Mastodon The Writing Desk: October 2023

31 October 2023

Book Review: Squire and Sword (The Northumbria Trilogy) by Birgit Constant

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

England, 1070. In the fenlands of East Anglia, the Saxon resistance against the Norman king smolders. The rebels repeatedly raid the neighbouring estates, and the inhabitants of manors yet untouched by the outlaws are bracing themselves for an attack.

How it all began: The prequel to the Northumbria Trilogy is a short story, but Birgit Constant achieves a sense of epic scale with 'deep dive' research and gripping storytelling with a truly cinematic feel.

Perfect for reading on an hour-long journey (as I did), this prequel offers a compelling glimpse of what you can expect from The Northumbria Trilogy.

I recently visited the museum of Breton life in Quimper, Brittany, so I appreciated the authentic ancient Breton phrases, and the occasional use of Old English (yes, there is a useful glossary at the back). 

Wæs hal!

Tony Riches

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About the Author

Birgit Constant has a PhD in medieval studies, has learned eleven languages and worked her way through translation, IT and Public Relations before ending up in the world of books. She has been working as an author, writer and editor in Landshut, Germany, since 2014. She writes historical fiction for readers who want to immerse themselves into medieval history and languages. She has also published a guide for budding authors. When she is not working on her manuscripts, you can find her on foot or on her bike at various speeds in Landshut, where she lives with her family. Subscribe to her newsletter Medieval Motes at for exclusive updates about the Middle Ages, projects and books and to get a free ebook, and find Birgit on Bluesky and Twitter @tinctaculum

30 October 2023

Book Launch Guest Post by Toni Mount, Author of How to Survive in Tudor England

New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Imagine you were transported back in time to Tudor England and had to start a new life there, without smartphones, internet or social media. When transport means walking or, if you’re lucky, horseback, how will you know where you are or where to go? Where will you live and where will you work? What will you eat and what shall you wear? And who can you turn to if you fall ill or are mugged in the street, or God forbid if you upset the king? In a period when execution by beheading was the fate of thousands how can you keep your head in Tudor England?

Sir Thomas Gresham – the Tudor Monarchs’ Banker and Spy

In my new book How to Survive in Tudor England we meet some interesting characters, among them Thomas Gresham. When it came to sixteenth-century dodgy dealing, Thomas was your man yet his success rate was so incredible, he got away with it, time after time. He swindled foreign monarchs, foreign banking houses, his fellow English merchants and even his own family members out of money and goods. Despite this, even in the twenty-first century, the City of London owes its global financial influence to Sir Thomas. The historian John Guy calls him ‘the first true wizard of global finance’. 


Portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Thomas Gresham was born in Milk Street, off Cheapside in the City of London in 1518 or 1519. Both his father, Sir Richard, and his uncle, Sir John, had served as lord mayors of London, were members of the powerful Mercers’ Company and belonged to the Merchant Adventurers’ Company. Thomas attended St Paul’s School and Gonville College (later to become Gonville and Caius), Cambridge, so he was well educated. His family exported more cloth from London than anyone else and the trade between the city and Antwerp in the Low Countries was expanding.

Antwerp was a large centre of commerce and merchants and bankers from across Europe came there to do business, dealing in high end luxury goods, from sumptuous textiles to works of art. Sir Richard had supplied tapestries for Archbishop Wolsey’s splendid new palace at Hampton Court. In 1543, in the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas joined his father’s and uncle’s enterprise, becoming a liveryman of the Mercers’ Company and handling the Antwerp end of the trading network. But this wasn’t just on behalf of the Greshams because Thomas was also acting for the king. 

By the 1540s, having broken from the Church of Rome and declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England, Henry was paranoid that the country would be invaded by one or other or even an alliance of the Catholic monarchs in Europe. The defence of the realm was paramount and required vast sums of money to pay for the construction of coastal fortifications and warships, arms and armaments and the wages of professional foreign mercenaries brought in to support the English. Undercover of his legitimate business as a merchant, Thomas was acting as the king’s agent, importing weapons, foreign currency and bullion, either by hiding the contraband inside bales of cloth or by bribing the ‘searchers’ (customs officials) to look away.

Having been operating on his own account as well as for his father and uncle, Thomas took over the family business when his father died in February 1549. By this date, he and his network of agents were working on behalf of the new king, Edward VI, or rather for the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, the young king’s maternal uncle. The duke was determined to raise England’s profile as a warrior nation by making war on the Scots. To afford it, Somerset needed to borrow money from abroad and bring in more weapons and mercenaries. His methods, which included further debasing the English coinage, making it unacceptable for foreign trading, along with sweeping religious changes, proved so unpopular that there were serious uprisings in the South-West of England and East Anglia, further depleting the royal coffers. Once again, Thomas Gresham was the go-to man but even he had difficulties raising money as the cloth trade was in a deep recession.  

The changes from Protestantism back to Catholicism when Mary became queen didn’t bother Thomas Gresham. He seems to have had little commitment to either religion, preferring ecumenical money which he understood better than anyone. He served Mary and her Spanish husband, Philip, as well as he had Henry and Edward. When Protestant Elizabeth came to the throne he continued his work. He realised that England’s currency had to be improved. In fact, it required the collection, melting down and re-minting of every coin to something like its value in Henry VII’s day when English coinage was the envy of Europe.

Thomas had a hard time persuading Queen Elizabeth that re-minting was vital, despite the time and effort involved. Fortunately, William Cecil, the queen’s chief minister, understood the importance of reliable currency and brought a Frenchman from the mint at Versailles who had invented a machine that could strike coins, instead of doing this by hand. Thomas shipped over a contingent of German metallurgists and the process began in November 1560. The following July, Elizabeth made an official visit to the mint at the Tower of London to see the work being done by the French, Germans and English. By 1562, England had new coinage and some new denominations, including the popular silver sixpence [later known as a tanner] and three-pence [known as a thruppenny bit], coins which were still being issued in the twentieth century. 

Thomas had already received recognition for his services to the Crown over the years before the re-coinage began. At Christmas 1559, Elizabeth knighted him as her special economic advisor. One method Sir Thomas had used to make his own fortune and raise huge sums of money for the royal coffers was by trading on the Antwerp Bourse. It was the international stock market of the day. He bought foreign currency when the rate of exchange for pounds sterling was high, receiving as many foreign coins as possible, then exchanging them back to sterling when rates were low, so he got back more pounds than he’d paid out at the start. As far as possible, he did the same when borrowing the enormous amounts required by the Crown and doing his best to repay the debts when sterling was strong. It worked often enough for Sir Thomas to become very wealthy and yet remain a reliable trader – for the most part.

But the Wars of Religion, between Catholic and Protestant states, were breaking out across Europe. Now wasn’t a good time for the financial markets and Antwerp was at the heart of the conflict as the Netherlands, mostly Protestant, were ruled by Philip II, the Catholic King of Spain. Sir Thomas decided it would solve many of his difficulties if England, and more specifically London, was at the centre of the world’s monetary trade. Antwerp’s Bourse was a building designed as a meeting place for merchants and bankers with regulated trading hours. In London, such business was conducted in Lombard Street – literally in the street – with no shelter from the English weather nor any degree of privacy to discuss contracts and deals. This last had always been seen as a means of ensuring transparency and honesty but times were changing. Monarchs and merchants didn’t want every casual passerby to know of their financial difficulties or sharp practices.

With merchants withdrawing from Antwerp, fearing the approach of war, Sir Thomas determined to build a proper bourse in London. His fine town house, Gresham House, just off Bishopsgate, was nearing completion. The house surrounded an inner courtyard, keeping the noise of the city at bay, decorated with the Gresham badge: the Golden Grasshopper. It had its own stable block and a large walled garden faced south. Eight alms houses for the deserving poor – probably Thomas’s fellow mercers grown old and fallen on less prosperous times – were included in the house design, though tucked away behind the main wing, out of sight. As far as Thomas was concerned, this charitable gesture fulfilled his civic obligations as a leading citizen. Unlike his father, uncle and other wealthy mercers, he had no time to spare, serving as a sheriff or lord mayor or taking up any other civic office. But he did have time, in January 1565, to send his personal surveyor to the mayor and aldermen of London with an offer to build a bourse, similar to that in Antwerp and using the Flemish labourers who had constructed and almost finished Gresham House. The offer was accepted.             

A site for the new bourse was found between Cornhill and Threadneedle Street and the city authorities bought up the plot. Eighty families were evicted and re-housed and the old buildings demolished at a cost of £3,500 or £3.5 million at today’s values. And just like the costs of large civic projects today, they soon spiralled. Although Sir Thomas could well afford the outlay, he was determined to recoup the money in profits once the bourse began trading.  

The grand building was constructed of bricks made at Battersea, oak beams from Suffolk and Hampshire but vast quantities of marble were shipped in at huge expense from Europe. Sir Thomas employed the Flemish bricklayers and masons who had built his house but the Bricklayers’ Company protested that English workmen were being robbed of their rightful employment and local labourers were taken on as well.

Despite the industrial disputes, the building was roofed and ready for business by Christmas 1567. Gresham intended to call it the London or Gresham’s Bourse. On the ground floor was an open quadrangle surrounded by a covered arcade of marble columns and paved with black and white marble where the merchants and money men could transact business. Entry was through a wide classical arch on the south side, bearing Gresham’s arms, with a belfry on which was mounted an enormous golden grasshopper – Thomas was making certain the world knew this was his pet project. Above the arcading on the upper floor were 120 small shops, selling everything from silks, velvets and jewellery to apothecaries’ remedies and surgeons’ services. Nothing of this building – England’s first shopping mall – survives, having been utterly destroyed by the Great Fire of London just a century later, although by 1666, it was old fashioned and in decay. Nevertheless, it has been rebuilt a number of times since and a Victorian version still stands.

The Royal Exchange in 1644

On 23 January 1571, after three years of business had proved its success, Queen Elizabeth came to open it officially. Feasted at his house by Sir Thomas, she was then given a guided tour, visiting the boutiques which were ‘richly furnished with all sorts of the finest wares in the city’, according to John Stow, a contemporary observer. No doubt, Sir Thomas was feeling smug and self-satisfied but then the queen ruined his day. A trumpet sounded and a royal herald announced that Gresham’s Bourse was now ‘the Royal Exchange and so to be called from henceforth and not otherwise,’ – my italics. Worse still, his coat-of-arms above the grand entrance was shoved aside to make room for Elizabeth’s royal arms. Whatever Thomas’s thoughts on the subject, the queen wanted it made clear that she was the ultimate authority in England where money matters were concerned.

In his early career, Sir Thomas was involved in importing weapons of war from Europe into England but by the 1570s, he was reversing the procedure. Among his various business interests he had a couple of iron foundries in Kent. The Weald of Kent had been a centre of the iron industry since medieval times because both iron ore and plentiful supplies of charcoal were available locally. In 1574 and again in 1578 Sir Thomas was granted licences to export cannons, made at his own foundries, to Denmark. The guns were shipped down the River Medway from the heart of Kent, into the Thames and across the North Sea but one at least of his ships came to grief. We know because an English-built ship, dendro-dated to c.1570, was rediscovered in 2003, sunk it the Thames Estuary. It was carrying a cargo of cast iron bars, lead pipe, tin and cannons marked with the grasshopper logo and the initials ‘TG’.

Sir Thomas was now sixty and decided it was time to draw up his will. Never one for straightforward dealing, his bequests would have his family, executors, employees and various institutions tied up in litigation for decades to come, trying to sort out the mess. Properties bequeathed had sub-clauses and provisos attached. For example, Gresham House was left to his wife for her lifetime but her sons from her first marriage had lived there too. When Thomas’s widow died in 1596, were her sons allowed to remain or to be evicted? Nobody was certain.

On Saturday evening 21 November 1579, Thomas had returned to Gresham House having been busy at the Royal Exchange for most of the day. ‘He suddenly fell down in the kitchen and being taken up was found speechless and presently dead.’ His funeral in St Helen’s Bishopsgate was held on 15 December with all the dazzle and display expected as he was laid to rest in a grand tomb, designed by him and constructed by his favourite Flemish architect. The tomb survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz of 1940 but was damaged twice in the 1990s by terrorist bombs. However, it has been repaired. 

Sir Thomas Gresham’s tomb in St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London [GRM 21]

There was a good reason why Sir Thomas’s stepson should leave Gresham House because, after his widow’s death, Thomas intended that the house should become a college to rival and exceed any centre of learning at Oxford or Cambridge. London didn’t have a university or any kind of higher educational institution apart from the Inns of Court which taught lawyers and barristers.

Sir Thomas’s ideas were revolutionary. Unlike Oxbridge colleges, students at Gresham didn’t have to be of a particular religious persuasion [Church of England only], they weren’t required to take an entrance exam nor was there any testing of subjects studied. Students could be merchants, craftsmen or apprentices or anyone who wanted to benefit from further education. There were no fees, no live-in requirements nor were students obliged to attend a set number of lectures. Everything was informal and no paper qualifications were required or awarded. Perhaps the most shocking thing was that about half the lectures were to be given in English not just in Latin, as at every other seat of learning from grammar schools upward. This was education aimed at the common sort.   

The lecturers were to be paid salaries and given free accommodation in the fine rooms of Gresham House – now to be known as Gresham College. At Oxford and Cambridge the lecturers received payment of tuition fees directly from the students, so the teachers of popular subjects were more highly paid and professors for less popular subjects hard to find. But at Gresham, all professors were treated equally, even though some suites of rooms were grander than others. But Sir Thomas had failed to stipulate how many lectures in which language the professors should deliver. The trustees, jointly the City of London and the Mercers’ Company, were to pay the professors from the profits made at the Royal Exchange but Gresham’s will made no mention of repairs or upkeep of the building and how that should be paid for. 

Despite so many difficulties, times of success and failure, Gresham College is still going. Its original building, Sir Thomas’s splendid house, is long gone and the college was moved to a new site but its free lectures, open to all with a desire to learn, have millions of students across the world, thanks to the internet. However devious and underhanded Sir Thomas was as a wheeler-dealer and financial whizz-kid, his legacy continues to benefit us after more than 400 years through Gresham College.

Gresham College in the 1600s

If you wish to read about many other interesting characters, places, clothing, food and pastimes of the sixteenth century, see my new book How to Survive in Tudor England.

 Toni Mount

Toni Mount researches, teaches and writes about history. She is the author of several popular historical non-fiction books and writes regularly for various history magazines. As well as her weekly classes, Toni has created online courses for and is the author of the popular Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a costumed interpreter and speaks often to groups and societies on a range of historical subjects. Toni has a Masters Degree in Medieval Medicine, Diplomas in Literature, Creative Writing, European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband. For more information visit Toni's website and find her on Twitter @tonihistorian

29 October 2023

Special Guest Post by Beverley Adams, Author of The Forgotten Tudor Royal

New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

As the daughter and cousin of queens and the granddaughter and niece of kings, Lady Margaret Douglas was an integral part of the Tudor royal dynasty. A favorite of her uncle King Henry VIII and a close friend of Queen Mary I she courted scandal which saw her imprisoned in the Tower of London on more than one occasion. Against the orders of Queen Elizabeth I she plotted the marriage of her eldest son Lord Darnley to Mary, Queen of Scots with disastrous consequences.

Margaret Douglas: The Forgotten Tudor Royal

When sitting down to write a book about a well-known historical figure you have to be sure of your subject. My latest book The Forgotten Tudor Royal focuses on the life of a lesser-known member of the Tudor royal family, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. Not many will have heard of her and to be perfectly honest I didn’t know too much about Henry VIII’s favourite niece when I began my research but I just knew she was a woman with a story to tell.

My writing mainly focuses on ‘forgotten’ women from history, my first was on the life of a local suffragette called Edith Rigby and the second was about Ada Lovelace, both women who lived remarkable lives and for me Margaret falls into this category.

Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Tudor and Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. The marriage was turbulent and didn’t last long. When her parents finally divorced Margaret was sent by her father to the English court to be raised by Henry VIII. Whilst she was there she spent time with her Tudor cousins and forged a close friendship with the Lady Mary, both girls understood the heartache of seeing their parents marriage fall apart. Margaret came across as loving and a pillar of support to her cousin who was devastated at what her father was doing to her beloved mother Katherine of Aragon.

As Margaret grew she became a favourite at court and when Anne Boleyn became queen she joined her household as lady-in-waiting. It was here that she met and fell in love with Thomas Howard. They became engaged without the kings approval, when he found out he arrested them both and sent them to the Tower of London. Henry relented and released her to Syon Abbey but Margaret’s reckless ways nearly cost her her head.

It wouldn’t be the last time she would see the inside of a cell in the Tower, when her son Lord Darnley married Mary, Queen of Scots she took the brunt of the punishment from Elizabeth I and re-entered the Tower. Margaret was only released when news reached England that Darnley had been murdered, a death that tore Margaret apart. She was an ambitious mother and it was her dream to see the thrones of England and Scotland united, a dream that would not be realised in 1603 when her grandson James VI became James I of England, sadly she didn’t live to see this.

What I found about Margaret during the writing of this book was a true Tudor woman. She had the fiery red hair and the temperament to go with it. She worked tirelessly to advance her children and cared little for the consequences, she would be back in the tower again when she negotiated a secret marriage for her younger son Charles with Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of Bess of Hardwick. Margaret knew she was going to anger Elizabeth but she has escaped lifelong imprisonment or execution so far so she chanced her luck.

You could say Margaret was reckless and I think in her younger years she was but as a wife and mother she knew no bounds. Her marriage with Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox was a loving and strong marriage. They laughed together but grieved together, they lost six of their 8 children and the two that survived died in their early twenties. She outlived her family and most of her friends but she was a strong woman and cared for her granddaughter Arbella until her death in 1578 aged 62. Queen Elizabeth was no fan of her cousin, they had never been close, but she gave her a state funeral at Westminster Abbey and I think this shows us just how well thought of Margaret was.

Why her story fell away into the historical doldrums I don’t know, maybe it is because she kept her head and died peacefully in her own bed but I hope that by reading the book people will appreciate Margaret Douglas and her role, which was central, she had within the Tudor court.

Beverley Adams

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About the Author

Beverley Adams was born and raised in Preston, Lancashire. She gained her MA in English in 2018 and her first book, The Rebel Suffragette: The Life of Edith Rigby, was published in September 2021. She has since released other titles including The World’s First Computer Programmer: The Life of Ada Lovelace and The Forgotten Tudor Royal: Margaret Douglas Grandmother to James VI & I. She is passionate about bringing the lives of inspirational women back to life. Her interests include history, in particular the Tudors, reading and travel. Find out more at beverley's website and find her on Twitter @WriterBeverleyA

27 October 2023

The Forgotten Years of Anne Boleyn: The Habsburg & Valois Courts, by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

In The Forgotten Years of Anne Boleyn: The Habsburg & Valois Courts, Sylvia Barbara Soberton takes you on a journey through sixteenth-century Belgium and France, showing you where Anne Boleyn spent her formative years and introducing the royal women she served. 

In her lifetime, Anne Boleyn was said to have been “more French than Frenchwoman born”, and in her death Henry VIII granted her the mercy of being executed by a French executioner instead of an English one, who would butcher her “little neck” to pieces. 

This executioner from Calais who wielded a two-handed sword was, however, ordered before Anne was put on trial for adultery, incest and treason, making it clear that her death was a foregone conclusion. Anne’s rise and fall is a tale of love and loss, religion and spirituality, queenship and power. The final years of her life are well known, but her youth remains an understudied topic.
Anne Boleyn was raised in Belgium and France, spending seven years at the most glittering and progressive courts of Europe. Her mentors were the most brilliant and fascinating women of the sixteenth century: Margaret of Austria, Claude of France, Louise of Savoy and Marguerite of Navarre. 

It is from them that Anne received a spiritual and humanistic education and learned how women could wield power and use it for greater good. When she returned to England in 1521, Anne was equipped with knowledge and Continental gloss that most of her female contemporaries lacked.
Anne Boleyn was first sent to the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, where she stayed for a period of about fifteen months. Margaret was one of the most powerful women of the sixteenth century Europe and Anne’s first example of how a woman could wield power in a man’s world. 

At first glance, she might have cut a rather sombre figure in her widow’s apparel, but this was just a ploy devised to underline her status as an influential widow, feme sole, as widowhood gave women opportunities to operate independently of men. Margaret was an avid book and art collector, as well as an accomplished musician and painter; life at her court was never dull.
Towards the end of 1514 Anne left Margaret’s court and joined Mary Tudor’s household in France. Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s eighteen-year-old sister, married the French King Louis XII in October 1514. Both Anne and her elder sister Mary Boleyn served as Mary Tudor’s maids but it was Anne who would make a lasting impression on the French. Following Louis XII’s death in January 1515, Mary Tudor hastily remarried to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, creating a scandal of epic proportions. 

She and her entourage left France in an atmosphere of scandal in April 1515 but Anne Boleyn was not among Queen Mary’s maids. “After Mary returned to this country”, wrote Lancelot de Carle many years later, Anne “was kept back by Claude, who succeeded as Queen”. 

The fact that Anne was able to stay at the French court despite the scandal caused by her previous royal mistress speaks volumes about Anne’s character. Margaret of Austria was probably right when she wrote to Anne’s father that Anne was exceedingly “bright and pleasant for her young age”. Queen Claude shared this view.
Queen Claude was Louis XII’s eldest daughter by Anne of Brittany. Born in 1499, she was about the same age as Anne Boleyn, who is believed to have been born in or around 1501. An eye-witness reported in 1518 that Claude was “small in stature, plain and badly lame in both hips” but was “very cultivated, generous and pious.” 

The Salic law in France prevented women from assuming the crown but Claude married Francois of Angouleme, her father’s closest male kinsman, who succeeded Louis XII as king. It is sometimes suggested that Claude’s court was run almost as a convent but there is no evidence to that effect. Quite the contrary; Claude was a patron of the arts, enjoyed reading romances and had a deep appreciation for poetry.
After Anne spent seven years at the Valois court serving Queen Claude, “no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman.” She spoke impeccable French, read French books, especially religious texts on current ecclesiastical debates, dressed in French fashions and slipped French mannerisms into her conversations. It was this aura of continental gloss that singled her out from the crowd upon her return to England in 1521.

 Sylvia Barbara Soberton

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About the Author

Sylvia Barbara Soberton is a writer and researcher specialising in the history of the Tudors. She debuted in 2015 with her bestselling book “The Forgotten Tudor Women: Mary Howard, Mary Shelton & Margaret Douglas”. Sylvia’s other best-sellers include “Golden Age Ladies: Women Who Shaped the courts of Henry VIII and Francis I” and “Great Ladies: The Forgotten Witnesses to the Lives of Tudor Queens”. You can find Sylvia on Facebook,  Goodreads and Twitter @SylviaBSo 

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Winds of Change, by Joan Fallon

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The Winds of Change is a story of love, loyalty and betrayal on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, when the country is political turmoil with strikes and demonstrations, unemployment is high and the people are starving.

In this complicated love triangle we meet Ramon, a member of the Republican Left, who has accidentally killed a policeman and is on the run from the Guardia Civil and Hugo, the son of the wealthy owner of a local sherry bodega. Both men are in love with Clementina, the beautiful daughter of a well-known gypsy horse trader but there are obstacles in both their paths.

Hugo finds that when he tries to see Clementina again, both his parents and hers do everything they can to stop him.

Meanwhile Ramon's brother, Pedro, is arrested and imprisoned because he will not reveal his brother's whereabouts to the Guardia Civil. Now Ramon has to choose between his brother and the woman he loves.

This fast moving historical novel is a story of love, politics, class prejudice, intrigue and betrayal in the year leading up to 
the Spanish Civil War.

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About the Author

Teacher, management trainer and business woman, the Scottish-born novelist, Joan Fallon moved from the UK to Spain in 1998 and dedicated herself to full-time writing. She is now the self-published author of eighteen books, many of which are historical novels set in southern Spain, and focus on two distinct periods in the country’s history, the Spanish Civil War and Moorish Spain. More recently she had turned her attention to writing contemporary crime fiction, with a series of novels entitled The Jacaranda Dunne Mysteries but her love of historical fiction has lured her back to writing about Spain in the 20th century in her latest novel The Winds of Change. Find out more from Joan's website: and find her on Facebook and Goodreads

25 October 2023

The Alchemy: A Guide to Gentle Productivity for Writers, by Anna Vaught

New from Amazon UK

The Alchemy is a robust, frank and loving guide to an often opaque industry. As well as offering tips on working in gentle increments and re-imagining what productivity and the work of writing look like, there is advice on sending out work and navigating the industry, looking after your mental health as you go.

Full of practical advice, strategies, comfort and the occasional entertaining essay, The Alchemy is about writing a book when you thought you could not. It is for all writers, but with a particular eye on those who are tired and lacking in confidence, and those who face significant challenges – perhaps you are chronically ill or care for a loved one. 

It is a book for beginners, but it is also for those of you who are stuck in your habits and practice – perhaps you just need a pal to guide you through the day to day with the book you wanted to write. That’s what The Alchemy is. Let’s do this together.

Anna Vaught 

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About the Author

Anna Vaught is an English teacher, Creative Writing teacher, mentor, editor and author of several books. Her short creative works and features have been widely published, and she has written for the national press. In 2022 Anna launched The Curae, a new literary prize for carers. Anna is also a guest university lecturer, a tutor for Jericho Writers, and volunteers with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. She is the mother of three sons, comes from a large Welsh family and lives in Wiltshire. Find out more from Anna's website and find her on Bluesky and Twitter @BookwormVaught

Special Guest Interview with Steven A. McKay, Author of The Heathen Horde (Alfred the Great Book 1)

New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Northumbria, AD 864. Viking warlord Ragnar Lothbrok is captured and killed in brutal fashion, an event that will shape the future of the nation for decades to come.

Mercia, AD 868. Alfred, son of Wessex and heir to the throne, draws his first blood on the battlefield. It will not be his last.

A devastating scourge from the north is coming to Britain, one that will bring armies and entire kingdoms to their knees. Travelling along the whale road in their feared longships, the Great Heathen Army move fast, striking with a savagery unmatched, in a seemingly unstoppable tide of blood and iron.

I'm pleased to welcome author Steven A. McKay to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

My newest novel is called The Heathen Horde and it’s the first in a trilogy about Alfred the Great. This first book follows Alfred from around the time he first faces the Vikings in battle, as the sons of the fabled Ragnar Lothbrok are travelling around England raiding and pillaging. At that time Alfred was an aetheling, a prince, of Wessex, and his older brother Aethelred was king, so The Heathen Horde covers the events that saw Alfred eventually taking the throne. 

As you might expect, there’s a LOT of battles so it was an interesting book to write as I had to make sure there was more to it than just constant fighting and folk being killed! People nowadays have certain ideas about Alfred, and also about the Vikings, and I think some readers will probably be surprised by how I portray them in the book. 

Alfred was not the weak, pious man you see portrayed in some stories – he was a warrior who fought in the shieldwall and struggled with his Christian faith because he couldn’t help indulging in “carnal” pleasures! Similarly, not all Vikings were savages – they enjoyed poetry and stories and were expert craftsmen as well as cleaner than people give them credit for nowadays.
So The Heathen Horde is very much a thoroughly researched novel with a solid foundation in historical fact, but, as with all my books, I aim to tell an entertaining STORY that will captivate the reader. That’s my ultimate goal. Hopefully I’ve managed it.

What is your preferred writing routine?

For the past year and a half I’ve been lucky enough to be a full-time writer. This is my job now, so I have a certain freedom to write when I feel inspired. In saying that, if I don’t write books, I don’t earn any money, so I stick to a fairly rigid routine, writing every weekday and usually for an hour or two on a Sunday as well. 
I don’t have a set number of words I aim for every day, but it is important to get SOMETHING done or I feel like I’m being lazy! Even when I’m away on holiday with the family I’ll take my laptop and try to get a bit of editing done. It's a good life, and certainly a privileged one, and self-discipline is a huge part of my routine now, even more than it was when I had a full-time day job.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Don’t force yourself to write every day, but do be diligent and make sure you’re making constant, steady progress on your book. It won’t write itself, so put the hours in when you’re inspired and, if you’re not inspired, go for a drive or take the dog for a walk and let the ideas come to you so that when you next sit down at the laptop you’ll have some idea of what you’re going to write about.

Another massively important piece of advice is to really believe in yourself and the quality of your writing. My first novel, Wolf’s Head, was rejected by a few publishers and agents, which was upsetting, but I never once felt like that book wasn’t good enough. I completely believed Wolf’s Head told a good story and readers would enjoy it if they could only get their hands on it. Every writer should have that same unshakeable confidence in their work – if YOU don’t think it’s good, why should anyone else? So believe in yourself, and do whatever you can to get your book out there.

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

Doing interviews with well-known bloggers/authors like yourself, Tony, has always been a good marketing strategy for me over the years. It gets me and my books in front of an audience already interested in the subject matter, and it’s good fun too! In terms of paid advertising, I find Facebook ads give decent results without spending too much money so I would recommend those.
Local newspapers are always looking for content too, so it might be worthwhile for authors to reach out to those and ask if they’d like to do an interview with you. It might not sell thousands of books, but it’s always good to be seen in as many places by as many people as possible I think.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

To be honest, researching The Heathen Horde was ALL quite unexpected for me. I grew up in Glasgow so my school didn’t teach us anything about Alfred the Great, an English king, which meant I had really no idea what to expect when I started reading about him. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover his life was the perfect backdrop for a series of novels! 

You have all the ingredients you need, from famous Viking raiders like Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons, to a charismatic Alfred who suffers from mysterious ailments while also being a great warrior, and the clash between both these sides – heathen vs Christian – which lasted for Alfred’s whole life. There’s victories and defeats, highs and lows, and parts which sound so incredible – miraculous even - that I wouldn’t have made them up for a purely fictional novel!

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

This might sound weird, but you’ve probably heard of actors taking on a part and getting so into the role that they start to feel like they’ve ‘become’ the person they’re portraying. Val Kilmer thinking he was Jim Morrison from The Doors is the one that comes to my mind.
Anyway, I didn’t believe I was Alfred the Great but the scenes where he was suffering from stomach pains I found quite hard to write. There’s been much discussion in recent years about the cause of those stomach pains, with Crohn’s Disease and IBS being the favourites amongst scholars. Whatever they were, I firmly believe they were caused by stress – I’ve suffered from similar physical ailments which were caused by anxiety or fear. 

It seems logical to me that a king, facing the constant threat of a Viking invasion along with all the other problems he had to deal with, would struggle with physical manifestations of stress.
The problem for me was, while writing those scenes, I too started to get pains in my stomach and sides! As I say, that might sound weird, but when you’re trying to get into the mind of your characters, I think it can affect you in ways you might not expect.

What are you planning to write next?

I’ve just finished the second book in the trilogy so it will be onto book 3 next. Before that, however, I plan on writing a short story. Every winter, for the past eight or nine years, I’ve published a novella/novelette set at Christmas and starring my Forest Lord characters, Tuck, John Little, and Will Scaflock. Usually they have some mystery to solve, sometimes based on a true crime story I’ve heard about, so the heroes will go about medieval England in the snow and wind, dealing with baddies and setting the world to rights before enjoying a hearty Christmas feast with their fellow villagers.

I love writing those, and it’s become a tradition many of my readers really enjoy too. This year, with all the focus being on my Alfred the Great trilogy, I won’t have time to write a longer winter story, but I hate the thought of not continuing the tradition, so I plan on writing a short tale and giving it away for FREE to everyone subscribed to my email list.

If you’d like to join the list and hopefully get a free Christmas tale, you can sign up HERE. Previous books in that mini-series include Sworn to God, Faces of Darkness, and The House in the Marsh.

Do you have any more news you’d like to share?

For the past eighteen months or so I’ve been co-hosting a podcast with fellow author Matthew Harffy. Rock, Paper, Swords – the Historical Action Adventure Podcast sees us chatting about all aspects of writing, from cover design to prologues to planning and everything else. We also interview guests and have managed somehow to entice such legendary figures as Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, Dan Jones, Ben Kane, and even Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull onto the show for a chat!

Fans of history and historical fiction should give it a listen as we’ve got a ton of great episodes with plenty more to come in 2024! Find us on Apple iTunes, Spotify, Amazon Music and all the usual places, or check us out HERE.

Steven A. McKay

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About the Author

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

23 October 2023

The Wind Chime: A Timeshift Victorian Mystery (Timeshift Victorian Mysteries Book 1) by Alexandra Walsh

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Windsor, England, 2019: Amelia Prentice is recovering from the worst two years of her life. First her daughter and then her parents have died, leaving her without any surviving relatives. As she gets ready to put the family home, a vast Victorian house in Windsor, on the market, she fulfils her mother’s last request to clear out the attic, and she discovers a strange box of Victorian photographs.

The photographs are of a large estate in Pembrokeshire called Cliffside, and they feature the Attwater family. When Amelia uncovers the diaries of Osyth Attwater, she realises the family had tragedies of their own…

Pembrokeshire, Wales, 1883

Every summer the Attwater family gather at Cliffside to tell each other stories. The youngest in the house is Osyth, a dreamer and writer who waits eagerly every year for the wind chime in the garden to signal the arrival of her relatives. But her happiness is shattered when she overhears a conversation that tears her world apart.

Raised by her grandparents, she believed her mother, Eudora, had died. But it seems that may not be the case. Desperate to find out the truth, Osyth decides to unravel her family’s secrets. But what she discovers will shock her to her core…

What did Amelia’s mother want her to find out about the Attwater family? Who is Eudora, and what really happened to her?

And how is Amelia connected to it all…?

‘Silver chimes and coral shells haunting past and present in this beautifully written novel containing echoes of Welsh fairy lore along with Victorian asylums, and a travelling circus. It's gripping with unforgettable characters.’ – Best-selling author Carol McGrath

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About the Author

Alexandra Walsh is a bestselling author of the dual timeline women’s fiction. Her books range from the 15th and 16th centuries to the Victorian era and are inspired by the hidden voices of women that have been lost over the centuries. The Marquess House Saga offers an alternative view of the Tudor and early Stuart eras, while The Wind Chime and The Music Makers explore different aspects of Victorian society. Formerly, a journalist for over 25 years, writing for many national newspapers and magazines; Alexandra also worked in the TV and film industries as an associate producer, director, script writer and mentor for the MA Screen Writing course at the prestigious London Film School. She is a member of The Society of Authors and The Historical Writers Association. For updates and more information visit her website: and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @purplemermaid25 

20 October 2023

Special Guest Post by Nancy Northcott, Author of The Herald of Day (The Boar King's Honor Book 1)

Available from Amazon US and Amazon UK

A king wrongly blamed for murder A bloodline cursed until they clear the king’s name In 17th-century England, witchcraft is a hanging offence. Tavern maid Miranda Willoughby hides her magical gifts until terrifying visions compel her to seek the aid of a stranger, Richard Mainwaring, to interpret them. 

Princes, Kings, and Curses

The tale of the Princes in the Tower is a long-running controversy. Was Richard III responsible for their disappearance? Or did someone else do away with them? More than 500 years later, it’s still a mystery, and my interest in it sparked my Boar King’s Honor trilogy.

I’ve always loved history and mysteries and have been an Anglophile since grade school, so the story of the Princes in the Tower intrigues me. There are so many possible explanations for their disappearance in late 1483. I’m also intrigued by the controversy surrounding Richard III and his role (if any) in their disappearance.

Tower of London

My interest in King Richard III began decades ago when a friend gave me a battered copy of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. In that 1951 book, Tey’s series detective Alan Grant becomes intrigued by the story of King Richard and his nephews. He investigates the historical mystery and concludes that the traditional, Shakespearean version is wrong, that Richard III did not kill the pair.

The book spurred me to read as much as I could find on the subject. This was before there was an internet, so I couldn’t find nearly as much as I would’ve liked. What I did find, though, didn’t seem to support the traditional story.

I was practicing law at the time, and one of my first questions was why, when Henry VII took the throne, no one came forward to attest to the murders—or even the sudden disappearance—of two boys of royal blood. The boys had a household with attendants. Other people lived in the Tower. If Richard III had ordered his nephews murdered, speaking up during his reign would’ve been fatal. But after that, what was stopping anyone? Why did no one report seeing people burying bodies under a staircase?

As a longtime reader of fantasy, I figured the absence of witnesses made sense if the killers used magic. What if the wizard who helped them did so unwittingly and was tormented by guilt—but couldn’t speak up during the Henry VII’s reign? Meanwhile, Richard III’s reputation was smeared by King Henry to justify his usurpation of the throne.

What if the wizard couldn’t trust his direct heirs to reveal his role when it was safe to do so, when the last of the Tudors was gone, maybe decades or centuries hence? What if he wrote a confession and, for insurance, cursed the direct heirs of his line not to rest in life or death until King Richard’s name was cleared? He would effectively visit his sins on his children down through the generations—in the case of the trilogy, 450 years of them.

The trilogy grew out of this set of questions. One more question remained, what if your ancestor cursed you, condemning your soul to be trapped after death a shadowy, wraith-infested realm between those of the living and the dead unless you proved the truth about a centuries-old crime?

The hero of the first book in the trilogy, The Herald of Day, is Richard Mainwaring, Earl of Hawkstowe and direct descendant of the Edmund Mainwaring, the wizard who aided and abetted the murders. Richard has a drastic answer to that what if. Having seen his parents’ marriage destroyed by his mother’s resentment of what the curse means for him, Richard is resolved not to condemn another generation to this dire fate. He can’t lift the curse, but he can end the list of its victims—by ending the Mainwaring line. He won’t marry or beget children.

When a character in a novel makes a resolution like that, challenging it can drive a story. In Richard’s case, the first chink in his determination arrives as a slender thread of hope. A magical dragon summons him to Dover to meet a tavern maid and right a wrong. He might’ve ignored that, rare though magical summonses are, but the dragon calls him the boar’s knight. Richard III used a white boar as his emblem. Can this tavern maid hold knowledge that could help lift the curse? He feels compelled to go to Dover and find out.

The tavern maid, Miranda Willoughby, tells him of the vision that spurred her summons. In it, a green dragon with red and white wing striations, the colors and emblem of the Welsh flag, mortally wounds a white boar, only to have a knight on horseback charge in and vanquish the dragon. Richard recognizes the heraldic emblems and the situation as possibly related to Welsh Henry VII and Richard III. He invites the tavern maid to come to London and promises to train her in the use of magic. If she had more skill, she might be able to refine her visions and find the solution he needs.

Miranda is reluctant to leave the only home she has, the inn and tavern where she works. But the lure of lessons in magic is irresistible. She’s untrained because she had no one to teach her. Her mother, who was also magically Gifted, was executed as a witch when Miranda was small. Miranda not only lost her teacher but had a harsh lesson in the importance of concealing her abilities. Yet she loves her magic and yearns to know more about it.

Because romance raises the stakes in a story, Miranda and Richard are strongly attracted to each other. She sees their differing social statuses as a barrier while he clings to his resolve to end his cursed bloodline.

While they wrestle with magical training and unwelcome attraction, they must also confront a larger problem. The world is changing around them. People who died years ago walk the streets of London. Possessions disappear or reappear with no explanation, and the weather is changing in dire and unpredictable ways. Unbeknownst to them, a wizard has changed history to create a dictatorship of the magically Gifted with himself (of course) at the head, and the effects of that change are rippling forward in time. Miranda, Richard, and his friends must find out what has happened and restore the true timeline before the grim new reality becomes permanent.

Considering that this is a trilogy, it’s probably not a spoiler to admit they don’t succeed in lifting the curse. That problem faces their descendants in book two, The Steel Rose, which is set in the Hundred Days between Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the Battle of Waterloo, and book three, The King’s Champion, which opens with the Dunkirk evacuation and ends during the early days of the Blitz.
There’s an essay about my interest in Richard III on my website at The trilogy is complete and in Kindle Unlimited. The Herald of Day is here:

Thank you, Tony, for having me as a guest today.

 Nancy Northcott

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About the Author

Nancy Northcott earned her undergraduate degree in history and particularly enjoyed a summer spent studying Tudor and Stuart England at the University of Oxford. She has given presentations on the Wars of the Roses and Richard III to university classes studying Shakespeare’s play about that king. In addition, she has taught college courses on science fiction, fantasy, and society.   The Boar King’s Honor historical fantasy trilogy combines her love of history and magic with her interest in Richard III. She also writes several types of romance and, with Jeanne Adams, the Outcast Station space mystery series. For more information about Nancy, visit her website, and follow her on Facebook, Bluesky and Twitter @NancyNorthcott.

19 October 2023

Special Guest Post by J.P. Reedman, Author of The Good Queen: Matilda Of Scotland, Wife Of Henry I (Medieval Babes: Tales of Little-Known Ladies Book 11)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Daughter of a Scottish king and an Anglo-Saxon princess, Edith is sent to her Aunt Cristina, the Abbess of Romsey for her education. She begs her parents to move her from Romsey to the grand Abbey of Wilton but then the suitors begin to come. Most fearsome of all is the King, William Rufus. More intriguing, though, is his younger brother Henry, and when Rufus dies in the New Forest, struck by an arrow on the hunt, Edith of Scotland's world is about to change.

I'd like to welcome author J.P. Reedman to The Writing Desk:

My Latest Book 

My most recent release, The Good Queen, is about Matilda of Scotland, queen of Henry I of England. I chose her as a subject as she is a queen who seems rather overlooked in a sea of other Matildas, most notably her mother-in-law, Matilda of Flanders, William the Conqueror’s wife, and her daughter who was Empress Maude, a leading figure in the Anarchy and mother of Henry II. Matilda of Scotland was important is several ways—her maternal side was Anglo-Saxon royalty (in fact, her uncle Edgar had a good claim on the English throne), and her father was the Scottish king Malcolm Canmore, slayer of MacBeth. 

Henry I

So, through her marriage to Henry, she brought the blood of two other royal British houses to their children. Every English (and later British) monarch can trace their ancestry to Matilda. At first, she faced some discrimination in the Norman court, where she and Henry were sometimes mocked as ‘Godric and Godgifu’, implying that they were Saxon peasants, but before long Matilda overcame this bigotry and gained a reputation as ‘The Good Queen.’


She interceded early on with her husband to improve the lot of the Anglo-Saxon people and she was also hands-on with the poor and sick, emulating her mother who was eventually canonised as St Margaret. She even washed the feet of lepers, which horrified her younger brother, David, who was living at the English court. He was so terrified when she asked him to join in that he fled the room to the laughter of his friends! Matilda also was a great builder of churches and bridges…and also gave London its first public loos! 

I felt Matilda was a good subject for a novel because she had some unusual qualities. Despite being pious, she had huge fights with her aunt Cristina at Romsey Abbey. Cristina was trying to force Matilda and her sister Mary to become nuns, against their own wishes and those of their parents. Matilda would rip off the wimple and trample on it to show her displeasure. Things grew so tense that her father, King Malcolm, had the two girls moved to Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire. Matilda seemed much happier there but now she occasionally wore a nun’s wimple of her own volition—as a good way to get rid of unwanted suitors. However, this ploy rather backfired, because when she wished to marry Henry a tribunal had to be held to determine if she had taken any vows or was free to wed.

An Unexpected Discovery During my Research

I was very surprised to find out that after giving birth to her two children (and possibly a third that died young), Matilda had told the King that ‘two was enough’ and now that she had presented him with an heir, she wished that they should live as ‘brother and sister’ instead of man and wife. This seemed to be well-known at court and she did not seem to have been condemned for her choice, nor did Henry seek put her aside because of it, often leaving Matilda ‘in charge’ of the realm when he was away on campaign in Normandy. 

Henry of course was a well-known womaniser with over twenty illegitimate children, so he was not short of female company. The royal couple’s lack of many children did come back to haunt Henry later, though—their only son, William, drowned in the wreck of the White Ship, paving the way for the dynastic feud known as the Anarchy. Matilda never knew about her son’s untimely death, having died several years before the tragedy occurred. 

The Hardest Scenes to Write

I don’t find beginnings hard in the first draft, but they often are the scenes that have to be rewritten extensively as the characters often develop in unexpected ways later on that do not match with the characters as drawn in the earliest chapters. I’d say, though, that in these biographical fiction novels about medieval women, sometimes the middle is difficult because quite often that section of the women’s lives is poorly recorded, which means guesswork and trying to ‘fill in the blanks’ in plausible ways. Matilda’s whereabouts, for example, were unknown for a while. 

She had returned to Scotland from Wilton after her father had a spectacular fall-out with William Rufus, but mere months later her father and brother were slain at Alnwick Castle, her mother died shortly after hearing the news, and an uncle usurped the throne, leaving Matilda and her siblings in a very precarious position. They fled to England as exiles but no one knows where she then stayed. Many think she returned to Wilton, but the abbey records only record William Rufus saying he would offer nothing but bare minimum for her keep if she chose to stay there. It is possible she was at court with some of her brothers and her uncle as guardian—although William Rufus’s court was deemed a rather unsavoury one.

As for my books’ endings, initially when I began to write my ‘Medieval Babes’ series, I had thought to write every single one of them as ‘birth to death.’ But then I decided that would be just too miserable! So, unless there is something very unusual about their demise, I now finish the many of the books with something memorable from the protagonist’s life instead of a death bed scene.

What Is Next on the Agenda?

For the Medieval Babes series, my next might well be Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John, though it won’t be about her years with John but afterwards, when she returned to France, married her own daughter’s betrothed who was the son of the man she’d once been betrothed, and caused general havoc!  My next novel will be one for my newer Wars of the Roses series, The Falcon and the Sun, which is going to centre on various members of the York family, particularly the lesser-known ones. 

It will be about Edmund of Rutland, brother of Edward IV and Richard III, who was killed at the battle of Wakefield. Also, for something completely different, I will also be working on a high fantasy novel, The Deadborn King, a complete rewrite of an epic I first wrote in the 1980’s. It’s been in my head since around 1980 and just won’t let me go!

J.P. Reedman

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About the Author

J.P. Reedman was born and raised in Canada, daughter of a Canadian soldier and a 17-year-old war bride. Her mother and older sister instilled a love of all parts of the British Isles in a small child, and it was all knights and castles and history from the age of about four. Earliest memories include climbing the keep of Guildford Castle. First historical writing, though, was about Cleopatra—age six. She began writing fantasy in the 70’s and in the 80’s had many fantasy short stories and poems published in the small press of the day.  In the 90’s J.P. moved permanently to the UK, first living in Northamptonshire and then in Wiltshire, near Stonehenge, where she worked for twelve years. J.P. ‘s first published novel was The Stonehenge Saga, a historical fantasy placing the Arthurian legends in a Bronze Age context. This was published in 2 volumes in 2012; in 2018 J.P.  finally made the transition to ‘full-time writer.’ Follow J.P. Reedman on Facebook, InstagramBluesky Social and Twitter @stonehenge2500