Mastodon The Writing Desk: May 2021

28 May 2021

Special Guest Post by Lara Byrne - Writing Lotharingia: Charlemagne's Heir

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Holy Roman Empire, AD 1062 One day Countess Matilde will rule like a man, and inherit her mother's mysterious relics, but she cannot escape the marriage arranged for her. When her enigmatic overlord King Heinrich rescues her from her abusive husband, friendship blossoms into forbidden love. But her personal journey has only just begun. A medieval tale of love, political intrigue, and relic hunting.

Through Lotharingia, the first volume of a trilogy dedicated to Countess Matilde of Canossa, I attempt to breathe new life into the rich tapestry of the Holy Roman Empire at the dawn of the second millennium. The period bursts with remarkable characters, not widely known outside academic circles, intrigues and history-changing events.

In the 11th century, women of all classes became their husband’s property at marriage, and, in cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida’s re-wording of St Paul’s, were forbidden even to speak in church. Nevertheless, a handful of these silenced women – all heiresses of Carolingian blood – rose above the legal and religious constraints of their sex to find their own voice and claim power for themselves.

Comitissa, Ducatrix, Marchionissa, Matilde of Canossa was famed throughout Europe for her wealth, her political influence, her controversial lifestyle – and for repeatedly defeating the Holy Roman emperor on the field.

Yet she remains elusive, the patina of time thick on her. The drawn-out conflict between Holy Roman Empire and Rome known as the Investiture Controversy was bloody and marked by vitriolic attacks between the two parts sadly familiar in our ‘age of fake news.’

In these propaganda wars, Matilda was not exclusively a victim. She played an active part, re-writing herself and others, in the process shielding her personality and motives. The veil she wears in her surviving portraits is an apt metaphor of her self-representation.

 Yet what we know of Matilde, and what is hinted, or unexpectedly surfaces here and there in the chroniclers, unleashes the imagination, invites us to fill the gaps, to re-write her as our own, to resort to fiction for answers that history cannot give us.

In an age when divorce was not an option, not once but twice she walked down the path of estrangement, living apart from her husbands. To my knowledge, she was also the first woman to lead armies since Roman times. A third-born girl who ended up inheriting her father’s rights, Matilde must have felt God had chosen her for a special mission. So, clearly, did the Roman Church. She was in her mid-twenties when, twenty-five years before the First Crusade, Pope Gregory asked to lead an expedition to Jerusalem.

Then there is her complex relationship with her overlord, Heinrich of Germany, future Holy Roman emperor.

If we try to extrapolate the bare facts from the sources, they were both raised by exceptionally powerful Carolingian mothers after losing their fathers at an early age – and to add a Romeo and Juliet dimension Matilde’s father may have been ordered by Heinrich’s father. 

They spent a year together in Germany as children, and, after Matilde returned to Italy, they faced similar fates. They were both married against their will, after resisting their lot with unusual determination. Matilde was dispatched to take her vows just, just as Heinrich was trying, unsuccessfully, to divorce from his wife.

 There was, undeniably, a bond between Matilde and Heinrich, which continued even after his death. In surviving letters, he claimed to trust Matilde and her mother above all other princes. Although contemporary imperial propaganda alleged that she was Pope Gregory’s lover, when I suspect there was a deep feeling between Matilde and her king, I walk in the footsteps of literary giants. The German poet Heine, the Italian playwright Pirandello, and more recently the novelist Mancinelli have all sexualised Matilde and Heinrich’s relationship.

My decision to place their forbidden love in 1070-71 is based on factual considerations. Heinrich’s movements since his coronation are documented, whereas Matilde’s whereabouts before she inherits her lands in 1076 are only limitedly recoverable. Still, as an illustrious imperial heiress and a political leader in her own right, after marrying the Duke of Lotharingia at the end of 1069, she is likely to have spent time at court.

As far as I could establish, no contemporary sources suggest that their dealings in 1070-71 went beyond the customary feudal relationship. There is also o backing in the sources for the possibility that Matilde’s stillborn daughter, born in early 1071, may have been a lovechild. But soon after the birth Matilde ran away from her husband and escaped to Italy, at great personal risk.

I also asked myself whether the Church’s determination to marry Matilde and Heinrich off to their betrotheds concealed a decision to prevent them from marrying each other. A matrimonial alliance between Matilde and Heinrich could have had negative repercussions for the Church, and that may well be the only reason. But I focused on another.

Mediaeval piety is marked by an obsessive fascination with relics. The German Crown owned the Holy Spear, a mysterious weapon, bought at enormous cost by one of Heinrich’s predecessors and reputed to have talismanic powers – a belief that run throughout German history all the way to the Third Reich. Heinrich’s predecessors had won decisive battles after placing the spearhead before their armies. His devotion to the Holy Spear is hard to dispute. He had an inscription added to it, stating that a nail hammered into the blade was a relic from the Crucifixion.

As for Matilde, we know she had relics of her own that may have reinforced her belief that she was fit to be a military leader in the name of God, turning her femininity into a negligible consideration. Her mother had been involved in the rediscovery of the Holy Blood relics (which remain in Mantova to this day).

 I have tried to “connect the dots” – and the relics above - by inventing the prophecy of the child of Charlemagne. Prophecies were a mediaeval political tool, leveraged mainly by hermits and preachers. The millenarist impulse has yielded a few variations on the theme of the birth of a child who would usher a golden age. Could political rulers have devised their own prophecies? Heinrich’s grandfather, the Faustian Emperor Conrad, rumoured to have made a pact with the devil to secure the empire for his dynasty, seems an attractive candidate.

Although Lotharingia ends in 1072, the tapestry of eleventh century continental politics continued to be defined by Matilde and Heinrich into the new century. It will form the subject of my next book, in which the king and countess meet again, in vastly different circumstances.

Lara Byrne

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About the Author

Lara Byrne is a Londoner with European roots. Too many years in the corporate world taught her that so much still needs to be done to raise the profile and the opportunities for women, and that women gain strength from finding historical role models to identify with. Lara is currently hard at work on a sequel to Lotharingia, provisionally entitled The Road to Canossa. Find out more at and follow Lara on Twitter @larafbyrne

27 May 2021

Special Guest Post by Jacquie Rogers, Author of The Governor’s Man: A Quintus Valerius Mystery

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Roman Britain 224AD: When silver from the Emperor’s mines goes missing, Roman Imperial Investigator Quintus Valerius reluctantly returns to Britannia. With his British assistant Tiro, Valerius uncovers a conspiracy of fraud and rebellion. The plot involves a resurgence in Druid activity, and the murders of potential witnesses. Even the investigator’s former lover, Lady Julia, seems connected to the crimes. Valerius begins to piece together clues that tell a shocking truth — and cast a terrible light on his own past.

Inspiration for The Governor’s Man

In 2013 my husband Peter and I moved to a small village in the Somerset Levels. That’s the area of Somerset inland from Weston and Burnham, and bounded by Glastonbury and Wells to the east. It’s a very atmospheric place of willows and water, mostly unknown to the visitors who roar past, on their way south along the M5 to Devon and Cornwall. I myself knew nothing about the county either, so I took myself off to the Museum of Somerset in Taunton to find out.

I was wowed to see there the Shapwick hoard, the largest trove of Roman denarii ever found at that time in the Western Empire. What’s more, the silver had been neatly buried in a large, previously-unknown courtyard villa on a slight ridge in the Polden Hills, right in the middle of nowhere, barely eight miles south of my home. The villa was excavated in 1998, and carbon dating established that the hiding of the silver coincided with the demolition of the villa in 224AD, possibly after a fire.

The nearby Mendip Hills held a wealth of lead and silver, right up to Victorian times. This mineral treasure was known to the Romans, and was one of the prime drivers for Vespasian to push his legions quickly west at the time of the Roman conquest. On display in the British Museum is a lead ingot, fraudulently over-stamped to look as if the silver has been extracted from the ore, when in fact it was still present.

Someone was stealing silver from the Emperor, who retained rights to any silver mined. You could see why —soldiers were paid in silver denarii, and soldiers were the power that kept an Emperor on the throne. To steal Imperial silver was a capital offence.

My research

On that day in summer 2013, as I stood gazing at the glinting mass of over 9,000 coins, I knew I had to write this story. Of how the silver, the destroyed villa, and the falsely-stamped lead ingot all came together.

I located a company — in the US, of course — who make available online transcripts of archaeological digs around the world. They supplied me with a report by archaeologists R Abdy, RA Brunning and CJ Webster of their dig in 1998, snappily entitled The discovery of a Roman villa at Shapwick and its Severan coin hoard of 9238 silver denarii.

The villa is now reburied and totally invisible, in a lumpy field on a farm which shall remain unnamed. I confess I went there though, scrambling over blackberry briars to find the site. I stood a long time, looking at the sloping views north to an RSPB reserve, and beyond to the Mendips. East was the clear outline of Glastonbury Tor. South, and slightly uphill, is the Roman road linking the Polden Hills with the Fosse Way, the main Roman highway from Exeter to Lincoln.

What a story, I thought. All I need is a detective.

I went to the British Library in London where I found accounts of the Frumentariate, a corps of senior officers set up by Emperor Hadrian to investigate crimes threatening the Emperor’s personal interests across the Empire. These officers were detached from their legions and headquartered in Rome. In the absence of any kind of police force, the corps carried out a wide variety of tasks that these days might fall to the Border Force, MI5/6, Special Branch, or the military police. Thus was Frumentarius Quintus Valerius born.

Crimes and investigator I now had. But cui bono? Well, there never was a shortage of would-be Emperors with the right personal connections hoping to seize the throne… So I looked into the political history of Britannia, circa 220-225 AD. And found —virtually nothing. Apparently nothing of any note occurred in the remote island province between the withdrawal of Caracalla and his legions in 211, after the Severan campaigns in Caledonia ended, and the 260s, when Britain joined the short-lived breakaway “Empire of the Gauls”. Caracalla did split Britannia into two provinces, so my story strictly speaking happens in Britannia Superior. The only other potential factoid I uncovered was that a Governor, who might have been called Aradius Rufinus, might have served in Britain around the same time.

They say where there is a dearth of fact, fiction will flood in. I had a framework for a mystery plot in place, but I wanted my story-telling to reveal a deeper side to Roman Britain at the height of the Empire. At nearly two centuries after the Roman invasion, Britain must have been a place of mixed identities, of clashes of tradition and innovation, and the deeply-rooted experience of the colonised who can no longer remember life before the colonisers. 

So I gave Quintus two significant British companions, who have their own voices in this story and the books to follow: Tiro, his reluctant new assistant, who is passionate about his beloved vibrant London; and Lady Julia Aureliana, wealthy resident of Bath, trained healer, traditional leader of the Durotriges tribe and who knew Quintus in happier times. These characters are entirely fictitious, but I have researched both what little is known of the preceding British/Druid culture, and also the experiences of people living under other Empires. Specifically our own days of colonisation and empire.

My aim with The Governor’s Man was to write a pacy, twisting tale of murder, intrigue and treachery, set in a little-known period of RomanoBritish history. I hope I’ve also given breath to complex characters who thought of themselves as both Romans and Britons, being part of a great Empire whilst continuing to live traditional lives on the fringes of civilisation.

If you enjoy The Governor’s Man, do follow me and please let me know your thoughts. The follow up book is due out in 2022.

Jacquie Rogers

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About the Author

Jacquie Rogers had several careers, including advertising and university teaching, before realising that writing held more allure. Her short stories have been published in several countries. In summer 2020 she was Runner Up in the Lincoln Book Festival story competition. Lockdown gave her the opportunity to write the Roman mystery novel she’d been working on for a while. The Governor’s Man, the first of a trilogy set in third century Roman Britain, was published by Sharpe Books in May 2021. Jacquie lives in the Malvern Hills of England. She walks daily with her husband and a lunatic Staffie cross. When not masked and socially distanced, Jacquie loves long-distance travel on a Triumph motorbike, and discussing politics, travel and books with friends. She spends a lot of time in tea shops and pubs. Find out more at Jacquie’s website and follow her on Twitter @rogers_jacquie

21 May 2021

Special Guest Interview with H D Coulter, Author of Saving Grace: Deception. Obsession. Redemption

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Boston. 1832: After surviving the brutal attack and barely escaping death at Lancaster Castle, Beatrice Mason attempts to build a new life with her husband Joshua across the Atlantic in Beacon Hill. But, as Beatrice struggles to cope with the pregnancy and vivid nightmares, she questions whether she is worthy of redemption. 

I'm pleased to welcome author H D Coulter to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

Saving Grace takes place 6 months after the ending of Ropewalk, book 1 and deals with the aftermath. Bea and Joshua are finding their feet in Beacon Hill, Boston as Joshua tries to find work at Boston Harbour and Bea tries to come to terms with the pregnancy with Hanley’s child and coping with a form of PTSD, a result of the ending of Ropewalk. Whilst in Ulverston, Hanley is plotting his revenge and tracking them down. 

“You are my child; you are not his – you are innocent – you are loved – you are mine.” The mantra Bea repeats, reminding herself that the child is innocent and loved.

Bea and Joshua begin their new life with their child and finding happiness through love and reconnection together. Joshua is rebuilding his position in his new role, while Bea secretly becomes involved with the abolitionist movement with the help of her friend Sarah. Discovering the underground railroad and the hidden path across America. 

But unbeknown to them all, Hanley watches from the shadows and is planning to take it all away.

What is your preferred writing routine?

My main writing routine is still waking at 5am and using the quiet time in the house to work. However, my 4-year-old is waking a little earlier and during the past few months, I have found myself writing and editing at night-time. Once I edited until 3am to complete Saving Grace in time. I have a desk in the corner of the living room with mountains of notebooks, various colours of pens and post-its scattered around. 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

My main advice for writers would be; do it for the love of writing. For myself, I have a passion for writing and creating these worlds and the love of the characters. But if you want to publish either traditional or independent, you need to take is seriously, research the publishing process and dedicate time towards it. 

 Once you have written ‘The end’ is an amazing feeling and celebrate reaching this milestone, but it is not the end. Now you must edit several times and reach out to Beta readers to give you feedback. When you are involved in the story, sometimes it’s hard to step back and see it from a reader’s point of view. Especially if they can give you detailed points where you can improve the story and character arcs. 

Create a writing, editing and publishing time and keep to it as you do for any other work. Research marketing and how best to get word out on your book, including social media, website, other writers and authors. Mostly learn from others and support one another, writer friends are invaluable. 

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

The best ways to raise awareness would be social media, blog tours, newsletters and creating a network with other authors, who help to boost fellow authors. Talk about your writing process on social media to give readers and future readers an insight into the world you have created but also personal to you. Promote your books but don’t make it about buying the book. Add reviews, a sneak peek or advice, etc. 

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research.

I choose to locate some of Saving Grace in Beacon Hill as in that time, the area of Boston was flourishing. It was a representation of what was happening across America in the 1830s, with various cultures descending on different areas of the hill. A class divide between north and south slope in wealth, with a sense of unrest bubbling underneath. With Joshua’s background in shipping, it was a natural selection for the character to choose that location with business connections. 

However, when I was researching Beacon Hill, I discovered the African meeting house, which was a hub for the abolitionist movement and a rumoured connection to the underground railroad. Once I stumbled across this, I fell down the research rabbit hole and saw Bea, like her father supporting change. This unexpected discovery changed the plot of Saving Grace and added an element that seemed like a natural development for the characters, especially Bea to take, helping her to find her voice and strength again. Which created a whole new subplot to the novel and leading into book 3. 

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

There are several scenes in the Ropewalk series in book 1 and 2 that brought me to tears as I wrote and featured sensitive subject matter which was essential, I got correct. Especially the last third of Ropewalk when everything goes wrong for Bea. I felt her emotions and placed all that into the novel. 

In book 2, at the beginning Bea is dealing with a form of PTSD after the effects of living through her ordeal. I felt it was important not to wash over and put aside what she had lived through. That wouldn’t be natural. Instead, it shows how she comes to terms with it and finding the strength to thrive once more. 

As the author, I complied a lot of research into the subject matter, both her ordeal and dealing with the effects afterwards and how it affects your mental health. I felt some authors who feature these scenes either don’t do the subject justice or don’t show the impact it has on the character. For the Ropewalk series, it needed to take place as a continuation of the plot and the long-term affect of it. However, I wanted to represent the raw truth of the effects, especially during that times period, but also the mental health of not just Bea but the other characters around her. 

What are you planning to write next?

I am currently working on book 3 in the Ropewalk series, which fans of Saving Grace will be happy about since it ends with a dramatic cliff hanger. Book 3 will be out in late autumn around November time. But you can sign up to the newsletter to get any updates and sneak peeks. 

H D Coulter

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About the Author

Hayley was born and raised in the lake district and across Cumbria. From a young age, Hayley loved learning about history, visiting castles and discovering local stories from the past. Hayley and her partner lived in Ulverston for three years and spent her weekends walking along the Ropewalk and down by the old harbour. She became inspired by the spirit of the area and stories that had taken place along the historic streets. As a teacher, Hayley had loved the art of storytelling by studying drama and theatre. The power of the written word, how it can transport the reader to another world or even another time in history. But it wasn't until living in Ulverston did she discover a story worth telling. From that point, the characters became alive and she fell in love with the story. Find out more at Hayley's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @coulter_hd

19 May 2021

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Assassins (Johnny Swift Thrillers Book 1) by Alan Bardos

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

1914: Tensions are reaching boiling point in Europe and the threat of war is imminent.

Johnny Swift, a young and brash diplomatic clerk employed by the British embassy is sent to infiltrate the ‘Young Bosnians’, a group of idealistic conspirators planning to murder Franz Ferdinand. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in a bid to liberate their country from the monarchy’s grip.

Swift has been having an affair with his employer’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Smyth. Sir George Smyth dispatches the agent on the dangerous mission, believing that it will be the last he will see of his young rival.

The agent manages to infiltrate the Young Bosnian conspirators’ cell, helped by Lazlo Breitner, a Hungarian Civil Servant.

However, Swift soon realises that he may be in over his head. His gambling debts and taste for beautiful women prove the least of his problems as he struggles to survive on his wits in the increasingly complex - and perilous - world of politics and espionage.

Desperate to advance himself and with the lives of a royal couple unexpectedly in his hands, Swift tries to avert catastrophe.

Praise for Assassins:

‘A cracking read, highly recommended’ - Roger A Price

‘Written with polished panache, it kept me gripped from the first to last. Five stars from me!’ - A.A. Chaudhuri

‘Part historical fiction, part thriller and part love story, this is a compelling and entertaining read’ - Gary Haynes

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About the Author

Alan Bardos is a graduate of the MA in TV Script Writing at De Montfort University, he also has a degree in Politics and History from Brunel University. Writing historical fiction combines the first great love of his life, making up stories, with the second, researching historical events and characters. Alan currently live in Oxfordshire with his wife… the other great love of his life. Despite the amount of material that has been written about the twentieth century there is still a great deal of mystery and debate surrounding many of its events, which Alan explores in his historical fiction series using a certain amount of artistic license to fill in the gaps, while remaining historically accurate. The series will chronicle the first half of the twentieth century from the perspective of Johnny Swift, a disgraced and degenerate diplomat and soldier; starting with the pivotal event of the twentieth century, the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in ‘The Assassins’.  Follow Alan on Twitter @bardosAlan 

18 May 2021

Special Guest Post by Deborah Swift, Author of The Poison Keeper

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Naples 1633: Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell her the hidden keys to her success. But the day Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.

Of Dowries and Betrothals in Renaissance Naples 

Marriages in Naples in the 17th Century, like most of Europe, were bound by politics and lineages. The personal preferences of the young people were of no account; the main ambition of parents was to secure a wealthy and powerful allegiance within the same, or preferably higher, social rank. 

Often marriages were brokered between parties from different places, and so prospective brides had flattering portraits or miniatures painted that could be sent with an envoy to convince future parents in law of the woman’s beauty. Beauty was a commodity then as now.

Miniatures from Museum of Warsaw

The betrothal was a legally binding contract made by the fathers of the prospective bride and groom. Weirdly, it was not necessary for the two who were to be married to take part in the signing of the agreement or even to know anything about it. It could be made when both parties were very young, even as young as four years. To break a betrothal agreement carried penalties, and often if it was to be dissolved a financial penalty would be incurred.

Before 1563, when the Council of Trent changed the process of matrimony in Church, the only requirement for marriage was the mutual consent of the man and the woman. A religious ceremony was not mandatory and no-one official needed to witness the joining together of the couple, not even a priest. Weddings however were still elaborate ritualized affairs between families, involving processions and the exchange of vows and gifts.

Grooms, too, were expected to make a present of jewellery or a fine gown for the bride to wear at the wedding. Red was a very popular colour for brides. These so called ‘gifts’ were either paid for by borrowing from the woman’s dowry, or they remained the husband’s property. Husbands were apt to sell off their wives’ wedding dresses, as once they were married they were expected to be less showy and more soberly dressed. Their job by then was to provide heirs and keep the household running.Here are the gifts of Marco Parenti to his bride, Caterina Strozzi, as reported by her mother.

‘When she was betrothed he ordered a gown of crimson velvet for her made of silk and a surcoat of the same fabric, which is the most beautiful cloth in Florence. He had it made in his workshop. And he had a hat of feathers and pearls made for her [that] cost eighty florins, the cap underneath has two strings of pearls costing sixty florins or more. When she goes out, she’ll have more than four hundred florins on her back.’

(Translation in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, exh. cat., ed. Andrea Bayer)

These gifts listed above were paid for from her own dowry. Often at the birth of a daughter, an amount of money was deposited in a dowry fund, the monte della doti, and then the accrued interest and original sum would be paid to the husband once the marriage had been proved to be consummated. Dowries were paid by the bride’s parents, and those with daughters of marriageable age often could not afford dowries for them all. Many daughters were sent to convents, as dowries for a ‘Bride of Christ’ were, as a rule, much cheaper.

The personal clothing and jewels of the dowry would be delivered in a marriage chest or ‘cassone.’ These were often made in matching pairs for bride and groom. Early in the Renaissance these cassoni had painted decoration, often of family heraldry or biblical scenes.Inside was a different matter. 

These were designed only to be seen in the bedchamber and showed more salacious scenes of nudes, or sometimes they were painted with patterns embellished with gold like the fabrics they contained This early example shows figures linked to courtly romances, including a lovers’ tryst by the fountain of love, a lady on horseback with a falcon on 'the hunt for love'.

With arranged marriages often being made between very young brides and older men, the risk of the marriage being an unhappy one was great. A man might marry a girl twenty or thirty years his junior if he still had not produced an heir from previous marriages. In such circumstances, calling on someone to speed the husband’s demise doesn’t seem to outlandish, and the epidemic of poisonings in Italy showed that poison had become the woman’s weapon of choice.

Deborah Swift
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About the Author

Deborah Swift lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District and worked as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV. After gaining an MA in Creative Writing in 2007 Deborah now teach classes and courses in writing and provides editorial advice to writers and authors. Find out more at Deborah's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @swiftstory

14 May 2021

Special Guest Post by Cathie Dunn, Author of The Shadows of Versailles

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Seduced at Versailles. Broken by tragedy. Consumed by revenge.

Fleur de La Fontaine attends the court of King Louis XIV at Versailles for the first time. Dazzled by the opulence, she is soon besotted with handsome courtier, Philippe de Mortain. When she believes his words of love, she gives in to his seduction – with devastating consequences.

Many thanks for inviting me to your fabulous blog today. I’m so delighted to be here, and to chat about my research for The Shadows of Versailles.

Who hasn’t heard of Versailles, the luxurious palace King Louis XIV built from a former hunting lodge?

Versailles epitomizes a glittering court, with the king at its centre. The sumptuous furnishings made from the finest woods and fabrics, often imported from as far afield as Asia; the richly-decorated ceilings, depicting the king, his family and favourites in fabled surroundings; the array of paintings of all shapes and sizes; and the sheer scale of the palace and the gardens beyond – they are all meant to dazzle, to impress. And that’s what they did.

But beneath the dazzling glamour of the new palace lay personal ambition, greed, envy, and outright jealousy. Everything revolved around the king, like the Sun he was keen to represent, pulling everything into its orbit. But his approval did not come easily. Some courtiers had to work hard to gain his favour, whilst others got it for doing little. Favouritism ruled.

Then the Affair of the Poisons revealed links to Versailles, and the king could no longer ignore it. It reverberated across Paris and the court. I’ve been fascinated by this event ever since I read Anne Golon’s riveting Angelique novels, but only after reading The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley did I begin to read up further, and I found it utterly gripping.

I have since bought a range of non-fiction books, in English and in French, to discover more about the individuals involved in these unsavoury practices ranging from obtaining potions, poisons to black masses. I found those characters self-serving and ruthlessly ambitious.

For many years, the suppliers of poisons got away with it, even though there were suspicions about deaths of magistrates and other men of good standing. I guess the very idea of people being brazen enough to poison another person seemed a little strange at first. One was not in Italy, after all.

The court was so focused on itself, and Louis’ attention was on warfare – when it was not on the vast range of entertainment activities at Versailles – that the events unfolding in Paris did not enter directly into his world. But the case of the Marquise the Brinvilliers, executed in 1676 for poisoning her father and brothers, proved that it was not only the lower classes dabbling in silly pursuits, but also people of good upbringing could be that cold-blooded.

The actual Affair of the Poisons played out mostly over the late 1670s up to 1682. For a writer of historical fiction, this opens up unlimited possibilities. It’s so inspiring, as it takes you across two fascinating but very different places – filthy-rich Versailles and poverty-stricken Paris.

That’s why, in my series about the Affair of the Poisons, I take my characters (fictional and real) back and forth. I want to highlight not only the glamorous side of the court – often shown already on TV screens and in popular fiction – but also the darker elements that were operating in Paris, in the manner in which organised crime operates these days. I love writing about the chancers and plotters, the meddling midwives, apothecaries, and alchemists.

The Shadows of Versailles is about a young girl, Fleur, who finds herself seduced by a handsome courtier and promptly falls pregnant. But when her child is taken away after birth, her thoughts slowly turn from grief to revenge. Fleur’s path takes her from the glamour of Versailles, to a brothel in Paris run by a good-hearted woman where she earns a living by sewing, and back to Versailles to enact her revenge.

Meanwhile Jacques, a spy for the chief of police, tries to find out what happened to her new-born boy. His search takes him across Paris, and into dangerous territory.

The second in the series, The Alchemist’s Daughter, due to be released later this summer, begins in the poor parts of Paris, but we will also revisit Versailles where we’ll meet characters from the first book again. The timelines cross over.

The sheer scope of people involved in the Affair of the Poisons over the years allows me to pursue a variety of plot ideas. Both Versailles and Paris are places full of intrigues – a paradise for a historical novelist! Add a touch of poison and murder, and you can give your characters free reign…

Thank you for hosting me today. It was a pleasure to be here.

Cathie Dunn

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About the Author

Cathie Dunn is an award-winning author of historical fiction, mystery, dual-timeline, and romance set in Scotland, England, and France. She has been published for ten years, but now all her novels are released under the banner of Ocelot Press, an author cooperative. The Shadows of Versailles is her fifth published novel, and she is currently working on the sequel, The Alchemist’s Daughter, and a dual-timeline story set in 9th-century Normandy. After many years in Scotland, Cathie now lives in the south of France. Find out more at her website and follow Cathie on Facebook and Twitter @cathiedunn

13 May 2021

Special Guest Post by Emma Lombard, Author of Discerning Grace (The White Sails Series Book 1)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Discerning Grace captures the spirit of an independent woman whose feminine lens blows the ordered patriarchal decks of a 19th century tall ship to smithereens. Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton with his salivary incontinence and dead-mouse stink. Discovering she is a pawn in an arrangement between slobbery Silverton and her calculating father, Grace is devastated when Silverton reveals his true callous nature.

Feisty Historical Heroines—Where to Find Them in History

My research for my historical romantic adventure on the high seas highlighted just how there much there is about men at sea in the history books but comparatively little about women. Certainly, records show us that women went to sea, whether with permission or not—as passengers or wives, but there is less evidence of what life was like aboard a tall ship for these women. 

Thankfully, I found some incredible resources that are a treasure trove of insights into the lives of many women at sea, drawn from newspaper articles, diaries and historical records. The personalised accounts from the women’s diaries gives so much more depth and emotion, outlining their hopes and fears as well as lamenting the loss of luxuries and comfort, than say a ship’s books recorded by a male clerk, which while brimming with factual information, is devoid of those personal encounters and inner thoughts.

Some of my favourite resources that reference women at sea include:

Seafaring Women by renowned historian, Linda Grant De Pauw

Female Tars by Suzanne J. Stark

Hen Frigates by maritime historian, Joan Durett

She Captains by maritime historian, Joan Durett

Modern Expectations vs Historical Reality

Any doubt I had about my fictional main character, Grace Baxter, being too modern and breaching the class or gender expectations of the time was securely put to bed by Elizabeth Gaskell’s series North and South. Here is a female author who published her works in 1854 with a recurring theme of complex social conflicts, including an entitled female protagonist who befriends working-class characters. 

As can be expected, Gaskell’s work received scathing critical reception for going against the prevailing views of the time but it is a great source for me, as a modern author, to know that these thoughts existed back then. It has enabled me to experiment with some unconventional relationships between my characters—the likes of which is going down well with my readers.

How I Avoided the Plague of the Sea

I had to do a lot of research about living aboard a naval vessel in the 19th century. The irony is, I can't even step foot on a ship because I suffer from sea sickness! There’s no wonder this affliction was called the plague of the sea. Ugh! However, I’ve managed to explore a few ship museums around the world. It has been fabulous to immerse myself in shipboard life, even if they aren’t quite of the era in which I’m writing.

Ship’s Museums I’ve Visited

Polly Woodside — three-masted barque permanently docked in Melbourne, Australia

Royal Yacht Britannia — Her Majesty The Queen’s former floating palace permanently docked in Edinburgh, Scotland

The Notorious — a travelling 15th century Portuguese Caravel replica that sailed into my hometown in Brisbane, Australia

A Captain’s Kingdom

While most Royal Navy captains commanded their ships under the governance of the Articles of War, there are plenty of tales of wayward commanders who either abused the punishments or were indifferent to complying with the regulations. Hollywood has also stretched these stereotypes rather far too. Though, let’s face it, once out on the open ocean for years at a time, a ship was the captain’s kingdom to command as he pleased. 

My research gave me a flavour of the dress, etiquette, food and expectations of shipboard life, which helped me thread this authenticity into my works—like discovering what rhea (large ostrich-like bird of South America) tasted like for the crew aboard my ship. For the record, it apparently tastes similar to young beef/veal.

Toning Down the Hollywood Drama

Interestingly enough, there were several scenes that I wrote based on factual events or characters that today’s modern audience (aka my beta readers and my editor) found implausible. So, I had to find that sweet spot between toning down some of the more colourful events and keeping the plot going, while still maintaining the historical flavour. I’m fortunate that one of my beta readers is lieutenant commander currently serving in the Royal Navy, who also happens to be a historian. Grahame’s fount of knowledge about shipboard life helped me iron out some of the Hollywood drama from my story.

As a historical fiction writer, you want to ensure you get the facts straight but sometimes there comes a point in your story where creative licence kicks in and certain events have to go a certain way to keep your readers engaged and entertained. Sorry, G! 

Ultimately, my goal as an author is to have my readers slam shut my book when they’re done and toss it beside them on the couch with a satisfied, “Ha! That was great!” 

If they’ve been entertained for the duration of reading my book and been able to escape for just a while, then mission accomplished.

Emma Lombard 

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About the Author

Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace, is the first book in The White Sails Series. Find out more ar Emma's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @LombardEmma

11 May 2021

Book Review: Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders, Simnel, Warbeck and Warwick, by Nathen Amin


New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The details of the various ‘pretenders’ to the throne who emerged during the reign of Henry VII have become clouded by myth and legends. Nathen Amin’s new book therefore shines much-needed light on the known facts.

Henry’s opponents had good reason to ‘muddy the waters’. They needed a figurehead, someone for potential rebels to rally around, with a good story to justify revolt.

One of the less well known is Lambert Simnel, and his story proves hard to pin down. Nathen points out that the little we know comes from official records written after the failure of the Simnel conspiracy. According to Vergil, the king decided a fitting punishment would be to work as a ‘turnspit’ in the royal kitchens, followed by an unlikely promotion to the well-paid position of ‘trainer of the king’s hawks.’

Another pretender, the mysterious Perkin Warbeck, received similarly surprising tolerance from the king, who initially placed him under house arrest in the royal household. Nathen Amin avoids speculation about the reasons, and has been meticulous with his research, leaving no stone unturned. As a result, he has created the definitive guide to the Tudor pretenders, which I’m happy to recommend.

Tony Riches 

(A review copy was kindly provided by Amberley Books)

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About the Author

Nathen Amin grew up in the heart of Carmarthenshire, West Wales, and has long had an interest in Welsh history, the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor period. His first book Tudor Wales was released in 2014 and was well-received, followed by a second book called York Pubs in 2016. His third book is a full-length biography of the Beaufort family. He is the founder of the Henry Tudor Society and has featured discussing the Tudors on BBC radio and television, as well as in print and online media across the UK. He has a degree in Business and Journalism and now lives in York, where he works as a Technical Writer. Find him on Twitter @NathenAmin.

7 May 2021

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Queen’s Rival, by Anne O’Brien

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

England, 1459:One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne.

But when the Yorkists are defeated at the battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Stripped of her lands and imprisoned in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit. One that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.

O’Brien manages to reinvent historical fiction’ My Weekly

‘This thrilling historical novel has it all – high politics, drama, emotion, excellent writing … It's a rollercoaster of a read’ Carol McGrath

‘Dramatic and highly evocative’ Woman’s Weekly

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About the Author

Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.Today she has sold over 700,000 copies of her books medieval history novels in the UK and internationally. She lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels which breathe life into the forgotten women of medieval history.
 Find out more at Anne's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @anne_obrien

6 May 2021

Special Guest Post: The Inspiration Behind Under the Light of the Italian Moon, by Jennifer Anton

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

A promise keeps them apart until WW2 threatens to destroy 
their love forever

Fonzaso Italy, between two wars

Nina Argenta doesn’t want the traditional life of a rural Italian woman. The daughter of a strong-willed midwife, she is determined to define her own destiny. But when her brother emigrates to America, she promises her mother to never leave.

What my Grandmother Left Me:

I started writing Under the Light of the Italian Moon in 2006, which became the year of coming to a new understanding of womanhood. I was pregnant with my daughter, and at my baby shower, aunts and cousins surrounded me in blessings. My Italian grandmother sat to the side, a quiet spectator. That night, she called an ambulance and never left the hospital. 

Two months later, I had my daughter via an emergency c-section, then went into heart failure, causing me to have to leave my baby at home with my mom. Doctors tried to save my malfunctioning heart. I recovered—but my grandmother did not. She died, never getting to meet my daughter. I wondered what of hers I could give to my child to make sure she was remembered. 

She had told me little about her life in Italy. I still remember the night I asked her about WWII in Italy, because we were studying WWII in highschool. She shared that Nazis had occupied her town, friends had been killed in their atrocities. For the first time, I heard the name of a town, Fonzaso – where she lived the beginning seventeen years of her life. She admitted that she hadn’t wanted to leave, but she needed to stay with her family. I tucked this information into my memory. 

As a teenager, I didn’t have the inclination to follow up on questions forming in my head when I heard those words: Nazis, Fonzaso, partisans, WWII. It was hard to associate all of that with my grandma, who loved to sit in her Daniel Green slippers and make polenta on Sundays. I was American, so was she, I thought. It was only her meals, her infrequent Italian demands (Basta!) and her phone calls abroad in Italian that told me she was different. But I never considered her what she was—an immigrant. 

In 2006, when she died, a notebook on my counter held questions I had intended to ask about her childhood in Italy and during WWII. Instead, I filled pages with her eulogy, written as a letter to my daughter to introduce her to her great grandmother. At the wake people spoke of her youth: gymnastics competitions we had never heard about, and made us wonder if we fully knew the woman who I had called Grandma Lasia. 

My mom, who never speaks in public, stood up with a stronger voice than I had ever heard her use, and spoke about her mother. It was an epiphany moment for me. Mothers, daughters, grandmothers—our connection flashed in front of me, as boldly as sunlight in my eyes.

Strong Italian Women - the authors ancestors. 

There began the fourteen-year journey of researching and writing my first novel. The questions had to be answered. The stories had to be told. I was the only one to do it. Like raising a second child, I gave writing and researching my early mornings, late nights, vacations and weekends. I visited my grandmother’s sister with my tape recorder and notepad, documenting stories. I called cousins in Canada who had grown up in Fonzaso with my grandmother, asked them questions and listened. I wrote, researched and wrote some more.

But you can’t write a novel about Italy without truly understanding the country. So, I applied for my Italian citizenship and travelled to meet family in Fonzaso and Serena del Grappa. I hired translators and consumed large amounts of coffee, polenta, eggplant parmigiana, prosecco, biscotti, wine and grappa while sitting across from elderly relatives. 

Their eyes glistened as they answered my questions—going back, remembering. Looking at them, I did not see age spots and grey hair; I saw them as they were in my book, when Mussolini implemented his egotistical plan and Nazis occupied their town. I shook my head time and again at their stories, the atrocities they witnessed but never mentioned, until you asked. 

Researching, author and her aunt

It struck me when I met with them that they had stayed while so many had left. In fact, I interviewed four Italians who emigrated to the U.S. and Canada, and four who remain in or near Fonzaso after the war. It was strange to think that my grandmother was the link. When I saw her, sitting in the chair with the phone to her ear, nylons rolled down around her ankles in her housecoat, she was speaking to these people. She was keeping her connection to Italy. But the rest of my family had only known Americanness. We didn’t feel the link. Had I not had the curiosity and gone back; had I not written the novel, it is possible these connections would have been broken forever.

My novel, Under the Light of the Italian Moon, is biographical fiction.  It takes the stories and history of my family and the times and weaves them together with a fictional thread to build a story I hope readers want to read. Like The Crown or books like The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris and Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, real people’s lives mingle with fiction to tell stories that needed to be remembered. I worked with the best editors I could find, starting with Sally Orson-Jones and then Angela Myers, who had edited The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka’s Journey. 

It took me fourteen years to write my novel. I know Under the Light of the Italian Moon would not be what it is if it had taken any less time. Over these years, I have watched my mother grow into her role as nonna. I have watched my baby girl grow into a teenager. I am more certain than ever that the strength of the world is in its women—that the path forward is through aspiring to love. 

The book is done, it published on March 8th, International Women’s Day. My grandmother helped make it happen. She is in heaven, smiling and knowing she never left me, knowing I brought her back to Italy.  

Jennifer Anton

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About the Author

Jennifer Anton is an American/Italian dual citizen born in Joliet, Illinois and now lives between London and Lake Como, Italy. A proud advocate for women's rights and equality, she hopes to rescue women's stories from history, starting with her Italian family. Find out more at her website: and find her on Facebook and  Twitter: @boldwomanwrites

5 May 2021

Book Review of Paris In Ruins by Mary K Tod

Available from Amazon UKAmazon US

I knew little about the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and the emergence of the Third French Republic in September 1870, followed by the siege of Paris by the Prussian Army. Mary Tod’s new book was therefore an insight into an unfamiliar period of French history.

In turns gentle and harrowing, I particularly liked the deft touches of prose which ground the troubling story in the real world:
Her mother was right, the view was indeed beautiful and the colours particularly striking: soft blue skies; dusky yellow wheat fields; sturdy evergreens marking the distant hills; and leaves with the first hints of gold and red. As she watched a long line of birds fly overhead, she thought she heard the babble of a nearby stream. An explosion shattered the calm.
I really cared about her characters, women who found new strength and resolve in the midst of war. I was also intrigued by the appearance of actress Sarah Bernhardt. I looked up her history and found she led the conversion of the Paris Odeon into a hospital for wounded soldiers, and worked as a nurse, showing great leadership to the women of Paris.

Sarah Bernhardt

This thought-provoking novel is a worthy successor to Mary Tod’s three earlier books, Unravelled, Lies Told In Silence and Time and Regret - and one I’m happy to recommend.

Tony Riches

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About the Author

M.K. (Mary) Tod lives in Toronto, Canada, and writes and blogs about historical fiction. She had a successful business career working at an executive level in management consulting, sales and marketing, and is married with two adult children.  Find out more from Mary's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @MKTodAuthor