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

Deborah-Swift's Royalty Free 1 album on Photobucket

Sunday, 30 December 2012

The White Hawk by David Pilling

A Bolton, a Bolton! The White Hawk!
"A Bolton, a Bolton! The White Hawk! God for Lancaster and Saint George!" 

England, 1459: the kingdom stands divided and on the brink of civil war. The factions of Lancaster and York vie for control of the King, while their armies stand poised, ready to tear each other to pieces. 

The White Hawk follows the fortunes of a family of Lancastrian loyalists, the Boltons, as they attempt to survive and prosper in this world of brutal warfare and shifting alliances. Surrounded by enemies, their loyalties will be tested to the limit in a series of bloody battles and savage twists of fate.
This period, with its murderous dynastic feuding between the rival Houses of York and Lancaster, is perhaps the most fascinating of the entire medieval period in England. Having lost the Hundred Years War, the English nobility turned on each other in a bitter struggle for the crown, resulting in a spate of beheadings, battles, murders and Gangland-style politics that lasted some thirty years.
Apart from the savage doings of aristocrats, the wars affected people on the lower rungs of society. One minor gentry family in particular, the Pastons of Norfolk, suffered greatly in their attempts to survive and thrive in the feral environment of the late 15th century. They left an invaluable chronicle in their archive of family correspondence, the famous Paston Letters.
The letters provide us with a snapshot of the trials endured by middle-ranking families like the Pastons, and of the measures they took to defend their property from greedy neighbours. One such extract is a frantic plea from the matriarch of the clan, Margaret Paston, begging her son John to return from London:
"I greet you well, letting you know that your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister... Daubney and Berney are dead and others badly hurt, and gunpowder and arrows are lacking. The place is badly broken down by the guns of the other party, so that unless they have hasty help, they are likely to lose both their lives and the place, which will be the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman. For every man in this country marvels greatly that you suffer them to be for so long in great jeopardy without help or other remedy..."
The Paston Letters, together with my general fascination for the era, were the inspiration for The White Hawk. Planned as a series of three novels, TWH will follow the fortunes of a fictional Staffordshire family, the Boltons, from the beginning to the very end of The Wars of the Roses. Unquenchably loyal to the House of Lancaster, their loyalty will have dire consequences for them as law and order breaks down and the kingdom slides into civil war. The ‘white hawk’ of the title is the sigil of the Boltons, and will fly over many a blood-stained battlefield.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Oleanna by Julie K. Rose

The immigrant story is a powerful one in the American psyche. We have so many compelling tales about the lives immigrants led once they came to this strange new land. But what about the families they left behind?

My great-grandfather John Myklebust was a successful homesteader in North Dakota in the early 1900s, but he left something behind: his two spinster sisters stayed on the farm in Jølster, Sogn, Norway. Their names were Elisabeth and Oleanna.

Oleanna is set during the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, and it's an imagining of Elisabeth and Oleanna's lives. Who were these women? What were their stories? Why were Oleanna and Elisabeth still living together, alone on the farm, until their deaths (94 and 92, respectively)? Why did they never leave Norway? Why did John decide to leave? What were their lives like? What was it like to be left behind?

And though this is a work of fiction, the book is firmly rooted in the history of the time. What was it like to live during a time of such inexorable change—the coming of industrialization and modernity to the rural areas of the country? What was it like to live during a time when Norway was finally becoming an independent country after hundreds and hundreds of years?

I have always been fascinated by the lives of regular people. I do love a good story about an historical figure, but I have always been drawn to the history of daily life. What did the regular folk drink, think, laugh at, wear, worry about? What can we learn about history through the small details? What can we learn about ourselves?

As a matter of fact, I learned a lot about myself as I wrote this book. The idea for the story came to me very suddenly, in November 2006, with the image of Oleanna on the top of a mountain in Norway, her long blond hair being whipped by the wind. I'd never seen a photo her (except in advanced age) so this was quite a surprise. But she appeared, right when I needed her, and I couldn't turn my back on her.

The writing process was difficult, from an emotional standpoint; I started writing Oleanna six months after my mother died. The themes and characters were very close to the bone, and I needed to take breaks to get my brain recalibrated and come back with fresh eyes. In fact, I wrote (and edited, and rewrote) another novel, and made a start on two others, while I was writing Oleanna.

But in the end, I always came back to her, fascinated by her story and her struggle. Though the book was inspired by my family, Oleanna became her own character, and accompanying her on her journey through the fascinating changes in early 20th century Norway was both a thrilling challenge and a true honor.

Julie's website

Oleanna: A Novel of Norway in 1905

Oleanna can be purchased online through any retailer (B&N, Amazon worldwide, iBookstore worldwide, Powells,, and more) in both paperback and ebook formats. The U.S. amazon link is: .

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Readers choices - favourite royalty-free historicals


Congratulations to Danielle!
the winner of The Gilded Lily in the blog hop draw!
During the recent giveaway and blog hop I asked people for their favourite historicals about ordinary people.

By far the most popular book without Kings and Queens was Diana Gabaldon's Outlander Series.

Mentioned more than once:

The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Other historical fiction titles that were mentioned are listed below:

Into The Wilderness - Sara Donati

Fallen Angels -Tracy Chevalier

Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset

Blood Lance - Jeri Westerson

The President's Lady - Irving Stone

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - Lisa See

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

The Tea Rose trilogy- Jennifer Donnelly

In the Company of the Courtesan - Sarah Dunant

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey

The Promise - Kate Worth

Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell

Blackberry Winter -Sarah Jio

Thank you so much all of you who left comments, they were much appreciated.
It is a wonderful list and there are several on there I haven't read yet so they will definitely be going onto my TBR pile!.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Royalty Free Fiction - hopping through history

Sign up for the 1st Annual Historical Holiday Blog Hop!

Royalty Free Fiction (Historical Fiction with no Kings and Queens) is proud to be part of the Historical Holiday Blog Hop organised by Amy at Passages to the Past.

I'd love to know a favourite historical novel you have read which features ordinary people and no royalty. Comment here to win a signed copy of The Gilded Lily - open worldwide.
One extra entry if you follow this blog, another extra entry if you tweet about Royalty Free Fiction - the past is full of ordinary people with extraordinary lives.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

At Drake's Command - David Wesley Hill

In 1999 I was one of the winners of the Writers of the Future Contest. We were invited to Los Angeles for a week-long writing workshop conducted by Algis Budrys and Dave Wolverton.. One morning our group was let loose in the aisles of the LA Library to browse the shelves in search of inspiration. I was mildly interested in pirates and began reading a facsimile edition of The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake.

This was not written by Drake himself but published by a nephew thirty years after Drake's death in an effort to keep alive Drake's reputation. While thumbing through the book, I came across an interesting passage. On an island off the coast of Patagonia, Drake charged one of his crew with treason and mutiny. Forty men were chosen as jurors and a trial was held. The accused, Thomas Doughty, was found guilty. Drake gave Doughty three options:

1. To be returned to England to face punishment
2. To be left behind in South America
3. To be executed

Given these choices, Doughty replied: "Please, do not return me to England since I am a gentleman and do not want to be shamed before my queen. Do not maroon me here, either, since I am a good Christian and I do not want to lose my faith among the heathen. No, general, I ask you to exercise the third option."

Drake obliged and cut off Doughty's head. Then he held it up by the hair and said, "Lo, here be the end of traitors."

Upon reading this, I said to myself, "This is utter mendacity." So I embarked on a course of research  to uncover the real story of what had happened on that bleak island (Drake called it the "Island of Truth and Justice" but the crew had another name for it: "The Island of Blood").

During the next four years I studied all of the major accounts of Drake's life and the circumnavigation, starting with The World Encompassed and including Corbett's Drake and the Tudor Navy and Wagner's Voyage Around the World. An 8-volume edition of Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations was an invaluable resource, too, since it contained much about Drake. At one point I ordered facsimiles of source material  from the British Library so that I could examine the original text.  Google Earth has also been an amazing tool, allowing me to retrace Drake's route almost day by day.

Eventually, I succeeded—at least, to my own satisfaction—in understanding what had actually transpired on that awful day in 1578. My first inclination was to write a non-fiction book about the Doughty affair. I am, however, a fiction writer, so I decided to tell the tale in novel form while paying meticulous respect for historical accuracy.

Cover Art: "The Golden Hinde off New Albion" by Simon Kozhin

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Thing Done by Tinney Sue Heath

A Thing Done started life as a footnote.  Several footnotes, actually – one in a translation of Dante's Inferno, others in history books covering the 13th century in Florence.  And as I threaded my way through all these footnotes, I often felt I was working backwards from the end of the story, looking for its beginning.
At first what caught my eye was this:  “The vendetta against Buondelmonte was the origin of the Guelf and Ghibelline factions in Florence.” 

Well, that division was no small matter.  It colored politics - not just in Florence, but in all of Italy - for well over a century, and vestiges of it remained in place several centuries later.  To this day, Italian cities can be classified as used-to-be-Guelf or used-to-be-Ghibelline (or, not infrequently, used to be one and then the other).  You have only to look at the crenellations on castles and public buildings:  square crenellations = Guelf, swallowtail crenellations = Ghibelline.

So how did a vendetta against one man get all of this started?  First let's set the scene.

Florence at the beginning of the 13th century was bristling with violence – hereditary enmities, power struggles, deep resentments.  The city was a commune, with no king or duke or other titular head.  Her ruling class was formed by members of the ancient noble families, but also by wealthy bankers and merchants – an oligarchy made up of men of substance and influence, who also commanded a certain amount of sheer military might.  Florence had her share of knights, men with superb military training and ability, and they didn't share their power easily.

Clearly, Buondelmonte was on one side and those who sought his ruin were on the other.  Further reading told me that Buondelmonte had been betrothed to a woman of the Amidei family (the other side), and had broken off the engagement to wed a woman of the Donati family (his own side), and that the Amidei and their allies were so incensed at this insult that they called for a vendetta against Buondelmonte. 

The story was getting more interesting.  But I didn't quite understand:  if feelings were running that high, what was Buondelmonte doing getting himself betrothed to a woman of his enemies' clan?  Especially if she wasn't really the woman he wanted to marry?

More footnotes, more reading.  As I suspected, it wasn't that simple.  Buondelmonte had been forced into that betrothal as a result of an altercation that took place at a banquet.  He had answered what he perceived as an insult from Oddo, one of his enemies, with violence, resulting in a knife wound to Oddo's arm.  Eventually, as was a custom of the times, a marriage was offered to make peace between the factions.  Not a marriage he chose; not a marriage he wanted. 

This was beginning to sound like a story I wanted to write.  But what, I wondered, started it all?  What did Oddo do that got Buondelmonte so enraged? 

Past the footnotes now and deep into the contemporary and near-contemporary chronicles, I finally found what looked to me like the point of origin.  At that feast, which took place to celebrate a knighting, a jester snatched a plate of food away from Buondelmonte and his dining companion.  Was he acting on orders?  If so, whose?  

Buondelmonte's companion was outraged, and Oddo took the opportunity to mock him and make fun of him because of it.  The companion told Oddo “You lie in your throat!” (yes, it really does translate that way - “Tu menti per la gola!”), but it was Buondelmonte, impetuous and hotheaded, who pulled a knife and then drew blood.  And drawing blood was an insult too serious to overlook. 

So yes, it was a story.  And I tried to tell it, writing of the conflict between Buondelmonte and Oddo, and of the two women from noble families, and of the mother of the Donati girl, who was said to have goaded Buondelmonte into forsaking his betrothed to wed her lovely daughter instead. 

But I couldn't stop thinking about that jester.  The one whose prank had started the whole thing, and had plunged his city into near civil war.  What was this experience like for him?  How did he feel?  What did he do?  How did the resulting chaos affect him? 

And when I found myself writing about the jester walking home late that night, I realized I had no idea where he lived, or how, or who he lived with.  I didn't know who his friends were, who he would want to tell about what had happened, what would worry him, how this incident would change his life.  And I wanted to know.

So it became the jester's story, and the story of his friends and neighbors.  Buondelmonte and his quarrelsome friends and foes are still there, as are the women, but the story unfolds as the jester sees it.  And it is richer for that; even the truculent nobles and their ladies are more fully developed for being seen through the eyes of one of their least imposing contemporaries.  (Especially the ladies, who lived in a society that allowed them very little initiative, but who were perfectly capable of making things happen from behind the scenes.  And the jester was so insignificant that he was in a position to see it all.) 

My jester is a man of the lower classes, living by his wits, without power, clout, or rights, marginalized in a society that didn't think much of self-employed performers.  But for all that, he's a man who makes sharp observations and has plenty to say.  I believe readers will agree that he was the right person to give voice to the story.

Find out more on the Authors Blog 

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Sins of the Father - by C.B. Hanley

In most medieval literature, nobody pays much attention to common people. For example, in his famed contemporary account of the Third Crusade, Ambroise devotes a whole passage waxing lyrical about the heroic deeds of three knights at the siege of Acre, and then casually dismisses the deaths of five thousand ordinary soldiers in two lines. Someone, he then tells us, has written a list of those who died at Acre:

A good clerk wrote an account of the many princes and counts who died there, and of all those who died in the host who were men of any note, without mentioning the middling and lesser individuals, whom he would never have managed to name if he had tried to include them all, for that would involve too much effort and writing.
(Ambroise, lines 5581-88, my translation).

Yes, it’s too much trouble even to list their names after they’ve died for a cause which was not of their making. Ambroise’s chronicle, along with most other literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was written for the “1%”, the knights and nobles who could afford to commission it and who had the leisure to listen to it. This audience was not interested in the deeds of common people, so they were conveniently written out.

To a lesser extent, this disregard for the ordinary person is also a feature of much historical literature. How many times have you read something along the lines of ‘he passed his cloak to the waiting squire’, or ‘she called her maid to arrange her hair’? These people don’t have names, only functions – they are ignored most of the time, brought into play when they are needed, and are then expected to drop back into obscurity. But what was it like to be that commoner, that squire, that maid? What were their lives like? What did they think and feel?

All this was at the back of my mind as I started writing The Sins of the Father, and it linked quite nicely with another issue I wanted to include. I read a lot of crime fiction, and I’ve always been struck by the fact that detective characters are predominantly people who are experienced, hard-boiled, been-there-seen-it-done-it types who aren’t afraid of anything. What would it be like to have a main character who wasn’t so experienced? Someone who was, quite frankly, just as scared as you or I might be in a similar situation?

And so Edwin Weaver was born. At the start of The Sins of the Father it’s May 1217, he’s nineteen years old and the son of the bailiff on one of the estates belonging to a powerful earl. He’s reasonably educated, which puts him a cut above the village labourers, but he’s a world away from the nobles in the castle, who live separate lives, speak a different language, and who are, to him, almost a different species. He’s just an ordinary man who is put into an extraordinary situation.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot (because I’m hoping you might read the book!) but a murder is committed which could have huge, national ramifications, and Edwin ends up having to investigate it at the earl’s order. He’s got no choice – technically he’s his own man, but in practice the earl pretty much owns him and his family, and his livelihood and even his life might depend on the outcome. He’s catapulted into a noble world which he doesn’t understand, with the squires, page and lady’s maid his only companions.

What was important to me as I wrote was that the events of national importance (there is a civil war going on, after all) are only the backdrop to the story. Here it is the nobles who are the incidental characters: they are in the background while the narrative is told only from the point of view of what would normally be the ‘supporting cast’ – Edwin and his friends. I can certainly identify more with them than I can with the nobility, so I hope that readers feel this way too.

The book is available to buy at Amazon or direct from the publisher  

Find out more on Catherine's website

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A House Near Luccoli by DM Denton


I love the stories in history that wait patiently to be lifted out of the shadows, offering room for the imagination to balance between the known and unknown; stories that are fresh and fascinating, about someone or something obscurely rooted in the past which, with attention and nourishment, might grow and blossom into enlightening entertainment for the present.

In 2002, while driving to work, I was fortunate to be near enough to the Canadian border to listen to CBC Radio 2, specifically a program called In the Shadows. The show highlighted the lives and works of artists—mainly musical—who for a variety of reasons had been largely ignored or forgotten. One morning a 17th Century Italian composer, whom I and obviously many others had never heard of, was featured. His music was stunning: fluid and melodic, with clear expressive vocals and distinct instrumentations. His story was replete with romance and intrigue, triumphs and tragedy, like an opera drawing on the divinity and failings of gods and men.

By the time I pulled into the parking lot at work, I knew why I was listening. I “knew” Alessandro Stradella. I recognized his distinct voice, his swaying form, his infectious smile, and his wandering heart. I had witnessed the rise and fall of his talents, how his music had showered him with forgiveness if not fortune. I spent the rest of that morning and many hours more in pursuit of him, my writer’s urge “to do something with him” easier stirred than accomplished. He was so little on the pages of Google searches and music histories; a desire to create something significant out of my interest in him was soon frustrated and abandoned.

It wasn’t until 2005 that I returned to Stradella as the novel subject I was looking for. The timing must have been right, for “suddenly” resources, although still not in abundance, were easier to find. As I read my costly used copy of Alessandro Stradella, the Man and his Music by musicologist Carolyn Gianturco, I found an opportunity for imagining my way into his story, focusing on his last fateful days in Genoa—not to change history but quietly humanize it, not merely to appreciate a great musician but personalize him, to reveal the ordinary in the extraordinary and the significance of the insignificant. Equipped with specifics and speculation, a growing CD library of his music, and a fictional female protagonist stepping out of my own hopes and disappointments, I was ready to begin.

A House Near Luccoli is a novel of chance encounters, beautiful music and the paradox of genius, focusing on one of the most legendary and undervalued figures of Italian Baroque music, Alessandro Stradella. Published by All Things That Matter Press. It is set in Genoa 1681-1682.

It was published at the end of August (2012) by All Things That Matter Press, a small publisher based in Maine.

My Website:
My Blog:

BUY THE BOOK : Amazon  Barnes and Noble

Monday, 22 October 2012

Hues of Blackness by Rosey Thomas Palmer

An awards celebration in a rural town square in Jamaica triggered my most extensive writing adventure. I had come to see Rev. Stanley Hewling, receive his parish award for he had supported me to escape a cramping day job by starting a preparatory school. However, my creativity remained unsatisfied. That outcome awaited a strongly composed octogenarian woman awardee.

Eva Jones was erect, medium hued, with crisp, white hair and challenging eyes. Her citation mentioned her involvements in social work, teaching and archive preservation but my fascination was piqued by the person rather than her recognised contributions. I was curious about her bright confidence at an age when many of her contemporaries had long since adopted infirmities and complacence.

Her proud carriage suggested military training and an undaunted spirit shone in her smile as she accepted her accolade. As one whose admiration the strength of Jamaican women had brought me to the island, I recognised that she typified their independence and their overcoming. I introduced myself to her and requested future contact. She nodded her head in the direction of the road junction we faced and said, “I live there, at 2 Murry Street.”

My first visits were tentative. My preparatory school was demanding but I grasped occasional, fleeting moments of her company. She was very reserved. Eventually she impulsively invited me to sit on her porch. Once there, we found many common interests in her library for our reading seemed to follow similar paths. Eva was far ahead of me on the journey, formerly a Rosicrucian student, she had developed as a theosophist and had a firm belief in reincarnation. She taught me about Lemuria and Atlantis and dwelt on the unity of all faiths as explored in Isis Unveiled by Helen Blavatsky. Her interest in promoting my thought was like the Amerindian guide’s in Mary Summer Rain’s series which she recommended to me.

My goal was to preserve her wisdom for myself and for future generations. To facilitate this I tried to persuade Eva to allow me to write her biography. She was extremely modest and careful of confidentiality. She kept saying, “No, too many of those involved may recognise the parts they played and I don’t want to embarrass anyone.”

Nevertheless, she let me write sample pieces of personal recollections. She demanded historical accuracy so she suggested, “We go out one Sunday morning, before any cars are around. We’ll walk the length of Great George Street and I’ll show you how Savanna-la-mar used to be.”

This was the turning point of our endeavours. I was a member of a group set up to explore sustainable tourism. It operated from parish to parish, and had just spread to Westmoreland. The organisation was called SCF at that time and executive members went to potential venues to find hosts and guides who could promote their locality in a saleable way. As we walked, savouring the town setting of Eva’s youth, I explained to her the prospect of community tourism.

The next time I submitted a childhood story for Eva’s conscientious scrutiny, she looked up sharply and said, “Alright, tell my story, but you must fictionalise it and scramble it through history.”

An intense year of writing and research followed. Eva joined the community tourism organisation on many of its trips and we theorised about history and myth as lived experiences in the hills, valleys and plains of Westmoreland. When she did not come herself, I reported trips back to her and used the settings for stories in which heroines ranged from Taino days to the current times in Jamaica’s history. There was no apparent link between each part of the narrative except the indomitable spirit I had found in Eva Jones. At the end of the year I left Jamaica for a four month stint in England during which I needed to finish the book and find a publisher.

However, in real life events disrupts intentions. My line of inquiry for publication proved mis-thrown. My time to write was invaded by the need to earn. My plan to return home was delayed by unexpected political decisions and family break down. Hues of Blackness lay unattended to.

Yet adversity brings out the fighting spirit. I was summoned to appear in court to defend my right to the marital home and my daughters’ recognition as joint tenants in fee simple. The tempestuous setting of Jamaica did the rest. Rescued from a waterlogged former school room by my friend Eva and marooned at her home whilst return flights were suspended due to a hurricane, I wrote the narrative that turned our historical episodes into a novel. I worked at night while Eva slept and we shared and evaluated the results each day. I flew home with a completed manuscript. Internet searches resulted in a joint venture agreement with Strategic Books and I was able to make another trip to see Eva before I signed a contract.

By now Eva was well over ninety. Her capacity to walk was failing and more of the sorrows of life had taken their toll. She felt she was nearing the end. She listened to what I had to say then she said, “Publish it, all of it.”

 “All of it?” I queried, surprised.

“Yes, all of it, including the biographical bits,” Eva affirmed.

I was awed and relieved. During that trip she signed a release letter for the anecdotal information she had shared and she gave me two photographs. My book cover shows Eva, in the 1950s, provocatively locking the gaze of the browser. I also have one of her in her eighties, looking proudly down from the heights of her mango tree, which she climbed, machete in hand, to tend a limb. If she is right and we are reincarnated, you may meet her one day. If she was wrong you have not missed your chance of knowing this indomitable woman. Between the pages of Hues of Blackness: A Jamaican Saga you will meet her spirit.

Find out more on Rosey's Blog

Friday, 12 October 2012

The White Rajah by Tom Williams

Many, many years ago – decades, in fact – I found myself spending a few days on a holiday in Sarawak. We had signed up with a company that took you up river from Kuching, then a really small town, to visit the famous longhouses. Here we met the indigenous Dyak people who, not that long ago, had been headhunters and many of whom still lived on the most basic slash and burn cultivation and the food they could catch in the jungle. We even caught a tiny mouse deer ourselves and contributed it to the collective pot. It was a magical few days and almost certainly unrepeatable, for the last couple of decades have seen logging destroy much of the habitat the Dyaks rely on to live, while mass tourism means that trips like those we made then are probably by now impossible.

It was on that trip that I first came across James Brooke. The museum in Kuching had an exhibition of Sarawak's history with a large display on 'The White Rajahs' next to a much smaller display on 'The Colonial Era'. I was confused. The White Rajahs were clearly, well, white. Why was it that while the tone of 'The Colonial Era' was rather disapproving (it mainly seems to have consisted of killing the Governor), 'The White Rajahs' display hinted at a Golden Age?

The answer seems to have been the extraordinary relationship the first White Rajah, James Brooke, had with the people of Sarawak. Sarawak then was a province of a much bigger country ruled by Muda Hassim in Brunei. Hassim gave the rule of Sarawak to James Brooke as a reward for Brooke's help suppressing a rebellion there. Brooke insisted that Sarawak was not part of the British Empire and he set out to rule as an enlightened despot.

At the centre of the exhibition was a portrait of James Brooke. It was a copy of the one in London's National Portrait Gallery, which I've used for the book cover. I saw it and just wanted to know more about this astonishingly handsome, dashing man who had taken a tiny country halfway round the globe from his home and made it his own. When I got back to England I started to read all I could find about him. It wasn't that difficult. His diaries were published, as were those of Keppel, the admiral who helps him defeat the pirates. I found myself getting more and more caught up in his story and, because I had always wanted to write, I decided to turn it into a novel. What I aimed for was an old-fashioned yarn with an old-fashioned hero and, up to a point, I succeeded. But in the end, although it got representation by a well-known agent, it really wasn't good enough for publication. I put it away and forgot about it.

Years passed and I found myself writing lots of non-fiction, often anonymously. I decided that I owed it to myself to write the novel I've always planned for. We were moving into an age when Western armies were invading remote countries, often with noble intentions but sometimes with terrible consequences. I wanted to write about how good people could end up involved in questionable wars and horrifying massacres. I remembered that James Brooke had himself been involved in a massacre which, at the time, had horrified liberal opinion in Britain and resulted in a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore. I decided to go back to my original novel and rewrite it as a much darker piece with a flawed hero.

I wanted to get close to Brooke as a man, rather than just as a historical figure, and I thought this could best be done through the eyes of someone who knew him and shared his experiences. I tried to think who this could be and came to the idea that the story could be told from the point of view of a sailor on his ship, the Royalist. And that was how John Williamson came into being. Unlike Brooke, who is very closely based on the historical figure, Williamson is almost entirely fictional. The real James Brooke had an interpreter called John Williamson and I just borrowed the name. (The real Williamson was half-Malay and died quite early on.)

Once Williamson came into the story, his role just grew. He had started out as a narrative device but, as time went by, he became central to the story. Partly, I think, this is because everything was seen through his eyes and so I found myself thinking more and more about how he felt about things and partly because I tried to use Williamson as a figure who reflected Brooke's relationship with the Dyaks. So Brooke 'educates' him but at the same time Williamson finds that the relationship stops him developing fully as his own man. By now, what had started as a historical novel with a bit of romance became much more a romance set in a historical story.

The whole 'gay' bit never seemed that important. The real Brooke was almost certainly gay, all the characters around him were men: if he was going to have a relationship, it was always going to be a gay relationship.

The book was agented and shown to four major publishers all of whom rejected it, saying it was too "difficult" for a first novel. I was left with the definite impression that if Brooke had a female lover, it would have made the book massively easier to sell. I'm not saying that the homosexuality was a deal-breaker and that it would have been sold otherwise, but I am pretty certain it was a definite problem as far as marketing went. So I sent it to an independent publisher who does a lot of gay books (JMS Books) and it was accepted straight away.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Legionary - Viper of the North by Gordon Doherty

Rome was eternal and her legions invincible. Then the world changed.
The Huns rode from the east, spilling from the windswept steppes and into Eastern Europe. The tribes that first felt their wrath were ill-prepared for their mastery of mounted warfare, and found that they had two choices; to submit to the Hunnic yoke, or to run for their lives. The mighty Goths, a raft of Germanic tribes that had warred amongst one another and with Rome for hundreds of years, were the last of these tribes between the Huns’ advance and the Eastern Roman Empire. But when the Huns arrived, the Goths were forged together in the fires of adversity and they made their choice – they ran from the Huns and flooded across the Danube and into the empire. Hundreds of thousands of them. Warriors, elderly, children.
The Goths arrived in the province of Moesia Inferior, panicked but respecting the tentative truce that had been brokered with the empire.  They were initially kept in a vast refugee camp on the southern banks of the Danube. Despite this fragile peace, the border legions were threadbare and ill-equipped to police such an incursion.
It was this that sparked my imagination.  Such a huge number of people – proud and noble – terrified, angry and lost in a foreign land. And the Romans, so few, doubtless anxious at the Goths’ arrival and fearful that the Huns would surely follow. This seething cauldron of emotion and strife was always balanced on a knife-edge. Then, I had the killer thought – the thought that inspired the tale of ‘Legionary: Viper of the North’:
What if one dark individual had engineered all of this, and now readied to tip that balance?
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Monday, 1 October 2012

Finn's Fate by Michael Wills

On 4th March 2010 I broke my arm while climbing a tree. A silly thing to do and I paid for it by not being able to enjoy the pursuits which are important to me, for a very long time. Because of the severity of the fracture, I was enrolled for a period of full time physiotherapy rehabilitation at Salisbury Hospital.

When the time came for me to be discharged my physiotherapist said, “You will never get the full use of your hand back, you have mild Depuytrens.”
“What’s that,” I asked.
“Nothing really to worry about, roughly 20% of men over sixty get it. Small growths appear on the connective tissue in the palm. At its worse it can cause your fingers to be permanently bent. Tradition has it that it was brought to England by the Vikings who spread it throughout northern Europe. In fact it is known as the “Viking Disease”. So you must have Viking ancestry!”

Now, my family has lived and bred on the Isle of Wight for hundreds of years, in fact in a long and time consuming burst of enthusiasm I once traced my family tree right back to the 16th century and with few exceptions all of my forefathers lived on the Island.  Is it possible that we have Island links back as far back as the tenth century, and is that when I got my Viking blood? An interesting thought but impossible to prove. What were the Viking connections with the Isle of Wight I wondered?
By coincidence, my interest in finding out about the Viking raids on the south coast was further stimulated by an article in the Times on 12th March 2010, entitled, “Mass grave in Dorset contains remains of executed Viking warriors”.
I love mysteries, but being of a very tidy disposition I like to have them solved. I knew the area in which these skeletons were found very well and it was obvious to me that the victims must have been on their way to or from Dorchester. They must have been ambushed by superior forces. But how? And how was it that at least one of their number came from north of the Arctic Circle?

The mystery had to be solved and this, together with my fascination about the Viking presence on the Isle of Wight, started me off on a journey of research and discovery which led me to the Arctic and on board my boat, through storms and calms to retrace the voyages of the Viking ships.
It was a story I had to tell, I hope that you enjoy it.

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Monday, 17 September 2012

Barbados Bound by Linda Collison

Barbados Bound

It all started with a ship. On April 14,1999, I saw in the newspaper a startlingly anachronistic colour photograph of a three-masted wooden ship under sail. It looked like it had just sailed out ofthe eighteenth century. Below it, an intriguing advertisement:

Help wanted: Deckhands to man floating museum…a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sail as crew on Endeavour, the replica of Capt.James Cook’s ship that will visit Hawaii in November. Crewmembers sleep in hammocks slung together on the lower deck. They must be prepared to go aloftand work the sails at any time of day in any weather, not suffer from chronicseasickness or fear of heights, and be physically fit. Sailing experience is not essential…

     Six months later my husband and I were at the dock in Vancouver, signing ship's articles.
     We are sailors, my husband Bob and I. We have a sailboat of our own and quite a few nautical miles under our belts, but we knew essentially nothing about sailing an 18th century,three-masted tallship.  
     The crew promised to teach the recruits everything we needed to know, and so we leaped at the opportunity. It sounded like a great adventure, and indeed it was. In fact, it changed my life and gave me a new passion: Maritime history. I actually went back to college to study history, having majored in Nursing, the first time around.

     Bob and I spent three weeks aboard the Endeavour, as part of the foremast watch, crossing the Northern Pacific Ocean. We learned the names and functions of the hundreds of lines, sails and spars that power the ship; we learned to climb aloft on the ratlines, stepping out on the foot ropes under the yards to make and furl sail. We took turns steering the ship and were responsible for cleaning and maintaining her in eighteenth-century fashion. We slept in hammocks we strung from the deckhead every evening. The voyage crew,as we green-but-willing sailors were called, bonded quickly, for we were all init together and we all felt the same swing of emotions -- anxiety, fear,fatigue, exhaustion, sea-sickness, hunger, occasionally resentment – but most of all, exhilaration and awe. For me, those weeks on the Endeavour were nothing short of a time machine.

     When Bob and I disembarked in Kona, Hawaii, I carried with me the seeds for a novel. It would not be about Captain Cook or his extraordinary voyages, but it would begin in the mid-eighteenth century, aboard a vessel quite like the one I had sailed on. I wanted to explore what it might have been like to have been a woman aboard a ship; not a passive passenger but a woman who takes an active part, who is part of the crew. My research proved there were many women aboard ships in the age of sail.  At least thirty and quite likey more, who dressed and worked as men.Their stories, when told, have typically been romanticized and somewhat discredited. I wanted to bring out the gritty reality. Working aboard the Endeavour helped me experience that. My experience as a registered nurse, specializing in Emergency and Critical Care, also came into play.

     My first historical novel was five years in the researching and writing. It wasoriginally published as Star-Crossed by Knopf/Random House, and chosenby the New York Public Library to be among the Books for the Teen Age --2007. Yet I hadn't really written it for teens, but from a teenaged girl's perspective.  
     I was so caught up with the characters and the historical background that I wrote a sequel, Surgeon's Mate, which Knopf turned down. They weren't interested in a series. But Fireship Press was. PublisherTom Grundner offered me a contract for Surgeon's Mate, and offered to publish Star-Crossed under a different title as soon as he could acquire it. As soon as Star-Crossed was out of print I obtained a reversion of rights, rewrote the manuscript and signed a contract with Fireship Press.  Barbados Bound was published in July, 2012.   The story is essentially the same as Star-Crossed, but I was able to correct a few anachronisms, introduce a minor characterwho appears in the sequel -- and add back a little salty language taken out of the first edition.  At last both books are under the same publisher, or aboard the same ship:  Fireship Press.

     It all started with a ship and an adventure -- and the adventure continues.  Bob and I just returned from a four-day sail on Topaz, our 36-foot sloop.  Sailing inspires me because the sea is aforce to be reckoned with. The sea connects us, it covers most of the earth, it is a portal to the past. It provides a rich backdrop for a novel because of its power and its historical importance. The sea offeres both freedom and imprisonment, it nurtures and destroys.  I both love the sea and fear it, and I hope that conflict is apparent in my novels.  Conflict, external and internal, is what drives my writing.

Linda Collison

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Gilded Lily by Deborah Swift

I was inspired to write The Gilded Lily by three things. First, the power of the stories we hear as children. Second, the Frost Fairs on the frozen Thames in the 1660's. And third, but not least, the contrasting characters of Ella and Sadie Appleby.

As a child I devoured books and stories of all types. One of my earliest memories is of my parents telling me fairy tales about Little Red Riding Hood and The Billy Goats Gruff, and hiding under the bed from the Big Bad Wolf. I had several dilapidated old books from my mother called "The Golden Wonder Books" which included tales of the Brothers Grimm, Tales from Shakespeare, Aesop and Homer, and poetry, all gorgeously illustrated by artists such as Arthur Rackham. From these stories I learnt about Knights and Princesses, about high morals and good behaviour. When I grew up I think I subconsciously looked for a Knight to sweep me off my feet, and it took me quite a few relationships and a divorce to realise that it wasn't going to be quite that easy! The values of the stories that we read seep in to us, but not just the stories we read, the stories other people tell us about ourselves. Ella Appleby has always been "the pretty one," and Sadie her sister "the skilful one" (and by implication, not pretty.) How does this affect them when they have to start their lives again from scratch, and must make their way in society? Ella tells stories all the time, but what is the difference between a story and a lie?

In the 1660's England was gripped by The Little Ice Age. Temperatures in the City of London dropped so low that the Thames iced over and the life-blood of the city froze in its veins. But London was just recovering from years of Puritan repression where all sorts of entertainment had been banned. The bears in the bear-baiting pits had been shot, not because bear-baiting was inhumane, but because the Puritans thought it was just too entertaining. So when Charles came back to the throne people were ready to celebrate and the frozen Thames provided another excuse for entertainment. The Frost Fairs had tented booths with alehouses and coffee shops; there was skating and ice bowls, jugglers and musicians. The King even paraded his horse guards over the ice. The combination of extreme weather, where birds froze in flight, and the determination of the people to nevertheless enjoy it, was a fascinating one.

After finishing The Lady's Slipper I had still more story to tell about Ella Appleby the maid. In The Lady's Slipper from Alice's point of view Ella is manipulative and lacking in morals. I wondered how she saw herself, and why she behaved the way she did, and gave her a book to herself to find out. (Though The Gilded Lily stands alone and you do not need to read the other book to understand the story.) Ella's saving grace is in her close relationship with her younger sister Sadie. The Gilded Lily explores the contrasting characters between the sisters as they struggle with their new lives and living with each other. One of the things I loved about writing them was that they were not the moneyed intellectuals who usually populate historical fiction. These were country girls, struggling to move upwards in society. I had to find a whole new language for them, a whole different set of moral values and aspirations. For them, perhaps stealing could be right, in some circumstances.

Once I started researching a whole supporting cast came along to help me tell Ella and Sadie's story - the handsome pawnbroker's son, the astrologer, the hard-nosed wigmaker, and the lovely lad with a love of stories.

‘There is no greater compliment than "give me more!" A delight’ Susanna Gregory
‘A beautifully-written blend of fast pace and atmospheric historical detail.' Gabrielle Kimm 
'Superbly written dialogue makes the characters absolutely real' Charlotte Betts
‘Beautifully written and meticulously researched, the novel drew me straight into the teeming streets of Restoration London. An addictive, page-turning read’ Mary Sharratt
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Friday, 31 August 2012

An Honourable Estate by Elizabeth Ashworth

It may have been the effigies that first caught my eye – the woman with her hands clasped in prayer and her husband beside her with his legs crossed and his hand resting on the hilt of his sword as if he were ready, at any moment, to defend her honour. 
I was in the parish church at Wigan in Lancashire and the effigies were those of Lady Mabel Bradshaigh and her husband, Sir William.  As I studied them a man came across to speak to me.
“Have you seen the cross?” he asked.  I glanced around the church, wondering if he meant the cross on the altar. “No,” he said, “I mean have you seen Mab’s Cross?”
He told me where to find it – across a busy road junction, up the hill and in the grounds of a primary school.  It wasn’t much to look at really. The stones were worn away and there was no longer any sign of a real cross, but it was the story behind it that intrigued me.

"Sir William Bradshaigh, second son to Sir John, was a great traveller and a soldier, and married to Mabel, daughter and sole heiress of Hugh Norres de Haghe [Haigh] and Blackrode, and had issue, etc.  Of this Mabel is a story by tradition of undoubted verity, that in Sir William Bradshaigh's absence (being ten years away in holy wars) she married a Welsh knight.  Sir William, returning from the wars, came in a palmer's habit amongst the poor to Haghe; Mabel, who when she saw and congetringe [conjecturing] he favoured [resembled] her former husband, wept - for which the knight [her second husband] chastised her; at which Sir William went and made himself known to his tenants; in which space the knight fled, but near to Newton Park, Sir William over took and slew him.  The said Dame Mabel was enjoined by her confessor to do penance by going once every week, bare footed and bare legged, to a cross near Wigan from Haghe, whilst she lived, and [it is] called Mabb's to this day."

I wanted to know if there was any truth in this story so I began to research and came across a small booklet in the Lancashire Authors’ Association library.  Written by Rev. T.C. Porteus in the 1930s it is called New Light on the Mab’s Cross Legend. In it, Porteus compares the two main versions of the legend with the factual history of the time.  His interpretation made a lot of sense and this is what I used as the basis for my plot development.
In his booklet, Porteus refers to William Bradshaigh as a ‘Lancashire Robin Hood’ because he did not in fact fight in the ‘holy wars’ but was outlawed for not attending court on suspicion of being involved in the murder of one Sir Henry de Bury.  An Honourable Estate also contains elements of the Robin Hood legend.  There are sheriffs and outlaws as well as Scots and wars and rebellions as the narrative follows the fortunes of Mabel and William as famine sweeps England during a succession of very wet summers when crops rotted in the fields.  Because William is an outlaw, the lands at Haigh are forfeit to the king and are given to another man, Sir Peter Lymesey.  But Mabel won’t give up her inheritance.  In a 14th century inquest into the ownership of Haigh, it is recorded that Mabel ‘intruded’ on the lands.  In other words she refused to move off them.
It seems that Mabel was a determined woman in real life.  Perhaps she didn’t need a man with a sword to defend her honour, but she must have loved William even though she did commit adultery.  She paid for the chapel at Wigan to be built so that they could be buried there together – perhaps she is still praying for forgiveness, although I think William must have forgiven her a long time ago.

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Sunday, 26 August 2012

Mistress of the Sea by Jenny Barden

I'm invariably fascinated by the answers authors give to the 'What made you choose to write about that?' question, and now it's being put to me I find myself wanting to give two responses - the short and the more complex! The short answer is that as soon as I delved into the early life of Sir Francis Drake and unearthed the bare bones of his first great enterprise: the attack on the Spanish 'Silver Train' carrying bullion across the isthmus of Panama, I thought it would make a cracking good backdrop for a novel. This true story has all the ingredients of a rip-roaring adventure. It begins with Drake the little-known sea captain, smarting from the humiliation of having been forced to flee from the rout of John Hawkins' fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, determined upon vengeance for what he saw as Spanish treachery, and it ends with Drake the national hero who returned from his raid on the Spanish bullion supply in triumph, having masterminded an ambush that netted a fortune for himself and the Queen, cocked a snook at the Spanish, and proved that the might of King Philip II's empire was not invulnerable. In the run up to achieving this victory, Drake had endured a series of setbacks and reverses, the loss of over a third of his crew to disease, the death of two of his younger brothers (one killed in a skirmish and the other most likely a victim of yellow fever), the failure of two earlier attempts to capture Spanish treasure (the first of which resulted in his own serious injury), and the disaffection of some of his men which caused Drake to scuttle one of his two ships in order to prevent their desertion. It was only Drake's tenacity that kept the enterprise going. Then, in the end, an alliance with black runaway slaves (the Cimaroons) and French privateers (the Huguenots led by Guillaume Le Testu) gave Drake the manpower he needed in order to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This was a story in which a few individuals managed to achieve an act of singular significance. No more than 31 men returned to England out of Drake's original crew of 73, but they had severed the artery carrying Spain's life blood in bullion from Peru to fund her wars in Europe, and they had helped Drake set the course for the rise of England as a great maritime power.

As I unravelled what had actually happened, I began to imagine myself in this story, and to ask: 'What if a woman had been there?' and so the idea for Mistress of the Sea was born as an epic romantic adventure based on this real episode in history. Then a trip to Panama gave the concept even more impetus. I walked along parts of the Camino Real, sections of the original route for the Silver Train that have survived the passage of time and the flooding of the Panama Canal, and I saw the places where the hooves of pack mules over the centuries had worn hollows in the stones as they trailed over the rainforest clad mountains between the old city of Panama and Nombre de Dios. I walked through forest so thick that it was impossible to see even a glimpse of the sky, close to a hundred per cent humidity, plagued by flies and mosquitoes, and I felt I was drawing close to understanding what it must have been like.
I had been down the mines of Cerro Rico: the 'Rich Mountain' of Postosí which was the principal source of the silver from Peru in the sixteenth century, and I had followed in the path of the conquistadors to many other places, so by travelling along the 'Royal Road' in Panama, and envisaging Drake's spectacular raid on the bullion in transit, I had a sense of the the pieces of a much broader picture slotting satisfyingly into place. That's the short answer.

The more complex explanation goes back to the roots of my writing before I ever imagined I might one day be a published author. I sometimes say that I became interested in history after an encounter with a suit of armour at Tamworth Castle, and it's true that I was fascinated with knights and the legends of King Arthur from a very early age, and that armour had a special attraction for me (perhaps because it had the potential to hide the wearer!). As a young girl, I wanted to do brave deeds, brandish a sword like Excalibur, and rescue maidens (or little boys!). I had an alter ego called Geni who would do spectacular things such as appear and disappear at will, run like the wind, and climb right to the top of very tall trees. And when everyone else had gone to bed, I'd be up, gazing out of my bedroom window in my home town of Burton on Trent, watching the town twinkling in the darkness beside the floodplain, and I'd imagine fabulous castles room by room, from the dungeons upward. No sooner was one properly envisaged in minute detail, from the stones to the heraldic shields, the trapdoors and secret passageways, than I'd move onto thinking about the next. I realise now that this was an ideal preparation for conceptualising and planning out a novel. 

After proving to be a horror in infancy and getting into all manner of scrapes (probably because I wanted to chase dragons rather than dress dollies), I turned out to have some ability to pass exams and blessed with a natural talent for drawing (for which I have my mother to thank). So I left school to study fine art, then switched to law to earn a living and became a solicitor in the city of London, until the birth of four children necessitated a change in direction. Then it was back to painting, something which only came to a close after I saw the self-portrait by Carel Fabritius that hangs in the National Gallery. This picture so entranced me that it set me on a quest to find out more about the artist's short life (Fabritius died young in the explosion of the Dutch gunpowder arsenal at Delft in 1654). Such academic biographies as there were only fuelled my desire to tell his story as it came bounding into life in my mind. That was how my writing began: in secret and quiet inadvertently, since I had no particular desire to write a book and did not even think I could do so. I wrote a fictionalised account of the life of Fabritius and found an agent on the strength of it. The interest of publishers in that book led me to refine and hone and try again. I wrote about another artist a few generations earlier: an invented character based loosely on Juan Sánchez Cotán who was a conquistador in my story as well as being an illuminator and a monk. Thus my interest in the Age of Discovery was reawakened and then nourished by travels in South America. Gradually the threads of the passions which have run through my life came together: the love of art and a fascination with the ideals of chivalry; adventure and legend, and the romance of exploration. That second book came even closer to publication, but after being turned down at acquisition meeting because it did not involve English characters, I thought I would write next about my own countrymen (I include women in that!). And who was active in the New World at the time, foremost among the early English seafarers to come into conflict with the Spanish? Francis Drake. It was a natural next step for me to write about Drake's first great Caribbean adventure, and to want to add a compelling love story - the result was Mistress of the Sea.

I hope that many of you will enjoy the adventure, and I thank you for the interest you have shown in reading this. Especial thanks to Deborah Swift for her generosity in hosting this wonderful site.

Mistress of the Sea will be released in hardback by Ebury Press, Random House, on 30 August 2012 with the paperback to follow

Jenny's website can be found here:
She's also on Twitter @jennywilldoit and facebook:
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Friday, 17 August 2012

Hope in Hungnam by David Watts Jnr

I was inspired to write it after watching a special (maybe on the History Channel?) about US Korean War vets who go back to Korea and meet their South Korean counterparts. 

During this special they talked about an almost entirely unknown event in the Korean War. It was the evacuation of 100,000 civilians from Hungnam in North Korea just before Christmas, 1950. As if that were not remarkable enough, they profiled one ship that took an astounding 14,000 North Koreans to safety in a single voyage. That ship was the SS Meredith Victory and her captain was Leonard LaRue. The narrator made the  point that if this had occurred during World War II, there would have been movies made about it by now. At that moment, I knew I had to write about it. It was simply too great a story for the world to not know of it.

I decided that the narrative of saving 100,000 lives from being trapped in Communism in North Korea was too staggering to really wrap our minds around, so I created a fictitious US Marine and a fictitious North Korean woman and wove their stories together with that of the great rescue from Hungnam. 

By zooming in tightly on just this woman (and her two children) and what it meant to them to be rescued, and what it meant to the world for them to be rescued - I hope to tell the story in a way that really engages the reader.

Hope in Hungnam
takes place during the darkest days of the Korean War in 1950: from the brutal Battle of Chosin Reservoir to the stunning Christmas Eve evacuation of civilians from Hungnam, North Korea. As the flames of war engulf the Korean Peninsula, US Marine Jack Stiles desperately searches for meaning in the frozen killing fields of North Korea.

Bloodied by war and bigotry, Stiles' world is changed forever when he is critically wounded at Chosin Reservoir and left for dead. Nursed back to health by a mortal foe, he soon faces the realities of war, life, and love with new clarity.

Twitter: @davidwattsjr
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Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Spartacus The Gladiator by Ben Kane

How I came to write Spartacus: The Gladiator and why I became a writer

It’s a funny thing, but the idea for writing about Spartacus came about by chance. In March 2009, I was talking with my agent about ideas for books. I had already set my mind upon a trilogy (now quadrilogy) set during the second (Punic) war between Carthage and Rome, but we were talking about other possibilities as well. I won’t mention many of them, because I haven’t written the books yet, but Spartacus came up. It sounds naïve, but in that moment it was as if someone had switched a light bulb on in my head. I had watched the famous Kubrick movie once as a boy, and it had made a great impression on me. (I should add that we didn’t have a TV when I was growing up, or I am sure that I would have seen it more than once!) I had had cause to read about Spartacus in the previous few years. As many of you know, Marcus Licinius Crassus was the man who put down Spartacus’ rebellion in 71 BC. He is also a character in my first novel, The Forgotten Legion. That day, the plan for a set of novels about Carthage and Rome won out, but the idea didn’t go away.

In early 2010, I started hearing a lot of news about an upcoming TV miniseries called Spartacus: Blood and Sand, starring a then little-known actor called Andy Whitfield. This made me start thinking about writing Spartacus’ story all over again. I did some more research on him, and became even more enamoured of his achievements, and amazed by how close he had come to getting away. He was someone who was subjected to a great injustice, and he didn’t take it lying down. Instead, he fought back ― in the process shaking the mighty Roman Republic to its core. Although the reasons for Spartacus’ fame have quite modern roots (he was resurrected as a symbol of the small man’s fight against oppression in the 18th and 19th centuries), his name is one of the most well-known from ancient times. Thrilled, I went as far as writing the plotline for a novel and submitting it to my UK publishers. Sadly, but perhaps sensibly, they were keen that I concentrate on my other novels. I went back to work, finishing the novel Hannibal: Enemy of Rome.

The itch to write Spartacus became a lot worse over the subsequent months, however, and I kept badgering my publishers. I am pleased to say that eventually, they gave in! I started writing Spartacus’ story in mid-December 2010, and I had it finished by mid-June 2011. The story just burst out of me. At about 100,000 words (the normal length of my novels is about 145,000 words) I knew there was no way this amazing man’s story would fit into one volume. Cap in hand, I went back to my publisher. This time, they were quick to agree to a second book. The first volume immediately became Spartacus: The Gladiator, while I named the second Spartacus: Rebellion. That book also took me little more than 6 months to write. In all, I lived, breathed and dreamed Spartacus for more than a year. It was the most amazing experience, and I was very sad to end the story. I actually dreaded writing the final battle (most everyone knows what happens, but I won’t mention it just in case), but when the time came, the writing flowed so well. Working up to 16 hours a day, I wrote more than 15,000 words in 8 days. By the end, I was totally drained, but it had been a fantastic experience. It is my sincere hope that readers will get as much enjoyment out of reading the books as I did in writing them.

I believe that my path to full time writing is a little different to many. It wasn’t born of an overwhelming desire to write ― either about a particular subject, period or person, or just to write in general. The seeds were there, it’s true. I have always read huge amounts, and have been fascinated by history, particularly military history, since I was a boy. So what made me actually start writing about Rome? Well, quite simply, it was my extreme frustration at being ‘on call’ as a veterinarian one Saturday night in 2003! I’ll tell you the short version of the story.

I had worked a full week, Monday to Friday, and then all day Saturday. By 6 p.m. Saturday, all I wanted to do was to get home and cook my dinner. Every time I tried to do so, my pager went off. It did that 6 or 7 times in the subsequent hours. By about midnight, I had still not got home for more than a few minutes at a time. When the pager went off yet again, I threw it at the wall in utter frustration. It smashed and fell to the floor, still beeping. Fortunately, I was able to read the telephone number that was displayed on it. I went back to the surgery, treated a cat (I think!) and came home. I opened up my laptop and started writing a book about Roman soldiers. My efforts soon became a habit, and then an obsession. Yet they paid off, because in August 2007, after a bidding war between 6 major publishers, I secured a three book deal. Since then, my feet have barely hit the ground.

To find out more about Ben and his books visit:, check out his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter: @benkaneauthor

Friday, 8 June 2012

Into the Valley of Death by A.L.Berridge

My father had no sons. What he did have were four daughters – and just across the road, eight hundred and fifty boys. He was Headmaster of Christ’s Hospital, the first and oldest Bluecoat School in the UK.

That’s where it all began for me. I grew up round boys who weren’t my brothers, and was able to get an unusual view of what men are like when women aren’t around. I learned about their insecurities, their courage, their constant need to prove themselves. I saw their easy physicality with each other, the fights and embraces, the competitive friendships that were curiously like love.

I probably understood none of it, but the old fascination bubbled quickly to the fore when I became a writer. My novels are all set in the traditionally male world of war, but although they’re full of action it’s always been the characters and relationships that interest me most. It was the characters that led me into the Crimea, and the ‘Valley of Death’ where the Light Brigade charged.

It started when I watched a repeat of the 1968 film, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. David Hemmings made Captain Nolan every bit as gorgeous as I remembered him, but the film itself never engaged me. It was witty and satirical, it made all the right political points about the nationalistic stupidity of the war  – but for me it had no heart. I didn’t even cry at the end. I wanted to scream at the screen ‘What about the people? Shouldn’t we care?

So of course I had to write it – or rather my own story set in that situation. My hero had been brooding in my mind for some years already (and boy, can that man brood!) but with the Crimea I knew I’d finally found his setting. He’s young and bitter, a junior officer compelled by his father’s disgrace and suicide to serve as a humble ranker, and what better place to put him than in a war famous for the incompetence of its commanders and the heroism of its soldiers? Harry Ryder landed in the Crimea as if he was born to be there – which in a way, of course, he was.

The others were already there, and each in their way grew out of the setting. Ryder was always going to attract women, and history had placed them on the spot in the person of the soldier’s wives who accompanied their men to the Crimea. There was nothing fragile about the women who survived those hardships, and I knew from the start that Sally would prove at least as brave as my men. I found her in a Roger Fenton photograph taken at one of the camps in 1855, and it was the same source that gave me my other principals. The smart Grenadier Guards, destined to be reduced to desperate and ragged brigands, gave me the character of Dennis Woodall, pompous, self-obsessed, and unutterably lonely. The savage Highlanders gave me Niall Mackenzie, the gentle stalker from Strathcarron who turns out to have the fighting spirit of a berserker Viking. The young cavalrymen who charged without question to what looked like certain death gave me Charlie ‘Polly’ Oliver, the idealistic schoolboy desperate to ‘do his bit’. I knew ‘Polly’ better than any of them, because his roots were in my past. The school he went to was Christ’s Hospital.

I still needed a plot, but that landed on my desk on the very first day. I’d ordered a first batch of books and expected to face many months of trawling before I got the seed of an idea, but while I was waiting I had a quick skim through Wikipedia to remind myself of the overview. I started with the Battle of the Alma, and there it was, staring me in the face: . This is a basic account, of doubtful accuracy in some details, but there’s something on that page that would get the antennae of any writer twitching. I’m not saying what it is, but I’d bet that any other writer reading this will spot it immediately. Something there is very odd indeed…

And it turned out to be true. The more I researched, the more I found that mysteriously repeated incident at the Alma was only the tip of a very large iceberg. There was a story there all right – and one that had never been told. So I told it, Penguin liked it, and ‘Into the Valley of Death’ came out on 10th of May.
But the trouble with inspiration is that it just doesn’t know where to stop. I’m in the middle of my next novel right now – and that too is set in the Crimea, with a young and brooding hero called Harry Ryder…

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