Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Interview with Catherine Arthur, Author of King Oak

19 February 2022

Special Guest Interview with Catherine Arthur, Author of King Oak

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The Common, 1780 George Hogtrough is risking his neck. 

When his friend lures him into the murky world of smuggling, unexpected events unfold. Fearful of destitution, his wife Molly turns to drink, and her attention soon wanders towards her husband’s hated brother. Jesse is everything George is not – sober, hardworking, God-fearing. Should George discover her eye has strayed all hell will break loose.

I'm pleased to welcome author Catherine Arthur to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

King Oak is my debut novel and was self-published in June 2021. It’s set in 1780, on the edge of the vast Ashtead Common in Surrey. We first meet Molly Hogtrough, heavily pregnant and relying on cheap gin to get her through the day, while her husband George is plotting something nefarious which he is desperate to keep from her. 

You know what it’s like when you’ve had a few (or maybe not!), the tongue wriggles loose and all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t normally say just slips out. For George, this could mean the difference between life and the noose, so he is torn between keeping Molly sweet and out of the way by providing her with flasks of her tipple, but also not being able to confide in her. The tale twists and turns, with all the main characters connected in some way to the King Oak, an ancient veteran tree which lies deep within the forest.

King Oak is the first in a series, in which we meet the Hogtrough family and the wider community of the small hamlet of Woodfield. 


The idea evolved while I was researching my family tree. I lived in Ashtead for the first five years of my life, near the pond. I clearly remember looking out across the water towards Woodfield, an area of scrub and low trees at the edge of the Common. It seemed enormous and mysterious back then. As I delved deeper into the history of my family, I was surprised to find that the hamlet running down the side of the scrubland was home to several of my ancestors. 

These large families lived cramped into tiny cottages, the menfolk working as agricultural labourers on farms thereabouts. Their names were recorded in the records of the local church. Marriages, baptisms, and burials show just how close the community was, for the same surnames appear from the late 1780s until the coming of the railway, which cut Woodfield in two in 1859. 

In the midst of the industrial revolution and with Ashtead’s station on their doorstep, many people from Woodfield got on the train and left: for the coal depots of Croydon, the suburbs of a mill town, London, Lancashire and beyond. Some of them escaped the poverty of the land, but others found the new world did not provide a better life. For Woodfield though, it meant the separation of a close-knit group of families. Most of the ancient local names had disappeared from the church register within a few short years. 

With this history in mind, an idea evolved to chart the growing connections between the families, their struggles and triumphs, love affairs and arguments, until the railway tore them all apart. 

I chose the Hogtrough family because their real-life story contains the beginnings of some very strange tales, but rarely any endings. What actually happened is lost to time and so I aim to give those stories closure, albeit imagined. 

What is your preferred writing routine?

In an ideal world, I would get up early, turn on my PC, gaze out of the window at the wonderful view, and the creativity would begin to flow. 

In reality, I write when I can. I haven’t given up my day job - I run a small English language school in Switzerland - so writing happens between lessons, at weekends, and in the summer, early in the morning. I’m not very good at early mornings when it’s dark! 

The biggest hindrance is that my writing is set in the 1780s. When you are deep in that world the modern day falls away. The whirr and buzz of electrical appliances, passing tractors and diesel mowers fades out, and the sights and sounds of the 18th century come to the fore. When I’m at the inn; the smell of a spit-roast pig, cheap ale, tobacco and wood smoke. With Molly in her yard; the slosh of washing in a tub, the demands of her ancient grandmother, a waft of vegetable stew bubbling over the hearth indoors. 

And then … suddenly I’m jolted back into the 21st century and driving down the road to the school. It’s a strange contrast, and quite often I don’t start writing (when I probably should) because I find it difficult to be dragged out of the flow and back to ‘reality’. I like to have a good few hours ahead of me, and that’s when I find I work best.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Keep going! It took me five years to write King Oak, and there were long periods when I didn’t write a thing. When it was nearly finished, I gave it to a friend who inspired me to complete it. That motivation was crucial. I’m not sure I would ever have finished if she hadn’t said ‘I love it!’. Be careful of doing that too soon though. Make sure you’re happy with what you give out, not a rough draft. Polish it up as much as you can first. 

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research?

I picked a date out of thin air - 7th June 1780 – for the beginning of the book. When I looked at what was happening in England at that time, I found that The Gordon Riots were in full swing in London, just 25 miles away from Ashtead Common, and so I brought that event into the story. The riots touch the characters and their plans, and things unfold differently because of what was happening half a days’ ride up the road.  

Another interesting find was when I chanced upon a House of Commons Journal for 1782. The members of the house were discussing the importance of rebuilding the old bridges in Surrey, which were all in a sorry state. They sited an example of an accident at Leatherhead which had occurred a couple of years before, and so I documented this incident as it occurred in my imagination, of course. Something similar really happened, but once again, the details have been long lost.

What are you planning to write next?

Book Two of the series is well underway. All the books will be stand-alone novels, but at the end of King Oak, some characters’ stories were left a little up in the air. The second book will continue those tales as we find out what happens to them the following year. It’s set in September 1781, when celebrations for the 20th Anniversary of the Coronation of King George III were held, and the Michaelmas Fayre at the end of the month, was a kind of elaborate harvest festival. It was one of the ‘quarter days’, when men and servants were hired, rents paid and debts settled, and disputes were resolved so they did not linger on. Whether this is possible for any of my characters, well, we shall have to see. 

Catherine Arthur

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About the Author

Catherine Arthur was born in Surrey, although most of her childhood was spent in East Sussex. She now lives in a farmhouse in Switzerland. Her interests include history, old maps, and local tales and traditions, among many other things. It was her delve into genealogy which provided the inspiration for her first novel, King Oak. The story follows the fortunes, and misfortunes, of a family living on the edge of a vast common, and how events at the King Oak shape their lives. During research into the way people lived at the end of the 18th century, she gained immense respect for the skills our ancestors possessed, which are now all but lost, and a deep gratitude for the ease of modern living.  Find out more at Catherine's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @CatArthurian

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