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Posts tagged “History


No I’ve not been playing chess. A couple of weeks ago I went to Warwickshire for the weekend to go around some castles and visit the local area.

A huge chunk of the alternative history novel I’ve been writing is set in this neck of the woods so I thought it would be a good idea to see what the places were actually like. It was also a good excuse for a holiday (but a working one, of course!)

There has been a castle in Kenilworth since the 1120s and improvements were made by King John, his descendant, John of Gaunt and became a residence for the Lancastrian Kings. Elizabeth I gave the castle to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and he transformed it into a palace fit for a queen. No expense was spared when the queen came to visit him and Dudley almost bankrupted himself in an effort to entertain his sovereign. In the years following the Civil War, the castle fell into ruin, which inspired the poet, Sir Walter Scott and many other artists and writers, including Charles Dickens.

Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle GardensThe next day I went to Warwick Castle. Like Kenilworth, this is a fascinating place and perfect for all the family. This castle has a history that spans eleven hundred years since Aethelflead of the Mercians (daughter of Alfred the Great) build a burgh to defend the region against Norse invaders. The castle itself was started by William the Conqueror and many improvements were made during the Middle Ages. The castle also played major roles during the Baronial Wars of the thirteenth century and the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth. The castle was neglected during the Tudor period and was granted to a courtier of James I to Sir Fulke Greville, who began to restore it. After the Civil War, the castle was restored further and has played host to a zoo and society balls. Now it is a tourist attraction and is the perfect place for people of all ages to enjoy history.

Warwick Castle



The Tower of London

Every castle or old building has a set of stories to tell. Stories about who was there, kings, queens, soldiers, workers, spies. Stories about what went on, marriages, murders, plots and imprisonments. These take the forms of records that have been kept, names and dates scratched into the walls, of artwork and from word of mouth. And it’s legends that give these places character and, sometimes, notoriety.

And one place that has a long and well-known history is the Tower of London.


The White Tower

The Tower of London has been an integral part of England’s history since the Norman Conquest. For centuries this fortress was one of the tallest buildings in the capital and loomed above the population for miles as London grew.

The Tower, as it became known as its notoriety increased, served many functions throughout its history. It was a royal palace for kings such as Henry III, Henry VI and Edward IV. It was a storehouse for the Crown Jewels after an attempt to steal them from Edward I in 1303 almost succeeded.

For centuries it was the home of the Royal Mint, a long avenue of houses outside the main fortress would ring with the clanging of coins being struck from metal.

Under the drawbridge and in other parts lived the menagerie of animals and birds who inhabited the Tower from around 1210 to 1834 when the Duke of Wellington moved them to London Zoo. Lions, bears, various birds (including ravens), monkeys and an alligator were just some of the exotic creatures on display to visitors.

Most famously the Tower was a prison and the scene for many daring attempts at escape, murder and execution. The ghosts of Henry VI and Anne Boleyn are some of those who are thought to stalk the fortress at night.

Today it’s a museum, one of London’s biggest attractions. If you want to learn more about the many, many stories that this place holds I can recommend Nigel Jones’ book, The Tower, (Windmill Books, 2012) and going to visit, of course.


Read Through History: May 2015

Summer’s here… apparently. Well, they say a heatwave is on the way so here’s hoping.

Now, I bet you’re all wondering what I’ve been plundering from the local libraries, aren’t you? Well, here we are:

1) I Belong to the Earth by J. A. Ironside. Taking a break from historical fiction (‘Whaaaat?’ I hear you all cry) I enjoyed this very much. A classic ghost story with elements of fantasy added for good measure.

2) Assassins’ Creed: Renaissance by Oliver Bowden. Although I’ve not played the game I’m tempted to give the first one in the series another go and move onto this. A good adventure story with a good mix of historical characters and events.

3) Thief’s Tale by S. J. A. Turney. This is the first in the Ottoman Cycle series. Gives a good account of life in Istanbul shortly after the Ottoman conquest. If you liked the Marius’ Mules series, you’ll like this too.

4) Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the East by Alex Rutherford. I’m glad I gave this a go. I know very little about this time and place so it’s good to try something new.

I also finished The Tower by Nigel Jones that I started last month. One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. There will be a Tower of London post at some point. Honest.

Portsmouth: The Home of Great Writing

On Wednesday the University of Portsmouth hosted a talk from a local writer, Mister Matt Wingett, about the literary history of this Island City.

Now, Portsmouth has something of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its literary heritage but there really is nothing to be embarrassed about. Below is a list of some of the people Matt mentioned in his very interesting talk.

Lake Allen, with a storyteller’s knack for writing history, wrote a two hundred and fifty page History of Portsmouth in 1817, drawing on the work of his grandfather Lake Taswell, a surgeon and writer of a guidebook to the town. Along with fellow scholar, Frederick Madden, he formed the Atheneum Debating Society. They were joined by brothers Julian and Henry Slight, who had written their own history of the town in rhyme. This Metrical History of Portsmouth did not go down to well with their fellows.

Frederick Marryat, a British Naval Officer, was one of the first writers of naval fiction and one book in particular, Peter Simple, features naval life in Portsmouth. Marryat was a contemporary and acquaintance of Charles Dickens, who was born in Portsmouth. There is a statue to him and his birthplace in Landport is now a museum but it is not mentioned in any of his writings.

Two other writers from the Victorian Age, Rudyard Kipling and H. G. Wells, both spent time in Portsmouth while growing up and did not have the best of times. Wells worked in various jobs in different states of drudgery, which may have inspired him to write about the Morlocks and the Eloi in the Time Machine. Kipling, living under the tyranny of someone he referred to as ‘the Woman’ would beat him for any perceived lies. In the end, he learned to tell stories to avoid punishment. Some of the experiences could well have led him to write his famous poem If.

One of the most famous people to come out of Portsmouth isn’t actually real. The first two Sherlock Holmes novels were written on the Isle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He arrived in 1882 with only ten pounds in his pocket and set up a doctor’s surgery. During his time in Portsmouth he met with all sections of society, playing in goal for the association football team, cricket with the middle classes and bowls with the Lord Mayor.

And what about the modern day? Well, as well as Nevil Shute, Graham Hurley, Susanna Rowson and some of this lot and this lot. This list goes on and on.

All in all a very good evening and a fascinating discussion about a fascinating subject.

Festival of Writing 2014 Part One: Openings

Once again, these posts have been written after the weekend so I think what’s here is right… I’m also watching ‘The Trip’ at the same time so this may take time. It’s very good so far.

Did you enjoy last week’s posts? I hope so because here’s another load! This weekend I went to York for my second Festival of Writing! There are some posts here from last year’s event somewhere so do have a look at those.

The morning after the night before (Saturday Morning after Friday Night Live, where we were treated to some great extracts from some great writers) we had the Opening Address from Antonia Hodgson.

I met Antonia last weekend at the Historical Novel Society Conference last weekend (Go Georgians!) and we were given some good advice to start off the Festival.

1) Give yourself space to dream. Daydreaming is a big part of creating anything, from coming up with the idea to how to go about it and dealing with any problems you might have. Walking to work is good for that as is going away on holiday. Trust your subconscious and let it exercise. Twitter can be thought of as junk food for the imagination (don’t have any before bedtime.)

2) READ! Some find this tricky when they are writing but it is essential. It helps you find your own style learning from others.

3) Practice. Very few first novels get published but think of them as an apprenticeship or learning an instrument.

4) Be disciplined and resilient and don’t give up. Rejection is a fact of life and finding the time can be difficult with other commitments. It is vital that you enjoy it, though, and don’t view writing as a chore. It is also important not to give up the day job. Even successful writers have to supplement their income with teaching, editing, etc.

Antonia told us of David Gregory Roberts, the writer of Shantaram, who had his first two drafts destroyed in prison but wrote it when he got out. He forgave the guard who destroyed the drafts and inspired him to become a teacher instead. This was a great start to the Festival and I bought a copy of Antonia’s book The Devil in the Marshalsea.

Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 – Part VII: Indie Best Place to Be

This final post is the second workshop I went to about independent publishing, presented by author Helen Hollick and Helen Hart of Silverwood Books.

Independent publishing is not the failed option and the world of publishing is not dying. It is evolving. There is a large amount of self-published material that is just as good, if not better than what has been published by mainstream companies (some of which appears on the Read Through History.) There are now awards for independently published books, including one for the Historical Novel Society, and a shortlist means the book is pretty good. Here is some useful advice I got from the workshop.

1) Independent presses cater for a range of authors and genres but are becoming more selective as they grow.

2) Publishers are partners in making a book successful so treat them as such.

3) As an independent author you are your own boss.

4) Have a good cover – matte covers are more professional for novels and cream paper is easier on the eyes than white.

5) There is coaching for marketing if needed.

6) Enjoy it!

This was a very interesting workshop and it is good to know there are a wide-range of options there for authors wanting to get books published.

After this session there was a historical fiction themed quiz which was very entertaining. After lunch and saying thank yous and goodbyes to the friends I made, I went to the Natural History Museum and was lucky enough to catch the Mammoth exhibition before it closed.

Drop by over the next week when you will find out how I got on at the York Festival of Writing!

Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 – Part VI: Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained

Once upon a time (Sunday) there was a discussion about myths, fairy tales and all things Gothic in historical fiction. We were encouraged to get our phones out, take loads of photos and tweet like mad. Sadly I had enough to do writing all this down so I could translate it and put it on here but if you go on Twitter you can read the hash tag HNSLondon14 to see what people were saying about the weekend (you might find one or two of mine!)

Kate Forsyth was in the Chair for this panel discussion and was joined by Jessie Burton, Essie Fox, Deborah Harkness, Cathy Rentzenbrink and Professor Diana Wallace.

Stories of myths and legends are as old as storytelling itself and fantastical elements appear quite often in historical fiction. Facts are quite often limiting (and these are often interpreted) so the imagination is turned to. Myths, legends and the occult are still popular, even after the Scientific Revolution when magic and alchemy were no longer widely considered to be real, particularly vampire stories which appear all through history all over the world.

There is sadly still some snobbery surrounding historical fiction, even though historians also interpret facts to make their own narratives. This could be through fear that readers may use novels as history books. However, it could also be because the historian wants to promote a book or TV programme.

That said, historical fiction is a great way of introducing people to history and give them an imaginative way of learning about the past.

Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 – Part III: The Allure of the Outcast

Conn Iggulden mentioned that one of the main jobs of the novelist is to make choices. A few weeks ago I found myself with the difficult task of deciding which two of these workshops to attend. As you can see there was a fantastic selection on offer and it was very tough choosing one. However, there had to be one winner for each day and Saturday’s workshop looked at the Allure of the Outcast with our hosts Angus Donald and James Aitcheson.

Both of these writers have cast out stories to bookshops in all corners of the land. Angus Donald has a series around the life of Robin Hood and Alan Dale while James Aitcheson’s series looks at the life of Tancred, a half-Norman, half-Breton knight who wishes to make a name for himself in an England newly-conquered by the Normans.

Having a lead character who is either cast out from society (such as Robin Hood), a maverick who bends the rules (such as Tancred), who doesn’t fit in in some way (Richard Sharpe), who has lived a different life to the one they lead in the story (Cadfael, this list can get very long) can give an interesting dimension to a story and the character’s development. Not only are they in conflict with the antagonist but also in the wider world in which they live. This is useful in all kinds of fiction with one example being the TV series 24 where Jack Bauer falls foul of his superiors despite saving the day many times.

One interesting area in the discussion was the role of women as mavericks and outcasts. There were a great many women in history that made their mark by not fitting in. These include Eleanor of Aquitaine, Aefleflaed of Mercia, Joan of Arc, the Empress Matilda, Livia, Catherine of Aragon, to name but a few. These women and others made a mark on history either by not playing by the rules or indirectly by influencing the men around them.

It was agreed, however, that even though people root for outcasts as they represent a force against an oppressive legal system or society, it is important to be aware that outlaws did not have to be likeable. Interest is more important.

If you want to read the works of James Aitcheson or Angus Donald (and I strongly recommend you do, and to read those written by the presenters of the other workshops) take a look at their websites.

Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 – Part II: The Keynote Address

This year the Keynote Address was given by Conn Iggulden, author of the Emperor and Conqueror series’ about Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan and is now two books into a series on the Wars of the Roses. He is the co-writer of The Dangerous Book for Boys with his brother.

Conn Iggulden spoke of historical fiction being made of two key strands: 1) History and 2) Fiction. History provides the framework but it can be incomplete and that’s where fiction comes in handy. The novelist has to make choices about how to fill the gaps but these have to be informed choices which is where research is vital.

The talk was very interesting and very funny too. I also got the chance to meet Conn afterwards and got a copy of Stormbird signed, which I look forward to reading enormously. If you want to know more about his writings then do check out his website and read his book:

March 2014 Readings

Are you all enjoying In the Shadow of the Gods? I do hope you are. Please let me know what you think (unless you fancy doing a spot of trolling…)

Anyway, this month I read the following books. Do have a look at them.

1) Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson. A book set at the turn of the Millennium with some fantasy elements. Very good.

2) Viking Gold by V. Campbell. This is a book aimed at young adults but can be read by adults too. A gripping adventure set around the time of the Norse discovery of America.

3) Viking: Odinn’s Child by Tim Severin. A fantastic book. If you are enjoying Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series then you will like these. I can also recommend his book on the Brendan Voyage if you enjoyed Viking Gold (which I’m sure you will!)

4) Jack of Spies by David Downing. Taking a break from the list to see how other spy books are written. This is set just before the First World War in 1913 and gives an insight into life in China, the USA, Britain and Ireland. Very interesting.

Sorry for the lack of Sharpe but Sharpe’s Enemy has not yet returned to the Library. No wonder he’s not good friends with Mr Sharpe…