history

There’s A Storm Coming: Writing Weather

Bank Holiday Monday and it’s brewing a storm. Visitors to this dramatic part of South-West England will be hunkering down on the beaches with BBQs and brollies. Others will escape into Bridport or Weymouth to explore the myriad shops and alleyways, restaurants and antiquities hidden there. Some will brave Portland Bill for a bit of wave-watching. This is where the Portland Race – a stretch of rough and treacherous water – helped the English fleet defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Despite the range of lighthouses on the rocky promontory the seas here are no less dangerous for the unwary. Tucked into the lee of the striking red and white striped Portland lighthouse, however, those who relish the thrill can watch the roiling seas in relative safety. Wind-lashed and chilled, it’s all but a quick dash across exposed grass to the warmth and comfort of the nearby cafe.

I’m not going anywhere today. I’m back in the C15th brewing a storm for my protagonist and her family. Consciously or not, I will write the storm into my story, a character in its own right.

All my life I have been fascinated by the changing moods of the weather.  It surrounds us, affecting everything from the clothes we wear to the language we speak. So, do you find the same? Does sea-mist or thunder, thick frost or deep snow inspire you? Make you want to write, paint, sing? Because I know that I could no more neglect the weather in my writing as I can the call of spring in my garden. Today, as the wind thrashes the trees outside, I’ll listen from the tranquility of my room. I’ll watch over the edge of my laptop as the tempest rages hoping, for everyone’s sake, that this one doesn’t make it into the history books. BBQ weather this isn’t.

Online Conference: The Battlefields Trust & the Medieval Battlefield

The Battlefields Trust is running an online conference on the Medieval battlefield. Interested in the arms and armour of the Wars of the Roses? This one might be for you. Visit for more details.  http://battlefieldstrust.com/event.asp?EventID=1142&fbclid=IwAR3E3X1ZnuLsWbN3XcLa3-oLxBPtTPFAulAz0BfqqaS0_-sPRJoZdYVR26I

 

Authentically You: Writing, Genre & Identity.

 

Understanding your writing, genre and identity is key to describing your latest book. In an interesting on-line discussion the other day, the question of self-identity came up. This was in relation to how we view ourselves in terms of being ‘human’ and our ‘gender’. This, in turn, had me thinking about something authors are frequently asked: Who do you write like? How does a writer categorise their book’s genre and identity? What makes them authentically you?

The question often stems from people wanting to get their heads around what you write. This gives them an idea of your genre  and whether your books are ones they might read. Fair enough.

For publishers, the question is more pragmatic and commercial: who is the target readership and on what shelf of the bookshop is your book going to sit? After all, a publisher wants to sell your books, so knowing the answer to both of the above is one step on the ladder to publication.

The answer to the question of genre is all your potential readers need to know. The question of how it reads is what they will find out when they pick up a copy of your book. You cannot write like anybody else; your style is authentically you.

The question therefore is twofold: What is your genre? and to whom will  your writing style appeal?

Asking a writer to identify the author whose books most closely resemble their own is more difficult than it first might seem. When originally asked the question I must have looked like a rabbit in the headlights. I honestly couldn’t say. It helped when my editor, quite unsolicited, described my style as being similar to P.D. James and, oddly enough, someone else said the same in an unrelated conversation. At least I could now come up with a name. But did it really represent  my books?

The second question, that of genre, also proved to be tricky to pin down – important if your book is being entered for awards. Nobody likes picking up a mug of tea only to discover it’s coffee instead. Getting the genre – or genres – of your book right is just as important. Classifying a romantic-mystery-suspense with a paranormal-and-historical twist is a bit of a mouthful. My publisher entered Mortal Fire in the Adult Romance catagory of the Book of the Year Awards. The genre didn’t quite cover all the bases, but Mortal Fire won GOLD nonetheless, so must have ticked at least some of the boxes.

The current series should be easier – a straightforward historical novel. Yes, but historical romance? Historical suspense? Historical blood-and-guts? A bit of all the above is the answer. You see the problem.

It’s not straightforward at all, so perhaps the other way to look at this classification issue is to ask people who have read the books. The following excerpts have been taken from reader reviews on Amazon for Mortal Fire:

Thoroughly recommend if you enjoy a bit of history, a touch of romance, mystery and maybe some crime too.’

‘Romance and mystery, a perfect combination in this page turner of a novel.’

‘The author conveys the sense of mystery and tension brilliantly. She has researched the 17th century very well.’

‘I was entranced by Moral Fire by CF Dunn. It brings together all my favourite themes: romance, murder-mystery-suspence, history and an elusive “extra” that has not been fully disclosed in this first book in a series… time travel?’

‘This book is both a thriller and romance with the undertones of Du Maurier’s Rebecca.’

 

There we have it. From the point of view of readers (and they are the ones that count), The Secret of the Journal series is a romantic mystery-suspense with a historical twist and might be found on the same shelf as Daphne Du Maurier.

So, how do you categorise your book – simply and succinctly – when someone (reader/agent/publisher/film producer) comes up to you at a party and asks that question? Seperating the question into two distinct parts makes it easier to answer:

Q. ‘Hi. I understand you are writing a book – what sort do you write?’

A. ‘Hi’ you say, quick as a flash and with a confident smile. ‘I write books of…

Q. Who do you write like?

A. I write like me, of course, you might secretly think, but seemlessly reply, ‘You will find me on the shelf next to…’  At which point the reader/agent/publisher declares an undying interest in everything you’ve written and you have a fan for life. No? Well, perhaps you’ve managed to tickle their curiosity and that’s the first step, but getting the pitch right? That’s entirely another road for a future post.

 

 

 

 

Rear Window: A Room With A View

From the rear window I can see the world outside changing. I’ve been laid up for the last five weeks with a plate holding my fibula together and my broken ankle pinned. It’s the last time I’ll be litter-picking on the coastal footpath for a while. Since that interesting episode in early March, winter has drifted into spring. In a normal year I would flow with it, planting and sowing according to the week and the weather, but my recent accident has taken me down another road. 

So, here I am, watching the tips of branches swell into tiny leaves of vivid green and glowing burgundy. Early prunus blossom has given way to blackthorn egg-white froth, and soon the ballerina-pink, double-flowered ornamental cherries will steal the show. Beyond the garden, I can see the Dorset hills greening under the persistent sun where, not long ago, brown-ribbed earth sported dots of white seagulls.

Snow, rain or milk-mist, the ever-changing landscape is a reminder of life’s fragile persistence. For me, writing without reference to the natural world would be to ignore the foundation of our existence. Whether now or a thousand years ago, the patterns of the seasons are tracked by our senses. Without conscious thought, tendrils of nature wind their way onto the page to anchor fiction in reality. Where would I rather be if being there meant not pausing to look, absorb, breathe? Here I am, trapped by circumstance, but free to see.

Illuminated by the roving sun or silhouetted by the moon, the scene encapsulated by my window never ceases to capture my imagination and my heart.

Following Breadcrumbs: Tracing Historical People

 

Tickhill Castle, print

 Sir Hugh Hastings, de jure 10th baron Hastings, (c1447 – 7th June, 1488) is one of those tantalising figures that populates C15th English history. We have scant information about the man and I have been unable to trace an image of him. The little we do have leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to notable people and events. We know he was knighted and acted as Sheriff of Yorkshire (1479 – 1480), and that he was also steward of Tickhill castle, near Doncaster, Yorkshire. This is where he enters my orbit of interest.

 
Elsing Hall, Norfolk, built C1470
Son of Sir John Hastings (of Elsing Hall, Norfolk) and Anne Morley, Hugh married Anne Gascoigne (before 12 April 1455). Together they had five sons and six daughters who survived long enough to be named and noted.
 
From the Patent Rolls we gain a little more insight:
On 20th June, 1482, Hugh made a will. Given the date this, presumably, was before leaving with the invasion force to Scotland under the leadership of Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
On 25 May, 1484, Richard of Gloucester – now Richard III – rewarded Hugh Hastings for his services against the rebels in Buckingham’s rebellion. He granted him ‘the manors of Wells, Warham, Sheringham, and Wiveton, Norfolk, worth £101 6s. 7d. a year, to hold, in tail male, by military service, at a rent of £8 16s. 7d. a year.’ (Complete Peerage) What role he played is unknown. 
 
Hugh survived the change of regime in 1485 long enough to die where he was born, in Fenwick, West Yorkshire, on 7th June, 1488.
If time were not an issue, if I had lifetimes to spend on research, it is people such as Hugh Hastings I might choose to study. Theirs is a voice seldom heard.
I am currently working on The Tarnished Crown trilogy, a historical suspense set during the turbulent years of the 15th century in the period we now call The Wars of the Roses. Blood will out.

Defining Character: Finding George.

George, Duke of Clarence C16th portrait

Ever wondered how writers come up with characters? Chatting with other authors it’s clear everyone has their own way of creating the people who populate their pages. The subject came up as I was telling them about watching Stranger Things 3 and spotted George. “George? Who’s George?” For anyone who has watched the delightfully quirky series, you will know that there isn’t a character called George. However, as an author, I’m always on the look out for people and faces that fit the characteristics of someone in my books. It helps me visualise them, allows me to create a more nuanced, rounded person just from the quirk of a brow, or the gritting of teeth. From that the imagination flows: why is he gritting his teeth? Does he have bruxis, a bad temper, or has just lost his favourite car in a poker game? Some people are easier to find than others. George isn’t one of them.

As the middle brother of Edward IV and Richard III who never made it to the throne, George, Duke of Clarence doesn’t get much of a look in. Not that much is known about him, and what is known is not particularly flattering. He comes across as a difficult, rather punchy individual, argumentative and edgy. No doubt there will be those who will wish to paint a more flattering picture, but I just don’t see it in what records we have from the period. Writing about him has its challenges, not least how to conjure a fully rounded personality out of very little.

It’s easier if the character isn’t real. Even then, they have to be created from nothing. It took me time to find someone with the physical characterisitcs of Matthew Lynes – one of the main characters in The Secret Of The Journal series – and here he is in the form of the late, lovely Paul Walker

But although Paul Walker was the physical personfication of Matthew Lynes,

he didn’t quite get to the heart of the man. For this, I use British actor Sam Claflin, who somehow manages to pack so much emotion into so little, giving the impression of depth and a hidden past. Perfect.

 

So, back to young George. And therein lies a problem: George Plantagenet was only twenty-eight years old when he died. He led an eventful, often violent, life, which needed to be reflected in his characterisation. Visulising him was difficult. I see him attractive, sometimes charismatic and sexy. He could be charming but also jealous and vengeful. He was impatient, exacting, fierce. He loved his children, but only on his own terms. He believed himself to be the man for the job and could be critical of his older brother’s leadership. Yet, in the early years, he was also known to be defensive of his younger brother, Richard before, that is, the boy became a man and challenged George’s sense of seniority. How, then, to create a visual impression of this complex individual who seemed so much older than he was? I’ll trawl through newspaper photographs, magazines, and watch films. I will take every opportunity to observe the everyday people around me in cafes and streets, shops and on walks. The hunt is on to find someone who captures the essence of the man.

 

Proof Is In The Reading: proofreading the new novel

I’ve spent the last few weeks holed up and proofreading. This is the last stage of preparing a novel for publication. It went through structural and copy edits and then to a professional proofreader and to me. This is my last opportunity to spot errors and make minor amendments. There are always some no matter how thoroughly I’ve editied it before. Sure enough I spotted an inadvertent  name blip, winced at the number of times I used ‘winced’, and noted armorial colours that mysteriously changed. That’s what proofreading is all about and I am thankful for the absolute professionalism of the team handling the production of my book.

Proofs for Wheel of Fortune are back with the editor. It’s now time for a thorough purge of my study before resuming editing the second book, Degrees of Affinity. How does so much detritus build up when I’m not looking?

To be fair this mountain was largely the result of boxes being deposited in my room. Accumulated over thirty years, this ‘stuff’ had to be sifted and sorted, trashed and filed one box at a time.

I’ve completed that task. Now I have a lifetime of books to go through, organise and get onto the shelves. First off are the numerous books on a variety of historical topics associated with research for The Tarnished Crown trilogy. Next come those collected in childhood – well-thumbed and with annotations and observations scrawled in a childish hand. The history books from  university are another load. The comments have matured, become somewhat pithy at times, and reflect a more searching mind. The stacks that have accumlated since are well-read but pristine. Notes are now made on slips of paper and secured within the pages. Many have been gifts from my family, always on the hunt for presents for Christmas and birthday. It is a time for reflection as I come across old favourites, and a time of preperation before I continue with the second book.

Restoration Game: Joys & Tribulations of Renovating

I’ve been taking time out from writing my latest historical mystery suspense to engage in a little house restoration. One of the joys and tribulations of living in an old house is what might turn up expectedly during renovation.

For the last week I’ve been engrossed in getting some work done in my study – not writing this time, but stripping (although the new book is coming on apace, I’m delighted to say).  I’ve been working on the Arts and Crafts window seat which crosses the entire width of the windows and was stained such a dark colour that it sucked all the light out of the room. 

It wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve seen too many over-restored houses to let that happen to this one. Too often woodwork that was supposed to have been painted from the start is stripped back to a naked surface and limed or left parched and bare. I agonised over what to do for the best and the question I asked myself was: is this an original finish to the Douglas fir and oak bench, or a later addition? A test strip painted a pale, neutral colour looked terrible, leaving me no other option than to take the plunge and remove layers of sludgy ‘mahogany’ varnish. 

The varnish turned out to be a modern polyurethane finish. Removing the varnish allowed not only the warmth of the wood to glow through, but also the strong grain – giving texture and depth. It also revealed that two oak panels had been replaced with…vinyl laminate flooring. Delightful. It worked, I suppose, when covered with gooy varnish, but stripped back looked exactly as it was – plastic. Carefully removing the laminate revealed the badly wormed oak panels. My helpful decorator supplied some oak sheet he had tucked away in his garage and that will be my next task – to cut two panels from it to replace the placky stuff. Then I’ll stain the fresh oak to match the 1900 wood, and use a beeswax and turpentine mix to unify the colours, feed the wood and give it some protection.

Even with this much done, the room feels lighter and more inviting and closer to the original finish desired by Edward Toronto Sturdy when he first commissioned the building. I’ll post some more photos when the job’s completed.