Mastodon The Writing Desk: June 2020

30 June 2020

Historical Fiction Spotlight: Melusine (The Heirs of Anarchy Book 2) by G. Lawrence

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Summer 1128:  Matilda, once Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, daughter and heir to the King of England, has been married for the sake of politics to Geoffrey, heir to the Count of Anjou; an untested, untitled boy.

Through hard years of marriage, Matilda seeks to maintain her position as heir to the thrones of England and Normandy, and to be seen as a worthy successor to her father. In this time she will encounter monsters, in herself and in others, and will face darkness, deceit and danger as each step on this path takes her closer to the crown.

Melusine is Book Two in the series The Heirs of Anarchy by G. Lawrence.

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About the Author

Gemma Lawrence is an independently published author living in Cornwall in the UK. She studied literature at university says, 'I write mainly Historical Fiction, with an emphasis on the Tudor and Medieval periods and have a particular passion for women of history who inspire me'. Her first book in the Elizabeth of England Chronicles series is The Bastard Princess (The Elizabeth of England Chronicles Book 1).Gemma can be found on Twitter @TudorTweep.

28 June 2020

Surprising Tudor Birth and Death Coincidences

King Henry VIII was born on the 28th June, 1491 at the Palace of Placentia – by chance the same day as Anna of Cleves was born in Düsseldorf.  Henry VIII died on January 28th, 1547, ninety years to the day after his father, Henry VII, was born on January 28th, 1457. This got me thinking about some of the other Tudor coincidences.

Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York was born on the 11th February, 1466 at the Palace of Westminster – and by coincidence, also died on her birthday in 1503 at the Tower of London, after giving birth the week before, perhaps prematurely, to her eighth child – a little girl, who did not survive long.
Henry’s grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was born on the 31st May, 1443 at Bletsoe Castle, and Lady Cicily Neville, mother of Richard III, died on the same day in 1495 at Berkhamsted Castle.  

Another coincidence is the death of Charles Brandon, in Guildford on the 22 August 1545 – the anniversary of the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty, and of his father’s death at the Battle of Bosworth. (William Brandon was Henry Tudor's standard-bearer, and was thought to have been killed by King Richard III.)
I’m sure there are more, but we don’t even know the birthdays of some of the most famous Tudors, such as Anne Boleyn – if you can think of other ‘coincidences’ let me know in the comments.

Tony Riches

23 June 2020

Book Launch Spotlight ~ The Field of Cloth of Gold, by Glenn Richardson

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Glenn Richardson provides the first history in more than four decades of a major Tudor event: an extraordinary international gathering of Renaissance rulers unparalleled in its opulence, pageantry, controversy, and mystery.

Throughout most of the late medieval period, from 1300 to 1500, England and France were bitter enemies, often at war or on the brink of it. In 1520, in an effort to bring conflict to an end, England's monarch, Henry VIII, and Francis I of France agreed to meet, surrounded by virtually their entire political nations, at "the Field of Cloth of Gold." 

In the midst of a spectacular festival of competition and entertainment, the rival leaders hoped to secure a permanent settlement between them, as part of a European-wide "Universal Peace." 

Glenn Richardson offers a bold new appraisal of this remarkable historical event, describing the preparations and execution of the magnificent gathering, exploring its ramifications, and arguing that it was far more than the extravagant elitist theater and cynical charade it historically has been considered to be.
'This is an impressive piece of work. Its great strength is the author's use of original French material, which has enabled Richarson to reconstruct the French preparations in the same detail as the English, and to explore the cultural significance of the Field for Renaissance diplomacy. Richardson is right to conclude that it was seriously intended, and not merely a jeu d'espirit or an excuse for conspicuous consumption.' - David Loades, author of The Tudors: History of a Dynasty 
'Glenn Richardson has meticulously scoured the archives, in both French and English, to provide a sparkling new account of the Field of Cloth of Gold as an extraordinary demonstration of ostentatious rivalry. Richardson notes that there has been no new history of the Field for forty years; after his definitive, detailed and careful study, there need be no new one for many years to come.' - Suzannah Lipscomb, author of A Visitor's Companion to Tudor England
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About the Author

Dr Glenn  Richardson is Professor of Early Modern History at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. His work concentrates on monarchy as form of government, ideals of princely rule, the royal court and international political and cultural relations between monarchs. His published works include The Field of Cloth of Gold, Renaissance Monarchy: the reigns of Henry VIII, Francis I and Charles V, ‘Contending Kingdoms’ France and England, 1420-1700 (ed.) and Tudor England and its Neighbours (ed. with Susan Doran). Glenn's latest book, a biography of Thomas Wolsey, will be published later this year. Follow Glenn on Twitter @GJ1Richardson

22 June 2020

Guest Interview with Doug J. Cooper, Author of Bump Time Meridian (Bump Time Series)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

David “Diesel” Lagerford rides his T-box across timelines, where each stop is a parallel world with its own Diesel, wife Lilah, and daughter Rose. Its origin uncertain, the T-box is safe for any of the Diesels to use, and they do so to gather and bond in a tight brotherhood. But instant death awaits all other would-be travelers

I'm pleased to welcome science fiction author Doug J. Cooper to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book?

I write science fiction action/adventure stories where one of the central characters is an artificial intelligence. I’ve completed the four-book Crystal Series (book 1 Crystal Deception), with escapades that take us to the moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt, all led by Criss, a “good” AI who is friendly, cooperative, and moral.

I am now writing the Bump Time trilogy, a time-travel suspense series where amoral AI Ciopova wreaks havoc on the Lagerford family. I released book 1 (Bump Time Origin) in 2019 and just released book 2 (Bump Time Meridian) in May 2020. I am now deep into writing the third book (Bump Time Terminus), due out in 2021.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I am a creature of habit, so my routine is very regular. I get up early every morning and write for a few hours before I start my regular day. Sometime before noon, I find an hour to spend on social media, pleading with the world to read my books. In the late afternoon, I have a second, shorter writing session, often with a glass of wine before dinner.

I don’t outline or plan my stories beyond big picture ideas. I write the books in chapter order, developing the adventure as I go. In fact, a large part of my joy in the writing process is discovering what comes next for my characters. I honestly don’t know in advance, and just as I do when reading a book, I often laugh and sometimes cry when I learn their fate.

On top of that, I edit as I go, refining the passages I’ve written as I contemplate what comes next. The result of these habits is that my productivity is only a few hundred words a day, leaving me in awe of those who write thousands of words in a sitting. But with that said, my persistence leads to finished books. Three hundred words a day leads to a 100K word book in less than a year. I’ve done it six times and am enjoying working on book seven. 

What advice do you have for new writers?

If your goal is to attract readers to your work, pace yourself. As in the realm of music, there are some authors who are “one hit wonders.” But the reality is that most people who develop a readership have been plugging away at it for many years. So keep writing. And when you finish a piece, enjoy an afternoon basking in your success, and then sit down and start the next one. They say you need to work at something for ten thousand hours to perfect it as a skill. If you write for twenty hours per week, every week, that will take you ten years.

Also, the longer you live, the more experiences you have to draw upon to make your stories more engaging. On a forum I recently read, someone wrote, “I just turned thirty-two and want to become an author. Is it too late for me?” I released my first book at age fifty-eight and will be sixty-five when my seventh book is released. I feel my collection of experiences make my stories richer. So don’t let age be a factor in your pursuits.

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

I wish I had a good answer to this because it is a persistent problem. Readers have so many choices, and finding ways to push my books above it all is difficult. The only reliable long-term method I have found is paid advertising. But advertising is so expensive, often costing me fifty cents every time a customer clicks just to look at my Amazon page, that I have not had a positive balance on my book-writing ledger for quite some time. 

Recently I’ve had success giving away Crystal Deception, book 1 of the Crystal Series, with the thought that some will enjoy it enough to continue through the series. While it seems to be a winning strategy today, the publishing landscape is constantly shifting, so I remain vigilant for the next new marketing idea.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

As an engineering professor at the University of Connecticut, I have studied such a breadth of technology issues that I can handle the science part of science fiction without further research. Interestingly, most of my discovery comes from learning the nuances of grammar, book construction, and the like from my beta readers and editor. As a kid in school, I focused on math and science, ignoring language arts because it didn’t seem useful. Now I know better, and I’m enjoying learning.

I also have spent many hours reflecting on human-machine interaction as I decide how an AI should behave as a person, how it should interact with humans, and how it should behave in society. As the influence of AI grows in our society, the topic is both interesting and relevant. 

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

Death of a beloved character is very hard.

What are you planning to write next?

I am now enjoying writing Bump Time Terminus, the third book in the Bump Time trilogy, due out in 2021. After that, I’m thinking of going back into space, but deep space this time. I won’t know until I start writing, though, and I’m looking forward to finding out. 

Doug J. Cooper
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About the Author

When he is not writing science fiction novels, Doug fills his day working as a professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Connecticut, and as founder and director of Control Station, Inc., a manufacturing plant optimization company. His passions include telling inventive tales, mentoring driven individuals, and everything sci-tech. He lives in Connecticut with his darling wife and with pictures of his son, who is off somewhere in the world creating adventures of his own. Find out more at Doug’s website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @crystalseries 

21 June 2020

Guest Interview with Anna Chant, Author of the Quest for New England Trilogy

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

After the defeat at Hastings,
The failure of rebellions,
And the devastation of the North,
England desperately needs a new hero.

1066 is probably the most famous date in English history and we all know what happened. Duke William of Normandy invaded, defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and brought an end to the Anglo-Saxon era. But was it really the end? Not all Anglo-Saxons were quietly amalgamated into the new Norman regime.

There were rebellions and when those proved futile, some opted for a voluntary exile. Based on what is probably a true story the Quest for New England trilogy follows a large group of exiles in their search for a new home. I say it is probably a true story as the records are scarce and riddled with inconsistencies. As an example, the leader of this group is named as the Earl of Gloucester, although as far as we know there were no earls of Gloucester pre-Conquest! But for me, this is my favourite kind of history to fictionalise, with plenty of gaps for my imagination to take over.

The story is told over three books and at the beginning in 1073 there are no plans to leave England with the characters still hoping to overthrow the Conqueror and place Edgar, the last of the Wessex line on the throne. Although the action takes place some years after 1066, that year overshadows the trilogy as the characters struggle to come to terms with the grief and bitterness of defeat. 

Siward, the leader, remains traumatised by what he witnessed on the battlefield of Hastings aged just 17, while his wife, Oswyth was orphaned that day and still grieves for the father she idolised. Other characters include a bishop driven from office, a nobleman injured at Stamford Bridge struggling with the guilt at not fighting at Hastings and a man whose entire family were wiped out in the Harrying of the North. Can they overcome the ghosts of the past to succeed in their search for a New England?

Many thanks to Tony Riches for inviting me onto his blog today. Now for a few questions!

What is your preferred writing routine?

I don’t have a particular routine, but in 2016 I made it my new year’s resolution to write or edit at least one sentence a day, which with very few exceptions I have maintained ever since. It may not sound like much, but it’s easy to get out of the habit of writing. However no matter how busy life gets it’s always possible to manage one sentence. Of course, usually once I start writing I don’t want to stop.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Just write. Don’t worry too much about whether what you’re writing is any good. Once you’ve written something you can always improve it. Also try not to worry about whether other people will like it. Write the book you want to read. I would also strongly recommend connecting with other writers, both in real life and social media. The writing community is such a supportive one, always ready to offer advice and encouragement.

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

I find promoting my books very difficult, mostly using social media, particularly Twitter to get the word out. Awareness of my books has increased with each new release with more sales of my first novel, Kenneth’s Queen in an average week now than I did in the first three months after its release in 2016.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

The best discoveries are always on those links I nearly don’t click, thinking it won’t be interesting/something I knew already, but something makes me check it out anyway. The Quest for New England series is an example of this. It started with an article about medieval New England. Assuming it was going to be about Vikings in America, I nearly ignored it. By the time I finished reading it, I knew there was going to be a book. There ended up being three.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

I struggled writing the death of Liudolph, Duke of Swabia in God’s Maidservant. Usually I quite enjoy wallowing in a good death scene, but writing it for Liudolph was hard. I think it’s because Liudolph was a character who had been born in my previous book, The Saxon Marriage. After ‘watching’ him grow up, I hated to ‘see’ him die and, as a parent myself, portraying the grief of his father was particularly daunting. Writing about the medieval period, he is not the first character I’ve written to die young but to me he is the most tragic.

What are you planning to write next?

We are currently in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the decision I made last autumn, before the current crisis struck, was that my next book was going to be set in a pandemic – the 6th century Plague of Justinian. Writing about a pandemic while being in one has been challenging, with the fears and experiences of the characters feeling a bit too real. As a result progress has been sporadic and it’s still at the first draft stage, so that’s all I can reveal about the story for now!

Anna Chant

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About the Author

Anna Chant is a historical fiction author of nine books set in the early medieval period. Her debut novel, Kenneth’s Queen was published in 2016 and was the first of six books in the Women of the Dark Ages series, telling of the lives of the often forgotten and uncelebrated women who lived in that era. Taking inspiration from both history and legend, Anna particularly enjoys bringing to life the lesser known events and characters. When not writing, Anna enjoys walks on the moors and coastline of Devon where she lives with her husband, three sons and a rather cheeky bearded dragon. Find out more at Anna's website and find her on Twitter @anna_chant

20 June 2020

Special Guest Post by Linda Porter on writing Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the court of Charles Il

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US 

Mistresses is the story of the women who shared Charles’s bed, each of whom wielded influence on both the politics and cultural life of the country. From the young king-in-exile’s first mistress and mother to his first child, Lucy Walter, to the promiscuous and ill-tempered courtier, Barbara Villiers. From Frances Teresa Stuart, ‘the prettiest girl in the world’ to history’s most famous orange-seller, ‘pretty, witty’ Nell Gwynn and to her fellow-actress, Moll Davis, who bore the last of the king’s fifteen illegitimate children. From Louise de Kéroualle, the French aristocrat – and spy for Louis XIV – to the sexually ambiguous Hortense Mancini. Here, too, is the forlorn and humiliated Queen Catherine, the Portuguese princess who was Charles’s childless queen.

Blooming Beauties

Barbara Villiers, later Mrs Roger Palmer and eventually countess of Castlemaine and duchess of Cleveland, was described in her teens as ‘that blooming beauty’. There were other, far less complimentary, judgements of her during the 1660s, when her highly public affair with Charles II was the talk of the Restoration court. Barbara is one of seven ladies featured in my book on Charles II’s mistresses and his long-suffering queen, published in April, 2020. Writing it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, as well as a revelatory one. For, like most historians and biographers who have written about the ‘Merrie Monarch’, I found that he did not improve on acquaintance.

Quite why this indulgent view of Charles II has held on for so long is hard to say. The Stuarts have never captured the public imagination in the same way as the Tudors, despite the 17th century being every bit as colourful as the 16th. Charles II and his licentious court may be the most familiar aspects of British 17th century history, with the Civil Wars which shaped politics for centuries afterwards largely forgotten, featured only as an option on some ‘A’ Level history courses. We prefer the certainties of endlessly re-visiting Henry VIII’s six wives to exploring the richness of 17th century political thought and literature, not to mention religious turmoil. Roundheads and Cavaliers have gone out of fashion.

Yet Charles II, the epitome of the tall, dark and handsome prince, is still remembered fondly. The heaving bosoms of his mistresses and the elaborate dress of his courtiers speak to our natural inclination to find such carefree hedonism attractive. The success of the series ‘Versailles’, a fictional account of the court of Charles II’s cousin, Louis XIV, illustrates that there is a tangible level of interest in the 17th century, though it doesn’t yet threaten the stranglehold of the Tudors. The goings-on at the Restoration court can certainly match Versailles for salaciousness but, despite the fact that Charles II had more mistresses than Henry VIII had wives, and they were much better-looking than Henry’s rather odd assortment of ladies, the only one most people will have heard of is history’s most famous orange-seller, the actress Nell Gwyn.

Nell and her rivals are featured in my book. I came to write it, as is so often the case, somewhat by chance. In 2016 I left the 16th century behind and published ‘Royal Renegades: the children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars.’ Unlike my previous three titles, on Mary I, Katherine Parr and Mary Queen of Scots, to my dismay it attracted very little attention, despite some readers being kind enough to say that only after reading it had they finally understood the Civil Wars. Reviewers, however, largely ignored it, perhaps because it came out in October, a month when publishers unleash their pre-Christmas offerings in great numbers. And, of course, I was generally known as a Tudor specialist, something which I had become of necessity because it was an easier route to being published. I had planned to follow ‘Royal Renegades’ with a book on the family and friends of Oliver Cromwell, which would have involved a daunting amount of research.

I worked hard on the proposal but it was deemed to be insufficiently commercial and so, having occasionally entertained thoughts of writing about Charles II’s mistresses, I decided to put that forward as an alternative topic. This was accepted and I set about the research. If I am honest, I wasn’t overly engaged with it at the outset. I believed I could do a professional job and then began to find the research enjoyable. The fruits of all of this finally saw the light of day on 16 April, 2020 and I’ve been surprised and gratified by the response. As a writer, you never really know how your work is going to be received. I was also very lucky that my book was, indeed, published on the expected date, as so many others have been postponed, sometimes into next year. It also seems to have been the kind of entertaining, slightly escapist, reading that has struck a chord during lockdown and the exceptional times in which we now live.

Charles II’s mistresses were a varied and often very clever group of ladies. Aside from their looks, they can be distinguished from Henry VIII’s wives by their ability (with one exception) to ensure their survival and protect their own interests. The Civil Wars increased the confidence of many women, even if not much had changed in terms of their legal submission to their husbands. But Charles’s mistresses were not a submissive lot. Even the hapless Lucy Walter, Charles’s mistress in his early years of exile at The Hague, tried to assert herself through her determination to use the future duke of Monmouth, Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, as a bargaining chip. She failed because of her tempestuous nature and poor judgement. Her successors in Charles’s bed before the Restoration were quieter ladies who managed their relationships with him better.

Barbara Palmer was even more passionate than Lucy and much more successful. Detested by almost everyone who knew her, Barbara was viewed by contemporaries as sexually voracious and incurably greedy. Some of the things that were said about her might shock even today’s Twitter trolls. It was all water off a duck’s back. Shame had no place in Barbara’s arsenal. Instead, she made sure that she enhanced her own status and finances, while being careful to further the interests of her five illegitimate children with Charles II, though whether her maternal tenderness went much beyond such practical considerations is open to question. In an age in which many women died in childbirth, Barbara recovered effortlessly from its perils, her striking beauty scarcely changed. Even when the king had finally tired of her tantrums, she continued to attract lovers, including John Churchill, later duke of Marlborough, the father of her youngest daughter.

I found it particularly interesting to write about one of the ladies who is less well-known, Frances Teresa Stuart. I labelled her ‘the one who got away’ because she managed to avoid actually sleeping with Charles II. For five years, during which she was viewed as an airhead by everyone at court, this pretty teenage daughter of an obscure royalist exile in France evaded the king’s clutches while having to endure almost daily sexual harassment from him. Realising that this could not go on for much longer, she took the desperate step of eloping with the king’s cousin, the duke of Richmond and Lennox and marrying him secretly at his home in Kent. Charles II was furious and Frances only returned to some degree of favour when she caught smallpox and the king took pity on her predicament.

For this perhaps reveals one of Charles II’s better points. He could be tender-hearted on occasion, though not towards the men who had signed his father’s death warrant and other convinced republicans. He had no great loyalty to his ministers but did not actually execute any of them, as Henry VIII had done. He was outraged by attacks on his wife by the charlatan Titus Oates during the furore over the imagined Popish Plot in 1678 and never considered divorcing her, despite the fact that by the end of the 1660s it was evident she could not bring a pregnancy to term. Still, I have to take issue with the person on Facebook who described him as being ‘nice to his wife.’ He generally treated her with absolutely no care for her feelings and was adamant that she had to accept Barbara Palmer as one of the ladies of her household. But at least Catherine of Braganza wasn’t sent to the block, as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had been.

And the apparent glamour of his court was really a sordid charade. Charles was so chronically short of money that he sold his kingdoms to Louis XIV for a handy pension, which he spent on himself. The Secret Treaty of Dover is one of the most shameful pieces of underhand diplomacy ever undertaken by a British monarch. True, he took the money but did not honour the agreement, but honour was not something Charles valued much, which gives him a lot in common with most politicians today. Charles ruled a deeply divided kingdom, or, more accurately, three deeply divided kingdoms, though during his reign he never set foot outside England. His foreign policy was a humiliation best forgotten and at home he could not treat either Catholics or Protestant dissenters fairly.

Still, for all my reservations about this best-known king of the Stuart dynasty, it’s pleasing that the 17th century as a whole is beginning to come to the attention again of a wider public. For this, we should be very grateful to three excellent writers of historical fiction. I urge everyone to read the wonderful novels of SG MacLean, whose Damian Seeker series is set in Cromwellian England, and also of Andrew Taylor, whose crime novels featuring James Marwood and Cat Lovett, give a lot of background on the political shenanigans of the Restoration period. Finally, there is newcomer Miranda Malins, whose novel ‘The Puritan Princess’ about Frances Cromwell, the Protector’s youngest daughter, is set in the little-known Cromwellian court. Each of these authors will broaden your horizons and, hopefully, inspire you also to read more non-fiction, like my own.

Linda Porter
In telling the story of Charles's mistresses, Porter skillfully interweaves the politics with the passion . . . an enlightening read. -- Tracy Borman, The Sunday Time  
The lives of these seven women make a terrific story and Porter tells it well. -- Andrew Taylor, The Times
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About the Author

Linda Porter has a B.A. and a D.Phil from the University of York. She spent nearly ten years lecturing in New York, at Fordham and City Universities among others, before returning with her American husband and daughter to England, where she embarked on a complete change of career. For more than twenty years she worked as a senior public relations practitioner in BT, introducing a ground-breaking international public relations programme during the years of BT’s international expansion. The attractions of early retirement were too good to miss and she has gone back to historical writing as well as reviewing for the BBC History Magazine, The Literary Review and History Today.. Find out more at Linda’s website and follow Linda on Twitter @DrLindaPorter1

19 June 2020

Special Guest Post by Ellen Alpsten, Author of Tsarina

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Spring 1699: Illegitimate, destitute and strikingly beautiful, Marta has survived the brutal Russian winter in her remote Baltic village. Sold by her family into household labour at the age of fifteen, Marta survives by committing a crime that will force her to go on the run.

The Forgotten Empress

Never before has there been so much interest in female power, and female reign, be it historically, or in current politics. Literature and TV adaptations are no exception: ‘So, is it another novel about Catherine the Great?’ People asked about my epic debut ‘Tsarina’. Yet the two women bearing the same name, ruling the same country, in the same century, could hardly be more different! ‘Tsarina’ tells for the first time ever the astonishing rise of Catherine I. of Russia from illiterate and illegitimate serf girl to Empress of the world’s largest and wealthiest realm. It is also the story of the birth of modern Russia, of a rising Empire in turmoil and change, of the madness of war, the recklebrutality of absolute monarchy when nothing is as abundant and worthless as human life.

Catherine’s story had fascinated me ever since I read about her in a book called ‘Germans and Russians’, which charts the joint millennial history of those two people. I liken her to Tut-Ankh-Amun: The Tsars preceding and succeeding her had shed so much light, that she slid into the shadows of history. The research, until I dared to enter her shocking and sensuous world, drafting the opening sentence of ‘Tsarina’, was arduous, and the writing-routine stringent, as I worked as an anchor for Bloomberg TV, mostly rising at 2am.

‘My’ Catherine overcomes a fate raging against her and embarks on one of the world’s most astonishing, passionate, and lasting love-stories. Her story is as marked by surprising opposites as the Russian Soul itself: callous cruelty and overwhelming empathy; overt hostility towards all things foreign, yet selfless hospitality to strangers; freezing, interminable winters - zima –, and the summers’ balmy white nights. Yet her world of constant change and ever shifting circumstances bore many threats.

Female maltreatment was rampant and her life with the Tsar was like a river tearing her along: sink – or swim. Daisy Goodwin called ‘Tsarina’ the ‘ultimate Cinderella story’, yet Catherine pushed herself tirelessly: bearing the Tsar thirteen children, travelling all over Russia, Europe, and Central Asia, and even accompanying him into the field. Next to being passionate lovers they were great friends. She stood up to him and supported him through hardship and moments of doubt; she remained level-headed and merciful, yet ruthlessly defended what she had gained. If a contemporary observer wrote: ‘She wasn’t beautiful, but as warm as an animal,’ he spoke of her smouldering sex-appeal, as well as of her indomitable spirit. Her ascent bears testimony of the strength and the will to survive.

Yet while she managed to overcome a fate raging against her and rose far beyond the strictures imposed on her by a male-dominated society and world, the ‘good old times’ were not such for most women. People’s longing for more social cohesion and the comfort of limited horizons might explain the renewed passion for historical novels, yet for normal women those were frankly terrible days. My research made me think a lot about the female condition in the past - no education, early marriage, annual childbirth - which was a gamble of life and death - no privacy, neither horizons nor hope for any change to the better, ever. Life was marginally better for high-born women. The Petrine laws of inheritance changed this - as often, war was a harbinger of progress. If all men are in battle, women have to run the trade. If sons stay in the field, unmarried daughters ought to inherit. So, while equality brings its own challenges, I do prefer to live today. The choices we have are a tremendous luxury and a true achievement.

Interestingly enough though, when looking at Catherine’s portraits, people might struggle to see her appeal. Though this, too is a very modern message. You can succeed without adhering to any norms, let alone beauty ideals. Also, Russia is once more a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma for the Western World; What surprises us today was already present in the nation’s social make-up back then. Finally, Vladimir Putin is Russia’s quasi-absolute ruler, a country which ‘Tsarina’ observes with a foreigner’s keen eyes. So, the book – albeit being presented in a historical framework – answers to a lot of contemporary questions.

Peter the Great loved ‘turning the world upside down’: Catherine exceeded her brief, setting in motion everything that was to follow in Russia politically: a century of unprecedented female reign. She ruled a mere two, peaceful and prosperous years, a rarity in Russia. As a lasting legacy she financed Bering’s ship to find his eponymous strait.

Nobody who reads ‘Tsarina’ shall ever forget ‘my’ Catherine again. 

Ellen Alpsten

'Alpsten's colourful narrative does full justice to her extraordinary career' 
Sunday Times

'With its sprawling canvas and huge cast ... it's an entertaining romp through the endless intrigue, violence and debauchery of court life'
Mail on Sunday

'A vivid page-turner of a debut'
The Times

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About the Author

Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands. Upon graduating from the l'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, she worked as a news-anchor for Bloomberg TV London. While working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap and a run. Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint, and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons, and a moody fox red Labrador. Tsarina is her debut novel. Find out more at Ellen's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @EAlpsten_Author

17 June 2020

Blog Tour Excerpt from COUNTERPOINT: Henry, the King's Cavalier (The Lydiard Chronicles) By Elizabeth St.John

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

A man may think his life is only measured by battles fought for the king. Until he meets a woman worth fighting for. Henry Wilmot. Cavalier. Seasoned soldier. Grieving widower. On the eve of battle he is sent by the king to requisition arms. What he did not expect was that the supplies were a gift from a feisty and attractive widow who was hiding her own Royalist beliefs in plain sight. Even more alarming was that his quest took him into the heart of an enemy Parliamentarian household. Will Henry survive the fight of his life? 
And will Nan remember him if he does?


On the eve of the battle of Edge Hill, Henry Wilmot is in a desperate race to acquire arms on behalf of the king. He enlists the help of Allen Apsley, who leads him to his cousin.

The foolish groom just ignored me before bending and feebly pushing the guns back into a pile. He was a weed of a man, the guns near as long as him. At that rate, we would be there all night.

I nudged him with my boot. “Don’t be so bloody stupid, you whoreson. Get out of the damned way. Now.”

The fellow snatched up a gun and pointed it at me. “And you don’t be so bloody rude.” In a swift motion, Allen seized the weapon and flung it to the ground—and then burst out laughing. I was still struggling to understand why a stripling whose voice had not even broken was on a mission like this.

Allen hugged the lad, knocking off his hat. The recruit laughed with a laugh that sent heat to my gut. And shook loose a wash of auburn curls.



“Dear God!” I exclaimed.

She swept me a look that would have stopped the Earl of Essex dead and saved us the trouble of fighting again that month.

“Where’s my brother?” she demanded of Apsley.

“With the advance cavalry, on his way to London.” He paused. “Ned’s perfectly safe, Nan. We meet up from here and ride together.”

She nodded in my direction. “Who’s this?” 

“Henry Wilmot, at your service.” I swept my best bow. Somehow her attitude and the occasion demanded it.

“Should I know you, Mr. Wilmot?”

Again that arrogance. I just stared at her.

Apsley rushed to my rescue. “Colonel Wilmot is the king’s Commissioner General of the Horse. He leads the cavalry in his army, Nan. He is the most experienced military commander, second only to Prince Rupert.” He paused. “And more popular.”

She sniffed. “Let’s see if you can ride as well as you curse.” She turned to Apsley. “Give me a leg up, Allen. I’ll show you the shortcut across Ditchley Park. It’ll save you two hours on the track.”

This was too much. We did not need a woman slowing us down at this vital moment. “Can’t your men lead us? This is really no place for a lady.”

As Apsley cupped his hands and Lady Lee stepped up on her high horse—if it was even possible for her to climb any higher—her cloak swung open, revealing a pair of breeches and a man’s jacket, some kind of linen shirt and velvet waistcoat. None of which did anything to hide her figure nor her agility.

“Not what I had expected, Apsley,” I muttered under my breath. “Yet certainly more than I wished for.”

He grinned and quickly mounted, as did I. “Ride forward with Nan, Colonel, and I’ll bring up the rear to ensure the pack ponies don’t lag.” Cantering down the track, he left me at his cousin’s mercy.

“Shall we go?” She shot me another glance. “Or are you concerned about keeping up with a woman in unknown territory?”

She urged her horse forward, her hair streaming behind like the mane of a wild filly.

# # #

About the Author

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England, lives in California, and spends most of her time in the 17th Century. To inspire her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story... Find out more at Elizabeth's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @ElizStJohn

15 June 2020

A page a day is a book a year #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

“You can learn only by doing.” ― Stephen King 
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I write a book a year, and have done for the past ten years. Some people tell me they would never have the time to write a book. I suspect the truth for many is they don't have confidence in their writing skills.

Like any skill, writing a book takes time to learn. You wouldn't expect to pick up a musical instrument and play it well right away, but if you learn a new tune every day, you will soon improve. (I taught myself to play the flute with the ‘Tune a Day’ books.)

Of all the writing advice I've ever seen, the one I recommend is the only way to learn to write is to just write, every day. The typical novel has around three hundred words on a page, so if you can write just one page a day, that's a book a year.

That means making the time to sit down and write, even if you don't feel like it, until writing a page a day becomes a habit - and a skill. In a year you will write well over a hundred thousand words.

Tony Riches  

If you have more ideas on how to improve writing productivity please comment below

The #AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event on the topic of resources and learning for authors. Feel free to hop around to the various blogs and see what you learn!

14 June 2020

Book Review: Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester, by Nicola Tallis

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The little I knew of Lettice Knollys created a picture of her as reckless, perhaps even foolish, in how she knowingly provoked the legendary fury of her friend, (and half-sister?), Queen Elizabeth, but of course, the truth is more complicated.

Lettice can be admired for her courage, risking everything for Robert Dudley, although she might have sensibly avoided travelling with such an entourage that people mistook her for the queen.

I'm also fascinated by her children, who all have amazing stories in their own right. Lettice's story could have ended in the Tower of London, but instead she outlived three husbands, her brother and sisters, and of her six children (that we can be sure of), to die on Christmas day, 1634, at the age of ninty-one.

Nicola Tallis explains she was inspired to research and write this book after visiting Lettice's tomb. Amazingly, for such an important Tudor woman, this is the first full biography of Lettice Knollys, and I think she would have been pleased to know her life is finally explored in the context it deserves. Highly recommended.  
Tony Riches

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About the Author

British Historian Nicola Tallis graduated from Bath Spa University with a first class BA Hons. degree in History in 2011, and from Royal Holloway College, University of London in 2013 with an MA in Public History and her PhD from the University of Winchester. Nicola also worked as a historical researcher, most notably for Sir Ranulph Fiennes whilst he was working on his 2014 book, Agincourt: My Family, the Battle and the Fight for France. Find out more at Nicola's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @NicolaTallis

11 June 2020

Book Review: The Falcon’s Flight, A novel of Anne Boleyn (The Falcon's Rise Book 2) by Natalia Richards

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Anne Boleyn's life is threatened, intrigue, gossip and treachery abound, and her destiny is finally revealed.

Evocative and atmospheric, the second book in Natalia Richards' series on the life of Anne Boleyn covers her time in France. Often skimmed over by historians, understandably keen to move on to the tragedy of Anne's later life, this immersive, first person narrative places the reader firmly in Anne's shoes.   

Having quite a detailed knowledge of the events and places featured in the book, I know how inaccessible the primary sources can be - and how secondary sources are often contradictory. I was therefore pleased to see how consistently the author has followed actual events. 

I particularly enjoyed Natalia's description of the sights (and smells) of medieval Paris, and to find myself returning to the The Field of Cloth of Gold, where King Henry VIII met King François I of France, on the five-hundredth anniversary, as it took place in June 1520.

In her author's note, Natalia Richards reveals her secret was to personally visit the actual locations used in the book, and says, 'Anne's years in France honed her intelligence and wit, and she had much to offer long before she ever met King Henry.'

Highly recommended.

Tony Riches
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About the Author

As a curator and historian for over 30 years, Natalia has worked in many museums in Derbyshire and later in London. She also worked free-lance for the History Channel USA as researcher, co-ordinator, and interviewer on the award-winning production 'Secrets of War.' However, her passion since a very early age has been the study of the Tudors, particularly Anne Boleyn and the court of King Henry VIII.  She did not begin writing seriously until around 2008 and originally wanted to write about Anne Boleyn at the English court. However, a great deal had already been written about this period, and Natalia began to look at her earlier life from around 1500 to 1521. The result of her research was 'The Falcon's Rise,’ set at the court of Margaret of Austria. She then followed this up with part two 'The Falcon's Flight'. This second book covers Anne's time at the French court, with Queen Claude, and ends as she is about to return to England. In her spare time, Natalia loves travelling, gardening, rambling, and visiting historic houses, as well as constantly reading and researching the Tudor period. She spends her time between Derbyshire and Chelsea, in London. Find out more at Natalia's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @nat_wieczorek

10 June 2020

Interview with Samantha Wilcoxson, Author of Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Catherine Donohue's life was set on an unexpected course when she accepted a job at Radium Dial. The pay was great, and her co-workers became her best friends. But a secret was lurking in the greenish-grey paint that magically made things glow in the dark. When Catherine and her friends started becoming sick, this shy Catholic girl stood up to the might of the radium industry, the legal and medical communities, and townspeople who told her to be quiet. Would she be too late?

I'm pleased to welcome author Samantha Wilcoxson to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book.

My novel, Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl, was just published a few days ago. It is the story of Catherine Donohue, who worked at Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois during the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was during this time that those working with radium began to sicken and die, but the radium industry attempted to deny liability or even that the illnesses could be caused by radium. Catherine’s story is one of a quiet, small-town girl finding the courage and strength to stand up to the radium industry and the legal system in an effort to save herself and her friends.

What is your preferred writing routine?

Although writers are infamous night owls, I prefer to write during the day, especially first thing in the morning when my mind feels sharp. I have a small office set up in my home, but I prefer to take my laptop out on the deck when the weather is nice. Occasionally, I am able to get away for a couple of days to focus solely on writing, and it is wonderful to spend some time free of distractions.

What advice do you have for new writers?

I would advise writers to follow their passion – for writing and when it comes to what topics to write about. I was in the middle of the draft of an entirely different novel when I decided to set it aside to write Luminous. It felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders to write a story that I was truly excited about telling.

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

My favorite way of spreading the word about my books is being involved in online history groups. I love discussing history, and people are much more likely to be interested in my books if they already know me. I also have regular traffic to my blog where I write about history and historic places that I have visited.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research.

While researching the town of Ottawa and Radium Dial, I was shocked to learn that companies had been legally allowed to continue exposing their employees to radium for many more years than they should have been. Although it was well-known that radium was dangerous by the end of the 1930’s, Luminous Processes (a company started by Radium Dial management) was not shut down until 1978. It made me so angry to hear how long workers were exploited, and it made me wonder what such stories continue to this day.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

In this book, the most difficult scene occurs during Catherine’s hearing with the Illinois Industrial Commission. Her health is failing due to radium exposure and this is her chance to have Radium Dial held legally responsible. She and her husband are forced to listen to doctors testify regarding her condition. I don’t want to give away too much, but it is one of the most tragic and emotional scenes that I have written.

What are you planning to write next?

That’s a great question! I have been proven a liar on more than one occasion after responding to similar inquiries. The best I can say is that I plan to continue writing about American history, but two ideas are competing for my attention at the moment. I may even veer into the world of writing nonfiction.

Thank you, Tony, for welcoming me to your blog! I hope that your readers enjoy Luminous and that it inspires them to strive to make our world a better place in the same way that Catherine Donohue did.

Samantha Wilcoxson
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About the Author

Samantha Wilcoxson is a history enthusiast and avid traveler. Her published works include the Plantagenet Embers series with novels and novellas that explore the Wars of the Roses and early Tudor era. Luminous is her first foray into 20th century American history, but she suspects that it will not be her last. Samantha enjoys exploring the personal side of historic events and creating emotive, inspiring stories. Find out more at Samantha's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @carpe_librum