What are your reasons for reading historical fiction?
Of course, there are lots of reasons. If you enjoy historical fiction, or anything else, you can’t always say why. If you try to do so, it can spoil your fun. You can overanalyse things. One reason could be just a love of history. Another could be a fascination with a particular character. Then you might enjoy trying to separate the facts from the fiction. But I would like to suggest another pleasure might be that it’s a way to get away from cliches.
Why do you find cliches less prevalent in historical fiction than elsewhere?
When writing historical fiction, I have to be careful to avoid words and phrases that are, or seem, anachronistic. Most cliches I come across have been created in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Journalism and television have contributed a lot. This could be due to laziness by the writers and presenters, or it could be because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that cliches make things easier for the public to relate to. Their very familiarity has earned them a certain acceptability. People like what they know.
How do I cope with creating cliche-free historical fiction?
I enjoy the challenge of finding ways to express myself that do not sound too modern. (On the other hand, I also try to avoid sounding too old-fashioned. I want the narrative to flow easily.) This means I have to think what it is that I am trying to say and either use plain words or find metaphors and similies that have not been overworked. Some could even be original. Whether I succeed or not is for you to judge. I would welcome your feedback. Start with Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties, or wait for the sequel, The King’s Justice.
Over the last couple of months, I have seen a lot of programmes about history on TV, especially BBC4. Some were disappointing, but I found many worth watching. You may have seen my comments on the one about the Armada, but I wish they would give the Tudors a rest.
A series I found fascinating was Fit to Rule which Lucy Worsley presented. It looked at the health issues of most of our monarchs from Henry VIII to the Twentieth Century.
Did I not know many monarchs had health issues?
Henry’s problems of obtaining a male heir are well-known, but I did not know Charles I wore surgical boots. Perhaps that fact, along with his small stature, may have made him oversensitive to criticism and particularly precious about his divine right. Similarly, William III’s asthma may explain why he withdrew from much of the social life of the Court and why he appeared distant.
Of course, there were several occasions when the monarch’s inability to reproduce led to a succession crisis : Mary I, Elizabeth I, Charles II, Anne. I would like to think that people would have handled Queen Victoria’s inability to recover from the death of Albert differently today.
Does the monarch’s health have to matter that much?
Yes! At least, it does when the succession is hereditary and when the monarch has serious political power. You might say this was an argument for a constitutional monarchy or a republic. Or perhaps a system where fitness to rule was a factor in the succession. If Parliament could exclude Roman Catholics, could it not exclude people who showed an inability to rule for other reasons? George IV comes to mind.
We are fortunate to live in a time when such issues are less critical than they were. In any case, we have a Queen who is eminently fit to rule in every sense. (Call me a creep if you like, but compare her with any of her predecessors.)
Someone has made a comment that the title Highwaypersons is just political correctness. Of course, nobody would have used that term in the Eighteenth Century, but I chose it deliberately. That was partly because I hoped I would arouse a little interest by using a new, but rather anachronistic, term and partly because I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the novel was about two people, one male and one female, who turned to crime.
Is the concept of Highwaypersons an anachronism?
No! There were women who took part in every sort of crime in that period. Famous pirates included Anne Bonny and Mary Reid. There were probably lots of women among the hordes of footpads, pickpockets and common thieves, but they do not seem as interesting as pirates and highwaywomen. That last word is also an anachronism.
Why did women become highwaypersons?
Some people have suggested that more women became criminals than you might expect because they did not have many other opportunities, apart from being housewives, domestic servants or prostitutes. Crime offered financial rewards and a certain kind of excitement, which most women would not have had in any other way.
Will there be more books called Highwaypersons?
Yes! I hope you found the above comments interesting, whatever your opinion of my choice of title for the book. As it is the first of a series, I do not intend to change it for the sequels. I hope you will enjoy all the books, whatever you think of the word, but I would love to hear your opinions.
Book One, Debts and Duties is available on Amazon, Createspace and Kindle.
Book Two, The King’s Justice, will be published soon. It just needs editing and proofreading.
In the last 400 years or so, many people have produced books, articles, films, TV programmes and talks about the Armada. I could hardly believe that anyone could now find anything to add to our knowledge of that campaign. That is why I had misgivings when I decided last month to watch the documentary by Dan Snow, Twelve Days to Save England. I got a pleasant surprise. Not only did Dan present the story in an interesting way, yet without too much dumbing down, but he also really did give some new information.
Where did the latest ‘news’ about the Armada come from?
Dan and his colleagues had drawn on research by some British academics who had had access to letters and diaries the Spanish Admiral and some of his captains wrote at the time. These had been in archives in Spain and nobody, even Spanish historians, had studied them until now. They gave new insights into the campaign.
Did these documents contradict previous accounts of the Armada?
No! What they provided was an insight into the thinking on the Spanish side and this helped us see where the Armada campaign went wrong (for them). In particular, they revealed the personalities of the key players and the decision-making process. I could see how different it was from the English equivalent, as well as significant similarities.
How did the Spanish manage the Armada campaign? And the English?
King Philip was a micro-manager. He gave detailed written instructions covering all sorts of aspects of the project. Amazingly, there were significant gaps. In particular, he gave no instructions as to how the Armada was to link up with the Army waiting in what is now Belgium, although that was a key element in the plan. The English had plans, but Elizabeth left a lot up to the initiative of her Admiral Howard and his captains. They, of course, being defenders, had to be flexible, as they had to react to whatever the Spanish did.
How did personalities affect the conduct of the Armada campaign by the Spanish?
The Spanish Admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was a politician and administrator who had no experience of the sea. He relied on following the King’s instructions to the letter. Some of his captains, especially his second-in-command, Ricalde, were experienced and believed in the need to take the initiative where they saw an opportunity. They knew you can never plan for every eventuality in war. They had several heated arguments. It is possible that the Spanish could have won if they had not stuck so rigidly to the plan. The bad relations between the Admiral and his captains can have done nothing to help.
How differently did personalities affect the way the English fought the Armada?
Admiral Howard was another nobleman with no experience of the sea, but he listened to his captains and learnt – quickly. He did not abrogate his responsibilities, however. Howard made the big decisions, but in the light of advice. He also knew when to let individual captains exercise their initiative. He gained the respect of his subordinates.
Why did both sides have leaders who had no experience of the sea?
In 1588 people were even more obsessed with class than today. Captains, and even ordinary seamen, would have resented someone they considered their social inferior giving them orders. Had Drake been made Admiral, many of the other captains would have resented it, considering themselves at least as good as him. Howard was the Queen’s cousin. His Spanish counterpart was not royal, but was a personal friend of King Philip and a man who had held high political office. Both monarchs probably expected their admirals to get their practical knowledge from their subordinates. In Elizabeth’s case, she was right.
What relevance has the Armada to us today?
This episode of our history says a lot about management, planning and leadership. I wonder how Donald Trump would have got on? Would he have listened to his subordinates? If he had a plan, would he have stuck to it?
And you? What lessons can you take from this, if you are in charge of anything?
Invasion of Privacy is a modern crime thriller set in and around London. The hero, Brody Taylor, is a ‘white hat’ computer hacker who, in the course of a competitive hack, comes illicitly upon information about a serial killer. He wants to help the police catch the murderer without incriminating himself, either for the murder or for his cybercrimes. On the way, a romance develops between Brody and the female detective inspector on the case. The events cause him to re-evaluate his career and lifestyle. There is a subplot about his relationship with his flatmate and another about the internal relationships and office-politics among the police.
Title: ‘Invasion of Privacy’
The title refers to several ways in which people can and do invade our privacy, online and off: the ultimate invasion being murder.
In Invasion of Privacy, Ian Sutherland has created a well crafted story, with a good balance between the different elements. Invasions of privacy occur in several ways. The writer has also achieved a good balance between the on-line investigation and the more usual detective work. There are plenty of twists and surprises. The beginning, middle and end follow each other logically without too much digression. Tension and action build up towards the end, but with some at earlier stages.
It is interesting to find a detective hero who is not a police officer. Yet the police are not incompetent – just out of their depth with the level of sophistication of the IT issues involved.
Description and explanation
Descriptions of people and places are sufficient, without slowing the action. I am not familiar with most of the locations, but the descriptions seem authentic.
As we follow Brody’s efforts at hacking and at investigating the crimes, the writer leads us through detailed technical explanations of the process. I found this fascinating, but sometimes hard to follow. It is also frightening. How safe is our privacy online?
The book is quite fast paced throughout, but with sufficient variation to let the reader recover his/her mental breath, except for some of the longer sections of explanation of the IT.
I found the main characters well drawn, credible and likeable. The minor characters too are generally more than one-dimensional. The writer makes each character clearly differentiated.
We see both Brody and the inspector go through conflict and change as they react to events and each other.
I found this book to be well written: the style appropriate for the subject matter, and the explanations of technical terms sufficient, bearing in mind this is not a textbook. Not all readers will agree, because it will depend on each one’s level of computer literacy. I think the author has struck a reasonable balance, given the subject matter.
I enjoyed Invasion of Privacy, but it is not for everyone. Its strength and weakness are the same: cybercrime is an unusual area for fiction, up to now. This makes the book contemporary and different, but it also makes it hard for the general reader to follow at times. If you can cope with the technical elements, it is a good crime thriller. There are also some nice touches of humour.
The BBC is reviewing the way it deals with religion: not only in ‘religious’ programmes but also in drama. A long overdue review. As a practicing Christian and a historical novelist, I have a particular interest in this subject. I cannot avoid approaching this with a certain bias, but I will try to be as objective as possible. I have written recently about Gunpowder.
Do historical documentaries treat religion fairly?
Some are very good. A lot of the ones about the Tudors have been. However, some have played down the very real threat to England from Catholic Spain and the oppressive nature of the mediaeval church against which Protestants were protesting. It would be helpful if more documentaries gave information, as a few have, about the role of religion in everyday life, not just doctrinal disputes among academics.
Which ones are most unfair to religion?
Generally, anything about the nineteenth century. They usually show, rightly, the shortcomings of the church with far too little attention to the positive side. They also tend to judge it by the standards of the twenty-first century. For instance, most people would have expected the church to speak up for the ten commandments, at any time before the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.
What about the Empire?
Documentaries tend to blame missionaries and others for exporting both the Christian religion and the British Way of Life, wherever they went, with no cultural sensitivity. This is a fair criticism up to a point. However, there were always some who tried to separate biblical truth from Britishness. They were among the most successful in the long term. I would also like to see more information and analysis about that which Christianity and the British way of life replaced. I would like to see some discussion of the alternatives. Would modern secularists have permitted the burning of widows, the sacrificing of infants or the deprivation of property of converts? Would they not have challenged unscientific beliefs about disease and disability?
Can’t fiction depict religion as the writer wishes?
Of course, it is unfair to object to any one drama that portrays a religious person in a negative way. Noone can say it is unrealistic to suggest that there were some clergymen and religious lay people who were judgmental, hypocritical, selfish or guilty of any sin you can name. People have always been human. Likewise, there must have been many who were well meaning but naive or simply inept. My problem is that historical dramas seem to portray almost all religious people as fitting into one of those categories.
How should religion be shown in costume drama?
There is plenty of evidence from contemporary letters and diaries that many ministers of religion in every age were sincere, sensible and competent, like Brother Cadfael and Father Brown. I especially congratulate the makers of The Last Kingdom for showing King Alfred as a sincere Christian. He seems fully human, with good and bad qualities, but with real faith. I am sorry that these seem to me to be the exceptions. Why? Perhaps it’s too easy to go for the stereotype, rather than having to create real characters.
Let us pray that the review is thorough and extends to historical dramas and documentaries.
So far, only one person has posted a review of Highwaypersons on Amazon. Kathleen M Lance. She gives it a mixed reception. Her main point is that the pace picks up a lot about a third of the way through. She found the first part much less of an enjoyable read than the next two thirds. I am glad she liked the book once she got to the action.
How do I feel about this review?
I think it’s a fair point, although I am surprised Ms Lance found the change of pace made such a difference to her enjoyment of the story. Obviously I would have been happier if the reviewer had said it was a great read from start to finish. On the other hand, you don’t learn anything from such critics. This one gives me something to think about as I work on my next novels.
Give me your review.
I would love to hear from more people about this. Did anyone appreciate the slow start? Time to get to know the characters and understand the background. Or would a shorter lead-in have gone down better? Did any of the incidents in the early part make it interesting, even if not so fast-paced? If you’ve not read the book yet, now’s the time, as it’s free on Kindle until Friday. Read the book and the review. Then say what you think.
As I said in my last blog, I’m giving away Highwaypersons, Book I, Debts and Duties, FREE on Kindle. It will run from Monday 18th to Friday 22nd December, so get yours while you can. Be ready for Book II coming soon. Buy one, or both, as a present for someone for Easter? On Monday, go to the link above.
Got plenty to read this Christmas? Expecting books among your presents? Whatever your answer, here’s some good news. I hope to publish Highwaypersons II, The King’s Justice in the New Year. Watch for the launch. And now for more good news.
A free read!
Perhaps now is a good time to start Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties, so you will be able to get the most out of Book II. As the publication of the second book has been delayed, I’m going to offer Book I for free on Kindle for a few days just before Christmas. I’ll announce the exact dates soon.
I have lost count of the number of times I have rewritten my latest book, Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice. Not that I have scrapped it and started again. I have revised it and changed lots of elements each time. I keep thinking I have nearly finished, but every time I am wrong. Whenever I am just going through it one last time, I notice something I am not happy with. I was beginning to think I was becoming a perfectionist, when I was reminded that most great writers, and lots of not-so-great ones, rewrite their books time after time. One famous author said, “Any fool can write: the skill is in the rewriting.”
What am I rewriting?
Although I do keep spotting typos and grammatical errors, my main focus is the story. I find parts that don’t add anything to the whole. Someone said, “Give readers information on a need to know basis,” making a lot of the chapters redundant. I also keep finding things that need adding, in order to make clear the characters’ characters and their motivations.
Is that all I am rewriting?
No. I want to have another look at the period detail and other descriptions. I want you to feel you are right there. On the other hand, I don’t want to slow down the action with too much detail. Then I want to think if I have expressed myself as well as I could, to make it an interesting and enjoyable read. There is the complication that it is a sequel. Not everyone reading it will have read Book I. This means that I need to ensure I don’t take too much for granted, such as assuming all readers know who all the characters are and how they relate to each other. Or how my characters became highwaypersons. On the other hand I don’t want to include so much backstory that it detracts from the actual sequel.
Why is rewriting taking so long?
Every now and then, I leave it and get on with some other writing. Some of that will be published in another name but I am also working on more Geoffrey Monmouth novels. It helps to go away from a work and come back a little fresher. You can be too close to it. I can see how difficult it would be if I was working on the same book all the time. I would fear for my sanity. (Don’t answer that!) Sometimes, I just get a bit of inspiration relating to one of my other books and I just have to follow it up before I forget it. There have also been times when I have come upon historical facts that I have wanted to incorporate into one or other of my books. OK – if I did my research properly before I started that would occur less often. Sorry!
Am I doing all this rewriting myself?
So far, yes. However, when I am as satisfied as I am likely to be, I will probably send it to an editor to correct mistakes and improve the wording, because I want this book to be as good as it can be.