Mastodon The Writing Desk: 2021

24 December 2021

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Tivoli Murders, by John Pilkington

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

London, 1891:It is three years since the notorious Ripper murders, and the last thing London needs is another killer on the streets. But this one targets the strangest of victims: popular Music Hall performers - two in quick succession, outside the famous Tivoli Theatre.

The Music Hall world is one of hard-nosed businessmen, impresarios, and big profits. Inspector Maskell of The Metropolitan Police is desperate for a lead in the case – and soon Sam Vasey, son and manager of Albert Vasey, better known as celebrated illusionist The Great Albertini, is drawn into the mystery.

A vicious campaign of sabotage is waged against the Albertini Company. Things reach a devastating climax at the Star Music Hall in Bermondsey, when Albert’s most spectacular illusion goes badly wrong before a sell-out crowd - resulting in the disappearance and murder of his onstage assistant Mirabel.

With the Albertini show grounded, Sam throws his energy into helping the police investigation. As the mystery deepens, Sam finds his own life in danger.

The hunt takes us from the bright lights of the West End to the gaslit, fogbound streets of London’s darker side – resulting in more than one illusion being shattered.

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About the Author

John Pilkington has written plays for radio and theatre, television scripts for the BBC and now concentrates on historical fiction, reflecting his passion for the Tudor and Stuart periods. A writer for over thirty years, he has published around twenty books including the Thomas the Falconer Mysteries (republished by Sharpe Books), the Marbeck spy series (Severn House) and two Restoration-era mysteries featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand (to be republished by Joffe Books). He is also the author of a children’s series, the Elizabethan Mysteries (Usborne). Born in the north-west of England, he now lives in a quiet Devon village with his partner, and has a son who is a musician and composer. Find out more at his website,, and find John on Twitter @_JohnPilkington.

23 December 2021

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The House in the Marsh: A medieval Christmas mystery with a ghostly twist (The Forest Lord) by Steven A. McKay

Available for pre-order from

For generations, stories have been told about the ruined old house in the marsh outside Wakefield. Stories of hidden treasure, sinister night-time cries, and ghostly figures doomed to haunt the lonely estate for all eternity as punishment for some terrible crime. This Christmas, it seems the old tales might just turn out to be true…

England, AD 1330: John Little, a bailiff living in Yorkshire, has little interest in ghost stories, having seen enough horrors among the living to bother much about the dead. The strange accounts from his fellow villagers have everyone talking though, and it’s not long before he’s asked to accompany a group of curious locals on nocturnal visits to the house in the marsh.

There are more worrying concerns in northern England however, as autumn gives way to winter and rumours of rogue bailiffs attacking, and even murdering people in their own homes, begin to circulate.

Along with his friends - ill-tempered Will Scaflock and the renowned friar, Robert Stafford - John is drawn inexorably into a dangerous adventure that will leave yet more people dead and only add to the eerie legends which will pass into English folklore for centuries to come.

Can John and his companions uncover the truth about the house in the marsh and its terrible secrets? And will they be able to forever exorcise the ghost haunting Wakefield, or will this Christmas be anything but merry?

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About the Author

Steven A. McKay was born in Scotland in 1977. He says, 'I enjoyed studying history – well, the interesting bits, not so much what they taught us in school. I decided to write my Forest Lord series after seeing a house called “Sherwood” when I was out at work one day. I’d been thinking about maybe writing a novel but couldn’t come up with a subject or a hero so, to see that house, well…It felt like a message from the gods and my rebooted Robin Hood was born. My current Warrior Druid of Britain series was similarly inspired, although this time it was the 80’s TV show “Knightmare”, and their version of Merlin that got my ideas flowing. Of course, the bearded old wizard had been done to death in fiction, so I decided to make my hero a giant young warrior-druid living in post-Roman Britain and he’s been a great character to write. I was once in a heavy metal band although I tend to just play guitar in my study these days. I’m sure the neighbours absolutely love me.' Find out more at his website and find him on Twitter @SA_McKay.

21 December 2021

Special Guest Interview with Helena Barnard, Author of A Painted Winter (Book 1 of the Pictish Conspiracy)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

In the misty highlands of fourth century Scotland, two Pictish brothers conspire with the Ancient People from beyond the Great Wall to attack the Romans.

I'm pleased to welcome author Helena Barnard to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

A Painted Winter is book one of the four-part Pictish Conspiracy series. Set in early medieval Scotland and Roman Britain, it tells the story of the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ which was a fourth century conflict in Britain when the Picts allegedly conspired with other ‘barbarians’ like the Saxons against the Romans. It is a fascinating, little known about moment in history that was influential in ending the Roman occupation of Britain. The novel is predominately historical fiction with some Celtic mythology / fantasy elements.

A few years ago, I was travelling around Scotland and I started to engage closely with the history and archaeology of Scotland more broadly, but in particular in relation to the Picts. I found it fascinating, especially the early period involving the conflicts with the Romans who tried to conquer their lands.

Unfortunately, the Picts did not record their own history in writing, so the historical records that we have are from the Roman, “enemy perspective”. I thought it would be interesting to show these conflicts from the Pictish perspective. To show what they thought about the conflicts with the Romans and also how they thought about themselves. “Scotland” at the time was made up of many different tribes or Kingdoms and it is interesting to learn that not all of them saw Rome as an enemy. 

Their relationships with each other and with Rome was complicated. Even the people living in what we now know as “England” (who had been occupied for hundreds of years by the Romans at that time) did not necessarily identify as “Roman”and many held onto their old Celtic religion, practices and language. I really wanted to draw out these issues around identity in complex political and economic situations in my book. These themes have never been more relevant given the often polarising state of cultural and political issues in modern times.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I’m very much a planner and after years working as a lawyer, I prefer a structured day. I need a lot of time to research and mull things over. I’ll usually do research and planning during the day, 10 to 5. But for writing, I like those dark, quiet times. So I write late at night and early in the morning.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

No matter how old you are, or what career path you’ve had; if you have a story to tell, you should tell it. I was inspired by Sharon Kay Penman who had worked as a lawyer before becoming a historical fiction writer.

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

This is my debut novel, and it is being released on 21 December 2021 so I don’t have a lot of experience with publicity. But I’d say that Instagram and Twitter are very useful platforms in sharing information about upcoming releases. However, it is really important to try and genuinely connect with people on these platforms. The reading community is very positive and is great to connect with like-minded people who love reading and writing. The novel is also part of an Instagram book tour, which has been great in getting the book in the hands of people who are passionate about books.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

Despite being surrounded by oceans and rivers, the Picts likely did not eat fish. We know this from the absence of fish in archaeological deposits and also human skeletal analysis. Salmon and other sea-beasts feature on the Pictish symbol stones, so they knew they existed. It is unclear, but it may be the case that fish were considered so special by the Picts that they avoided their consumption.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

I don’t find writing that difficult, but going through the editing process with my editor and publisher and accepting that certain scenes or even just a line or two needs to be deleted or re-written was hard. Very hard. One scene in particular, involving Druwydds (Druids) in an ancient Oak grove comes to mind. I felt very attached to it. I’d done a lot of research into Celtic mythology and it is probably the scene I am most proud of. Any change that had to be made to that by my editor I found painful!

What are you planning to write next?

I’m finishing off the second book in the Pictish Conspiracy series called The Saxon Spring. It focuses a lot more on the pre-migration Saxons and their involvement in the barbarian conspiracy. I am really excited about the new elements to the story and the action continues to build as the series progresses.

Helena Barnard

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About the Author

Helena Barnard (Pen name H. Barnard) is a historical fiction author, and formerly a lawyer. Born in Australia, Helena now resides in northern England, at the foot of Hadrian’s Wall. A Painted Winter is her debut novel and is book one of the four-part Pictish Conspiracy series. Helena has a passion for history and archaeology, particularly in relation to iron age and medieval Britain. As a historical fiction writer, she focuses on shining a light on lesser-known fascinating moments in history and bringing these moments to life for readers. You can find out more here: and follow Helena on Twitter @HelenaBwrites

20 December 2021

Special Guest Post by Boshra Rasti, Author of Surrogate Colony

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

In MicroScrep, a post-pandemic world, one politician, Arthur Mills, brings all scientists and engineers together to create a vaccine and rebuild a world where harmony ensues.

Dystopian Education

I wrote Surrogate Colony because I am in the business of education. I hate that phrase “business of education”, but believe me, after 15 years teaching, and a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership, there is a definite point when the fog clears and you see it for what it is - a capitalist venture. People think capitalism is about money - it isn’t; it’s about capital, a game of monopoly.

Monopolizing the way you think isn’t the most concerning consequence in this day and age, the most worrying is the way leadership is carved and molded, how human resources are divided, how something as human as learning is broken down, branded, and lorded over vast numbers of vulnerable children. The datafication (which is equal to exploitation - just ask Facebook) of the most basic human yearning, to know and be known, is terrifying.

Even if the bottom line isn’t physical money, there are other currencies at play my dear reader. That’s the thing about systems. Go figure that out for yourselves. I am not trying to convert you. I just want you to question. Actually, the only way to truly be a teacher is to demand that students question. That’s until they ask teachers to stop teaching critical thinking. 

And that’s the exact moment when teachers all over the world, in classrooms or not, should start creating music, art, novels, poems, whatever. Let creation resist the forces of monopoly in the world and clarify that you can datafy, track and control all sorts of nonsense at schools, but you cannot break human wonder, curiosity and creativity.

Adriana, the main character in Surrogate Colony, at a very early age notices this deficiency in education. She remembers early on in the novel:

Mother’s voice rings in my ear, “curiosity killed the cat.” But my favorite teacher, the late Ms. Bonito, said something to me on the eve of her untimely death that I won’t ever forget. “Adriana, it is true that curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” Her eyes twitched with emotion as she said that to me. On her way home from school, she was killed in a car crash.

Writing that Pierces

Writing must pierce. Being a writer is like sitting on the table for your first tattoo, or earring, or nose ring. The searing needle burning into your skin, the drop of blood a symbol of what you’ve done. Your body is forever altered.

And the way the world sees you has also changed. You’ve made an impression on it; on every passerby that briefly or profoundly stares at you. The gaze depends on the beholder. For some it’s the spectacle of a freak. For others, an attractive impression burned into their mind. It doesn’t matter what the reader sees; it matters that the writer has become vulnerable to the gaze of others.

That’s what scares me about a world without creative spectacle; without a needle and body. That world may very well be dystopian. Ruled by seemingly harmonious rules and order, but that cut the body’s nose in spite of its face.

Writing and art push the boundaries, creating the I am and You are that is so essential to the disgusting or adoring gaze of the other. It is from that place that society can learn tolerance, understanding, and progress.

Without creativity we are doomed to our own banality and flattening. In my novel, Surrogate Colony, people are given X-ray vision to protect themselves from viruses and bacteria. However, X-ray vision in Microscrep isn’t meant to create the piercing reality that society needs to be vulnerable, or creative. It is used to collectively control chaos. However, as the main character, Adriana learns, without chaos we cannot have creativity or desire.

Ties that Bind

“Just because our world is wrong doesn’t mean people don’t enjoy the binds which are holding them in. At least their binds are safe.”

― Rebecca Crunden, A Touch of Death

There is a sickening dysfunction in complacency and silence. That’s why writer’s write, artist’s paint or draw, musicians sing loudly; crescendoing the music despite the complicity and collusion of our tuned out world. They thrive on the edge of normalcy.

It’s scary stuff being different. Having a story to tell; a muse that won’t leave you alone. Maybe that’s why Charles Buckowski’s advice to young writers was to “Drink, f*** and smoke plenty of cigarettes.” I don’t think he was trying to be crass, (okay maybe he was, but I am trying to make a point), he was explaining that writers need to experience life and this might mean that they will not be bound. This means that they must be given space to explore.

In my novel, Surrogate Colony, the problem with society, Microscrep, is when there is no freedom to explore. The majority in Microscrep are the kind of people that “enjoy the binds which are holding them in,” because, “at least their binds are safe”.

The moral of Surrogate Colony is that we should never collectively get to that stage where we are so riddled with fear that we are happier with absolute control. We should never barter our freedom for a prison cell of seeming safety.

Boshra Rasti

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About the Author

Boshra Rasti is an Iranian-Canadian expatriate, writer and educator. She currently lives in Qatar as a teacher. She is the author of several published poems, “Connection in the City”, a poem about the city of Surrey, BC, Canada, as well as the author of “In the Chrysalis”, a poem about the COVID-19 pandemic, published in Together...Apart, an anthology of creative works published by HBKU Press. Her short stories have been published by Grattan Street Press, Literally Stories, and South Florida Poetry Journal.
Boshra draws inspiration from the teenage mind, one she may not have fully outgrown. She also is an avid runner who enjoys the self-torture of running in Qatar. She has other eclectic interests such as making vegan ice-cream. She may or may not use a pen name in the future to prevent a life-long tendency that people have of butchering her name. She hopes to someday make her home somewhere that doesn’t include burning up due to the consequences of global warming. You can find her works on her website: 

19 December 2021

Book Review: Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation, by Kathryn Warner

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

This is the first full-length biography of Philippa of Hainault since 1910, and explains how fourteen-year-old Philippa who successfully turned an arranged marriage to her fifteen-year-old second cousin Edward III in 1326 into a successful partnership which changed the course of British History.

Philippa was pregnant with her first child, Edward of Woodstock, (later known as 'The Black Prince') when she was crowned at Westminster in 1330, and it seems she was never far from the side of the king, and took an active interest in the politics of the time.  

I particularly like the little details, such as how Philippa's accounts show the cost of repairing a bedspread which had been chewed by her dogs, and that she owned four crowns, studded with jewels.

Philippa acted as regent of England during the king's absence  in 1346, and sent an army against an attempted invasion by the Scots at the Battle of Neville's Cross, rallying the troops on horseback.

Philippa and Edward III had thirteen children, including five sons who survived into adulthood, although three of their children died of the Black Death in 1348. 

Kathryn Warner's insightful research and thought-provoking analysis brings the world of Philippa to life, and this is a book i'm happy to recommend.

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.  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

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

10 December 2021

Special Guest Interview with Charles Edward Williams Author of The Aelian Crescent

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

A new emperor rises and steadily withdraws from the conquered eastern borders. A sinister and treasonous plot is unveiled amongst the elite members of the Senate with dire consequences. The restless emperor disciplines the border legions of Germania and Brittania and erects formidable barriers . Legate Cletus suffers a devastating personal loss.

I'm pleased to welcome author Charles Edward Williams to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

My third novel - The Aelian Crescent - in the Vialegio Series follows on from the previous two novels - The Dacian Enigma and The Arc of Dacicus. The first two books covered the ruthless and resolute expansionary eastern frontier and Mesopotamian campaigns of Emperor Trajan. 

During this epoch, this formidable soldier Emperor expanded the Roman Empire to its greatest extent. The Aelian Crescent- focuses on the subsequent succession of his ward Emperor Hadrian- an entirely different creature - who withdrew back from the conquered frontiers and wisely adopted a far reaching commonwealth type political strategy. The story further explores the vicious rivalries against his adoption by members of the Senate, and the capricious jealousies and hellenisation of the Empire by the new forceful and ambitious Emperor.

What is your preferred writing routine?

Mornings mostly, sitting comfortably in my favourite armchair pecking away like a chicken with one finger on my IPad and using the Pages application. Some days the flow is really strong with the words
seemingly streaming out. Other days, when the words struggle to come, I use the slow time to collect my thoughts and to self edit in order to shape and further scope out the storyline.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

If a story presses within you to begin writing- then don’t ignore the innate urging of your thoughts. Commit them to writing, even if only a few paragraphs. The efforts of writing your thoughts out will lead to that wonderful moment when the dam bursts, and your story flows forth from your mind.

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

Getting a local bookstore to stock and display the novel was an initial help, as was advertising in the local newspaper. In addition, listing the new book in the National Society of Authors ‘new books’ newsletter provided a wider reach and exposure. Social media appears to assist with broader readership exposure, and to date I’ve used Twitter which has many successful authors exchanging useful and helpful information. The novels are currently listed on Amazon Kindle and on Smashwords.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

In Emperor Trajan’s case - what struck me was the unseen yet powerful role played by his wife, the dutiful Pompeia Plotina in his rule. Blessed with humility and compassion, she guided many wise decisions made by the imposing soldier Emperor for the overall well being of the population. Due to her wide ranging social works she was adored by the citizens, and her grace and eminence buttressed the popularity of the Imperial couple. 

As regards Hadrian, I was truly surprised to discover that his custodian father Trajan harboured serious doubts about him. Trajan, who was an astute judge of character seemed to dislike Hadrian.Perhaps he thought his ward Hadrian was over influenced by Greek culture. It may well have been that Trajan saw through his capricious nature early on and was wary of him. It remains a mystery, forever lost in the mists of time, as to whether Trajan named Hadrian as his successor or whether it was a subterfuge by Plotina.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

The death scenes are always hard. Admirable and worthy soldiers cut down in the heat of battle. Generals that command intense loyalty from their legions falling out of favour with Emperors. Death in childbirth was probably the most harrowing of all- I literally trembled with remorse as the words tumbled out.

What are you planning to write next?

The fourth book which will bookend the Vialegio Series will cover the darkening years of Hadrian’s rule. Included will be the strange and mysterious interplay between the powerful ruler and his adored youthful companion, as well as the savage prophecy unearthed in Egypt that warns of the cracks in the vast Empire.

Charles Edward Williams.

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About the Author  

Charles Edward Williams lives in Dunedin, a coastal University city in the South Island of New Zealand.
Walking past the imposing Arch of Titus and down the large and uneven flagstones leading to the Forum, the author sensed the unheard voices and the untold tales of the soldiers that gave their lives in honour of the hallowed ground. An abiding interest in the first two centuries CE of the early Roman Empire led to the author to relate a soldiers tale. The authors aim is to provide the reader with an enjoyable holiday read and to enable them to share the thoughts and dreams of this remarkable period through the eyes and thoughts of a soldier serving in the Legion. Find out more at his website
and find him on Twitter: @LegioVia

9 December 2021

Special Guest Interview with Amanda Cockrell, Author of The Border Wolves

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The final thrilling tale of the House of Appius Julianus.
A new and deadly threat has emerged at the outskirts of the Roman Empire on the Danube, one that threatens to throw the entire region into chaos.

I'm pleased to welcome author Amanda Cockrell to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book 

`My latest book is The Border Wolves which is the fourth and final volume in The Centurions series, thirty-five years after the first three, so it feels rather like a resurrection. The series was first published in the 80s and was supposed to run to four volumes but the publisher was bought by another house between books 3 and 4, and as often happens, the new house killed a lot of their existing projects. So when Canelo wanted to republish the old ones and have me finish the series, I was thrilled. 

It was a complete joy to take Correus and Flavius, my two centurion brothers, to the ends of their careers in the way I had planned, by way of Domitian’s Dacian war. And I must say I give thanks for the internet daily, because one forgets  a lot of research in three decades and regaining all that knowledge would  have been daunting without it.

What is your preferred writing routine? 

It has changed a lot over the years as my domestic and day job circumstances have changed. Currently I set aside Mondays and Wednesdays to write and no one is allowed to stick anything else on my schedule on those days, or interrupt me unless something is actually on fire. I am not a morning person and usually get up about 10 and sit around in bed reading email. I get to the keyboard around noon and write solidly until 5 or 6. I find that around 1500 words is what I can do in a day. That seems to be my capacity for good work. After that whatever comes along generally isn’t much good, and will have to be rewritten the next day anyway.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Read widely, in your genre and out of it. Read critically to figure out how the authors you love are bringing it off.

Take a creative writing class if possible for the feedback and listen to what is said. You may discard most of the advice, but it will make you look closely at your own work. No one is their own best editor.

Pay some attention to what is popular just now but stay away from hot trends because by the time you have written your book and sent it off, no one will want vampires anymore.

Join a society of other writers in your genre if there is one. They tend to be wonderful places to make both friends and useful contacts, and are generally very supportive of new writers.

Realize that you are probably not going to make a living doing this, and that if you do, some compromises in what and how you write will be almost inevitable. If you can find a day job that allows you to have time to write, then grab it even if it makes less money than the one that keeps you working 80 hours a week.

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

That has always been a hard thing for me. I am not by nature a public sort of person and one really does have to be these days. The days when your publisher did all the promotion are long gone. I have found a social media presence to be practically required and am more active there than I would be otherwise. Before the pandemic I did readings and went to conferences and will start doing those again when I can. I will say that if you get fan mail from readers, respond instantly and generously. They talk to each other.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research 

I think the most research fun I have had recently was in researching Roman tourism. There was a huge tourism industry over most of the Roman Empire, particularly Greece, with inns, guides, and dubious relics for sale. Baiae on the Bay of Naples was a closer vacation destination, with the beachside villas and yachts of the wealthy, endless nightlife, much of it less than respectable, and daytime excursions to the beaches, boardwalks, elaborate baths, and food stalls selling snacks. A good deal of the Roman remains are underwater now, but Pompeii and Herculaneum offer a good look at what used to be. I used Baiae as the background for a chapter in The Border Wolves.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing? 

I think probably the beginning of Barbarian Princess, the second book in The Centurions, where for the sake of the plot, I killed off someone who my hero loved and that I rather liked as well. I ordinarily don’t mind doing people in—I drowned someone horribly in a bog in my current book, but I didn’t like him anyway— but that one got to me.

What are you planning to write next? 

My new book is the first in a three-book series called The Borderlands. The first book is Shadow of the Eagle and it’s set during Agricola’s campaign for Scotland, or rather for what would eventually become Scotland, and cuts between the Romans under Agricola and the Caledones of the highlands led by Calgacos. No one actually knows anything at all about Calgacos. He is only mentioned by name by Tacitus and it is suspected that Tacitus may have simply made him up in order to have someone to hang a good speech on. So I could make him any kind of man I wanted to, which is always fun. My Roman hero, Faustus, belongs to the II Legion Augusta and comes from a Gaulish farming family. His mother was a British slave who his father bought for a housekeeper and later freed and married and he finds himself drawn to the Britons sometimes more than is comfortable when he lands there with the army. My Roman protagonists are never actual historical figures but fictional inhabitants of their time because I am always more interested in what it was actually like to live then than in the political machinations of the Roman Empire.

Amanda Cockrell

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About the Author

Amanda Cockrell grew up in Ojai, California, a wonderful place where one could ride one’s horse down Main Street and there was a hitching post outside the library. It was a bedroom town for Hollywood, full of writers and actors and directors, so there was always something going on, and famous people’s discarded trousers tended to end up in the local thrift shop.  Her father was a screenwriter and her mother a screenwriter and novelist. Besides her Roman books, she is the author of three contemporary novels, two of them set in a fictional version of her beloved home town. She has a master’s degree in English and creative writing from Hollins University and is managing editor of that university’s literary journal, The Hollins Critic. She also had the privilege of teaching creative writing at Hollins for many years. She lives with her husband, Tony Neuron, and a substantial assortment of dogs and cats, in Roanoke, Virginia. Find out more at and find Amanda on Facebook and Twitter @CockrellAmanda1

8 December 2021

Special Guest Post by Meredith Allard, Author of Christmas at Hembry Castle

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

An unlikely earl struggles with his new place. A young couple’s love is tested. What is a med-dling ghost to do? In the tradition of A Christmas Carol, travel back to Victorian England and enjoy a lighthearted, festive holiday celebration.

Thanks to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, many of us have a specific vision when we refer to the perfect Christmas. In fact, most of our Christmas traditions originated or were revived during the Victorian era.

Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, Prince Albert, brought many of his childhood Christmas traditions with him to England, including the Christmas tree.  According to the BBC’s Christmas website, in 1848, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family’s Christmas tree; after that, every English home had a tree decorated with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations, and small gifts. 

Prior to the popularization of Christmas trees, in 1843, the first Christmas card was designed featuring an illustration of people seated around a dinner table, ready for a feast, of course. The cards cost one shilling apiece, too expensive for most Victorians, so children, including the Queen’s children, were encouraged to make their own cards.  

Even traditions like hanging mistletoe became popular during the Victorian era. In a time when rules of etiquette were so important, and when there were only certain ways men and women could interact socially, stealing a kiss under the mistletoe was considered entirely proper. Christmas crackers also became popular during this time, though instead of featuring the paper crowns and trinkets we find today, during the Victorian era the crackers were filled with bon-bons, sweets of sugar-coated almonds. The use of holly and ivy to celebrate midwinter stems as far back as the time of the Anglo-Saxons, and the practice was revived during the Victorian era.  

Christmas caroling gained in popularity, and most of the Christmas carols we know today were sung during the Victorian era. According to Christmas Traditions in the Victorian Era, the Victorians loved music and often played instruments and sang at home for entertainment. During the Victorian era they revived Medieval carols and created new ones. The lyrics for one of the most famous Christmas carols of all time, “Silent Night,” was written in German and first performed in Austria in 1818. Other popular carols from the time included “O Christmas Tree,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Deck the Halls.”

A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1843. That one short story (it’s only 30,000 words) has given us our idealized image of what Christmas could be. Christmas, according to Dickens, was a time for family and a festive meal—recall the Cratchits’ meager fare, yet they still had a lovely celebration because they were together as a family. Christmas was a time for games and dances and smoking bishop. Perhaps most importantly, Christmas was a time for charity, when those with means should be generous towards those without.

Dickens himself loved the holiday, and according to one of his sons, Christmas was “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on…And then the dance! There was no stopping him!” (Allingham, P.V., Dickens the man who invented Christmas).

I had great fun exploring some of these beloved Victorian Christmas traditions while writing Christmas at Hembry Castle. Even more, I loved putting my own spin on A Christmas Carol, one of my favorite Dickens tales. 

Meredith Allard

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About the Author

Meredith Allard is the author of the bestselling paranormal historical Loving Husband Trilogy. Her sweet Victorian romance, When It Rained at Hembry Castle, was named a best historical novel by IndieReader. Her latest book, Painting the Past: A Guide for Writing Historical Fiction, was named a #1 new release in Authorship and Creativity Self-Help on Amazon. When she isn’t writing she’s teaching writing, and she has taught writing to students ages five to 75. She loves books, cats, and coffee, though not always in that order. She lives in Las Vegas, Ne-vada. Find our more at and find Meredith on Facebook

5 December 2021

The Elizabethans and Alchemy

During the research for the new book in my Elizabethan series, I came across a reference to Queen Elizabeth being given a book by George Ripley, The Compound of Alchemy, Or the ancient hidden Art of Alchemy, containing ‘the right and perfectest means to make the Philosopher’s Stone, with other excellent Experiments. Divided into twelve gates.’ 

With a long dedication to the queen, the book is in verse, the ‘twelve Gates’ being the twelve stages in Alchemy: Calcination, Dissolution, Separation, Conjunction, Putrifaction, Congelation, Cibation, Sublimation, Fermentation, Exaltation, Multiplication, and Projection.

The alchemist Edward Kelley, who went abroad with Dr John Dee and Edward Dyer in 1583, was at the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague; was also in Prague. In May, 1590, Lord Burghley wrote to Edward Dyer, asking him to obtain Kelley’s return, or to procure a small portion of the powder (which he claimed to convert into gold), ‘to make a demonstration, in her Majesty’s own sight, of the very perfection of his knowledge.’

At the time, Lord Burghley was concerned at the cost of maintaining a navy to see off another Spanish Armada, and asked if Edward Kelley could, 

‘in some secret box, send to her Majesty for a token some such portion as might be to her a sum reasonable to defer her charges for this summer for her navy, which we are now preparing to the sea, to withstand the strong navy of Spain, discovered upon the coasts between Britain [Brittany] and Cornwall within these two days’.
I find William Cecil's determination to apply alchemical knowledge for the benefit of the Elizabethan state intriguing. Throughout his career he invested in, and supported a wide range of alchemical experiments.

Edward Kelley, who was of course unable to help, fled from Prague and was never heard of again.

Tony Riches 

29 November 2021

Historical Fiction Spotlight: A Class Coveted: A sweeping Irish historical romance saga (A Matter of Class Book 4) by Susie Murphy

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Their choices have shackled her dreams…

It’s 1836, and Bridget and Cormac have arrived, full of hope, to the city of Boston with their growing family. However, as they adjust to domestic life together for the first time, they face anti-Irish sentiment from the local Americans, as well as a threat to their happiness from a much closer source.

Cormac undertakes the challenging search for his missing sister, Bronagh. He is determined to do all he can to put the broken pieces of his family back together, but the appalling truth he uncovers will shake him to his core.

Meanwhile, as Emily grows up in this new country, she realises how her parents’ past actions will affect her entire future and she begins to covet that which is no longer within her reach. When she receives an unexpected proposition, will she be able to resist its temptation, despite the untrustworthy nature of the person behind it?

A Class Coveted is the fourth book in Susie Murphy's historical fiction series A Matter of Class. The story will continue in the fifth book, A Class Reunited.

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About the Author

Susie Murphy is an Irish historical fiction author. She loves historical fiction so much that she often wishes she had been born two hundred years ago. Still, she remains grateful for many aspects of the modern age, including women’s suffrage, electric showers and pizza.
You can find out more at, and you can connect with Susie on Facebook, and Twitter @susiemwrites

27 November 2021

Special Guest Interview with David Pilling, Author of The Champion (III): Blood and Faith

Available for pre-order

from Amazon UK and Amazon US

1297 AD: the kings of England and France have struck a truce, but elsewhere conflict still rages. In Scotland, the armies of Edward Longshanks have been driven out by a mysterious champion named William Wallace. Meanwhile, on the continent, the the Holy Roman Empire is torn apart by civil war.

I'm pleased to welcome author David Pilling to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book 

My latest is the third in The Champion series, a series of tales loosely based on a real-life 13th century Spanish knight called En Pascal de Valencia. We know the real Pascal was a mercenary who fought for Edward I in Scotland and probably elsewhere. He was called the 'Adalid', which translates as 'the champion', hence the title of the series. This was a traditional military rank awarded to especially skilled fighters in the kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre.

I have used the bare details of the historical Pascal's career as the basis for a series of fictional stories, in which the character is transported all over Christendom. In this, his latest adventure, he is dispatched on a secret diplomatic mission to Rome, where he encounters a certain famous Scottish hero. He also meets the Pope, and has several close shaves in Scotland and France. It's quite a packed story!

What is your preferred writing routine? 

I am at my best in the morning, when I am fresh and full of energy and ideas (and caffeine). In the afternoons I prefer to concentrate on my blog and social media.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

The main thing – unless one is exceptionally lucky – is to be prolific. Unless you are fortunate enough to write a hit bestseller, or get snapped up by one of the handful of major publishers, the only realistic path is to churn out material on a regular basis. It also has to be of high quality, of course. Work hard, do your research, and employ decent graphic designers and editors/proofreaders!

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

I started writing full-time in 2013 and throughout have discovered that the most efficient way is to keep producing quality, well-presented content. Everything else – social media, blogging, online promotion etc – is helpful, though I do sometimes wonder how necessary it is. There are so many authors competing for attention now, there is a danger of creating a 'white noise' effect, whereby we all cancel each other out. On the other hand, readers are now spoiled for choice and the market is not restricted to a handful of publishing houses. These trends can only be a good thing, since they allow more opportunity and freedom of expression.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research 

I am constantly surprised by the sheer volume of surviving source material for this era. The details of Pascal's own career are quite bare – which enables me to fill in the gaps – but in general there are stacks of surviving documentation, so one can pluck out all kinds of juicy details to add colour and conviction to the story.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing? 

For this book, it was the death of a particular supporting character. I was in two minds about the scene at first, but it definitely added an edge to the narrative. Obviously I won't reveal the details...

What are you planning to write next? 

I have several projects in the pipeline. These include a short 'novelette'  that fleshes out some of the background and context to the Champion series, and a nonfiction book on Edward I and the Anglo-French war of 1298-1303. I am also engaged to write the second and third parts of a series for Sharpe Books, based on the English condottiere in Italy in the time of Sir John Hawkwood. Busy, busy!

David Pilling 

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About the Author

David Pilling is a writer and researcher, addicted to history for as long as he can remember. The medieval era has always held a fascination for him, perhaps because he spent much of his childhood exploring the misted ruins of castles in Wales. David also has a keen interest in the Byzantine Empire, the post-Roman period in Britain and the British & Irish Civil Wars. Find out more at David's website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @RobeH2

26 November 2021

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Castilian Pomegranate (The Castilian Saga Book 2) by Anna Belfrage

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

An enraged and grieving queen commands them to retrieve her exquisite jewel and abandon their foundling brat overseas—or never return.

Robert FitzStephan and his wife, Noor, have been temporarily exiled. Officially, they are to travel to the courts of Aragon and Castile as emissaries of Queen Eleanor of England. Unofficially, the queen demands two things: that they abandon Lionel, their foster son, in foreign lands and that they bring back a precious jewel – the Castilian Pomegranate.

Noor would rather chop off a foot than leave Lionel in a foreign land—especially as he’s been entrusted to her by his dead father, the last true prince of Wales. And as to the jewel, stealing it would mean immediate execution. . . 

Spain in 1285 is a complicated place. France has launched a crusade against Aragon and soon enough Robert is embroiled in the conflict, standing side by side with their Aragonese hosts. 

Once in Castile, it is the fearsome Moors that must be fought, with Robert facing weeks separated from his young wife, a wife who is enthralled by the Castilian court—and a particular Castilian gallant. 

Jealousy, betrayal and a thirst for revenge plunge Noor and Robert into life-threatening danger. 

Will they emerge unscathed or will savage but beautiful Castile leave them permanently scarred and damaged?  

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About the author

Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England. Anna has also published The Wanderer, a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense trilogy with paranormal and time-slip ingredients. Her September 2020 release, His Castilian Hawk, has her returning to medieval times. Set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales, His Castilian Hawk is a story of loyalty, integrity—and love. Her most recent release, The Whirlpools of Time, is a time travel romance set against the backdrop of brewing rebellion in the Scottish highlands. All of Anna’s books have been awarded the IndieBRAG Medallion, she has several Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choices, and one of her books won the HNS Indie Award in 2015. She is also the proud recipient of various Reader’s Favorite medals as well as having won various Gold, Silver and Bronze Coffee Pot Book Club awards Find out more about Anna, her books and her eclectic historical blog on her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @abelfrageauthor

18 November 2021

Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II, by Tracy Borman

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The British monarchy is the one of the most iconic and enduring institutions in the world. It has weathered the storms of rebellion, revolution and war that brought many of Europe's royal families to an abrupt and bloody end. 

Its unique survival owes much to the fact that, for all its ancient traditions and protocol, the royal family has proved remarkably responsive to change, evolving to reflect the times. But for much of its history, it also spearheaded seismic change, shaping our religious, political and cultural identity and establishing the British monarchy as the envy of the world.

There has never been a more apposite moment to consider the history of this extraordinary survivor. Within the next decade, there is likely to be a change of monarch, sparking renewed global interest on a scale not seen since Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953. 

Even the media and popular frenzy evoked by recent royal events such as royal weddings and births will not compare to that generated by the accession of a new king. In the lead up to this pivotal moment in Britain's history, Crown & Sceptre explores the history and evolution of the monarchy from 1066 to the present day, feeding the renewed interest not just in the modern royals but in the predecessors who helped shape the institution into what it is today.

"Crown and Sceptre shows an astonishing command of a thousand years of the British monarchy, its traditions, roles and realities beyond the pageantry and romance. Beautifully crafted, insightful, and a genuine pleasure to read, it underscores the royal heritage at the heart of a nation." - Lauren Mackay

"Crown and Sceptre" combines an eminently accessible narrative with a lucid scholarly lens. Tracy Borman skilfully unravels the trials and triumphs of this ever-shifting institution. By charting both the majesty and mechanics of monarchy, we get a vivid understanding of why its glittering gears shifted over time, and by whom the levers of change were pulled. A triumph.' - Owen Emmerson, Curator at Hever Castle

'Tracy Borman's passion for the British monarch and the crown is infectious and compelling!' - Estelle Paranque

Enlightening, gripping and skilfully composed, Tracy Borman navigates the twists and turns of the British monarchy with an expert hand. A pacy narrative that's simply bursting with colour and intrigue, Crown and Sceptre is both powerful and compulsively readable. A masterpiece. - Nicola Tallis

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About the Author

Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997.  Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant, Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England, Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad. She lives in Surrey with her daughter. Find out more at and follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyBorman

12 November 2021

Description of England, by William Harrison (1535-1593), an Essex clergyman, in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577)

Of Palaces belonging to the Prince

What shall I need to take upon me to repeat all and tell what houses the Queen’s Majesty hath? since all is hers, and when it pleaseth her in the summer season to recreate herself abroad and view the estate of the country and hear the complaints of her poor commons injured by her unjust officers or their substitutes, every nobleman’s house is her palace, where she continueth during pleasure and till she return again to some of her own, in which she remaineth so long as it pleaseth her.

The court of England, which necessarily is held always where the prince lieth, is in these days one of the most renowned and magnificent courts that are to be found in Europe. 

I might here make a large discourse of such...grave councillors and noble personages as give their daily attendance upon the Queen’s Majesty there. I could in like sort set forth a singular commendation of the virtuous beauty or beautiful virtues of such ladies and gentlewomen as wait upon her person.

It is a rare thing with us now to hear of a courtier which hath but his own language. many gentlewomen and ladies there are that, beside sound knowledge of the Greek and Latin tongues, are thereto no less skilful in the Spanish, Italian, and French, or in some one of them.

Our ancient ladies of the court do shun and avoid idleness, some of them exercising their fingers with the needle...divers in spinning of silk, some in continual reading either of the Holy Scriptures or histories of our own or foreign nations about us, and divers in writing volumes of their own or translating of other men’s into our English and Latin tongue, whilst the youngest sort in the meantime apply their lutes, citterns...and all kinds of music, which they use only for recreation sake when they have leisure and are free from attendance upon the Queen’s Majesty or such as they belong unto.

Many of the eldest sort also are skilful in surgery and distillation of waters. As each of them are cunning in something whereby they keep themselves occupied in the court, so there is in manner none of them but when they be at home can help to supply the ordinary want of the kitchen with a number of delicate dishes of their own devising.

In some great princes’ courts beyond the is a world to see what lewd behaviour is used among divers of those that resort unto the same, and what whoredom, swearing, ribaldry, atheism, dicing, carding, carousing, drunkenness, gluttony, quarrelling, and such-like inconveniences do daily take hold...all which enormities are either utterly expelled out of the court of England or else so qualified by the diligent endeavour of the chief officers of her Grace’s household that seldom are any of these things apparently seen there without due reprehension and such severe correction as belongeth to those trespasses.

Finally, to avoid idleness and prevent sundry transgressions...such order is taken that every office [of the household] hath either a Bible or the books of the Acts and Monuments of the Church of England [by John Foxe] or both, beside some histories and chronicles lying therein for the exercise of such as come into the same, whereby the stranger that entereth into the court of England upon the sudden shall rather imagine himself to come into some public school of the universities, where many give ear to one that readeth, than into a prince’s palace.

I might speak here of the great trains and troops of serving men also, which attend upon the nobility of England in their several liveries and with differences of cognizances [badges] on their sleeves whereby it is known to whom they appertain. I could also set down what a goodly sight it is to see them muster in the court...much like to the show of the peacock’s tail in the full beauty or of some meadow garnished with infinite kinds and diversity of pleasant flowers.

William Harrison, 1577 

11 November 2021

Elizabethan Ladies: Katheryn of Berain

Katheryn of Berain, sometimes called Mam Cymru ("mother of Wales"), or Katheryn Tudor, (her father being Tudor ap Robert Vychan). Katheryn, was a ward of Queen Elizabeth, and heiress to the Berain and Penymynydd estates in Denbighshire and Anglesey.

Her maternal grandfather Sir Roland de Velville (1474 – 25 June 1535), is said to have been a natural son of King Henry VII of England by a Breton lady, during his long exile in Brittany.

In her portrait, Katheryn of Berain clutches a prayer-book and caresses a human skull. The skull often occurs in sixteenth-century portraits; the contrast between flesh and bone reminds us of the frailty of life. She appears to be in mourning, but in fact had recently married the royal agent Richard Clough.

She is presented as a fitting wife for a wealthy merchant. Her elaborate costume, pale skin and plucked brows were highly fashionable, and the prayer-book confirms her piety.

It is thought this portrait was painted in the Northern Netherlands by the Friesian artist van Cronenburgh.

Tony Riches

9 November 2021

Historical Fiction Spotlight: Rebel's Knot (Quest for the Three Kingdoms) by Cryssa Bazos

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Ireland 1652: In the desperate, final days of the English invasion . . .

A fey young woman, Áine Callaghan, is the sole survivor of an attack by English marauders. When Irish soldier Niall O'Coneill discovers his own kin slaughtered in the same massacre, he vows to hunt down the men responsible. He takes Áine under his protection and together they reach the safety of an encampment held by the Irish forces in Tipperary.

Hardly a safe haven, the camp is rife with danger and intrigue. Áine is a stranger with the old stories stirring on her tongue and rumours follow her everywhere. The English cut off support to the brigade, and a traitor undermines the Irish cause, turning Niall from hunter to hunted.

When someone from Áine's past arrives, her secrets boil to the surface—and she must slay her demons once and for all.

As the web of violence and treachery grows, Áine and Niall find solace in each other's arms—but can their love survive long-buried secrets and the darkness of vengeance?

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About the Author

Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusi-ast. Her debut novel, Traitor's Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction, a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chau-cer Award. For more information visit Cryssa's website. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @CryssaBazos

8 November 2021

Special Guest Post By Christina Young, founder of Gloucester Book Club

Hello,  my name is Christina Young and I’m the founder and organiser of Gloucester Book Club.  I’ve  always loved reading. I’d spend hours as a child curled up in an armchair with adventure stories, ignoring everything going on around me in my fervour to get to the end of a book.

Book groups looked like fun and a great place to meet a few new friends, whilst sharing my love of books.  My frustration at not finding one in my local area, grew to the point where I took matters into my own hands and Gloucester Book Club was born in January 2014.  

It turned out I wasn’t the only one looking for a book group, and numbers quickly grew so large that one meeting a month was no longer enough to satisfy the appetites of Gloucestershire readers.  We have over sixty members and schedule five meetings a month to cater for our members.  We’ve made some great friends, with the social aspect being one of the most important opportunities a book club offers.

Book Club was a life saver over lockdown! When we could no longer meet face to face, our meetings took place online and our strong foundation kept our connections going over those difficult months.  We are now back to face to face groups, but we will continue to hold two online meetings a month because they have proved a popular choice for some.

Book Lounge Podcasts 

During a light bulb moment, about six months ago, I decided to try producing a few group podcast discussions about some of our most popular reads. It’s been a huge learning curve, but so much fun getting to grips with editing and producing.  We’ve still got lots to learn, but we are really enjoying sharing our discussions with a wider audience.  If you’d like to listen, you’ll find Gloucester Book Club on Spotify, Google and Apple podcasts, and AnchorFm.

We read across a wide variety of genres, including contemporary and historical fiction, with some non-fiction and memoir, philosophy and science.  As far as our favourite books are concerned, it’s been extremely hard to choose but here are a few of our most popular, over the years we’ve been reading together.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, Days without End by Sebastian Barry, Normal People by Sally Rooney, and last but not least Disgrace by JM Coetzee.

What do we love most about books and reading?

It’s escapism and emotional engagement. Books challenge attitudes and views, they allow the reader to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  They provide diversion and distraction, which is like a form of therapy. They transport the reader to another time and place.  Most of all, they can bring people together to share a common experience which is what makes a book club a joy. 

Find us on, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Christina Young

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About the Author

Christina Young is a passionate reader who also happens to be the founder and organiser of Gloucester Book Club. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book she’s producing podcasts with her book group and writing flash fiction. A retired nurse, she spends time volunteering and is the occasional co-host on local radio. She has two grown up daughters, a grandson and a much-loved pug. Christina lives in Gloucestershire. You can find out more on Instagram gloucesterbookclub, at https://linktree/gloucesterbookclub and follow Christina on Twitter @lbookclub1 and @christinay1958

Gloucester Book Club discuss Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie: