25 April 2017

Memoirs from the Tower of London

my guest today - Elizabeth St. John

“All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made (the prisoners) broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.”
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson
Lucy Hutchinson, 1620-1681
(Recounting the life of her mother, Lucy St.John)
Gazing from the parlor window of the Queen’s House within the walls of the Tower of London, I could see the chapel of St. Peter, the iconic White Tower…and the executioner’s block. Knowing that I shared this view with my ancestress, Lucy St.John, who occupied this house four hundred years earlier, made me shiver with awe.

The Queen’s House from the River Thames,
with the White Tower in the background.
Lucy St.John lived in the Tower of London for thirteen years from 1617 to 1630; not as a prisoner, but as Mistress of the Tower. I stumbled upon the quoted biographical fragment from Lucy Hutchinson’s notebook in Nottingham Castle, and I knew I must find out more about her mother. The Memoirs give tantalizing glimpses of Lucy St.John’s life, and further research on the position of Lieutenant of the Tower, Lucy’s husband, Sir Allen Apsley, revealed much more.

When I decided that Lucy would be the subject of my novel, The Lady of the Tower, I contacted Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces (HRP) and asked if I could possibly visit some of the private locations within the Tower. The Queen’s House is the family home of the Governor, just as it was for Lucy when she moved there in 1617. They readily gave their permission and kindly offered a Yeoman Warder as a guide.

I was excited to arrive early one winter’s morning, before the crowds, and walk along the old quay by Traitor’s Gate. Peeking over the massive stone walls were the gabled roofs of Lucy’s home – a curious juxtaposition of domesticity and fortress. I used that view and sensation to set the opening scene of my novel, for I could only imagine Lucy’s trepidation upon entering the Tower, and seeing her future home.

The Queen’s House, Tower of London
As I met my Beefeater, we quickly found a common love of history, and together we entered the Queen’s House.  What I didn’t anticipate was the visceral reaction of walking through Lucy’s rooms, standing in her kitchen, looking through her parlor window – just as she had done. The emotional response to treading in her footsteps inspired so much of my work within The Lady of the Tower, and so many small details found their way into my writing.

The house was used for administrative offices too, and as I explored the warren of rooms (the plans to which, alas, are missing), I came across a small corridor. Just a few feet from Lucy’s front hall, great blocks of stone took over from the domesticity of plaster, and in another pace or two, I was standing within the twelfth century Bell Tower. The ambiance was mournful, and it was not at all difficult to think of Thomas More, John Fisher, and the young Princess Elizabeth imprisoned in this bleak chamber. Their view from the narrow slit windows was the same as Lucy’s from her parlor – the execution block.

View from The Queen’s House toward 
the execution block, and the Chapel 
of St. Peter ad Vincula.
My inspiration from the Tower continued as I walked outside. Lucy was a great herbalist, and her medicinals no doubt eased the lives of many of the prisoners she nursed. In another part of the memoirs, her daughter refers to Lucy’s generosity with her hen-house – she allowed Sir Walter Raleigh to make free use of it to conduct his alchemy experiments when he was under her care and lodging in the Bloody Tower. Needless to say, this took me in another whole research direction.

The Victorians built over Lucy’s garden, but it is still easy to see the old levels of where her gardens were, and how she would access them from her home. She grew up in country houses where it would have been her responsibility to learn simple herbal cures and recipes, and I had a wonderful time researching recipes and including those within my novel. I was even more fortunate that another family member, her great-niece Johanna, collated a vast collection of remedies in a book that is now in the Wellcome Library in London. I liberally borrowed from those recipes to give examples within The Lady of the Tower.

Raleigh, of course, was also a great gardener. I couldn’t resist some interactions between him and Lucy involving some “Virginia Potatoes” as they were known. That is the joy of writing historical fiction – we can have these flights of fancy, as long as they are based in a foundation of solid research.

Sir Walter Raleigh
Attributed to William Segar
Lucy’s husband is buried within the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, and as I explored the chapel, and saw the stone commemorating Anne Boleyn’s burial, so many emotions flooded my thoughts. Although the Tower is a world tourist attraction, and millions of people walk through its environs every year, I feel such a personal connection, knowing that my family lived and worked within its walls. A small votive to Sir Thomas Moore is still kept burning in the Yeoman’s private chapel, and that was an important detail for me to include in my book.

In Lucy’s time, the Liberty of the Tower housed over a thousand families, all of which came under her husband’s jurisdiction. It really was its own small city, for it lay outside of the laws of the City of London (which caused some friction on many occasions). I like to think of Lucy ministering to the residents as well as the prisoners, walking not just only in the areas where her aristocratic prisoners were lodged, but among the houses and gardens of the residents who all helped this important institution run smoothly.

The Tower of London played a crucial role in inspiring my first novel, which has become a best-seller in both the US and the UK. One of the most exciting achievements was the day Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces asked if they could stock The Lady of the Tower in the Tower’s gift shop, and we are now on the third re-order. In her own special way, Lucy has returned to the Tower.  

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Find Elizabeth on Facebook        or her Website

Elizabeth will be giving an Author Talk at the 
Swindon Festival of Literature at Lydiard 
on 4th May 2017 at 7:30 pm. 

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. She has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London to inspire her writing. Although her ancestors sold a few mansions and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint.

The Lady of the Tower, Elizabeth’s first novel, a Discovered Diamond and a B.R.A.G. Medallion winner, is on sale on Amazon, and at the Tower of London. She is currently finishing up a sequel, which takes her family into opposing sides in the English Civil War

18 April 2017

A Mission Impossible

with Wendy Percival

 I must begin by thanking Helen for inviting me on to her blog [HH my pleasure Wendy!] and allowing me to tell you about my current Mission Impossible which I’m hoping may not be so very impossible if I can persuade you to help. But before I explain what I’m rambling on about, let me introduce myself.

Ever since I came across an Australian death certificate, dated 1868, in the proverbial “box of documents in the attic”, I’ve been fascinated by family history and the secrets it holds. I’m clearly not alone, judging by the millions of viewers who watch TV’s Who Do You Think You Are.

As the programme regularly demonstrates, we invariably know little about our family history and that concept was the inspiration behind my first Esme Quentin genealogy mystery, Blood-Tied, where Esme discovers her sister has a secret past. In her search for the truth, Esme unleashes more than she bargains for and is caught up in a terrifying ordeal.
Fortunately, for we lesser mortals, family history research isn’t usually so dangerous! Though it can throw up some surprising, poignant and sometimes shocking stories, as you’ll see if you read my blog Family History Secrets where I share what I’ve uncovered during research into my own family’s history.

These investigations give me plenty of “plotting fodder” and it was the discovery that my husband’s ancestor had been transported to Australia in the early 1800s which set me on a trail to find out more. What I learned about the brutal penal policy of 19th century England was harrowing and gave me the idea for the second Esme mystery, The Indelible Stain, which I set on the North Devon coast. Esme finds a woman’s body at the foot of a cliff and must delve into the mystery of a convict girl who was transported to New South Wales for her crime in 1837 to uncover the truth behind the woman’s untimely death.

My new “short reads” eBook, Death of a Cuckoo, was inspired by reading about a Victorian refuge for “fallen women” here in Devon. The records left by this organisation meant I could dip in for background information to develop my initial idea.

Which sort of leads me back to My Mission….

The obvious appeal of  Who Do You Think You Are is the discovery of ancestors’ stories, frequently emotional, which have been unpicked from records, photographs and accounts, and paint a picture of their lives.

Wouldn’t we just love a BBC researcher to investigate our own family history stories! Imagine discovering that our great-grandmother or great-great grandfather had written an account of their life. What a find that would be! It would make an intriguing read.
But it probably never entered their heads to make such a record. And even if it had, they probably thought they were way too “ordinary” for anyone to be interested in their day-to-day existence.

Even you, as future great-grandparents, great-aunts or uncles, or even if you’re none of those, probably think the same. So let me try and convince you that you’re wrong, that your memories are worth recording – whoever you are and whatever age!
The pace of life and society is changing faster than it’s ever done before. Some aspects of our lives as children would be unrecognisable to the youth of today. Knowledge we hold of our parents and grandparents are never going to be accessible to anyone in the future – even those clever genealogists employed by the BBC – unless we make sure they’re recorded now. It’s said that such knowledge is lost within two generations unless someone takes the time to write them down.

Fortunately, this idea is already taking hold and writing personal memoirs is a growing phenomenon. Some have published their accounts online. A fellow family historians I know, Cathy Murray, is one of them. She’s produced two delightful eBooks of her 1950s childhood, called Cabbage and Semolina (as you might guess, school dinners are mentioned in this one!) and Jam for Tea. Both books are a collection of memories and events which she recalls with affection (or trauma!). What’s interesting is that reading them stirs memories of similar incidents in my own childhood.

Another inspiring read is Remember Then, a collection of women’s shared memories from 1939 to 1969 compiled by genealogist Janet Few. The book is divided into chapters covering different topics – the homes in which they lived, the games they played as children, their neighbourhood, school days, celebrations and holidays, for example. Photographs and images of advertisements of the time within the pages create a real historical document!
So, that’s my Mission Impossible – to get you to write down your memories. But, I hear you say, I wouldn’t know where to start. The answer to that is, “Just start”. You’ll be amazed at how things come flooding back once you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Ask yourself, what would I like my ancestor to have told me?

Another good place to begin is what you remember of your parents – how they met, where they lived, their jobs, the things that made them laugh, as well as any stories from their own childhood they shared with you.

As children, my sister and I loved to hear about when a World War Two incendiary bomb dropped on my mum’s house, landing in the bedroom where she was asleep! My gran ran upstairs and smothered the flames with a feather mattress and carried my mum downstairs into the back kitchen out of harm’s way.

My dad, on the other hand, was pulled off a wall when he was 7 years old and spent 3 years in hospital after getting TB in his hip. He spoke of coming home from a large ward with high ceilings and feeling claustrophobic at the tiny rooms of the family’s lodge cottage.
When I’ve finished editing my third Esme Quentin novel, due out later this year, I shall be digging around in the boxes of photographs and family archives and write what I remember being told, as well as my own childhood memories. In fact I’ve already made a start. I hope you will too. Your descendants will love you for it!

Further interest:

Wendy's  book links

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Read the Discovering Diamonds Review HERE

11 April 2017

It's Fun to be a pirate...

... or is it?

Pirates. Mention ‘pirates’ to adults, even more than children, and eyes begin to twinkle, a smile broadens the face and the clichéd ‘Arrr’ erupts from the lips. Given the choice of dressing up as a pirate or a wizard for a fancy dress party the winner, more often than not, is the stereotypical pirate.

Canstock photography © jgroup
The romance of fiction, the novels, TV shows and movies influence our perception of piracy, specifically during the 'Golden Age' of the early 1700s. We have a rose-tinted romantic view of a life On The Account. Say ‘pirate’ and we think Treasure Island, Jack Sparrow, or Captain Hook from Peter Pan, some of us even remember the bumbling but lovable animated character, Captain Pugwash.

Real pirates were not nice people. For 21st century entertainment, though, who, apart from a horror-movie buff, is going to sit through a big-screen movie about drunken, stinking-to-high-heaven louts pillaging, torturing and butchering? The small screen TV dramas such as Black Sails depict some of the rougher side of a life at sea in the early 18th century, but the storyline, especially in the first series, had to be buoyed up by (unnecessary in my opinion) explicit sexual scenes to keep the interest and attention. Factually, it was not accurate.

But do we want accuracy for entertainment? Moonlit nights, calm seas, a gentle breeze ruffling through swaying palm trees? That is the image conjured into our minds. Do we care that the Flying Dutchman does not exist, or the Marie Celeste was probably abandoned because her crew thought escaping vapour from the hold full of alcohol was smoke? Frightened, believing the ship was about to blow up, they abandoned ship. In their panicked haste they did not do so wisely. Leaving all sail set the ship took off without them. In a good following wind with a veseel travelling at seven to nine knots, an oarsman in a small rowing boat would not have been able to keep up. It must have been devastating to see your home, your livelihood – your only way of staying alive – disappearing off towards the horizon without you. The poor unfortunates, however, were not exotically abducted by alien space pirates as film and fiction would have us believe. 

Reality has its place, but so does the world of story and pleasurable escapism.

We like handsome heroes and pretty heroines. We enjoy the breath-taking alarm of danger and engrossing adventurous romps. Pirate stories give us the (safe) dangerous excitement we crave. Pirates seek treasure – don’t we all? Maybe we do not go off to dig at X marks the spot with our trusty, by-chance found treasure map, but several million of us do trot off to the local store every week hoping to buy that illusive winning lottery ticket.

Pirates were on a get-rich-quick mission and did not particularly care how they did it, as long as they had silver in their pockets for the taverns and brothels, and could get it as easily as possible. We all know that pirates plundered the loot then buried the heavily laden treasure chests on remote Caribbean islands. Their captured enemies they made to walk the plank at sword point, leading to inevitable death by drowning or fiercesome sharks.

Pirates went about saying things like, ‘Shiver m’timbers,’ and ‘Where be tha’ rum?’ Their ships were all gloriously fast, and the flag fluttering jauntily – yet menacingly – from the masthead was always a pair of crossed bones beneath a leering skull set against a black background. 

Pirates, we know, wore a gold-hooped earring and had gold-capped teeth. They drank rum (a lot of it), had frequent swashbuckling fights with those sharp-bladed lethal cutlasses they carried, lusted after buxom wenches and died nobly on the long drop with a short stop.
Or did they? Sad to say most of that is untrue, it is the stuff of story.

Where does the fact end and the fiction begin? But  does it really matter if the story is good and the adventure ... well, adventurous?

* Original text from Pirates Truth and Tales by Helen Hollick

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A Brief Timeline

1492  Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Caribbean and the Americas
1509  Permanent (European) settlement of Port Royal (Caguay) Jamaica 
1570  Lady Mary Killigrew organising piracy off the Cornish coast
1581  Lady Elizabeth Killigrew involved in piracy off the Cornish coast
1593  Grace O’Malley of Ireland meets with Elizabeth I of England
1651  William Dampier born
1659  Oliver Cromwell dies 
1660  Charles II returns from exile and is restored to the English throne
1665  Henry Morgan raiding in the Spanish Main
         Plague in London
1666  Great Fire of London
1671  Henry Morgan sacks Panama
1674  War with Spain
1675  Henry Morgan made Governor of Jamaica
1676  Daniel (de)Foe born
                Governor Alexander Spotswood born
1677 William of Orange marries Mary, daughter of James II
1679  (circa) Woodes Rogers born 
1680  Edward Teach born
(1680-1690?) Charles Vane born
1682  Jack ‘Calico’ Rackham born 
                Bartholomew Roberts born
1683  Henry Morgan is removed from Port Royal Council for being drunk - October
1685  Charles II dies his brother, James, becomes King 
11th June Monmouth lands at Lyme Bay 
6th July   Monmouth defeated at Sedgemoor
                Judge Jeffries and the Bloody Assizes: hundreds of rebels hanged or sold as slaves
1686  Dampier’s second circumnavigation
1684  Alexandre Oliver Exquemelin's The Buccaneers of America published
                Tortuga now deserted by pirates. The term ‘buccaneer being widely adopted
1687  Dr Hans Sloan and Duke and Duchess of Albemarle arrive in Port Royal
1688  Henry Morgan dies 25th August
                Pirates using Port Royal, Jamaica
5th November William of Orange lands at Torbay; James II flees to France 
1689 War with France 
                Sam Bellamy born 
1690 William defeats James at Battle of the Boyne 1st 
                Howell Davies born
1692 7th June Port Royal devastated by earthquake 
1693  Fictional pirate Jesamiah Acorne born 
                William and Mary College, Virginia founded
1694 Bank of England founded
1695  Death of Queen Mary
1697 End of war with France
1700  Death of Charles II of Spain
  (circa)   Anne Bonny born
1701       War of Spanish Succession declared
               James II dies of a stroke
               Act of Union between England and Scotland ‘British Isles’ formed
1702       William II dies Sister-in-law Anne becomes Queen 
                First daily English newspaper – the Daily Courant
1703 Work begins on Buckingham House (Palace)
1704 English capture Gibraltar
                Battle of Blenheim
1706 Building of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg began
1707 Act of Union (Scotland and England to form Great Britain
1708 Planned Jacobite rebellion with a French landing in Scotland – James caught measles
1709  17th February Andrew Selkirk rescued from being marooned
1710 St Paul’s Cathedral completed
                Alexander Spotswood appointed Governor of Virginia
1711 Woodes Rogers Madagascar, at pirate community in almost ended 
1713 War with Spain over, privateers expect full pardons for acts of piracy
1714 Bahamas raided by French and Spanish
                Nassau sacked three times
                Death of Queen Anne, accession of George of Hanover
                End of the War of the Spanish succession
1715 Spanish treasure fleet wrecked 31st July
1717 Piracy in its height in the Bahamas, Caribbean and the East coast of America
                Whydah Galley sinks 
17th November Blackbeard captures the Queen Anne’s Revenge
1718  Woodes Rogers arrives in Nassau 
  May       Blackbeard blockades Charlestown harbour
June         Queen Anne’s Revenge runs aground 
September/October Blackbeard meets other pirates on the beaches of Ocracoke  
November Governor Spotswood sends Lt. Robert Maynard to capture/kill Blackbeard
22nd November Blackbeard killed
1719  War with Spain
                Royal Pardon extended to 1st July
               Robinson Crusoe published by Daniel Defoe
19th June Howell Davies is shot dead
                Anne Bonney and Mary Read become pirates
                Edward Teach’s remaining crew hanged at Williamsburg
                Charles Vane arrested
1720  Gov. Woodes Rogers hangs all pirates who refuse to give up piracy 
February  Battle of Nassau 
18th November Calico Jack Rackham hanged at Port Royal
                South Sea Bubble bursts – financial ruin for many 
                Robert Walpole becomes the first Prime Minister of Great Britain
                First daily newspaper in England
1721  Charles Vane hanged (?)
                Pirate community in Madagascar coming to life again.
                 Bartholomew Roberts of the Royal Fortune killed in battle 
1722  February Bartholomew Roberts dies
1723  Charles Johnson’s A General History of Robberies and Murders of Notorious Pyrates published
1727  Death of George of Hanover (George I) succession of George II 
1732   15th July Woodes Rogers dies

The Fiction

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and the Fact
where most pirates ended up
© Stocksnapper
What do you prefer? The fiction or the fact?

4 April 2017

Cornflakes, Cheddar & the fictional King Arthur

by Charles Moberly (my Devon neighbour & good friend)

Reading Helen’s terrific trilogy Pendragon’s Banner has taken me back to 1972 when I worked on the TV series Arthur of the BritonsMy job was fascinating. I spent the mornings at the centre of things, sharing an office with the Producer, Peter Miller, and three of his team. At lunch-time I drove out in my open top sports car to join the crew in the pub nearest to where they were filming. Oliver Tobias, who played King Arthur, had a Haflinger six-wheel amphibious vehicle which he backed into my Lotus in a pub car park. When I’d assessed the damage he cheerily settled with a wad of notes.

Ah, a wad of notes! The afternoon part of my job was to make myself conspicuous while watching the filming so that actors could approach me to get paid their expenses and stuntmen their fees. I had a float of £2,000 in my briefcase, a huge sum in those days. A glorious summer, open air, paid to lie on the grass, meet interesting and famous people, what a life!

Actors seemed to fall into two categories, those whose real-life personae were the same on-screen and off. Yes, Brian Blessed boomed and roared 45 years ago whatever he was doing, and I suspect he still does. Others were more subdued, assuming a screen personality to suit the role. 

Source Facebook 
So why the Cornflakes & Cheddar? As I’ve said, I paid stuntmen their fees. The episode The Slaves was filmed in Cheddar Gorge. Arthur hurled a sword into the back of a Saxon high up on a ledge. My job was to pay the stuntman Jackie Cooper £84 for falling off the cliff. At the start of the day the Director asked Jackie whether he needed anything. What would he like to cushion his landing? That’s where the Cornflakes came in. ‘Packing cases, lots of them, the sort used to deliver cereals to supermarkets. I want them assembled empty with the air inside three layers deep.’
So Jackie hurled himself off the ledge face down, tumbled in the air and landed sprawled on his back onto the packing cases. He got up unhurt and I paid him the £84.

Arthur of the Britons was revolutionary in that it presented Arthur as he probably was: a guerrilla leader trying to unite the Celts to fight off the invading Saxons. Did I say ‘probably was’? Make that ‘possibly’. Reading not only Helen’s wonderful novels but also her and others’ research confirms that the evidence that Arthur even existed is scant. 
Photo Oliver Tobias official web site

But what the heck! It’s noble, it’s exciting, it’s part of our culture and it has endured. Long may it continue to do so.

Arthur of the Britons TV series

There were 26 30 minute episodes broadcast in 1972 and 1973. Set in post-Roman times the basic story-line is Arthur as a guerilla leader of the Celts, fighting to hold back the encroaching tide of the Saxons, a far more realistic portrayal of this legedary figure than the later Knights in Armour Medieval tales. 

Among the actors, in addition to Oliver Tobias (Arthur) Brian Blessed  (Mark of Cornwall) Jack Watson (Llud) and Michael Gothard (Cai) were a few other unexpected names on the cast list such as  Martin Jarvis, Tom Baker  who a year later in 1974 became famous as the fourth incarnation of Dr Who, and David Prowse who, although you did not see his face in 1977 became one of the most well-known movie characters - Darth Vader. For Arthur of the Britons, he played Col in The Slaves!

You Tube: The Slaves 
(the scene mentioned above is around the 20.58 point just before the fighting starts) 

Read More:  Wikipedia  IMDb

Helen says: Thank you Charles - that brought back a few memories for me too!
I started writing my Arthurian Trilogy back in the 70s, around the time that this series was televised, and it probably helped to influence my certainty that Arthur was post Roman, not a Medieval knight. I had discovered, through reading Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave and Hollow Hills, that Arthur, IF he had existed was more likely to have been a war lord in that post Roman era (5th-6th century), placing him there made much more logical sense.

I also wanted to write a novel that had a more positive side to Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere). I have never had any admiration for the character Lancelot - I can't stand him - so I couldn't figure why she was so attracted to him when she had Arthur as a much better alternative! 

It took me well over 10 years to write what would turn out to be The Kingmaking and Pendragon's Banner. I was accepted for publication by William Heinemann (Random House) a week after my 40th birthday in 1993.

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The original cover of the first edition

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28 March 2017

Tuesday Talk: The Spirit of Place

By Lorraine Swoboda 

How do you choose the setting for a novel? You may know the who, and the when, but what about the where?

I set my novel in 1817, at a difficult time in British history. I had men who had left the army after Waterloo, and who were still looking for their place in the world of peace, and a heroine who lived detached from society, isolation being a theme; and I didn’t want grand houses or great wealth or status. These were ordinary people living through extraordinary events – fiction as life heightened - and I wanted my setting to suit them.

When I first began to write what eventually became Mrs Calcott’s Army some fourteen years ago, I knew where the events should take place.  I lived then in Wimborne, Dorset, a market town which still keeps its medieval street layout. Gentlemen’s houses abut thatched cottages, ancient houses hide behind slightly more modern shop fronts, and the Minster stands at the centre, with the Quarterjack marking the passage of time over the green that used to be a graveyard. Once the figure of a monk, to celebrate the founding of the Minster as a female (and later joint female-male) monastery, this had been altered to that of a Grenadier guardsman during the Napoleonic Wars; and that provided the military link between the setting and the male characters.

Wimborne Minster Wikipedia
The rivers Stour and Allen run round and through the town, and there are two parallel roads entering on one side; West Borough, which once led directly to the West door of the Minster, and East Borough, known locally as Crooked Borough.

More important to me, however, was what isn’t there anymore. I lived at Leigh – pronounced locally as lie – in what was originally a pair of thatched cob cottages built in the 1780s. A century later, a second pair of brick cottages was tacked onto one side, and the roofs slated, so they escaped the scrutiny of developers who cleared all the other cob buildings on Leigh Common, deeming them unfit for human habitation. An elderly neighbour gave me a postcard of one of them, with milk churns outside and a cow in the lane. When the livestock market was held, drovers stopped overnight on the Common with their cattle – a scene that appears in the book.

One day I came across a stall selling old photographs of local views. My house featured in one of them, not because it was especially picturesque, but because it stood next door to a sprawling thatched inn, the Horse and Jockey. It was a vast and ancient place of dubious reputation, lying just outside the town boundaries. Records show that at one time the landlady lost her license for selling beer on a Sunday. I was told by one who did the work that in the 1930s gas supplies were fitted into chalets at the back of the inn, whose purpose was not to be mentioned in mixed company.  Digging in the garden, I turned up a gaming token which, from date and style, attested to illegal gambling there in the 18th century. There was the stub of a wall with a hinge where a gate had hung, which once led to the well at the back of the inn. The right of way remains, though the purpose is long gone.

At the time that I was writing, banks and mortgage companies were getting rid of bundles of old deeds – far too much paperwork for them to keep when everything was computerised. I asked for ours, and they made fascinating reading because the cottages had belonged to the inn which in turn had belonged to local nobility; and that fact meant that there was a huge amount of documentation. I found that before it was the Horse and Jockey, the inn had been called by other names, including The Flower Pot.

Putting the sound of the place– Leigh/lie – together with illegal gaming and a feminine name for the inn, I had the scene for part of my novel. The Stour plays its role, and I have adapted some areas to accommodate other (imaginary) houses, but it was the inn which started it all.

Wimborne – indeed, large parts of Dorset – had a history of smuggling, which is mentioned in the novel in relation to the inn and to the hero’s disreputable great uncle, whose house he is visiting. It’s part of the backstory, and may one day come into its own in another novel.
The town is still famous for its market, which has been held there since at least the 13th century.  I placed this in the centre of town, on the site of a medieval Market Hall, though at various times it had been moved out to the perimeter because of the noise and the nuisance.
I used the facts as I knew them, but it was the spirit of place that mattered most to me. I needed to be able to plant the characters against a real backdrop, and to give a flavour of the town as it would have been in 1817.

a typical Dorset thatched cottage

Places change: in the years since I left, the town has undergone something of a makeover, but it’s just one of many that have happened in the course of its history. For the purposes of the novel, there’s a glimpse of one moment in time; and that moment started right outside my own door, with a token found in the soil, and a picture of what used to be.

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Twitter  @LorSwob

21 March 2017


by Helen Hollick, with Anna Belfrage and Alison Morton
March is Women's History Month...

Anna Belfrage
Alison Morton
Author Anna Belfrage, during a recent online conversation, mentioned a thought about the real heroines behind the fictional heroines, another friend, Alison Morton had a joined the debate. I wondered if heroes should also be included, but March is Women’s History Month, so let’s stick to the ladies here. (We can spotlight the men another time to balance the books. Is that a bit of a pun?) In this instance, Anna was referring to the writer as the heroine - the author, the person tapping away at a keyboard or scribbling with a pen on paper (remember those?)

Anna and Helen at HNS Denver 2014
The fictional heroine usually goes through hell and back in a story, or at least some sort of trauma or disaster or romantic upheaval, or complication or… well, you get the picture. But what about the writer who is creating that character, that scene, that story? Is it a case of sitting down at a desk from 9-5 Monday to Friday, bashing out a few thousand words a day, Other Half supplying a cup of tea/coffee/wine/gin on the hour every hour? Those several thousand words flowing freely, the plot flashing along, scene after scene with no wavering? Novel finished well before the deadline date, a dutiful re-write, check for the occasional missed blooper, then off to the editor for a quick once-over?

Oh I wish!

The only bit of the above that is mildly true for me personally is the tea/coffee appearing a couple of times a day in between countless re-runs of Westerns on the TV which my husband watches with avid fascination, apparently completely unaware that he watched the same John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart et al movie the day before.

Meanwhile, I struggle during the dark, miserable, drizzly days of winter. Even the effort to get out of bed some dank, dark mornings is hard work for those of us who suffer from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affected Disorder – basically a desire to hibernate during winter.) To be creative, to find the words to write when I can’t even remember the cat’s name (I am not joking!) is hard work.

Then there is the research, particularly for historical fiction writers who need to know the facts of a period or event before they can even start writing chapter one. All genres need a certain amount of research, even fantasy and science fiction – possibly even more so, because to make the unbelievable believable the facts have to be correct, otherwise all the believability goes out the window.

For writers, meeting our new characters – male or female – is not always a walk in the park, although for me, I did meet my pirate hero, JesamiahAcorne, on a drizzly-day Dorset beach. Long story cut short: I was walking on the beach thinking up ideas for Sea Witch. Looked up and saw a vision of Jesamiah. Might have been my imagination, might have been a spirit from the past – no matter, I saw him. In full pirate regalia. And immediately fell in love.

Alison says hers have been swishing around in her head for decades ever since she trod on a Roman mosaic floor at age eleven. Firmly gripped by the Romans, she started wondering what the world would have been like if a tiny part of Rome had survived… The result is her thriller series, Roma Nova

As for Anna, she blames it all on her husband. It was all because of his family history, which involved fleeing Scotland in 1624 due to religious persecution. She started reading up on the 17th century and fell in love. (Why the 17th century? A declaration of love.) One day, Matthew Graham stepped out of her murky imagination and demanded she tell his story, which she has done, over several books in the Graham Saga..

Our characters get under our skin, into our hearts, minds, lives and very being. When it is time to finish the book, or a series – oh, the heartache of saying goodbye and letting them go! To create believable characters, to bring them alive, to make them look, feel, behave, sound real, to do real (even if they are impossibly over-the-top real) things takes dedication, skill, determination and courage.

Yes. Courage.

Writing can be a hard taskmaster. We slog away in our studies, corner of a room, spare-bedroom or wherever trying to get a paragraph – a sentence – right. We edit, re-edit and edit again and again. We spend hours writing a scene, then delete it because it isn’t good enough. I have deleted entire chapters. We wake up with our characters, walk, live, play, think of, go to bed with them (no not that sort of ‘go to bed’!) They are there with us 24/7 because if these fictional people are real to us, then they will become as real to our readers. In theory.

I am not being sexist here, but I do think women writers have a tougher time of it than do the men. Admitted I am talking in general, but many women writers already have a full-time job plus the responsibility of bringing up children and organising the family, at least this was so thirty years ago when I gave up the ‘hobby’ of scribbling my ideas and got on with attempting to do it properly with the end goal of being published in mind. Usually (OK not always) it is the woman who gets the kids off to school, does the housework, the shopping, the laundry,  goes to her own job, collects the kids from school, cooks the dinner, gets the kids to bed… We grab coffee breaks or the bliss of a quiet hour in the evening to get that next paragraph written. I’m not saying that the blokes in between work and chores also have to snatch those golden moments where they can sit and write, but I’d wager that many an established male writer wanders off to his study in the morning, saunters out at lunchtime, strolls back to his desk to emerge around six-ish to watch TV. Lunch, dinner, clean shirts and a tidy house happening via the Magic House Fairy. (Come on chaps - tell me I'm wrong!) 

At least, now, women writers can create our stories under our own name. How many of our great female writers from the past had to invent a male pseudonym to be heard let alone published? I think the term ‘heroine’ definitely applies to these brave and determined ladies of the past.

So why do we do it? Why do we spend hours doing this darn silly job of writing fiction? It’s not for the money that’s for sure. Very few writers outside the top-listers make enough to equal a suitable annual wage. So why?

Ever heard the answer to a question put to Sir Edmund Hilary when he had successfully climbed Everest in 1953? “Why did you want to climb it?”
His answer? “Because it’s there.”

Well, for us, for fiction authors, we write our words because they are not there

(Which is why I wrote Sea Witch - I couldn't find the book I wanted to read, so I wrote it myself.)

(IndieBRAG Honoree)
The Three Musketeers um, 'Authoreers'?
So who is your favourite, or respected, or even most disliked, female writer of historical fiction? Do you agree with some of what I’ve said above – or disagree? Voice your views below  and you could win a giveaway prize! Read on...

Order Alison's latest novel published April 2017
Alison Morton has written an excellent post on Seasonal Affected Disorder and how it effects writers in particular. Then Click here to go to her blog to read why she felt it was important that the main characters in her Roma Nova series of thrillers lived an egalitarian society.

And go to Anna’s Blog to meet Alex and Kit – her female heroines.

 Helen Hollick  www.helenhollick.net

Alison Morton go to her blog post
she says: 'To celebrate Women's History Month, and to show you what we actually produce, I'm giving away a signed paperback copy of my latest book, INSURRECTIO, featuring the ever brave (and ever fallible) Aurelia Mitela as she tries to battle the rising tide of a populist demagogue. Of course, the struggle is always personal as well as political.'

Buying link for Alison’s latest book INSURRECTIO (multiple retailers/formats)
or for all her books on Amazon

Anna Belfrage go to her blog post

To buy the books:

Giveaway CLOSED
the winner of one of my books was
Roland Clarke