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Monday, 23 September 2013

Sizergh Castle, Cumbria - ghosts and old glories #EHFA

In order to celebrate the launch of Castles, Customs and Kings I'm taking part in a "blog hop" . You can go to English Historical Fiction Authors blog to enter for a chance to win a free copy!

I am also giving away a brand new signed paperback copy or ebook of my 'not-quite-released-yet' novel - A Divided Inheritance! Book will be shipped as soon as it is available, launch date 23 October. Comment under the post to enter. Extra entry if you join the blog. Don't forget to leave an email address. Draw closes midnight 29th September.

The name Sizergh dates from the 9th century and was originally spelled  sigaritherge, meaning Sigarith's pasture (sigarith is a female name.)

The castle has been home to the Strickland family for many generations, beginning in the 12th century, and is still lived in by them today. During the Wars of the Roses the family were Yorkists, and in the succeeding generation were linked with the Parres of Kendal - the family of Catherine Parr, wife of Henry VIII.

The photos above and  below are from an article on the castle by Matthew Penmott, and I can heartily recommend his site on the Castles of Cumbria.
The Strickland Arms in the Parish Church, Kendal
Sizergh Castle consists of a Pele tower dating from the 14th century, which gave protection against scottish raiders. On the courtyard front is the Strickland Coat of Arms. The main entrance leads today into a Tudor Great Hall, which has since been adapted by different generations of the family into a series of smaller rooms. An Elizabethan corner block and wings enclose a courtyard, and on three sides of the castle the remains of a moat is discernible.

The Return of the Inlaid Chamber
In 1891 the ornate panelling from the Inlaid Chamber, along with various furnishings, was sold to keep the house maintained. Thanks to the Victorian and Albert Museum, the original panelling and stained glass which was tailor-made for this room at Sizergh has now returned home to the castle after more than a century in London, and is now on permanent loan. (Pictures from the V&A)

Inlaid Room at Sizergh Castle, © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The beautifully wrought panels were inlaid with English Poplar and “Bog” Oak to create a three dimensional effect of geometric and strapwork motifs.

Ghost of the Starved Lady
In the Pele tower ghostly sobs denote the presence of  a lady whose husband, before a raid by the Scots, was locked away in a room with an impregnable door - presumably to keep her safe. But her husband died and the terrified servants abandoned the place. The poor wife starved, and as she tried to claw her way out she went slowly mad. Her screams still haunt Sizergh on dark and spooky nights......


More photos of ghosts can be found at

Apart from the attraction of the ghost, Sizergh Castle is managed by the National Trust and is well worth a visit - beautiful grounds and gardens too, along with more than a thousand years of history!

Friday, 13 September 2013

Robin Hood - the anti-hero for today as discovered by Lauren Johnson

Today I'm welcoming Lauren Johnson to talk about her new debut, The Arrow of Sherwood. I have always been fascinated by Robin Hood, so I asked Lauren -

Why do you think the legend of Robin Hood has been so enduring?

Lauren : I think Robin endures because he is an antihero – throughout his history, from at least the fifteenth century, he has been a symbol of misrule, of chaos, sometimes of outright violence and lawbreaking. His connection with Mayday in the past is a clear sign of that, because May was all about raucous celebration and upsetting the norm. But he is also a very modern hero. You can see that in the Robin Hood tax campaign – we still want a figure who stands up for the poor and needy, against the seemingly all-powerful wrongdoer. In all our modern TV detective shows, the main character could almost be Robin Hood – they do what they have to, to bring down the bad guy, even if it means bending the rules. He’s mischievous, but he stands for something, and that’s really appealing.

What will surprise the reader about your version of the character of Robin Hood, and will we be meeting Maid Marian?

In The Arrow of Sherwood you will meet pretty much all the archetypes of the Robin Hood story, but probably not in the way you expect. At the start of the book Robin comes back from crusade – he was sent on it to do penance – and the first person he meets is called Marian Peverill. They are supposed to get married, in one of the usual noble arranged marriages, but they deeply dislike each other. There is no respect between them whatsoever. That scene was one of the first I had in my mind – these two famous romantic characters appearing, and they can barely tolerate being in the same courtyard.

I wanted to make Robin, like all the characters, just a bit more human than in lots of versions of his story. He has grown up as a lord’s son but he feels constrained by his family and spent lots of his youth around lowborn men – there’s a bit of a Henry V element to him in that respect. But returning from crusade he is supposed to give up his ties to the common friends he had, and properly become a lord, ruling over them, focusing on increasing his estate and keeping the law. So a lot of the book is about that struggle: between being the lord his family want him to be, and his instinct to help his old friends. Not just because he feels that some other lords are abusing their power and he ought to stop it, but also because there is that danger-seeking element to him that enjoys transgressing rules.

You work as a costumed interpreter, can you explain what this is and how this helps your understanding of history?

Costumed interpretation – sometimes called live or historical interpretation – is a combination of dramatic performance, historical presentation and one-on-one conversation, usually in heritage settings. At its simplest, it means I wear a costume and engage with the public as a character from the past. I have been very lucky to work in a wide range of time periods, portraying very different – but always interesting – characters. I’ve played everyone from medieval princesses to Victorian scullery maids.

I think my experience as a costumed interpreter has helped me massively, not only in my understanding of the past but in my story telling. As part of my research I often go beyond reading about historical events and my character to learn songs, dances, social behaviours, contemporary stories – some of which are pretty weird – and that means I get a really rounded view of the past. Then, having done my own research I have to impart that knowledge to members of the public, from toddlers who might just want to know about medieval animals or my crown, to hyper-informed professors in their 60s. You get very good at gauging what interests the public and the best way of getting your information across.

And then there is simply the fact that I’ve been in the really privileged position of running up and down castle stairs in flat leather shoes, felt how you move in a laced gown with really long beautiful sleeves that can trip you up, sat in a medieval great hall and watched recreated court cases or stories being told – I’ve even shot a trebuchet in my time and withstood a siege from the castle walls. (Not literally, I hasten to add.) When you have the physical experience of a period of history and you’re engaging with your character, you get very close to feeling like you are back in that era, and I think it helps you understand their behaviour.

How important is the real-life history to your re-telling of the story and what is the favourite source you have used?

For me, the real-life history is very important. Obviously, I’ve written a story about a man who almost certainly didn’t exist in the way his myth is now remembered. But I very much wanted to root my version of Robin Hood in a real world – a period that I had spent a number of years researching and interpreting.

I came at this story with a clear question in my mind. A lot of the popular mythology of Robin Hood has ossified over the years – we think of him being a nobleman who lives in the forest with his common friends and Maid Marian, who helps King Richard against evil Prince John and steals from the rich to help the poor. But that character doesn’t really make sense in the twelfth century, when Richard and John existed. Noblemen were usually very separate from the people on their land, and you didn’t get noblewomen hanging out in forests with paupers. So my question was: If a nobleman called Robin of Locksley had existed in that era, how might he have become the Robin Hood we recognise today? I wanted to fuse the historical fact with that myth.

In terms of research, my favourite sources are contemporary ones that bring the past to life. I love twelfth century stories – Marie de France, Chr├ętien de Troyes, the moral fables. And I really like visual sources. I would love to take more time to just sit and look at manuscript images, because they are extraordinary, and they reveal so much about medieval life and their sense of humour. It’s a later document than my story is set but the Luttrell Psalter of about 1320-40 is brilliant from that perspective – it’s full of scenes of medieval noble life, like the lady sending her husband off to war and handing him his armour, or feasts being served at great tables, or royal ladies on the move, with an absurdly long wagon and all their servants and animals. Those sources bring the past to life, and make your realise that they were still human beings – it bridges the gap between us and them, and that is always what I want to do in my work.

Thanks Lauren, I've loved talking to you - and all the best with The Arrow of Sherwood.

You can follow Lauren on Twitter @History_Lauren or visit her website at

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Renaissance Theatre and murder - the Next Big Thing by Gabrielle Kimm

I'm totally thrilled to welcome Gabrielle Kimm, author of His Last Duchess and The Courtesan's Lover to tell us about her Next Big Thing - a game I was nominated for by Helen Hollick.

I'm a big fan of Gabrielle's page-turning books, so here are her answers to the next big thing questions.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

It’s now a fixed and final title!  It’s called ‘The Girl With The Painted Face’.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

My publishers told me that they were keen for me to write another novel set in Renaissance Italy, as the two previous books (His Last Duchess and The Courtesan’s Lover – both set in that era) have been selling quite nicely so far.  As a trained drama teacher, I had been interested in writing a book about actors for some time, but had presumed that it would be difficult to come up with a sensible central female character, if women’s parts in plays at that time were always taken by boys.  (Other than the ‘girl pretends to be boy to learn to act and then the truth of her identity is discovered’ scenario, there didn’t seem to be much opportunity for an original story.  But then in the course of researching, I came across the biography of an amazing woman called Isabella Andreini – a consummate Renaissance actress and a writer of some distinction – and discovered, much to my surprise and delight, that in Europe, unlike in Puritan Britain, women were as numerous and as successful as men on the stage.  It was an exciting discovery!  The aforesaid Isabella makes a cameo appearance (as herself!) in my story.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Historical Fiction.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, this is such a difficult question! (I’m not that clued up about young actors at the moment ...)  There’s a very pretty girl called Jenna Louise Coleman, who I think would be rather good as my lovely Sofia, and as for my central male character, Beppe Bianchi ... oh, that’s hard.  Beppe’s an actor, a tumbler and a juggler – he’s quirky and funny and tall and leggy ... the closest I can get is a much younger David Tennant (Beppe is only twenty-three).  But even the adorable Mr Tennant is not quite right.  I’d need to spend time ploughing through ‘Spotlight’ (directory of actors) to find the right person, I think!   There are parts in the story which could happily be played by Jude Law, Simon Callow, David Suchet and ... oh, possibly Alex Kingston – but you’ll have to read it to find out which parts!

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Seventeen-year-old seamstress, Sofia, adopted by an anarchic troupe of travelling actors, is wrongly accused of murder; a catalogue of misunderstandings and deliberate deceptions threaten her future happiness.

6) Will your book be self-published or traditionally published?

Traditionally – like my other two novels, it will be published by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown (in November 2013).

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Rather terrifyingly, I was given just over a year to complete the first draft to a standard fit to be handed in.  Each of my previous books having taken the best part of three years to write, this was something of a challenge!  I did manage to make my deadline, but only just!

8) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I’ve said, I was originally inspired by the discovery of the extraordinary Isabella Andreini (who amongst her many, many achievements, could improvise in front of a paying audience  ... in rhyming verse!!), but that then sparked a desire to write about the buzzing and exciting world of theatre.  I’m teaching in a small performing arts school at the moment, so I regularly spend a couple of days a week surrounded by ‘the buzzing and exciting world of theatre’ – perhaps it’s not that surprising that I’ve been wanting to write about it!

9) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The story centres around this troupe of travelling Commedia dell’ Arte actors.  The traditions of Commedia dell’Arte are totally fascinating, and they’re alive and well in the modern world! (I’ve had the best fun researching - including practical acting workshops with a modern troupe – the Rude Mechanical Theatre Company - so that I could learn to move and stand like a real commedia actor.) Although never formally adopted in Britain,  commedia traditions have in many ways filtered down into our own modern theatrical inheritance, from people like Charlie Chaplin, through to (surprising though it may seem ...) The Simpsons!  Commedia is a comedy of archetype – it sets up recognisable pastiches of types of individuals, and then makes sure that the ‘little man’ wins out over authority and pomposity. 

I’m also bringing out a little ebook ‘prequel’ in October – like an appetite whetter for the main novel.  It will be called ‘Playing a Dangerous Game’ and will be on Kindle for 99p.  It’s 12,000 words long – so perhaps more of a long short story than anything else, and it features my central character, Sofia, in a self-contained story, which leads into the beginning of ‘The Girl with the Painted Face’.

Now, let me introduce you to a couple of my writer friends. I live and work in rural West Sussex, and am lucky enough to have two other novelist friends living nearby.  Isabel Ashdown and Jane Rusbridge and I all met through the MA in Creative Writing course at the university in Chichester, and we now do lots of author gigs together, both locally and further afield, under the banner of ‘The Three Sussex Writers’.  Jane and Isabel are wonderful writers, and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with them regularly.

Take a look at their web sites:

Thanks Gabrielle - all the best with Playing a Dangerous Game and The Girl with the Painted Face.

Monday, 2 September 2013

A Divided Inheritance - there's nothing like a real book

I can't tell you how thrilled I am to receive the advance readers copies of A Divided Inheritance, which are in fact exactly what will go on sale in the shops in two months time.  I'm a complete book junkie in terms of the texture and feel of a book and this one looks wonderful with its textured gold and white writing. The back of the book looks great too. Pan Macmillan have done a lovely job inside and out and I'm so proud of it! 

It was a monster of a book to research, but I loved every minute and look forward to taking my readers on a thrilling journey from Jacobean London to Golden Age Spain.

I'm on a tour of the blogosphere on its release so copies just like these (or the electronic equivalent) will be winging their way out for review to bloggers shortly. You can find out where I'll be touring by clicking on the tour banner. Some of the tour hosts will be offering Giveaways. There are a few extra copies too so if you'd like to review a copy for your blog, do get in touch.

A family divided by fortune. A country divided by faith.

London 1609…

Elspet Leviston’s greatest ambition is to continue the success of her father Nathaniel’s lace business. But her dreams are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of her mysterious cousin Zachary Deane – who has his own designs on Leviston’s Lace.

Zachary is a dedicated swordsman with a secret past that seems to invite trouble. So Nathaniel sends him on a Grand Tour, away from the distractions of Jacobean London. Elspet believes herself to be free of her hot-headed relative but when Nathaniel dies her fortunes change dramatically. She is forced to leave her beloved home and go in search of Zachary – determined to claim back from him the inheritance that is rightfully hers.

Under the searing Spanish sun, Elspet and Zachary become locked in a battle of wills. But these are dangerous times and they are soon embroiled in the roar and sweep of something far more threatening, sending them both on an unexpected journey of discovery which finally unlocks the true meaning of family . . .

A Divided Inheritance is a breathtaking adventure set in London just after the Gunpowder Plot and in the bustling courtyards of Golden Age Seville.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Historical Fiction Short Stories - the HNS Anthology #histnov

I'm delighted to announce that my story 'A Dog's Life' is featured in this wonderful anthology of short stories from the Historical Novel Society - going to press today and shortly available on Kindle. I can't wait to read my copy and all the other short stories by my fellow writers. Thanks to Carol McGrath for her hard work co-ordinating this.

My own story is set in a snowy winter in the winding streets of Restoration London near the frozen Thames. I was inspired to write the story when I read an eye-witness account about what happened to the Thames when it finally began to thaw.

Below is another wonderful book about the frozen Thames - Helen Humphreys' lovely cameos of the frozen Thames through history. And of course the frozen Thames also features in my novel 'The Gilded Lily' - currently on special offer on kindle.