Category Archives: History

New Year, New Writing Goals

Happy new year to you all, and I hope you had a restful festive season. My first blog post of the year typically concerns my goals for the year ahead, and this one is no different! So, here we go…

2021 was a productive year in terms of my writing, with the release my first new book in two years, which was also the first in a new series of historical mysteries. One of my goals this year is to write the second Ailsa Rose novel, and I’m very much looking forward to returning to Georgian Edinburgh and continuing Ailsa’s story, as well as giving her a new mystery to solve! I’m pleased to say that the preparatory work for this novel is well underway – indeed, I was already writing this one in my head while I was finishing The Wax Artist!

The biggest challenge for me this year is that I intend to write not one, but two books. This is something I haven’t managed before, and it will definitely be quite tough to achieve. However, there is a story I want to write which is quite different from any of my previous output, and this feels like the right time to do it. More on that as things develop, but right now I’m having a lot of fun creating some new characters and putting a plot together.

Finally, I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who has bought a copy of The Wax Artist, and thank you also to those who’ve read it and been in touch to let me know your thoughts. It’s been great to hear how many people have enjoyed it over Christmas! Writers always appreciate ratings and/or reviews so if you have time after reading it, I’d love it if you’d consider leaving one on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever else you would normally post these. Thank you!

Introducing… The Wax Artist

I’m delighted to confirm that my next novel, The Wax Artist, will be released on 2nd December 2021 in e-book and paperback. If you follow my social media pages, you may have already seen the cover and blurb, but for those who haven’t I thought I’d put them together here!

So, without any further ado, I’m overjoyed to introduce you to the first book in my new series of mystery novels set in Georgian Edinburgh, and to my new protagonist, French émigré, psychic and amateur sleuth, Ailsa Rose. I hope you’re looking forward to the novel, and that you enjoy delving into Ailsa’s world as much as I have.

The Wax Artist

Book Announcement

A little announcement on a Thursday morning…

I’m very pleased and excited to announce that my next novel, The Wax Artist, will be published before the end of 2021. The hard work is ongoing behind the scenes to get the book ready and looking pretty for publication, and as with all my titles, it will be available as both an e-book and in paperback. I’ll keep my blog and social media feeds updated on progress, so keep an eye out for the release date, cover reveal and blurb reveal – all coming soon!

I’m really looking forward to sharing this story with you. The Wax Artist is the first in my new series of historical mysteries, set in early nineteenth century Edinburgh. This book was very much my pandemic project, and at times a real source of sanity and escapism for me when the going got tough. I sincerely hope you get as much joy from it as I did, and that you enjoy meeting a host of new characters and delving into their world for a little while.

It’s been almost two years since I last published a book, which for me is a long time between releases. I made the announcement about The Wax Artist last night on Twitter and Facebook, and was really heartened by the warm responses and interest I received. I’d just like to say thank you to all my readers for your patience and your support – it really means a lot.

Picking Roses: A Story of Elizabeth Ollive Paine

It’s been a while since I shared any of my own writing on my blog, so today I thought I would do just that. I wrote the story below for a magazine submission slot, the brief for which was to write a short piece of fiction in the voice of a female relation to a famous real or fictional person. My piece was not ultimately selected; nonetheless, I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

The female relative I chose was Elizabeth Ollive, estranged wife of the eighteenth century writer and radical, Thomas Paine. Paine has been a favourite of mine since my university days, when I pored over his political works and relished his involvement in both the American and French revolutions. It’s only in recent years that I have become more interested in his personal life, and have found that the scant information we have raises more questions than it answers. Paine was married twice, firstly to Mary Lambert who died in childbirth, and secondly to Elizabeth Ollive, from whom he ultimately separated for reasons unknown before emigrating to the American colonies in 1774, where his life as a man of fame and influence truly began.

For Elizabeth, this separation must have come at enormous personal cost – not only did she have to bear the shame and stigma of being an abandoned wife, but the wife of a renowned rabble-rouser and eventual outlaw. I wonder how she must have felt each time she heard news of him and his exploits, and how she bore her own lot, forced to leave Lewes for Cranbrook in Kent, where she lived with her brother and carved out a living as a dressmaker. Like so many women of the past, she is silent in the historical record, but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine. I’d like to write more about her and about Paine, one day, but for now, I hope you enjoy this short story.

Picking Roses

I almost prick her when she mentions him. Right on the soft skin of her shoulder, where I’m still adjusting that pretty floral cotton she’s chosen, forming a dress from it with folds and pins. I’m not normally so clumsy, but her question is a surprise. Most ladies prefer light conversation, and this one hadn’t seemed any different; running her fingers over the printed roses as though she might like to pick them, telling me that she’ll wear her new dress to such-and-such’s house for afternoon tea. Then she says his name, just like that. Asks me if I’ve heard the news from France.

I’ve heard the news – of course I have. I don’t say anything, though. I just nod and concentrate on pinning. I’m not about to make a mistake. I don’t want to start again.

She’s still admiring those flowers. Her husband told her at breakfast, she says. It’s been in all the papers. She hopes I’m able to bear it. It must be such a troubling reminder of the past.

Troubling – there’s a word for it. I turn my attention to the hem of her skirt, shrinking from the urge to reply. The sooner I finish, the sooner we can both move on. Cranbrook likes reminders, even after all these years. When I first arrived to live with my brother, I hoped to be Miss Ollive the dressmaker, to foster the presumption of my spinsterhood, of my blank and loveless past. But Cranbrook soon gathered up the pieces of my tale, and almost as adeptly as I can sew a gown, the town stitched it all together and found Mrs Paine – shunned wife of a rabble-rouser, a republican, a revolutionary. Cranbrook looked upon my dresses differently after that.

She keeps on talking about him. It seems the French lock up everyone, she says, even those so committed to their cause. I don’t want to think about him in prison; filthy, half-starved, trapped in the shadow of the guillotine. He doesn’t fare well in confinement; I know that better than most. Perhaps he will escape, just like he did before, when we lived together in Lewes and failed to pretend to be happy. Perhaps he will board a ship and sail for America again. I pray he does. He might well write that the world is his country, but it’s America which resists him the least.  

She’s gone quiet, let her remarks fall away like the offcuts of material scattered on the floor. I’m glad. I don’t talk about Tom; I never have, not since we agreed to part ways, agreed to stay silent on all that had passed between us. Now the only words we have are in our letters; infrequent, but sincere and tenderly meant. This lady in her rose dress wouldn’t understand. Cranbrook wouldn’t understand. They’d say I was still his wife, but I haven’t been that for twenty years, if I ever truly was at all.  

Studies in Wax

As promised back in February, I have been quietly and steadily working on my new novel. I’m conscious I’ve been silent for some time now, so thought I’d blog a short update on how things are going. I’m pleased to say that I’ve now completed the first draft of the manuscript and have almost completed the first round of editing. There will be more reading and editing work to be done, of course, but I feel as though I’m making some serious progress towards the final, finished novel.

So, today I thought I might say a little more about what this book is about, and where it came from!

The first seeds of this story were sown in my mind back in the autumn of 2019, while working on an assignment for the creative writing course I was taking at the time. I was doing a lot of free-writing for this, and I produced a number of short passages about a psychic who has a vision of a crime which has not yet been committed. As I developed them further, I found myself wandering into the late eighteenth-century, sketching characters and settings which felt sometimes Austen-esque and sometimes far less privileged – a contrast which I enjoyed. I live not far from Edinburgh, a city with a notable Georgian heritage, so I began to feel this might be my story’s setting. At this point I had lots of threads, lots of ideas, but it was only when I started looking more closely at eighteenth-century Edinburgh, that I had a ‘eureka’ moment.

That moment looked something like this:

Madame Tussaud, from Wikimedia Commons.

I discovered that, in 1803, Madame Tussaud opened an exhibition in Edinburgh’s New Town. Travelling from France to London and then on to Edinburgh during the brief peace between Britain and France, her Grand Cabinet of European Figures was the first time the Scottish capital had seen her lifelike waxworks of royalty and revolutionaries – including, of course, the now infamous death masks. This tiny, fascinating piece of information provided the setting for my university assignment, but it was also the spark which got me to realise that the plots, settings and characters whirring around my head needed a novel. The result is a story which is grounded firmly in its period: a new century, an uneasy peace, an ancient city in flux, and an old world still reeling from revolution. It’s also a novel which still has that psychic and that original mystery at its heart: how do you solve a crime which hasn’t happened yet?

I can’t wait for you all to read it.

Spotlight Part 4: The Pendle Witch Girl

In today’s spotlight is my fourth book, and the last instalment in the Witches of Pendle trilogy, The Pendle Witch Girl. This book is also my only novella to date, and was published in 2018.

The Pendle Witch Girl cover

In the spotlight post I did for A Woman Named Sellers, I mentioned that originally I wanted that book to cover Jennet Device/Sellers’ whole life, but found early on that to do so would have made the book far too cumbersome. So, after publishing that book I decided that I would write one final story, covering Jennet’s childhood and her pivotal (and tragic) role in the 1612 trials. Of all my Witches of Pendle books, this one draws closest to events leading up to and during the trials in Lancaster in 1612. Whereas The Gisburn Witch operates on the periphery of the Lancashire aspect of the story, The Pendle Witch Girl concerns the character who was at the centre of it.

Release day promotional poster

It was quite a challenge to tackle such an infamous story, particularly in trying to understand some of the accusations of witchcraft which arose and their context, and to represent those convincingly in fiction. I also had to bear in mind that the key primary source for the trial, The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster written by court clerk Thomas Potts, contains its own biases, as it approaches events from the authorities’ point of view. Therefore, a good deal of reading between the lines was required.

When writing, I worked hard to avoid falling into the trap of ‘explaining away’ the superstitions and alleged magical events, or of putting too much of a modern slant upon them. Instead, I tried to get into the minds of my characters, to see the world through their eyes and to do justice to their stories. It’s important to remember, I think, that the accused and their accusers believed in witchcraft just as fervently as the authorities, and therefore saw events and the actions of neighbours, friends and even family through this lens. I also had to remember that I was writing from the point of view of a child, whose view of the world was not only steeped in superstition but also her immaturity and her own family dynamic. That dynamic, I felt, was key to understanding why she did what she did, and why events unfolded so dreadfully in the summer of 1612.

More information about The Pendle Witch Girl can be found here.

Spotlight Part 2: A Woman Named Sellers

Last week I started a series of ‘spotlight’ posts, focusing on each of my novels in the order I wrote them, and talking a little about their subjects and themes, what inspired me to write them, and so on. In today’s spotlight it’s my second novel, and the second book in the Witches of Pendle trilogy, A Woman Named Sellers.

Published in 2016, A Woman Named Sellers picks up the Pendle witches’ story twenty years after the first trials. It follows the story of former trial child witness Jennet Device, now living as Jennet Sellers. Following the death of her father, Jennet moves to a new village to live with relatives she hardly knows. She tries hard to carve out a new life for herself, and finds solace in new friendships, particularly with her fellow newcomer William Braithwaite, a stonemason from Cumberland. However, Jennet’s past continues to haunt her, and with witch hunters once again prowling the Pendle countryside, she’s not sure if she can ever be safe.

After writing The Gisburn Witch, I really wanted to focus on the story of the other, arguably more famous Jennet in the Pendle witch tale. Originally I planned to cover her whole life story but realised that her childhood and adult tales were too lengthy and complex to put into one novel. So, I decided to focus instead on her adulthood and possible involvement in the 1634 trials. Due to some of the gaps and contradictions in the evidence, we can’t know for certain that the Jennet Device named in the 1634 trial records was the same as the Jennet Device of 1612, although, on balance, it seems likely. I was really captured by the notion that her tragic life probably did come full circle – from witness to accused.

When I was writing this book, I was also really interested in reflecting some of the changes going on in wider society in the 1630s. These were the years leading up to the civil wars, and society was changing – we can see that in the shifting attitudes to witch-hunting, but also in the religious landscape, with many new Christian groups emerging. One of the major characters in the book, William Braithwaite, is a Grindletonian, a sect which sprang up in the northern village of Grindleton during these years. Groups like the Grindletonians were really very radical, placing emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God, rejecting the need to be ordained to preach, and believing that accepting God’s spirit was all that was required to attain salvation. William is one of the few fictional characters in the story, and to this day he remains one of my favourites. Some readers have also commented on how much they liked him, and a few have even asked if I’d consider writing a spin-off about him!

The 1634 trials are less well known that those in 1612, which is a shame as they are fascinating in their own right. Indeed, the echoes of 1612 are all there – child witnesses, tensions between neighbours, outlandish accusations, and the persistence of witch-hunting zeal in the north of the country. The results, however, were somewhat different from 1612. You can read more about the 1634 trials and Jennet’s possible involvement here.

More information about A Woman Named Sellers, including where to buy, is available here.

Spotlight: The Gisburn Witch

As the year tumbles towards its conclusion, I’ve found myself in a reflective mood. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot to reflect on this year, and not a whole lot of it has been good! However, in recent weeks I have been staying positive (mostly) and busy, working on the first draft of my next novel, and really enjoying the experience of delving into a different world which writing it affords. After all, 2020 could not be a better excuse for a little escapism, could it?

I’ve also found myself looking back on the books I’ve written and the things I’ve achieved so far. It is good to take stock once in a while, to look at your work and to think ‘wow, I did that’. I began writing my first novel in 2014, published it in 2015 and I haven’t really stopped since. As it is almost the end of another year, I thought it would be fun to shine a spotlight on my books in the order I wrote them, and say a little bit about them – what they’re about, what inspired me to write them, and so on.

So, in today’s spotlight is my debut novel, The Gisburn Witch.

Published in 2015, The Gisburn Witch is a historical fiction novel which tells the story of Jennet Preston, one of the so-called Pendle witches, who found herself caught up in the trials in Lancashire in 1612. I’d always had an interest in the Pendle witch trials, and wrote my university dissertation on the subject. Jennet had particularly drawn my interest as she was geographically separate from the other accused, living in Gisburn in the Yorkshire/Lancashire borderlands. She was tried separately, too, in York rather than Lancaster. I really wanted to dig deep into Jennet’s story, to understand how she ended up being accused of witchcraft. The Gisburn Witch is my imagining of that story.

In 2016, I wrote an article for Edinburgh University’s Dangerous Women Project, all about Jennet and the other ‘witches’ and some of the aspects of their lives and stories which made them vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. You can find it here.

You can find out more about The Gisburn Witch and where you can get a copy here.

Next time in the spotlight will be my second novel, and the second book in the Witches of Pendle series, A Woman Named Sellers.

In Remembrance

As a novelist, I love stories. I love reading them, creating them, writing them, and discovering them. As a historical novelist, I am drawn to the tales of the past, to imagining (and re-imagining) past peoples, places, and events. Perhaps most of all, I enjoy blending research and creativity to bring the past to life through storytelling. I love digging around in the records, discovering those delightful snippets of information bequeathed to us by time and wondering, what then? Why? How? I suppose that same curiosity is what drew me to another interest of mine: genealogy. Over a number of years, I have been researching my own family tree and unearthing the stories of my ancestors. Today, on Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you one of those stories.

The photo above was taken by Darge Photographic Company at Seymour Army Camp in Victoria, Australia, around 21st November 1915. The young man pictured is my ancestor, Thomas Brocklebank, who in July 1915 enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force to fight in the First World War. Five days after this photograph was taken, Private Brocklebank embarked with the 24th Battalion from Melbourne, aboard the HMAT Commonwealth. The records indicate that he first travelled to the AIF Training Camps in North Africa, including Zeitoun Camp, near Cairo. From there he travelled onwards to France and the western front. On 3rd July 1916 he went missing in action. He was never found and following a Court of Enquiry in 1917, was declared to have been killed in action. He was nineteen years old. As he has no known grave, he is commemorated on the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux near Amiens, northern France.

As is so often the case with history, the answer to one question provokes many others. While researching Thomas’s tragic story, I found myself repeatedly wondering how a young man from my family ended up enlisting with the Australian Imperial Force. As far as I knew, I had no connection to Australia, nor did the Brocklebank branch of my family tree, a branch firmly rooted in Cumbria, northern England. It was quite the mystery – a mystery I felt compelled to solve. So I dug further into the records, tracing Thomas’s life through both the military records and census data, taking the clues it offered and building it into the story of his life.

This, I believe, is his story.

Thomas Brocklebank was born in the village of Baycliff, near Dalton-in-Furness in 1897, the youngest son of Thomas Brocklebank snr and his wife, Mary. Mary Brocklebank appears to have died during Thomas’s early infancy, and sometime afterwards his father seems to have left for South Africa, where he fought in the Boer War and subsequently remained for the rest of his life, working as a miner. By 1901, Thomas was living in the Dalton area with his aunt and uncle, Margaret and William Raven, and their family.

Thomas then disappears from the British census records, and I believe therefore that sometime before 1911 he emigrated to Australia with another of his aunts, a lady called Clara Smith and her husband, Richard. They lived in Swan Hill, Victoria, where Thomas worked as a farm labourer until his enlistment in 1915. Thomas’s military record contains some deeply sad correspondence between his aunt Clara and the authorities concerning his whereabouts during the time he was missing, asking for information about what had happened to him. His story is sadly an all too common one, with so many of his generation losing their lives on the battlefields of Europe. Seeing those records, and knowing the profound sense of loss which sits between the lines of Clara’s letters, was very moving.

Unlike many British war records which fell victim to the Blitz, the Australian records remain intact and have been digitised. Whilst census data, by its very nature, can only provide a snapshot of a person at a moment in time, the Australian war records present a timeline of a young man’s army life from enlistment, through training, in combat and ultimately, to his death. The records make for heart-wrenching reading, demonstrating the impact of the war on one young man and his family. They also give some very specific details. I know, for example, that Thomas was five feet two inches tall, with brown hair and green eyes. But a lot of other information has, of course, been lost to time – most importantly, Thomas’s voice. He left no record of himself, no words of his own to stand as testament to what he saw, thought and felt during those short but tumultuous years. And that, for a curious historian and a descendant, is one of the saddest details of all.

Today is Remembrance Sunday, when we commemorate the sacrifice made by millions of men like Thomas. They were the lost generation of the early twentieth century. Lest we forget.

The Immersion Method

Recently I was reading an interview with Hilary Mantel in BBC History Magazine. Mantel, who is currently one of the most famous and celebrated historical fiction writers, was talking about her approach to her research, and referred to the need to ‘absorb’ the period you’re writing about. I found myself nodding along with this, as it’s so true: when you want to write a story set in the past, it is important to not only understand it, but to visualize it as clearly as you see your own world around you. It’s not enough to know its facts on an academic level, although of course, these are important for accuracy. You have to be able to see it, smell it, taste it, hear it. To do that, I think that you have to breathe it in. You have to let it get right under your skin.

From pexels.com.

Depending on the specific period or context you’re writing about, this can be hard to do. When I wrote about the Pendle witches, I was always conscious that the sort of evidence which aids vivid recreations of settings and characters was scant. I had the awe-inspiring presence of Pendle Hill and Lancaster Castle to work with, but key places like Westby Hall and Malkin Tower are long gone. Furthermore, the women accused left no written record of their own – the sole primary sources available were the court records, steeped as they are in bureaucratic officialdom (and no small amount of propaganda). Interestingly, though, it was this sense of the victims’ lack of voice which made me all the more keen to re-imagine their stories, and to tell them from their point of view.

Illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘The Lancashire Witches’. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, I’m researching for my sixth novel, set in late Georgian Edinburgh. Just as I did when preparing to write about the Pendle witches, I am reading widely and exploring the period. In short, I am immersing myself in it. And wow, what a lot there is to be immersed in! Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century Edinburgh, standing at the crossroads where Enlightenment and Romanticism meet, is a richly recorded and well-preserved place. The source materials, the books to read and the places to visit, are quite simply vast.

The ongoing pandemic means that getting out and about to visit key parts of the city hasn’t been possible yet, although I’m fortunate to know Edinburgh pretty well and have visited many of its museums and historic sites in the past. Until I can refresh my memory, however, there is plenty to be looking at in terms of online resources and books. I have made some truly fabulous discoveries, from the late eighteenth century town plans available through the National Library of Scotland, to the autobiography of a lady called Elizabeth Fletcher, a writer who lived in Edinburgh’s New Town at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Edinburgh. Image from pexels.com.

And to keep my mind firmly on the period, I’m busy re-reading some of my favourite Jane Austen novels and listening to Beethoven!

Some of the information I’m gathering will come in useful directly for the novel. A lot of it, though, is important simply because it enriches my understanding of the period, its people, what their lives were like, and how they felt about the world they inhabited. If I’m going to successfully evoke the setting and create some authentic characters, then this knowledge will be really, really important.