashbacks to the Great War. Just as travel books are, most importantly, about creating a powerful sense of place, so historical fiction uses many of the same ideas and techniques to recreate a place in time as well as physical locations.

When I’m reading I dislike feeling I’m being lectured to or that the author’s research, however virtuous, is too dominant. So I tried to let the background to my novels be something that a reader could absorb rather than be told about. But what I found hardest were the little details of the period. Did middle class men have pocket or wristwatches? How many houses had electricity? How much make up did a ‘nice’ girl wear and would a couple have sex before marriage in 1921? How many servants were kept in a small country house? How long did it take to drive 80 miles?

But there was also research specific to the plot of The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. My first book had mostly been set in London and Gloucestershire – my home county. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is set in Wiltshire in an area I also know quite well, from the dense Savernake forest to the standing stones at Avebury and Stonehenge: extraordinary and mysterious archaeological remains that I had studied at university. I remembered the lecturer standing by Silbury Hill and pointing about him (through the drizzle!) describing the whole area as ‘a vast ancient ritual landscape.’

Where better to set a book about death, the disappearance of a child, and layers of secrets?I started researching hedge mazes - a very old feature of gardens, many of which vanished had in the twentieth century and which had always fascinated me. Then there were Saxon churches and the first hydro-electricity installations in private houses, sometimes wondering as I wrote how novels always seem to take off into unknown areas. But perhaps the most fun was looking into the massive British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, which was intended to raise spirits crushed by the losses and privations of war (it was, incidentally, the early scene in the film The King’s Speech where the future George Vith made his halting and embarrassing first address). The original Wembley Stadium was built as the centrepiece of this show. It was the largest exhibition ever held and attracted 27 million visitors to a strange (and wonderful for a writer) mix of worthy industrial exhibits, a fun-fair, a specially constructed sea-side, replicas of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Taj Mahal and a coal mine, a full Canadian rodeo, massed marching bands and much else besides - not all of it smooth-running. It is even less smooth-running in my novel, where a second girl vanishes into the chaos, crowds, noise and spectacle of the exhibition and where the connections between war, families and landscape are slowly unravelled by a psychologically bruised former infantry officer helping restore a village church.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

It was strange how my novel came about. I’d been thinking of something quite different when one hot summer evening I went along to a performance at Wilton’s music hall – a dilapidated venue in London’s East End still open for public events today.
That performance – Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a baroque and beautiful operetta that tells of unrequited love and results in tragedy for all. It went on to become the plot around which my own Victorian story unfolded, even using sections of the libretto to head up individual chapters.
That venue – Wilton’s hall is built at the back of a bar, an intimate rectangular theatre full of arched niches that used to hold mirrors, and a high vaulted ceiling from which there once hung a glorious crystal chandelier. The balcony is supported by elegant brass barley twist pillars that glint and flash when reflecting the lights. And while gazing at those cold metal posts I felt my mind spinning through spirals of time, imaging Wilton’s in its prime, almost able to hear the popping of corks, the raucous laughter, the music hall songs. There wasn’t a moment of doubt in my mind that this was where my novel would start.
The next morning I woke with three distinct characters in mind. I really don’t know where they came from. It was almost as if they’d simply been waiting for me to bang the knocker on their door – which fronted a grand Victorian house in Tredegar Square in East London, not that far at all from Wilton’s hall. And inside was a dark-haired young woman called Phoebe who lived with her mother, Maud, a strictly religious widow who campaigned for all theatres and bars to be closed. Their home was shared with Cissy, Maud’s much younger, more glamorous sister who once had a singing career on the stage to which she was about to return, performing as Galatea at Wilton’s music hall – a performance that Phoebe goes to watch – and what Phoebe sees and does that night heralds change for the lives of all three of them.
If you read The Somnambulist I hope you will share the excitement I felt that first night when I visited Wilton’s hall, and I hope you will share my affection and fears for my heroine, Phoebe Turner as she gradually wakes from long years of deception and opens her eyes to the tragic truth that has haunted her life since the day she was born.
For more information on Wilton’s music hall, see Essie’s blog, The Virtual Victorian

Friday, 20 May 2011

Ten Historical Fiction Gems

The first ten are up! Take a look at the fascinating stories behind these fantastic books. Each author describes their inspiration and impetus for writing their novel. And - not a King or Queen in sight!

Another ten coming soon.

Whisper My Name by Jane Eagland

One of the main inspirations for Whisper My Name is something that’s intrigued me for years, but I couldn’t see a way to write about it. I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it is because that would reveal a key mystery of the plot!

Then I was researching for my first novel Wildthorn when I came across references to Victorian spiritualism. That’s one of the delightful things about research – what you chance on when you’re looking for something else. What I read hooked me in and, combined with the topic-I-can’t-identify-without-giving-away-the story, gave me the seed for Whisper My Name.

Until then I’d not realized how popular séances were in the nineteenth century. Even Queen Victoria was not averse to a spot of table-turning, apparently. Like her, many people treated it merely as a pastime, but there were others including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who truly believed that it’s possible, via a medium, to communicate with the dead.

I found the whole subject fascinating, especially accounts of what fraudulent mediums got up to. A ‘spirit hand’ appearing through a hole in the middle of the table turned out to be a stuffed glove on the medium’s raised foot. Mediums handcuffed inside cabinets could release themselves with a second key secreted in their mouths and ‘appear’ cloaked in white muslin to thrill their audience. One such who was caught in her underwear claimed to have been stripped by an evil spirit.

I was entertained by all this, but you’ll have to read the book to see whether my mediums are frauds or true believers. What moved me most, though, was the serious side of spiritualism – the powerful desire to believe that the people we love have not disappeared, that they are still ‘with us’ and that it’s possible to make contact with them.

From that impulse, my main character Meriel Garland was born. Motherless and still grieving, by chance she takes part in a séance…

Though spiritualism gave me the framework for my story what interests me most when I am writing a novel are the characters and their relationships. As soon as I started thinking about her, Meriel sprang to life. Lively, determined, she’s the sort of person it might be fun to know. But she’s not without her faults and here I wanted to set myself a challenge – to see whether I could portray the less appealing aspects of her character without forfeiting the reader’s sympathy. Whether I’ve succeeded or not, I don’t know.

Once I had Meriel, I then thought about Sophie Casson, the young medium, a very different character from Meriel. Quiet, enigmatic, I knew she also had a story which I had to uncover.

I brought the two girls together and the mystery began to unfold.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Jubilee by Eliza Graham

I live in a very beautiful part of the South of England, very close to White Horse Hill in what used to be Berkshire and is now Oxfordshire. I’ve always been aware of just how long human beings have lived here. Up on the hill stretches the White Horse itself, which predates Abraham. Wayland’s Smithy, the mysterious Sarcen stone burial site, is about three miles from my house.

My first two novels were set in Dorset and West Poland (formerly German Pomerania) respectively. When it came to my third book, Jubilee, I wanted to write about where I live, about the hills and fields I see every day when I’m walking my dog.

As I strode through fields of sheep I thought back to the families who’d farmed up here in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, as livestock and farming methods improved. Some of them had lived here for centuries. They’d just weathered the slumps after the first world war when the second world war started. Life changed. Prisoners of war from Germany, Austria and Italy came to work on the farms. Evacuees arrived from London. Some of the local young men who’d signed up died or faced years of imprisonment in European and Asian POW camps.

I thought of a protagonist for this new book: Jubilee, He’d be Robert Winter, a young yeoman farmer, not quite gentry, but well-placed in the village. A member of the local cricket team. Someone who’d spent his youth out on the hills with the sheep. Someone who’d seen the tough side of life and probably come across a few people he didn’t much like but generally thought of other human beings as reasonable.

Put a man like this, a man more sensitive and highly strung than might have been imagined, into a Japanese POW camp where he witnesses atrocities and deprivation. Where his own health suffers. He survives his incarceration and comes back to his picturesque farm on the Downs. He knows he’s fortunate, that he should be grateful, that he should pick up where he left off, throwing himself into the rhythms of the farming year.

But he can’t. What happened to him in his camp in Thailand is still replaying itself in his mind. Every night he goes to sleep and ghosts come out to reproach or taunt him. Still living on the farm are the young evacuees who arrived in 1939, now older, but still expecting to pick up the relationship they’d developed with Robert before he went away. They grow increasingly scared as his mood swings and delusions grow more intense.

I’d chosen jubilees as the linking theme for this book, though it has nothing to do with the monarchs themselves. For small villages in this part of the world coronations, royal weddings and jubilees are a kind of glue that binds the community together. People come out and celebrate. Bunting goes up. Cakes are baked. I used the coronation in 1953, the silver jubilee in 1977, and the golden jubilee in 2002 to show how the past informs the present, how people go into the future always half-looking behind them at what’s passed.

Jubilee was at proof stage by August 2009, the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the second world war. On the morning of Bank Holiday Monday I was vacuuming my house before we were to go down to the local agricultural show: an annual family excursion. Someone knocked on the door. A man in his seventies was standing there. He told me he’d come to live in this very cottage as an evacuee in September 1939 and had returned to the area this weekend as there was going to be a sixtieth anniversary commemoration of the evacuees’ arrival in the village primary school.

Goosebumps pricked on my skin as he told me about life in the cottage during the war, about the Italian POWs in the camp 100 metres down the road from us. I’d fallen into my own book! Jubilee had come alive in a way I’d never expected.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts

How it began.
People often ask, ‘Where do your ideas come from?’, as if there is a particular store where you can go to pick up a bargain. It’s true that sometimes a dazzling idea for a new novel pops into my head but, alas, it’s never fully formed. For me, a novel takes time to grow; I have to live with an idea, running it like a constant sub-text in the back of my mind while I ask myself questions such as, ‘What if? ‘and ‘How?’

When I finished my previous novel, set in World War II, I decided I had enjoyed the research so much that I’d like to write a proper historical novel. (The second world war happened in my parent’s lifetimes so that hardly counted as historical in my book.) Where to begin? What period of history really interested me and hadn’t been overworked? I’d studied very little history at school. Henry VIII came up on the syllabus two years running and I remembered something about the Enclosure Act and the Potato Famine. There were rows of Regency Romances on the bookshop shelves but, although I wanted to write a love story, I didn’t fancy writing a category romance. Philippa Gregory had cornered the market with her wonderful novels based in the Tudor period. But Charles II interested me, partly because I loved his flamboyant clothes and he always seemed to be having such fun with his mistresses.

My father lent me his copy of the Diary of Samuel Pepys. I took it to bed with me one winter’s evening and fell asleep over it in the small hours. What fascinated me was how very vivid and alive it all was, even after over three hundred and forty years. Pepys’ character shone through and as I read about his worries and joys, his sense of humour and his misbehavior, it struck me that people from history were as much flesh and blood as you or I. They may have had a different perspective, coloured by political and social attitudes of the day but they still fell in love, worried about their businesses and grieved if someone they loved died.

Since my own historical knowledge was mostly derived from reading novels, I started to research the seventeenth century more widely. There was plenty going on; civil wars, religious fervor, plagues, great fires, kings being beheaded.

Unusually, it wasn’t a character who settled it but a city. I found an old map of the City of London before the Great Fire of 1666. I pored over it for hours, mentally walking the narrow streets, alleys and courts of Restoration London. I began to imagine what it would have been like to live there. The timber framed houses were cramped together, all higgledy-piggledy with the first floors jettied out over the street and cutting out the daylight below. Sewage ran in open drains. I had a sepia picture in mind of a dark and airless city, hot and stinking in the summer, bone-chillingly cold in the winter with a permanent pall of smog and the stench of the tanneries hanging over everything.

Then I visited India and was shocked by the close juxtaposition of great wealth and the utmost poverty. People lived in the streets in little shelters fashioned from packing cases, making fires and cooking in the open, while dogs nosed about in the heaps of detritus that banked up against the buildings. Suddenly my vision of Restoration London was brought to life in glorious Technicolor!

London was a cosmopolitan city, even then. The docks were noisy, busy and smelly. Business flourished in the coffee houses. Rum, sugar, slaves and tobacco were traded. I wanted to paint a rich, sensual picture in words of what it felt like to be a part of that world. But how would I deal with the sensitive subject of slavery in such a way that it was a true reflection of the times but without upsetting the modern day reader?

I began to imagine a young woman living in this bustling, malodorous city. Who was she? I pictured her green eyes, as clear as water, and her chestnut hair shining out through all the grime. She would be strong, impatient perhaps, but able to cope with everything that life threw at her. Susannah came into being. Then, visiting a second hand book shop, I bought a copy of Culpepper’s Herbal and suddenly Susannah’s purpose became clear; she would be an apothecary. Except, of course, that there were no female apothecaries. Women in the seventeenth century either stayed at home with their family, married or worked as a servant.

What would happen if a young woman, contentedly helping her father in his apothecary shop, was suddenly ousted from her home? And what if the plague stalked the streets and friends and family were dying like flies around her? Who could she turn to? How would she live? What would happen to her? Well, you’ll just have to read The Apothecary’s Daughter to find out. Here is the opening.

Inside the apothecary shop Susannah stood by the light of the window, daydreaming and grinding flowers of sulphur into a malodorous dust as she watched the world go by. Fleet Street, as always, was as busy as an anthill. The morning’s snow was already dusted with soot from the noxious cloud blown in from the kilns at Limehouse and the frost made icebergs of the surging effluent in the central drain. Church bells clanged and dogs barked while a ceaseless stream of people flowed past.
Susannah’s eye was drawn by the tall figure of a man in a sombre hat and cloak picking his way over the snow. Something about the way he moved amongst the hubbub of the crowd, like a wolf slipping silently through the forest, captured her curiosity ...

The Apothecary’s Daughter will be published by Piatkus, (an imprint of Little, Brown) in August 2011

Monday, 9 May 2011

Darcy and Fitzwilliam by Karen V Wasylowski

The story behind Darcy and Fitzwilliam began years ago when I first saw Laurence Olivier as Fitzwilliam Darcy.  This man was chic.  The character was a stylish alpha male without being a bully, sophisticated without losing a sense of humor.  He was arrogant at first then humbled before a master of the cutting word – his Elizabeth.  Why is it all women love to see a haughty man made weak at the knees with love?  Who am I kidding?
My adoration for Darcy had begun. 
Then there was Colin Firth in 1995 in all his beautiful Firthiness - exquisite smile, gorgeous hair, just enough masculinity to dazzle with a touch of vulnerability to make him loveable.  He was a more aggressive Darcy, more in your face (hubba hubba).  And love him we did.  Most fervently.
But…it was not until the 2005 movie that I could no longer hold back my true Darcy feelings.  It was Matthew Macfadyen, in all his Macfadyness that pushed me over the brink.  He is a very big man that somehow comes across as elegant.  He brought shyness to Darcy (never saw that coming) and a reason for his reticence to dance with Lizzy at the Assembly was suddenly more than mere snobbishness.  When he batted his lashes at the end, muttering, “I l-l-love you – most ardently,” a few hundred thousand hearts were added to the Darcy heap.  Mine among them.
I kept zeroing in on one scene, however, in the movie.  The scene at Aunt Catherine’s when she grills and grills Lizzy about her mother, her sisters, her accomplishments, or lack thereof.  Darcy is clearly mortified – his eyes glance at his Aunt’s face.  She must appear to him to be a modified form of Mrs. Bennet, with better style sense. 
He then glances at his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. 
Fitzwilliam glances at him.
That was the birthplace of my book - a shared look by two young men, one uncomfortable and one snickering, one bemused and another embarrassed by an older cranky relative.  My mind whirled with the associations, their secret look told me more than even the director had intended.  They had a history with this old bat, as we all have a history with our crazy aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers.  I identified completely. 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

By David Fuller

I hold in my hands a hardcover copy of Sweetsmoke. It is real, it is solid, and when I open it, familiar words fill my eyes. The words seem to have a life of their own as they carry me into the 19th Century and into Cassius's world, and it takes a moment for me to remember that these words were written in this chair, here at this desk, in this office. The book rests in my hands as if it were inevitable, as if the future held its breath waiting for these pages to arrive.

Couldn't be further from the truth. There was nothing inevitable about the creation of this novel. Its birth followed a series of steps and missteps that played out over years of work, and if not for other supposedly "inevitable" projects that fell short of their inevitable status, Sweetsmoke would not have existed at all. My life could easily have traveled a different path whose final destination would have been far afield, yet appeared equally inevitable.

Let me take a moment to note the distinction I make between inevitability and Fate. Fate, to me, is Homerian. Fate suggests gods and goddesses with some soothsayer's sense of foreboding.  Fate determined the early death of Achilles, but first he had to make the choice to go to Troy. And it was a choice, offered by his mother, Thetis: he could live a quiet life into anonymous old age, or go out in a brilliant, explosive flame of combat that would cause his name to chime through history. Even in Homer's world, fate was not inevitable, although many would argue that Achilles could make no other choice.

In my definition, fate has a storybook sense of propulsion. The best writers foreshadow fate in their texts so that a reader is not taken by surprise when a character reaches his or her... inevitable end.
Inevitable is a different beast. Inevitable plays out in hindsight. By that rule, everything in life is inevitable. I choose not to see Sweetsmoke as inevitable. Certainly, key elements in my life guided me to Sweetsmoke. To begin with, family history. I have been told that more than 140 of my ancestors fought, on both sides, in the Civil War — also known as the War Between the States, or the Recent Unpleasantness. Among those ancestors was a famous Confederate general. I discovered, while doing research for the novel, that he was a slave owner. The fact of this history (including the slave-owning ancestor) does not make a book about a slave on a tobacco plantation inevitable, of course, nor does it make inevitable that I would write about the Recent Unpleasantness. But it is a marker by which you can track the decision to start the research (research that took over eight years) that led me to write the book. Here is another marker: when I was seven years old, my family moved to Europe and we lived there for four years. This gave me an outsider's perspective, one that allowed me to see the world through the point of view of other human beings. I'd like to think that I had a natural empathy, as well, but this experience certainly turned on that light. The most important outsider's perspective came to me in a stunning revelation when I returned to the United States: I suddenly saw my country in a different, unexpected, and unflattering light. This was a larger step to seeing through the eyes of a slave in Civil War Virginia. But again, it did not make writing the novel inevitable.

As a teenager, I worked for an African American production company and did illustrations, paintings, for a multi-media presentation about black history in the United States entitled We Are Black. Add that marker to the path, but keep in mind that it was by accident that I absorbed African American history. In college, I gave up painting as a possible vocation and took to filmmaking. I recognized I would need to learn to write if I was to become the filmmaker I hoped to be. Another marker, this time a step in the direction of eventually writing prose.

My screenwriting career touched many moments of inevitability while it was unfolding, at least from the point of view of friends and family. If certain movies had been blessed with better timing, more appropriate directors, different studios or producers or stars, it is possible I would never have written prose at all. If that big budget action movie had been better and sold tickets, I might have been typecast as an action writer, and possibly, inevitably, evolved into a director of action films. One television pilot seemed, at the time, so inevitable to everyone in Hollywood that my agent began to look for new clients so that he could start to build their careers, as my career (with my writing partner) was obviously set. The pilot had a fine script, a hot actor, a major studio, and one of the big four networks behind it. Agents of other writers were so certain we were on the air that a stack of writing samples began to arrive so we could build our writing staff. We did not make it on the air, and to this day, that pilot remains unseen. The reasons for its demise were so random, that as the façade of inevitability fell away, I was left baffled by the entire experience.

Very well. Let's just say that Sweetsmoke stands on the backs of many failures. Had any one of those failures come to fruition, then that piece of work would have seemed inevitable and left Sweetsmoke somewhere out in the rain.

What is inevitable, if you know me and my writing, is that for this work to exist, Cassius could not be a victim, despite the fact that he lives in a world of extraordinary oppression. In order to be able to write Sweetsmoke, this was an absolute. It was my way into the story, through Cassius's strength, not the horror of his circumstance. It was also inevitable, if I was to tell the story, that I would not depict noble slaves toiling under the gaze of mustache-twirling, Simon Legree-like masters. Slaves and planters alike would have to be complex, conflicted, political human beings, as intelligent, stupid, conniving, and generous as every other human being. While this may connote an unfair use of the word inevitable, it is the only way I see it applying to my book.

The story of Sweetsmoke was born and evolved inside me, maybe from the moment I returned to the United States as a boy, or maybe from the time I learned African American history. When it emerged, it came fully formed into my mind. I knew it would have to be set in Virginia, on a tobacco plantation, during the war. I knew Cassius would be a carpenter, as carpenters had more freedom than other slaves. I knew there would be a mystery and a murdered woman, and I knew she would be a freed slave and a spy for the North. I knew that her back story would involve Cassius on a personal level. I also knew that the mystery would provide the bones that would allow me to apply the muscles, blood, and skin of historical fiction in order to explore the character of Cassius. I did not know that Cassius and his story would bother me, push me, and force me to continue until the book was done. It would not let go. It was as if, once the story came to me, seeing it through to its conclusion was inevitable. Or perhaps it was Fate.

The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan

The story of ‘The Master of Bruges’ began when my wife and I went on a tobacco run on the Hull ferry to Bruges in Belgium. We arrived at 8:30 in the morning, and once having bought her cigarettes (the work of about ten minutes) we could spend the rest of the day looking around the various churches and museums of that lovely city.

One of the places we went to was the Memlingsmuseum, which contains mainly works by the fifteenth-century Flemish painter Hans Memling. At this time I had never heard of him, but I was enjoying wandering about in there to the accompaniment of complaints from herself, who was desperate for a fag and couldn’t understand how I could spend twenty minutes looking at a painting while she was forced to stand there without any smoke issuing from her buccal orifice. As I say, I knew nothing of Memling and I knew even less than that about art (I’m really doing a top-class sell on this book, aren’t I?), but I did notice that he tended to use the same model again and again for the Madonna, and idly wondered to my dear good lady wife who the model might have been.

She cast an eye over a couple of the paintings, and then said, “I don’t know who she was, but she doesn’t half look like Claire from Corrie,”* and there the matter might have ended. I was eventually dragged out of the Museum into the open air, where she lit up and then demanded a sit-down and a beer, and we went into the main square to an open-air bar where she could indulge two of her legal drug addictions, nicotine and alcohol, and I was allowed to watch and, in due course, pay the bill. At the end of this time I expressed a wish to pop into another small museum across the road, where there were some paintings and a bit of sculpture, but Her Ladyship said, “No, you go. I’ll wait here with another beer that you’re going to buy me,” so I went across on my own.

It was not, it has to be said, a very interesting museum. The sculptures were nothing special, and the only painting that caught my attention was a very large dramatic Victorian one showing a forest scene, with a young lady swooning on the ground on the bottom right, a horse running away and a crowd of men and servants all legging it towards the girl. The picture was called “The Death of Princess Mary of Burgundy”.  I was about to turn away when a lady on my left said a sentence that I can truly say changed my life.

As I stepped back from this painting in Bruges I overheard a conversation between a couple behind me. He said to her, “Who was Mary of Burgundy?”, and she replied, – and this was the life-changing sentence – “I don’t know…but she doesn’t half look like Claire from Corrie.” And indeed she did.

When I got home I looked them up on the Internet. Mary of Burgundy was the only child of Charles the Bold, the fifteenth-century Duke of Burgundy. She lived most of her life in Bruges, was the Princess Diana of her day, and like Diana died young, in her case in a hunting accident in 1482 – hence the painting I had seen.

I wondered if she might have known Hans Memling. It turned out that this was possible; he had flourished in Bruges from 1465 until his death in 1494, and thus was an exact contemporary of the princess.

And that got me thinking. What if the Mary of Burgundy who looked like Claire from Corrie and the Memling Madonnas who also looked like Claire from Corrie were one and the same? Is it possible that Memling might have been painting Charles’ daughter? And if so, why?

What if, and why – the two archetypal writer’s questions. And that, basically, is the point that my book started from. I had to find out if the events I was postulating were possible and, if so, when and how they could have happened. There I struck writer’s  gold; nothing at all is known of Memling’s early life, not even, to within ten years, the date of his birth, so I had carte blanche. There’s a lot of conjecture; he was known to be German by origin, but had settled in Bruges in the mid-1460s. He was thought to have been once a soldier; he was thought to have trained in the studio of the painter Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, but nothing definite is known beyond the fact that he was a painter in Bruges. As with Shakespeare, odd references to him turn up in the Bruges records – paying taxes, buying a house, joining a confraternity, the birth of three sons and so on, but otherwise very little is known for certain. I began to feel the stirrings of a plot.

My next novel, ‘The Shadow Prince’ will be published at the beginning of next year. In a sense, it’s a sequel to ‘The Master of Bruges’ in that I take a minor character from this book and follow his adventures over the next few years. Like ‘The Master of Bruges’, it has been a great deal of fun to write, involving many research trips-stroke-tobacco runs over to Belgium and a great deal of sitting in bars and sampling various Belgian beers as I try to work out how to get my protagonist into another fine mess.
* The character Claire Peacock, played by Julia Howarth in Coronation Street for the non-brits among you.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

  It all started with a sod dugout on the outskirts of Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The dugout, called Prairie Homestead, was easy to overlook; from the two-lane road it didn't look like much. The sign, however, advertised that the 1909 sod dugout was listed with the National Register of Historic Places, and that was enough for me. I was on a camping vacation with plenty of time so I pulled into the empty parking lot and paid the admission fee. Since that day, nothing has been the same.
The Prairie Homestead consisted of a sod dugout, a root cellar, an outhouse, a barn, and antique farm equipment. My tour guide was owner Keith Crew whose grandparents had been Badlands homesteaders. The two of us walked up the slight rise to the sod dugout. There were prairie dog holes everywhere, and Mr. Crew warned me to stay on the dirt path. "Step in a hole", he said, "and you can snap an ankle." I stayed on the path.
Inside, the three-room dugout had a dank, musty smell. The dirt floor was so hard-packed that it felt like standing on cement. Sheets of yellowed newspapers were tacked on some of the interior walls to cover the rough-cut sod bricks. On the walls that were bare, shoots of grass grew between the sod bricks. To my surprise, Mr. Crew pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket, flicked it, and started burning the shoots. "Got to do it nearly everyday," he said. "If you don't, the prairie takes over."
The bedroom was just big enough for a low-slung bed that stood a few inches above the dirt floor. There was a potbelly stove in the parlor and because wood was scarce, rock-hard cow patties or cowchips, as ranchers called them, were stacked in a nearby bucket ready to be burned for fuel. I asked Mr. Crew if they smelled bad when they were burning. "Not much," he said.
It was the shiny black cookstove in the kitchen that stopped me cold.  The dirt around the cookstove was worn down much like a path. A woman, I realized, might have stood there for the better part of each day preparing food. I tried to imagine this. This woman had cooked three meals a day, day after day, year after year. There must have been times when she hated that cookstove, when she felt trapped by the constant demand to feed her family. Yet there, on the oven door, was an embossed ring of ivy making the cookstove an object of beauty. It might have been the woman's albatross, but the cookstove was hers and hers alone. It must have made her proud.
A few days later, I stopped in a roadside museum in South Dakota and saw a photo of an unnamed African-American woman sitting by herself in front of a dugout. This surprised me. I had never heard of black settlers in the West, but there she was in the photo, her mouth set and her eyes steady. Long after the vacation ended, I kept thinking about her, wondering who she was and why she was alone in the photo.   Her name had been lost to history, but she must have had a story and I wanted to hear it. I gave her a name, a dugout with a cookstove, and I began to write.
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is the story of what might have happened.

The Highest Stakes by Emery Lee

Since THE HIGHEST STAKES' release, I have been asked a number of questions about my inspiration and creative process, and how I researched the novel. I would like to take this opportunity to answer some of these questions and share some thoughts and insights on the novel itself.

It is always said that one should write one's passions. In my case, this would mean converging horses, history and romance. A love story set in the world of horseracing began churning around in my head and invading my dreams at night.

The premise involved young lovers torn between two worlds. I wanted to create a hero who would overcome many obstacles to find love and happiness, with his ultimate fate hanging on a horse race. But where to begin?

I started by researching the history of horseracing and learned that nearly all Thoroughbred racehorses can trace their blood back to not only the Arabian horse, but three very specific sires - all imported to England from the Middle East in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Bingo! I thought. Why not start with the origin of the thoroughbred itself?

Suddenly, I had my setting- mid-18th century England in the reign of George II, a time in which horseracing became an obsession of the uppermost elite, and fortunes could be won or lost on the racing turf.  I then narrowed my time period to the decade that preceded the formation of the first Jockey Club in 1751.

Once I knew the when and the where of my story, my additional research into this select historical period truly was exhaustive. This was an era of corruption, arranged marriages, and high stakes gambling; when racing and breeding became the obsession of the uppermost elite, and a match race might replace a duel in settling a point of honor.

Over many months, I delved into all aspects of upper class 18th century English life, to include the War of Austrian succession, the British military campaign in which my characters play a part, the shifting politics of the times, arranged marriages, and of course 18th century horseracing and breeding practices.

My goal was then to vividly recreate in the reader’s mind this fascinating and titillating, hard-drinking, vice-ridden, horseracing world of Georgian England.

Interestingly, the horses in THE HIGHEST STAKES play nearly as important a role as the human characters, as Sir Garfield’s racing stud is as essential as his niece and daughter in his schemes to gain social advancement.

Sir Garfield’s niece, Charlotte, is a young girl who is orphaned and forced to live with her uncaring and socially ambitious relatives. Lonely and neglected, she seeks solace within her uncle's racing stables, where she discovers two lifelong passions, Robert Devington, and her uncle’s racehorses.
The young and ambitious Devington is a lowly, but talented stable groom, who leaves his employ for the military, in order to better himself in the eyes of Charlotte's uncle, who will never see him as good enough. When Robert is still rebuffed upon his return from war to claim Charlotte's hand, a racing wager seems the only pathway to win her.
Through this love story of Robert Devington and Charlotte Wallace, a tale of drama, danger, thwarted love, and retribution unfurls.

Enjoy the ride!
Emery Lee


Monday, 2 May 2011

The Lady's Slipper by Deborah Swift

The story behind the story.
One Sunday I was out for a walk with a friend in the countryside, and strolling down a leafy un-made track, we came across a white tent right in the middle of the path. It was blocking our way, so we peered inside. An official-looking man was sitting there who told us he was from an organization called English Nature. His task was to guard the rare lady’s-slipper orchid which was in flower a few yards further on. Apparently orchid enthusiasts were so desperate to get hold of the plant that in 2003 half of it had been dug up by a greedy collector and since then it has been guarded whilst it is in flower.
A bit taken aback that a guard should be patrolling such a quiet country footpath, and full of curiosity, we followed him to view this rare orchid. Nestling against the green of the hedgerow, it was strikingly different from most other English flowers. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the sight of it took my breath away. I had never seen anything so exotic-looking growing wild before - the creamy yellow “slipper”, surrounded by the twisted blood-coloured ribbons. It struck me at that moment that every time anyone saw this, generation after generation, they must have experienced the same awe. The thought that it could be lost to future generations, sobering.
We stood and stared as our guide described a little of its history. The species was on the brink of extinction in Britain but when a single plant was rediscovered, the Cypripedium Committee was formed, a sort of plant mafia, designed to protect the lady’s-slipper and develop a conservation strategy involving propagating or cloning the species.
The committee are obsessively protective of the plant - In one TV programme explaining this much-publicised and expensive conservation programme the interviewer asked one of their members what would become of the original - "Will people be allowed to see it?" he was asked.
"No," he answered, "and if I have my way it will live the rest of its days unseen and die in isolation."
This seemed an interesting paradox and whetted my imagination. It seemed strange that the Committee were able to effectively “own” the plant in their attempts to preserve it. Eventually this became one theme I wanted to explore in the novel – but I am jumping ahead.

I did more research. I trawled internet sites and orchid books and read scientific articles on plant cloning. This is the sort of thing I used to do when writing a poem – looking for snippets of language, unusual words or fragments that I might craft into poetry. After a few attempts at beginning a poem, I realised it just wasn’t working. It seemed a bigger, more wordy idea than there was room for in a poem, more of a narrative. The plant on its own was nothing without characters to see it, so I drafted chapter one of what was to become The Lady’s Slipper.

At the same time I went to a philosophy workshop in an old Quaker meeting house at Yealand, a short drive from my home. The old meeting house is full of atmosphere, built in 1692, the silence of the meetings over so many hundreds of years seems concentrated into its very walls. What moved me most on that particular day was the graveyard. It is a typical Quaker burial ground where all the headstones are exactly the same – plain granite, thumbnail-shaped stones with a simple name and date. It is the ultimate expression of death as a levelling process - whoever you were, however rich or poor, you would have the same memorial and be returned to the land. This idea of equality is not so startling today, but how would it have been viewed in the class-ridden system of seventeenth century England when the movement began?

I started to investigate Quaker history. I was fascinated by the Quaker strict code of morality and the strength of their convictions for peace in those early times, particularly as when the movement began, England was still recovering from the bloodshed of the English Civil War and the subsequent Puritan repression. I began to visualise the character of Richard Wheeler as a Quaker.

Fortunately I live near the birthplace of the Quaker movement, so visits to their first meeting grounds and houses such as Swarthmoor Hall where George Fox himself actually stood, played a large part in the background to the book. There is nothing like inhaling the smell of seventeenth century panelling, or looking at a view of a garden from inside mullioned glass. George Fox kept a diary which provided me with not only a time-frame, but also a flavour of the particular language of the period.

As I was researching I found I was haunted by “what if” questions such as, what would happen if a Quaker had pledged not to take up arms but then was put in a position where he must defend the person he loves? I was interested also to explore the whole question of territory, and what it is that makes people defend their territory.
Not just in an obvious way, but more subtly too - for example, Thomas becomes indignant when Ella encroaches on Alice’s territory.  

The lady’s-slipper for me represents the land. It rouses a patriotism in me, something that has become a somewhat unpopular idea of late. And I think many people are asking questions about soldiering, and the paradox of using conflict to bring about peace. So the character of Richard Wheeler enabled me to explore these questions without implying the answers, but just to raise them.

The Lady’s Slipper grew in an organic sort of way. Although I was aware of the crafting process as it went on, in some respects I feel the story was already “out there” somehow, and I am just the person who happened to pen it down. So I feel immensely grateful to the characters for letting me tell their story.