PENDRAGON’S BANNER

 

Three of my very favourite historical novels – The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy – were written by the talented Helen Hollick. In this post, Helen tells us how she became an author, and why she started writing about a legendary king many say never existed. JGH

WHY KING ARTHUR FOR HISTORICAL FICTION? 

HE’S ONLY A MYTH, ISN’T HE?

By Helen Hollick

A long while ago, in a public library far, far away . . . (The library was in a north-east London suburb, and it must have been the mid-1970s, so yes, a long time ago.) I’d started work as a library assistant, straight from leaving school aged 16. I’d told my school career interviewer that I wanted to be a journalist – I didn’t, I wanted to be an author, but I thought that authors were clever people who went to college and university, so I plumped for journalist. My education was somewhat poor and sketchy. This was in the days when the intelligent kids went to grammar school the rest of us were passed on to secondary level, with us girls expected to become shop assistants, hairdressers and housewives. We didn’t even do science until my second year, and even that was quite basic.  I did, however, have a very good English teacher, who must have seen some sort of potential in me because she often gave me extra help and advice with my essays. This careers talk was useless. “A journalist? Don’t be silly Helen, you can’t type!”

Nothing about whether my English was good enough, nothing about the fact that I was so shy I’d have made a hopeless journalist – and for the record, all these years later and about 20 books published, I still only use two fingers on a keyboard.

A job in the local library was suggested, thus, on 4th August, 1969, I found myself in South Chingford Library. I rather enjoyed it because of the access to all those books. I had been an outcast at school because I was always either reading or writing. I’d started scribbling stories when I was about twelve, pony stories because I desperately wanted a pony, so made up a fictional one.

By the time I was 18 I was attempting to write fantasy and science fiction, then one day I picked up a book called The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, about Merlin and the young King Arthur. Set in post-Roman Britain it is fantasy, but with a huge dose of believable reality. A cracking good story, but what inspired me was Ms Stewart’s author’s note where she explained that if Arthur had existed (I stress the if!) he would have been a war lord in the late 400s to early 500s, between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, a period of upheaval and chaos. If Arthur had been real, she went on to say, he would not have lived during the 12th-13th centuries, post-Norman Conquest Medieval knights in armour period, because if he had, there would be indisputable evidence to prove it. Nothing has ever been discovered.

This concept of a post-Roman setting intrigued me. Working in the library meant I had access to unlimited research books. I started studying 5th and 6th century Britain – and the matter of Arthur.

One thing I already knew: I had no liking whatsoever for the common Arthurian legends, all that galivanting off in search of the Holy Grail, Lancelot and Guinevere’s unfaithfulness. I realise, now, that I didn’t like these stories because they had no fact behind them, no link to historical reality. Whereas setting Arthur in the earlier period and cutting out all the Norman myth and propaganda left a possibility for something that verged on the plausible.

I searched for other Arthurian fiction: the rest of Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave/Hollow Hills series for a start, then Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful Roman-based novels. (Oh, if only I could write like Rosemary Sutcliff!)

I found The Mists of Avalon. The author Marion Zimmer Bradley has now been discredited for child abuse, which, in hindsight, might explain some of the uncomfortable content of her novel, but even so, this is the only book I have given up reading in utter exasperation. Her Guinevere was such a useless wimp. I threw the book across the room, exclaiming about her character: “Pull yourself together, you silly woman!”

Guinevere, I was certain should be a strong, feisty character, so I decided to abandon my attempts to write a science fiction novel and try something about Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, as I called her – the Welsh spelling.

I researched more of post-Roman Britian and the early history of the Anglo-Saxon/Jute migrations. I emersed myself in the non-fiction books by Geoffrey Ashe and in the end took ten years to write what eventually turned out to be the first two books of my trilogy. The Kingmaking and Pendragon’s Banner were accepted for publication by William Heinemann (now Random House UK) in April 1993, one week after my 40th birthday.

The Trilogy is historical fiction, I cannot claim fact, for a start it is unlikely that ‘Arthur’ ever existed, but I’ve drawn on plausible possibility. There might have been someone who was the idea behind the later, Norman Arthurian stories of courtly romance and the compulsion to join the religious Crusades. Geoffrey Ashe suggested a real chap – well documented – called Riothamus, which is a title meaning something like ‘Kingmost’, not a name. He left Greater Britain (‘England’) to fight in Less Britain (Brittany) and fell in battle somewhere near a Burgundian Roman settlement  – Avallon.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avallon.

Sound familiar?

I made my Arthur a British warlord, with several human-frailty faults, and a determination to fight hard to gain his rightful kingdom – and as hard to keep it.

The love of his life is Gwenhwyfar, the only daughter of Prince Cunedda of Gwynedd. She is everything that Marian Bradley’s Guinevere was not. Her relationship with Arthur is not always plain sailing, as with any strong-minded couple they have their quarrels, but they live for each other and have three sons – mentioned in the Welsh legends. Despite Arthur being unfaithful, she does not  have an affair with Lancelot, in fact he does not appear in my Trilogy. Nor any of the knights, apart from Cei and Bedwyr (who are also in the early Welsh legends).

I have no Holy Grail, no turreted castle of Camelot, no magic, no Merlin . . . Instead, I have told my version of the Arthurian legend as a story about  a boy who became a man, who became a king, who became the legend.

Find all Helen’s books on her Amazon Author Page or order from any good bookstore:

https://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick (universal link)

 

THE PENDRAGON’S BANNER TRILOGY

1) THE KINGMAKING new edition awarded a bronze medal by the Coffee Pot Book Club annual awards 2023

Amazon UK: https://mybook.to/TheKingmaking_Book1

Amazon USA/Canada: https://tinyurl.com/ys44vh49

2) PENDRAGON’S BANNER

3) SHADOW OF THE KING

ABOUT HELEN HOLLICK:

First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am the Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She has also branched out into the quick read novella, Cosy Mystery genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant.

Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of a Smuggler. She is currently writing about the ghosts of North Devon for Amberley Press.

Helen lives with her family in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon with three dogs and two cats, while on the farm there are four showjumper horses, three fat Exmoor ponies, an old Welsh pony, geese, ducks and  hens. And a few resident ghosts.

Website: https://helenhollick.net/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/helen.hollick

Blog: promoting good authors & good reads: https://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com/

Monthly newsletter: Thoughts from a Devonshire Farmhouse subscribe@helenhollick.co.uk 

 

Historical Stories of Exile

An Author in Exile

As many of my readers know, after travelling widely we finally settled down in southern Spain. Without knowing it beforehand, we moved into a locally renowned area for breeders of Pura Raza Español horses (known in UK and USA as Andalusians, I think). It was an ideal spot for me, but after the death of the last of our horses (at the ripe old age of 27), we decided the time had come to move nearer family and urban conveniences such as shops.

For my husband, this has been a return to his home province of Andalucía. For me, this (possibly) final-final move means accepting my voluntary exile as a ‘foreign wife’ is a permanent situation. My lifestyle has been more Latin than British for a long time now, but I still think of North Devon as home. Although to be honest I’m an exile in England these days as well: people do things differently there.

In my experience, being a voluntary exile is a combination of exciting new challenges, learning a language, buying new types of food etc, mixed with occasional bouts of irritation, annoyance and nostalgia. For a writer, however, it has certain advantages. Seeing one’s surroundings with an objective eye leads to a deeper awareness of both culture and the natural environment, which in Spain are closely connected. In the province of Madrid summers are very hot and winters are bitterly cold. As in many other provinces, there is barely a day of springtime or autumn as the year moves from one extreme to the other. So it is with many people: warm, close friendships, or the literally cold shoulder.

From the kitchen window of our new home, I can see the mauve-shaded Sierra de Málaga, where the Moors of Al-Ándalus harvested snow to keep medicines cool. On the other side of the house, beyond a set of hills, lies the now densely crowded Costa del Sol. A coastline once prey to the Barbary corsairs featured in The Chosen Man Trilogy and my current work-in-progress, The Doomsong Voyage. Away from tourist hot-spots, though, it is easy to drift into time travel: pretend there’s no road nearby or enter a small pueblo bar serving local wine or cider and it could be any century at all.

Before coming to Spain, I was living on the Ligurian coast of Italy – hence Ludo da Portovenere (the charismatic rogue of The Chosen Man Trilogy). The Genoese coastline creeps into Ludo’s narrative when, as an involuntary exile, he reminisces about his childhood.

On occasions I had to curb Ludo’s nostalgia to prevent his story becoming a travel brochure: Portovenere, or Porto Venere, is very picturesque. Once the site of a Roman temple to Venus, it was the perfect location to conclude Ludo’s wicked adventures in By Force of Circumstance. I know this because I wasn’t just visiting: I was living there, buying groceries, taking children to school, being part of Italian daily life. Unconsciously, or sub-consciously I was stashing away sights, sounds and anecdotes for future historical crime novels. Authors in exile notice how people behave and interact. We tuck away special moments and the kernels of raw stories like squirrels in autumn. This is how my contribution to the new anthology Historical Stories of Exile came about.

Many years ago, a dear friend told me how her Polish parents met and married in post-war London. Her grandmother had walked from Warsaw to the Bosphorus with two daughters, found a passage to Spain, then to London. It took them two whole years to find a safety – in a city being bombed every night. I thought at the time it merited a full-length novel, but as I have never been to Poland and lack even a basic grasp of the language I didn’t feel up to the task. Nonetheless, the family’s experience stayed in my mind and eventually formed the background to my Victory in Exile short story (details below). The narrative itself links into my WWII Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries series. It also includes elements told me by my Dutch neighbour when we were living in the Hague back in the ’90s. Ultimately, however, Victory in Exile reflects the current tragedy of innocent refugees trying to find a safe haven in a world at war.

I have never accepted the idea that a work of fiction can be reduced to its author’s life, but autobiographical moments do creep in, especially those related to the emotions. Here’s a scene from my first historical crime novel The Empress Emerald as an example. In the extract, a newly married, naïve Cornish girl arrives at her new family home in Jerez. It is 1920 in the story, what happens is a fictionalised version of my own arrival in Puerto Santa Maria in the 1980s.

The driver stopped the car outside two vast doors, blackened with age and reinforced with iron. They reminded Davina of an illustration in one of her big picture books: Bluebeard’s castle. As if by some sinister magic, a door swung open. Alfonso ushered her into a fern-infested patio. It smelt dank and uninviting. She looked up and around her. The patio was open to the sky, but on all four sides above there were windows. She sensed watching eyes and lowered her gaze.

The autobiographical element ends there. But my experience of being a voluntary exile obviously informs my writing. I know what it is like not to speak the language, not to share commonly acknowledged values; what it is like to be gaped at because your appearance or style doesn’t fit with the locals. I’ve been living in Spain, on and off, for years but people still ask me where I am from. I try not to bristle, and can’t help thinking about what being an involuntary exile must be like for those who can never go home.

 J.G. Harlond

Find the new short story anthology Historical Stories of Exile at: https://mybook.to/StoriesOfExile

If you enjoy action-adventure travel stories and historical fiction here are a couple recommendations for a thumping good read:

You can read about how my wicked hero Ludo da Portovenere creates mayhem in 17th Century Europe in three novels starting with The Chosen Man.

 

Each story is based on some surprising and lesser-known real events involving the Vatican and crowned heads of Europe during the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War. http://getbook.at/TheChosenMan

The Empress Emerald is available on:  https://mybook.to/p6ZMzs

 

 

Inspired by Location

Beyond the Fields We Know

‘Whatever I write, I start with the setting . . . ‘
How and why a writer can be inspired by a landscape or location by Marian L Thorpe, author of the Empire’s Legacy Trilogy.

One of my favourite walks is along part of a long-distance path that follows the route of a Roman road that probably follows an even older track. At its North Sea end, wooden henges stood. On either side of the section I walk most frequently, Bronze Age barrows rise from the fields. The ruins of Roman villas lie under the soil not far from it; the moot hill of the Saxon hundred it crosses is believed to be by its side. In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany described fairyland as lying ‘beyond the fields we know.’  I don’t write about fairyland, but I do write about a world that lies lightly on a palimpsest of our real, historic world.

Whatever I write, I start with the setting. Stories emerge from landscapes for me, and even when they are complete fiction their settings are strongly based on a real place. Whether it’s verse—the first work I had accepted for publication as an adult—or my short stories, or my novels, they are all rooted in and inseparable from the physical world in which they are set.

I had a rural childhood of the sort almost unimaginable today. I grew up over 50 years ago, roaming fields and woods and lanes on foot or on my bike, often alone. I watched the progression of wildflowers over the summer; I watched planting and harvest.

 

I learned to identify trees and birds and wildlife, and understand to some extent the landscape in which I lived and the forces, human and natural, that had shaped it. The theme of the first novel I ever began, at seventeen, is the relationship between a man and the land, the deep, hard-fought and hard-won connection between the two—and that’s still a theme in my Empire’s Legacy series.

The books I loved to read as a child were books that were firmly placed in their landscapes. Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; The Wind in the Willows. Puck of Pook’s Hill. Rosemary Sutcliffe, and many, many more. Books where landscape is a character, in a way. I also grew up in a family where history was important. It was discussed, my interest encouraged. My father’s love was Tudor/Plantagenet history; mine evolved into late classical/early medieval.

In my twenties and thirties my husband and I travelled as extensively as we could, not to cities but to the footpaths and trails of almost every country and county of the UK and throughout North America. I soaked up landscape, I soaked up history, and I fell deeply in love with the concept of landscape history. (Thanks, Time Team!) So when I began to write Empire’s Daughter, the first book in the Empire’s Legacy series, I started with a landscape: the coast of Anglesey. I saw it, and then I began to populate it with characters and a society.

The series isn’t set in the real world, but neither is it truly a fantasy world. There are no variations from the laws of physics or nature, only (barely) a fantasy geography. There are no fae or otherworldly creatures, only the flora and fauna of northern and central Europe.

Every place in the entire series has a real-life inspiration, and I’ve been to most of them. (If I haven’t, I’ve substituted a place I have been, in a similar ecological/geographic niche.)

The reasons for this are many, and varied. As someone who was, for a chunk of her life, a biological scientist, and has been for all her life an amateur field naturalist, I am annoyed beyond words with unreal worlds whose ecologies don’t work. So that’s one reason, but not the major one. The books are set in an analogue world, but it’s one that for many people will be both recognizable and familiar—and that was done on purpose. Because my books explore questions of societal and socio-sexual structures and expectations, because they are more concerned with questions of philosophy and morality and politics than battles, I didn’t want to add another layer of worldbuilding to the mix. It would have been a distraction, another thing for the reader to have to think about and absorb.

In the first two books my main character Lena never leaves the known world, one based entirely on the UK both geographically and historically. There’s a Wall, there’s a country north of the Wall, and these two countries are long-term enemies. The country north of the Wall has a province that sometimes belongs to them, and sometimes to the seafaring people from even further north. Even the battles are based on real ones: Stanford Bridge, the Battle of Maldon. For me, and for anyone who learned British history in any detail, this all should feel familiar – and that’s what I wanted: to place, in a familiar setting, a story that challenges a number of societal structures.

The third reason for the settings of my books is simple: I draw heavily on my own experiences in the descriptions of my characters’ interactions with their environments. I’ve been pelted by hailstones on a mountainside. I’ve slipped on scree; I’ve walked on dusty, arid plains, climbed up waterfalls (not quite as terrifying as the one Lena does), camped in the cold and wet and lived (albeit briefly) in primitive wooden huts.  It’s easier to write about real experiences than it is to make them up.

Mix the idea of a world that lies beyond the fields we know, add the discovered and undiscovered history that lies beneath the fields we know, throw in a strong seasoning of love for landscape and nature, a dash of the belief that we are shaped by the places we love, and bake that all in the mind of a writer—and you have the genesis of the world I created in Empire’s Legacy. © Marian L Thorpe 2023

Find out more about Marian L Thorpe’s books on: marianlthorpe.com

Many generations past, the great empire from the east left Lena’s country to its own defences. Now invasion threatens…and to save their land, women must learn the skills of war.

But in a world reminiscent of Britain after the fall of Rome, only men fight; women farm and fish. Lena’s choice to answer her leader’s call to arms separates her from her lover Maya, beginning her journey of exploration: a journey of body, mind and heart.

Read my review of Empire’s Daughter on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54687565-empire-s-daughter

Find Marian’s books on: https://books2read.com/marianlthorpe

 

 

Location, Location, Location – a library

 

A guest post by author Helen Hollick on using familiar and unfamiar settings in fiction

Setting in A Mistake of Murder 

The third Jan Christopher Cosy Mystery by Helen Hollick

They say ‘write what you know about’, which is all well and good, but as a writer of historical fiction and nautical adventure, I don’t know any Romano-British people, anyone who actually fought at the Battle of Hastings, nor any early eighteenth-century pirates.

Chingford Library, North London

I did, however, work in a North London suburb public library during the 1970s, so I chose this era and location as a background setting for my venture into the Cosy Mystery Genre.

A familiar location – the ‘where’ – is, in fact, probably more practical for a writer in the ‘what you know about’ stakes. Buildings, roads and such can change through the centuries, after a long while perhaps rivers too, but the general ‘lie of the land’ stays pretty much the same.

When writing my Arthurian Trilogy (back in the 1980s!) I went up to the top of Glastonbury Tor to study the view. The tower atop the Tor would not have been there in the fifth/sixth centuries, nor the roads or houses spread all around below, but the shape of the Tor itself – and the trudge up it – would not have altered that much. Nor would the apparent flatness of the Somerset levels or the distant surrounding hills. I could smell the grass, hear and feel the wind as it brushed my left cheek… all that was enough to give me the atmosphere I needed to bring those particular scenes alive.

The same with the sea. OK so I’ve never sailed on a pirate ship. In truth, I’ve never been aboard a moving tall ship. The largest sailboat I’ve been in was a small pleasure craft Mirror Dinghy. But I have been aboard a cruise liner, I have crossed various seas on modern ferries. The smell, sound and general feel of the sea really doesn’t change that much.

For the location of my library in Chingford, North London, I decided to use many of the real places and buildings that are either still there, or were, back in the ‘70s. The library itself is still there in Hall Lane, but alas, it is now offices, not a library. (The Council, shame on them, closed the library due to lack of money.) So the Old Church atop Chingford Mount features, as does the Odeon cinema – no longer there. The blue police telephone box was in Albert Crescent where the buses terminated. Those police boxes, so familiar to us all back then, which is why one was chosen as Dr Who’s TARDIS – even the early scriptwriters could not envision those police boxes would be superseded by mobile phones!

Another decision I made, however, was to change the names of any roads or locations where a murder would take place, (although the names I use instead are fairly similar to the real thing.) I made this choice because I didn’t want to offend or upset anyone living there today. To write about a fictional murder in XXXX Avenue, only to discover there really had been a murder there, I thought, could be a little insensitive.

Fiction is fiction, stories made up with the imaginative bits mixed in with the factual research detail. Using your knowledge of locations can bring that novel to vivid life.

Helen Hollick’s crime fiction (so far):

Jan Christopher #1 A Mirror Murder

Jan Christopher #2 A Mystery of Murder

Jan Christopher #3 A Mistake of Murder

In Book 3 There are a series of burglaries, and an elderly person is murdered. Can library assistant Jan Christopher help discover whether murder was a deliberate deed – or a tragic mistake?

 

January 1972. The Christmas and New Year holiday is over and it is time to go back to work. Newly engaged to Detective Sergeant Lawrence Walker, library assistant Jan Christopher is eager to show everyone her diamond ring, and goes off on her scheduled round to deliver library books to the housebound – some of whom she likes; some, she doesn’t. She encounters a cat in a cupboard, drinks several cups of tea… and loses her ring.

When two murders are committed, can Jan help her policeman uncle, DCI Toby Christopher and her fiancé, Laurie, discover whether murder was a deliberate deed – or a tragic mistake?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and Helen also writes a nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages.

In recent years, Helen has also branched out into the quick read ‘Cozy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s. The first in the series, A Mirror Murder, includes some of her, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant.

Helen’s non-fiction: Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler.

She lives with her family in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon where she occasionally gets time to write.

A Mistake of Murder by Helen Hollick available on Amazon or order from any bookstore. Paperback and e-book available.

https://mybook.to/MISTAKEofMURDER

 Helen’s Amazon author page: https://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick

Helen’s Website: https://helenhollick.net/

Subscribe to Helen’s Newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick

 

 

For debut historical crime writers

Secondary and Minor Characters in Historical Crime Fictional

Secondary and minor characters help to establish the main character’s personality and develop the storyline in any fiction genre. In historical crime fiction they are also a useful means of conveying information about the epoch and location. This means no matter how lowly your minor characters need to be more than walk-on players in costume. To achieve this, ensure they have identifiable personalities, strengths, foibles or flaws that readers can relate to, so what they say and do is more meaningful.

If you are using a secondary character to provide a motive for a crime or to show what happens to your protagonist(s), that person’s agenda needs to be evident. This means creating a biography or backstory for all your characters at the planning stage, and ensuring they reflect the lifestyle, morals or zeitgeist of the period. Fiction requires readers to suspend disbelief, to engage in another world, to fear for, empathise or sympathise with the protagonist, and this is where your supporting cast play an important role. They not only demonstrate what life was like then, they show what was considered right and wrong, and therefore why your hero is special and the villain so reprehensible.

Golden age crime writers often included the victim’s ill-treatment of relatives and servants to show what may have led to their death, and why there is more than one suspect. This required creating backstories for all the suspects and using those details to feed in clues but without deviating too far from the main thrust of the story. Readers want to know why someone turns a blind eye to the crime; why someone refuse to help the authorities; or why a neighbour, for example, fabricates evidence.

As to the villain – a crime story or thriller becomes a lot deeper when the kindness of strangers highlights the vicious nature of the baddie. Readers turn pages to in crime stories to see how the wicked get caught; they turn them faster in thrillers if they not only fear for the main character but also for the little people caught up in the drama. Very few people in real life are wholly good or bad, though. A fact skilful authors exploit to the maximum. Each suspect, be it cozy crime or a blood bath, should be capable of committing the crime given enough reason.

Whatever the epoch, minor characters’ upbringing and moral codes inform their actions, which can be included in well-chosen cameo scenes. The gentler side of the wrong-doer or the darker side of the victim or detective can be demonstrated by showing how they interact in these situations. Whether you use these scenes as red herrings to mislead readers or to emphasise clues as to who-dunnit, secondary characters should be interesting and complex, and minor characters there in the story for a specific reason. To be sure of this, create mini-biographies at the planning stage. Whether you actually use these backstories (very sparingly) or not, the fact that you have thought about why Milly won’t tell, why Old Tom is digging the master’s garden at eighty, or why a senior officer overlooks a terrible error of judgment, will enrich your tale and leaven the plot.

Here are two examples of how I have used a secondary and minor characters to establish a seventeenth-century anti-hero’s complex identity and to provide information on the setting and location of a twentieth century wartime murder mystery. Each scene is directly relevant to the plot and includes details on the historic background.

The first extract is from Book 1 of The Chosen Man Trilogy. It is 1635, charismatic Genoese merchant Ludovico da Portovenere (Ludo) is engaged in a conspiracy to inflate the tulip market in what became known as tulip fever. At this stage, readers are not sure whether Ludo is to be trusted, whether he’s a goodie or a baddie. How he handles his young Spanish servant Marcos here suggests he exploits people for his own ends. The dialogue also carries vital details about ‘tulipmania’.

Ludo’s lodgings, Amsterdam, 1635

Marcos rubbed at the heel of the shoe (he was cleaning) and without looking up, said, “Is it this selling that’s made you rich?”

“This selling? What selling? What are you saying boy?”

“It’s that I don’t exactly understand what you’re doing, sir.”

“And why do you need to understand? It’s none of your damned business. You only latched onto me as a means of finding your long-lost father, who you seem to have forgotten in the most unfilial manner.”

“That’s not true!” Marcos replied, hurt by the Italian’s tone. “It’s just that I want to learn and go back home with more than I came with – if I can’t find my father – and if what they say in the streets and taverns is true, that’s probably what’s going to happen. I want to go home rich.” He paused, regretting his words, “Richer than when I came,” he held up the shoe and turned it in the air for inspection, “so I was sort of wondering if perhaps you could let me have a loan, and I could buy some of what you have and sell it.”

“At a profit?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what I want to do – make a profit, like they talk about with these flowers. There’s hundreds of profit, they say, buying and selling your flowers.”

“‘Hundreds of profit’. Interesting concept. Are you going to embalm that piece of footwear or get my breakfast?”

“Oh, yes, sorry. There’s some bread from yesterday and some ham and some beer. Do you want some of that tea stuff?”

“That ‘tea stuff ’ is very expensive merchandise, show some respect.”

“Sorry. Do you?”

“Tea? No!”

Marcos busied himself in the kitchen area and picked up on the conversation he wanted to continue. “So, what I was thinking was ...”

“You want me to give you some bulbs so you can sell them and make hundreds of profit. And what will you give me in return?”

Marcos put a plate and a tankard down in front of the merchant and looked him in the eye, confused, “I don’t understand? What do I have to give you in return?”

Ludo sighed, looked at the warm, flat beer and settled back in his chair. “I think we had better begin with the basics of commerce. Cut me some of that bread and ham – but wash your hands first.”

(. . .) Marcos listened intently then said, “But why are these Dutchies buying things they’ve never seen and don’t need with money they haven’t got.”

“Explain,” said Ludo.

“Well, last night I was in the Red Cockerel and a lot of odd bods were sneaking into a room at the back, so I sneaked in too. They were having some sort of sale, but there were only a few of those plant things you’ve got in your case. The rest were signing bits of paper for flowers that didn’t exist. Least ways I didn’t see them, I s’pose they might be in people’s gardens.”

Ludo raised an eyebrow, “Well done. And how exactly did you follow these transactions? You said you had no Dutch.”

Marcos lifted one of his master boots and started to shine it with the linen towel. “Numbers are numbers, not difficult to guess. These are the softest boots I’ve ever touched.”

“And these men, who would you say they were?”

“Oh, that’s easy, butchers and bakers, they still had their aprons on. Some toffs as well. I followed one in like his servant. He didn’t notice. There were a couple of gents like the one you were with a few days ago. The man that owns the Cockerel was running the show. They have a special code for when they go into the room – they go ‘cock-a-doodle-do’. Sounds really stupid. I bet if you want to do business in the Golden Lion you have to go ‘grrrrr’.”

Ludo sat and stared at the boy for a moment then said, “The answer is ‘yes’. I will let you have a loan and some goods at rock bottom prices – and you are going to make us hundreds of profit with a cock-a-doodle-do.” Then he got up and went into his room to wash, saying, “And in the meantime I’m going to make thousands of profit with numbers on bits of paper.”


There is a hint here that Ludo is not all bad; he is trying to help Marcos improve his status or at least educate him. From this point on, I wanted readers to have personal opinions on what Ludo is doing and why, for them to be more actively engaged in his wrong-doing and, later, fear for him when he tries to escape his evil antagonist. I was also using a secondary character to show how and why ordinary men and women traded tulip bulbs at outrageous prices, and how some (including the feisty heroine of the story) fell victim to Ludo’s wicked charm, and suffered for it.

The second scene comes from my new Bob Robbins Home Front Mystery, Courting Danger (to be released March, 2021 – this is the working cover only). Here, I am using two minor characters to tell readers about two suspects in a murder enquiry, and show how the wartime restrictions were affecting ordinary people.

Cornwall, England, 1943.

Shem Placket and his wife Violet were obliged to vacate their farmhouse home when the local landowner Charles Kittoe and his sophisticated wife moved to Cornwall during the blitz. The Kittoes have now left. Shem and Violet are discussing how this affects them, and whether the Kittoes are involved in the death of a local young doctor.

“They expect too much of you.” Mrs Placket tipped fluffy white potatoes into a dish and slapped on bright yellow butter.

“It works to our favour, my dear. Gives us more peace than most farm managers get.”

“Do you think we ought to say something?” Mrs Placket asked, removing her pinny before they sat down to eat.

“Say something about what? This smells good, Violet, where’s the meat?”

“Seek and ye shall find.” Violet ladled gravy over three types of root vegetable. “What I’m saying is, should we tell that police detective what we know?”

“If he comes asking, I might mention something. We don’t want to risk our place here, though, do we? Not at our age. You’ll have that fancy big kitchen to cook in again now.”

“Nothing wrong with the old range. Got to learn all new-fangled gas timings and settings and Lor’ knows what.”

Shem Placket looked at his wife: she had been pretty, once upon a time. “No point rockin’ the boat. They might let us have this cottage when I retire. No, if the police come knocking, I’ll tell what needs to be said. If they ask. Nothing more.”

Violet Placket met her husband’s eye, “But you know what’s happenin’ up in that cave.”

“I don’t for sure, Violet. Not for certain. But you know me: I speak when spoken to, and not before.”

“They could be taking pills or magic potions and acting out old rituals then lying spark out in the dark like they said they did when we were young’uns.”

“Far as I know it wasn’t breaking the law then, and if that’s still going on – well, it b’aint killed anyone yet.”

“It might have killed that young doctor. Why didn’t you tell me it was him in the pool?”

“Didn’t know it was. Don’t know as I’ve ever met the boy face to face. And we don’t know he was up to no good in that ol’ cave neither.”

“He spent enough time with Mrs Kittoe . . .”

Shem raised a calloused, warning hand. “That is enough, wife. If they ask . . .” he removed a woody stalk from between his front teeth, “you can tell them about Mrs K and her carryings on, but keep Mr Kittoe out of it or we’ll be looking for a shed to live in. If anyone’s been up to no good it’s her, in my opinion.” Despite his need to protect his family, Shem had a very Wesleyan attitude to life. “You understand what I’m saying?”
The trick in historical crime writing is to maximise the use of secondary and minor characters to provide information on the epoch and details on the crime(s).

Whether you are at the planning stage or into your first draft, write out a cast list and make a note next to each name to say what that character brings to the story.

 

Remember, in e.books it is harder to turn back to remind yourself who’s who, so make sure each person in your story is memorable and there for a reason.

Enjoy your writing! JGH

 

Writing ‘Private Lives’

As my readers know, I write fiction set in the 17th Century and World War Two. I enjoy the hard work that goes into writing about both epochs, but my new story set in 1942 has been something of a challenge. Finding the right tone, the right wording for sinister content with a touch of humour and moments of genuine sadness has required multiple drafts.

On the surface, writing a (relatively) cosy crime should have been easier than writing about a wily Genoese secret agent in The Chosen Man Trilogy, for example, but it wasn’t. Ludo da Portovenere’s skulduggery in Europe and India during the 1600s is all based on documented history. Each book includes researched data, plus a few lesser known historical details such as what happened to some of the most valuable Crown Jewels during the English Civil War. But this happened centuries ago, which gives me a degree of poetic licence. Give Ludo an inch and he takes a mile.

What happens to Bob Robbins in Devon and Cornwall during the nineteen-forties, however, is much closer to home and draws on personal memory, which muddies the waters. Not that I lived through the Second World War: I’m not that old! The background to Local Resistance and Private Lives, though, rests to an extent on my parents’ and grand-parents’ anecdotes and life-style.

In my mind’s eye, while I am writing, I can see what is happening in those days: the hand-knitted cardigans and walnut-laminated wireless sets, wooden draining boards and rolled newspapers fanning flames out of a few bits of coal. I was a post-war baby, born while the war and food rationing were a recent memory. Little was said in my hearing about the war itself, but the Home Front was much discussed. Tales about how goods fell off the back of a lorry, reminders to wear something white at night (to avoid getting run over in the black-out), to make do and mend; anecdotes about fire-watch duties and local dances . . .  These must have settled into the back of my mind unbidden the way Abba song lyrics do.

Nobody belittled the difficulties they endured; life was dangerous and unpredictable even in rural areas, where a random bomber might dump unused bombs on the way back to base. This happened. I remember distinctly being told about a primary school where the only child to survive had been at home in bed with a sore throat.

People were stoic, but not passé, although a survey conducted in London in November 1940 revealed only 40% of the population went into air-raid shelters on a regular basis. Most Londoners preferred to risk sudden death in their own beds – until bombing was so intense underground Tube stations became the only place of safety. Down in the south west of England, the inhabitants of Plymouth, an important naval base, pushed blankets and thermos flasks into babies’ prams or garden wheel-barrows and trekked out of the city to sleep under the stars on Dartmoor. It must have been exhausting.

In Britain and Ireland, there was the added, critical risk of imminent invasion. It had happened in Poland and the Channel Islands, it could happen in Britain. The detail about the German U-boat surfacing off the Cornish coast to take on fresh water in Local Resistance was taken from a German sailor’s account. I didn’t invent that.

My fiction, as I said earlier, relies a good deal on stories overheard as a child. It is also influenced by my M.A. dissertation on Social and Political Thought during World War Two, focusing on the implicit propaganda in popular films and wireless programmes such as the mad-cap comedy ITMA, which made fun of just about everything and everyone. The Ministry of Information turned ‘ordinary people’ into heroes and role models, and with good reason – they were.

All this, family anecdotes, academic research, and a particularly English brand of humour has slipped into my Home Front mysteries.

How a Cornish fishing village uses its ancient smuggling tradition to evade rationing while preparing to defend their country when ‘Jerry’ landed forms the background to Local Resistance; how people as diverse as Land Army girls and cosmopolitan actors coped three years into the war underlies the shenanigans and criminal activities in Private Lives.  

Being in action on ‘the Front’ was obviously perilous, but how life went on in unoccupied Britain, how people coped in the face of incessant difficulties and dangers required its own form of bravery, which deserves to be celebrated.

©J.G. Harlond

Read the opening chapter of Private Lives here.

Private Lives is available on Amazon.

Read about ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ in Local Resistance: http://getbook.at/LocalResistance

Find out more about my books on: www.jgharlond.com

 

A Place in History – Fiesole, Italy

Fiesole as Setting for The Contessa’s Easel

by Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

The late novelist Henry James once wrote, “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” How insightful his words have been and are for writers who bring their imagined characters to life in geographical settings replete with recorded histories, both societal and individual.

Fiesole, Italy, a picturesque, much-visited, and perpetually-storied Tuscan hill town five kilometers northeast of Florence, offers authors records, artifacts, ruins, architecture, gardens, and artworks prolific enough to ensure careers-long historical contexts. Giovanni Boccaccio set The Decameron here, E. M. Forster A Room with a View. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Hermann Hesse’s Peter Camenzind, and James’ own Italian Hours feature the evocative location in their pages.

When I first visited Fiesole with my husband during the summer of 2002, I was smitten. With its ancient Etruscan walls, Roman baths and amphitheater, fourteenth-century town hall, the Monastery of San Francesco, several churches, the novice home of Fra Angelico in San Domenico, the town offered historical narratives at every turn. Villa Le Balze (Georgetown University’s study-abroad campus), Villa Sparta (former residence of the Greek royal family), and numerous other distinguished domiciles each offered detailed accounts about their inhabitants, visitors, interlopers, intimates, and detractors. Living in and near the town for periods of time over the course of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries have been: French writer Marcel Proust, American art historian Bernard Berenson, German painter Paul Klee, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The town is known as the most affluent suburb of Florence.

Since our initial visit, my husband and I have returned to Fiesole often, sometimes as a couple, other times with student groups we have sponsored. Our most recent trip, in July of 2018, was to conduct research for my fifth novel, its working title The Contessa’s Easel, the anticipated third in a quartet of the Orla Paints Series. While Orla’s Canvas (Penmore Press, 2015), the first novel in the series, and Painting Mercy (Penmore Press, 2018), the second, make frequent and direct references to Fiesole and the fictional Contessa Beatrice D’Annunzio’s villa-turned-orphanage during World War II, The Contessa’s Easel will call Fiesole home, with the main action of the novel taking place there.

Plenty of history contextualizes and informs the narrative, as the action alternates between the novel’s present, the summer of 1989, and its past, the summer of 1944. The raison d’etre for the conflation of the two historical periods is Fiesole’s forty-fifth-anniversary celebration of its liberation from the Nazis (who had seized and occupied Villa Le Balze because of its comprehensive view of Florence below). Among the celebratory events is protagonist and recognized American painter Orla Castleberry’s art exhibition, featuring portraits of Fiesolani in the novel’s present. The same locals had been photographed during the Nazi occupation of the town. The photographs, made available by the Contessa to Orla’s lifelong confidant, attorney and history aficionado Tad Charbonneau, become the primary sources for Tad’s debut history book, The Orphans of Fiesole. In turn, the photographs inspire Orla to seek out Fiesolani who, almost a half-century since World War II interrupted and altered their lives, still live locally. While the 1944 photographs tell their subjects’ stories in medias res, as it were, Orla’s paintings render their personal histories via their faces and bodies interpreted by a painter’s brush. My research in Fiesole revealed a number of actual archived photographs that afforded me the opportunity to inform my own fiction.

In the layering of one historical period over another that occurs through time, 1989 Fiesole found itself responding to the global AIDS crisis. Although AIDS arrived in Italy during the early 1980s, the Ministry of Health, led by Carlo Donat-Cattin, had refused to initiate public education programs even as late as 1988. Not until mid-1989, with the arrival of Donat-Cattin’s successor, Francesco DeLorenzo, did informative television commercials and public education initiatives take hold. Just as Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century pilgrims had fled Florence and the plague for the hills and fresh air of Fiesole, some afflicted and dying of the more recent “plague” also find their way to the Contessa’s villa. Orphanage transforms to hospice. Past function is re-purposed by present need. Several German and Italian and American characters meet, brought together by an epidemic threatening all. Former alliances and misalliances are re-introduced and re-construed in yet another historical context fraught with fear, uncertainty, and imminent mortality.

Also illustrative of historical layering is the Hotel Villa Aurora, just steps from the bus stop in Piazza Mino. Recently closed, the hotel was still in 2018 housing visitors to Fiesole.

Its garden terrace, its contemporary basement bar, and its convenience to Fiesole’s sites made it a stopping place for many. Even as I researched at the hotel last July, I was hard-pressed to imagine the barroom as the prison it had once been for the ragazzi, young men rounded up by the Nazis and doomed to die unless and until the three police officers, the carabinieri, who came to be known and honored as “the martyrs of Fiesole”, came out of hiding in the ruins. The three, a trio of partisans amidst a region of fellow partisans, had carried out acts of resistance for months. Hearing of their fellow Fiesolani’s peril, they did emerge from the shadows. They were shot on the terrace the evening of August 12, 1944 (ironically, after the Allied Forces had already liberated Florence on August 11). Today visitors can honor them on a self-guided walking tour in Fiesole. They are: Vittorio Marandola, Alberto LaRocca, and Fulvio Sbarretti. All were in their twenties.

Just as past merges into present with the historical martyrs’ lives and the monument to those lives, several past relationships in The Contessa’s Easel also develop into present ones. Those relationships, too, are altered by the unrelenting passage of time, vast political changes, as well as town, family, and individual secrets exposed and contradicted. No character is exempt from surprises–some painful, some joyous, all revelatory.  Every character must re-assess and re-consider what they knew or thought they knew in 1944, what they know or think they know in 1989. The inevitable and irrefutable corollary, of course, follows as a question: What is the relationship between the historical record and a human being’s experienced life? This is the question The Contessa’s Easel explores.

The late American novelist, E. L. Doctorow once wrote, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”

My goal in The Contessa’s Easel is to invite readers to feel vicariously in a brick and mortar context, a context verifiable by the historical record; to explore the “blur,” the moment when a character’s particular life intersects with social history; and to vivify and render kinetic an imagined place that becomes—at least for the time readers visit it—as real as any historical one. In this case, as real as Fiesole.

About the author

Mary Donnarumma Sharnick is the author of the National Federation of Press women prize-winning novels, Orla’s Canvas and Painting Mercy, both published by Penmore Press. Her previous two novels, Thirst and Plagued, both set in Renaissance Venice, were published by Fireship Press. Thirst is being adapted for the operatic stage by composer Gerard Chiusano and librettists Robert Cutrofello and Mary Chiusano. Mary teaches at FlexSchool, New Haven, Connecticut, and offers a range of writing services to individuals, groups, and schools. She and her husband lead custom-designed tours to Italy, the country Mary considers her second home.

You can find out more about Mary on:

www.marysharnick.com

www.penmorepress.com

Twitter: @marysharnick

Facebook:@authormarydonnarummasharnick

A Place in History – Scotland

A Sense of Place

Scottish author Marie Macpherson explains how her native county of East Lothian provided the foundations for a trilogy.

 

 

 

Hailes Castle

 

The mist-covered mountains of the Scottish Highlands may have cast a spell over many romantic novelists, but my heart lies in the Central Lowlands where most of Scotland’s political struggles and bloody conflicts took place. The early 16th century during the turbulent period of the Reformation and the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, has inspired my trilogy based on the life of the Reformer, John Knox.

The rich history of my birthplace has fascinated me, not surprising perhaps, since I was brought up on a battlefield – the Battle of Pinkie fought in 1547 (we lost) – and within sight of Fa’side Castle from where Mary Stewart set off for her last confrontation as Queen of Scots at Carberry Hill (she lost). Digging in the back garden became an archaeological excavation to find buried treasure or the bones of slain soldiers. Other blood-soaked battlefields were within easy reach; Prestonpans (we won), Dunbar (we lost, twice), Athelstaneford, birthplace of the Scottish flag, the Saltire (we won). There’s hardly an inch of turf in the Lothians untrodden by a marauding army and hardly a castle or stately home that is not haunted by a ghost. This instilled in me a strong sense of the past and urged me to explore more deeply the stirring history of my native county. Writing fiction gives my imagination free rein as I attempt to conjure up what life was like for the inhabitants of those now ruined castles and deserted abbeys. Exploring the personal relationships and often hidden motivations of historical characters drive my curiosity.

My journey started off with a very small step, almost a footnote in history, The Treaty of Haddington signed in 1548 which betrothed Mary, Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin and this intrigued me. Several sources mention that this significant event took place at the abbey and for years this was assumed t to be St Mary’s Collegiate Church as there was no abbey in Haddington – except there was – or had been. Sadly, St Mary’s Cistercian Priory, a victim of the Reformation, had been erased from history and memory for centuries. Only a few stones and place names – Abbey Mill, the Abbey Bridge – recorded its existence. Yet, as I discovered, this long-lost priory had been one of the wealthiest religious houses in Britain, presided over by some very unorthodox prioresses, including Elisabeth Hepburn, the reluctant nun, who became my heroine.

Another nugget I unearthed concerned the playwright and makar, Sir David Lindsay, who wrote a scathing satire on the corrupt Roman Catholic clergy. He had been exiled to his estate at Garleton Castle, near Haddington, now a forgotten ruin set amidst farm buildings. Speculating that the fates of the poet and the prioress might be intertwined became the starting point of The First Blast of the Trumpet.

Digital StillCamera

The historic town of Haddington was also the birthplace of another religious figure, the fiery Reformer, John Knox. Because he called himself Giffordiensis, it was assumed he was born in Gifford, a village that did not exist at the time: he was more likely to have been born in Gifford Gate, Haddington.

 

 

There was also confusion about his birthdate. 1505 is inscribed on the commemorative plaque beside the oak tree planted by the great Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, whereas Knox was probably born around 1513/14. After studying at St Andrews, he returned to Haddington to serve as a Roman Catholic priest and notary. He was ‘pulled from the puddle of papistry’ by the charismatic preacher, George Wishart, who was arrested in St Mary’s Church, despite Knox standing at the foot of the pulpit bearing a two-handed sword to defend him. While Wishart was taken to St Andrews and burnt at the stake, Knox was arrested as a heretic and sentenced to toil for 19 months in the French galleys. Which fate was worse? Knox’s survival from certain death convinced him that God had intervened to save him to become His divine messenger. The First Blast of the Trumpet ends after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington when Queen Mary sails off to France in a galley, possibly rowed by the slave John Knox.

Hailes Castle sets the scene for opening of The First Blast of the Trumpet.

At midnight on a doom-laden Hallowe’en three young lasses sit round the hearth in the West Tower, gazing into the flames trying to divine their future. From this fortress perched high on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the River Tyne, accessible only by a narrow farm track, the powerful Hepburn family, the Earls of Bothwell, controlled the lands of East Lothian. Though now a ruin, this hidden gem retains many features still recognisable enough to fire the novelist’s imagination. In the Great Hall, the earls would host grand banquets prepared in the vaulted kitchen underneath where scullions would turn spits over huge fires; children would scamper up and down the turnpike staircases of the three towers, and prisoners would languish in the two pit prisons or oubliettes – one of which is said to have contained George Wishart after his arrest. What must it have been like to have been lowered down into a pit and left in complete darkness on a freezing winter’s night?

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, brought Mary, Queen of Scots to Hailes at least twice – if not three times. Firstly, when he abducted her after the murder of her husband Darnley, secondly on their way to Edinburgh to be married and possibly a third time before the stand-off at Carberry Hill where she surrendered to the Confederate lords and he fled into exile.

No self-respecting Scottish castle is without a ghost and Hailes is said to have at least two. The spirit of a man who starved to death in the pit prison because he had fallen in love with the laird’s wife, and a White Lady, said to be Mary, Queen of Scots, reputedly haunt the castle. Although local people claim to have sighted these spirits, I’ve still to experience any ghostly presence. However, wandering about the jagged ruins does send shivers up my spine. If only those stone walls could talk.

The Second Blast of the Trumpet follows the release of Knox into exile, firstly in England and then to Calvin’s Geneva, Frankfurt and Dieppe. Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Prioress Elisabeth Hepburn stands by the Regent, Queen Marie de Guise, in her struggle to hold the throne for her daughter against the oncoming tide of Reformation, led by the Protestant Lords of the Congregation. As they travel round the various royal residences, I try to give a flavour of what life was like in a Renaissance palace such as Falkland or Holyrood, or a fortified castle like Stirling or Edinburgh (none of which were a rocky grotto or bat cave as portrayed in the recent film!).

I’m working on the third part of the trilogy, The Last Blast of the Trumpet, which takes place mainly in Edinburgh where I lived for a time as a student and which has a special place in my heart. The medieval Old Town of Auld Reekie, a labyrinth of cobbled streets, narrow wynds and hidden courtyards, is amazingly well preserved and positively reeks of history, although the steaming midden heaps have long gone. John Knox House, where the reformer lived for a short time before his death, retains many medieval features. The dark oak panelling and painted ceilings make it particularly atmospheric, transporting me back in time to see Knox at his desk writing his fire-breathing sermons to be thundered from the pulpit in St Giles’ Kirk. Every stone and cobble from Edinburgh Castle down the spine of the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace has witnessed conflict and chaos, corruption and cruelty through the centuries. I consider myself very fortunate to have all this history on my doorstep to inspire me as I strive to breathe life into Scotland’s rich past.

About Marie Macpherson

Marie Macpherson hails from from the historic town of Musselburgh, six miles from the Scottish capital Edinburgh, but left the Honest Toun to study Russian at Strathclyde University. She spent a year in the former Soviet Union to research her PhD thesis on the 19th century Russian writer, Mikhail Lermontov, said to be descended from the poet and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.

 

After a career teaching languages and literature from Moscow to Madrid, she has found her niche in writing historical fiction which combines her academic’s love of research with a passion for storytelling.

The First Blast of the Trumpet and The Second Blast of the Trumpet are published by Penmore Press. She’s currently working on the third part of the trilogy, The Last Blast of the Trumpet.

Connect with Marie on:

Penmore Press Page: https://www.penmorepress.com/penmore_authors_/marie-macpherson.html

https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B007WAY5NE?_encoding=UTF8&redirectedFromKindleDbs=true&ref_=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1&rfkd=1&shoppingPortalEnabled=true

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5404227.Marie_Macpherson

WordPress: https://mariemacpherson.wordpress.com/about/

Twitter: @MGMacpherson

Facebook author page: Marie Macpherson

https://www.facebook.com/marie.macpherson.96

Watch the mini-documentary on YouTube:
John Knox and the Birth of the Scottish Reformation:  http://youtu.be/40PV0rll6dw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing fiction using historical fact

Secret Agents, Tulips, and the English Crown Jewels

The real history behind The Chosen Man Trilogy

Some authors are irritated by the question ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ but I see it as perfectly valid. Knowing the genesis of a good story can deepen its enjoyment or appreciation. In my case, however, it’s rather chicken and egg. Which came first, the idea for The Chosen Man and what became a trilogy, or the ideas generated out of the research? Historical fiction authors can probably relate to this; they may also agree that while research can take you down fascinating rabbit holes, some of the best bits have to be left out because readers almost certainly won’t believe it. This is what happened when I started gathering material about the first financial bubble known as tulipmania or tulip fever and Vatican secret agents for The Chosen Man. All of which was fascinating, but in many respects almost beggared belief.

But where did the idea come from? Well, the story began with a combination of events, one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele, a British National Trust property on the River Tamar in Cornwall and the model for the fictional house ‘Crimphele’ in my first novel. Wandering around the house mentally preparing the sequel to The Empress Emerald (set early 20th Century), I was beset by characters living in the 17th Century. To start with, the evil-minded McNab walked out of a wall, crossed the Great Hall and disappeared, then re-appeared later crossing the courtyard. He made my skin crawl, but he was not to be ignored. The portrait of a Stuart harridan gave me the unpleasant mother-in-law, and then to top it all, while I was gazing down at the Tamar Estuary from the roof of the Tudor tower I ‘saw’ Ludo da Portovenere arrive on a boat – much as he does at the end of the first book in the trilogy. So, I went home, set aside my original notes and started a new book entirely.

The story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA and I was reminded of the Dutch tulip bubble. During the 1630s in the Netherlands, or the United Provinces as the country was known then, tulip bulbs were worth more than their weight in gold. A virus which attacked the bulbs resulted in exotic stripes or ‘flames’ on petals, and a single rare bulb could cost three times the annual wage of a skilled artisan or even the price of an elegant house in Amsterdam. This was a period of intense political and religious intrigue in Europe. Spain was heavily involved in the Thirty Years War to regain Flanders; Pope Urban VIII was outwardly supporting Spain while conspiring to limit the size and power of the Holy Roman Empire, to which Habsburg Spain belonged; and France was playing both sides against the middle, harrying Spanish ships and playing double games with Rome. Having lived in the Netherlands I was well acquainted with the tulipmania, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo might be employed as an agent provocateur in a conspiracy to undermine the burgeoning Protestant Dutch economy. Charismatic, wily Ludo is fictional, but he serves to show how just one man can create financial mayhem and ruin the lives of humble men and women in the process. Acting on behalf of the Spanish monarch and a Vatican cardinal, Ludo encourages and facilitates speculation on tulip bulbs.

The conspiracy theory behind Ludo’s actions is unproven, but the tulip bubble was very well documented at the time. Contemporary reports and records of sales transactions demonstrate the outrageous escalating prices paid up to 1637, when the bubble burst.

The question is why did otherwise sober, thrifty Dutch men and women engage in what was basically gambling with flowers that for most of the year could not even be seen? The answer lies in a combination of factors overshadowed by the knowledge that Death was quite literally on their doorstep.

Amsterdam in 1635 was a thriving city driven by what we call the ‘work ethic’. Frippery and ostentation were frowned upon, so what could people who by their very thrift have acquired surplus income spend their money on? It had to be something that was not a visible luxury. Some people became patrons to up and coming artists, some became tulip connoisseurs. These exotic flowers, introduced into Holland from the land of the infidel, were defined as a ‘connoisseur item’ and were named after famous admirals and towns, and coveted. Within no time, otherwise sensible men and women began gambling on bulbs doubling or tripling their value in the space of a year, a month, a week – by 1636 prices were going up by the day. Men of both the professional and artisan classes, and many women, were spending their entire savings on bulbs, because money must not lie idle, and plague could kill an entire family in the space of one day.

One pamphlet of the time recorded the items and their value which were traded for a single Viceroy bulb. As you read, bear in mind the family of a shoemaker or baker lived on between 250 and 350 guilders* a year.

Item Value
(florins*)
Two lasts of wheat 448
Four lasts of rye 558
Four fat oxen 480
Eight fat swine 240
Twelve fat sheep 120
Two hogsheads of wine 70
Four casks of beer 32
Two tons of butter 192
A complete bed 100
A suit of clothes 80
A silver drinking cup 60
Total 2,500

(Guilders and florins* – the name of the currency used at this time varied from province to province. I opted to use guilders because it is the modern word for the currency.)

At its height, in the early spring of 1637, a Dutch merchant paid 6,650 guilders for a dozen tulip bulbs. Artisans pawned or sold their tools to ‘invest’ – largely thanks to Ludo da Portovenere, who brings bulbs from Constantinople then facilitates a futures market so humble men and women can participate in the fun. Ludo had access to the forbidden city because he was once a Barbary corsair and speaks the language.

As the trilogy progresses, Ludo gradually reveals his identity, or lack of it. His mother, a Doria, daughter of the Doge of Genoa, was captured by corsairs. Ludo was born in the Berber stronghold of Salé and raised by Murat Reïs, a renegade Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who went into history as the infamous Murat Reïs the Younger, illustrious ancestor of the American Vanderbilt family, Jackie Onassis and Sir Winston Churchill.

In Book 2, A Turning Wind, Ludo moves into the Portuguese Goan spice trade, but he is still pursued by the Vatican agent, Rogelio, who must destroy any evidence of the tulip conspiracy. Rogelio is part of the Vatican Black Order, sinister operatives and secret agents tasked with eliminating those who oppose or threaten the power of Rome. Here again, my background reading supplied much of the story – although this is where I also chose to leave out quite lot. The real history behind the Holy Alliance and the Black Order is hair-raising.

To write this second book I had to read about taxes and tariffs on cargoes from the East, about gems and silks, and secret treaties between England and Spain. Ludo becomes involved in delicate personal missions for two monarchs and sets in motion his vendetta on the Doria clan, who rejected his mother on her return to Liguria and exiled her to the castle in Porto Venere.

Agostino Doria was Doge of Genoa from 1600-1603. His family tree names each of his sons, but there is also an un-named daughter (who became Ludo’s mother). Having lived across the Gulf of La Spezia in Lerici, I knew a fair amount about Porto Venere. Each of the scenes there is written with the place very clearly in mind. Ludo, we learn is illegitimate, he is also ambitious and determined to get recompense for the way his mother was treated by her brothers, which is exactly what would have happened to any woman of ‘gentle birth’ who had been captured by corsairs: she could never hope to make a good marriage after that, her name was sullied.

As the story progresses, Ludo is sent to the Spanish court, which is passing the summer in El Escorial. He has been engaged by Charles Stuart to seek support from Catholic Spain for the coming Civil War in England. He is also charged by King Charles’ wife, the French Henrietta Maria, to help her sister Isabel, Queen of Spain. Both these commissions are based on real, albeit perhaps little-known affairs. During the early 1640s Spanish and English Ambassadors were drawing up a treaty that would enable Spanish troops to cross southern England as a land bridge to Flanders to avoid being attacked by the French. It was a tricky issue, the Protestant English celebrated the failure of Catholic Spain to invade Britain in 1588, the Spanish would not have been welcome, despite the fact that the West Country mainly favoured the Royalists during the subsequent war. Ludo becomes involved in these negotiations, and also in the Spanish queen’s private battle for control over her husband Felipe IV with his valido (First Minister and favourite) the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares, and his Gorgon of a wife, Inez.

This became another moment where researching documented history uncovered details begging to be turned into fiction. The Conde-Duque was difficult, dangerous and spectacularly ugly. And in each respect, he and his wife were well-matched. Writing scenes involving these two real characters was as entertaining as it was challenging. A lot has been written (in Spanish) about both, so I had to choose my words carefully.

While researching Goa and the uncut-gem trade, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) while preparing for A Turning Wind. In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza. This is where having lived in different countries and travelled pretty widely came in useful too. We had lived near El Escorial in the province of Madrid for a number of years, and I had visited Lisbon, Portugal, on various occasions.

Imagining these places in the past was not difficult, although Lisbon was effectively destroyed during a major earthquake in the 18th century, which made describing the old city rather more creative than factual.

 

Book 3, By Force of Circumstance, was helped along by a visit to a gin distillery in Plymouth (important research here!) and some astonishing facts relating to how Queen Henrietta Maria tried to raise money for Charles Stuart during the English Civil War. On a more serious level, one of the main themes in the trilogy shows how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. What happens to the main characters, Ludo, Alina and Marcos, is determined by a conflict not of their making, in a country not their own. Their efforts to safeguard their families was probably little different to what real people in their social circumstances experienced.

To write this part of the story I needed to find out what happened to certain gems, brooches, necklaces and pearl-studded hatbands belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn these royal heirlooms was well documented at the time, although a few, including the spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the jewels is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. It became a matter of ‘what if . . .’ combined with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.

This final story takes Ludo back Porto Venere. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. I’d had the final scene of the trilogy in mind for a very long time, but writing it brought tears to my eyes. Ludo and Alina had become real people for me.

You can read more about the origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, Tavernier’s description of how men used eagles to acquire diamonds from pythons, and about the missing items belonging to the English Crown Jewels here in this blog.

Each of the books in The Chosen Man Trilogy is a Readers’ Favorite 5*. If you have enjoyed the stories, please leave a review on your retailer’s site.

 

 

 

 

The Chosen Man Trilogy completed!

Mission accomplished! The trilogy I promised Penmore Press is now complete. It’s exciting, and I will admit to a considerable sense of satisfaction, but there’s also to a sense of loss: I shall miss my voyages with Ludo. I shall also miss doing the research behind each story; it was both enjoyable and enlightening. Each of the books involved a good deal of background reading and investigation despite being based on topics familiar to me and set in places I know.
To give you an idea of what I have learned while writing the trilogy here are a few details on how each story began and what I needed to know about before I could actually start.

The Chosen Man – Tulips, Vatican intrigue and a financial scandal

The first Ludo story was inspired by a combination of two events; one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, other-worldly, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele in Cornwall (while preparing for another book altogether). Cotehele, a National Trust property on the River Tamar, became the fictional house Crimphele, then the story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA. I had lived in the Netherlands, was acquainted with the tulip bubble, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo (the infamous ancestor of Leo Kazan in The Empress Emerald) might be employed as an agent provocateur acting for Habsburg Spain and, supposedly, for Rome. After fitting these elements together, I then had to learn some hard facts behind ‘tulip mania’ and some of the vaguer, barely credible history behind Vatican espionage and secret agents. It took a good two years to write The Chosen Man, fortunately reviews show it was all worthwhile.

A Turning Wind – Gems, Snakes and Ladders and the Queen of Spain

A long, long time ago I had a gap year job in a jewellery and antique shop, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I learnt a lot and it helped greatly while preparing notes for A Turning Wind. During my research, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689). In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza, and a little known, unrealized treaty between Charles 1st and Felipe IV of Spain. Having spent many years living near El Escorial, the scenes set there with the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares and Velazquez were easy to write.

By Force of Circumstance (2019).- The English Civil War, Barbary corsairs, Doria family secrets and Portovenere

One of my aims while writing this trilogy was to show how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. This story in particular shows how one’s personal destiny can be determined by events far beyond one’s control. The over-riding circumstance here is a civil war. What happens to Ludo, Alina and Marcos is determined by a conflict not of their making in a country not their own and their efforts to safeguard their families. Regrettably, it is something many readers can relate to nowadays.
What I specifically needed to learn about for this book, though, was what happened to certain gems belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn exquisite necklaces, hatbands and brooches – royal heirlooms – was well documented at the time, although a few, including the famous spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the gems is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. All I really had to do was say, ‘What if . . .’ and combine it with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.
This final story takes Ludo back to Portovenere in Liguria, Italy – a place I have visited many times. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus; and there’s a Doria castle there too. Agustin, the Doria Doge of Genoa of the epoch, had a daughter, she is un-named in the Doria family tree but she may have lived there. Barbary corsairs constantly raided the Ligurian coast – so again, what if . . .?
And that brings Ludo’s adventures to an end, although he does have two impish daughters who might well set to sea in a galleon named ‘Tulip’ in the not too distant future.

If you would like to know more about some of the history mentioned here you will find it here in my blog.

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