How do you like the language in Highwaypersons?

One aspect of Highwaypersons: Debts and Duties on which I have had little feedback is the language. In any historical novel this is an issue to be considered. I tried to make it modern enough to be easily readable, whilst avoiding anything that would be too gratingly modern, such as ‘awesome’, ‘iconic’ or ‘intentional’. I would welcome your thoughts on whether I have got the right balance. There is still time for me to make some changes to Book II, The King’s Justice before I finish it.

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Any other comments would also be welcome.

Can we celebrate our Britishness? What is it?

What is it and who’s asking?

Attempts by the Government to make immigrants take a test in knowledge of Britain and British values have been controversial, as have plans to introduce an oath of loyalty for people applying for certain positions. Britishness, British values and whatever we are supposed to be loyal to are hard to define or agree upon.

Now You Know!

This week there was a terrible incident outside the Houses of Parliament. The terrorist was apparently attacking our British society and its values, whatever he thought they were.

He failed.

As Andrew Neil said on This Week, this incident has brought out the best in us. Our real Britishness was shown by those who tried to help the victims and by the outpourings of sympathy and support demonstrated in vigils and small gestures in London and throughout the country. Police officers have received flowers, cards and kind words from all sorts of people. People of all ages, classes, religions (and non-religions) and ethnicities. If the terrorist wanted to sow division, he did the opposite.

We showed our Britishness. We don’t need to define it! And we will defend it. Not just the police or MI5. All of us. They can’t defeat all of us.


Do I love animals?

I have mentioned my love of horses, but some people have asked if they are the only animals I am fond of.

The answer is that I have always loved all animals.  Some make better pets than others.  Over the centuries, dogs, cats and horses seem to have adapted to our society better than most.  Many are best left to get on with their own lives without human interference.  Others could not survive in the wild these days.  All deserve a place on this planet.  I have supported WWF since I was a child.

Here is a South American frog i an environment created to be as natural as possible in Chester Zoo.  I think this kind is poisonous.  It s also beautiful.

I hate crimes against animals and sometimes give them a bit of negative publicity in my books.  I am not a vegetarian, but I believe in animal welfare, in agriculture and in all our dealings with other creatures.

In historical novels, horses are more likely to play a part than most creatures, but I am thinking of bringing other animals into my books at some stage.   Perhaps I will have a hero surviving in the wilderness and having to interact with animals and nature in unusual ways.  I might try a short story just to see how it is received.  Watch this space.


Can history be about what did not happen? That’s counterfactual!

I have not yet watched SS-GB and I don’t think it’s quite my sort of thing, but raises an interesting question or two.  I have heard of ‘counterfactual history’.  That is writing about things that might have happened if things had turned out differently.  Say, if Harold had won at Hastings or if Labour had won the 2010 General Election.

To some historians, this is totally pointless.  We study what did happen.  There’s enough to get stuck into, without wasting time on what did not happen.  The big argument in favour of doing some counterfactual history, (or speculation, if you like) is that it helps us see the importance of what did happen.  For instance, if the South had won the American Civil War, would slavery have lasted until now?  Would other states have left the Union whenever the Federal Government did something they did not like?  If the British had not ruled India, how long would the rajahs have resisted modernisation?  Would Gandhi have been a rebel against India?

Counterfactual history can also help us see how overblown something had been.  If things would have turned out pretty much the same in the long run.  If Scott had reached the South Pole before Amundsen, would the World be any different now?

As a writer of historical fiction, I am between the two approaches.  I frame my stories in real history.  Or try to.  But I fill in the unknown parts with things I have made up.  Things that I think could have happened.  I tweak the facts a little at times to make the story flow better, but I try to be faithful to the actual events as far as possible.  I include historical notes in my books to help the reader sort the facts from the fiction.

Sometimes, a look at counterfactual history helps me get a better perspective.  Think what a Jacobite victory would have led to.

When and how do you use your brain?

A few months ago I joined a webinar for writers.  As expected, I got a little out of some sessions, more out of others and a great deal from some.

One new idea I heard was about how to get the most out of your brain.

A lot of participants had said that it was important to write at the time of day your brain is most active, and that depends on your personality.  I usually work best in the late afternoon and again sometimes late at night.  I am not good early in the morning.  I wake up gradually.

One speaker added something just for people like me.  Some people are wide awake as soon as they open their eyes.  I am one who wakes up in stages.  The speaker said that research has shown that the creative part of my brain will wake up first, the analytical part last.


So what?

When you try to solve a problem or look for a new idea, you can find your analytical mind jumping in too soon.  You overthink things.  You dismiss an idea because you can’t see how it would work.  In that half-awake state, the creative ideas get the space they need to establish themselves before the analysis begins.  Of course, you need to do the analytical stuff and chuck out all your really stupid ideas, as well as working out the details to make the good ones workable.  Later.

I made a note of this during the webinar and thought I had forgotten it. This week it came back to me, because I have been trying to think how to improve Highwaypersons II: The King’s Justice, which I am working on.   It did not seem to flow, although I was happy with all the different elements, more or less.  On two mornings, when I was half-asleep, I got ideas that were a big help.  Change the order of certain sections, and involve one of the characters in a part of the story he was not originally involved in.  I am now working through the details.  I think you will find it a much better book for this.

I will remember to make more use of my slow starts in the mornings.

When do you do your thinking?

Who is above the Law?

There have been unusual clashes recently between the government and the judiciary on both sides of the Atlantic this year already.  Is the government above the Law?

Here it was over the need for Parliament to explicitly agree to the commencement of the process for leaving the European Union.  Some of the press called the judges ‘Enemies of the People’ for interpreting the Law in a way the Government did not like.

Did they not realise that it would have set a dangerous precedent if the government could have made such a decision without parliamentary approval?  A referendum has no status in Law unless one is given it by Parliament, but no such power was stated in the Act authorising the holding of the referendum.  What next would this or a future government try to do outside the Law and without parliamentary authority?

In the same way, Donald Trump is now in an unnecessary battle with the judges in America over his use of executive powers to introduce a travel ban.  Had it gone through Congress, or had the President produced evidence showing the necessity for such a ban, there would have been no conflict.

This reminds me of the conflicts in Britain in the Seventeenth Century, exemplified by Hamden’s case.  Mr Hamden refused to pay Ship Money, a tax imposed by King Charles I without parliamentary approval.  This raised the question of the powers of the King versus those of Parliament and those of the Courts.  It was one of the steps leading to our Civil War and ultimately to the public execution of the King.

After the Restoration of the monarchy, Charles II avoided such conflicts, but his brother James II did not.  It cost him his throne, although not his life.

George of Hanover became King George I in 1714 because he acknowledged the need to work within a constitutional framework, whilst certain other claimants to the throne failed to.  I brought this out in Highwaypersons, in a discussion my hero has with a Member of Parliament, in order to give some context and meaning to the Jacobite Rebellion and to show why most British people, including most of the real and fictitious characters in the book, supported King George.  It was not just religion, or bigotry.

In Highwaypersons II: The King’s Justice, this issue comes up again.  Can even the King overturn the verdict of a judge and jury? Even in the interests of Justice?  The book will be published this summer.

I hope all that our ancestors won in those days will not be lost by our giving in to misuse of authority by the Government, even when it claims a mandate from the people.  We would then become an elected dictatorship.

I hope our American cousins get this message. 

Is there such a thing as ‘Secret History’?

I have just discovered that I am not alone in being irritated by the titles of TV programmes such as The Secret History of… when the content reveals nothing that was a secret.  Very occasionally there are discoveries of secret papers, but usually all the information was available to anyone who looked.  A more honest title would be Things you probably did not know about… 

JHM Claims

The recent series on Great Fibs of History presented by Lucy Worsley is at least more honest in its title.  It is a reminder that history is written by the winners.  Some of the ‘revelations’ have been around for some time.  It is just that a certain view has been more widely known or accepted by the public.  In particular, William Shakespeare’s interpretation of history has all too often been the one that stuck.  He was, of course, a playwright not a historian.  And he had an agenda.  Keeping in with the Court.

I am grateful to Lucy for helping get some of the alternative views (not alternative facts) some publicity.

For historical novelists there is always a decision to be made as to whether to accept or challenge the generally held views.  Do we give the readers what they expect or do we surprise them?

I try to be true to my own understanding, usually.  Of course, I am writing fiction, and sometimes take liberties with history to help the story.  In Highwaypersons: Debts and Duties, I made the Battle of Preston take an extra day to give my hero time to do his stuff, as I admitted in the historical notes in the book.

In the sequel, Highwaypersons II: The King’s Justice, there are some little-known facts about the slave trade.  I hope readers will find them interesting and will not be upset if they contradict the commonly held views.  I am not revealing secrets.  Just pointing out things that have often been overlooked.

JHM Claims


Do I need a murder or will any mystery do?

I am well on the way to finishing Highwaypersons II: The King’s Justice.  I will need to revise it a couple of times after I finish this draft.  Then I will send it to a professional editor to iron out all the kinks.  I expect to publish it in June.

This is the cover of Book I, Debts and Duties.  Will I use it for Book II?

As I look at it, I realise that there is no murder in it so far.  Can I call it a historical detective novel?  Is it in some other genre?  Does it matter?

  • There is a mystery all right.  Billy and Bethan try to find out what has happened to Bethan’s husband, Henry.
  • There is espionage.  They uncover another Jacobite plot.  If you thought they gave up after the 1715 Rebellion until just before the famous 1745 one, you are in for a surprise, as was the Government in 1716.
  • There is betrayal.  Who betrays whom?  You will have to read it to see.
  • There is danger.  Billy and Bethan have got to keep out of the clutches of the Law.  They are, after all, highwaypersons.
  • There is deception.  They use a new approach to take money from a rich man whom they blame for their father’s imprisonment.
  • There is romance.  Yes.  The lovely but infuriating Helen is still around and Billy is still unsure of her feelings for him.  Or his for her.
  • There is moral conflict.  (As well as plenty of a more physical kind.)  Billy and Bethan encounter the slave trade in several ways.  An education and a challenge.

Do I need to write a murder to make it a proper mystery novel?  

Is there enough to satisfy readers in what I have got already?

By the way.  The next sequel will begin with a murder.  Definitely.

Where did I learn my history?

You may think a historical novelist ought to have a degree in history.  You might be surprised to learn that I have not.  Will you hold that against me?

I do have History A-Level.  That is as far as my official study of the subject goes.  Is that what ‘education’ and ‘study’ mean to you?  I will always be grateful to the late A.W.Merrison, the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University in my day, whose speech on my Graduation Day (I had graduated in Economics and Accountancy) was about the importance of continuing to learn, whether formally or informally, throughout one’s life.

I have always followed that advice.  Some years ago, I did a correspondence course in Church History via London Bible College.   Otherwise all my study of history has been informal.  I have read historical fiction and non-fiction.  I have watched documentaries, costume dramas and swashbucklers.  I am glad to note that the quality of these has gone up a lot in recent years.  There was a time when the powers that be, or that were, at he BBC and ITV seemed to think historical documentaries had to be ‘dumbed down’ if they were to be made at all.  I think Channel Four’s Time Team deserves some of the credit for the change.

Apart from that, we are lucky to live in a country where history is all around us.  Of course, it is especially so, if you live in a historic city such as London, Edinburgh, York or Chester.  However, if you look around you, you will find almost every part of Britain full of history.  Everywhere there are castles, abbeys, cathedrals, stone circles, stately homes, Victorian civic buildings, and apparently ordinary houses with blue plaques.

Coats of arms tell something of the story of those who are entitled to display them.  Some belong not to noble families but to institutions such as local authorities, charities or businesses.  This is the coat of arms of Monmouthshire.  The motto means ‘Loyal to Both’ – England and Wales, like me.


History is also written into our language.  Words can remind us of our heritage from the Romans, the vikings, the Normans, and the Empire.  Jodhpurs are named after the town of Jodhpur in India.  Bungalows are Indonesian.  Lots of everyday words and expressions come from our seafaring tradition: swing a cat, three sheets in the wind, on your beam ends.

Place-names and people’s surnames often tell a story.  Dumfries was once settled by Frisians.  Wallsend marks the end of Hadrian’s Wall.  A tyler made tiles.  A fletcher was a man who made the fletchings, the feathery parts, for arrows.  Dyers and carders worked in the wool industry.

There are old traditions, local and national, not just at Christmas, that link us with their origins.    From Trooping the Colour to Warrington Walking Day, we keep the past alive.

Even our food tells the story of immigration in the Twentieth Century, and earlier.

To know our history, just look, listen, taste, ask.