Category Archives: History

The Wax Artist Sale & Preview

The Wax Artist is currently on sale for £1.99 / $2.99 for Kindle. So, if you haven’t read it yet and quite fancy a mystery set in Georgian Edinburgh, now might be a good time to get your e-copy! Head here to buy.

As it’s on sale, I thought now was a good time to publish the first chapter of the book on my blog! Intrigued? Then have a read below.

Chapter One

Spring, 1803.

I’d watched him die on the North Bridge scores of times. It never got any easier to witness it.

Today I prayed I wouldn’t have to. I had an appointment to keep; a duty, however unwanted, to perform, and I could not afford to be delayed. I could not keep those who had summoned me waiting. Of course, the spirits had other ideas. They always did. Halfway across the bridge, I felt time slip back a little, sensed the lost stones grow up beneath my feet. Shuddered along with their tremors, and braced myself for their fall. I saw him then, the lithe young man with a book in his hand, standing where he always was against the low stone wall. He turned to look at me, smiling and tipping his hat as though it was me that he’d been waiting for. Then he stumbled, the ground beneath him shaking with an uncommon violence as the ghost of an abutment gave way. My heart swelled with the urge to cry out, then broke with the knowledge that it was futile.

This happened long ago, I reminded myself. There is nothing you can do about it now.

I turned away, not wishing to look as the crumbling stones finally betrayed him, gifting him to the earth below. Under my feet, the ground stilled as time slid again; forwards now, the past surrendering to the present, the old acquiescing to the new. When I looked back, the bridge had healed, and the man was gone.

Gone, at least, until the next time I saw him. I recalled his small nod, his smile, and wondered who he’d been waiting for. Wondered if they were the reason why he returned to that same spot, time after time. Wondered where he was now. Roaming the valley perhaps, with all those other restless souls? I gazed over the wall, regarding the spirits of Edinburgh’s drowned and dispossessed as they wandered the barren land which lay beyond the markets sheltering in the shadow of the bridge’s great arches. I pitied them the loss of their watery grave. There had been a loch down there once, known as the Nor Loch, but it had been shrunk long ago by draining. All that remained of it was now obscured from view by the earthen mound which grew bigger each year, fed by the builders’ waste of the New Town.

The old gave way to the new; it was how it was meant to be. But that wasn’t to say that the past didn’t mourn its losses.

A sharp gust of wind brought me back to the present, and I found myself reaching up to shield my bonnet from its grasp. My thoughts returned to my appointment, and my earlier urgency gripped me once more. The dead might have all eternity to rue their lot, but I had only a few minutes to get to Hill Street.

I hurried across the bridge, glad to leave its haunting sights behind me, and made my way towards George Street, the great wide boulevard which ran through the centre of the New Town. I didn’t come here often, but I never found it difficult to negotiate my way around. I was used to navigating the old part of the city, its webs of wynds and closes piled high by the centuries. This place was the work of mere decades, built under a regimen of order and symmetry to tempt the city’s wealthiest inhabitants away from their chaotic, antiquated dwellings. I found its vistas unappealing, but not confusing.

I rounded the corner on to Frederick Street and stopped for a moment, feeling out of breath. Immediately I noticed the quiet; this side of town might always be busy with Edinburgh’s well-to-dos, but it was peaceful to me. It was still new enough that it was mostly only the living who walked its immaculate streets. I breathed deeply, noting rather begrudgingly that its air smelt better, too. I took the final steps of my journey at a steadier pace, conscious of the company I was about to keep. It was bad enough that I was here, dressed in my best but still not quite passing muster, my dress well-worn, the soles of my shoes thick with Canongate filth; I didn’t need to appear flustered as well. I needed to seem composed, refined. I needed to be all those things I used to be. I caught sight of my reflection in a window, sighing my disapproval at my flushed cheeks and the frizz of red-brown hair escaping my bonnet. I thought once more about those poor souls roaming that desolate valley between the towns, utterly out of place and time. For a moment I understood how they must feel.

I found my destination with ease, about halfway down Hill Street. The house was just as Jane had described it: identical to all the adjoining houses, fashioned in a grey stone and punctuated by neat lines of sash windows. Elegant, Jane had called it, when she’d brought the invitation to me. I hadn’t commented; I’d been too absorbed in reading the little card’s details.

Mrs Charlotte Andrews requests the pleasure of your company… Thursday next… two o’ clock…

They want you to perform a reading, Jane had explained, but that detail had only perturbed me more. Why were they seeking such a service? And why had Jane been foolhardy enough to mention my name?

I made my way along the lane which ran behind Hill Street, where I assumed I would find the servants’ entrance to the house. Although I had an invitation to visit, I didn’t believe that invitation extended to the likes of me wandering through the family’s front door. I knocked briskly on what I hoped was the correct door, and after a few moments Jane answered. She looked different in her maid’s attire; younger than her twenty-five years, with a red glow in her cheeks and sweat on her brow which hinted at the relentless nature of the work. She liked it here, she’d once told me. It reminded her of growing up in the border country. Sometimes, at night, she could even hear corncrakes calling out from the surrounding fields, upon which streets had not yet been built.

‘I’m glad to see you, Miss Rose,’ Jane said, beckoning me to come inside. ‘The family are expecting you. They will receive you in the parlour.’

I nodded and smiled, partly in agreement and partly out of amusement at her formality. It was not really so long ago that we worked together in the tavern.

‘How are you, Jane? We didn’t get much chance to speak when you called the other day.’

‘No – sorry, Ailsa. I had to go to market, and I was in an awful rush to get back to help the Misses Andrews dress for dinner. There aren’t many of us here, so I must help with everything,’ she said, lowering her voice.

‘But you are well? Still happy?’

Jane nodded. ‘I don’t miss tavern work, if that’s what you mean. Come on, I’d better take you up and introduce you. It is after two now and you shouldn’t keep them waiting, and the mistress will scold me if I’m caught blethering downstairs. Although, perhaps you’d best take those shoes off first. I think they’re beyond even the boot-scraper’s help,’ she added, with a wary glance at my feet.

I did as I was bid, then followed Jane up the stairs and into the parlour, a well-appointed room at the rear of the house, fashioned in a pleasing pale green. The colour reminded me of my home in Paris, and before I could prevent it, its many hues flashed before my eyes. Greens, yellows, reds. A touch of blue along the staircase which led to our apartment. I pushed the thought from my mind, fixing a smile on my face and gave a polite bow as Jane announced my arrival to the family, who were enjoying tea around a fine mahogany table in the centre of the room. Four intrigued faces turned to examine me; a woman in her middle years, who I presumed to be Mrs Andrews, two younger women who were likely the Misses Andrews, and a fair-haired man of whom I knew nothing at all. Their interrogative stares made me conscious again of my faded dress and stockinged feet. I’d had finer clothes back in Paris, but those were gone now too.  

The older woman spoke first. ‘Ah, Miss Rose. Very pleased to make your acquaintance. Please, do sit down. Jane, bring up a fresh tea set, with another cup for Miss Rose.’ Her voice was soft but commanding, its notes surprising to my ear. Not Scottish, I thought. English. She smiled slightly at me; if she was irritated by my lateness, she didn’t show it.

Jane left promptly with her orders, cutting me adrift as I fumbled with a heavy wooden chair. In the end the man rose from his seat to assist me, prompting a stifled giggle from one of the young ladies. Her mother shot her a stern look.

‘Miss Rose, allow me to introduce Mr Henry Turner, and my daughters, Miss Clara and Miss Grace. Thank you for coming to attend upon us this afternoon. It is a fine day, I see. I hope your journey across town was not too arduous.’

I thought briefly about that young man, about how this time I couldn’t bear to watch him fall. Arduous, indeed.

‘Not at all, Mrs Andrews. There was a little wind on the bridge, but then there is always a wind blowing between the towns.’

My remark prompted more laughter, this time from both sisters. They were strikingly different to look at; one shared her mother’s slender, dark features, with near-black hair and deep brown eyes, whilst the other was fair, blue-eyed and a little plump. Neither of them could be much more than one-and-twenty, and both were beautiful in their distinct ways. I imagined the suitors were lining up for their hands.

‘It was Grace, my youngest daughter, who prompted our invitation to you,’ Mrs Andrews continued, giving a nod of acknowledgement to the fair-haired girl. ‘I understand you’re acquainted with our maid, Jane. Grace tells me that Jane has shared some stories of your…talents. My daughter has an enthusiasm for these matters, and was inclined to make your acquaintance so that you might be able to read her leaves.’

Of course. Typical Jane. The matter had unfolded much as I expected, but that didn’t mean it rankled any less. I could hear my mother’s warning echo in my ear.

Be careful who you trust, ma chérie.

‘I’d be happy to oblige you,’ I replied.

Jane returned briefly with the tea set. She managed to avoid catching my eye, which was just as well as I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t scowl at her. After she’d laid out the required wares and left, Mrs Andrews retrieved a key and unlocked the tea chest which sat atop a mahogany table across the room. I watched as she filled an attractive porcelain bowl with leaves before placing it in the centre of the table.

‘I’ll let you do the honours, Miss Rose,’ Mrs Andrews said.

‘In fact, Mrs Andrews, I’m afraid the practice requires that each person makes their own cup of tea. Leaves first, then hot water. The leaves must remain in the bottom of the cup.’

Mrs Andrews curled her lip, partly at me and partly at Grace, who shrank a little across the table. I was being tolerated. But then, my sort always were.

‘I see. Well, girls, you heard Miss Rose. You too, Henry. Make your tea.’

I watched with some amusement at the show of refinement and delicacy as one by one, each concocted their brew. I realised how unused I was to company such as this; too accustomed now to the rough manners of the tavern, to the clink of ale mugs and the stink of whisky and sweat. It had been many years since I had sat and enjoyed tea in a room such as this. The thought unsettled me, and I brushed it aside.

‘Miss Rose, that is an unusual accent. Pray, do tell us where you are from,’ the elder sister, Clara, said as she stirred a spoon in her cup.

I felt the heat grow in my cheeks as four pairs of eyes bored into me. I worked hard to conceal my accent, but it could always be detected by a well-attuned ear.

‘I spent my childhood in France,’ I replied. ‘But I have lived in Edinburgh for many years now.’

Grace gave a little snort. ‘France, indeed! Jane never mentioned that. I do hope you’re no admirer of Monsieur Napoleon, Miss Rose.’

‘Upon my word, Grace!’ Henry interjected before I could answer. ‘What an assertion to put to Miss Rose. I am sure that, given her long residence in Edinburgh, she is no friend to the revolution. Am I right, Miss Rose?’

I nodded. ‘You are indeed, sir. On the question of Monsieur Bonaparte, I would say that I welcome the current peace. Long may it last.’

‘Yes, yes, very good,’ said Mrs Andrews, before sipping her tea. ‘I presume I may now drink this, and that we may dispense with all talk of politics.’

I nodded my agreement, and poured a cup of my own. I hadn’t answered badly, but when in polite society it was very often impossible to say the right thing.  

‘Have you any family in Edinburgh, Miss Rose? Parents, or siblings, perhaps?’ Clara’s dark gaze remained intently upon me as she pursued her line of questioning.

I shook my head. ‘I’m afraid not. I have no siblings, and my parents are dead.’

A half-truth, but I wasn’t prepared to part with the full story of my upbringing. Indeed, I didn’t know the half of it myself.

‘That is sad, being alone in a strange city,’ Grace lamented. ‘We are strangers here too, but at least we have each other for company.’

‘Hush, hush,’ her sister urged, ‘or you shall be revealing all our secrets and there will be no point in Miss Rose’s divining for us at all. Although, I must agree with my sister that it is sad – and unusual.’

Unusual. Perhaps it was in her world, but it was all too common in mine. Clara continued to regard me, and I wondered if she felt as I did, if she could sense the chasm between us. The valley between the towns. The empty space which separated our lives. After a moment she looked away, and I decided it was best to move on.

‘Has anyone finished their tea?’

Henry sat back in his chair, his casual pose seeming to mock me. ‘I confess I have finished, but I am going to decline a reading from you, Miss Rose. I mean no offence, but such amusements are the preserve of young ladies with heads full of novels and nonsense.’

I nodded, inwardly cursing Jane once again. This was exactly why it wasn’t worth my trouble to do readings. Too much risk. Too much unbelief.

‘Oh, do ignore him, Miss Rose. He is an utter blockhead,’ Grace said. She pushed her cup towards me. ‘I asked Mama to invite you here. I would like to go first.’

I took her cup, examining the messy, wet swirls of leaves clambering up its sides. ‘You are a young woman of great sensibility, Miss Grace. I see that you love to dance and that you play the piano very well.’

Grace beamed at me. ‘Yes, indeed. Yes, it’s true. My playing is far superior to Clara’s.’

Henry clicked his tongue in disapproval. ‘Dear Grace, how easily led you are. Most young ladies in Edinburgh will like to dance and to play the piano. Mere guesswork, and that is all.’

‘You are happy more often than not,’ I continued, undeterred by Henry. In truth this was turning out to be an interesting cup. ‘But I can see your circumstances have been difficult of late. There has been a division in the family, I believe. Yes, a separation, leading you here to Edinburgh.’

I didn’t need to have the sight to understand that I’d touched a nerve. Mrs Andrews sat bolt upright, sending the remainder of her tea swishing around her cup.

‘An easy supposition, Miss Rose, if you’ve read the newspapers in these last twelve months.’

‘I have not, madam,’ I replied, ‘but I shall leave that line of enquiry as it is, since it is clearly vexing.’ I looked back at Grace. ‘Is there anything in particular you wish to know?’

‘Marriage,’ her mother snapped, before Grace could answer. ‘Can you see anything on the matter of her marriage?’

I looked back at Grace’s cup. In truth, I could see little. Her leaves were scattered all over the place, much like her feelings. ‘You will have many suitors to choose from, and you will have a difficult decision to make. But I see that you will be happy.’

Grace giggled. Mrs Andrews, however, was far from impressed.

‘That is all very well, but do you have a name? Who will she marry?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t have a name, Mrs Andrews. Sometimes during a reading, names will make themselves known, but it is rare.’

‘Well yes, I imagine that would be far too specific,’ Henry scoffed.

‘Indeed. Let us see whether you have better luck with Clara,’ Mrs Andrews said, tight-lipped. ‘My dear, pass Miss Rose your cup.’

Clara did as instructed, her cool fingers brushing mine as we leaned across the table. I felt her feelings as they seeped from her skin; restlessness, anxiety, panic. Love. I caught her gaze for the briefest moment, watched as she extinguished the spark. I wondered how often she had to bury those feelings beneath that well-rehearsed serenity. In my hand her cup grew warm, the neat arrangement of soggy leaves readying themselves to reveal her secrets.

Then I looked down, and realised it wasn’t the leaves that were speaking to me at all.

A dark corridor. A flash of yellow paint. A man, his lips upon a woman’s neck.

A flickering candle, running with molten wax, its wick almost spent. A stone staircase. A woman’s body tumbling down, a soft blur of muslin and limbs.

A face, running with blood.

Her face.

Her blood.

The vision broke, torn apart like pages from a book. In my hand her cup shook, and the delicate porcelain cracked. The red trickled away, succumbing to the black, and I knew what was coming next. I knew before I saw him. I knew before I heard him cry.

‘Pierre,’ I whispered, just as the ground greeted me, and the darkness swallowed me whole.

A Preoccupation with Solitude

Over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself quite interested in histories relating to solitude, in terms of what being alone has meant down the centuries, and how people have responded to ideas of solitude over time. My interest in this was first sparked by a couple of radio or podcast series, the first being Thomas Dixon’s A Short History of Solitude for the BBC, and the second being the Spaces of Solitude podcast by researchers at Queen Mary University London. I mentioned both previously on a blog post about my favourite podcasts – more here. Thinking back, I don’t think it’s too much of a surprise that this subject resonated me – in the pandemic times, I found myself both isolated from the outside world, but rarely ever alone at home, with all my family ‘locked down’ beside me. Solitude, I came to realise, is something I need in order to create. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

One of the topics within this theme of solitude which really intrigued me was that of religious hermits, anchorites and anchoresses; those who devoted themselves to lives of piety and solitude in the medieval period (although perhaps were not always as alone as we might think, as Thomas Dixon’s series explores). In recent times I’ve become quite an enthusiast for medieval history – something which has come as a surprise, since I was always a devoted early-modernist in my student days. I suppose the two interests, therefore, go hand in hand. With all this in mind, yesterday I stumbled upon a really interesting story…

First, a bit of context. My current work-in-progress has reclusive people at its heart. I’m not sure that was a deliberate choice I made when I began to write; rather, I think it was a subconscious one which developed quickly and which, given my recent preoccupation with solitude, isn’t all that surprising. My two main characters find themselves alone for diverse reasons, some circumstantial, some matters of choice, but both are grappling with their solitude in their different ways. The novel is set in Cumberland (now Cumbria), along the Whitehaven coastline. Yesterday, as I was redrafting, I found myself wandering down a bit of a Google rabbit hole (it happens often). One of the characters mentions the village of St Bees; I went on Google to check a detail and, just like that, I found Saint Bega.

View of the South Head from the golf course at St Bees, Cumbria, by Doug Sim. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Bees_south_head_from_path.jpg

Not far from St Bees is St Bees Head, a headland which reaches out west and is home nowadays to a RSPB reserve and a variety of sea birds. It is also said to be where, in the ninth century, an Irish princess called Saint Bega was shipwrecked after fleeing her homeland and the prospect of a forced marriage to a Viking prince. Bega settled for some time in the area, becoming an anchoress, before eventually fleeing further east into Northumbria as the threat from raiding pirates loomed large. The name of the village is a corruption of its Norse name, Kyrkeby Becok, which translates as ‘church of Bega’. St Bees Priory, which has its own long and interesting history, was also dedicated to her.

Stained glass window at St Bees Priory depicting the arrival of St Bega at St Bees, sometime after 850 AD, by Doug Sim. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Bega_stained_glass.JPG

There is more detailed information about St Bega’s life, the relic and cult of St Bega, and indeed whether or not she ever existed at all over on the St Bees website. However, having unexpectedly discovered this story yesterday, I just had to share it. And now you know, as I do, why St Bees is called St Bees!

Time Marches On

I’ve not been particularly good at keeping my blog up-to-date so far this year. As it’s now May (already!), I thought it would be good to give an update on what I’ve been up to during these past few months.

Firstly, I’ve been very busy writing my next novel, and I’m pleased to say that I have now completed the draft. It has taken me 3 months to do so, which is by far the quickest I’ve ever written a story. Currently I am editing the manuscript, and will then be putting this book out on submission to a publisher. This story is a different genre to any of my previous work as it falls firmly in the ‘romance’ category, although like many of my other books, it is historical fiction too. I’ve really enjoyed writing it and I will update as soon as I have more news about its journey towards publication.

While this manuscript is out on submission, I will be getting to work on the second Ailsa Rose mystery. I completed the research and plotting for this book some time ago, so my next job will be to get reacquainted with that, then start writing! I’m really looking forward to spending some time with Ailsa and Angus again and pursuing their story, as well as giving them a new mystery to solve! Like The Wax Artist, this book will be published independently and I hope to release it later this year.

In February, The Wax Artist also went out on a very successful online book blog tour. That was the first time that any of my books have had a book tour, and I was really heartened by the reviews The Wax Artist received. It was so nice to hear about readers enjoying the story, and appreciating the characters and the setting. The tour was organised by Love Books Tours, who did an amazing job of pulling it all together.

The next few months will continue in much the same vein, with me hard at work as I try to write two novels this year. So far, I am on track. However, I will try to keep my blog updated more regularly!

The Wax Artist on Tour

Hi everyone! I’m really pleased to let you know that on Monday, The Wax Artist will be going on a blog tour, hosted by Love Books Tours. This is the first time I’ve done a blog tour so this is all new to me! As is Instagram, which I’ve just signed up for this weekend as a lot of the tour will take place there. Every day is a school day, and all that…

I’ve shared the poster for the tour below if you would like to follow throughout the week. As ever, thank you for your support.

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.