Sir Robert Carey novels by PF Chisholm

The Sir Robert Carey novels by PF Chisholm came into my life many years ago, before I ever published a book. Without a doubt, they are among the books I’ve read that I genuinely wish I had written myself. They are a witty, intelligent, historically accurate and superbly crafted series of historical detective stories based around Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth, who was a real person and who wrote a charming autobiography, which brings his character to life extraordinarily well.

PF Chisholm has taken the real Carey and enlarged on what we know of him, creating a dashing and entertaining hero. Carey is courageous, witty and shrewd; a courtier who is very at home on the wilds of the Anglo-Scottish borders. He is also vain, hopeless with money and often self-centred, faults which do not detract one whit from his charm.

The novels enact a series of historical crimes in need of solving, while taking the reader step by step through the genuine events of the time. Chisholm weaves fact and fiction together seamlessly so that when I go away to check what is real and what is fiction, I am often surprised.

Carey’s exuberant personality is set against a marvellous collection of secondary characters. Foremost among these is Henry Dodd, his dour sergeant, who after a few books has moved into the limelight as a central character himself. We follow Carey’s agonising love affair with Elizabeth Widdrington, who is married to a brutal husband and trying hard to remain faithful as well as his affectionate relationship with his sister and the ups and downs of his friendship with Dodd.

PF Chisholm is the pen name of Patricia Finney who has written a number of other books, all of them excellent. But the Carey books remain my favourites. The latest one, A Suspicion of Silver, is out this month, but for those who need to catch up, the earlier books have now been issued in several omnibus editions, Guns in the North, Knives in the South and Swords in the East. For anyone looking for a Christmas gift for a book lover, these are a real treat.

I recently re-read the early books in this series, and I feel bound to confess that without intending it, there is something of Sir Robert Carey in the hero of the Peninsular War Saga, Paul van Daan. There is something about Carey’s flamboyant personality which appealed to me, and although the characters are also very different, I suspect there are places where I am channelling Carey when I write, which is probably a tribute to Chisholm’s brilliant characterisation.

The Carey mysteries are one of the few series of which I have never grown tired. I love the characters, but it’s more than that; each novel is a genuine story in its own right, intricately plotted and well written. All lovers of historical fiction, detective stories or just a very good read, should give them a try.

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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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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