Mastodon The Writing Desk: September 2023

30 September 2023

Book Review: The First British Empire: Global Expansion in the Early Modern Age, by John Oliphant

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

I’m too young to remember a map of the British Empire on the wall at school, but I can remember cheering the new president, Jomo Kenyatta, as a small child in Kenya on independence day.

There are several things I take away from this thought-provoking new book from John Oliphant, all of which I was aware of, but now see in a wider context. The first is how the deep injustice of empire building seems to have been accepted by the establishment.

It is hard to view the claiming of a country through the mind set of those who led the way. For example, the group of enterprising merchants from Dorchester in Dorset who claimed New England for themselves seem to be relieved when the indigenous population were decimated by the diseases they brought. 

I was also struck by the complex blend of social, political, economic and religious motives which underpinned the expansion of empires. A similar pattern seems to endure, whether in Ireland or India, where the British exploit any resources in the name of trade.

John Oliphant manages to sustain an engaging narrative throughout the book, which is packed with surprising details, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of the British empire.

Tony Riches 

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About the Author

John Oliphant's core research area is the mid-eighteenth century American frontier and he has lectured in London, Scotland, Pennsylvania and Memphis.  Find out more from his website and find him on Twitter @Empire18thC

28 September 2023

Book Review - A Turbulent Peace, by Paul Walker

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Set during the Armistice in January 1919, volunteer nurse Mary Kiten finds herself thrust into the complex world of the Paris Peace Conference. She doesn't understand why, and it is never really explained, but she is soon appointed as an assistant to John Maynard Keynes, who leads the British Treasury in Paris.

What follows is a series of near misses and daring escapades, where our heroine wins against impossible odds. She takes on Russian gangsters, and saves Keynes' life more than once. 

I particularly liked the authentic settings of the backstreets of Paris, and details of the actual hotels for the peace conference.

I recommend reading the authors notes at the end, which give an insight into the depth of his research to produce a real page-turner.

Tony Riches  

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About the Author

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

27 September 2023

Special Guest Interview with David West, Author of the Sir Anthony Standen Adventures

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Penniless and a disappointment to his father, Anthony Standen is flung into the Eighty Years' War, spying for the queen who exiled him, against the queen who knighted him.

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

What was the inspiration for the Sir Anthony Standen Adventures?

I took the Open University Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing courses, intending to write contemporary crime fiction. But I couldn’t get a clear picture of my detective. Around the same time I read a biography of Sir Francis Drake and discovered that Walsingham had a spy, Sir Anthony Standen, who provided all the intelligence on the Spanish Armada that he needed. 

Standen is my mother’s maiden name, and I have since discovered that his younger brother was my 10th great-grandfather. I read his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and thought it was the most incredible story I had read. At almost every turn I kept asking: why did he do that, and how did he do that? So I decided to tell his story myself. When I completed The Spy who Sank the Armada, I started paging through history a year at a time, and soon found the inspiration for the second book, Fire and Earth. 

What is your preferred writing routine? 

I start with research. I spend months collating every detail of the historical characters, events, and places involved. I write with Scrivener, and find it very useful for assembling all that data and producing character profiles. One of the joys of historical fiction is that a central conflict is already there for you to work around. Because I write historical crime fiction, I need to create my own crime to solve, amidst the chaos of the historical events. 

But there is another conflict to discover, and that is the internal conflict that we can all relate to. In The Spy who Sank the Armada the internal conflict was between what Anthony thought he needed, and what he really needed. For Fire and Earth the underlying conflict is between faith and reason. The Suggested Assassin has misogyny as its underlying conflict, and Called to Account has racism, in particular anti-semitism, at its core.

When I’ve got to know my characters and the conflicts which embroil them, I start outlining the chapters and building the story arc. I’m aware that the outline will probably change once I start writing, but I dont like to set out on a journey without a map. I know I’m ready to start writing when I have scenes playing out like movies in my mind. Then I try to write a thousand words a day. Some days it’ll be more, and some less. When I get stuck, I go for a long walk. Around fifteen miles will loosen most of my writer’s blocks.

What advice do you have for new writers? 

Study the craft. If I’d tried to write without doing the OU courses, I dread to think what drivel I might be writing. Actually I don’t need to think about it, I did try it many years ago, when I was working away from home. I wrote the first chapter of a Biggles style detective story. When I got home and showed it to Claire she didn’t pull any punches. It was dreadful!

Get to know your characters. I’m so lucky that I discovered Sir Anthony. Sharing my protagonist’s DNA definitely helps. Claire has read every draft of each of my books. Her input has been essential, particularly her encyclopaedic knowledge of the Georgette Heyer and Jane Austin canons. She’ll still criticise where necessary, but she’ll also let me know what she likes.

When you have your perfect manuscript you should consider how to publish it. When I was ready with the first book, the advice I read was that you need to secure a literary agent first. I crafted my synopsis and elevator pitch, but didn’t get any bites. My other editor, Debz, suggested Kindle Direct Publishing. It’s a good way to access the worlds largest bookstore. Your only questions then are how good a cover you want, and what you’re prepared to pay for one.

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

I use Amazon Sponsored Product advertising. It’s taken some finessing to spend less on advertising than I recoup through sales, but it does work. Word of mouth is a great help too. I often find that many months after I’ve told a friend or acquaintance about my books, they tell me that they really enjoyed them. I can tell they’re telling the truth because of the sense of surprise in their voice. 

I took a stall at our village Christmas Fayre and sold fifty books in an hour. I’ve taken advertisements in book review magazines, and done radio, and podcast interviews. So in terms of sales, word of mouth, established networks, and author events are best. But you’re never going to hit the Sunday Times bestseller list that way unless you’re a celebrity author. People can’t buy your book unless they’re aware of it. That’s why guest blog spots like The Writing Desk are so useful. I also have an article coming out in the Crime Readers Association newsletter in November. 

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research 

My latest book in the series, Called to Account, includes my first use of forensic science for crime detection. I researched the invention of the microscope and discovered that a Dutch spectacle maker, Zacharias Janssen, is credited with making the first compound microscope around 1600. He didn’t publicise the fact because he had a sideline in counterfeiting, for which the microscope helped him perfect his craft. The only way we know of his invention is through the testimony of his son. I liked the invention of a device for nefarious purposes being used for crime detection.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing? 

Called to Account is set around a pogrom. I found getting into the mind of the ringleader of the anti-Semitic rebels a very uncomfortable place to be. Unfortunately it’s somewhere you do have to go if you’re to write convincingly. I drew on childhood memories from the early 1960’s, when racial prejudice was rife. 

What are you planning to write next?

I’m in the outlining stage of the fifth book, which is set in Paris around 1613 - 1617. I’ve read biographies of Marie de Medici, Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Charles d’Albert de Luynes. I think the underlying conflict will be the parent-child conflict.

David West

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About the Author

David V.S. West was educated at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he took a B.A. in Engineering Science. During a career in engineering and project management he was commissioned by Gower Publishing to write a book on Project Sponsorship. This led him to study creative writing with the Open University, and a new career as a writer. The Spy who Sank the Armada is the first novel in the series The Sir Anthony Standen Adventures. The second is Fire and Earth, the third is The Suggested Assassin, and the fourth is Called to Account. He lives in Wiltshire. His author website is and you can find David on Facebook and Twitter @dvswest

26 September 2023

Special Guest Interview with James Gault, Author of King’s Warrior: The Owerd Chronicles, Book Three

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

In 11th Century England, King William has achieved almost total domination of the Englisc and turns his attention to Scotland. Owerd, possibly the last of the Britons to be deemed ‘lord’, faces powerful enemies from all quarters. He seems to hold the king’s favour by a thread, which only serves to encourage others to try and bring him down.  Treachery abounds as he tries to juggle multiple roles and prove himself and his men worthy warriors for the Norman king. But will his lust for a woman finally prove his undoing?

I'm pleased to welcome author James Gault to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

King’s Warrior is the third in a series about Owerd, a decent but unsophisticated 11th century Briton who has struggled out of poverty by dint of courage and good fortune (“wyrd” if you will). The series came about by accident, initially intended as a single volume to bring Charles Kingsley’s classic novel “Hereward the Wake” into a more digestible form for the contemporary reader. 

That attempt proved impossible – one cannot, I found, tinker with a classic, however challenging its rather antiquated prose. Hence a new character set in the same period of a land beset by inequity, strife and a Norman invasion. In this book Owerd, having already established his credentials as a loyal subject and “Sea Lord” returns to the role he fills best, that of warrior.

What is your preferred writing routine?

Having led a predominantly disciplined military life, I have since shrugged off the shackles of any routine in my writing endeavours. I simply write when the mood takes me and “life” doesn’t intervene. I need peace and a vacant diary but having begun a story my mind is never far from the circumstances the people in my story find themselves in and what may come next in their journey. 

More often than not that leads to a need for ever more research on a particular topic and I can spend many hours reading or on the internet doing just that. When trying, as I do, to involve real people and historical events lacking detailed records, that can become very time consuming. Having written a few contemporary tales, I find the process and my own routine for writing historical fiction quite different: many hours of researching might well lead to a single sentence. In those circumstances one cannot simply put quill to parchment at a particular time of day and expect the story to flow.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I cannot in all conscience offer reliable advice to any aspiring writer. I would venture to suggest, though, that a key ingredient of success is to focus on subjects that interest you. Without your own interest being fully engaged then it is improbable that the reader’s interest will be. Once that is established then you just need the determination to get writing. There is a “but”. Perhaps don’t attempt “War and Peace” without stopping after a single chapter and doing two things: seek another’s opinion and edit, probably in reverse order. 

Editing is a time consuming and annoying but essential process: typos and awkward phrases can creep into the most erudite text and kill it off instantly for the otherwise keen reader. Another factor is deciding who that reader is. A friend who read a couple of my modern adventure stories returned the third book with the comment that he hadn’t finished it because “it contained too many long words”. Writing style perhaps needs to match the likely audience and genre of the work. I suspect readers of historical fiction tend to be more educated and linguistically demanding than the norm.

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

I am still experimenting with ways of raising awareness. As an “indie” writer without the benefit of a professional agent or publisher I struggle and need to balance the investment involved in the many agencies that offer promotional efforts with the likely (and not assured) return. Word of mouth has been helpful whilst I have been disappointed with Amazon advertising. I am not a wealthy person, but equally I am not starving. Enormous sales, whilst good for the ego, are not my goal: I would much rather hear that a few people had enjoyed a good read. That is far more satisfying. 

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

Something I have come to realise but should probably have known all along. Men and women of the 11th century were little different in their way of thinking than they are today. Fear, anger, pride, shame, joy and jealousy etc are human characteristics that I detect little change in over time. The one surprising element is how universally indifferent society then seems to have been to the place of women. Basically, women were ignored, or at best tolerated simply for their necessary reproductive functions.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

There are two scenes – or types of scenes – that I find particularly challenging to write. These are scenes involving violent or sexual interaction. On each occasion of one such event arising I find it challenging to find the right balance between realism and undue detail. There is far too much blood and gore depicted in daily news to be over-exposed to readers again in what is intended to be a piece of escapist literature. Equally, the period of my story involved considerable violence and bloodshed so needs to be depicted. Sex is also inevitable: it is what keeps the planet populated. Again, this has become for me a matter of balance and I tend to choose somewhat restrained language rather than lurid detail.

What are you planning to write next?

I feel the urge to write a sequel to King’s Warrior to continue the Owerd Chronicles. At the same time, I would like to avoid any predictability. Historical fiction can be very demanding in that context. It is a little like writing a story about Anne Boleyn – we all know the ending. I can sometimes read the first chapter of a contemporary romance or adventure tale and confidently predict the outcome. I would like to avoid that same fate with Owerd. Time will tell!

James Gault

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About the Author

James Gault is a semi-retired Naval Captain with an abiding interest in storytelling and history. He has written a few contemporary fiction stories and a history text but lately has concentrated on historical fiction. He lives in a small coastal town in SE Australia – which provides quite a challenge when addressing medieval England with the aid of an old school atlas. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @ozjimg

25 September 2023

Historical Fiction Spotlight: Daughter of the Sun: Story of the Young Eleanor of Aquitaine (The Heirs of Anarchy Book 5) by G. Lawrence

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Countess, Duchess, twice a Queen, ruler of vast lands, crusader, mother and politician, this is the story of the young Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Aquitaine, 1137: The young Eleanor of Aquitaine has inherited the lands of her father, at once becoming most powerful and most vulnerable. Promised without her knowledge to the heir to the King of France, Eleanor is about to enter a court unknown, and a world most violent. 

Through trials of marriage, politics and crusade to the Holy Lands, Eleanor will travel, rising above the limitations set upon her, to forge a path to a future where dreams of true power are more than mere illusion.

Daughter of the Sun, Story of the Young Eleanor of Aquitaine is Book 5 
 of the Heirs of Anarchy series 

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About the Author

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

22 September 2023

Book Spotlight: Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles, by Josephine Wilkinson

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Louis XIV’s story has all the ingredients of a Dumas classic: legendary beginnings, beguiling women, court intrigue, a mysterious prisoner in an iron mask, lavish court entertainments, the scandal of a mistress who was immersed in the dark arts, and a central character who is handsome and romantic, but with a frighteningly dark side to his character.

Louis believed himself to be semi-divine. His self-identification as the Sun King, which was reflected in iconography of the sun god, Apollo, influenced every aspect of Louis’s life: his political philosophy, his wars, and his relationships with courtiers and subjects.

As a military strategist, Louis’s capacity was debatable, but he was an astute politician who led his country to the heights of sophistication and power – and then had the misfortune to live long enough to see it all crumble away. As the sun began to set upon this most glorious of reigns, it brought a gathering darkness filled with the anguish of dead heirs, threatened borders, and a populace that was dangerously dependent upon – but greatly distanced from – its king.

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About the Author

Dr Josephine Wilkinson is an author and historian. She received a First from the University of Newcastle where she also read for her PhD. She has received British Academy research funding and has been scholar-in-residence at St Deiniol's Library, Britain's only residential library founded by the great Victorian statesman, William Gladstone She now lives in York, Richard III's favourite city. She is the author of The Princes in the Tower, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, and Richard III (all published by Amberely), and Katherine Howard (John Murray). You can find Josephine on Twitter @Jo_History 

21 September 2023

Special Guest Post by Heidi Eljarbo, Author of The London Forgery: A Historical Art Mystery (Fabiola Bennett Mystery Book 1)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

1973. Art historian Fabiola Bennett sees herself as a prudently observant deer who becomes a daring and even mischievous lioness if the situation calls for it. And that’s exactly what’s required when greedy criminals steal, forge, and tamper with treasured artwork. When the crooks add murder to their list of crimes, the chaos is complete.

What is it with writers? What do they write about? Why do they choose certain genres or topics? To some, it’s purely a commercial aspect, but I believe most authors write about what they love. If they always pick up a romance novel at the bookstore, library, or airport bookshop, they most likely enjoy writing in that genre, as well.

I was a child who loved history. My father made bookshelves to cover a whole wall in our living room. He and my mother filled it with all their favourite books, many from the 1930s and 1940s. During WWII, there was no television, and much of the music and entertainment was banned. My newlywed parents played board games and read. Their love for words, stories, and knowledge was passed on to me.

Another thing in our home was that the walls were filled with my father’s art. He handed me a paintbrush at an early age, and I loved it.

So my life steered in the direction of what became my passions; the written word, languages (I’ve lived in six countries), art, and anything history. I even started on our family tree at the age of fifteen and was always the only young person flipping through old church records at the archives.

And I love to write. It makes me happy. And I choose to write about these things I love; topics I’ve also studied. I have a passion for historical fiction because I can research art history, clothing history, the politics and social life, and the sight, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of life in another time. 

I write about women who fight for justice, for a place in society, and for the safety of their family and friends. Some of these women solve mysteries. They have problems thrown at them. They fall in love. I often add elements of art history because it fills my heart, and I enjoy taking my characters to different countries. Or perhaps I should say…I follow them around…pen in hand, registering their story.

The London Forgery is about all these things. Art historian Fabiola Bennett is from Norway but travels the world solving art crimes in the early 1970s. She is passionate about art history and fairly clever (and ridiculously courageous) when solving mysteries. You can imagine how much fun I have spending hours on research for her stories. 

But there’s more…this new series about Fabiola’s adventures is a spin-off from my Soli Hansen Mysteries. Fabiola is Soli’s daughter! The novels are dual timeline, and some of the chapters take the reader back to the master artist who painted the artwork in trouble. In The London Forgery that artist is British Thomas Gainsborough, and the painting is his world-renowned Mr. and Mrs. Andrews from 1750.

I have often told people who say genealogy is boring, that they haven’t tried enough. I feel the same way about art history. If you, after having read The London Forgery, have the chance to visit the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square in London, please do. 

Go see Gainsborough’s rendition of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews in room thirty-five. Sit on the bench in front of the masterpiece and think about the chapters about Gainsborough; how the painting came about, what the sitters were like, Gainsborough’s decision why he depicted the couple the way he did, and why there’s a mystery about this certain art piece. Fabiola Bennett does everything she can to rescue this beautiful painting.

Happy reading!

Heidi Eljarbo

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About the Author

Heidi Eljarbo is the bestselling author of historical fiction and mysteries filled with courageous and good characters that are easy to love and others you don't want to go near. Heidi grew up in a home filled with books and artwork and she never truly imagined she would do anything other than write and paint. She studied art, languages, and history, all of which have come in handy when working as an author, magazine journalist, and painter. After living in Canada, six US states, Japan, Switzerland, and Austria, Heidi now calls Norway home. She and her husband have fifteen grandchildren—so far—in addition to a bouncy Wheaten Terrier. Their favorite retreat is a mountain cabin, where they hike in the summertime and ski the vast, white terrain during winter. Heidi’s favourites are family, God's beautiful nature, and the word whimsical. Find out more at Heidi's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @HeidiEljarbo

19 September 2023

Pre-Order Spotlight: The Wolf and the Favour by Catherine McCarthy

Available for pre-order from 

(Pre-order price 99c/79p for a limited time)

Ten-year-old Hannah has Down syndrome and oodles of courage, but should she trust the alluring tree creature who smells of Mamma’s perfume or the blue-eyed wolf who warns her not to enter the woods under any circumstance?

A word from the Author

I would like to provide a bit of background to the story and explain what inspired me to write The Wolf and the Favour.  First of all, it's dedicated to a boy named Daniel, a boy who taught me as much as I taught him. Allow me to explain...

Many years ago, in the very early stages of my teaching career, I had the pleasure of teaching a little boy named Daniel, the boy to whom this book is dedicated. Daniel had Down syndrome, but he also had an incredibly supportive family, a big personality, and a heart of gold. I always knew he would go far, and he has done.

He loved stories, and I was thrilled when I discovered he was working at his local library. Though we lost touch many years ago (Daniel is now an adult, and I have moved 100 miles away), he was close in my thoughts as I wrote this story and will always remain in my heart. I hope readers enjoy it.

Catherine McCarthy

The Wolf and the Favour is a tale of love, trust, and courage. A tale that champions the neurodivergent voice and proves the true power of a person’s strength lies within themselves.

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About the Author

From her old Welsh farmhouse, Catherine McCarthy spins tales with macabre melodies. Her previously work includes the collection Mists and Megaliths and the novella Immortelle (Off Limits Press), as well as short fiction in various anthologies and magazines. Find out more from Catherine's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @serialsemantic

17 September 2023

Historical Fiction Spotlight - The Mercenary's Blade (Lord's Legacy Book 1) by Eleanor Swift-Hook

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

England, September 1642: The King has raised his standard in Nottingham to summon those loyal to the crown to fight for him against his own Parliament.

Gideon Lennox, an idealistic young lawyer from London, is in County Durham being paid to find a man and deliver a message. Having failed in the task that originally brought him north, Gideon needs to prove himself.

The man he seeks is the traitor Philip Lord, a notorious mercenary commander, with a reputation for brutality gained in the wars raging across Europe. When Gideon encounters Lord, he is abducted and set to investigate strange happenings in a Weardale village.

As he attempts to uncover the truth behind accusations of witchcraft - and the murder of the witchfinder in Pethridge - the lawyer is faced with more questions than answers.

He is convinced that Lord must somehow be involved until a gory discovery proves to him that whoever might be behind the strange events, it is not the accused women - or Lord.

Just as Gideon begins to realise that more than one shadowy hand is moving the pieces in the dangerous game being played out in Pethridge, he is seized and accused of the murder himself.

The lawyer must somehow escape - or become a victim of the conspiracy he needs to bring to light.

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About the Author

Eleanor Swift-Hook enjoys the mysteries of history and fell in love with the early Stuart era at university when she re-enacted battles and living history events with the English Civil War Society. Since then, she has had an ongoing fascination with the social, military and political events that unfolded during the Thirty Years' War and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. She lives in County Durham and loves writing stories woven into the historical backdrop of those dramatic times. You can find out more about the background of Lord's Legacy on her website and find her on Twitter @emswifthook

15 September 2023

Special Guest Post by Imogen Martin, Author of Under a Gilded Sky

New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Missouri, February 1874: The last thing struggling homesteader Ginny needs is a scandal on her hands. But when a badly injured drifter arrives at Snow Farm in desperate need of medical attention, Ginny’s kind nature and good upbringing means she has no choice but to treat his wounds and care for him until he’s back on his feet, no matter the danger he might pose.

My inspiration for Under a Gilded Sky

The inspiration for my debut novel Under a Gilded Sky came from many different places. My first draft – which I wrote in pencil on paper – focused on the story and the characters. Only when they were in place did I start deep research to make the book feel authentic.

The book opens in 1874 and is set in Missouri and Boston. I chose this date because I wanted the story to take place after the American Civil War. As a British writer, I did not think I could do justice to a time that was essentially about the freedom of slaves. But the War casts a shadow over my central characters Ginny and Lex.

I am fascinated by the American Gilded Age and 1874 is right at its beginning. Part of my interest stemmed from the library near where I live. It’s a Carnegie Library and there is a plaque to Andrew Carnegie. I knew of him as an American industrialist. Why did he pay for my local library? In fact he paid for thirty-five libraries in Wales, where I live, seventeen still open as libraries today. Only one has been demolished, probably down to each library having unique, high-quality architecture.

Inscription to Andrew Carnegie at Canton library. 
Author’s photo

I picked up an 800-page biography of Andrew Carnegie at my brother’s house, and found that he was born in poverty in Dunfermline. The family emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1848 when he was 12. Carnegie was clever, able and always on the lookout for the next step up. Eventually he made his money in steel production, becoming the richest man in the world at the beginning of the 20th century, and an icon of the Gilded Age.

Biography of Andrew Carnegie
.Author’s photo

There were other fabulously wealthy industrialists. Ginny’s rich and kind cousin Madelaine is determined to find her a wealthy husband and the family I draw on most is the Vanderbilts. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) started with a ferry in New York. He was quick to see the possibility of the new railroads and invested heavily. The succeeding generations built on his foresight. Cornelius’s son, William Henry, grew the business, and by the time of my book they were one of the wealthiest families in the United States.

Daguerreotype of Cornelius Vanderbilt. 
United States Library of Congress

I am interested in the effect of railroads on rural communities during the nineteenth century. They seem to have a similar impact across different countries: Britain, the United States, Russia, India. In America, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in May 1869 meant the east and west coasts were linked for the first time.

Although the location is given a different name, my book is set in Pulaski County in Missouri. The first railroads in Missouri were laid in 1849 with just one line going west from St Louis. It was originally called the Pacific Line (revealing the ambitions of the early entrepreneurs) but was reorganised as the Missouri Pacific Railway after a debt crisis. Jay Gould, the famous financier and one of the Gilded Age ‘robber barons’ became majority owner in 1879. A railroad was laid through Pulaski County in 1869. Characters in my novel observe some of the changes this caused.

Map of railway lines. Extract from Missouri Pacific Railway System, 

Something unexpected I discovered was how the Gilded Age came to have its name. The term was given by historians in the 1920s and comes from The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today published in 1873. The novel was written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. My hero Lex gives Ginny a copy of this book and he comments that it is new, and written by a native of Missouri.

I am delighted that my debut novel is being published by Storm Publishing. It is the culmination of many years’ writing, researching and editing. My second novel will be published in early 2024. Again it is set in the mid 19th century United States, but this time it is the story of the Oregon overlanders and takes place in 1846. Grace Sinclair defends herself when she is attacked by her landlord in the frontier town of Independence. 

Not sure if he’s dead or alive, she needs to get on the first wagon train West and get her younger brother to safety. Unfortunately, the army captain in charge of the train will not let an unmarried woman travel. So Grace has to invent a husband. As with Under a Gilded Sky, the story came first, and then the in-depth research.

I hope I give enough historical detail to make my readers feel transported to a different time and place – but not so much that they feel they are walking through a museum.

 Imogen Martin

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About the Author

Imogen Martin writes sweeping, historical fiction. Her first two novels are set in nineteenth century America. As a teenager, she took the Greyhound bus from San Francisco to New York. Over those three days of staring out of the window at the majestic mountains and endless flat plains, stories wound themselves into her head: tales of brooding, charismatic men captivated by independent women.
Since then, she has worked in a coffee-shop in Piccadilly, a famous bookstore, and a children’s home. She has run festivals, and turned a derelict housing block on one of the poorest estates in the UK into an award-winning arts centre. During 2020 Imogen was selected by Kate Nash Literary Agency as one of their BookCamp mentees, a mentorship programme designed to accelerate the careers of promising new writers. Married with two children, Imogen divides her time between Wales and Sardinia. Find out more at Imogene's website  and find her on Facebook and Twitter @ImogenMartin9

14 September 2023

Author Interview with Rosemary Hayes, Author of The King’s Command: For God or Country

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

16 year old Lidie Brunier has everything; looks, wealth, health and a charming suitor, but there are dark clouds on the horizon. Lidie and her family are committed Huguenots and Louis XIV has sworn to stamp out this ‘false religion’ and make France a wholly Catholic country.

I'm pleased to welcome author Rosemary Hayes to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

The King’s Command is based, very loosely, on the experience of my Huguenot ancestors who fled persecution in Louis XIV’s France and came to England in 1692. Here’s a bit about the story.

16 year old Lidie Brunier has everything; looks, wealth, health and a charming suitor but there are dark clouds on the horizon. Lidie  and her family are committed Huguenots and Louis XIV has sworn to stamp out this ‘false religion’ and make France a wholly Catholic country. Gradually Lidie’s comfortable life starts to disintegrate as Huguenots are stripped of all rights and the King sends his brutal soldiers into their homes to force them to become Catholics. Others around her break under pressure but Lidie and her family refuse to convert. With spies everywhere and the ever present threat of violence, they struggle on. Then a shocking betrayal forces Lidie’s hand and her only option is to try and flee the country. A decision that brings unimaginable hardship, terror and tragedy and changes her life for ever.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I don’t really have any particular routine though ideally I like to write in the morning when my brain is in gear! However, if I have a deadline I’m quite disciplined and will make myself keep to it. I have a separate office in my house and if I’m hiding away there I don’t take any notice of all the other things going on around me. I’m good at ignoring boring chores that need doing until they become really urgent!

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Everyone works differently. I tend to plan out a rough plotline before starting a new story but this doesn’t work for everyone and even if you have one, characters often take over and won’t fit into what you have planned for them! It is easy to get discouraged, so make yourself write a little every day, even if you aren’t feeling inspired and you think you are writing rubbish! Push on through those days so that you are progressing the story. You can always come back to these parts later. Don’t try and make everything perfect in your first draft. And when you have finished your first draft, put it away for a few weeks; you will be amazed at how much better you can make it when you come to it with fresh eyes.

Do seek proper editorial advice (not just from friends or family) before you submit to an agent or publisher; you need your story to be as good as it possibly can be before it goes out into the world. You have to pay for this but having professional objective advice is really worthwhile. Also, take time to research the genres handled by agents and published by publishers. Make sure that what you have written will suit their lists. Follow submission guidelines and be patient. Get on with writing your next book while you are waiting for replies.

Many authors self publish but if you go down this route, do have your work properly edited. There is so much badly written stuff out there these days!

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

The King’s Command is my first book for adults. For years I have written books for children and young adults and the biggest market for these was schools. Now that I am in the world of adult fiction, I’m working hard at building up my online presence by regular tweeting, writing articles for historical magazines and being part of blog tours. Reviews are helpful, too, and Amazon does take notice when you have a good number of four and five star reviews. I’m also talking to book clubs and other organisations to try and raise awareness of the book.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

Probably the most unexpected discovery was the level of hatred between Catholics and Protestants in France during the 16th and 17th centuries and the violence involved. Also the power of the monarchy and the incredible courage and resourcefulness of the Huguenots who refused to deny their faith despite the ever present threat of persecution and torture.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

I think probably it was the scene describing the death of a child.

What are you planning to write next?

My publisher has commissioned me to write a trilogy of novellas set at the time of the Napoleonic wars, with a flawed ex-military spy as the main protagonist. So – lots more research to do!

Rosemary Hayes

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About the Author

Rosemary Hayes has written over fifty books for children and young adults. She writes  in different genres, from edgy teenage fiction (The Mark), historical fiction (The Blue Eyed Aborigine and Forgotten Footprints), middle grade fantasy (Loose Connections, The Stonekeeper’s Child and Break Out)  to chapter books for early readers and texts for picture books. Many of her books have won or been shortlisted for awards and several have been translated into different languages. Rosemary has travelled widely but now lives in South Cambridgeshire. She has a background in publishing, having worked for Cambridge University Press before setting up her own company Anglia Young Books which she ran for some years. She has been a reader for a well-known authors’ advisory service and runs creative writing workshops for both children and adults. Find out more at Rosemary's website and find her on Twitter: @HayesRosemary

13 September 2023

Dr Linda Porter Reviews The Wisest Fool: The lavish life of James VI and I, by Steven Veerapen

Availablr from Amazon UK and Amazon US

James VI and I has long endured a mixed reputation. To many, he is the homosexual King, the inveterate witch-roaster, the smelly sovereign who never washed, the colourless man behind the authorised Bible bearing his name, the drooling fool whose speech could barely be understood. For too long, he has paled in comparison to his more celebrated – and analysed – Tudor and Stuart forebears. But who was he really? To what extent have myth, anecdote, and rumour obscured him? 

Linda Porter admires a new biography of one of Britain’s most underrated kings

When James VI of Scotland rode out of Edinburgh in April, 1603, he was beginning a leisurely journey south to London, the capital of the English kingdom that he inherited from Elizabeth I. Much to the consternation of his English counsellors, he did not rush, preferring, instead to appraise his new realm for himself and to be seen by his new subjects en route. This Stuart characteristic would have endeared him to his grandfather and great-grandfather, James V and James IV of Scotland, who were both highly visible kings. 

The English nobility, thrilled to have a male monarch after fifty years of female rule, flocked to him. Here was a king with a personable queen (he had been married to Anna of Denmark since 1589) and already two male heirs and an attractive daughter. The contrast with the barren Elizabeth could not have been more stark. James VI was now also James I of England, uniting in his person the two crowns of Scotland and England and beginning a new dynasty. It was always his intention to unite the two kingdoms under one system of government but that dream, like others that James would harbour, remained unfulfilled. It was eventually achieved by his great-grand-daughter, Queen Anne, more than a century later, and then not quite in the way James had intended.

Yet despite his dynastic importance, prodigious literary output and determination to follow a policy of peace abroad and a balance between the extremes of religious views at home, James is too often dismissed as ‘unpleasant ‘and generally ineffective, remembered for his public pawing of handsome male favourites, his swearing, his slobbering eating habits and inability to walk properly. 

The latter two of these charges against him are roundly dismissed by Steven Veerapen as being baseless. Instead, he paints a fascinating picture of a flawed but highly intelligent man, the product of a lonely and dangerous childhood during his long minority in Scotland, where he was subjected to physical abuse by his austere Calvinist tutor, George Buchanan and had to endure terrifying attempts to kidnap him.  He wasn’t even safe when he got to England, as evidenced by the attempt to blow him, his wife and elder son sky high in 1605. I often wonder, when enduring the annual mindless fireworks fest in early November, how many of those who happily petrify other people’s pets, have any idea of what lies behind this ‘celebration’, long overdue for oblivion.

Veerapen is especially good on James’s early years and his personal rule in Scotland. This is often hurried over in accounts of his reign, as if it is of little interest and importance in comparison with events after 1603. Yet it is, as this biography so eloquently points out, key to understanding the man he became. Put simply, James was always looking for love, both physical and emotional. His bisexuality, so often dismissed as a disgusting weakness by censorious commentators in the past, would not arouse criticism today and was less remarkable at the time, when sexuality was more fluid than is often supposed, as this book rightly reminds us. 

Nor, as Veerapen acknowledges, do we really know what sexual acts, if any, James and his male lovers performed. It was common enough for men to share beds with men (and women with women) in the 16th and 17th centuries. And certainly at the beginning of his marriage to Anna, who was only fifteen at the time, James seems to have hoped that she would meet all his needs. Yet though the affection between them never waned, it did not become the passionate love or emotional support that James needed. 

Anna emerges from these pages as a formidable woman, capable and determined, appalled by her husband’s decision to deprive her of the right to bring up her eldest son, Prince Henry, at Stirling, which had long been the dower castle of Scottish queens consort. Instead, James gave guardianship of the baby to the earl and countess of Mar, having been in the care of the Mar family himself as a child. A clever political player, Anna did not conform to her husband’s notions of the submissive wife. 

He wouldn’t have wanted one that was simply empty-headed and decorative, but he viewed himself as head of a family, both personally and as monarch. Anna, carefully nurturing her own supporters on both sides of the religious divide, was not the woman to subjugate her own interests to James’s patriarchal views without a fight. 

Veerapen takes issue with the suggestion that has been propounded for some time that Anna converted to Catholicism even before leaving Scotland.  He points out that there is no real evidence for this and that Rome never acknowledged her as a daughter of the church. Instead, he leaves us with a compelling portrait of a queen consort who was so much more than a spendthrift on masques, furnishings and the other accoutrements of majesty.

Yet money – or the lack of it – would prove the most intractable aspect of James’s rule in both his kingdoms.  He could never, ever, live within his means. Lavishing gifts on his favourites made him happy, even as it pushed him further into debt and emptied the national coffers. Not a ruler who was comfortable with asking Parliament for financial support, because he disliked the underlying assumption of dependency, which did not sit well with his views of kingship, he was, nevertheless, compelled to summon it when times got really tough.  It is easy to see how the seeds of discontent, which had first sprouted in the 1590s, under Elizabeth, would swell into something much harder to contain when James died in 1625.

Was he deliberately poisoned by his favourite, Buckingham, with the connivance of the future Charles I? This sensationalist theory was put forward a few years ago but Veerapen convincingly argues against it. It was obvious that James was dying so what difference would a few days have made? It also runs counter to everything we know about Charles I, who may have had his faults, but patricide was not among them. By the time of James I’s death, he had lost both his elder son, Prince Henry and Queen Anna. 

Princess Elizabeth, who had made a splendid marriage to the Elector Palatine and was briefly queen of Bohemia, was already in exile in the Netherlands, her husband’s unwise acceptance of the Bohemian throne leading to the Thirty Years War, in which many Scottish and English Calvinists fought against the Catholics. James could not help her, any more than he could achieve his policy of balancing Catholic and Protestant pressures on Britain by a Spanish marriage for Prince Charles.

Steven Veerapen has done a splendid job in bringing this neglected king and the extraordinary life he led so vividly to the page. Expertly researched and eminently readable, it should find a wide audience and will, I hope, remind those who profess to love history, that there is more to Britain’s past than the Tudors.

Linda Porter

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About the Author

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

How to Dress Like a Tudor, by Judith Arnopp

New From Amazon UK and Amazon US 

Have you ever hankered to dress like a Tudor lord or lady, or perhaps you prefer the status of goodwife, or costermonger, or even a bawd?

For beginner historical reenactors, the path to authenticity can be bewildering and sometimes intimidating. Judith Arnopp uses her own experience, both as a historian and a medieval/Tudor lady, to make your own journey a little easier.

The author traces the transition of fashion from the relatively subtle styles popular at the court of Henry VII, through the carefully constructed royal grandeur of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I to the pinnacle of majesty and splendid iconography of Elizabeth I.

In contrast to the magnificence of court come the ordinary folk who, subject to sumptuary laws and regulations, wore garments of a simpler cut and cloth – a strata of society that formed the back bone of Tudor England.

This brief history of sixteenth century fashion examines clothing for both rich and poor, adult and child, and offers tips and tricks on how to begin to sew your first historically inspired garment, this book is aimed at helping the beginner learn How to Dress like a Tudor.

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About the Author

Judith Arnopp is the author of books set in the Anglo-Saxon/early medieval period and the Tudor court. All books are available in Kindle and Paperback format, and The Beaufort Chronicle (three book series), The Kiss of the Concubine and A Song of Sixpence are on Audible. Find out more at Judith's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @JudithArnopp

11 September 2023

Historical Fiction Spotlight ~ Dawn Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome, by Faith L. Justice

Available from Amazon US and Amazon UK

As Rome reels under barbarian assaults, a young girl must step up.

After the Emperor’s unexpected death, ambitious men eye the Eastern Roman throne occupied by seven-year-old Theodosius II. His older sister Pulcheria faces a stark choice: she must find allies and take control of the Eastern court or doom the imperial children to a life of obscurity—or worse. 

Beloved by the people and respected by the Church, Pulcheria forges her own path to power. Can her piety and steely will protect her brother from military assassins, heretic bishops, scheming eunuchs and—most insidious of all—a beautiful, intelligent bride? Or will she lose all in the trying?

Dawn Empress tells the little-known and remarkable story of Pulcheria Augusta, 5th century Empress of Eastern Rome. Her accomplishments rival those of Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great as she sets the stage for the dawn of the Byzantine Empire. 

Don’t miss this “gripping tale” (Kirkus Reviews)

A “deftly written and impressively entertaining historical novel” (Midwest Book Reviews)

Historical Novel Reviews calls Dawn Empress an “outstanding novel…highly recommended” and awarded it the coveted Editor’s Choice.

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About the Author

Faith L. Justice writes award-winning historical novels, short stories, and articles in Brooklyn, New York where she lives with her family and the requisite gaggle of cats. Her work has appeared in, Writer’s Digest, The Copperfield Review, and many more publications. She is Chair of the New York City chapter of the Historical Novel Society, and Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine. She co-founded a writer’s workshop many more years ago than she likes to admit. For fun, she digs in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites. Find out more at Dawn's w
ebsite: and find her on Facebook and Twitter @faithljustice

10 September 2023

Book Review of The Fortune Keeper, by Deborah Swift


Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Count your nights by stars, not shadows ~ Italian Proverb

Winter in Renaissance Venice: Mia Caiozzi is determined to discover her destiny by studying the science of astronomy. But her stepmother Giulia forbids her to engage in this occupation, fearing it will lead her into danger. The ideas of Galileo are banned by the Inquisition, so Mia must study in secret.

The Fortune Keeper is the third book of novel of Deborah Swift's Renaissance series adventures. Based in Venice, the page-turning action will keep readers gripped to the dramatic ending. This is not the Venice familiar to tourists, but a world of mystery and danger, overseen by a vindictive Inquisition keen to root out any sign of heresy.

I particularly liked the development of the heroine, Mia Caiozzi, from a naive girl to a resourceful woman who is not afraid to paddle her own gondola through the murky canals of intrigue and duplicity.

I was impressed with Deborah Swift's research of the period, and recommend reading the author's notes at the end, which I found fascinating. My only regret is that I didn't start with the first book of the series, which I recommend.

Tony Riches   
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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