Tag Archives: historical fiction

Picking Roses: A Story of Elizabeth Ollive Paine

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

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

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

Picking Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Currently Querying

It’s Hump Day once again, and I’m spending today taking stock of where I am with my next book, as well as starting to think about the second one in the series. Before I do any of that, though, I thought I would check in with a quick update on what I’ve been up to.

Holidays…

It’s that time of year, isn’t it? July just flew by for me, as I spent quite a lot of it on holiday in the very lovely Shetland isles. We visited many of its islands, did plenty of walking, and had a fair few picnics on the beach! In short, it was amazing.

Watching the birds at Hermaness Nature Reserve on the Isle of Unst

Writing…

After rounds of editing, my forthcoming novel is now out on submission to literary agents and publishers, and I’m patiently waiting for replies. I know I haven’t said a great deal about this novel (other than dropping a few hints here) but I hope to be able to reveal much more soon. For now, I can say that it’s historical fiction, set in late Georgian Edinburgh, with a mystery at its heart.

Other than my novel, I have put a couple of shorter pieces out on submission to magazine and online publications, and I’m awaiting news on those too. I’m also looking ahead to the second installment of my Georgian mystery series – I have so many ideas and threads to pick up from the first story, but I need to do some work to shape it all into a plot. I feel a trip into Edinburgh coming on, too, to help me ground myself in the story’s setting. That wasn’t possible for the first novel because of lockdown restrictions, so I will really appreciate being able to do that this time.

Reading…

I have been doing so much reading this summer! In fact, last night I stayed up far too late to finish Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister, and it was so, so good. If you love Pride and Prejudice then you will love this – it’s the story of Mary Bennet, the quieter, bookish sister who is always on the periphery of Jane Austen’s novel. Recently I also read Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, which I similarly adored. Told from the point of view of Jane’s sister Cassandra, this is a novel about family stories and who gets to tell them. I was utterly spellbound from start to finish.

I have occasionally left the nineteenth century behind, however, and picked up some more modern reads. On holiday I enjoyed a couple of the very fabulous Tracy Broemmer’s contemporary romances, Hookin’ Up and Gettin’ Hitched from The H Books series.

My recent reads

What’s Next?

In short, a lot of waiting around! It’ll probably be well into the autumn before I know the outcome of my novel submissions. However, I plan to use the time well, working on the next book as well as doing some work on my short stories with a view to pulling together a collection. Oh, and I’m also going to do a lot of reading, and hope I’ll manage to post some reviews here, if time allows.

Hopefully I will have more news about my next book soon, so in the meantime, watch this space…

Book Review: Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

WHEN Esther Thorel, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.

Inside the Thorels’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

It is silk that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she strikes up a relationship with one of the journeyman weavers in her attic who teaches her to weave and unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household.

It was the cover which first drew me to this book; bold and eye-catching, much like Esther Thorel’s silk designs which are described in the novel. This is an intriguing debut, set in mid-eighteenth century Spitalfields, and centred on the lives of two women who, for all their many differences, are set to see their fates intertwine. The context of the story really grabbed my attention, and Velton paints a vivid picture of life in the Huguenot weaving community and particularly the strife between masters and journeymen, which was inspired by real events. I like stories which teach me something, and there was definitely much to be learned here.

Velton’s characters are well-drawn, although I have to say that I found many of them unlikable, including, at times, the two female protagonists. However, as a reader who appreciates a story about flawed characters, this was not a negative for me, even if I did wince at some of the things they said and did, particularly to and regarding each other. The interesting aspect of this was that despite my misgivings about Sara and Esther, I found myself cheering them on. Neither woman was inherently bad, she was just fallible – as, indeed, we all are. Written as a first person narrative, the story used chapter breaks to alternate between each woman’s point of view; a structural choice which was as neat as it was compelling, allowing the reader to really draw close to what each woman felt as events unfolded.

In summary, this was a well-written debut, superbly grounded in the unforgiving context of mid-Georgian London. Five stars.

Studies in Wax

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

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

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

That moment looked something like this:

Madame Tussaud, from Wikimedia Commons.

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

I can’t wait for you all to read it.

It’s World Book Day!

Happy World Book Day 2021! Normally this is a day when kids dress up as their favourite book characters and there’s lots of chat (and school work) about reading, about books we’ve enjoyed, about all that wonderful literature out there, both past and present. Of course, like everything else, this year’s looks a bit different. My children are still learning at home, so their World Book Day celebrations are on-screen, but they are enjoying themselves nonetheless. And nothing can stop us appreciating good books and swapping recommendations for great reads!

So, what are you reading? I’m currently reading Plus One by Tracy Broemmer. I just started it yesterday, but I’ve read a few of Tracy’s books now and have always enjoyed them. And it’s set in Californian wine country, which I can totally get on board with! It’s a contemporary romance, which is one of my favourite genres just now. With *everything* that’s currently going on, I find I need happily ever afters. Check out Plus One on Amazon here.

What better way to celebrate World Book Day than with a sale? I’m running a short sale on my debut novel, The Gisburn Witch. It is currently reduced to 99p / 99c for Kindle over on Amazon UK and US. So, if you haven’t read it yet and think you might enjoy some historical fiction, now is a good time to pick it up! Get your copy here.

Have a great World Book Day, everyone!

Spotlight Part 4: The Pendle Witch Girl

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

The Pendle Witch Girl cover

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

Release day promotional poster

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

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

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

Spotlight Part 2: A Woman Named Sellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight: The Gisburn Witch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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