Read the Past Imagine the Future

On Monday, I went along to the Low Museum in Hamilton to hear my friend and former MLitt classmate, author Ethyl Smith, talk about the 17th century period setting of her debut novel, Changed Times. It was a fascinating illustrated talk about the Covenanters and the important role they played in Scottish history.

The Read The Past Imagine the Future campaign is supported by the Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC).

The campaign’s goal is to raise awareness among people of all ages to discover what their local library offers and aims to encourage reading throughout communities across Scotland and to widen knowledge of local and national history.

Here’s an account of the event in Ethyl’s words…

“It wis organised by South Lanarkshire Leisure tae promote reading thru libraries. Seven titles wur chosen tae be available fur readers groups across the county and ‘Changed Times’ is ane o them. It’s sittin alang wi some famous titles so ah’m weel pleased tae hae crept in there aside them.

The theme for the promotion is ‘touch the past imagine the future’ an ah wis asked tae speak aboot the past …. Me bein auld an ma book bein aboot a time 300 hunner years ago.

It wis held in the Assembly Room which is awfy big an posh. Ah felt lik a fish oot o watter in sic grand surroondins.

When ah arrived thur wis a big foto shoot which wis a strange experience fur somebody as hates bein snapped then folk stertit comin in … An they kept comin till the place wis fu. Ah began tae wunner if ah wis in the wrang place but naw they’d come tae hear aboot the Covenanters.

Hert in ma mooth ah began an they aw listened, an luked at ma slides, an laughed in the richt bits. .. Believe it or no thur is humour in that time. Richt enough wi some o it if ye didna laugh ye’d greet.

A yapped on fur an hoor an hauf an maist o ma audience wur still awake at the end which wis a relief.

They said they’d learnt a lot aboot the time, asked questions, wur amazed an saddened by much o it, said thur wis a lot tae think aboot then gied me a big clap.

SO sharin information aboot oor heritage wis worthwhile …. folk dae want tae ken.On this occasion we wur sittin quite close tae the site o Hamilton Palace which hud close connections wi that time in history.

Anither thing the Vice President o the Covenanting Memorial Association turned up. He wis at at ma last event so he’s a richt glutton fur punishment. Wur still speakin so it cudna hae been that bad an tae hae that kinda support is really a guid feelin.”

The seven-month Scottish national reading promotion celebrating the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology focuses on Scotland’s heritage and depicts images and ideas of the future.

Library users can also enter a competition to win a £50 book token by submitting a book review, either to their local library or on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadThePast17 What’s not to like?

And if you get a chance to read Ethyl’s book or hear her speak at an event you’re in for a treat!

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

I’m delighted to host writer Catherine Hokin‘s guest post as a ‘stop’ on the blog tour for her début novel Blood and Roses.  Over to Catherine…Blood and Roses Blog Tour

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

When Helen suggested I write about the challenges of creating historical as opposed to contemporary fiction, the first thing that popped into my head was that quote from L.P. Hartley, ingrained in my brain since the far-off days of A Levels.

Sorry Mr Hartley, I’m not sure I agree.

chairI write both contemporary and historical fiction and, although the modern tales may be far shorter, the starting point is always the same: a character who creeps into my brain and demands a voice.

It possibly sounds flippant but most fiction is essentially historical – unless you are tackling science fiction, you are writing about what has already happened. What changes is perspective: as we move further from away from a period in time we can gain more insight, uncover more secrets, perhaps find the emotional distance needed to fully present a scene.

horse (1)There are challenges of course. My novel Blood and Roses is set in the fifteenth century and every detail has to be carefully researched. My character, Margaret of Anjou, moves around a lot and that involved some very strange calculations: I can now mentally divide a journey by the amount of hours different types of horses can travel quicker than I can find directions on Google Maps. But research, while the key to a credible story, needs a delicate hand to balance the need for accuracy and the explanation of possibly obscure customs against the danger of bludgeoning the reader to death with facts only a PhD student needs. But all good novelists have to do this, whatever their time frame.

Another challenge is language: my novel is set in the fifteenth century but, if I wrote it using the words and dialect current at the time, my readers would need to be able to read Norman French, Middle English and Latin and then apply a Midlands-style accent to it all. I would like to sell some copies. Conversely, the dialogue cannot be modernised to the point where it feels as though Edward IV is about to summon his army by text and hook up with Elizabeth Woodville via Tinder – an accusation quite fairly levelled against the recent BBC adaptation of The White Queen. Again, a delicate hand is needed to create a medieval but accessible feel.

cracked (1)And setting – the medieval period was not fragrant, people had horrid illnesses and deformities and your average street was a cesspool. Can I direct you to the hilarious If Disney Cartoons Were Historically Accurate video at this point – it makes the case for reality beautifully. To my mind a good historical novelist needs to give a flavour of the time but not constantly turn the readers’ stomach – although I hope I will make you shudder once or twice.

selfie (1)So why am I disagreeing with Mr Hartley? I don’t agree that the past is a foreign country, it simply has different shades. And I don’t think people do things differently – their tools and the language they express themselves in might change but essentially people do things out of love or anger or spite or any of the other emotions we all recognise whatever timeframe we’ve fallen into.

claire (1)When I embarked on Blood and Roses, one thing quickly became very clear: I was looking into the past for Margaret of Anjou but the woman I found fits perfectly into the present. Margaret is a powerful, flawed and conflicted woman, trying to control events that threaten her family and her sense of self. She is an ambitious woman and that frightens the men around her – she breaks the mould of what is expected of her and she pays. Look around you – Margaret isn’t medieval, she’s everywhere. The past is simply people, very little is foreign about that.

Thanks to Catherine for this really interesting post. Do you feel historical fiction is more challenging as a writer? Is it also challenging as a reader?

Blood and Rosesa novel of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses by Catherine Hokin and was published by Yolk Publishing on 13th January.

Blood and Roses

A few months ago, I met fellow writer Catherine Hokin at Weegie Wednesday, the monthly networking group for people connected to books, publishing, book-selling – illustrators, comic book writers, drama, radio, TV, media and all related creative industries, and we’ve kept in touch to share our experiences of the path to publication as début novelists.

Phone 274Catherine’s début, Blood and Roses, is a novel about Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. It’s the story of a woman caught up in the pursuit of power, playing a game ultimately no one can control…

If you’re hooked and keen to read Blood and Roses you’ll need to wait until January 2016 to get your mitts on a copy! But in the meantime, I’ve invited Catherine to tell us a bit more about the book and her writing.

Can you tell us about Blood and Roses and where the idea for it came from?

I have been fascinated by the Wars of the Roses for as long as I can remember. My father was a member of the Richard III Society and an avid amateur historian – I’m sure as a child I used to think most of the characters involved in the battles were still alive they were discussed so much! I went on to study history at university, specialising in the medieval period and, in particular, the role of political propaganda and the portrayal of women. Shakespeare may be a great play-write but his history plays are not to be trusted and our main ideas of Margaret have come through her portrayal in Henry VI and Richard III – the almost cartoonish evil queen. This novel marries a lot of my interests together – it even throws in a bit of witchcraft!

Blood & RosesThe cover is striking and very apt for a historical novel, did you have a say in the design?

I did and I’m grateful to Yolk Publishing for how much they gave me. It was essential that the cover was not ‘feminine’ – this is a bloody story and she was a powerful woman. Anyone looking for historical romance will be disappointed! The cover image is of Margaret and I think shows an uncompromising, strong woman. The colour is perfect.

How did you research your book? Are you a meticulous planner? How long did it take to write?

Obsessive and meticulous – the hallmarks of an historical fiction writer! To borrow from LP Hartley, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That is both the delight and the frustration of historical research – everything is fascinating but some things have to be omitted or only alluded to if the poor reader isn’t going to drown under a mountain of facts only a PhD student needs. I think there’s an equation along the lines of: 1 sentence = 10 pages of research + 5 overly-distracting diversions. Huge amounts of research and detailed planning – it took about 2 years to complete that stage (I can only do this part-time) and another year to write, and rewrite.

What’re your plans for the launch of Blood and Roses?

This happens in January and I think the publishers plan to keep me busy! There will be a London launch plus a Glasgow one and hopefully other events in York and Tewkesbury. I hope to be able to organise blog tours, batter everyone I know into buying it and push the word out – my husband is eyeing up his 8000 LinkedIn contacts…As you know, this is the tough bit – anyone who wants to help, I’d love to hear from you!

Do you plan to write another historical novel or would you like to try a different genre?

I am working hard on book 2 – again historical fiction, this time set in the fourteenth century and a re-evaluation of the love affair between John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford, his long-term mistress and an ancestor of mine. It is a political treatment rather than a romance. After that I’ve got my eye on Jack the Ripper – I do like the blood…


Thanks to Catherine for her insight into writing historical fiction, a genre I feel must challenge a writer by having the added pressure of getting facts right.

Do you agree that research makes historical fiction more difficult to write than contemporary fiction? Are you a fan of reading historical fiction or do you prefer books set in modern times?



Using the Past to Write about the Present

images (3)Continuing with my summer series of posts on places I’ve visited for inspiration and determined to get my money’s worth out of my membership to the National Trust for Scotland, I recently visited Castle Campbell in Dollar, a 15th century fortress (I’ve also visited Falkland Palace and The Pineapple in Airth but I’ll maybe save those for another post…).

The castle has a dramatic setting high above Dollar Glen and unless your car brakes have been recently checked, don’t even think about trying to drive there as it’s a white-knuckle ride on the way down the steep single track road. Then there’s a 500m 1:8 gradient walk to the castle itself so don’t wear high heels!


Wondering who has climbed the spiral staircase all those years before me.

I’ve been to the castle grounds several times before but have been too tight-fisted to cough up the entrance fee as it looked like it was mainly ruins and the money would be better spent on lunch (food always takes priority!). But, although the castle is in the care of Historic Scotland, our NTS membership got us in for free so we’d nothing to lose by adding a wander round to our day out.

I don’t write historical fiction and I don’t read a lot of it either and yet that doesn’t mean that a Lowland stronghold for a Highland chief lacked inspiration for my own contemporary writing. People watching is a favourite hobby of mine and there was no shortage of folk to observe.

There was the dour faced dad who looked like he’d rather be in front of the telly than drag his weans round the ruin when all they seemed interested in was making ghostly,”WoooooooOOOOoooOOOoWwwwooooooOOOOOOOOO” noises running up and down the 85 steps of the spiral stairs. Thankfully, there was peace outside, the gardens are a lovely picnic spot and one brave family tried to ignore the black clouds overhead but the Scottish ‘summer’ beat them and it was soggy sandwiches all round.

images (2)

It was a dreich day but with a backdrop of the Ochil hills, the view from the Tower House ramparts over Clackmannanshire was still impressive. Up 20m high, we were surrounded by ancient trees and it felt like we were in the rain-forest, but with midges rather than monkeys surrounding us. A kestrel swooped right past us and down in the courtyard a swallow was nesting in the gap above a doorway.


A keek inside the creepy  ‘pit prison’ in the Tower House.

The building itself must hold 600 hundred years of stories and secrets within its stone walls. I admire writers of historical fiction for their ability to research the facts as well as create an interesting tale. At Castle Campbell, I found it hard to truly imagine what life would’ve been like behind the castle walls and wouldn’t dare attempt to write about that period in history. But I was inspired to write when I got home, although it was from a contemporary perspective.

I scribbled something down and on the spur of the moment, I submitted it to Paragraph Planet, a creative writing website which publishes a different 75 word paragraph daily (I haven’t heard yet if it will be used although only 1 in 8 submissions appear on the website. But published or not, and however short, every scrap of writing is good practice). Here’s my wee mini story, not a ghost story but just as dark.

Say Cheese

The castle’s information panel described it as a ‘pit prison’. It was a hole underneath the floor with a trapdoor. It was no bigger than a double wardrobe. He marvelled at how anyone could survive in such a small dark space. He shoved me up against the wall to pose for a photo of our day out and told me to smile for the camera. I knew how it felt to be trapped.

Are you a reader or writer of historical fiction? Do you find old buildings inspiring too? Where have you been over the summer that has influenced your writing?