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

Deborah-Swift's Royalty Free 1 album on Photobucket

Friday, 24 June 2011

The power of the wind and the power of memory

Two more great historical reads - Sarah Bryant's latest historical novel, Serendipity about the power of the wind, and a love lost and found, and Marianne Wheelaghan's The Blue Suitcase - an editor's choice in the Historical Novel Review.

Serendipity by Sarah Bryant

“Where do you get your ideas?” is probably the most common question people ask me when I tell them that I’m a writer, and it’s definitely the most difficult to answer. It’s not so much that I don’t know (although at some point, flash-in-the-pan inspiration is always a factor) but that the origins of my books are usually so distant, so mundane, or so apparently unrelated to the finished product, that people either don’t believe me, or are disillusioned by the utter banality of the truth.
“Serendipity” is no exception. Its point of origin is seventeen years ago, my second year of university, when I was a competitive dinghy sailor. I woke up one morning from a dream about an old white wooden sailboat named “Heaven”, wanting to write about it, and sailing’s addictive quality, and of course, being a rose-tinted twenty year old, about love. The result was an abysmal short story about a girl who loved sailboats, and a boy who loved her. It sank into my “stories” folder without ever seeing the light of day, and I forgot about it until the following year, when my first real relationship ended in a spectacular mess.
Among other fallout, I quit sailing. I had to, if I didn’t want to see the boy in question every day. I missed it at least as much as I missed him, but there was no question of going back to either one. So what to do with the sudden, gaping hole in my life? Write about it, of course! I dusted off the sailboat story, trashed most of it, but kept the two characters and a few sentences belonging to each of them. Then I started listening. The guy was silent. But the girl had a lot to say about love and loss and disillusionment. I started writing.
It wasn’t until the following summer that Meredith’s pages of broken-hearted rumination began to take shape as a novel. But oddly, it had nothing at all to do with Meredith, or even sailboats. I was working that summer on a small teaching farm – a little bit of the nineteenth century marooned in the Massachusetts suburbs. Before I knew it, a world was forming in my head: one which took shape around that farm, as it might have been in a different time or place. And out of it, unexpectedly, the silent man began to speak. He was intelligent and wry and as-yet-inexplicably damaged. I put Meredith aside, and started writing Silence. I knew that they were connected, but how? Writing a novel about a sailing prodigy and a farmer seemed like a fool’s errand.
The answer came out of nowhere. Well actually it came from Adam, a friend I’d made at that farm, who announced one day, “My new favourite word is ‘serendipity’.” I asked him why, and he said, “Because serendipity explains everything.” I said, “Right, whatever,” but I found the word knocking around my head the next few days as I demonstrated the joys of cow milking and composting to a lot of hot, bored suburban children.
And then Adam took me to see his family’s farm. It had a huge old red barn, intriguingly empty. It was like a cathedral. It was big enough to hold a boat. And that was it, the flash in the pan: Silence was building a boat in his barn! And sooner or later he was going to need help; enter Meredith. Serendipity, indeed.
I’d like to say it all went smoothly from there, but that quote about love’s course hold true for novels too. I took “Serendipity” with me onto a writing masters program, thinking it was great. The tutor hated it, and did her level best to fail me. A year later, I was lucky enough to find an agent who loved it, and I thought I was sorted. Wrong again: the agent couldn’t sell it, and ultimately gave up on it. So did I.
I wrote other books, found publishers for them. It wasn’t until I was writing my third historical novel that “Serendipity” got its Eureka moment. I was bogged down in that third book, with two small children and too little time to do the research it required. Then something strange happened: I was slogging away at 19th century Edinburgh, but it was Meredith and Silence who kept speaking to me. And they were saying, “When are you ever going to figure it out? Our story belongs here!”
I still can’t believe that when I emailed my editor and said, “Um, about that book you’re expecting…is it okay if I write a completely different one?” she said yes without hesitation.
I took “Serendipity” back out, rewrote the first section as set in the 1890s rather than 1990s, and everything just fell perfectly into place. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to see that this story had always belonged in an earlier era. At long last, despite myself (and with a little help from Bob Dylan – just read it, you’ll see!) I knew exactly how to make “Serendipity” into the book it was meant to be. And if it took me seventeen years? Well, better later than never!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Blue Suitcase by Marianne Wheelaghan

Why did I write The Blue Suitcase?
My mother very sadly died few years ago. Shortly after her death, I was helping my father sort out her personal things when we came across a collection of letters, diary extracts, old postcards and faded documents, all in German. They dated back to before Mum came to Scotland – Mum came to Scotland after the end of the WW2 and trained to be a nurse in Leith Hospital, Edinburgh, where she met my dad. Dad, who was Scottish from Leith, was very keen I translate these documents and letters (I'd studied German and had lived in Germany so not as mad as it sounds).
You see, Mum's early life was a bit of a mystery to the family: all we knew about her life before coming to Scotland was that she was from Silesia, which didn't exist, and that she never saw her parents again after she left Germany. To be honest, I was uncomfortable with the idea of reading my mum's things, she'd been a very private person (and it was going to be hard work, I'd not practised or read any German for years). However, Dad finally managed to persuade me.
I started by translating a diary extract, which I first assumed had been written by my mother. However, it quickly became clear the diary extract(s) had been written by my aunt, Antonia, who had gone to live in Argentina after the end of the war. From her letters, it became clear Antonia had been very unhappy in Argentina. She wrote to Mum regularly and when she wrote she included an extract from her dairy, which dated to before the war and which she'd painstakingly retyped on sheets of airmail paper. This was what I was translating. The very first extract I looked at was dated 1947. It was one of the last she sent. I was shocked at the contents of Antonia's diary. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. Much of what I discovered was distressing. I needed to know to if it was true so I went to the library to find historically accurate, factual, unbiased books, which would help me make sense of my mother's life.
By the time I finished at the library, I knew I had to write about what I had discovered: if only so that my children would know what life had been like for their granny.
At first I thought I would write a biography, but I felt uncomfortable doing that: firstly because of the gaps in the diaries and letters, it was difficult for me to know for sure what had happened to my family throughout the whole of this period (1932-1947), secondly, I simply couldn't write about Mum. It was too personal. Eventually, I had an epiphany: I would create a fictional family, which would be like Mum's family, but not the same. And this is what I did. I also created a fictional main character in Antonia, who is a combination of my mum and my aunt. Much of what happened to my fictional family happened to my real family, but much didn't, although it could have done – certainly, everything that happened in the novel is based on true historic fact: if didn't happen to my family, it happened to someone else's family.
Next, I had to decide “how” I was going to tell Mum and Antonia's story. I eventually decided to develop the format of a diary and letters: I wanted to try and recreate in the reader that same sense of 'discovery' I had experienced when I first translated the documents. And that's how The Blue Suitcase came to be: it's the undertold story about life under Hitler for an ordinary German family, but it's also a story about a young girl growing up and surviving against terrible odds.

Why did I feel so compelled to write this story? I wanted to right a wrong: when I was young there was an unspoken belief that all Germans were “baddies” and Hitler's “willing executioners”. And I am ashamed to say, I remember feeling embarrassed at times because my mother was German. Now I know that not only were many ordinary Germans also victims of Hitler's terrible regime, but that my mother was a refugee, and like millions of other German refugees, forcibly expelled from her home at the end of WW2. It seemed to me wholly unjust that the suffering of my mother and my aunt, and so many other aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers like them (on all sides), should go unacknowledged.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

A Georgian sleuth and a Napoleonic Cavalryman

Have a look at two more highly recommended historical reads with not a royal in sight. The witty sleuth, Dido Kent in her latest ladylike adventure, "A Woman of Consequence", and the story of two cavalrymen in 1805, "Walls of Jericho."

A Woman of Consequence by Anna Dean

When I am not writing my series of Georgian murder mysteries, I have a wonderful job as a guide at William Wordsworth' s home: Dove Cottage in Grasmere.

Many of the people who come to the cottage are – like me – as interested in the life of William's sister Dorothy as they are in the great poet himself, finding the domestic details and meticulous observations of her journals endlessly fascinating. But visitors often raise their eyebrows when I tell them that Dorothy, lived with her brother for most of her adult life. Sometimes there are expressions of sympathy for William's wife; sometimes there are questions about the exact nature of William and Dorothy's relationship: was it, people hint darkly, unnaturally close?

The twenty-first century notion of how an unmarried woman ought to behave is very different from that of the early nineteenth century. In 1802 (the year of William's marriage) more eyebrows would have been raised over a young, single woman living alone than one patiently settling down with her brother and his wife – helping with the running of the house and eventually assisting in the care of five children. Independence now is a necessary part of self-respect; then it was dangerous, shocking – and rather selfish. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (published 1814) Sir Thomas Bertram laments over 'that independence of spirit… which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence.' It is an opinion with which many of Austen's original readers would have agreed.

With no expectation of independence and, frequently, insufficient income to maintain a home of their own, a place within the extended family was a spinster's 'pleasantest preservative from want,' (to adapt another famous Austen phrase). And I have always had a sympathy for this half-hidden army of spinsters who lived their lives subsumed within the needs of their brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces.

What was it like to live like that? Always poor and yet prevented by ideas of what was 'proper' from taking paid employment. Condemned to a lifetime of dependence.

When I created my Georgian spinster-sleuth, Miss Dido Kent, I decided that she – like Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Austen – should be entirely dependent upon her brothers for her livelihood. Like her real-life counterparts she hardly has a moment to call her own, for, in return for her allowance, her brothers feel that her time is entirely at their disposal when it comes to, 'illnesses, lyings in, funerals or house removals.' Being always at hand, dealing with an endless round of mundane family crises, is not an exciting life. It's far removed from the glamour of royal courts and political intrigue. But it is the kind of life which thousands of women actually lived; and one which I think is well worth exploring.

I considered the idea of making Dido an outright rebel. For there were some women who rejected the life of dependence and humility – striking out to make a career for themselves in a male dominated world. Mary Wolstonecraft, for example, earned her living by writing and had a delightfully scandalous love life.

But I decided that it would be more interesting if Dido was not one of these rare exceptions, but was rather one of the many thousands of women who accepted their fate – not exactly without question, because I doubt any intelligent woman could do that – but with dignity, humour and no loss of self-worth. One of the thousands of women who attempted to live a decent, fulfilled life within the restrictions forced upon her.

And being always upon the periphery of society – always a looker on, regarded as of no importance – may be humiliating; but it also has its advantages. It is an excellent vantage point from which to observe your fellow men and women. It was a situation which turned Jane Austen into a brilliant commentator upon human nature: and made Dorothy Wordsworth into an excellent diarist. I reasoned that it could turn Dido Kent into a very effective amateur sleuth.

By solving mysteries Dido finds an outlet for her abilities and, with her success, comes a growing self-confidence. As the stories progress she finds that, when she feels it is the right thing to do, she is able to rebel in small, crucial ways… But no, actually Dido would not put it quite like that. As she remarks to her would-be lover, William Lomax, when he is shocked by her behaviour: 'I seek only to act as my conscience dictates. It is a matter of integrity, not revolt.'

Walls of Jericho by Jonathan Hopkins

Every felt so annoyed about something you just have to stick your oar in?

You tell your friends how cross you are. Facebook it. Blog about it, maybe. Phone a radio show. Send a comment to the newspapers.

That's how I felt.

Why? It's a slightly complicated story.

Some years ago, my wife nagged me about...the usual stuff, really. About not being romantic, never buying flowers...etc, etc. So I had a brainwave. For our anniversary I'd deliver her flowers as...a Napoleonic Hussar, on horseback. Can't get much more romantic than that, thought I.

The horse was no problem, but saddlery and equipment was. No patterns available, you see, so I would have to make everything from scratch. That meant reading proper history books (ugh!). Lots of them. Trying desperately to glean enough information from contemporary pictures and diagrams to make accurate copies of bridle and pistol holsters. And other bits 'n pieces.

The thing was, every historian I read, with a couple of honourable exceptions, had a single view of the British cavalry fighting Napoleon. They were rubbish.

And as I read more and more disparaging comments I got more and more frustrated. The cavalry couldn't have been all that bad, could they?

It was when I started to read the few published cavalrymen's diaries, both British and French, that a quite different picture began to emerge. A story of lives full of even more hardship and tragedy than the average redcoat could have imagined. After all, at the end of a march the infantryman had simply to find food, a place to sleep, and clean his musket. The cavalryman had another life to consider before his own. Even this one obvious fact had been simply glossed over by most academics.

Well, they're not horsemen, are they?

So I decided I'd put the record straight. And because I'm no historian, I wrote a novel; the story of two young cavalry recruits. A journey from boyhood to manhood, for privileged and pauper alike. In it I've tried to give readers a feel of what these men's lives were really like.

Because historians don't seem to care. And in my book, that's not playing fair with men who fought and died for their country.

The wedding anniversary went fine, by the way!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Winner of The Lady's Slipper Giveaway

And the winner drawn from is Carol at Dizzy C's Little Book Blog.

Congratulations Carol!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

A Victorian gothic debut, rags to riches in Ancient Rome and The French Revolution

Today's posts are by Diane Scott Lewis from the US, and Stella Duffy and Anita Davison from the UK. Congratulations to Anita whose debut is out today!

Stella like myself is also a member of the
Historical Writers Association
Visit their website to see her page and to find out about historical fiction and UK events near you.

The Giveaway for The Lady's Slipper is open until Sunday for anyone who leaves a comment on any of the books.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Theodora by Stella Duffy

In September 2006 I had never heard of Theodora, Justinian or the Ravenna mosaics, so the literary festival I was visiting organised a trip to see the mosaics.
A near-empty church, a few tourists, and an astonishing, vibrant, 1500-year-old mosaic of Theodora. I figured she had to matter. In the gift shop, I bought a bunch of postcards and the booklet about Theodora. One of those postcards has been on my noticeboard for coming up four years now. The booklet took maybe five minutes to read and, combined with the mosaics, lead to four years of work, with at least another six months to go on the edit for the sequel.
Theodora’s life is astonishingly rich. Born to the bear-keeper of the Constantinople Hippodrome in about 500 AD, her father died when she was five. She became an actress, a dancer, a mime, a comedian – none of our modern terms fully cover what her work would have been in those days. A physically-trained comedy improviser is perhaps closest, and by the age of 15 she was the star of the Hippodrome. She was also, as almost all actresses were at the time, very likely a child prostitute. Theodora walked away from her amazing career at 18, leaving Constantinople to be mistress of the man newly-appointed Governor of (modern day) Libya. When he dumped her, soon after, she joined a religious community in the desert near Alexandria, experiencing a religious conversion. She travelled on to Antioch where there are suggestions that she worked with Macedonia, a dancer and a spy for the Roman government.
At 21 she returned to Constantinople, met Justinian, who was yet to become Emperor, and they became a couple. Justinian had one law changed to raise her status to patrician, and another created to allow her to marry – ex-actresses could not legally do so at the time. When his uncle died and Justinian became Emperor, ‘Theodora-from-the-Brothel’ became Empress of Rome.
It’s a powerful rags to riches story, made richer still by the contemporary view of her, which seems to have been somewhere between Victoria Beckham/Yoko Ono on a bad day, and Princess Diana on a good one. All of which made her a joy to write – while there’s loads of history written about the time, Theodora herself has remained largely hidden. Yet there was enough in her life that I do understand, especially the theatre and comedy which I continue to work in, to make some informed guesses about her character. So that’s what I’ve written, a character in a story. And I’ve had a great time doing so, because I’ve spent the past four years writing about the juiciest woman character this side of Lady Macbeth. Theodora is the kind of hero you couldn’t make up without being accused of over-doing it, and yet can’t tell her story without making a lot of it up. A perfect balance for fiction.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Trencarrow Secret by Anita Davison

I was born in London, a city which has a unique atmosphere; a sense of time past that I connected with, even when I was young. When the other children on the school trip coach were throwing the contents of their lunch boxes at each other, I was staring out of the window at the ancient buildings, imagining men in wigs and heeled shoes coming out of coffee houses and climbing into sedan chairs on the cobbles outside St Paul's Cathedral.

Strangely it was walking through Paternoster Row with a dear friend, discussing books of course, when the idea for the story of Trencarrow Secret came to me. One requirement of modern writing, is you cannot simply write a story, it has to be categorised, put into a box so it is instantly recognised. My critique group, and my agent, say time and again that romances are the largest market in the fiction genre, and in an attempt to break into the world of traditionally published authors I decided to step outside the world of Restoration London and into the heads of characters of another era. I haven’t managed it yet, as Trencarrow Secret is Inde Published, but I still have some stories to tell which may make it.

Isabel Hart evolved, beginning as a Jacobean character, she turned into a Regency one, eventually finding her own time in late Victorian England. Her reserved character belonged in the rigid, uncompromising days of the British Empire, and I gave her strong reasons for seeing life as many of us do when we are young; in black and white, where right and wrong are clearly defined and there is no blurring of the two. Trencarrow Secret is a love story, and during one fateful summer, Isabel discovers that marriage is no fairytale, but an enigmatic and unique bonding of a couple which may appear unsatisfactory to outsiders, but each comes with its own chance of success.

In Trencarrow Secret, Isabel’s romantic illusions are dispelled and she comes to realise that people, even those closest to her, are not perfect. People are flawed and we make mistakes and yet we find the capacity to forgive and learn to move on – that we love them anyway because that’s what families do. Through her unique relationship with her brother, David, Isabel struggles through revelations, self doubt and danger before she finds her soulmate.

The Hart's summer home in Cornwall is a house I have visited often - also the village of Marazion and St Michael's Mount have not changed much since the late 19th Century, which made them easier to portray realistically. I tend to write about places I know so I can portray them with a level of credibility.

Writing historical fiction is complicated and challenging, but my spirit lives in the past and I cannot imagine myself writing anything else.

The False Light by Diane Scott Lewis

My novel, The False Light, takes place in England during the French Revolution. I became fascinated with history after a holiday in England and it sparked my old desire to write. Everyone seemed to be writing Victorian or Regency novels, so I chose the earlier Georgian period. I was tired of reading about kings, queens or dukes, and immersed myself in the common people.

My heroine is a displaced aristocrat who must survive in bawdy Cornish tavern after being tricked by a devious servant. I delve into the reality of the lower classes—no sugar-coating here. Bettina may be from the higher classes but that aspect is never shown as she finds her strength with the help of two unflappable Cornish women who’ve struggled their entire lives to eke out a living. Bettina also finds herself attracted to a man who is rumored to have murdered his unfaithful wife. Before the days of the internet, I researched at the Library of Congress. I wanted to know how people ate, drank, started fires to keep warm, used herbs for healing, and the Cornish superstitions that shaped the ordinary person’s existence.

My story is a woman’s journey to understand the revolution that ripped her family apart—and her determination to begin a new life as she learns the skills to survive.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Great Historical Fiction and a Giveaway

The paperback of The Lady's Slipper is now out in the UK, and in celebration I declare this blog officially open! Here is some fantastic historical fiction for you to enjoy, along with the writers' inspiration behind the book.

Anyone who leaves a comment on any of the books will be automatically entered for a draw to win a copy of The Lady's Slipper. Closing date 12th June.

And Authors, if you want to feature here just follow the instructions on the "for authors page."

Readers - all the posts are listed by the Author's name in the "Fictionary"- just click to find the book you're after. The blog will be updated with tantalising new fiction three times a week.

The Poet's Wife by Judith Allnatt

John Clare is often referred to as peasant poet, genius and madman and it is true that mental illness dogged his later life, his identity fragmenting so that sometimes he would think himself to be Admiral Nelson, Lord Byron or a boxer of the day called Jack Randall.
Although I had enjoyed John Clare’s poetry for years, I had no knowledge of his madness until I came to live in his home county of Northamptonshire and started researching his prose writing at my local library. On that day, I was only intending to spend an hour researching but three hours later I was still scrolling through the microfiche, interpreting the elegant but curlicued handwriting of his letters. The letters that had caught my attention so thoroughly were those written to his family from the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. Through his own words you could trace his heartbreaking mental decline.
Despite being kindly treated and given every comfort at the asylum, at times he is clearly distressed and afraid; he refers to it as a ‘Hell’ and a ‘Bastille’. He speaks of his ‘captivity among the Babylonians’ and warns his sons not to visit him in case they are ‘trapped as prisoners’. Most touching of all is his continuing desire to return home; he longs to ‘hunt in the woods for yellow hyacinths, Polyanthuses and blue Primroses as usual and go in the Meadows a-fishing.’
His final letter, written in 1860 in reply to a well-wisher, Mr. James. Hipkins, reads:
Dear Sir
I am in a Madhouse & quite forget your Name or who you are You must excuse me for I have nothing to communicate or tell of & why I am shut up I don’t know I have nothing to say so I conclude
Yours respectfully

Reading a man’s actual words as he becomes more and more lost and bewildered is a moving experience and I felt that I had made an emotional connection with the person and not just the poet. I decided to find out more about his family, and how his illness had affected them: in particular his wife, Patty Clare.
It was while reading his journal, ‘Journey out of Essex,’ that it became apparent that John had absconded from his place at a previous asylum and walked the eighty miles home, not to return to his wife and family but to find his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce. I discovered that he had remained obsessed with his early love and believed himself twice married, to both Patty and Mary. What must it be like to be married to a man, have nine children with him, two of whom die in infancy, and then find that you are losing him to his illness and to his delusions about another woman? This was something I just had to write to find out. I felt sure that there was a powerful story to be told: of love and loss, broken identity, poems and passion.
My journey took me along field margins and through brambled ways, from the mansion of Burghley House, where John once worked as a gardener, to tiny cottages dwarfed by the vastness of a fenland sky. The contrast between the splendour of a building where even the hallway is as big as a barn, and the cramped accommodation of the cottages with their dirt floors and low eaves, was sharp. At one point, eleven of the Clare family were sharing a cottage with only two rooms. Such proximity wasn’t only an inconvenience in terms of privacy; when illness struck it ran rampant through a family forced to share their sleeping quarters. As I stood in the hall at Burghley with its marble and richly painted ceilings, the huge polarity between rich and poor was starkly evident. Another theme began to develop, the greed of the powerful at the time of enclosure of the common land, and its impact on the rural poor who no longer had grazing for their beasts or were even allowed to collect firewood on land owned by the huge estates.
I visited most of the settings used in the book, not only to collect the small details and sense impressions that help a writer to bring a place to life for the reader, but because I needed to get as close as possible to my characters. There’s nothing quite like standing where you imagine a character to have stood for allowing you to fully inhabit them and to see with their eyes. Standing at the foot of Mary Joyce’s grave in the churchyard at Glinton, I remember pondering a while upon Patty’s ambivalent feelings about her rival. Placing yourself in the character’s setting and just being quiet and still is one of the best ways I know to listen in, as it were, to their thoughts.
This novel evolved to include many things. It’s about a woman’s attempt to restore her husband to his true self, as his identity begins to fragment. It’s about the struggle to hold a family together and about memory and its power to sustain us through the trials of a difficult present. But most of all it’s a story about married love, widely experienced but written about less often than romantic courtship, a love that is inevitably more difficult when rooted in the reality of everyday life and assailed by losses and misfortunes over time but also deep, knowing and forgiving. In writing the novel I hoped that readers of ‘The Poet’s Wife’ would become as fond of Patty as I was and that her story would move them, just as I was moved when I first read John Clare’s letters home.
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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

In The Shadow Of The Lamp by Susanne Dunlap

I’ve always preferred my heroines to be ordinary people in their historic times, interacting with extreme circumstances, famous historical events, or finding themselves involved in some way with famous people. To me, that’s one of the remarkable qualities of historical fiction: an opportunity to imagine life on a real, down-to-earth level in a different time period. So far I’ve written a young singer, daughter of a luthier; a pianist (well, she was noble, but down on her luck) in the romantic world of Liszt; the daughter of a violinist in Haydn’s orchestra. My one exception was the grand duchess Anastasia. But with my recent novel, IN THE SHADOW OF THE LAMP, I’ve actually created one of my lowliest heroines yet.

Nothing could be more ordinary than a parlormaid in Victorian London. Except that Molly becomes extraordinary through a combination of circumstances and her own gritty, honest personality.

I have to say, the kernel of the idea for this novel that follows Florence Nightingale to the Crimea came from my editor at Bloomsbury, Melanie Cecka. She was fascinated by Florence, and casually suggested over lunch that I write something about her. The problem was that the famous “lady with the lamp” was 35 years old at the time of her biggest adventure. Not exactly appropriate for a young-adult heroine!

As I started thinking about who would be the heroine, I kept hearing a London East End accent, and the image of someone desperate to escape her lot and make something of herself began to form. Soon, spunky Molly emerged, an honest, hard-working young girl wrongly accused of theft by a jealous kitchen maid. She hears about the nurses going to the war in Russia, and decides to take a leap of faith.

It was a challenge to get Molly’s voice right. I am fortunate because although I am American, I lived in London for ten years, and had many friends of all different social backgrounds. My friend Dolly’s accent was my pattern for Molly. Molly and her fictional friend, Emma, speak in their East-End voices for dialogue, but Molly’s narration is neutral, relying on her mode of expression rather than tricky spellings to convey her character and status.

In the end, I became so fond of Molly that I can honestly say she’s become a favorite among the heroines I’ve written. Funny how that can happen. We live with our characters for months or years, so that we know them better than we know ourselves, and yet still they can surprise us. For me, that’s most possible when dealing with the little people, the ones fallen through the cracks of history, or types that have no voice of their own until an author decides to give them one.

That’s the real magic of making stories.

The Vice Society by James McCreet

The pleasures of the unknown city

CCTV cameras now see virtually everything we do in public. Our web footprint is recorded through IP addresses and cookies. Our spending patterns are logged in vast computer systems. Each of our identities is a mass of ever-accumulating data that maps our existence more comprehensively than any biography could.

So imagine a time and a culture in which even a man’s name was unreliable. People could appear and vanish at will, changing identities as easily as they changed their clothes. Photography was in its earliest infancy – an expensive and arcane pseudo-science seen by most people as a fad.

Now imagine you’re a detective standing in a city of two million souls. You’re looking for a villain whose name is unsure, whose whereabouts are hearsay, whose associates are too afraid to say a word about him. Where do you begin? How do you navigate a city changing so quickly that maps are changing faster than they can be printed?

This is the essential premise behind my Victorian crime thrillers.

London in the 1840s straddled historical eras – caught mid-stride between Elizabethan squalour and the industrial miracles of the steam age. Criminals were more modern; crimes were as black as the unchanging immorality of city dwellers since the beginning of time.

In such a place, the detectives had to choose whether to take the path of justice and honour, or to resort to the methods of their quarry. My books present a suite of investigators – good and bad – who take distinctive routes to the solution. Inspector Albert Newsome plays the game by his own rules, whereas George Williamson is a man of principle. For Noah Dyson, self-preservation is the first priority, while ex-constable John Cullen dreams of a place in the lauded Detective Force.

I love trawling through archives for forgotten facts. I love the crime genre. Most of all, I love books that entertain me until the last page. If you’re the same, you might like the McCreet version of Victorian London.