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.

Can some stories be too short?

I have to say I am not a great fan of short stories, but writing some of them last year was an interesting exercise.  It made me work on cutting the waffle and focusing on the main points.  I do not think I have succeeded all that well.  The problem I find with most short stories is that they do not develop plot or characters sufficiently.

There are some exceptions and I need to re-read some of them.  Somerset Maugham was the best, in my opinion.  Another good one was P G Wodehouse.  The French writer, Guy de Maupassant could also do it.  I felt I had read a book when I read one of their short stories. Last year, I read a collection of short stories by Agatha Christie and I definitely prefer her novels.  It was her longer short stories that I enjoyed most too.

I read some recently which I quite enjoyed, but I did not find them great.  I did like the pace and style.  The stories were easy to read and kept moving.  I did read them all.  They were not tedious.  The surprises were not that surprising to me. I found myself half-expecting the endings I got.   In some, I felt nothing much had happened.  I did not feel that each of the characters stood out enough.  I mean that I could not readily say what was different about each one.  I am not referring to physical description, although the writer was a minimalist, like myself, in that respect, which I like.  I mean personality, even speech patterns.   I know how hard it is to draw out personality in such a short space but that is our challenge.
In most of them there was not much about the location.  I do not mind, but I believe many people like to feel they know where they are.  I set Highwaypersons in Wales, where I used to live, to give it a sense of place.  To be honest, I get tired of long descriptions of countryside or of buildings, but it is a matter of taste.

I have just bought a novel by this same author.  It will be interesting to see if she does better when she allows herself the space to let the characters and plot develop.  It has a good opening.

Are you ready for the Mystery Thriller Week 12th to 22nd February 2017?

I hope you know about the Mystery Thriller Week in February.  I know it lasts for 10 days not 7 but that is its official name: Mystery Thriller Week. I will be joining in lots of the events and am really looking forward to it.  It should be fun for bloggers, readers, writers, critics and everyone with any interest in mysteries, thrillers or mystery-thrillers.  Let’s all get together for a week online.

Here is a link you might find useful  https://mysterythrillerweek.com/fans-readers-sign-up-here-for-contests-mystery-thriller-week-updates

and here is another https://mysterythrillerweek.com/online-calendar-of-events/

If you like something more visual and audible, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7yRqH2Xew0&feature=youtu.be

Hope to see you there.

Have historical novelists closed a gap in teaching?

There has been a divide among historians, including history teachers, between those who believe in teaching ‘History from Above’ and those who believe in ‘History from Below’.

When I was at school, almost everyone accepted that teaching history was mainly about kings, queens, generals and prime ministers.  The rest of the population got a mention only when they revolted.  Some people reacted against that, by creating the ‘History from Below’ movement, calling the earlier approach ‘History from Above’.  The new movement concentrated on economic and social history.  In other words, it looked at how most people lived.

You might think that a sensible approach was one that combined the two.  However, for a long time things were quite polarised.  Although I applaud the inclusion of the masses, instead of studying only the rulers, I was worried when I heard that in some schools teaching history had become so ‘bottom-up’ that there was hardly any mention of the decision-makers or of major national and international events.  I thought the pendulum had swung too far.

What about now?  I get the impression that a lot of people are combining the two approaches to teaching history.  At least, the the two extremes are less prevalent than they were.  It may depend on the views of particular teachers.  Fortunately, teachers are not the only ones who teach.

Soap Box

One group of people who seemed to keep a reasonable balance throughout all the changes in the academic world was historical novelists.  A good novel of any kind has always needed a plot and a setting.  Of course, some novels have perfectly good plots without getting involved in politics or other big stories.  They could be seen as belonging to the ‘From Below’ school.  Many, however, involve their characters with the major events of the time, arguably giving the best of both worlds.

What about me?  In Highwaypersons, the main characters are ordinary people but the Jacobite Rebellion provides the background.  There is some discussion of the issues involved.  I find that the big story gives structure within which the small story can take place and be given a greater significance.

Am I exaggerating?  If you think I am being a little pretentious on behalf of historical novelists, I would point out that when almost all schools were teaching History from Above, the one way to get a feel of life in past ages was to read historical novels.  Think of Dickens, Austen, the Brontes,  C S Forester or Arthur Conan Doyle.  All right, some of their works were not historical when they were written but they were by the middle of the Twentieth Century.

I think we should keep up the tradition.  


Where do writers get their ideas from?

You may think I should have written, ‘from where do writers get their ideas?’ but there you are.

I think there are two kinds of writer: those who struggle to get ideas and those, like me, who get too many.

  • Some people get an idea for a book and work on it in a focused way until it is finished. Their problem is to find something to write about next.
  • Some famous authors seem to have written only one novel. I have heard that English Literature students, and probably students of other literature too, often like to major on such writers, as they have to study only one book.   Dickens was most annoying: he was so prolific.  What is worse for students is a writer whose style and subject matter varies from one book to another.  How are you supposed to make a study of them?
  • Other writers, especially these days, write one successful novel and then write a series of sequels.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, but in some cases the quality deteriorates with each new title.  They are still drawing on that first good idea, since they have not had any more.

Risk Dice

The other kind of writer is one who finds inspiration everywhere. 

  • Writing historical novels, I have all of history to draw on. It is full of stories.  Not all are well known.  Some whole centuries have been neglected by novelists.  There must be lots of treasures to be unearthed.  Yet, even in the much overdone Tudor period, for example, there are many stories waiting to be told.
  • There are also lots of interesting people around. Just listen!  I have heard plenty of interesting stories, even if told by boring people.  I hope I can incorporate many of them into my books.
  • I do not plagiarise. I do not think I could if I tried.  I would always want to change things.  I do, however, get ideas from other writers, from films, from TV, in fact all around me.  I can be reading or watching something and I start imagining how else the story might have gone.  Or think up a backstory if none was given.  Or what might have happened after the end.

If I do anything you might consider clever, it is that I knit a lot of these different strands together to make a complete story.  How effective I am, you must judge for yourself.

I will welcome your feedback.



Oh, No! Not The Tudors Again!

I see the BBC have just run yet another series about one of the Tudors.  It is The six wives of Henry VIII.  I am pleased to see so much history being broadcast these days and I think Lucy Worsley is a good presenter.  I am also glad that the series began by reminding us that Henry had been king for over twenty years before he began to let his fears over the succession poison his previously happy relationship with his first wife.  All that time he was a conservative Roman Catholic. All too often people tell the story beginning with the breakdown of his first marriage.  I just wish they would find another period to look at.

Is it history or her-story?  I do think it is good that they are looking at the story from the women’s point of view, instead of seeing them through the men’s eyes, treating the women as pawns in their games.  I have read some of Philippa Gregory’s books on this period and enjoyed them, but not as much as her White Queen series.  That is probably because, like most of us, I was a lot less familiar with the Wars of the Roses than with the Tudors.  I agree with many critics of the TV version, that the strength of the books was that each one was seeing the story through the eyes of a particular woman, whilst the TV tried to do an amalgamation, which did not quite work.


I enjoyed the book The Other Queen, also by Philippa Gregory, telling the tale of Mary Queen of Scots in captivity.  It was told as by three people: her gaoler, the Earl of Shrewsbury, his wife, and Mary herself.  Each chapter took a different perspective.  Most imaginative.  It was also interesting that the story was told by people who were not at Court and saw how things developed in the Midlands, especially the Rising.

I was interested to note, recently, that she is not related to Susanna Gregory, author of historical detective fiction.  When I am in the mood for a historical whodunit, I sometimes read her books.  They are fascinating in the detail and I like the characters.  Sometimes I find the action a little slow, but at other times that appeals to me.  I think we need to recognise that we all have moods and not blame the author if we pick up a book at the wrong time.