Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Writing in the Time of Covid

As we reach the final quarter of the year, I think most of us will be looking back on what a difficult time 2020 has been. Each of us will have had our own challenges and hardships over these preceding months. I saw a meme on social media earlier this week which captured this sentiment perfectly – in essence, it said that though we are all going through the same storm, we aren’t all the same boat. It’s perhaps a statement of the obvious to say that this situation we’re living through touches every part of daily life. For me, it has undoubtedly affected my writing, both in terms of my ability to find the time and space to write, but also how I go about developing a story. One area which has definitely been affected is the way in which I do my research.

From pexels.com.

As some of you will know, my latest project is set in late Georgian Edinburgh. The seeds of this story were sown around nine months ago, during my second Open University assignment. I wrote a short story about a psychic sleuth who, having seen a genteel young woman’s dreadful fate during a leaf reading, tries to intervene with unexpected and rather creepy results. I loved the sleuth so much that I knew I had to write a novel about her – indeed, a series of novels about her. At the time I looked forward enthusiastically to the research I’d be able to do – as anyone who has visited Edinburgh will know, it is a deeply historical and atmospheric place, with a wealth of landmarks and museums to visit.

Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh. From pexels.com.

And then Covid came along.

At the time of writing, things are beginning to open back up but are by no means ‘normal’, meaning that some of the visits I’d planned, particularly to museums, can’t go ahead. Fortunately prior to Covid I had been to some of the places on my list, notably The Georgian House (which is just wonderful, by the way), and as someone living in the nearby Lothians I am broadly familiar with the city. But there were gaps in my knowledge, particularly in understanding how Edinburgh would have looked c.1800 (trust me, even seemingly old cities actually change an awful lot).

Thank goodness for books, and of course, the internet.

I thought today I’d share with you a couple of the absolute gems I’ve come across online during my lockdown research. The first is the Edinburgh World Heritage website, which contains a wealth of information about the old and new towns in the city. This is a really good starting point for anyone interested in the city’s history, and for finding interesting bits of information about individual streets and buildings. The second is the Maps Section of the National Library of Scotland website. I think I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve spent poring over eighteenth century town plans, cross referencing streets and just generally building a mental image of the Edinburgh my characters inhabited.

North Bridge, Edinburgh, c.1809, from Wikimedia Commons.

In these past months, the internet has been an invaluable resource. If it was hard to imagine life without it before Covid, it seems impossible now. As an historical fiction writer, its importance to my research over these past months can’t be overstated. Quite simply, my latest project wouldn’t be happening without it.

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.

Online Events and Writing Time

I’ve not been very good at keeping my blog updated in recent times, so apologies for that. In truth, the competing demands of work and home educating my children placed upon me by lockdown have meant that I’ve had very little time to spend on my writing. However, this week is the last week of term, and the coming holidays hold the promise of some respite and, hopefully, some writing time. So I’m starting as I mean to go on, with a blog update on what I have managed to do recently, and what’s coming next…

Noir at the Bar

Earlier in June I took part in an online author event with Noir at the Bar, Edinburgh. It was great to go along to this and to talk about The House at Kirtlebeck End, and to hear from lots of other authors about their work. If you didn’t catch it on the livestream, you can watch it on YouTube here:

The Long and the Short of it

Given my severely limited writing time, short stories have been the order of the day (or past three months, I suppose). I produced quite a few pieces of work during my Open University course which I’m editing, and along with other pieces I’ve written, I intend to submit to some competitions and anthologies over the summer. It’s been a while since I put anything out on submission, so it’s time to get back into it.

Image from Pexels.

Book Six

Those who watched me on Noir at the Bar will have heard me mention my next project, the as yet untitled book number six. It’s very early days but I have started researching for this book, a historical mystery novel set in late Georgian Edinburgh. The idea for this book was borne out of a short story I wrote for my Open University course, and I’m really excited to get started on it! I will keep you all updated…

Image from Wiki Commons.

In Remote Parts

It’s been quite some time since I last blogged – far longer than I intended! I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a busy summer with plenty of fun, travels to new places, new experiences, a little bit of sun and the odd ounce of relaxation here and there. Over the past few weeks I’ve quite literally been living in remote parts, soaking up the wonders of the Scottish Western Isles and visiting some of its far-flung treasures. In short, folks, it’s been wonderful.

The Isle of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides

The holidays are the perfect time to catch up on some reading, and I have read some fabulous fiction over the past couple of months. As ever my reading list was eclectic, with everything from historical fiction, to crime, to horror. My favourite summer reads were Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory, Kaite Welsh’s The Unquiet Heart, Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and Campbell Hart’s The Rocking Stone.

I’ve also managed to fit in a fair amount of activity on the writing front. The House at Kirtlebeck End has been edited, polished up and sent off to agents/publishers, so now the wait begins for their replies and I will take things from there as regards my fifth novel’s journey to publication. While I wait, I’ve started researching for my next novel. I’m planning to return to historical fiction for novel no.6, with a story about a very famous and very influential Enlightenment figure, focusing on a lesser-known (and less talked about) aspect of his life. It’s early days, so that I think that’s enough said about that for now…

August 2019 also marked the first anniversary of the release of The Pendle Witch Girl. I can’t believe it’s been a year already since the third installment of my Witches of Pendle series was published. I also can’t believe, and couldn’t be more proud of the success the book has enjoyed. Indeed, the Witches of Pendle trilogy has gone from strength to strength over these past few years, exceeding any expectations I had when I hit the ‘publish’ button on The Gisburn Witch four years ago. Thank you once again to those of you who have read the books, have recommended them to friends, or have rated and/or reviewed them on Goodreads, Amazon, or anywhere else. It really does make a difference.

The Pendle Witch Girl release day advert – happy memories!

Summer is almost over, but I’m looking forward to an Autumn filled with good books, lots of research, an adventure or two, and who knows, maybe an email which will brighten my day!

An Accidental Week

Happy Saturday! For me at least, it’s been something of a long week, but by no means an uneventful one. It’s also been a bit unlucky. Over the last seven days I’ve managed to hit myself in the face with an I pad resulting in a bit of a colourful right cheekbone (thank goodness for make up), and I’ve got yet another cold which has caused laryngitis. Yesterday evening I lost my voice completely; thankfully my voice seems to be coming back now but squeaking at my family is far from ideal!

Fortunately, my bad luck hasn’t affected my writing, which has been progressing well. This week I hit 65,000 words in my first draft of The House at Kirtlebeck End. I shared this teaser extract on social media:

I hope this has you intrigued! I’m really excited about this book and the more I write, the more I can’t wait to share it with you. I aim to have the first draft finished in the next couple of months.

I also took some time to catch up on how my other books are doing, and noticed that The Gisburn Witch has a new review on Amazon UK. It was lovely to see that a reader has given it five stars and left some really positive comments about the book. It’s no exaggeration to say that good reviews really do make my day.

The Pendle Witch Trials have been getting quite a lot of attention again, generated by big new releases in the literary world such as Stacey Halls’ The Familiars, and television shows such as Channel 5 (UK)’s Digging Up Britain’s Past. I have finally found some time to catch up with this series and watch the episode about the Pendle witches. The episode focused on an archaeological dig to try to locate the remains of the lost Malkin Tower, home of the Device family. I won’t spoil it by telling you if they were successful or not, but it is good to see that after hundreds of years this tragic tale is still attracting interest and attention. If you want to find out more about the TV show, check out the review on the Radio Times website.

I hope you all have a lovely weekend – I’m off to try and get The House at Kirtlebeck End up to 70,000 words before Sunday night! It’s all about setting goals…!

 

Getting off to a good start…

Happy new year! After a lovely festive break I have finally persuaded myself back into the writing room to get on with some writing, and some blogging. At the end of last year I promised you a post on my 2019 goals, and as this is the first post of the new year, setting out my targets for the months ahead seems like a good place to start.

So, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Goal 1 – Finish writing The House at Kirtlebeck End: I’ve mentioned previously on my blog that progress on my new contemporary novel has been a wee bit slow. However, I ended 2018 with it roughly half-written and have made completing it my top priority for 2019.

Goal 2 – Submit The House at Kirtlebeck End to agents/publishers: Well, what have I got to lose? Having been through the querying process before with a couple of my other books, I know that this can take some time. Nonetheless, I believe in this book and its ability to have a broad appeal, and so I owe it to myself and my work to give it the best possible chance of success. And, if it doesn’t get picked up, I can of course publish it myself.

Goal 3 – Research my next historical novel: I’m in the early stages of doing this, having tentatively decided to try my hand at writing about Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the nineteenth century Scottish novelist and historian Thomas Carlyle. It’s early days but I would like to have completed my research by the end of the year so that I can begin writing in 2020. Besides, research will keep me busy while I patiently await replies for Goal 2…

Goal 4 – Keep writing and submitting to magazines/journals: I’m keen to build on last year’s successes here, and so will keep writing shorter pieces whenever the mood takes me.

And there you have it. 2019’s goals are, I believe, perfectly achievable but even so, writing and researching is time-consuming and therefore I am going to need to stay focused. With this in mind, I have decided not to set myself a marketing-related goal this year. The past few years have taught me that marketing and book promotion, whilst useful, can be a real draw on an author’s time and energies, and I simply don’t have time to do everything. That’s not to say I won’t still be blogging or posting on social media, but inevitably there will be less promo activity from me. So please, in 2019 more than ever before, if you enjoy one of my books then tell a friend, write a review, share a post, retweet me! Organic reach and good old fashioned recommendations will be more vital for me than ever 😉

In 2018 I did pretty well with my goals, achieving most and getting them all at least underway. Hopefully I can do the same in 2019. Now, back to the writing den I go – The House at Kirtlebeck End isn’t going to write itself…

Noughts and Crosses

This year marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK. Throughout 2018 there have been events, marches, exhibitions, plays and books to mark this significant anniversary when some, but not all women, finally got the vote. As the year draws to a close, no doubt many of us will pause to reflect on the celebrations, but also the discussions about equality, opportunity, and the ongoing challenges faced by  today’s women, which this anniversary has provoked.

As a historian and a writer, I have always been drawn to consider the position of women throughout the centuries, to examine their lot in life as mothers, daughters, lovers, witches and warriors. As the centenary dawned almost twelve months ago, I found myself drawn once again to the suffragettes. I decided to write a short story which reflects upon their struggle and their legacy, upon the power of the pen and the significance of the simple but hard-won act of making your mark at the ballot box. The piece, entitled Noughts and Crosses, is written as diary extracts from two women living in Edinburgh but almost a hundred years apart; an early twentieth century suffragist, and an early twenty-first century student faced with voting for the first time. I chose this format because as well as commenting on the political, I wanted to convey the empowerment which comes from personal writing and reflection. Noughts and Crosses is a celebration of women’s achievements, but it also reflects that in a time plagued increasingly by cynicism, turmoil and fatigue as established political systems creak and groan against the strain of twenty-first century challenges, the act of voting in itself nonetheless endures as a form of protest.

Noughts and Crosses was my entry for this year’s Costa short story award. A few days ago I found out that it had, unfortunately, been unsuccessful in making the shortlist. (The shortlisted entries can be found here. Please do consider reading them and voting for your favourite in the public poll – you’ll potentially make a writer somewhere very happy!) I felt it was a shame, given the story’s topical nature, for it to gather dust in a drawer forever more, so to speak, so instead, I have decided to publish it here. I really hope that you all enjoy it and I would ask, if you do, please share it on social media and maybe tag a friend who you think would like it too.

Noughts and Crosses

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 16th February 1909:

Yesterday evening was so exhilarating that I can barely keep the smile from creeping on to my lips. I know I must suppress it; H is at home today, locked in the drawing room with his papers and his cigars but nonetheless capable of spotting my unexplained glee from a mile away. He thinks we were at the theatre, Bess and I. No doubt he imagines that I enjoyed an evening of frivolity, a casual spectator at a performance of the latest production to travel north from London. If indeed, he imagines anything at all.

You see, last night confirmed something to me, something that I have long suspected, and now I feel certain is true. Men like H don’t see us, not really. They admire us, they choose us, they marry us. But they don’t see us – not like they see each other. We are the fair sex, the delicate sex. But we are not the serious sex. We are not the sex that is capable of making important decisions, even about matters which affect us first and foremost.

Last night I heard these arguments rebutted, one by one. I admit that I was captivated by the strength with which the case for our suffrage was made. The room was filled to the brim with such inspiring women, all arguing with the force of sheer logic why women such as I should be allowed the vote. Many of the speakers grew very animated, advocating strong action to achieve our aims – chaining ourselves to railings, breaking windows and so forth. I must admit that the mere thought of such disobedience makes my blood run cold. Can you imagine what H would say? 

Nonetheless, I’m already planning my ruse to attend next month’s meeting. I’ll tell H that we’re going to the theatre again. He will think me an enthusiast; he will laugh and tap me under the chin affectionately, just like he always does when he is amused. I don’t like having to lie; sometimes I envy Bess her freedom to do as she pleases, although of course I would not wish to be a widow. But I must lie; better that I am regarded as a supporter of the arts than a supporter of votes for women. Better I keep my face composed and my thoughts to myself. At least I can write it down and this diary, this paper and this ink can testify to what I dare not utter aloud: I believe that a woman should be allowed the vote in all elections, if she is of equivocal status to a man who is already allowed the vote according to the law of this land. I don’t think that is particularly radical. And yet, I know in my heart that H would disagree.

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 24th April 2010:

Don’t even know how I’ve got the energy to write anything in here right now. So exhausted. Last night was braw though. Sinead and Mhairi had it all planned out by the time I got to Mhairi’s – into town, drinks then a club then more drinks! All good fun and no boys to complicate things, either. Managed not to run into Callum which was a bonus. Been doing my head in since we split.

Turning 18 is the best! Although today I’m feeling it. Head is pounding. Back to bed for me soon, I think, before I go out for a family dinner. Bit quieter than last night but it’ll be good – Mum says Gran is coming too, which is nice. Gran always has a good story or two about when she was my age. Mum says I should make the most of her, that she’s getting on a bit now and her memory isn’t what it was. Glad I’m only 18, not 80. Better keep those sorts of comments to myself though, or Mum will be once again reminding me that I’m an adult now. Seriously, I’ve been 18 for less than 48 hours and I’ve already lost count of how many times she has said that to me. The best one was yesterday afternoon, when she decided to dump a load of election leaflets in my room. Came through the door, apparently. You can vote now, she tells me, as if I didn’t already know. Next election is in May – well, okay, I’ll admit that I didn’t know that. Why would I? Not like any of it means anything to me. I dunno. Maybe I’ll have a read later. After I’ve slept some more. So tired.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh,10th October 1909:

The day of the march started well, but ended terribly badly. I am so shaken that I can hardly manage to hold my pen to write this. Nor can I stop the tears tumbling down my cheeks, spilling on to the page and making the ink run, forming messy black pools as deep as my despair. I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t be surprised; I must have known that this day would come. Indeed, it is a miracle that I managed to keep this secret for so long. Yesterday, however, I took one step too far from the shadows, exposing my involvement for all to see. And H has his spies everywhere, of course, just as any successful man with a care for his reputation should. How foolish of me to think that I would not be seen! How dreadfully foolish.

The day which greeted us was still, sunny and bright; unusual for this time of year but wholly welcome. Bess and I joined the march at Princes Street, slipping through the crowds which had gathered and taking our places behind an enormous, beautifully embroidered banner declaring ‘Votes for Women’. As I walked I felt such pride at being part of something so important, to be making my stand for the right of women to vote on the same basis as men. I still believe that this cannot be too much to ask, that it cannot be so scandalous a notion! And yet it must, for when I returned home later a voice greeted me, one so grave that I thought for a moment that there must have been a death in the family. That evening there was a death, of sorts; the death of my spirit as it was crushed by the authority bestowed upon my husband’s sex. I was reminded at once of what it means to have no rights, no rights at all.

Today I am confined to my room like a reprimanded child. Bess is prohibited from visiting, H having satisfied himself that I have been led astray by a wicked widow whose lack of a husband has caused her descent into wild fanaticism. So I sit here, pressing my pen down hard as I write these words, my tears evaporating into anger at being robbed of those things that I hold dear: my cause, and my friend. The worst of it all is that I am punished so harshly for doing so little. I was a coward who went to a few meetings and walked in a procession. I broke no laws, smashed no property, set no fires. Now I sit and I wish that I had done, that I had given my all. Instead, yesterday was my final, feeble act; I dare not do anything else for our good cause ever again.

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 1st May 2010:

Not managed to scribble down a single thought this week. College work is just immense; two assessments and an essay to complete and no end in sight. At least it’s Saturday.

Mum is doing my head in about this voting thing! Keeps asking if I’ve read the leaflets yet, have I got any questions, do I want to chat about it…total nightmare! She even got Gran joining in at my birthday dinner last week. I think when she was younger my gran must have been a feminist – she came out with all this stuff about the fight for equality and women’s rights. Reckon that’s where Mum gets a lot of her ideas from, too. Honestly, I had both of them on my case. Women fought and died for your right to vote, Gran says to me, like I didn’t know, like I never went to school and learnt these things. So I told her, nicely of course because she’s my gran, that surely if they died for my right to vote, they died for my right not to vote, as well? Surely it’s the choice that matters? That shut them both up. Honestly, absolute nightmare.

Anyway, I did have a look at those leaflets. Can’t say that any of them were very inspiring. Even if I did want to vote, I’ve no idea who I would vote for. Still think my first instinct was correct – waste of time, so don’t bother.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 12th August 1914

It has been some time since I have written down my thoughts. In truth I have become very good at avoiding the practice of thinking as much as possible, letting life glide past me while I watch, a passive observer at the back of the crowd. It seemed easier that way; easier for H, easier for me.

Last week, however, everything changed. Britain is going to war, and it looks like H is going, too. He has to do his bit, so he tells me. He says that with so many men going away, it is likely that women will also have to help, that I must be prepared for some of the servants choosing to leave and taking whatever wartime work presents itself. Life will change, he keeps telling me, but it will only be for a little while. Everyone expects that the war will be over by Christmas.

I hope it is over quickly. I can’t bear the thought of being left alone in this house, especially with a baby on the way. I haven’t told H yet. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because I know he’ll be so happy with me, and I can’t bear his delight when I feel so unhappy with myself. I will tell him before he leaves.

The news of war has affected the cause, too. There will be no more marches, no more action; it has all ground to a halt. Part of me is relieved, I think. The reports over the last few months have been so upsetting, with more and more women finding themselves arrested and charged with increasingly dangerous acts. This summer one woman even tried to interrupt the King and Queen’s visit to Perth by running towards the royal car! They say that once in prison those women who refuse to eat are force-fed, and that Perth prison is one of the worst places for this practice. The very thought makes my stomach churn. At least this war has put an end to that, but on the other hand, where does this leave the cause? I hope it is not forgotten forever.  

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 6th May 2010:

Well, I went and I did it. Still can’t believe it. Until yesterday I was sure I wasn’t going to bother to vote. Must have read those leaflets hundreds of times – even went on the internet to try to decide who to vote for, and came away even more confused. Why can’t politics just be straightforward? Seems like riddles to me. Riddles and promises which aren’t kept.

Something about what my gran said kept bothering me, though. Kept hearing her voice going round and round in my head, talking about the suffragettes and everything. That made me think that not going at all seemed like a bit of a waste. So, I voted – well, sort of. I made my mark at least. Several marks, actually. I still didn’t know who to vote for, so I went to the polling station and I put a zero in each of the boxes – a series of noughts all in a column down the page. Then I put my paper in the ballot box and left. I know it doesn’t count as a vote, but I’ve been and I’ve had my say anyway. That’s what women fought for, after all – the right to a voice, not to say any particular thing with it.

Mum’s just glad I went and voted. I haven’t told her the full story, of course. Keep thinking about the power of the pen now. Started off thinking that my noughts were just symbols of my cluelessness but now they feel like a protest – my protest against how rubbish I think it all is, carved out in ink. Weird thought. Still not telling Mum though.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 14th December 1918

Tonight my heart is so full of joy that I think it might burst. Even the sorrows and horrors of the last four years cannot dampen my happiness. All that hard work and strife, all that bravery and determination; it was all worth it.

I voted today. Such wonderful words! I voted. I went with Bess; we’re both on our own now, reunited since she returned from her Land Army work. She has changed a great deal; she is so worldly-wise, and so strong! But she is still such a dear friend. Little Edith came too, wrapped up warm as she skipped along to the polling place. I showed her what to do, how to put a cross against your chosen candidate and how to put your paper in the ballot box. She didn’t really understand, despite my efforts to explain how important it was. But she will understand one day. She will understand what I, what all of us did for our daughters, how significant that little mark made in ink actually is.

On my way home I thought about H, just as I do every day. It’s hard, knowing that he will never come home, that he will never see Edith grow up. I know that he was never in favour of votes for women, but I like to think that he was watching as I voted, that he was proud of me. I thought too about all the women who weren’t able to vote today. There is still more to do in that regard, especially since all men now have the vote. All men – I wonder what H would say about that! It’s strange how this war threw everything up into the air and we are still grappling around, trying to gather the pieces. H was right; life did change, and I feel certain that it will keep changing. Perhaps by the time Edith votes, all women will be voting alongside her! I can’t think of anything more wonderful.  

The Other Pendle Witch Trial

August 18th 2018 marked the 406th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials at Lancaster Castle in 1612. It is an anniversary which always causes me to pause, and one which I never forget. Growing up in Lancashire, I was captivated from a young age by tales of the Pendle witches. For a child there is, after all, something irresistibly and gruesomely fascinating about the likes of Old Demdike and Chattox doing their worst with magical misdeeds before meeting their own horrible fate. As I got older my interest developed into something altogether more academic, with a dissertation on the subject for my undergraduate degree at Lancaster University and, of course, several works of historical fiction since then! Over the years, the Pendle witches have been a big part of my intellectual and creative life.

Although perhaps not as widely known internationally as other later trials, notably those which occurred in Salem in 1692/3, there is no doubt in my mind that across the breadth of English history the 1612 trials have grown in stature and notoriety over the years. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that 1612 has become the stuff of legend, or that it contributes enormously to the cultural and artistic life of the north of England, and of course to tourism and the economy. This activity and interest in the trials reached fever pitch in 2012 for the fourth centenary, with commemorative activities, events, sculptures and new works of literature and scholarship on the subject, and such activities have continued ever since; for example, this year there was a family weekend of events at Lancaster Castle.

What is less well-known, however, is that a second round of witch trials occurred in Pendle in 1634. In late 1633, a boy named Edmund Robinson gained local fame and notoriety as a witch-finder. It seems that upon returning home later than expected one day in early November, he told his father a tale;  a story of his abduction by witches, of women turning into animals and of a great, unholy Sabbath. The story quickly spread around the local area and the boy became something of a celebrity. Edmund’s father, perhaps sensing there was fame and fortune to be found in such a reputation, began charging people to see his son’s ‘performances’ and taking him on a tour of the local churches.

It was only a matter of time, of course, before a story of this magnitude reached the local Justices of the Peace and in February 1634, young Edmund finally told the story to the authorities. As part of his deposition, Edmund gave a considerable list of local people who he claimed had been involved in his fantastical tale.

One of the names which appeared on Edmund’s list was that of Jennet Device.

We don’t know for certain, of course, if this Jennet Device was the same Jennet who had been the star witness of the 1612 trials; however, to imagine that it might have been is truly the stuff of stories. My second Witches of Pendle novel, A Woman Named Sellers, is a story woven on the supposition that it was the same Jennet, that in 1634 events in Pendle came full circle, that the witness became the accused.

As in 1612 the accused, including Jennet, were found guilty at the Lancaster Assizes. However, in a move which signaled how times were beginning to change, the judges deferred sentencing to seek further advice from the authorities in London. The Privy Council duly dispatched the Bishop of Chester to undertake a further investigation into the case. They also requested a number of the accused be sent to London for further examination. Four women were sent on the long journey south, where they were subjected to a physical examination by the king’s physician, further questioning, and an interview with King Charles I himself. We can only imagine how utterly terrifying and bewildering that experience must have been.

The Privy Council’s intervention led to the 1634 case falling apart, with the authorities ultimately finding that the story was a fabrication exploited for financial gain and ordering the arrest and imprisonment of Edmund Robinson’s father as a result. The accused were all acquitted, allegedly pardoned by their monarch, and their four representatives were sent home to Lancashire. However, the ending of the story is not a happy one: despite the acquittal many remained in prison, probably as a result of being unable to pay the debts they had accrued after so many months of being unjustly detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.

The tragedy of the 1634 case is that whilst the changing attitudes of the London authorities were able to prevent this tale ending at the gallows, the accused were nonetheless undone by poverty and powerlessness, by being at the bottom of the social heap and by being without the means to free themselves from a justice system which was always stacked against them. It may be less well-known that its 1612 counterpart, but in many ways the story of the 1634 trials is no less poignant. I hope that when the fourth centenary comes around in sixteen years’ time, the other Pendle witch trials will be given the recognition they deserve.

More information about my second Witches of Pendle novel, A Woman Named Sellers, which focuses on the 1634 trials, can be found here

 

A Significant Day

On this day four years ago, Scotland went to the polls to vote in a referendum on its independence and, by a majority of 55% to 45%, decided to remain in the United Kingdom.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, the details of which I won’t get into in this post (this isn’t a politics blog, after all). Nonetheless, I wanted to post something today which reflects on this significant date for a moment. For someone who campaigned heart and soul for something which they believed in (and still believe in), but ultimately fell short in achieving, today is a weird sort of day. Quiet, reflective, moderately restless – that’s how I’d describe September 18th for me now. Which is a long way from the shock, the tears and the grief of those early days following the vote. Time is, after all, an odd sort of medicine.

I have written previously in my blog post The Safe Space about my own referendum experiences and how they ultimately moved me to write my third novel, Ethersay. Ethersay is my first (and to date only) contemporary novel. In many ways, it is different to my other books – different genre, entirely different subject matter. But it is also in keeping with what I like to write about – ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary times.

Academically, intellectually and creatively, I have always been fascinated by thinkers and ideas, by movements and counter-movements, by challenges to the social/political status quo of any era, by rebels, radicals and philosophers. As a student I always gravitated towards subjects which could satisfy these interests – renaissance and enlightenment, political philosophy, witchcraft theory, to name a few.

However, of equal interest for me are the emotional and psychological effects of the great stories of the ages – as a writer, I am attracted to the human tales which are always tucked away, obscured by the headlines or the history books but waiting to be discovered or re-imagined. My first novel, The Gisburn Witch, is essentially about recreating the life story of a name – Jennet Preston. It is about lifting her from the pages of history and making her flesh and blood, giving life to her hopes and desires, her fears and disappointments. It is about filling the gaps which history, for the most part, cannot address – as a writer, I wanted to get to the crux of what this ordinary person, Jennet Preston, went through, and what it was like for her to be caught up in such turbulent times. My motivation was exactly the same for the other Jennet, Jennet Device/Sellers, and my other two Witches of Pendle novels, A Woman Named Sellers and The Pendle Witch Girl.

When it came to writing Ethersay, my motivation was similar too. I really wanted to explore the impact of that momentous, exciting, watershed moment in Scotland’s history on ordinary lives. Unlike my Witches of Pendle novels, however, the subject matter was a couple of years ago, not four hundred; it was much more immediate, personal even. That’s not to say that Ethersay is biographical (it’s not), but I had lived and breathed this period of time myself, I had known what it was like to hope and to strive, to lose and to lament. As the old adage goes, it’s best to write what you know, and in terms of first-hand experience, there probably isn’t a time I know better.

So for me today is about reflecting on that time, about remembering and undoubtedly, about wishing things were different and knowing what I’ll do next time the opportunity comes around! Something tells me I won’t have too long to wait.

The Pendle Witch Girl is Live!!

Today is release day for The Pendle Witch Girl. I am delighted to publish the third installment in my Witches of Pendle series and to share with you my re-imagining of young Jennet Device’s fascinating and tragic story.

What was it like, to grow up in a world of spells and curses, of magic and misdeeds?

What was it like, to believe that your family was capable of the most wicked acts?

What was it like, to be a girl caught up in one of the most notorious witch trials in English history?

Delve into this Witches of Pendle novella and find out! The Pendle Witch Girl is available now, e-book £1.99 and paperback £5.99, from Amazon / iTunes / Barnes & Noble / Smashwords / Kobo

And if you’ve not read the first book yet, The Gisburn Witch e-book is available for just 99p / 99c. This is a special offer for release week only, and will run until 24th August 2018. So don’t miss out! Grab a copy now from Amazon / iTunes / Barnes & Noble / Smashwords / Kobo