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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Bippity Boppety Blog Hop - Researching The Lady's Slipper

This Giveaway is now CLOSED. And I asked my husband to choose two numbers between 1 and 39 and the lucky winners are: Margaret (Literary Chanteuse) and Anme. I'll be writing to you both for a postal address. Big Thank you to everyone who entered and took the time to comment

In honour of the Bippity Boppety Blog Hop, I am offering two signed copies of The Lady's Slipper worldwide, just leave a comment about my post to enter. Don't forget to add an email address.New followers are welcome.
Here is the US edition of the book, on sale next to Gulliver's Travels, sadly I am no relation to the famous Jonathan Swift.

Research and Historical Fiction 
 Many people have asked me about how I do my research and how much time it takes to write a historical novel. So in this post I will take a little about my process, and also tell you about some of the some of the books I found invaluable in my research for The Lady’s Slipper.

My approach was not to try to know everything, but to read some general books on the 17th Century to get a broad picture, and then to start to write the book, filling in the gaps in my knowledge later. I keep a large notebook which is full of questions, for example, “How much was a loaf of bread in 1660?” “In a small village would there have been a bakery, or did people bake at home?” “What sort of bread? Millet? Wheat? Rye?” The answer to the last question was that in Westmorland where the book is set bread was called “clapbread” and was a flat cake made of oats, and it would keep for nearly a month! They had special oak cupboards built into their cottages to keep it in over winter –  frequently the answers are not what you expect but even more interesting. 

So after getting the overview I write my story, but I am left with a bulging and quite daunting note book full of questions. I take a deep breath, start at the beginning again and find out the answers and facts and decide if they help or hinder the story. I think I enjoy the “detective” element of finding out the answers to obscure questions! I read a lot of non-fiction and I am eternally grateful to the “real” historians who supply me with the answers. Books such as The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser which gives a record of women’s lives in the Civil War in their own voices, and Restoration London by Liza Picard which was indispensable for information about daily life. Another favourite was Birth, Marriage and Death by David Cressy, which was always on my desk.

When I began writing The Lady’s Slipper I had no idea that my characters were going to end up on a ship, and of course I knew nothing at all about sailing ships, not even modern ones. No matter how many books I had read on the 17th century beforehand, it was unlikely I would have found out what I needed to know about Dutch Flute sailing ships without doing some very specific research. So I forced myself to read Patrick O’Brian’s books which are all set at sea, and what he doesn’t know about tall ships would probably fit on a postage stamp. They are the sort of historical fiction I would never normally pick up, but they are excellent. I also found out by emailing The Maritime Museum that the cow was stabled “aft”, and that foodstuffs were often sealed in dried mud to keep them fresh on board.
Wonderful Levens Hall, near where I live, on which I based Fisk Manor

To write about people’s homes I spent time at a number of old houses including Levens Hall, which helped me to create Fisk Manor, the home of Geoffrey Fisk in the novel. There is nothing like walking down a 17th century staircase and feeling the polished wooden banisters and seeing the light pour in through mullioned windows. At Swarthmoor Hall I sat and wrote a scene at a gnarled and polished oak table where George Fox the Quaker leader may have sat when he lived there with Margaret Fell. After such an immersion in the past it feels very strange then to get in my car and zoom away!

The botanical facts about the orchid I researched through interviewing members of the Cypripedium Committee, a sort of plant mafia set up to protect the Lady’s Slipper. They meet behind closed doors and the location of the last remaining plant in Britain is a closely guarded secret even today. The single-minded enthusiasm of these men, and their dedication to preserving the plant for future generations gave me confidence in my heroine, Alice Ibbetson’s obsession with it. But I also read novels such as The Orchid Thief and Tulip Fever, which treat similar themes. 

Being a costume designer I could not resist the Northampton Shoe Museum where there are many shoes on display. In The Lady’s Slipper Ella the maid is envious of her mistress’s slippers.Ella's story is told in The Gilded Lily, out in a few weeks time.

Often the research throws up new plotlines and then I will re-write scenes or chunks of the book to incorporate little-known or exciting research. I think to write historical fiction you have to enjoy this aspect of it because you are going to do an awful lot of it. When people ask me how long it takes to research the novel they are thinking in terms of a finite time, but actually I am researching all the time, my living room always has a pile of ten or twelve “current” books I am dipping into, not to mention photocopies and print-outs such as bits of the diaries of Pepys and George Fox and other helpful 17th century scribblers. Did I forget to mention the internet? The phone rings, and I half expect my husband to say, “Hang on, she’s googling.”

This post first appeared on Amy Bruno's site Passages to the Past. Thank you Amy. Amy is organising 
my Blog Tour for The Gilded Lily, find out more at

Look to the right to grab the button for this blog hop!
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Thursday, 16 August 2012

Buying from a Bookshop with Style

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Winchester as part of my holidays. Just across the road from the Cathedral we came across this lovely bookshop, which to my mind is just what a bookshop should be. Each section had a hand-painted illustration above it.You can see the hand-painted signs above the shelves, including the spitfire for WWII, just under the bunting.

Of course we couldn't resist buying something and "The Story of English in 100 Words" by David Crystal seemed to be just the right sort of little hardback to get from this shop. I always enjoy books on etymology and words. He tells you a little more about the book in this article in The Telegraph

The book itself is fascinating.
The word so far that has caught my imagination is 'bone-house', a 10th century word-painting to describe a person by describing the body. This sort of description is called a 'kenning', from the old icelandic verb kenna - to know, where two words are put together to make a picture, as in a traveller being an 'earth-walker' or a ship being a 'wave-floater'. Further reading about the first word in the book can be found  is  here in a post on English Historical Fiction Authors by Richard Denning.

I could describe myself as a letter-tapper, a word-spewer, a coffee-gurgler, and a biscuit-muncher during my mornings at the keyboard, as well as a history-picker.

How would you describe yourself in a kenning?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Men's Wars written by Women - Historical Fiction Reviews

Three of my favourite books this year feature male protagonists at war and a mostly male cast of characters - and interestingly all written by women. I'd recommend all three books to men and women, whatever you might think of their covers.

The first is "The Return of Captain John Emmett" by Elizabeth Speller. 
This novel tells the story of an execution during the Great War. Laurence Bartram, himself consumed by grief at the loss of his wife and young son, is approached by a friend's wife to unravel the mystery of why he committed suicide. His investigations lead to the gradual piecing-together of an incident in the war. Similar to a detective mystery, most of the action is told by reports from characters who were at the scene, very much like examining the scene of a crime. In the novel references are made to Agatha Christie and Poirot, and this book has all the intricate plotting of a who-dunnit, except better, and with a much more moving revelation of the true conditions of war. As a historical fiction writer I enjoyed the fact that long parts of the book were reportage - how often are we told to show not tell? But these re-tellings in the characters own voices were gripping, and show that the author had really done her research. The horrors of trench warfare and the subsequent abandonment of trauma casualties post-war were brought chillingly to life. In the afterword she tells us that she used the papers of W.H.R Rivers who treated psychiatric casualties of the war and Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam as sources.

Which brings me neatly to the second of my favourites - Madeline Miller's "Song of Achilles".
Of course this has won the Orange Prize for Fiction, but I was three-quarters through it when the prize was announced, so it did not influence my impressions of the book. Madeline Miller's version of the story of Achilles relies on building up an intimate picture of Achilles and Patroclus before the War at Troy actually starts. What I loved about this book from a writer's perspective was that the use of language was so lyrical. In a modern book it would be impossible to use terms such as 'the rosy gleam of his lip, the fevered green of his eyes' without it sounding ridiculous, yet in Miller's hands such language feels right. She has managed to make the book epic and Homerian. If the book has a weakness it is that the actual conflict (which in reality lasts ten years) takes a little too long to get going, but once it does the action is unputdownable. The early lyricism works just as well applied to battle, and the fact that some of the story is told from a dead man's point of view only increases its mystical effect.In this book we believe in the Gods, and in the terror of the Gods, and the power of human love.

The third of my favourites is "Honour and the Sword" by AL Berridge.

Of the three, this is the most swashbuckling of my choices. It is written as a series of  interviews or memoirs from  France during the time of the 30 years war and so includes a number of different voices put together by a fictional professor - Edward Morton. Sounds complicated? Perhaps, but it works brilliantly. Like a patchwork this method gradually builds up the picture of events from all the partisan points of view. Told in the first person present tense, some of it is written in very modern-sounding English but this has the effect of drawing the reader in. Mostly told from the point of view of Jacques the stable lad, and his erstwhile employer's son, an aristocrat called Andre de Roland, the slow development of the relationship between these two boys is what glues the book together. We watch them through the highs and lows of warfare, through heroism and despair as Andre de Roland seeks to avenge his parents death at the hands of the Spanish. This book has some excellent set-piece action scenes, with gripping sword fights, pistols and cannon.At the climax the action zips from person to person in a few lines - and this filmic technique like cutting from shot to shot, was breathtaking.

Three great pieces of historical fiction, I recommend them all.

You can read an interview with AL Berridge here about why she enjoys to write books more normally associated with a male readership.