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.

Book Review: The Cold, Black Sea by Campbell Hart

There’s something rotten at the heart of the Balfour family. These three stories highlight the darker side of a shared history, told through the voices of different generations.

The Sniper: as the bloodiest battle of WW1 rages all around them, three friends find themselves facing a phantom sniper deep in no-man’s land. Set against the horror of the Somme one thing is certain: you never see the shots, and the marksman never misses.

The Rocking Stone: the vengeful spirit of the Lady of Threepwood stalks Cuff Hill, bringing death to those who catch her eye. When a black metal box is unearthed in an ancient grave, a young girl’s life is transformed. Only the Rocking Stone holds the answers, with the truth found in the ancient fire cast out from the otherworld.

The Cold, Black Sea: A dying woman returns home for the final time, but with her judgement clouded by visions of the past and present, nothing is quite as it seems. As she tries to lay her demons to rest she’s dogged by a journalist determined to uncover a terrible secret.

There’s no escape from the cold, black sea.

The Cold, Black Sea is the latest release from Scottish noir author Campbell Hart. It comprises a trio of ghost stories, all linked by their connection to one family through a number of generations. I had previously read The Sniper and The Rocking Stone when they were published individually, and it was very satisfying to see them brought together with The Cold, Black Sea, a story which packs a considerable punch in rounding off the tragic tales of the Balfours.

The Sniper is a strikingly original ghost story, set on the battlefields of the Somme during the First World War. It is a disorientating read, told from the perspectives of three different young men from Glasgow as they grapple with ghostly sightings on the western front. Hart deploys fragmented, multiple first person narratives to great effect, drawing the reader into a gruesome hellscape in which it is often unclear what is real and what is imagined. Herein lies the story’s magic, and when the mist clears at the conclusion, the sense of futility and tragedy is palpable.

If The Sniper draws upon the horrors of relatively recent history, The Rocking Stone reaches out to the magic of the ancient past. It is a story of spells and curses, of old druid legends and the price paid by those who get caught up in them. Using multiple first person points of view, Hart weaves a richly descriptive and creepy tale with an unexpected twist. The protagonists are members of the Balfour family, and are relatives of one of the young soldiers in the first story. By the end of this second story, there is a growing sense that this particular family is cursed.

The concluding story, The Cold, Black Sea, is a masterful piece of noir storytelling. Haunted by the past, a present day Balfour seeks to lay ghosts to rest while confronting her own impending demise. Again Hart deploys a fragmented, multi-perspective narrative to great effect, leaving the reader with a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right. And, of course, it isn’t: the fates of the previous generations hang heavy over the protagonist, but so do her own secrets. When all is revealed at the conclusion it is breathtakingly dark, and for fans of this genre, enormously satisfying.

A highly recommended collection, perfect for Halloween. Five Stars. Get your copy here.

***I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.***

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.

Travels, and trying

This year, a lot of things haven’t gone to plan. I know that’s the case for most people – there were things we were meant to do which didn’t happen, and things we ended up doing which we could have never foreseen. It’s an understatement to say that 2020 has been quite some year – for me, like so many others, it’s been filled with disruption, worries, cancelled plans, and a pervasive sense that I’ve lost control over my daily life.

And yet, it hasn’t been all bad.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to go on holiday for a week. It wasn’t the holiday we’d planned – that was an east Med cruise, booked for July and cancelled by Covid. However, it was a holiday which has always been on our ‘to do’ list, and with tourism in Scotland reopening, we jumped at the chance to get away and visit the islands of Mull, Iona, Staffa, and Lunga. I am so glad we did – it was a week of breathtaking scenery, fresh air, plenty of walking and lots of wildlife.

Kilvickeon Beach, Isle of Mull

That’s not to say everything felt entirely normal, and the holiday didn’t always go completely to plan – a reminder, perhaps, that the pandemic casts a long shadow and it isn’t going to fade any time soon. Indeed, I learnt a number of things last week. One was that, as someone who in ordinary times finds busy and/or unfamiliar public places anxiety-inducing, I find the mask/sanitiser/social distancing/one way system merry-go-rounds quite exhausting. A second thing was that, after so many months of having their activities and interactions limited, my children are far less resilient against the disappointment of a locked-up playground than they once were. And a third thing was that catching your face-mask on your cartilage piercing will result in a slightly ripped and very sore ear.

Every day is a school day. Even when school has been shut since March.

Aros Park, Isle of Mull

So, now I’m home and it’s time to settle back down into some sort of regular routine for however long that may last. School starts again next week, as does work, and I have a book to finish researching and start writing. Lots to try and do. For today I thought I’d leave you with a final thing I learnt on my holidays, which is that I really like Taylor Swift’s new album. Not my usual taste in music, but it is very good, and I like this song in particular. In fact, I think it could become my anthem for 2020. After all, despite the pandemonium this year has brought, as the song goes – at least I’m trying.

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.

Crazy Times and Costume Dramas

‘Mummy,’ my daughter said to me this morning, ‘can you tell me about Henry VIII’s wives?’ She was just up, and had had her nose buried in one of Lucy Worsley’s historical novels for younger readers (which are brilliant, by the way).

‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘Any wife in particular?’

She thought about it for a moment. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Really just all of them.’

Left to right: Henry’s first three wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This thirst for historical knowledge has been a lockdown development, and one which makes me so happy. I can’t describe my joy at having another history enthusiast under our roof! Before I go any further, a wee disclaimer: this blog post is a positive one, but that is not to say that this whole experience has been great for us as a family. I want to stress that it hasn’t; sure, we’ve had nice moments, but all of us in our own way are sore at the loss of many aspects of our lives. I want to say that because it’s true and I think it’s important to be truthful during this. It is too easy to gloss over our lives on the internet, to show only the shiny bits. But I know that doing so can make others feel worse about their own experiences which might not be so shiny, and I wouldn’t want to do that. So, if you’re reading this and not feeling great right now, know that you’re not on your own. I think this is a crazy, worrying, up-and-down time for many.

Hopefully today’s blog post will be a cheerful read. Over these past few weeks, since our evenings have no longer been crammed with activities, my daughter and I have been on a historical or ‘costume’ drama adventure together. Historical dramas have always been an enthusiasm of mine, and I was more than happy to revisit them with her. If you’ve never watched any, I highly recommend that you do, especially at the moment. They are wonderful pieces of escapism and there is virtually always a happy ending. In fact, the other day a friend drew my attention to an article in The Guardian which showed I wasn’t alone in rekindling my enthusiasm. Right now many of us, it seems, are seeking solace in romances set in centuries past.

Close-up photo of Jane Austen books, by Leah Kelley. Source: Pexels.com.

Together my daughter and I have worked our way through the Jane Austen catalogue: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Pride & Prejudice, and Emma, with Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion still patiently awaiting us. We’ve also ventured a little further into the nineteenth century with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Of them all, so far Pride & Prejudice has been a firm favourite – I suspect, in part, because of the minimal amounts of kissing. Ten year olds hate kissing, apparently. She also felt that Jane Eyre had the happiest ending simply because of the all the hardships she had overcome. A refreshing take on things, indeed!

These dramas have prompted some great discussions along the way. North & South, for example, led to a conversation about conditions in the mills and the tensions between the workers and their employers. After watching Jane Eyre, we talked about the bildungsroman genre and the Byronic hero. And after so much Jane Austen, my girl is becoming an expert on Regency society and behaviours!

An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It hasn’t been an easy time, but these evenings spent indulging in historical dramas have given us something to smile about. And, I think, they’ve taught my daughter a great deal. If, in years to come, she becomes either a historian or literature scholar, I think in a strange way we will have the lockdown period to thank for it. Crazy times, indeed.

Lockdown Life

Happy Easter, folks! It’s a bit of a strange one this year, but life has been pretty strange for several weeks now. I hope you’re all staying well and sane during this unsettling time. I thought I’d check in with a few updates from lockdown life…

The House at Kirtlebeck End Offer

Like a lot of people, I will be getting through this period with the help of good books. More time at home does, after all, mean more reading time – at least, that’s the theory. With this in mind I decided to reduce the Kindle price of my newest release, The House at Kirtlebeck End, to 99p / 99c on Amazon UK and US. Head over here to get your copy.

Writing in Retreat

Over the past few days I’ve seen lots of ads online for virtual writers’ retreats. What a wonderful idea! Sadly I’m finding that this lockdown life does not agree with my creativity. Between homeschooling my kids, managing my own day job and generally adjusting to the bustle of a 24/7 full house, I’m not stringing many sentences together just now. I’ve got my final Creative Writing assignment due at the end of the month, so I am trying very hard to ‘freewrite’ my way to inspiration. Unfortunately, everything I write seems to wind back to this horrible situation we’re in which, frankly, is the last thing I want to write about.

Books, Music & Walks

Fortunately, there are those daily glimmers of light which keep me going. I am reading, and have read, some great books. My last excellent read was The Year without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd. Set in 1816 during the summer which was blighted by the Mount Tambora volcanic eruption, the novel features the compelling and hard-hitting stories of a handful of characters and how their lives were affected. The scope of the story is impressive, spanning many lives and a number of continents.

I’m now reading Tombland, the latest Shardlake novel by CJ Sansom. Running at over 800 pages it is an absolute tome, so I may or may not finish it before this lockdown ends! Away from novels I’m also making an effort to read more modern poetry, and have recently picked up a copy of the collection Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times. Pretty suitable reading just now, I’d say.

I’m grateful also for some wonderful new music which has arrived in 2020. I have three new albums on rotation just now: Myrkur’s Folksange, Delain’s Apocalypse and Chill, and Nightwish’s Human. :II: Nature. And when I’m not reading or listening to music, I’ve been making the most of the good weather and discovering new walks around my local area with my family. It’s amazing how in the bustle of everyday life we often overlook those things which are right under our noses. If anything good comes from this, it’s that I’ve gained an appreciation of how much nature there is, right there on my doorstep.

Best wishes and Easter blessings to you all. Stay safe!

Somewhere in Between

Today I’m delighted to share my short story, Somewhere in Between, which has been published in issue 1 of Gutter Voices. Gutter Voices is a brand new online literary magazine showcasing some great writing, so please do check it out here!

In Somewhere in Between an elderly woman reflects on a diminished world in this tale about love and the power of memory. I really hope you enjoy it – please feel free to leave a comment below.



A Message from the Former Rulers of Planet Earth

Hi folks! It’s been a busy time, and today I’ve got a couple of things to share with you. The first is the news that one of my short stories will be published in issue one of Gutter Voices, a new literary magazine. The magazine launches on 15th March, and I will share the story with you then!

The second is a poem. Recently I completed the poetry section of my creative writing course, and thought that today I would share a poem I wrote during those weeks of study. I found that a lot of what I wrote revolved around the natural world and, in particular, climate change. I also wrote quite a few poems in the voice of various animals. This poem came to me whilst sitting in traffic one morning, watching some magpies swooping around a nearby field. I hope you enjoy it.

Message from the Former Rulers of Planet Earth

I see you.
Stuck, stationery in your metal box.
Those lights are dazzling
but I see you,
row upon row of you,
and yet you call us flocks.

Did you know, we used to be bigger?
All fearsome faces
and tyranny and teeth.
The earth you line up on
was our dominion
until the fires came.

Now I see you:
your smoke, your flames,
the liminal space you occupy
but are too blinded to see.
I see your metal boxes in the sky
and I wonder when you’ll grow wings.

Perhaps never.
Perhaps you’ll stay tethered
like the biggest of us;
those most ferocious,
now fossils
pressed down into dust.