In today’s spotlight is my third novel, and first contemporary story, Ethersay, which was published in 2017. For me this novel marked a real shift in my creativity, as I went from re-imagining times and people long past, to crafting a story about modern characters who were entirely my own invention.
In 2016, around the time I was finishing A Woman Named Sellers, I had a really strange dream about a woman waking up on a beach with no recollection of what happened or how she got there. This, it turned out, was the seed of an idea which became Ethersay. After a lot of thought, I decided to set part of the narrative during the independence referendum here in Scotland in 2014 – a momentous, exciting time which provided my protagonist with just the right amount of upheaval and drama to propel her story along.
Of all my books, Ethersay is probably the hardest to describe or place in any sort of category. On one level it is about political activism, but that really isn’t the whole story – it’s also a mystery, with some strange twists and turns, and with plenty of suspense. If I had to describe it in one sentence, I’d say that ultimately it’s about a young woman having to face up to her past and its consequences.
Ethersay is also my only novel to have a book trailer. I worked with the very talented Stewart Kerr Brown of The Imagination Engine to create this film, which stars Jodi Findlay. We had an absolute ball filming this in Fife, Scotland.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about how my experiences during the referendum inspired this novel.
You can find out more about Ethersay and where to buy it here.
Last week I started a series of ‘spotlight’ posts, focusing on each of my novels in the order I wrote them, and talking a little about their subjects and themes, what inspired me to write them, and so on. In today’s spotlight it’s my second novel, and the second book in the Witches of Pendle trilogy, A Woman Named Sellers.
Published in 2016, A Woman Named Sellers picks up the Pendle witches’ story twenty years after the first trials. It follows the story of former trial child witness Jennet Device, now living as Jennet Sellers. Following the death of her father, Jennet moves to a new village to live with relatives she hardly knows. She tries hard to carve out a new life for herself, and finds solace in new friendships, particularly with her fellow newcomer William Braithwaite, a stonemason from Cumberland. However, Jennet’s past continues to haunt her, and with witch hunters once again prowling the Pendle countryside, she’s not sure if she can ever be safe.
After writing The Gisburn Witch, I really wanted to focus on the story of the other, arguably more famous Jennet in the Pendle witch tale. Originally I planned to cover her whole life story but realised that her childhood and adult tales were too lengthy and complex to put into one novel. So, I decided to focus instead on her adulthood and possible involvement in the 1634 trials. Due to some of the gaps and contradictions in the evidence, we can’t know for certain that the Jennet Device named in the 1634 trial records was the same as the Jennet Device of 1612, although, on balance, it seems likely. I was really captured by the notion that her tragic life probably did come full circle – from witness to accused.
When I was writing this book, I was also really interested in reflecting some of the changes going on in wider society in the 1630s. These were the years leading up to the civil wars, and society was changing – we can see that in the shifting attitudes to witch-hunting, but also in the religious landscape, with many new Christian groups emerging. One of the major characters in the book, William Braithwaite, is a Grindletonian, a sect which sprang up in the northern village of Grindleton during these years. Groups like the Grindletonians were really very radical, placing emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God, rejecting the need to be ordained to preach, and believing that accepting God’s spirit was all that was required to attain salvation. William is one of the few fictional characters in the story, and to this day he remains one of my favourites. Some readers have also commented on how much they liked him, and a few have even asked if I’d consider writing a spin-off about him!
The 1634 trials are less well known that those in 1612, which is a shame as they are fascinating in their own right. Indeed, the echoes of 1612 are all there – child witnesses, tensions between neighbours, outlandish accusations, and the persistence of witch-hunting zeal in the north of the country. The results, however, were somewhat different from 1612. You can read more about the 1634 trials and Jennet’s possible involvement here.
More information about A Woman Named Sellers, including where to buy, is available here.
As the year tumbles towards its conclusion, I’ve found myself in a reflective mood. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot to reflect on this year, and not a whole lot of it has been good! However, in recent weeks I have been staying positive (mostly) and busy, working on the first draft of my next novel, and really enjoying the experience of delving into a different world which writing it affords. After all, 2020 could not be a better excuse for a little escapism, could it?
I’ve also found myself looking back on the books I’ve written and the things I’ve achieved so far. It is good to take stock once in a while, to look at your work and to think ‘wow, I did that’. I began writing my first novel in 2014, published it in 2015 and I haven’t really stopped since. As it is almost the end of another year, I thought it would be fun to shine a spotlight on my books in the order I wrote them, and say a little bit about them – what they’re about, what inspired me to write them, and so on.
So, in today’s spotlight is my debut novel, The Gisburn Witch.
Published in 2015, The Gisburn Witch is a historical fiction novel which tells the story of Jennet Preston, one of the so-called Pendle witches, who found herself caught up in the trials in Lancashire in 1612. I’d always had an interest in the Pendle witch trials, and wrote my university dissertation on the subject. Jennet had particularly drawn my interest as she was geographically separate from the other accused, living in Gisburn in the Yorkshire/Lancashire borderlands. She was tried separately, too, in York rather than Lancaster. I really wanted to dig deep into Jennet’s story, to understand how she ended up being accused of witchcraft. The Gisburn Witch is my imagining of that story.
In 2016, I wrote an article for Edinburgh University’s Dangerous Women Project, all about Jennet and the other ‘witches’ and some of the aspects of their lives and stories which made them vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. You can find it here.
You can find out more about The Gisburn Witch and where you can get a copy here.
Next time in the spotlight will be my second novel, and the second book in the Witches of Pendle series, A Woman Named Sellers.
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.
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.***
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
‘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.’
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.
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!
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.