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Friday, 22 March 2013

Creating Secondary Characters in Historical Fiction

Riddle: How does an author use historical fact to create and describe secondary or minor characters in historical fiction?

I asked Jane Harlond, another fan of the 17th century, to tell me her process. Over to Jane:
Following on from Helen Hollick’s fascinating discussion of her protagonists I’d like to talk about secondary and minor characters in historical fiction.

Secondary characters are often used to develop the main character(s) and/or move the plot. Whether or not the protagonist was a real person these characters are frequently fictional constructs, and, like minor characters, in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable; meaning they should develop or change during the course of the novel, and have identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws readers can relate to.
An example of this is my character Marcos Alonso Almendro in The Chosen Man (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2012). Here’s a scene from the novel where the main character, wicked, wily Genovese merchant Ludo da Portovenere is making his first moves to manipulate the tulip market in Holland during the 1630s. He and Marcos, who is acting as his servant, are in a tavern. This is where Marcos is introduced to his first taste of coffee.

Amsterdam, early June 1635
Leaving a glorious day of bright summer sunshine, Marcos followed Ludo through a door and stepped into a netherworld of peat-filled grates and dark afternoons. It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of Dutch taverns he had already come to know – that particular hush broken by hearty guffaws and back-slapping camaraderie – this place was a composite of scents and sounds he could not name. There was one odour in particular, a pleasant aroma but not the usual malty smell of warm beer, nor the clear liquid that they served in thumb-sized tumblers that smelled like a woman’s perfume. He stopped and inhaled.
“Coffee,” said Ludo. “Like it?”
“It’s wonderful.”
“Doesn’t taste as good as it smells, but you can add it to your list of new accomplishments.”
Marcos gulped, the bastard knew about his journal. He knew everything – all the time! But the Italian wasn’t interested in him, his eyes were scanning the darkness: an eagle-owl detecting its prey in the half-light.
Groups of men smoking curled-stem pipes were gathered around circular tables. Above, on a balcony, six or seven burghers huddled in negotiation. One smaller table was occupied by a single client. Ludo put a hand on Marcos’ shoulder and steered him towards a corner. A stub of candle stuck in a wine bottle flickered as they disturbed the heavy air.
“Why’s it so dark?” Marcos asked.
“So people can’t see each other I expect.”
Ludo removed his wide brimmed hat and placed it conspicuously on top of his miniature sea chest in the centre of their table (. . .) settled himself into a chair and leaning back in his customary manner, gazed around him. “Dark is what they are used to,” he said. “Light is a special commodity in the Low Countries and your average Dutchman is too tight-fisted to waste money on candles. Candles offer no material return by definition.”
“You don’t like the Dutch, do you?”
“On the contrary, I enjoy them greatly: trying to out-manoeuvre them is one of my favourite pastimes. Successful strategy is the finer point of profit, Marcos. If you don’t like ...” He was interrupted by the serving girl.
Marcos watched the way the plump wench looked at Ludo. What did women see in him? He wasn’t good-looking. Could they smell his money?
“I’ve ordered coffee for you to try, but not at this table. You’re my servant remember, you should be over there.” Ludo nodded in the direction of the kitchen area. “But stay close and keep an eye out for onlookers. I’m expecting company and I want to know who sees us talking. If you notice anyone taking a special interest, follow him. Find out who he is, and where he lives if you can. I’ll see you back at the lodging tonight if we are separated.”
“Yes sir.” Marcos got up and doffed his soft cloth hat. It wasn’t a fatuous move, Ludo’s tone was too serious for that.
“Chat up the waitress,” added his master, “see if that man up there by himself is a regular or if he just came in today.”
“How shall I do that? I don’t speak Dutch – or French – and she won’t have any Latin.”
“You’ll manage. Languages are only an obstacle to people with no imagination. Do you have an imagination, Marcos?” . . .

Marcos leaned against the high trestle table that acted as a bar at the back of the tavern. The waitress placed a small white china cup beside him and smiled. He winked and lifted the cup. Keeping his eyes on the girl’s blue gaze he gulped the hot brown liquid. The wench smiled as his eyes opened in shock and surprise. He would have spat out the foul tasting stuff immediately but she was in his direct line of fire: she’d put herself there on purpose. He moved the scalding, bitter liquid around his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The cheeky wench laughed, said something incomprehensible and raised a hand holding a bowl of brown granules. With her free hand she spooned some into his cup and stirred. Marcos stared at the brown poison. He was going to have to drink it. The girl mimicked his wink and waited until he had the cup to his lips again before skipping off to serve new customers.
Marcos took just a very small sip. It tasted better. In fact it was quite nice. Crossing one leg in front of the other and leaning sideways with an elbow on the high bench behind him, in what he considered the appropriate stance for a coffee habitué, he took in his murky surroundings. The door to the street opened and in that instant of light something on the balcony caught his eye, he glanced up. Something had glinted. That something was a pair of round spectacles on the round face of a gnome-like creature from a children’s fairy tale; a shoemaker, a tailor. Whoever and whatever he was, he was bending down observing Ludo through the balcony railings with far too much interest. Marcos looked for the girl; now he needed to find out about two men. But exactly how he was going to learn anything at all was quite beyond his imagination.

Without knowing it at the time, this scene follows Helen Hollick’s tips for writing historical fiction, with one exception. Regarding her first point on research and story, I tried to put myself into the setting to create the atmosphere and imagined what it must have been like in a Dutch tavern in1635. I needed the secondary character, Marcos, to start acting on his own, and I needed to show the protagonist, Ludo, was not to be trusted. Fact in historical fiction is vital: accuracy in setting and detail is essential. But, when it comes to the plot and fictional characters take Helen Hollick’s advice, “Don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get on with writing your story”.

Avoiding  ‘gadzooks vocabulary’ is both easy and difficult: employing diction that is appropriate to the time and setting, while also being in the modern lexicon sometimes means looking up words to find out when they were first used, and making some surprising and disappointing discoveries. In this scene I use the word ‘waitress’. It sounds like a relatively modern term for the setting, but I wasn’t happy about using ‘serving girl’ all the time, it was awkward; and the idea of ‘serving wench’ carries vulgar implications that distracted from what was happening. The term ‘waitress’ slipped in and felt appropriate because it reduces the girl to her function, making her less relevant to the incident and maintaining the focus on what Marcos is doing, and is about to do.

When I did finally did check ‘waitress’, I was delighted to find the term waiter goes back to the 14th century and was used for males waiting at tables in taverns in the 17th. Unfortunately, the term waitress wasn’t in common use until the early 19th century - but it might have been . . . 

Thanks Jane, you can find out more about The Chosen Man and JG Harlond's writing at

Monday, 11 March 2013

Just What Kind of Mother are You? by Paula Daly

Just What Kind of Mother Are You?, Paula DalyI was on Twitter last week and I got a message from Alison Barrow at Transworld publishers asking if I'd like to read a debut novel set in the Lake District. Like most writers I have several jobs and a work-in-progress waiting, and I find I have to carve out time to read books I want to read, let alone review ones I'd never heard of. But I mailed Alison back to ask what genre, and she said 'psychological thriller'. I ummed and aaahed, but then thought - but it's the Lake District, the place I actually live. So I agreed to read it and I'm so glad I did because if I hadn't I would have missed a fabulous read.

So I was feeling overstretched, and overworked, and over-committed to all the different things going on in my life and opened the book to find it was about a mother who was also overstretched, overworked and over-committed. 

I so empathise with that feeeling.

Lisa is an exhausted mother of three. One day she takes her eye off the ball and completely forgets that her 13 year old daughter's friend was supposed to sleep over. That is until she finds out the girl has gone missing. This is the parent's second worst nightmare - someone else's child is missing and you are responsible. To make things worse, there is a rapist on the loose who is targeting young girls.

Lisa as the main character is empathic and interesting. Her job running a dog re-homing charity is one which is already a full-time occupation stretching well past working hours. Daly's depiction of Lisa's typical day will ring bells with many women who are trying to find the elusive work/home balance that probably only exists in the media and not in real life.

All the other characters possess the quirks and flaws that make for real human beings, and Paula Daly is adept at showing the subtle power games that go on between female friends and between husbands and wives. Told from several points of view, including that of the local female police officer who is attempting to solve the crime, this will satisfy lovers of crime fiction and would also make a great Book Club pick.

Once you have begun this well crafted book you will find it impossible to put it down until you finish it and find out the less-than-obvious fate of the missing girl. I found I was reading through meals, reading whilst others were watching TV, staying up late to finish it. 'Just What Kind of Mother are You?' is a well-plotted, believable thriller with plenty to make you think, and I for one can't wait for Paula Daly's next book.

And of course I shall be recommending it to my unsuspecting book group who meet in Windermere where the book is set. And indeed to anyone who asks me what to read next.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Enjoying cliché - Writing Tips from Helen Hollick, author of Ripples in the Sand

Today I'm delighted to welcome Helen Hollick, author of the bestselling Arthurian Trilogy which includes 'The Kingmaking', and now releasing her fourth book about the pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne. 

Hi Helen, I am looking forward to reading about Jesamiah Acorne. What for you makes a good hero, a good heroine and a good villain, and how do you make them believable and not a cliché for a modern reader?

In some ways, the clichéd hero, heroine and villain is partly expected and therefore enjoyed, but this depends on the book, the characters and the plot! I suppose my Jesamiah is a little clichéd in the fact that he is tall, dark, and good looking. He is the sort of hero you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley if you’d previously upset him – quick to smile, but formidable when angry – you can rely on him to be there (cutlass or pistol in hand) when he’s needed. He isn’t fazed by danger, won’t tolerate unnecessary cruelty or disrespect to women, but is not always ‘polite’ with his language. (He is a pirate, and pirates don’t use genteel language do they?) He is more than capable of getting drunk if the rum is available, and his morals slip occasionally when there’s a good-looking woman tempting him. But he is loyal to his men, and would give his life for his woman, Tiola – indeed he took a flogging on her behalf in the second Voyage, Pirate Code.

A heroine needs to be tough-minded, to know what she wants and be determined to get it. She must be true to her cause (be that her ‘quest’ or her man), capable of chucking the teddies out the cot when riled, but balance that with love without condition. As for the villain – the more dastardly the better *laugh*.

The adventures (and some tricky situations) that Jesamiah finds himself in possibly are clichéd – you know that if he is in trouble he is going to get out of it, as in any hero-type novel or movie, but the trick is to write at a good pace, keeping the pages turning and for the reader not to be able to guess how the hero gets out of trouble! Belief has to be suspended by action. No one believes any of the situations in the James Bond or Indiana Jones movies – but so what? They are not meant to be believed, they are meant to be enjoyed as a bit of escapism fun.

Jesamiah is a blend of C.C. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower, Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, Indiana Jones, James Bond and Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe… with a hefty dash of Captain Jack Sparrow added as a bonus! He has his flaws and weaknesses; he is not all ‘good guy’, there are times when you want to cheer him on – other times you could slap his face. That’s life – especially for an ex-pirate!

I enjoyed your book about writing and editing, 'Discovering the Diamond'. Can you give a historical fiction writer 3 short writing tips from the many 'gems' in your book?

Thank you Deborah – I wrote it with my UK main editor, Jo Field, because we were getting inundated with questions about writing, and found we didn’t have time to keep typing out the same replies. We figured a short, non-expensive, e-format booklet might prove useful, and we are delighted that Discovering the Diamond is serving its purpose and has been well received.

Three tips?

1. Don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get on with writing your story.

2. Don’t use ‘archaic’ language. ‘Gadzooks ye bounder’ might sound authentic, but believe me it is very irritating to read! Likewise, do not use modern language ‘OK’ sounds just as odd.

3. Watch those anachronisms. You cannot have ‘He froze like a rabbit caught in the headlights’ in a novel set in Tudor England where headlights haven’t been invented yet.

Thanks Helen, great tips and thank you for guesting on my blog.
Helen is published by

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Having a coffee in the 17th Century

If  I wanted a coffee in the 17th century I would not be asking for a 'latte' or a 'mocha'. In fact coffee then was contoversial and given a few less-than-flattering names.

‘Syrup and soot’ and ‘essence of old shoes’ were just two of the names given to coffee by innkeepers and tavern keepers in the 17th century. Threatened by the craze for coffee drinking, and fearing for their livelihood, they did everything in their power to close them down. Fortunately they didn’t succeed and today I am able to pop into my local Costa for a coffee and chat with friends just as Pepys did in his day.

Turk's Head, Cambridge coffee house

What would I find if I went into a coffee house in Pepys’s time?
Well I’d have to get a man to accompany me, as women weren’t allowed unless they either owned it or worked there. I’d choose someone like Isaac Newton to be sure of an interesting conversation! I would look for the sign of a Turk’s Head, which often denoted a coffee house because of its Turkish origins.

I would have to pay a penny at the door, which is a fee to say that I agree to the rules of the house. I would undertake not to gamble, swear, quarrel, or mourn over lost love. Obviously the ‘mourning over a lost love’ must have been a big problem! Because of this admission charge and the free exchange of ideas and opinions the coffee houses promoted, in London they became known as “Penny Universities.”

If I inhaled, I might smell the beans roasting, a cause of great worry to bookseller neighbours in a London still mostly half-timbered from Elizabethan times. Inside the house the atmosphere would be acrid and thick with tobacco smoke from innumerable long-stemmed pipes, not to mention the smoke from the damp sea-coal burning in the grate, and thin candles or rush-lights giving off their waxy smell. Add to this the unwashed bodies, delicately perfumed by pomanders, and the tang of perfumed or aromatic snuff, and I can see where the ‘essence of old shoes’ might have come from!

If I managed to brave the stench, then I might be astounded by the noise. Of course there was the hubbub of conversation in the background, interspersed by sneezes from the snuff-takers and the clattering of pots and pans, but also the turning of papers and broadsheets laid out on a long table at the side of the room, the hiss and bubble of the boiling coffee and the spit of the fire. But usually there would be somebody “holding forth”, declaiming on one subject or another, politics being a favourite. I would find  politicians in the Cocoa-Tree in St James’s, whereas Wills Coffee House in Covent Garden was favoured by literati such as Dryden and Pope.
Dryden meets Pope in Wills Coffee House 

In The Gilded Lily the dangerous rogue-about-town, Jay Whitgift, conducts his business in a London coffee house called the Pelican where he meets members of the Wits Club, a group of wealthy courtiers including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester. The antics of the Wits, or the Merry Gang, forever coloured the reputation of Charles’s court. The Pelican was based on Wills Coffee House, the real-life meeting place of the Wits who ‘entertained one another with their trifling composures…as if the fate of kingdoms depended on them’ Jonathan Swift

In a 17th century coffee house my coffee would be bitter, the beans boiled over the fire for days in ten gallon cauldrons, with the addition of wine, ale, or herbs and spices such as spearmint. I would sip it from a bowl with no handles. No wonder a “Satyr Against Coffee” (1674) called it ‘horse-pond liquor, witches tipple out of dead man’s skulls’ Thank goodness for my latte with a touch of sugar, and my brownie on the side!

In the Economist, 17th century coffee houses are described as “the internet in a cup”, and they fulfilled exactly this function. One of the things I love about going for a coffee is that it is invariably with friends, and that the conversation and exchange of ideas is as important as the drink.

I blog with Hoydens and Firebrands, where you can find another excellent article about coffee houses by Anita Davison.

I can also recommend:
Life in a 17th century Coffee Shop by David Brandon
The Lives of the English Rakes by Fergus Linnane
Restoration London by Liza Picard

This post first appeared on the great blog HISTORICAL TAPESTRY, why not pop over there for a look at the excellent range of articles, reviews and giveaways.