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

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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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