The Lines of Torres Vedras – Day One

Wellington’s HQ in Pere Negro, the Lines of Torres Vedras

Paul and Anne van Daan arrive at the Lines of Torres Vedras at the beginning of An Irregular Regiment, Book 2 in the Peninsular War Saga.

“Johnny reminded me how young you were,” Paul said quietly, reaching for her hand. “And as I heard myself say it, I realised that he might have a point. That at twenty you should be thinking about parties and fashion and jewellery and all the things that I should be able to give you.  I’m taking you on a tour of redoubts and blockhouses instead of riding in the row and introducing you to George Brummell and the Prince of Wales.”
Anne began to laugh. “Should I like either of them?”

An Irregular Regiment

The redoubts and blockhouses referred to in the above quote were features of the lines of Torres Vedras, the extraordinary system of fortifications built by Lord Wellington to stop the French invading Lisbon in 1810.

It rained for two days in Torres Vedras when we were there.

It felt appropriate somehow.  In  An Irregular Regiment, the 110th Infantry arrives at Pero Negro on the lines of Torres Vedras in torrential rain. They weren’t as fortunate as we are, with a car and a comfortable hotel to come to, but then the  Anglo-Portuguese army wasn’t used to luxury.

The weather on our first day was gorgeous, particularly later in the day. We drove out of Lisbon and found our hotel in Torres Vedras fairly easily although finding the car park proved more of a challenge. Torres Vedras is a lovely little town with cobbled streets. The Stay Hotel is in the centre, opposite the monument to the Peninsular War and I felt ridiculously happy to see it. Somehow it made it real.

Cobbled Street in Torres Vedras

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We had lunch at a restaurant close by. Tapas at ‘Taberna 22′ was a delight with friendly staff and great food at reasonable prices.

The Lines of Torres Vedras were lines of fortifications built in secrecy on the orders of Lord Wellington to defend Lisbon during the Peninsular War. They were named after the local town and constructed by Colonel Richard Fletcher using Portuguese workers between November 1809 and September 1810. The lines stopped Massena’s invasion force dead when he arrived there and were so effective that the full system of fortifications was not completed as they were never needed.  The French never got beyond the first line.

After lunch we drove out to the little town of Sobral which was the scene of a battle in October 1810 when the French army led by Marshal André Masséna arrived at the Lines of Torres Vedras.

Marshal Junot’s VIII Corps was engaged in the fighting over two days. On 13 October, the French drove back the skirmish line of Lowry Cole’s 4th Infantry Division. The following day, Junot’s troops seized an outpost belonging to Brent Spencer’s 1st Infantry Division, but were quickly ejected from the position by a British counterattack. Masséna soon decided that Wellington’s defensive lines were too strong to crack and elected to wait for reinforcements.

I had seen paintings of the combat in the town of Sobral but it was a strange experience to get out of the car in the square opposite the heritage centre and be able to recognise the buildings depicted in the battle scene which are still there. The heritage centre is small but the displays are very good and tablets are available with an English translation. We also bought an excellent little book about the lines which includes maps, suggested tours and a huge amount of detailed information about the forts and defences and how they worked.

Sobral, scene of the battle in 1810

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Armed with this, we drove in the early evening up to Fort Alqueidao, one of the most important forts on the lines and the location of Wellington’s advance command post. Wellington would frequently visit the fort on horseback, riding up from his headquarters in Pere Negro or from the main signal station at Senhora do Socorro.

It was a beautiful evening and the perfect time to be up at the fort. The views were stunning and the light perfect for photography, I am assured by my resident expert. I was particularly taken with the section of Wellington’s military road which has been preserved. For some reason, reading and writing about his road building in Portugal, I had not really taken on board just how solid some of these roads must have been. Or how uncomfortable, for a wounded man being thrown around in an ox wagon.

Fort Alqueidão.

Dinner in the evening was at another excellent restaurant in Torres Vedras, Restaurante Patanisca. Once again the food was superb, the service very friendly and there was a real local atmosphere to the place. We also discovered that we like the local wine…something else I apparently have in common with Lord Wellington.

Despite the rain we were out on a tour of the lines again the following day although I suspect we were rather more dry and comfortable than Paul and his regiment arriving at the lines after the battle of Bussaco in 1810 in driving rain and heavy mud.

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The Reluctant Debutante – A Regency Romance – Coming Soon

The Reluctant Debutante

My next book to be published, ‘The Reluctant Debutante’ was originally aimed at the Mills and Boon market.  A number of people in the publishing world who had said fairly complimentary things about what they’d seen of my writing had urged me to try to make my books more marketable by aiming them at a specific market, and Mills and Boon were one of the places suggested, notably by the readers on the amazing Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Scheme.

I took a long, hard look at the Mills and Boon historical fiction line and read a fair few of them before I decided to make the attempt.  I will be completely frank when I say I hadn’t read a Mills and Boon since I was a teenager, and I’d always assumed that I’d grown out of them, but I have to say I did them an injustice.  The point about Mills and Boon is that although they have the reputation of writing to a formula, actually there’s a huge variety of styles and published authors, some of whom I quite liked and others not so much.  There are very definite conventions about the structure of the books and what is and is not considered a good idea.  When I decided to take advice and try to write a Mills and Boon historical, I did a lot of research into this.

My first two attempts were complete failures.  I had already written ‘A Respectable Woman’ and A Marcher Lord’, and I tried hard to adapt both of these to fit the Mills and Boon requirements, but it became fairly clear early on that I wasn’t going to manage it.  ‘A Marcher Lord’ is very much a historical novel, set in a specific place and time.  There is a lot going on which is crucial to the plot and try as I might I could not adapt it enough.  ‘A Respectable Woman’ seemed like a better prospect, but I ran into difficulties immediately because I was told that it was important for the hero and heroine to meet early on in the book and then to spend most of the rest of the novel either in each other’s company or at least thinking and talking about each other.  It’s fair enough.  Mills and Boon readers have come looking for love, and that’s what they expect to get.

My problem was that both my heroes and heroines flatly refused to cooperate.  Jenny was better behaved in terms of showing up and being in the right place to fall in love with Will, but he was completely uncooperative and cleared off to fight a war almost immediately.  It probably wasn’t his fault because the English had just invaded, but it rather left the poor girl hanging about, and far from waiting eagerly for his return, the wretched girl was still dreaming of the man she left behind her.  That was a complete disaster in terms of Mills and Boon, by the way.  They were not happy about Jenny’s adolescent crush and needed him gone.  I did try, but it immediately took out a huge chunk of my plot, and that left me stranded.

Philippa and Kit were even worse.  They barely met for five minutes before taking off at speed to do other things.  He went off to fight the Crimean War: soldiers are completely unreliable when it comes to location, by the way, the only way you can keep them in one place is to injure them.  As for Philippa, not only did she put herself firmly beyond the pale by killing a man – in self defence, admittedly, but it’s still not okay for a Mills and Boon heroine, I’m told – but she then took herself off and got a job, and not a particularly glamorous one.  Once again, I did my best to make the necessary changes, and I think I could have got Kit under control, but Philippa was having none of it.  I either had to change her behaviour so much that she turned into a different person, or I needed to think again.

Out of this frustrating process, was born ‘The Reluctant Debutante’.  I grew up reading Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Jane Aiken Hodge books and I loved them, so when I decided to try a Mills and Boon historical from scratch, the Regency was the first period that came to mind.  The stylised tradition of the genre would hopefully make it easier to keep my somewhat wayward characters under control, and I rather liked the idea of a bit of glamour and sparkle for a while after struggling with the blood and gore of sixteenth century battles and the slums of Victorian London.  I was very strict with my characters, I moved the action firmly to post-Waterloo London and gave Giles a very good reason to have sold out, and I gave Cordelia a fairly conventional background with no incentive to go taking off saving lives or earning a living.  This time, I thought I had cracked it.

Sadly not.  Once again, the novel came back with a selection of very complimentary remarks about style and characters, but it was not for Mills and Boon.  This time, although my characters were in the right place, doing roughly what they were supposed to be doing, it appeared that there was not enough conflict between them.  Reading between the lines, I think Cordelia was simply too down to earth and sensible.  I tried a few rewrites on this, but every plot device I came up with to heighten the sense of drama in this relationship was immediately shot down in flames by my alarmingly level-headed heroine, who raised a supercilious eyebrow and simply picked up a book.  It wasn’t happening and I put Cordelia and Giles sadly to one side and accepted that despite my huge admiration for the women and men who write for Mills and Boon, I’m simply not one of them.

Still, I admit I had a lot of fun trying and it was very good experience.  It made me practice sex scenes, since a lot of Mills and Boon books are very keen on those, and that’s been useful since.  It did make me think very seriously about the kind of books I write.  I wasn’t sure at the time if I would write another   Regency romance, but it did make me do a lot of research into the period and it reminded me how much I enjoyed it.

The Reluctant Debutante has changed a good deal since it’s first incarnation.  Once I realised that Giles had fought at Waterloo, and knowing the type of person he is, I felt very strongly that fighting under Colonel van Daan in the 110th would do him a great deal of good.  The Reluctant Debutante has proved my most popular book so far and from that has come my other

A Regrettable Reputation

Regency, A Regrettable Reputation, about another of Giles’ old Light Division comrades.  For those who have read neither of these, A Regrettable Reputation comes first in the series and there’s a cameo appearance from Giles.  Several of these characters also appear in the Peninsular War saga.

 

 

 

 

The Big Trip – the Portugal and Spain of An Unconventional Officer

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army

Only three days to go before I set off on my trip to Spain and Portugal where I’ll be researching the settings for the first of my Peninsular War novels, An Unconventional Officer and as usual I’m behind with everything.  No matter how well prepared I intend to be and how many lists and promises I make myself, I always end up rushing out of the door in a trail of chaos, vowing that next time I’ll be better organised.

This one ought to be easier.  For one thing, the man I married, who is coming with me as driver, photographer and entertainment, is working in London this week so had to do his packing ahead of time.  His chaos occurred on Sunday, but at least it wasn’t happening at the same time as mine, so for once we are likely to start this holiday on speaking terms.  If that works well, I think we’ll arrange to start all future trips from separate locations, it will be well worth it.

Secondly I am not leaving an empty house, so there is no rush to get dogs to kennels, bathrooms vaguely clean and bins emptied.  Of course I am leaving all this in the hands of my teenaged children, so whether or not I’ll have a house to come back to is something which will vaguely haunt me throughout the holiday.  I trust them not to host a drunken rave (or not a very big one anyway) and not to forget to feed the dogs (they’re labradors, you try forgetting a meal for them).  Whether or not laundry, cleaning or basic hygiene will be maintained is another matter, but I’ve decided that they have to learn some time.

My preparations have been somewhat delayed this time by a sudden and unexpected burst of activity in my Irish Dance school which has suddenly and accidentally become the most popular school in town.  I would like to say that this is the result of a carefully thought out publicity campaign but then I’d be lying to you.  It is more to do with St Patrick’s Day, a last minute press release and a new babies class starting after Easter which is apparently what the local community has been waiting for.  Whatever the reason, we’ve been flooded with enquiries, so when I come back I shall have a lovely little mountain of work to get through.  Still, having lengthy planning conversations with my teachers has been an excellent way to avoid any actual packing.

The trip is something of a working holiday for me.  I’m currently working on a series of books set during the Peninsular War and we are doing a tour of some of the sites and battlefields I’m writing about.  I feel unbelievably excited and also slightly apprehensive about how much rewriting I’ll need to do once I’ve actually been there and seen places like Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo.

The first book in the series, which I aim to bring out in May, is called “An Unconventional Officer” and is the story of Paul van Daan, a young officer who joins the fictional 110th Infantry in 1802 and sails to India to fight the Maratha under General Arthur Wellesley, a relatively young and inexperienced commander with a reputation to make.

Over the course of the book, Paul develops a talent for command alongside a somewhat unusual approach to the hierarchical army of the early nineteenth century.  The book charts his development as an officer alongside his friends and enemies in the army and his relationships with the women in his life: Nell whom he saves from her drunken husband; Rowena, the gentle girl he seduces and then marries and Anne Howard, an unconventional young woman who turns his world upside down.

I love weaving historical fact with fiction and it always surprises me how often an idea I have come up with for a plot fits seamlessly into the facts as I begin to research them.  During my research for the 110th books I have discovered enormous amounts about the working of Wellington’s army and a collection of bizarre facts about the history of surgery and the geography of the Portuguese-Spanish border.

One of the challenges in threading a love story between the battles and skirmishes of Wellington’s war is the relentless pace of activity once Sir Arthur Wellesley took over command of the British army in Portugal.  I have spent hours struggling to work out how my hero and heroine could possibly have time to fall in love while racing from one battlefield to another.  My admiration for the men and women who marched with the army in those days has risen as I’ve learned more and more about what they endured.   On the other hand, there is never any need to invent or manufacture dramatic incidents to keep the reader interested.  

Dramatic incidents aside, the trip will probably never be made unless I stop writing blog posts and get on with laundry and packing.  I’m hoping to post regularly on the trip and to share some amazing photos and that isn’t going to happen unless I get on the flight…

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Publicity and more publicity

Wellington Statue, London

Publicity is ruling my life today. I’ve been writing and sending press releases for both areas of my life.  My dance school has just launched a new website and is taking part in a St Patrick’s Day event on Friday so one of them is about that.  I’ve also sent several out publicising the free promotion for A Respectable Woman which is happening from 23rd to 25th March 2017.

The reality is that this is a displacement activity for what I should be doing which is laundry, ironing and cleaning the house.  It’s interesting that I have moaned like hell about the promotional side of being a writer, but given the choice between that and a set of stairs that need vacuuming or a trip to Shoprite, I am suddenly my own publicist.

In between all this I am trying to keep track of which students are and are not attending Friday’s show.  I have come to the conclusion that running an Irish dance school must have been the origin of the cliche about herding cats.  You just think you’ve finally got the hang of who is doing what and going where and it all changes again.  This explains why all over the world, dance teachers are hunched over their laptops hours before the deadline for feis entries mumbling incoherently about slip jigs and reels and drinking endless cups of coffee.

The other thing that I should be doing is beginning to plan for my trip.  I’m off on a tour of Portugal and Spain shortly, visiting sites associated with Wellington’s army.  This is something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I first started doing the research for my series of books set during the Peninsular War and I’m really excited.  Being a writer, however, my excitement leads me to read endless books and articles about where to go and what to see.  It does not occur to me that making lists and organising myself so that my family will survive while I’m away might be a more useful occupation.  Or at least, if it does occur to me I quickly brush the thought to one side in favour of another hour spent with the Peninsular War atlas.

The first book in the series is called An Unconventional Officer and tells the story of a young officer of light infantry and his career in the fictional 110th infantry during the Napoleonic wars.  It’s a big project and I’ve been working on it for a long time.  It is the first time I’ve written a series of books about the same characters and I love the sense of being about to develop themes and relationships gradually.  It is, however, a very different prospect trying to keep track of characters and dates and events spanning a number of years and I have had to resort to meticulous record keeping just to ensure that a soldier who died at Talavera doesn’t accidentally find himself resurrected in time for Salamanca.

Sir John Colborne statue, Winchester (Publicity and more Publicity)
Sir John Colborne statue, Winchester (Publicity and more Publicity)

 

Statue of John Colborne at the military museum in Winchester.

 

In pursuit of research I paid a visit last week to the military museums in Winchester.  This was completely fascinating and as I only had a limited amount of time I intend to go back to do the bits I missed.  The museums are really well set out.  My favourite was the Waterloo section which has apparently won awards, and I can see why.  I highly recommend these museums even if army history isn’t your thing, the stories are told so well.

It made me realise that another advantage of being a writer is the excuse to visit any museum or historic site that has even the slightest connection to the period I’m researching.  No longer can my poor, long suffering family accuse me of being self indulgent when I drag them to Apsley House during a visit to London or insist on visiting some obscure country church because somebody I’ve heard of was buried there.

And in the meantime, I’ve discovered that writing blog posts is an even better displacement activity than press releases…

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A Marcher Lord – a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

Today saw the publication of A Marcher Lord, the first book in a series set on the turbulent Anglo-Scottish borders during Tudor times.  I’m looking forward to writing the sequel to this as I grew very attached to the two main characters and I love both the Tudor period and the border country where the novel is set.

Gilnockie Tower

Sixteenth century border country was a wild and lawless place.  Over the years, wars between England and Scotland changed the lives of those living on both sides of the borders.  They were subject to regular invasions by both armies who would take provisions, often without payment, and would often kill and steal and burn out farms and villages.  Crops were destroyed, homes burned out and people killed or forced to flee.

The worst affected areas were Liddesdale, Redesdale and Tynedale as these were the main routes across the border.  With their crops and livestock constantly stolen or destroyed the families gave up trying to live a normal life and took to reiving.

The dictionary defines reiving as ‘to go on a plundering raid’ and it’s accurate.  Local families took to raiding for cattle, sheep and anything else they could transport and it became an established way of life on the Borderers, practiced by both sides and all classes.  A nobleman was just as likely to be a reiver as a commoner and the border officials, including the Wardens of the various Marches were often corrupt or indifferent.  To be a reiver on the borders was not seen as a crime, merely a way of life. 

Reiving was not a matter of Scots against English.  The borderers first loyalty was to their family or ‘surname’ and not only did the Scots raid the English and the English raid the Scots but the families would raid each other, often leading to blood feuds which could last for generations.

Basically, this was the wild west of the time where almost anything could happen and law and order was fighting a losing battle.  Despite Sir Walter Scott’s attempts to romanticise the period in his ballads, the reality was brutal and bloody and must have caused sheer misery on the borders for many years.

My fascination with this period came from reading the novels of Dorothy Dunnett and then PF Chisholm, aka Patricia Finney who has written a marvellous series of novels based around the historical figure of Sir Robert Carey.  I managed to find a copy of Carey’s original memoirs and I was fascinated by them and also encouraged by them.  As a writer of historical fiction you often wonder if what you are writing is too unbelievable, but honestly, you couldn’t make Carey up.

If you want a non-fiction account of the reivers and their activities, George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the hilarious Flashman novels, wrote a brilliantly entertaining account called ‘The Steel Bonnets’ which is highly recommended and very easy to read.

While I was writing a Marcher Lord I spent several very happy trips driving and walking around Border country.  It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to; wild, often wet and unpredictable.  Even today it is very easy to imagine the scenes of reiver times and finding locations for the book was very simple.

In A Marcher Lord, Crawleigh Castle is based on an amalgamation of border fortresses.  I love Hermitage Castle, guardian of Liddesdale and although Crawleigh has four towers which is more reminiscent of a traditional castle, the sense of brooding menace which Jenny attributes to the castle at first sight is based on the Hermitage.  The countryside surrounding the castle is based on that around Smailholm Tower and visitors to the tower there will be able to climb up and look down towards where the mill once stood and visualise Jenny’s view from the castle.

Hermitage Castle

Smailholm Tower

I hope my readers enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.  I am currently knee deep in Napoleonic Portugal but when I have time I intend to come back to Will and Jenny and find out what role they had to play in the dramatic years to come.

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A Respectable Woman – the history behind the book

A Respectable Woman - set in a 19thc school based on Raines in Arbour Square, Stepney

A Respectable Woman - the historyRespectable Woman was the first book I published and I wanted to share some of the history behind the book.  I have been writing for as long as I can remember, almost always historical fiction.  There are even, I believe, one or two short stories in my old school magazines which were set in the past and with a degree in history I thoroughly enjoy the research aspect of writing.

If possible I love to visit the locations where my books are set, but with A Respectable Woman, it wasn’t hard to visualise the settings since I grew up in East London in the 1960s and 1970s and the school where Philippa Maclay goes to work as a teacher is based entirely on the old grammar school I attended as a child.  The streets she walked are the ones I grew up with and although I have lived away from London for many years, it felt like going home.

Raine’s Foundation Grammar School was founded by Henry Raine and the original Lower School opened in 1719.  Like Wentworths, boys and girls were taught separately and reading, writing and arithmetic were taught as well as useful skills which might help the girls get work in service and the boys to learn a trade.  In 1736 Henry opened a boarding school which took girls from the Lower School and this would have been the equivalent of the school where Philippa taught.  In reality the original schools were in Wapping and did not move to the Arbour Square site in Stepney until 1913 but I have chosen to base my story in the school that I knew. By coincidence, when I went to Wikimedia looking for a photograph of the school that I could use, I found one attributed to a John Darch, whom I rather suspect is one of my old history teachers. If that’s so, thanks very much, Mr Darch…

There are surviving records from the old Raine’s schools and I used these extensively when writing about the day to day running of Wentworths.  I was particularly fascinated by the records of punishments and the day to day activities of the pupils.  Times were hard in the Victorian East End, and it must have seemed like an amazing opportunity for some of these children to get an education at all as well as being housed and clothed and well fed.

The church where the girls go for their Christmas service and then for Founders Day is based on St George’s in the East on the Highway.  As a child I attended services there, sang in the choir for many years and during my final year, as head girl, I laid the wreath on the tomb of Henry Raine.  At the time it was simply a tradition, part of the school year, although I always loved it.  Despite the fact that as teenagers we all mocked the old traditions I’m really aware now of how good it felt to be part of something.  The school year was punctuated by these events and I have tried to give a sense of that in the book and of the sense of belonging it gave to Philippa, orphaned and cut adrift from the world in which she grew up.

Charity schools haven’t always had a good deal in fiction, from Dotheboys Hall in Charles Dickens to the harsh environment of Lowood in Jane Eyre.  Conditions were certainly spartan, but in many cases they were no harder than home life for the children who attended them and I wanted to try to give the feel of the genuine enthusiasm of some of the people who served as teachers and board members and doctors for the work that they did.  For all the poverty and misery of the East End in Victorian times, there were many philanthropists who gave up their time and energy to try to improve the lot of the working classes.

Lady Alverstone is a good example of a wealthy woman who has chosen to spend her time doing something more useful than simply being a society hostess.  In addition to her interest in Philippa’s school she sets up soup kitchens for the survivors of the Cholera epidemic and chairs various committees including one which campaigns for the cause of Anti-Slavery.

The slave trade was abolished in British territories in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in 1838, but illegal trading continued throughout the nineteenth century and abolitionists worked hard to bring pressure on the government to take action to stamp out the abuses of the system.  There were two different anti-slavery societies during the nineteenth century which did valuable work.

There were various missionary societies during the nineteenth century, including the London Missionary Society and the Church Missionary Society.  They sent missionaries to various stations around the world and the work of Philippa and her father is based loosely on the experiences of men like Moffat and Livingstone who worked in Africa during the nineteenth century.  Missionaries and their families were more likely to succumb to fever and illness than to be the victims of violence, but it did happen at times.

Kit Clevedon’s military service all took place in genuine theatres of war at the time.  Many soldiers moved from Africa to the Crimea and then to India and the siege of Lucknow is well documented.  During this era Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was unheard of although there are many hints in letters and accounts of the time that some serving officers and men were badly affected by their experiences of war.  Kit’s decision to go into the army as the second son of an Earl would have been seen as entirely normal at the time.  The first son inherited title and lands, the second went into the army and if there was a third, the church was often the recognised profession.  Many young men served for a few years and then moved into other spheres, in politics or making a good marriage, but some found a genuine home in the army and chose to remain regardless of rank or wealth.

The Lyons Home for Fallen Women is based on a number of institutions set up to help unfortunate females who had strayed from the path of virtue, for example the London Female Dormitory.  Many of these institutions had harsh rules about who they would and would not help and how that help should be given.  Women were given only so many chances to reform and if they went back on the streets or to their pimps they would eventually be given up as a lost cause.  The Lyons home was very liberal for it’s day but undoubtedly some homes were run on such compassionate lines and must have been a welcome shelter for women who had nowhere else to go.

‘A Respectable Woman’ is in many ways a very traditional love story, with hints of Cinderella.  But Philippa is not sitting around waiting for a prince to rescue her.  She is in fact, very likely to be the one doing the rescuing, and does so on more than one occasion.  A woman left alone in Victorian times had a very limited number of options available to her and maintaining her respectability was all important.  I enjoyed writing about a girl who developed a successful career and maintained her independence against all odds and I hope you will enjoy reading about her.

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Newstead Abbey or how to spend a wet weekend…

I’m in the UK at the moment, and spent a very wet and grey afternoon exploring Newstead Abbey.  I’ve been round the gardens several times but

Newstead Abbey (photo by Lee J Haywood from Wikimedia)
Newstead Abbey (photo by Lee J Haywood from Wikimedia)

never made it into the house, and I have to say it was worth the effort.  It’s on a smaller scale than many stately homes, but in many ways that makes it nicer – it’s actually possible to imagine a family living there.

For those people who don’t know – and I didn’t – Newstead was the home of the Byron family until Lord Byron finally ran out of money and sold it.  Byron is one of those historical characters that I knew vague facts about, and I learned a lot from the exhibition to the extent that I’ve now added a biography and poems of Byron to the list of things I’m going to read when I run out of books about the Peninsular War and Lord Wellington.

Newstead is beautiful in any weather, but go there on a sunny day if you can.  The gardens are huge and truly beautiful, and there are a great selection of events held there through the year.  Take good shoes as it can be muddy even in good weather, and enjoy the gardens, the lake, the ducks, geese and swans, the superb views of the house, and of course the house itself, which has great exhibitions about Byron and his world.

I resisted buying a book in the gift shop.  There are certain books which can be read on kindle and my bookshelves at home have been out of control for years.  Some books, particularly if I’m using them for research, are hopeless in electronic format.  There’s a very useful little volume about the structure of Wellington’s army which I use all the time when working on my Peninsular series, but trying to find my way around it on kindle took forever so I’ve now bought the book.  I’ve found that, along with the amazing Peninsular War Atlas which I got for Christmas, need to be on my desk all the time.  In fact I’ve used both of these so much while writing that I feel faintly anxious if I’m away from them for more than a few hours.  Once I’ve finished the series I’ll have to wean myself off them gradually.

But I suspect I can learn about Lord Byron and read some of his work in a more portable format.  I’ve always rather seen him as a comic figure, and I suspect that comes from reading Georgette Heyer during my teenage years.  Certainly he was something of a poseur and I’m not sure that his personal life was up to much but he was a fascinating character and I’m looking forward to finding out more.  I don’t think I realised that for all his eccentricities, Byron’s dedication to the Greek cause was very real and that he made genuine sacrifices for the cause.

There are never enough hours in the day for the things I’d like to know more about.  Reading one book or article or visiting one place just leads to more and more.  However, what better way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon than curled up in front of the log burner with a couple of cats (I’m currently cat sitting) reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  And it avoids the essential task of revising my second book which is what I probably should be doing.

Byron here I come…

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What’s in a name – writing historical novels and when is it okay to call yourself a writer?

Stars of Blogging with Labradors
A Respectable Woman my serious  attempt at writing historical fiction and the first published
A Respectable Woman my serious attempt at writing historical fiction and the first published

Writing historical novels is very different to calling yourself a writer.  I’ve not been online for a few days.  In the other part of my life, I manage an Irish dance school called Manx Trinity Academy of Irish Dance which happened to me by accident rather as one trips over a step.  It sounds very impressive.  To tell you the truth the kids are very impressive although we’re still a small school.  I don’t teach dance, having two left feet, I just manage the business side of things and enjoy being involved.  I have two amazing young teachers and the kids have made great progress.  This past weekend we’ve had a workshop running with a visiting teacher from Dublin so I’ve been administering first aid and saying soothing words to a bunch of dancers who have been pushed to their limits.

It was supposed to be a four day workshop, but the arrival of storm Doris put paid to that and poor Michael ended up having to cram four days worth of work into two days.  The fact that he managed it is a credit to him and the fact that they could still smile at the end of it is a credit to my teachers and my students.  In the middle of all this my infant writing career was rather left to it’s own devices.

I reassure myself with the knowledge that at this point it really doesn’t matter since only a few friends actually know of the birth at all.  I have barely put a toe out of the closet although I intend to get braver as the weeks go by.  But today, while working on an author Facebook page, I ran up against an attack of the heebie jeebies over whether or not I am allowed, with only one e-book to my name officially, to call myself a writer of historical novels.

It’s always a challenge for me, laying claim to being able to call myself anything.  I do all right with ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ since they’re fairly standard and besides, other people call me those as well (although if he calls me Wifey one more time we might have a different problem on our hands).  I managed librarian during my early career and then counsellor, but I’d done training and held fairly impressive qualifications in both of those.  I’ve struggled a lot more with the word ‘manager’ in more recent jobs.  Telling people I managed an art gallery, despite the fact that manager was clearly what I was doing, was hard for me.  Often I would mumble something incomprehensible about ‘helping out’ at the gallery which probably gave the impression that I did a couple of hours gentle dusting a week instead of the long hours plus work at home and one memorable occasion writing a funding proposal while sitting by a swimming pool in Tenerife trying to pretend to my husband that I wasn’t working but was actually reading light fiction.

I checked out the dictionary definition, with my usual compulsiveness, and it appears that if I’ve written something longer than a postcard, I am entitled to call myself an author regardless of how many books I have sold so far.  Emboldened by this permission from the Oxford English,  I have decided to come clean and admit that I am an author.  Admitting you have a problem is the first step so I will practice in the mirror for a while, repeating the words in order to get used to them.  “What do you do?”  “I manage an Irish Dance school and I am a writer of historical novels.”  There you see, I can do this thing.  It can’t be as hard as saying, “I am a counsellor and I work for Relate”.  Believe me, that kicks off conversations at parties that you wish you’d never had.

The next thing I need to get brave about is telling people what I write.  It’s historical romance.  I think.  The trouble is, I’m not sure myself.  I mean it’s set in the past, which makes it history.  And there are often real people involved in it, although so far the main characters are all fictional.  It’s not too deep but it isn’t all fluffy bunnies either.  One or two of my characters have had a fairly tough time, which often happened in days when the rules weren’t really the same as they are now, although that needs to be a subject for a whole different post.

I wonder sometimes if I would be more comfortable about it if I were writing something challenging and difficult to read and possibly in line for a prize that somebody has heard of.  Writing books which are intended to entertain people while maintaining a degree of historical credibility and not winding up too many special interest groups along the way is the sum of my aims in life.  Mostly, I realise, I want to write books that people are going to want to read.

So what’s in a name?  I suppose calling myself an author is a step in the right direction and after a time I’ll be just as comfortable with it as I am with some of the other roles and titles I’ve had.  In the meantime I’ll just have to pretend.

 

 

 

A Respectable Woman: a novel of Victorian London (Book 1 in the Alverstone Saga)

A Respectable Woman - set in a 19thc school based on Raines in Arbour Square, Stepney

Today my first book was published, A Respectable Woman, a Victorian historical novel set mostly in London’s East End in the mid nineteenth century.  Available on Amazon kindle and in paperback from Amazon, it looks surprisingly grown up.

Of course nobody knows it exists.  This is the part of writing that I’ve always been worst at.  I am actually not a bad sales person when it comes to jobs that I’ve done, but selling myself as a writer has always felt slightly awkward as if I’m jumping up and down shouting look at me, look at me!  But there is no point in putting in the amount of work that I have and then doing nothing to promote it so I intend to grit my teeth and admit that yes, I have written a book and yes, I’d rather like people to read it and enjoy it and hopefully look forward to the next one.

During my attempts to find a publisher or agent over the years, one of the things that was always queried was whether what I was writing was marketable.  It accounts for a selection of rather bizarre part finished novels which exist in my archives as I painstakingly researched what was currently selling and tried to produce my own version of it.  Of course by the time I’d gone through the process, the trend had moved on and I was left with a book I didn’t enjoy writing and wouldn’t personally want to read that nobody wanted to publish.

I am currently in possession of eight complete novels which I’ve written over the years.  One of them was an attempt at a contemporary romance, and although I’d never publish it in it’s current form, there’s enough that I like about it for me to hang on to it.  There are three standalone historical novels, one of which was published today, and then there are the first four books in a series set during the Napoleonic wars. Most of these at some point have been sent to publishers, agents or to the Romantic Novelists Association new writer’s scheme, and have all been rewritten and revised so many times that it’s hard to remember how they began.

‘A Respectable Woman’ was the first novel I submitted to the RNA to get a second reading.  For those who don’t know the Romantic Novelists Association has run a scheme for many years to help aspiring romantic novelists.  When I first went through the scheme, I seem to remember there were an unlimited number of entries allowed per year but as the scheme grew it would have been impossible for the readers to manage so a restriction was placed on numbers.  The advantage of this scheme is that the reader puts together a very detailed report on your manuscript.  If it is good enough it is passed on to a second reader for comments and can result in a possible introduction to an agent or publisher.

It is an amazing scheme if you can get on to it and I learned an incredible amount from the four or five times I entered.  Two of my novels got a second reading and one was passed on to an agent for me, but was rejected on the grounds that it wasn’t marketable, and as I grew up in the East End would it not be possible for me to write something along the lines of Martina Cole.  I wanted to say that if I were able to write something along the lines of Martina Cole I would probably not have submitted a romance set in Victorian London but I restrained myself.  Still, the scheme taught me a lot and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

A Respectable Woman‘ is about a girl who grew up on a mission station in Africa among the Mashona people in Portuguese East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century and then has to learn how to adapt to life back in Victorian London with it’s rigid rules about how a respectable woman should behave.  Re-reading the novel and revising it after a few years was an interesting process, partly because I’d honestly forgotten bits of it and partly because I was interested in the characters and how they related to those in the books I’ve been writing since.  It’s clear that there are themes which I hadn’t planned or thought about along the way but I will probably take into account in the future.

All of my leading ladies are strong women in their own way and somewhat unconventional in their outlook.  Partly I think that comes from my own family story where there is a tradition of strong women and they were very much valued for it.  Partly I think that as a historian, I’ve always been interested in the position occupied by women in society over the centuries.  It is not always as cut and dried as one might think, and despite the restrictions imposed on them, history is full of examples of women who fearlessly stepped out of the boundaries imposed on them.  I am very aware of the similarities and differences between my women and I feel that I would like the challenge of writing a novel about a very different kind of woman in the future to see how that works.

Another theme which I was literally unaware of until I looked at all my books as a whole is that my leading men are all, or have been, soldiers. On the sixteenth century Anglo-Scottish border of ‘A Marcher Lord’ every landowner would have been expected to defend his home and his people, it was a violent age.  But in the other cases it seems a coincidence that in books written ten years apart, I have returned to a military theme.  Having thought about it, I have come to the conclusion that once again it has given the men a broader experience of the world which makes it more understandable that they should be attracted to the kind of woman who breaks the rules.

The third theme is very obvious and not hard to understand.  All my books, for all that they are romances, look at the position of women in society.  At various different stages in history women have been restricted and confined and ignored, and in writing about women who attempt to step outside these restrictions it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that at times this puts them at risk, both socially and physically.  For all their independent spirit they are still women and are expected to behave themselves.  The world was not always accepting to women who did not.

I hope if you haven’t already, you will read and enjoy ‘A Respectable Woman’ as much as I enjoyed writing it.  Please review it if you do, and feel free to contact me with comments.

 

 

 

Blogging with Labradors: History, Writing and Life

Toby and Joey

Welcome to blogging with labradors – my very first post.

I’ve read so many times about how daunting it is to be faced with a blank page.  That’s probably very true for normal people, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been normal.

From a fairly young age a blank page has always been a challenge for me. I can fill it with ease; with stories, with doodles, with information, with ideas.  Writing things down has always come more easily to me than speaking the words, although having said that, I quite like to talk as well.

So Blogging with Labradors is my author website and blog.  Wow, that sounds mad.  It means that after years of prevaricating and making excuses and sending endless manuscripts and sample chapters I am finally going to take matters into my own hands and publish what I’ve written.

As I said, the writing was never the problem.  I’ve always written.  The business side of writing, the risk of putting my ideas out there and letting people read them hasn’t come as easily to me.  It’s not that I’m shy.  I’m actually not.  It’s just that it feels slightly arrogant, slightly conceited to assume that just because I’ve written something people will want to read it.  I don’t even tell most people that I write.  It’s been like a guilty secret for most of my life, draft after draft of novels and stories hidden away.  I used to write in exercise books and then on an old manual typewriter.  Now I have laptops and Word and Scrivener.  It doesn’t matter what you use to write with.  What matters is finding the courage to let people read it.

The world of publishing has changed beyond recognition.  Self-publishing used to be called vanity publishing and involved paying a large sum of money to print a book which might never sell.  These days we can all do it online, and somehow it seems to have less of a stigma attached. But there’s a bit of me that still wishes I’d found an agent or a publisher.  I did try, although not as hard as I might have done since I lack the patience to wait four months every time.  I’ve entered competitions and done quite well.  I’ve joined new writers schemes and tried Mills and Boon because at least I know they read the stuff.

I’ve had some great comments.  To summarise all of them, I have learned that I don’t write pure romance and I don’t write literary historical.  They don’t fit the Mills and Boon mould.  I can write, and people seem to like my characters.  My research is excellent and my books are apparently easy to read.  But they don’t fit.  They’re not currently marketable.  They’re not particularly strange or wild or unusual.  They’re just not part of a current trend.

That might be true.  If it is, I don’t really mind any more.  I’m putting them out there into the world of e-publishing and I hope some people find them and enjoy them.  I’ve realised, at this advanced age, that I’m not going to stop writing.  I love what I do and perhaps some other people will enjoy it too.  If not, I’ve lost nothing but the time it took to create them, and since it was a joy that’s no loss at all.

Lurking in the bowels of my computer I’ve found three standalone novels which I’m going to publish first after some revision, more as a test run than anything else, although I’m fond of them.  I’ve also been working on a series of novels set during the Napoleonic wars which I’m going to revise and start publishing.

My late onset of publishing bravery has taken me into a whole new world of technology.  It’s never been my strong point, and I’m lucky that the man I married is a software developer and resident genius, although if he has a fault it’s his passion for finding out every single feature of literally everything before writing a single word.  I owe him so much for all the work he’s put in on this website and on helping me work out how to publish the books.  More impressively he’s even read one of them, came up with several intelligent ideas on improving it, and genuinely appeared to enjoy it.  Blogging with Labradors, and it’s website, Writing with Labradors, is written by me but would never have existed without his help and patience.

I’m intending to upload the first book within the next week and I hope people will read it.  If you like it please review it and recommend it.  If you hate it, feel free to review it anyway.  I’ll be upset because I’m human but I might learn something from it, this whole thing is a learning process.  So far it’s a process I’m enjoying.  I hope some of my readers enjoy it too.

Toby, Joey and I welcome you all to Blogging with Labradors.