Mastodon The Writing Desk: August 2019

27 August 2019

Guest Post by Author Paul Walker: Weaving Historical Characters and Practices into a Compelling Fiction

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

London 1578 - a cauldron of conspiracy, intrigue and torture.  The might of Spain and the growing influence of the Catholic League in France all threaten the stability of Queen Elizabeth and her state.

My mother was a member of the Richard III Society and never tired of telling our family he was really a ‘good king’ and the antithesis of Shakespeare’s monster. The contemporary portrait of Richard in the National Portrait Gallery presents a thoughtful, intelligent face and it is not difficult to imagine him as a more sympathetic character than the one trashed by the Tudors.

Richard III

That was the start of my fascination with history and historical fiction. After decades as a reader of the genre, I resolved to try my hand as a writer. ‘If nothing else – you’ll enjoy the research,’ was the encouragement received from my wife. She was wrong. After a few months, I was impatient to get writing. I had picked a date in Elizabeth’s reign, mid-point between major plots and rebellions – 1578. Tolerance of those adhering to the old religion was fast disappearing and Walsingham’s network of intelligencers were industrious in securing Her Majesty’s state. In the end, my research stretched to three times the length of the writing, but I suppose that is a common finding of historical fiction authors.

My first book in a planned series of Elizabethan spy thrillers is State of Treason, published by Sharpe Books in June 2019. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, is clearly a key figure in 1578, but my main character is a fictitious scholar, William Constable. The story is told from William’s viewpoint allowing freedom in the plot, largely within the confines of recorded events, and his assessment of historical figures. He is competent in astrology, mathematics and medicine with a modest reputation in Elizabethan London.

Astrology had a significant influence as a way of explaining and controlling the life of Elizabethans. Natal astrology was used to examine and predict events based on a birth chart. Medical astrology was used to determine an individual's weakness, diagnose illness, and prescribe cures. It was a prerequisite to healing and taught in every major university. It was not always clearly distinguished from astronomy, which described the motion of the stars and their influence on tides, weather and navigation.

Astrology is the declared reason for William’s summons to Sir Francis Walsingham. He also uses his skill in mathematics and surveyor of the stars as an excuse to meet with a group of men who plan an ambitious adventure to the New Lands and raids on Spanish treasure ships. He does this as an unwilling investigator into a conspiracy that threatens the state.

John Dee was a fascinating character whose expertise in astrology and mathematics made him a natural, if unseen, foil for William as his estranged mentor. A highly intelligent and learned man with one of the finest libraries in England, he was a trusted advisor to Elizabeth early in her reign. In later years, his interests turned to the supernatural and communication with angels. It was thought that he came under the influence of a dubious figure, Edward Kelley. Some claim that Kelley manipulated Dee and even persuade him that angels instructed him to lay with his young wife. Kelley and Dee’s second wife, Jane, both appear in the book, although I have been liberal with the dates of Kelley’s involvement with Dee.

John Dee

I took particular delight in incorporating John Foxe as a character who forms an unlikely friendship with William. A renowned advocate of Protestantism and author of a work commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (a bestseller at the time), it details the persecution and gruesome ends of protestant martyrs with special emphasis on England and Scotland. Foxe was also thought to have a benign and forgiving manner; unusual for the age. An examination of his likeness in this engraving suggests a gentle and compassionate man, at least to my eyes.

John Foxe

Little is known about the character of Francis Mylles, who is William’s main contact in Walsingham’s service. Notebooks and letters in the British Library indicate Puritan leanings and by 1580 he was one of Walsingham’s most important servants, controlling a network of informers. I portray him as a loyal and ambitious follower of Walsingham who may be helpful to William, but also a dangerous rival.

The navigation of ships is a central theme in State of Treason and its sequel. The art of navigation developed rapidly in the sixteenth century in response to explorers who needed to find their positions without landmarks. A cross staff was in common use in the mid sixteenth century to calculate latitude. The major problem with this was that the observer had to look in two directions at once - along the bottom of the transom to the horizon and along the top of the transom to the sun or the star. A more advanced instrument was the backstaff. A major advantage of the backstaff was that the navigator had to look in only one direction to take the sight - through the slit in the horizon vane to the horizon while simultaneously aligning the shadow of the shadow vane with the slit in the horizon vane. The shadow staff in the book, invented by William, is an imagined forerunner of the backstaff, whose invention is generally attributed to the 1580’s, but was probably in use before that date.

I came to John Hawkins and Humphrey Gilbert, famous privateers and explorers, later in plot development of State of Treason. They are major players in my follow-up book (untitled and due for publication later in 2019), which follows preparations for a venture to the New Lands from West Country ports. Hawkins was rewarded for his aid in uncovering the ‘Ridolfi Plot’ against Elizabeth and in 1578 was appointed Treasurer of the Royal Navy. Some questions remain about the true nature of his part in the Ridolfi affair and his continued friendship with the Spanish Ambassador.

John Hawkins

Both these men had a reputation for bravery and daring, but could also be cruel, hard and unforgiving. Gilbert advocated the killing of non-combatant women and children in military campaigns in Ireland and Hawkins is well-known as one of the first slave traders across the Atlantic. How does William get on with these two figures? Does he admire or despise them? You’ll have to read the books to find out more.

Paul Walker

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About the Author

Paul Walker is married and lives in a village 30 miles north of London. Having worked in a number of universities and run his own business, he now divides his time between non-executive work for an educational trust and writing fiction. His writing is regularly disrupted by children and a growing number of grandchildren and dogs.  State of Treason is the first in a planned series of Elizabethan spy thrillers. The plot is based around real characters and events in London of the 1570’s. The hero, William Constable, is an astrologer, mathematician, physician and inventor of a navigational aid for ships. The second book in the series will be published in October 2019. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PWalkerauthor

23 August 2019

Special Guest Post by Matthew Harffy, Author of The Bernicia Chronicles

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

AD 643. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the sixth instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles. Heading south to lands he once considered his home, Beobrand is plunged into a dark world of piracy and slavery when an old friend enlists his help
to recover a kidnapped girl. 

STORM OF STEEL and the ships of the Anglo-Saxons

One of the many great things about writing historical fiction is doing the research, particularly visiting sites that appear in the novels. There is nothing quite like walking on the same ground as the characters you are writing about to get into their mind-set.

My series, The Bernicia Chronicles, is set in seventh century Britain, mostly in what is now Northumberland and Yorkshire, and when I manage to visit the locations, it is always a wonderful experience. People ask why I didn’t choose to write novels set in some far away warm and sunny clime. Of course, apart from how expensive it would be to travel abroad, I didn’t really choose the time and place I write about, the setting chose me. But that is a whole different blog post!

It has become a bit of a running joke in my family that when I write about a new place I always end up visiting it long after completing the novel in which it appears, often even after publication. This means I have no chance to rectify any mistakes I may have made. As usual, my wife and daughters are right. In Storm of Steel, the protagonist of my series, Beobrand, travels to the north of France, to Rouen, more precisely.

The book has already been published and I have yet to visit that city! However, not only does Beobrand travel further afield than in previous novels, he also spends a lot of the action aboard different ships. As I am not an experienced sailor by any means, I decided this was one aspect of the story that needed some hands-on research.

Matthew in Weymouth

Of course, there are very few replica ships from the early medieval period, so I decided on the next best thing: a chartered fishing boat. I contacted the skipper, Euan McNair, before the trip and told him the purpose of my visit and he was incredibly helpful. It turned out he was also a sailing instructor and ex-Royal Navy, and so he knew everything there was to know about the winds and tides of the English Channel that would affect my characters on their storm-swept voyage.

Sirius and skipper

Heading out from the harbour at Weymouth aboard his boat, Sirius, McNair took me and my friend Gareth (who took all the great photos) along the coast showing us likely locations for where a seventh century ship might be wrecked in rough seas.

He also explained how the different tides, surges and prevailing winds would affect seagoing vessels. It was an invaluable experience, especially as I got to see the rocks, cliffs and coastline of Dorset from the perspective of a sailor rather than a landlubber.

We only went to sea for a few hours on a boat fitted with all the modern gadgets, GPS, radar, radio, and let’s not forget the diesel engines. Clearly this is a far remove from the ships that feature in Storm of Steel.

While a considerable amount is known about the vessels sailed by the Norsemen a few centuries after the period in which my novel is set, less is known about the ships of the Anglo-Saxons. As no Anglo-Saxon ship has been found with evidence of a mast and sail, there is much debate about whether they actually had sails or were instead rowed everywhere.

A book with insights into both sides of the argument is Dark Age Naval Power by John Haywood. As well as analysis of historical evidence and archaeology, great work has also been done by E. and J. Gifford, who reconstructed a half-scale replica of the ship from the Sutton Hoo burial. They named it the Sae Wylfing and rigged it with a mast and sail and carried out a series of practical tests proving it could be navigated very effectively under sail.

Both of these works, and common sense led me to believe it is almost certain that ships from the period had sails. The Romans, whom the Saxon tribes had interacted with for centuries, used wind power, as did the people from Scandinavia a couple of hundred years later, so, despite there being no firm evidence to prove it, I think it highly unlikely that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had not worked out how to rig a mast and sail in their ships.

Sutton hoo ship
I was lucky enough to see the Sae Wylfing on display at Sutton Hoo, which helped give me extra understanding of the construction of the ship and the placement of the oars, the rigging, and the mast.

While researching the book, I also read Tim Severin's wonderful book The Brendan Voyage. In it he recounts his epic journey in a leather-skinned currach in which, along with a small crew, he travelled between Ireland and North America, thus proving that the tale of St. Brendan's voyage in the sixth century could in fact be a fictionalised account of a real journey, using the different islands of the North Atlantic as stepping stones to the New World.

This resource was invaluable to me. The first-hand account of travelling the North Atlantic aboard a Dark Age vessel enabled me to add extra colour and depth to the descriptions of the seafarers’ life in Storm of Steel.

I loved researching and writing this book and I have been overjoyed by the comments of some reviewers with experience of sailing who have mentioned that the seafaring passages are very believable and realistic. This is the ultimate goal of any historical fiction author, and makes all the effort worth it.

The next novel in The Bernicia Chronicles series, Fortress of Fury, involves a siege and a great fire. Now, where did I leave those matches?

Matthew Harffy

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About the Author

Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria's Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters. When not writing, or spending time with his family, Matthew sings in a band called Rock Dog. Find out more at Matthew's website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @MatthewHarffy.

All Weymouth coast photos Copyright Gareth Jones 2018.
Sutton Hoo photos Copyright Matthew Harffy 2018.

The Bernicia Chronicles:

Wolf of Wessex:

Novella – Kin of Cain:

22 August 2019

The death of Sir Charles Brandon, Tudor Knight, 22 August, 1545

King Henry VIII had few close friends, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was his closest throughout his life. Brandon’s father, Sir William Brandon, was standard bearer for Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field - and is thought to have been killed by King Richard III on 22nd August, 1485.

Young Charles Brandon was brought up at King Henry VII’s court and became a favourite of the king  as well as a childhood friend of his second son - the future King Henry VIII.  

In 1515 Henry VIII sent Brandon to France to escort back to England his young widowed sister, Mary Tudor, whose husband King Louis XII of France had died. Brandon risked his life by secretly marrying Henry's sister (against the king's explicit orders) before they returned to England.  He was forgiven (although he was never able to repay the massive fine.) 

Charles Brandon's Garter Stall Plate
St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle

Brandon's military exploits in France mostly ended in failure, although his prowess as a champion jouster made him one of the most popular Tudor knights.  

Charles Brandon led the jousting at the meeting of King Henry VIII and King Francois I of France at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, and in 1523 commanded the English army in an attack on Calais. He was High Steward at the wedding of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1533 and was rewarded with land as part of the dissolution of the monasteries.

Thomas Cromwell’s reforms to the royal household created the new position of ‘Lord Great Master’ to oversee everything. Charles Brandon was the first to hold this post until his death, when King Henry said that in all their long friendship Charles Brandon had never knowingly betrayed a friend or taken advantage of an enemy. He is reported to have asked his council, ‘Is there any of you who can say as much?’

Charles Brandon lived a full and active life right up to the day he died on 22 August, (by coincidence on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, the same day as his father) 1545 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He'd attended a meeting of the Privy Council in Guildford the day before his death, and his fourth wife Catherine was at his bedside with his daughters Frances and Eleanor to comfort his last hours.

He'd asked for a modest funeral and to be buried in the college church of Tattershall in Lincoln. King Henry decided instead that Brandon should be buried with full honours at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, where he had been made a Knight of the Garter.

I visited Windsor Castle as part of the research for my new book, and discovered Brandon's tomb in the fourth bay of the south quire aisle, near the south door, partly covered by a wooden bench seat and under a life-sized portrait of King Edward III.  It seems that it was originally as modest as he would have wished, but the chapel records show that in 1787 it was 'ordered that leave be given to lay a stone above the grave of Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk, according to His Majesties directions'. 

The resulting stone was put in place during the repaving of the quire aisles and nave. The simple inscription states only that Charles Brandon married Mary, daughter of Henry VII,  widow of Louis XII of France.

I also discovered that the jousting helm mounted on the wall adjacent to his tomb is not a funerary helm and is not thought to have any connection with Brandon.

Brandon was sixty-one when he died, and fortunately unaware that both his young sons, Henry and Charles, would die within an hour of each other of the sweating sickness on the 14 July, 1551. I think Brandon would have been amused to know he lies alongside King Henry VI - and a few yards from the equally unimpressive tomb of his lifelong friend and benefactor, King Henry VIII.

Tony Riches


21 August 2019

Special Guest Post by Author Judith Arnopp ~ Keeping perspective in A Song of Sixpence: The Story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

In the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth, a small boy is ripped from his rightful place as future king of England. His Sister Elizabeth is married to the invading King, Henry Tudor. Years later, when the boy returns to claim is throne, Elizabeth is torn between love for her brother and duty to her husband. As the final struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is played out, Elizabeth is torn by conflicting loyalty, terror and unexpected love.

There is just something about the Tudors, whether it is the costumes, the politics, or the violence, they are never boring. There are so many avenues to follow, and new perspectives to take up. I am not mad-keen on revisionist history which is in danger of turning everyone into a saint but I am keen on looking on events from a new perspective. The thing that makes Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies great for me, is that instead of showing the Tudor world through the eyes of a victim, she shows it instead from the viewpoint of an abuser.

Usually Cromwell is depicted as a grim, self-serving monster, reaping, without compunction, the victims that come between him and his all-consuming ambition. Mantel’s genius is to consider how he came to be that way, and why.

There are no thoroughly evil people, even the hardest criminals among us justify our actions. Cromwell was doing a job, a dirty job that few others could have done. In the end he was consumed by his own ruthlessness, destroyed by his own laws. In the last screen of the BBC production of Wolf Hall, when he is embraced by the increasingly manic King Henry VIII, the realisation of his own eventual end is written clearly in Cromwell’s eyes. And, for the first time (possibly) in history, and in literature, we have empathy for him. That is the beauty of perspective, the joy of approaching a well-known subject in a fresh manner. It opens our eyes.

Tudor history, well, all history I suppose, is full of people yet to be treated in this way. Historical fiction is replete with stock figures, cardboard ‘monsters’ and plastic ‘saints.’ My hope is that Mantel has helped other writers of historical fiction to see the benefits of viewing these things afresh. I don’t mean white-washing, I mean trying to understand and perhaps empathise.

It is something I strive for in my own writing. There are negative characters, we need those for the sake of the plot, but I always try to provide a reason for their behaviour. No one is born ‘bad’; life experiences form our characters, and even the worst offenders among us never see their own actions as monstrous. When you study a character in depth, you will, in most instances, find possible motives or an event that altered their path.

There are few characters in my novel A Song of Sixpence who are traditionally treated negatively. Margaret Beaufort, for one, is usually an ageing, overly pious, sometimes neurotic termagant but there is nothing to suggest this in the historical record. She was very religious, most people were, but there is no suggestion that she was unhinged. Devoted to her son Henry, she worked tirelessly and determinedly to restore his rightful inheritance. It wasn’t until much later that she schemed to put him on the throne. There is nothing wrong with that, she should be praised for it. I am sure we’d all fight tooth and nail for our children.

When it comes to her relationship with Elizabeth of York, I have some suspicion Margaret may have been an interfering mother-in-law. Many of us have experienced those, but why do we always suppose her intentions were negative? Maybe her motives were born of affection and concern. The historical record suggests that she and Elizabeth of York were quite close so, in my novel their relationship is a slow burner; they start off at odds but mutual goals ensure they end up as friends.

And then there is Henry VII. Traditionally he is seen as a miser, the thief of another man’s throne, but he couldn’t have been all bad. He lived in harsh times. He saw the throne as his right – we all fight for what we see as our rights, don’t we? Once he was king, he did a good job – when he died the royal coffers were comfortably full; he put down all the pretenders to his crown, and made numerous advantageous alliances. He also left an heir, Henry VIII. There is very little more required of a ‘good’ king.

In A Song of Sixpence Henry is at first insecure, unsure of Elizabeth, and distrusting of his courtiers but in all likelihood, given what he’d witnessed of Richard III’s reign, he had good cause. He is quiet, calculating and wise. I’ve mixed negatives with a dollop of good intentions and, I hope, produced a credibly complex character.

As for Elizabeth of York whose fictional representation is usually meek, and sometimes cowed, I have tried to provide her character with more depth. History presents her as a good queen, obedient and supportive of Henry VII. She took no part in the politics of Henry’s reign, but her charitable work is well recorded. She kept close to and cared for her sisters and also had a direct hand in the upbringing and education of her younger children, keeping them close to her and teaching them their letters.

Prior to their marriage, Henry and Elizabeth had fought on opposing teams. It is more than likely that there were some initial misgivings on both parts. In A Song of Sixpence, I tried to explore Elizabeth’s inner mind, her thoughts. She is determined to be a good queen, has ambition for her children, love for her country and fights to break down the barriers between her and Henry.

When Perkin Warbeck appears on the scene, claiming to be her brother Richard, the younger of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower in 1483, her emotions are conflicted. She does not know if Warbeck’s claim is true. If he is indeed her brother, what will she do once Henry gets his hands on him? How will she stand by and watch her husband execute her brother? Yet, if he is her brother and he is victorious, can she stand by as he destroys her husband and takes her son’s throne. She is faced with a complex situation and an unenviable mix of emotions.

I take great pleasure in reconsidering historical figures. My other novels depict Anne Boleyn, Katheryn Parr, Margaret Beaufort and I am currently working on Queen of England, Mary Tudor. For me, the thing that makes Tudor era a great setting for my fiction is the host of figures still to cover; Margaret Pole, Katherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour and ultimately … when I pluck up sufficient courage … there is Henry VIII himself. The scope is endless, the prospect exciting, and my time in Tudor England far from over. I hope you will join me there.

Judith Arnopp

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About the Author

A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith Arnopp holds an honours degree in English and Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Writing both fiction and non-fiction, Judith works full-time from her home overlooking Cardigan Bay in Wales where she crafts novels based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life, prostitutes to queens. Her books are available in paperback, Kindle and some are available on Audible. Find out more at Judith's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @JudithArnopp

20 August 2019

Guest Post by Sarah Kennedy: City of ladies (The Cross and The Crown Book 2)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Henry VIII’s England has not been kind to many of the evicted members of religious houses, and Catherine has gathered about her a group of former nuns in hopes of providing them a chance to serve in the village of Havenston, her City of Ladies

When I began my novel series, The Cross and the Crown, I wanted to present Tudor England from the perspective of a woman who was not noble, not royal, not famous—but who is intelligent and resourceful. Staying away from the famous characters, whose stories we all already know, gave me some wiggle room to create Catherine Havens, my heroine. 

I wanted to explore what might happen to a “regular” woman who is confronted with the upheavals of Tudor England under Henry VIII. In the second book, City of Ladies, Catherine moves away from the convent but not away from her struggles with belief

Historical fiction is an important way of seeing the past in new ways, and since I’ve always had an interest in “real” history, I have mixed feelings about how rigorous historical novelists must be in recreating their periods. It does allow, I think, for imaginative re-creation of a distant place and time, and it can, in doing that, provide a fresh perspective on the present—how we got here from there. (I believe good science fiction does this as well—just in the opposite direction in time!)

I do blend fiction with the facts of my Tudor series, though I wouldn’t change the well-known details of the monarch or well-researched historical figures. I’m more interested, generally, in the development of character than in plot, so I have chosen to create Catherine as a character who has only passing (though significant) interaction with the famous people.

Of course, I love the famous people. My interest in Tudor England comes from an inherent fascination with turbulent times in the past and in charismatic leaders, and how they affected the people “under” them. My doctoral work focused on the late Renaissance, so I have a long personal background in reading and teaching Tudor literature, and that’s probably why I set my story in the 1500s.

But when I turned to fiction after seven books of poems, I wanted to “flesh out” the culture, and so I created Catherine Havens. She’s entirely a fiction, a novice who, by this second book, has been thrown out of her home, the convent, during the English Reformation. She is given permission to marry. 

Did this happen? Not that I’m factually aware of, in any particular instance. Could it have happened? It certainly could have. The laws of England were firm, including the stricture against marriage by former nuns (of course, mine is a novice—more wiggle room) but those laws were also subject to interpretation—and to twisting by clever lawyers and people with access to money and influence.

I wanted to dramatize about how the centralization of power in the English court after the seizure of the religious houses might have changed people who struggled to understand how and why the new religion and the court could control their everyday lives. People revolted. They challenged authority. They went on with their lives, sometimes in spite of the king (or queen).

Half of these ordinary people were women. We have many more records about men, but women worked and prayed alongside their brothers, husbands, and fathers, and I wanted to re-imagine these invisible foremothers into flesh-and-blood life. They raised families, healed wounds, treated the sick, and washed the dead. They oversaw households and undermined expectations.

I travel frequently, and I love to be in the spaces where people lived, because I can feel their lives when I can see where they lived. Even ruins seem to talk to me, and though I rarely take photographs (I prefer my own faulty memory) experiencing these places alters the way I perceive the lives women lived. I particularly like looking at kitchens (Hampton Court and Sutton House are favorites), because I can see the women (and men) who sweated and labored in them to feed the people above, who might not even know their names.

Catherine is not unknown to her “betters,” but she still wants the sisterhood that she lost when she lost the convent. The title of the book alludes to Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies, a sort of catalogue of good women. Catherine is given a copy and she treasures it. Like me, my Catherine hungers for answers to the past. She is on a journey to understand herself, and what she believes and what she will do about it if her opinions conflict with the powers that be. She, like many of us, wants understand her history. And don’t we all wonder about the people who came before us and want, in finding out some answers, to better understand how we have come to be who we are today?

Sarah Kennedy

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About the Author

Sarah Kennedy is the author of the novels The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King’s Sisters, Books One, Two, and Three of The Cross and the Crown series, set in Tudor England, and Self-Portrait, with Ghost.  She has also published seven books of poems.  A professor of English at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.  She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.  Find out more at Sarah's website: and find her on Facebook and Twitter @KennedyNovels

19 August 2019

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Confessor's Wife, by Kelly Evans

Available on Amazon UKAmazon US

In the 11th Century, when barren wives are customarily cast aside, how does Edith of Wessex not only manage to stay married to King Edward the Confessor, but also become his closest advisor, promote her family to the highest offices in the land, AND help raise her brother to the throne? And why is her story only told in the footnotes of Edward’s history?

Not everyone approves of Edward’s choice of bride. Even the king’s mother, Emma of Normandy, detests her daughter-in-law and Edith is soon on the receiving end of her displeasure. Balancing her sense of family obligation with her duty to her husband, Edith must also prove herself to her detractors. 

Edward’s and Edith’s relationship is respectful and caring, but when Edith’s enemies engineer her family’s fall from grace, the king is forced to send her away. She vows to do anything to protect her family’s interests if she returns, at any cost. Can Edith navigate the dangerous path fate has set her, while still remaining loyal to both her husband and her family?

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About the Author

Kelly Evans was born in Canada of Scottish extraction, and graduated in History and English from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. She now lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two rescue cats. I worked in the financial sector as a trade technology project manager for over 20 years and retired last year to write full time. My short stories have been published in numerous magazines and E-zines as well as a horror anthology, where my fourteenth century historic-horror story was received with enthusiasm. Find out more at Kelly's website and follow her on Twitter @ChaucerBabe.

18 August 2019

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames, by Lara Maiklem

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US


Mudlark (/'mAdla;k/) noun A person who scavenges for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbour

Lara Maiklem has scoured the banks of the Thames for over fifteen years, in pursuit of the objects that the river unearths: from Neolithic flints to Roman hair pins, medieval buckles to Tudor buttons, Georgian clay pipes to Victorian toys. These objects tell her about London and its lost ways of life.

Moving from the river's tidal origins in the west of the city to the point where it meets the sea in the east, Mudlarking is a search for urban solitude and history on the River Thames, which Lara calls the longest archaeological site in England.

As she has discovered, it is often the tiniest objects that tell the greatest stories.

'Driven by curiosity, freighted with mystery and tempered by chance, wonders gleam from every page' Melissa Harrison

'The very best books that deal with the past are love letters to their subject, and the very best of those are about subjects that love their authors in return. Such books are very rare, but this is one' Ian Mortimer

'Fascinating. There is nothing that Maiklem does not know about the history of the river or the thingyness of things' Guardian

'A treasure. One of the best books I've read in years' Tracy Borman

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About the Author

Lara Maiklem, known as 'London Mudlark', moved from her family's farm to London in the 1990s. She now lives with her family on the Kent coast within easy reach of the river, which she visits as regularly as the tides permit. Mudlarking is her first book. Lara is on Facebook and Instagram @london.mudlark and you can find her on Twitter: @LondonMudlark 

Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

The remarkable story of Bess of Hardwick, her ascent through Elizabethan society and the houses she built that shaped British architectural history.

Born in 1521, Bess of Hardwick, businesswoman, money-lender and property tycoon, lived an astonishing eighty-seven years. Through canny choices, four husbands and a will of steel she rose from country squire’s daughter to Dowager Countess, establishing herself as one of the richest and most powerful women in England, second only to Queen Elizabeth.

Bess forged her way not merely by judicious marriage, but by shrewd exploitation of whatever assets each marriage brought. At a time when women were legally and financially subordinate to their husbands, Bess succeeded in manipulating hers to her own and her children’s advantage, accumulating great riches and estates in the process. 

Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury,
by Rowland Lockey, 1592

Wealth took concrete form in her passion for building and she oversaw every stage of the construction of her four country houses: Chatsworth, Hardwick Old Hall, Hardwick New Hall and Owlcotes. Hardwick New Hall, her sole surviving building, is stamped all over with Bess’s identity and her initials: it stands as a celebration of one woman’s triumphant progress through Elizabethan England.

In Devices and Desires, Kate Hubbard examines Bess’s life as a builder within the context of the male-dominated Elizabethan architectural world. This new biography traces the creation of Hardwick and Bess’s lost houses, as well as estates such as Longleat, Holdenby and Theobalds, all known to and coveted by Bess. Throughout, it seeks to locate Bess within Hardwick, her greatest achievement and her lasting monument.

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About the author

Kate Hubbard's first book, a short life of Bess of Hardwick, was published in 2001, followed by three children's books - biographies of Charlotte Bronte and Queen Victoria and "Rubies in the Snow", the fictionalised diary of Anastasia Romanov. Her most recent book, "Serving Victoria" follows the lives of six members of the Queen's household. She also works as a book reviews and freeland editor and lives in London and Dorset.

16 August 2019

Guest Interview with Historical Fiction Author Margaret Skea

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

I'm pleased to welcome author Margaret Skea to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

Katharina: Fortitude is the story of one of the most controversial marriages of the early 16th century – that of the escaped nun, Katharina von Bora, to the reformer, Martin Luther. It was a sign of apostasy to Luther’s enemies and a source of consternation to his friends and sent shock waves across Europe, even Henry VIII of England publicly condemning them - but from an inauspicious beginning, it became a strong and successful relationship and a paradigm of clerical marriage, then and since.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I am a morning person, but not terribly disciplined, so I need to start my day’s writing first thing, or I probably won’t start at all. When I’m in the writing phase I aim to write c 1000 words per day. If I’m struggling, I don’t allow myself to give up until I’ve hit that target, but if I’m on a roll I keep going.

My passion is for authentic historical fiction which reflects the life and times my characters inhabited and so extensive research is vital. I ‘front-load’ my research, with the aim of writing as naturally about the 16th century as if I was writing about last week. When I’m unsure of something, I don’t stop to check during the writing phase, but type in red and my first editing process is to fact check the ‘red’ passages.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Whether you are naturally a ‘plotter’ - planning everything out in detail, or a ‘panster’ – allowing the story to evolve as you write, the key is to keep going, ideally writing something every day. Find a writing routine that suits you and stick to it. A first draft is just that – not a finished novel. Don’t expect it to be brilliant and don’t rush to get it out there. Editing is vital, but until you’ve written a draft, you’ve nothing to edit.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

I’m not a natural marketer, so this aspect of self-publishing is difficult for me, but I’m trying to learn! I do however love meeting potential readers and so take every opportunity I can get to speak at events and festivals and recently have begun taking books to craft fairs.

I’ve found general craft fairs to be better than dedicated book fairs – although not everyone at the fair will be a reader, those that are aren’t faced with an array of books and authors to chose from, but only me! It’s good to target fairs where the visitors are likely to have an interest in your genre – so, for example, I go to a pop-up fair at a stately home, on the basis that visitors there are likely to have an interest in history. Works a treat!

Although my books are available to order in any UK bookshop via Gardners, I also look for outlets that are a little out of the ordinary – for example one of my best outlets is a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere, but on a tourist route, and they are great at selling sets of my Scottish trilogy to folk who think they’d better just buy them all at once in case they don’t find them easy to get elsewhere!

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

On the ground research is really important, even if just to experience landscape and terrain where nothing else of the period remains and so I went on a solo trip to Saxony to research Katharina. I drove 1000 miles, and visited every location that had a connection to her. It proved a challenge because I didn’t speak German and discovered that as part of former GDR most folk there didn’t speak English, their second language being Russian, but was a vital part of the research process.

While there I found answers to questions that I wouldn’t have known to ask, if I had just been armchair researching, and discovered details that I would definitely have got wrong. For example – in England in the 16th c the pattern of leaded glass in windows was either diamond-shaped or rectangular. In Saxony, by contrast, it is circular – no idea why as it must have been much more difficult to make, but it was a significant detail for me when describing patterns of light coming into rooms.

I already knew that songbirds were considered a delicacy, but one of the most surprising details of everyday life I discovered was that lures, in the form of whistles that replicated individual bird song, were given to children whose role was to attract the birds and enable them to be trapped.

Perhaps the two most surprising discoveries were 1) Martin Luther changed nappies- who’d have thought it? And 2) while sand clocks were still the most common form of timekeeping within a home, one of the reformers had a pocket watch, which looked very like those in vogue in the early 20th century!! And if you don’t believe me - you can see it in the Lutherhaus today.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

In all the books I have written the deaths of individual characters have been the hardest to write. Perhaps because they embed themselves so closely into my life that although they actually died some 450 years ago, their deaths feel like a personal loss. This book was no exception and (spoiler alert – she dies in the end) in the case of Katharina it was doubly hard because it comes at the end of the book and the final chapters are always hard, with the aim of finishing on a ‘high’ in terms of the writing, even if it’s a ‘low’ in terms of the plot.

What are you planning to write next?

Now that is a problem. I have various ideas all vying for attention – all of them historical – some would be, as before, tied closely to historical events, some would be much more fictional, although set in an historical context, and I honestly don’t know which will win out. I need to choose quickly though, because I don’t want my writing ‘muscle’ to get out of condition.

Margaret Skea

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About the Author

Margaret Skea grew up in Ulster at the height of the 'Troubles', but now lives with her husband in the Scottish Borders. You can find more details, including why chocolate is vital to her creative process, on her website  and follow Magaret on Twitter @margaretskea1

15 August 2019

Book Review: Richard II: A True King's Fall, by Kathryn Warner

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Where the famous portrait on Henry VIII makes him seem powerful, the familiar image of Richard II in Westminster Abbey (see book cover) achieves quite the opposite. I'd always thought he looks sad - and was unsurprised to discover a contemporary chronicler described him as 'pensive'.

Kathryn Warner, as an acknowledged expert on Richard II, has crammed her book with a wealth of fascinating details, yet the image of Richard which emerges is one of an unhappy life. Her choice of ' A True King's Fall' as her title is significant.

He inherited a kingdom ravaged by the plague and simmering with rebellion. The Scots tested his borders to the north and the old noble families of England jockeyed for power and influence, making it impossible to Richard to be certain who he could trust.

This book reveals more truth than I expected in Shakespeare's unflattering portrayal of Richard. Many accounts hint at his mental health problems, and he proved an ineffective king, yet undeserving of his lonely death by starvation - or responsibility for the Wars of the Roses.

Tony Riches

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About the Author

Kathryn Warner grew up in the Lake District in the north-west of England, and gained a BA and an MA with Distinction in medieval history and literature from the University of Manchester. She is a specialist in the history of the fourteenth century and has been researching and writing about Edward II's reign since 2004, and have run a blog about him since December 2005. Future projects include biographies of Edward III's queen Philippa of Hainault, their son John of Gaunt, Edward I's five daughters, and a joint biography of the medieval Despenser family. Find out more at Kathryn's blog and find her on Twitter @RoyneAlianore

See Also:

Blood Roses: The Houses of Lancaster and York before the Wars of the Roses, by Kathryn Warner

14 August 2019

The Ultimate Chess Novel: Queen Sacrifice

"Set this chessboard and its pieces before your most learned men, to see if their intellects can fathom this subtle game." 
(Challenge from an Indian King).

10th Century Wales is a country divided, with the kingdom of the south becoming Saxon and the north violently defending the old ways. The inevitable civil war is brutal and savage in this tale of divided loyalty and revenge, treachery and love. The bishops of Wales struggle to keep the faith while knights and warlords turn events to advantage and the lives of ordinary people are changed forever by the conflict. 

Queen Sacrifice is a tale of love and sacrifice, soldiers and spies, heroes and assassins, who meet in the war to end all wars. 

Each character is based on a chess piece, with the whoe of Wales as the chess board, and the narrative follows every move in the queen sacrifice game, known as ‘The Game of the Century’ between Donald Byrne and 13-year-old Bobby Fischer on October 17th, 1956.

Praise for Queen Sacrifice:

'Queen Sacrifice stands in quality and complexity with any novel of the genre.!’ – Rabid Reader Reviews

'A fast-paced read for those who love history and chess' - Black & White Magazine

Cover of Chess Review, December 1956.