Mastodon The Writing Desk

23 February 2024

Special Guest Post: Writing and Researching “The Other Gwyn Girl” by Nicola Cornick


Available for pre-order 

1671 – London: The Civil War is over and Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’, is revelling in the throne of his murdered father and all the privileges and power that comes with it. Sharing the spoils is his favourite companion, the celebrated beauty, actress Nell Gwyn.

I have an attraction to the stories of women – and the occasional man – from the footnotes of history, historical characters whose lives have either been ignored or erased from the historical record, or about whom the slightest of tantalising clues reach us. 

Those shadowy characters who have previously inspired me range from Mary Seymour, the lost daughter of Queen Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour, to Catherine Catesby, wife of Gunpowder plot ringleader, Robert. All have been eclipsed in some way by other more famous characters in the historical narrative. All have a story to tell even if the evidence for it is faint or well-hidden.

My dual-time novel about Rose Gwyn, the sister of the far more famous Nell Gwyn came about in much the same way as the others. A relative had acquired a new portrait for his collection which claimed to be Nell Gwyn. I had a general awareness of Nell as an actress from the Restoration era and one of the more famous mistresses of King Charles II but the portrait prompted me to read more about her, and one line in a biography jumped out at me:

“Nell and her elder sister Rose both worked as orange girls in the theatre…”

I knew about the oranges – they could almost serve as Nell Gwyn’s emblem and sometimes unofficially do, but the bit that caught my interest was that Nell had an elder sister, Rose. 

Finding any references to Rose Gwyn in the historical record was almost impossible. She was more than elusive, almost invisible. There is a lot of information on Nell Gwyn and from that one can infer some elements of her sister’s life, particularly in their shared upbringing and early life, raised on the backstreets around Covent Garden and in the brothel where their mother worked. 

However, much of what is written about Nell is gleaned from letters, diaries and contemporary observations rather than official records. Many of these are biased depending on the author. A lot of what we “know” of Nell including her wittiest comments and the anecdotes such as her dangling her elder son out of first floor window until the King gave him a title, are hearsay and legend, no doubt embroidered in the retelling. So where does that leave a sister about whom no one bothered to record much at all?

The first official record of Rose Gwyn is from 1663 when she was imprisoned for theft and wrote to the King to petition for bail (or someone wrote on her behalf as both she and Nell had no formal education). One chronicler refers to her as the “notorious thief Rose Gwyn.” 

In her letter, Rose stated that her father had “lost all he had in the service of the late King.” Her petition was successful, supporting the genealogical data that suggests their father was Captain Thomas Gwyn, who died in a debtor’s prison shortly after Nell was born. Like many of the minor Royalist gentry, the Civil War had left his family destitute.

Both Rose and Nell sold sweet oranges to the audiences who flocked back to the theatre after Charles II’s restoration in 1660 but whilst for Nell this was a springboard into an acting career, Rose had no such talent. The next we hear of her she was married to a highwayman called Captain John Cassells. In 1670 Rose helped one of his fellow “knights of the road” to gain a pardon from the King for his crimes, presumably by asking Nell to intercede for him. What happened to John Cassells is a mystery – he was no Dick Turpin and his story has not come down to us through history – but we know that he pre-deceased Rose and that she married for a second time.

These then, were the meagre facts of Rose Gwyn’s life which provided a framework for my story. Had I been writing a non-fiction book I would have struggled but the gaps in the historical record give a novelist ample space to allow their imagination to roam. As this was a dual time novel, I wanted the contemporary narrative to be a mirror of the historical one in some senses, weaving together as the story progressed. And in one respect I was fortunate; there is some evidence that for the first few years of their life, Nell and Rose Gwyn grew up in Oxford. 

I was able to visit the parish that was said to have been their home, and to wander the city streets, picturing them back in the 17th century when Oxford played such a key role in the Civil War, and later when Charles II located his court there during the plague. That seventeenth-century Oxford is close beneath the surface; visiting the city, it is possible to shut out the present day and recreate in your mind’s eye the place that Rose Gwyn knew. 

 Nicola Cornick

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About the Author

Nicola Cornick grew up in Yorkshire and studied History at the University of London and at Ruskin College Oxford where she was awarded a Distinction for her Masters dissertation on heroes and hero myths. She worked in academia for a number of years before becoming a full-time writer. She is the author of acclaimed dual-time mysteries as well as of award-winning historical romance. When she isn’t writing, Nicola volunteers as a guide and researcher for the National Trust at the 17th century hunting lodge Ashdown House. She has given talks and chaired panels for a number of festivals and conferences including the London Book Fair, the Historical Novel Society and the Sharjah Festival of Literature.  Nicola also gives talks on history topics to WIs, history societies and other interested groups. In her spare time she is a bookseller at Wantage Bookshop and a puppy walker for the Guide Dogs charity. Find out more at Nicola's website www.nicolacornick.co.uk and follow her on TwitterX @NicolaCornick

21 February 2024

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Crimson Child (Empire of Shadows Book 2) by R.N. Morris


Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Spring 1880. St Petersburg

While on an outing with his family in a leafy park, a retired general encounters a mysterious child dressed in red. The child leads him to a secluded spot. And a violent death.

The shocking crime, committed in broad daylight against a respected member of the establishment, strikes terror at the heart of the city.

It also draws the attention of the powers that be, who put pressure on magistrate Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky to solve the case quickly.

But with no witnesses, apart from a drunken fantasist who may or may not have seen the murderer making their escape, Virginsky faces one of the most challenging and bizarre cases of his career.

Then an unexpected confession brings a sudden breakthrough. Or does it? For Virginsky, it’s all a little too convenient.

Meanwhile the tsar’s trusted adviser, Count Loris-Melikov, pushes Virginsky to undertake a dangerous mission. He must find a way to infiltrate a group of disaffected reactionaries with whom the dead man was associated.

Could this shadowy group be behind the general’s murder? And what will they do to Virginsky if they find out he is there to spy on them?

As he closes in on the murderer, Virginsky uncovers a dark history in which the crimes of the past give rise to further crimes.

And the desire for revenge culminates in a devastating tragedy.
R. N Morris is the author of eleven novels. His series of St. Petersburg novels revolving around the character of Porfiry Petrovich include A Gentle Axe and A Vengeful Longing, which was shortlisted for the 2008 CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for Best Novel and was Highly Commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Prize for Best Historical Crime Novel in 2008. He also wrote the libretto to the opera When The Flame Dies, composed by Ed Hughes.

Praise for Roger Morris:

"Morris’ recreation of the seamy side of 19th-century St Petersburg is vivid and convincing … As to who did it, Morris keeps the reader guessing until the end.” The Independent.

“Morris has created an atmospheric St Petersburg, and a stylish set of intellectual problems, but what makes A Gentle Axe such an effective debut is its fascination with good and evil.” Times Literary Supplement.

“Morris’s descriptions of the horrors of insanitary slum dwellings in St Petersburg are extraordinarily vivid, but the most striking feature of the novel is the way in which Porfiry’s sophisticated understanding of human nature compensates for the limited investigatory tools at his disposal.” The Times.

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About the Author

Roger (R. N.) Morris is the author of thirteen novels. The latest is Fortune’s Hand, a historical novel about Walter Raleigh.  He is also the author of the Silas Quinn series of historical crime novels and the St Petersburg Mysteries, featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment. Find out more at Roger's website rogernmorris.co.uk and find him on Facebook and Twitter at @rnmorris

17 February 2024

A Court of Betrayal: The gripping new historical novel from the Sunday Times bestselling author Anne O'Brien


Available for pre-order from

The Welsh Marches, 1301: Strong-willed heiress Johane de Geneville is married to Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, at just fifteen years old.

Soon Johane finds herself swept up in a world of treacherous court politics and dangerous secrets as her husband deposes Edward II and rules England alongside Queen Isabella.

Yet when Roger is accused of treason, she is robbed of her freedom and must survive catastrophic events in her fight for justice - with her life, and her children's, hanging in the balance...

Will she pay for her husband's mistakes, or will she manage to escape from a terrible fate?


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About the Author

Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. She now lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales, where she writes historical novels. The perfect place in which to bring medieval women back to life. Find out more at Anne's website  http://www.anneobrien.co.uk/ and find her on Facebook and Twitter @anne_obrien

13 February 2024

Special Guest Post by Deborah Swift, Author of The Shadow Network (WW2 Secret Agent Series)


Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

England, 1942: Having fled Germany after her father was captured by the Nazis, Lilli Bergen is desperate to do something pro-active for the Allies. So when she’s approached by the Political Warfare Executive, Lilli jumps at the chance. She’s recruited as a singer for a radio station broadcasting propaganda to German soldiers – a shadow network.

The Aspidistra Radio Transmitter by Deborah Swift

The Shadow Network which forms the title of my latest book refers to the fake news radio stations set up by Sefton Delmer in WW2. These secret radio stations operating in WW2 pretended to be genuine German radio stations and employed German prisoners of war or other German speakers to make their broadcasts. 

The broadcasts were deliberately racy and were designed to capture the hearts of ordinary Germans and make them believe they were listening to a forbidden radio station from their own country. Their popularity spread, and they got wide audiences for their programmes.


The radio signal for these ‘fake news’ radio stations needed to be strong enough to appear as though it came from Germany and had to be more powerful than anything that was then available.


Harold Robin

By coincidence, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) had created two high-powered radio transmitters which could not be used in the US, because of a change in American law. The RCA were eager to sell them to Britain. So Harold Robin, a Foreign Office radio engineer, saw their potential, and travelled to America to examine them, and then worked to improve them. 

He adapted a transmitter so it was able to move frequency in a fraction of a second, at the flick of a switch.The powerful ex-RCA transmitter, eventually installed in Sussex, England, was named Aspidistra, referencing the popular Gracie Fields song ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’, in which an Aspidistra houseplant grows until it ‘nearly reached the sky’.

In fact, most of the technology was buried underground at the site at Crowborough, though its antennae were visible – three guyed masts, each 110 metres tall, directing the signal broadly eastwards. The Art Deco–style transmitter building was housed in an underground shelter which had to be excavated by the Canadian army troops who were stationed nearby.

Intrusion operations


The Aspidistra mast was so powerful it could be used to intercept German frequencies. During Allied air raids, German radio transmitters were switched off so the Allies couldn’t use them to locate their installations.
 
As soon as the Germans switched off their masts, Aspidistra began transmitting on its frequency, just like the German station. The transition was seamless and German listeners believed the original station was still broadcasting. Aspidistra operators would then insert pro-British propaganda and fake news into the broadcast as if it was coming from official German sources.


Radio Transmitter

After the war, Aspidistra was used by the BBC. It made its final transmission on 28 September 1982, before being finally switched off by Robin, the man who had been responsible, forty years earlier, for bringing the transmitter from the US and setting up the station at Crowborough.

In my novel based around the Aspidistra transmitter and the fake news radio stations, I include a fictional plot to blow up the transmitter. Although fictional, this is not unlikely as there were several attempts by the Germans to sabotage infrastructure and communications systems in England at the time.
 
If you’d like more information about Radio Aspidistra I recommend this Nuts and Volts Magazine article.

Deborah Swift

Deborah Swift is the English author of eighteen historical novels, including Millennium Award winner Past Encounters, and The Lady’s Slipper, shortlisted for the Impress Prize.  Her most recent books are the Renaissance trilogy based around the life of the poisoner Giulia Tofana, The Poison Keeper and its sequels, one of which won the Coffee Pot Book Club Gold Medal. Recently she has completed a secret agent series set in WW2, the first in the series being The Silk Code. Deborah used to work as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV and enjoys the research aspect of creating historical fiction, something she loved doing as a scenographer. She likes to write about extraordinary characters set against the background of real historical events. Deborah lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District, an area made famous by the Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Find out more at Deborah's website www.deborahswift.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @swiftstory

10 February 2024

New Audiobook Sample: The story of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, one of the most intriguing men of the Elizabethan Court, Narrated by Nigel Peever.


Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US
and from Audible

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is one of the most intriguing men of the Elizabethan period. Tall and handsome, he soon becomes a ‘favorite’ at court, so close to the queen many wonder if they are lovers.

The truth is far more complex, as each has what the other yearns for. Robert Devereux longs for recognition, wealth and influence. His flamboyant naïveté amuses the ageing Queen Elizabeth, like the son she never had, and his vitality makes her feel young.

Continuing the story of the Tudors, begun in Tony Riches’ best-selling Tudor trilogy, this epic tale of loyalty, love and adventure follows Robert Devereux from his youth to his fateful rebellion.


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About the Narrator

Nigel Peever is a northern based actor with thirty years experience in Theatre and TV and especially pantomime. Originally gaining equity status the traditional way through weekly rep at the Lyceum Theatre in Crewe straight from school and college and his first professional production with The Rollingstock Theatre Company when he was aged just 14. Since turning pro aged 19 in 1985 Nigel has worked extensively in Theatre and TV. He also produces audiobooks at home working in conjunction with authors and rights holders for sale at Amazon, Audible and Itunes. Find out more from Nigel's website https://www.nigelpeever.co.uk/ and find him on Twitter @NigelPeever 

9 February 2024

Special Guest Post by Melita Thomas, Author of 1000 Tudor People


Available for pre-order from

Pre-orders at a discount may be made here 

The product of years of diligent research, this ambitious title brings the incredibly varied lives (and deaths!) of 1000 Tudor people into a single, accessible volume. Illustrated with historical portraits and a wealth of detail, including specially designed family trees to chart the links between major Tudor figures.


Writing 1000 Tudor People has been a labour of love over three years. I began it in the autumn of 2020 and handed the final sections to the publisher towards the end of 2022. It then took a further year to bring together all the illustrations and the timelines, proofread it, and turn it into the weighty volume that will hit the shelves on 28th March 2024. 

The idea behind the book was to give readers information about a much wider range of people who lived during the Tudor period than just the usual suspects who appear in books or on-screen. Of course the panorama of the royal family with their sneaky courtiers and scheming councillors is fun to read about, but there was so much more to the Tudor age. 

It was a period of massive change: life in 1485 was not very different from life in 1385, but by 1600 things had altered considerably, not just because of the Reformation, but also because of the expansion of knowledge brought about by the printing press, the introduction of plants and food that came from discoveries in the New World, the changes in the economic fortunes of England and Wales, and the expansion of mathematical and scientific knowledge.
 
Choosing the thousand people was difficult. At the beginning, I thought that I might struggle to find enough individuals whose lives were sufficiently interesting or important to merit sharing, but once I began the research, I was quickly overwhelmed with quirky and fascinating characters, and I have a long list, which continues to grow, of people whom I have had, reluctantly, to leave out.


Sir Richard Martin, Lord Mayor of London © British Museum

Although I wanted to expand from just the rich and famous, I had to include them. You can’t have a book about Tudor People that doesn’t include Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell. But once I had dealt with the monarch, the royal family, and the principal politicians, I turned to the arts. Shakespeare, of course, was high on the list, so I consulted the research I had done on him for the feature on the Tudor Times website. 


© Folger Shakespeare Library Christopher Saxton. Atlas of the counties of England and Wales. London, 1590?

This led me to his colleagues and friends, so I added them, and as I researched each one, I found more names. Gradually, a great network of writers, philosophers, theatre-owners, entrepreneurs, gardeners, mathematicians, and even criminals evolved.
 
One of the difficulties of writing about fifteenth and sixteenth century people is the inequality in records available, particularly of women. Even high-ranking women are much less represented in the records than men, and women below the level of nobility usually only appear in the records if they seriously transgressed social norms – consequently, a disproportionate number of the women included were considered to be criminals. 

Another challenge I had to address was the massive change in our approach to the past, which has happened in the last twenty to thirty years. This is partly about more inclusion of women, but also a different perspective on elements of our history. Older historiography has a fairly uncritical attitude towards individuals who have been seen as heroes for centuries – such as Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and the other ‘sea-dogs’. 


Sir Walter Raleigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, historians are grappling with more honest interpretations of these men’s activities and I needed to seek out a wide range of sources to present a balanced view, without having the luxury of a word count that would enable me to explore these varied perspectives in detail. Unsurprisingly, I have some favourite characters – some of whom I’d like to meet, but others who might be rather scary in the flesh. 

One of the latter is Katherine Howard, Lady Berkeley, who was such a stickler for protocol that she made her manservant practise one hundred bows to get it absolutely right – I like her because she kept her pet hawks in her bedchamber, and did not care if her dresses got dirty. Another fun entry is Twm Sion Cati – otherwise known as Thomas Jones. He was a trickster who relieved his victims of their belongings by tricking them, rather than by violence. 

Ralph Rishton was another conman, who, at the time of his death had no fewer than eleven ongoing law suits relating to his matrimonial entanglements. Then there are the incredibly sad stories, such as those of Anne Askew and Margaret Clitherow (nee Middleton), who were martyred for their faith - one Protestant, the other Catholic.


Margaret Clitherow (Wikimedia Commons)

I hope that when the readers delve into 1000 Tudor People, they will find stories to entertain, as well as inform them about the Tudor period. Hopefully, the book will also be a manual to be on hand every time the reader opens another book or watches a film or television programme about the Tudors, to find the key facts about all of the people involved.
 
Melita Thomas

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About the Author

Melita Thomas is the author of non-fiction works The King’s Pearl, and The House of Grey and co-author of the Tudor Times Books of Days series of gift books. She is a doctoral candidate at UCL, researching the social and political networks of Mary I and is the co-founder and chief contributor for Tudor Times, a repository of information about the Tudors and Stewarts 1485 – 16625. In her spare time, Melita enjoys long distance walking. You can find her on https://melitathomas.com/ and on Twitter @melitathomas92 and @thetudortimes.

7 February 2024

Book Launch Spotlight: To the Wild Horizon: A captivating story of love and endurance on the Oregon Trail, by Imogen Martin


Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Missouri, 1846: In the frontier town of Independence the sound of a gunshot shatters the night. As the pistol drops from her hand and clatters to the ground, Grace knows she has no choice but to leave. Now.

In this inspiring and deeply moving story of love, courage and endurance, a young woman on the run from the law sets off on a desperate journey of survival on the treacherous Oregon Trail.

Terrified she’s wanted for the murder of her landlord, Grace is certain that, even though she acted in self-defence, no one will believe her. Quickly packing the few belongings she and her little brother Tom possess, they race to join the line of dusty wagons preparing to leave for Oregon.

As they set off, over the perilous Great Plains, knowing the wild rivers and the Rocky Mountains they must cross, Grace vows to do whatever it takes to protect Tom and get them both to safety. She will prove herself capable of surviving the hardest journey of her life.

This unputdownable and heart-wrenching historical novel shows the true strength and resilience of a woman’s heart, even when she has everything to lose and the odds are stacked against her. Fans of Kristin Hannah, Amy Harmon and Olivia Hawker will lose themselves in To the Wild Horizon.

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About the Author

Imogen Martin writes sweeping, historical fiction. Her first two novels are set in nineteenth century America. As a teenager, she took the Greyhound bus from San Francisco to New York. Over those three days of staring out of the window at the majestic mountains and endless flat plains, stories wound themselves into her head: tales of brooding, charismatic men captivated by independent women.
Since then, she has worked in a coffee-shop in Piccadilly, a famous bookstore, and a children’s home. She has run festivals, and turned a derelict housing block on one of the poorest estates in the UK into an award-winning arts centre. During 2020 Imogen was selected by Kate Nash Literary Agency as one of their BookCamp mentees, a mentorship programme designed to accelerate the careers of promising new writers. Married with two children, Imogen divides her time between Wales and Sardinia. Find out more at Imogene's website https://imogenmartinauthor.com  and find her on Facebook and Twitter @ImogenMartin9