A Marcher Lord – the story behind the book

Smailholm Tower, one of the settings for A Marcher Lord

 

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

I started to write  A Marcher Lord sitting at a very rickety wooden desk in a rather nice little hotel in the border town of Jedburgh.  I’m not sure if the ‘Spread Eagle Hotel’ is still open, I have a vague memory on a more recent visit that it seemed to be closed but that might have just been temporary.  It was an old place right in the centre and the floor in my room sloped so badly that it made me feel slightly off-kilter but the bed was comfortable and the food was amazing.

I was on one of my periodic trips to escape from my family.  Having been brave enough to have two children in my late thirties, I found as they grew up that a few days away from them all once a year stopped me turning into Mummy from the hilarious Peter and Jane Facebook posts.  Normal women wanting to escape from family life, talk their partner into agreeing to a cheap break to Tenerife with the girls.  Never having been even faintly normal, my idea of joy was to go to the Scottish borders on my own and tramp through mud and cowpats to explore reiver country which I had recently been reading about both in P F Chisholm’s totally brilliant Sir Robert Carey books and in the non-fiction account ‘The Steel Bonnets’ by the wonderful George Macdonald Fraser.  P. F. Chisholm, for anybody who doesn’t know is one of the pen names of Patricia Finney, and these books are still popping out every now and then although not nearly often enough for me.

I’d been writing on and off since I was very young and my laptop was cluttered with half finished novels.  I’d finished several and made attempts to find publishers or agents and I’d had a couple of very positive responses from the Romantic Novelist Association’s New Writers Scheme.  But my problem was that I absolutely adored researching and writing historical romances but the effort of trying to get one actually published was completely beyond me.

I would like to tell tales of how heartbroken I was at endless rejections, but I honestly wasn’t, I’ve always been able to shrug stuff like that off very easily.  I write what I write.  I know it’s fairly well written, you can’t come out of an old style grammar school without being able to put together a piece of writing that’s easy to read with correct spelling and grammar, but not everybody likes history or romance and if your favourite kind of book is a gruesome psychological thriller with a hero with darkness in his soul you’re probably not going to jump up and down at the publication of a Regency romance.  Although having said that,  I am the woman who reads both Georgette Heyer and Val McDermid.  But as I said, I’m not normal.

There weren’t actually endless rejections, because I didn’t make as much effort as I could have done.  I found that I got very impatient with the whole process and when finally, after months of hearing nothing, I would send a polite chasing e-mail asking if they’d read the damned thing, I invariably got a very fast ‘not our sort of thing’ response which I rather suspected meant either ‘lost it and can’t be bothered to look for it’ or ‘oops, didn’t see this one, haven’t read it but it doesn’t matter because we’re never going to take a chance on a new author writing straightforward historical romance.’

Self-publishing used to be very expensive and I never considered it until the advent of kindle.  Even then I resisted the idea for a long time.  It used to be called vanity publishing, and there was definitely a stigma about it.  I’m not sure if there still is, but I finally realised that since I love to write and put a lot of time and energy into making the books I write as good as I can, I’d rather like people to read them and enjoy them and come back for more.  Perhaps if I’d persisted, I would have found a publisher.  As it is, I now have eight books out there and people are reading them and seem to be enjoying them.

I began A Marcher Lord after my first visit to Smailholm Tower which is somewhere between Kelso and Melrose.  I arrived there, driving my poor car through a farmyard, very late in an autumn afternoon and the tower itself was closed.  I climbed up to the base of the tower to take some photographs and the atmosphere of the place just drew me in.  Standing there looking out over the hills, with the trees the most glorious shades of autumn colours, I felt as though I could have drifted back in time.  There was no sign of the twenty first century.  In my mind I was already populating the land around me with smallholdings and cattle and sheep and a tough border lord who is wrapped up in the complicated politics of the Scottish court as well as trying to keep his lands and his people safe from the English invaders and marauding reivers.  Not much time for romance there, I’d have thought…

Smailholm Tower

Smailholm Tower

Out of that lovely afternoon was born Will Scott, Lord Crawleigh, a man of honour in a time when honour was often for sale;  Jane Marchant with her courage and free spirit, and A Marcher Lord, a love story set against the backdrop of a brutal war.  

I love this book, I loved researching and writing it and I’m planning on writing a sequel next year.  Despite their very complicated circumstances, Will and Jenny are possibly my most straightforward hero and heroine and I like that about them.  A Marcher Lord is now available in paperback as well as on Kindle.

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Badajoz – the last stop in our Peninsular War saga tour

Storming of Badajoz

The final day of our trip was spent in the fortress town of Badajoz, which finally fell to Wellington on 6th April 1812 after previous attempts had failed.

Walls of Badajoz

With the sounds of battle filling the air Paul looked over at Wheeler and nodded.  “All right, we’re going in.  Carter, pass the orders back quietly.  No sign of life over here, I’m hoping they’re looking the other way but they’re up there, trust me.  Let’s get those ladders to the front.”

Following their officers, the third brigade moved quickly and quietly over the ground.  At their head were the ladder parties.  Each group had been given very specific instructions about the placement of the ladders and Paul watched approvingly as they ran down towards the ditch.

He had given orders for them to pause at the edge and the men of the 110th and 112th light companies moved ahead throwing lighted bales of hay into the darkness.  The flames lit up the ditch garishly and Paul’s sharpshooters dropped into position, rifles pointed at the battlements.  There were shouts in French from the ramparts as the French realised that their section of the wall was under attack and Paul surveyed the ditches in the flare of the bales.

“Chevaux de frise,” he said in matter of fact tones.  “All right, Carl, keep up that fire.  Get the lads to take down as many as you can while we’re hanging around.  Skirmish formation – one fires and when the French fire back the other shoots at the flash.  Ten minutes of that should keep them busy.  Hammond, get me some volunteers to go down and haul those bloody things out of the way the minute the flares go out.  Preferably men who can see in the dark and have a brain.”

Above in the darkness the fire from the defenders was increasing and Paul kept a wary eye on the range as a dozen men scrambled quietly down into the blackness of the ditch armed with ropes to drag the chevaux de frise out of the way.  In the distance the noise of battle had grown louder and Paul wondered how the rest of the division was doing in the breaches.

There was a sudden explosion of light and sound and screams of pain from a section of his men and he swore softly.

“They’re onto us,” he said, and raised his voice.  “Hammond, how’s it going?”

“Nearly there, sir, three men down but they’re too late.”

“Good news!”  Paul turned to yell orders and his brigade, silent and still in the night, exploded into sudden action.  More hay bales were lit and in the flare of their light he looked down and saw the path through the ditch was clear.

“Advance!” he yelled, and the ladder parties scooped up their burdens again and continued their run under covering fire from the rifles of his sharpshooters.

He had known that the chances were high that the ladders would be too short to reach the top of the wall for most of it’s length but there was one stretch of the curtain wall which was much lower, having been previously damaged and not built up to it’s full height.  It was to the right of his position and the risk of mining was higher, but if he could get a small force up onto the ramparts there, they could hit the defenders in the flank and distract them for long enough to allow the ladder parties to scramble up.

On his orders, his men advanced in immaculate order.  The main ladders were swung up to the walls with men below steadying them to give maximum height and support, and his men swarmed up at speed.  Above him, Paul heard cries in both English and French as the first men reached the top and he realised with a spurt of triumph that the ladders had reached and that his men were fighting at the top.  Already bodies were falling and he knew some of them would be English.  With the defenders busy he turned and called out to Carl, who began his run towards the lowered section of the wall with his chosen companies.

It was going well.  Paul had the sense that his men were following orders and although many of them were coming down off the ladders, they were replaced immediately by more scrambling up.  The sounds from the breaches had faded from his consciousness now that his brigade were engaged and he waited for another ten minutes and then moved forward.

“All right lads, I’m going up.”

“Not yet, sir…”

“Out of the way, Mr Heron before I kick you.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to stand at the top waving a flag.”

There was laughter amidst the blood and fire and slaughter and he set his foot on the ladder and began to climb.  Shot rained around him but he kept his body close in and was making good progress when his foot encountered a rung which felt unexpectedly shaky and he heard, from above, a yell of warning and then cries of fear.

“It’s breaking up!”

Paul swore.  He could feel the wood giving way under the weight of men.  It often happened and he knew the danger of falling onto the bayonets of the men below him.  Pushing himself back he jumped into thin air and braced himself.  The leap took him over the heads of the men below him and back to the edge of the ditch.  He felt the impact jar through his body and he rolled over and slid back down into the ditch, feeling the bodies of injured and dead men crashing around him.  As he came to a halt something ripped into his hip and he dug his heels into the ground hard to stop his slide and found himself crushed by a press of fallen men into the edge of one of the chevaux de frise which had been dragged out of the way earlier. 

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga)

At Badajoz, I finally felt it.  After over a week of travelling around Portugal and Spain visiting locations and potential locations for scenes in my books, I’ve seen some beautiful and amazing places and I’ve felt at times as though I could imagine my characters being there, living their lives in the shadow of death.

Badajoz is not beautiful.  It is certainly in a beautiful setting and there are quiet spots in the town where you can get the sense of the old walled fortress town which existed in 1812 when Wellington’s army, on it’s third attempt, managed to batter down the walls and fight their way in.  Badajoz is a modern town.  There isn’t the sense of history, the sense of the past preserved that you get in Ciudad Rodrigo or Elvas.  There is the sense of people going to work and having lunch and living their lives.  Badajoz is just an ordinary town in Spain with an interesting history.

Walls of Badajoz

Maybe that’s why it worked for me.  Standing beside the walls, reading the guide which explained in matter of fact words that the road I was looking at went through the breach and that during the storming it would have been piled high with rubble and with thousands of dead and wounded Allied soldiers, I felt a genuine sense of horror.  It doesn’t seem possible now that those men on both sides of the wall, fought and bled and died on ground which is now just a road going into town.

Badajoz

The horror didn’t end there.  When the Allies finally broke in leaving over a thousand dead and another three thousand wounded, heaped on top of each other in the breaches or below the walls, the English army went mad.  It was an accepted custom of war that if a citadel under siege fails to surrender and has to be taken by storming, the troops were allowed to sack the town.  This is horrific enough under any circumstances, but in 1812 the Spanish population of the town, although some were pro-French, were for the most part innocent civilians of a country allied to Britain in the fight against Napoleon.

It didn’t save them.  For almost three days the men of the British army ran riot in the town.  Murder, theft and rape were committed openly and anybody who stood in their way, including some of their own officers, was at risk of being shot down.  Eventually Wellington, appalled at the destruction and violence, set up a gallows in the square as a threat to the drunken men and the chaos died down.  But during those days it must have been hard for the Spanish to feel a sense of gratitude that their city had been liberated from the French.

I felt it more strongly in this noisy, modern town than anywhere else.  I felt sad for those men coming down off the formidable ramparts to add to the piles of dead below.  I felt a sense of the waste and the agony and the bloodshed.  Perhaps it’s because so little actually remains, it’s as if they’ve been forgotten.  Perhaps it’s because it was our last day and then I was going home and back to reality.

It took a while to pull myself out of nineteenth century Spain and Portugal on the journey home.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work and write the next book.  And of all the places I’ve visited I’m not sure I’d go back to Badajoz.  Not because it was a noisy modern town where history has vanished in places.  But because in the places where it remains, I felt indescribably sad.

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Elvas

Elvas is beautiful.

We arrived at lunchtime, staying at the stunning Quinta de Santa Antonio just outside the town. As we were having lunch sitting on a bench in the beautiful gardens, I will admit I was looking around me making notes in my head. This place would have been here when Wellington’s army was besieging Badajoz, and already I can see how it could be used as a setting.

Gardens of the Quinta de Santa Antonio, near Elvas

In the Peninsular War saga, Anne and Paul arrive for a brief stay in Elvas during the run up to the storming of Badajoz.  Anne has just been returned after a two week ordeal in French captivity and for once Wellington has granted Paul some leave (with the proviso that as it’s only 11 miles away he can get him back very quickly).  Inevitably the short holiday doesn’t go entirely to plan but even today, Elvas is a haven of peace in places.

The town of Elvas was at the top of a hill, five miles northwest of the Guadiana River, a fortress town surrounded by seven bastions and the two forts of Santa Luzia and Nossa Senhora da Graça. It was a town of winding streets and graceful buildings, many of them dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Anne was particularly fascinated by the aqueduct, almost four miles long which had been built in the fifteenth century to supply the town with pure water.

Paul and Anne were given a room in a pretty inn, white painted and clean with high ceilings and long white draped windows.  For a town so close to the war zone which had been variously held by both the French and the English, it seemed remarkably untouched by war. For three days they wandered hand in hand through the narrow cobbled streets, and explored the local churches, forts and shops.  They ate in cosy taverns, surrounded by locals who welcomed them with smiles, and slept late, revelling in waking together with no need to rise for early drill.

(From ‘A Redoubtable Citadel’ by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 in the Peninsular War series)

Driving into Elvas after lunch I felt, almost more than anywhere else we have been, as though I had stepped back in time and was walking in the footsteps of Paul and Anne as they arrived in Elvas for their brief holiday before the horrors of the storming of Badajoz.  The aqueduct is the most amazing piece of architecture, ushering us into the town.

The aqueduct, Elvas

Elvas is a place of tiny cobbled streets and white and ochre painted houses with churches dotted about and a series of forts giving the impression of a formidable military presence.  During the war, Elvas escaped the destruction and havoc wreaked on the other three great border fortresses, and the preservation work done on the old town has protected it’s history.

The Cathedral in Elvas

There is so much to see here that I could turn into a guide book very easily.  The highlight for me was the old cathedral, with the square outside where Paul and Anne van Daan shared a brief spell of normality eating outside a tavern, listening to the locals around them talking about crops and the weather instead of war and bloodshed.  We had coffee outside a small cafe on the square, and looked around at the ancient buildings very much as they must have done.

The cathedral, Elvas

The other highlight of the town, especially on a glorious day like this one, are the stunning views from the various ramparts and high points around the town.  With the hills rising into the distance it is one of the loveliest places I’ve been to.

Countryside around Elvas, Portugal

Before leaving we visited the tiny English cemetery with it’s memorials to the dead of the Peninsular War, in particular the storming of Badajoz and the battle of Albuera, both of which had huge numbers of dead and injured from the Allied army.  

English Cemetary in Elvas

On one wall of the cemetery was a memorial stone to Lt Colonel Charles Bevan, who sadly shot himself after he felt he had been unfairly blamed for the escape of the French garrison from Almeira, an incident mentioned in the third book ‘An Uncommon Campaign’.

Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas

Our trip is almost over and I’ll be glad to get home to see my offspring and my dogs, although I’ve had the best time here.  I’ve been to Spain before but this is my first time in Portugal and I’ve rather fallen in love, with the country, the culture and the people.  I’ve learned so much this week, and have so much work to do to incorporate some of it into the books I’m writing.

Just at the moment I’m sitting in the hotel with the sound of birdsong and a fountain through the open window.  It’s still sunny although slightly cooler and  I can hear the cattle in the background.  It is so beautiful and so peaceful, it’s hard to imagine that only a few miles away in Badajoz the sound of gunfire and falling masonry would have been exploding into the silence as Wellington’s artillery tried to break down the formidable defences of the second great Spanish fortress.

He succeeded but the cost was horrendous.  Tomorrow, our last full day, we are going to the bustling modern town of Badajoz to look for the remains of the town where the British soldiers ran wild in an orgy of destruction and violence when the citadel fell.

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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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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.

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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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.