Drawing another Historical Novelist from the Advent Box

DSCF1180A shorter post today, trees to decorate, cards to write, as the time of year catches up with me. We have just been to get the Christmas Tree. This is a hugely important activity. It has to be the right tree; I have been known to take one back! Based on my guiding principle that if it fits in the room it is too small, this one is probably too small but it makes up for the fact that there is at least six inches between the top of the tree and the ceiling by its bushiness. The tree came from a nearby farm where you can stomp your way through mud and fallen apples to select your own, which is then cut to order. Now Christmas begins. My Christmas decorating policy would have interiors experts cringing as colour co-ordinated it is not but each decoration has its own significance. I wrote about this three years ago. We even have a plan to keep three small persons and the tree at a respectful distance. I do want to share it with them but it would be preferable if the ornaments survived to be shared again next year.

For today’s advent author, I have drawn from the box one who resounds with my seventeenth century self. Let me introduce Adrian Tinniswood. Adrian is known primarily as an architectural and social historian and most of his books reflect this but he has also written novels. Like a number of my favourite historical fiction writers, his family sagas are based on real people. The Rainborowes tells the story of this family as they travel back and forth across the Atlantic with surprising regularity, during the political upheavals of the seventeenth century, in which members of the family played a significant part. Although political machinations form part of the plot, it is moves way beyond this. The setting for part of the story in Wapping in London’s East End and that is particularly well drawn. It also provides a vivid account of life in the early decades of the New World. Tinniswood’s other seventeenth century offering is The Verneys: a  true story of love, war and madness in seventeenth century England surely a novel that has it all. Research for this was aided by the copious correspondence that survives for this Buckinghamshire family. We encounter Barbary pirates, civil war battles and family struggles in an account that gives the women prominence as well as the men. As you might expect from someone who is an historian as well as a novelist, the research is precise and detailed. The atmosphere of the seventeenth century is given definition and a piercing clarity.

Christmas Trees, Christmas Markets and day three of the Historical Novel Advent Calendar

christmas-tree-2016-1This month, our village is staging a Christmas Tree exhibition. Local groups and associations were challenged to decorate a tree that reflected their activities. Never one to resist a challenge, the history group set out to create something that would be representative of what we do. We debated using vintage tree decorations, which I have but they are too precious to leave unattended and anyway they would be inhabiting my own tree. In the end, our tree became a real joint effort as two members were charged with sourcing a natural ‘tree’ aka suitably shaped branches and greenery. Another member was to provide sand to secure the ‘tree’ in its pot. We did have difficulties with this as an unseasonable three day freeze meant that the sand pile was impenetrably solid. A gravel substitute was found. My contribution was the decorations. For these, we printed out small portraits of former residents, taken from our photograph collection, within seasonal frames. We abandoned the initial idea of putting the names on the reverse side as we feared that the stability of the tree would not withstand viewers trying to access the names. Instead, we provided a key to the identities of those on our ‘decorations’ to put beside the tree and instead put seasonal images on the reverse of the laminated ‘ornaments’. Glittery ties and ivy in lieu of tinsel finished off our entry. It has already attracted favourable comments and now we await the result of the vote for the ‘best tree’ in the New Year.

Now I must stop writing this and venture out to set up the history group stall at the Christmas Market. Fortunately, I only have to move our historical books to the chapel next door and it will be fun to mingle with my neighbours for the day, looking at the produce on the other craft and food stalls and generally starting to feel Christmassy – a season that I love, even though I am not a fan of the weather that accompanies it. Having said that, I don’t think I could get my head round Christmas in blazing sunshine on the beach along with my down-under friends.

For today’s historical novel advent box I would like to open the novels of Anya Seton. She was the first adult historical novel writer I read, having, at the age of eleven, just watched a television adaptation of her Dragonwyck. During my early teenage years I eagerly worked my way through her whole output. An American author, Seton’s works are nonetheless often set in England and stretch from Roman Britain (Mistletoe and Sword) to the Victorian Era. I still re-read her books, admire her careful research and enjoy the slightly mystical slant that some of the novels have. Green Darkness is one such, time slipping between the sixteenth century and the present. This is one of my favourites and her teenage novel Smouldering Fires adopts a similar approach. Several of her novels are based on real characters; for example The Winthrop Woman tells of early emigrants to America and Devil Water is set at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion. The latter instilled in me a great love of Northumberland decades before I was able to visit that county. Seton may now be considered old fashioned but I can still get lost in her narrative. Who will I draw from the ‘box’ tomorrow?

The Midnight Adventures of an Historian. Latest DNA news and the contents of my second advent box are revealed

You may remember that, last year, I inadvertently applied to present webinars for Ontario Genealogy Society and failed to correctly assess the impact of the time difference. This saw me – yes, the me who is normally asleep by 10pm and never sees midnight, even on New Year’s Eve, presenting to a Canadian audience beginning at what was midnight my time. Last night I got to do this again. This time, not only was it midnight but the temperatures outside were doing a good job of replicating those experienced by my audience. In order to get the maximum bandwidth I am not in my cosy wood-burner heated living room, nor still in my relatively balmy bedroom but in the arctic spare bedroom. I suppose the upside of this was that the temperature helped to keep me awake. My session on historic causes of death seemed to go well – if you can judge how well you are doing when you can neither hear nor see your audience. At any rate, there were plenty of questions and some lovely comments at the end. In a peculiar brand of masochism I have agreed to present a webinar for next year’s series too!

Yesterday I posted my DNA kit. Thanks to a helpful suggestion, I opted for ‘genealogy kit’ on the customs form. It turns out, had I listened to the instructional video, that would have made a similar suggestion. Instructional video? I thought I had done well getting someone else to check the written instructions. I had to persuade the young man in our Greendalesque mobile post van that I actually needed a customs form. ‘It is quite small you won’t need one’. Really? No way was I having my DNA end up on one of those border force TV programmes, so I insisted on having a form, which he struggled to locate. Perhaps that was why he had suggested not bothering.

51amm97hjtl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The historical novels out of my advent box today are the books of my friend, local author Liz Shakespeare. Liz writes evocative stories set in Victorian North Devon. These take their inspiration from real characters and are meticulously researched. Fever: a story from a Devon churchyard recounts the anguish of the families in my neighbouring parish of Littleham, as the community is overwhelmed by an epidemic. A gripping story and plenty of social historical context, with a health history aspect that appeals to my interests. Another novel that recreates the era and the locality in striking detail is The Turning of the Tide, which is set in Clovelly and Bideford. It follows the life of Selina Burman who is rescued from the workhouse by a local doctor with an unusually modern outlook. Liz has also written a beautiful set of short stories All Around the Year, inspired by the Devon landscape. Her oral history of Littleham The Memory be Green was garnered whilst she had the opportunity to speak to those who remembered the early years of the twentieth century in her home parish. Not only is this a fascinating account but it could be replicated in other communities. Liz is currently taking pre-publication orders for her forthcoming novel The Postman Poet. This tells the story of Edward Capern, who walked from Bideford to Buckland Brewer on his daily round, resting in my house before making the return journey and penning poetry whilst he did so. My account of Liz’s re-enactment of Capern’s journey can be found here.

My DNA Adventure and I open the first of my advent boxes


dscf3504I was finally enticed by FamilyTreeDNA’s seasonal sale and purchased myself a family finder DNA kit. I am still not quite sure why I have done this but I never can resist a bargain. This morning, I was up early to provide my sample. The company advises doing this before you put in your dentures. That’s no problem, hopefully it will be a number of years before I will be inserting any dentures. It is also though supposed to be before breakfast. I am not much use before breakfast but I am very law abiding so taking the test has to be done very early, so I can eat. It is the first duty of the day, well after checking social media that is. I enlist assistance as I am notorious for not reading instructions. My assistant does not have his reading glasses with him – this is going well. I begin scraping away at my cheek with vigour whilst my assistant times the required 30-60 seconds. My jaw is unnaturally locked in an open position and it is really difficult to do this without dribbling. No one tells you that, or is it just me? About twenty seconds in I realise that I am using the flat side of the implement instead of the scrapy side. I fail to communicate this to my assistant by means of strange gurgling sounds (I am still scrapping and he is wondering why I haven’t stopped when the suggested number of seconds is up.) Sample safely ejected into phial provided, I start again with the other cheek.

dscf3505The waste bits of the scraper look like they have potential for turning in to instruments of witchcraft torture – excellent just what we need. No, seriously, this is not a joke. Deed done. Dilemma. How should I fill out the customs declaration? I am dubious about the etiquette associated with sending bodily fluids through the post. Can I legitimately classify it as a ‘gift’?

I have thought long and hard about who this ’family finder’ might find; the possibilities are limited. It is really designed to link you with 3rd-4th cousins, or closer relatives. Ok, who is that likely to be. I have no siblings, no first cousins and only six second cousins (those with who I share great-grandparents). These are all on the same side of the family and two of them are adopted, so from a genetic point of view that leave me with four people, whom I already know, to match with. I must not neglect the ‘removeds’. These four second cousins have between them six children (my second cousins once removed), all of whom I know of. I believe one or two of them have produced children (my second cousins twice removed) but these are babies and unlikely to be looking for DNA matches.

I track back to my third cousins (shared great great grandparents). There are eight possible couples who have produced remarkably few descendants who are my third cousins. We are now in the realms of cousins who I have only discovered through family history. Over the 39 years that I have been seriously tracing my family (yes I was an infant when I started) I have looked for, contacted, or become aware of, third cousins on all of these eight branches; watch this space to see if DNA can turn up any more. While I am waiting for the test results, I will try to go back over these eight sets of great great grandparents and their descendants, to see if there are any I have missed. For now I can tell you that Philip and Mary Woolgar née Cardell had four children and I believe I have brought all their descendants’ lines down to my own generation or beyond. This is the line where I have second cousins but we are the only ones in our generation, so there are no third cousins on this line at all.

scan0002I am hoping to open a history themed book on my ‘advent calendar’ (aka blog) for each day of advent. Some of them will be written by people I know so, to make it fair to my author friends, the order is being decided by drawing the names out of a hat. Today’s offering is The Cruel Mother by the late Sian Busby, which was recommended to me by our of the participants on my ‘Telling your Family’s Story’ course. Don’t be put off by the book’s title, which is taken from a folk song. It is a true story of the author’s great-grandmother, who drowned her infant twins during a bout of puerperal insanity. This may not sound like a laugh a minute and it isn’t meant to be. It is however a brilliant insight into early twentieth century attitudes to mental illness and the repercussions that this incident had down the generations. It also tells the story of Sian’s attempt to sift fact from rumour as she sought to understand more about her family’s secret past. If you are interested in human behaviour, social history, psychology or family history you will enjoy this book.

A World of Missing Things – or the latest episode in the diary of a scatty historian

Today a fisherman of my acquaintance requested help with collecting his car from the garage. Today was also the first frost of the year, that would be a very hard frost. I donned as many layers as possible, allowing for the fact that I had to be able to move my arms. I broke the ice on the muddy puddle that passes for a pond in case the resident frogs, Fred and Freda, were struggling to breathe. F & F were sensibly conspicuous by their absence.

074 23 January 2013 Me at Samiland 2

Not Actually Today But You Get The Idea

Inevitably, the car windscreen was iced up, although bizarrely this was on the inside not the outside. De-icer. De-icer, hmmm. I was car-less last winter. I haven’t needed de-icer for more than a year. It must be in the boot. Can I remember how to open the boot of this car? This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Oh, ok, it is ridiculous but here is my excuse. I have to park with the back of my car hard up to a wall so there is no room open the boot. The back seat is my boot. The boot however does have things in – like de-icer. I debate prizing the parcel shelf off to gain access to the boot from inside, then opt for moving the car forward (despite not being able to see where I am going) in order to open the boot, which, it turns out, is accomplished by the conventional method of turning the key. No de-icer. Then it dawns on me that my de-icer is in a car graveyard somewhere on the south coast. I take out a second mortgage and burn up half a tank of petrol so I can leave the engine running while the windscreen gradually defrosts, aided by some judicious rubbing on my part. This leaves delightful smears through which I peer as I negotiate ice and blinding sunshine on my journey, the sun also creates migrane inducing flickering as I travel between the trees.

Other adventures today include becoming an Amazon seller. I have been heavily publicising my books in the hope that they will make suitable items for Santa to slip in stockings, not just of friends of friends but folk in the world beyond. I am therefore keen that my magnum opii should be available on the site of a well known online bookseller near you at the proper prices, not three figure sums. If you want a thing doing …….. so following a suggestion from a friend, I began the process of setting myself up as a seller. Step 451 ‘enter your passport number’. Sets off to get passport. No passport in the place where passports live in my house. Minor panic ensues. This rapidly develops into a major panic as I rifle through every folder in the box of official papers, tossing bills, bank statements and guarantees around with frenetic abandon. Stop to think – you know, that ‘When did you last have it?’ thing. Light-bulb moment, when I nearly used it to renew my driving licence online (gory details of this saga are available in an earlier post). This means my passport has not yet reached the top of the ‘to be filed’ pile upon which it was tossed after this abortive mission. Passport duly retrieved.

Several steps further on and an automated telephone call requires me to put the number I can see on my screen into my phone. I kid you not, this number begins 999 (quick translation for US readers – this is the equivalent of 911). Are they having a laugh? I do this and ‘verification has failed’. I am to try again or speak the number. There do not seem to be any blue flashing lights at my door but I opt for the latter and there I am, an Amazon seller. So you can now buy my books on Amazon at the prices that they are meant to be. Sales direct from me are still preferable but all sales are welcome. Did I mention that it is only 25 days to Christmas?

And in my Life this Week…… history and other weirdness

This week I had an early doctor’s appointment. Early is easy, I can do early, especially now I have rediscovered my lost-for-months pocket alarm clock that has been sneakily hiding in a rarely used bag. Appointment was 7.40am. Doctors is a 20 minute drive away. I wake up before 6am as usual and turn off the alarm (set for 6.15am – who needs it). I start my day (aka check emails and social media). There’s a handy little clock in the corner of my computer screen. I really should learn to look at it more often. Suddenly it is 7.06am. I am still in bed – arrrrrggh. Undaunted, I am out of the house by 7.15am. Then I realise that although I know where I live (fortunately) and where the doctors is, I go so rarely that there is a piece missing in the map in my head that should tell me how to get from one to the other. Luckily automatic pilot works and I arrive in time.

‘Early appointments’, I’ve been warned, mean that the doors are locked and I have to be ‘buzzed in’. I fail to grasp the logic of this. Are mad receptionist threatening maniacs only abroad before the hour of 8am (after which time the doors are unlocked)? And if I were said mad receptionist threatening manic would I announce myself as such on the intercom? And another of life’s mysteries, how can the doctor be running twenty five minutes late when I can be no more than appointment three?

Returning from the doctors, I decided that today was the day for making the Christmas cakes; running a bit late with this this year. As regular readers (amazingly there are some) will know, cooking is not high on my list of enjoyable activities, or indeed my abilities. I do however ‘do’ Christmas cake, usually several Christmas cakes. This year I have managed to convince myself that I really don’t need four but two will be sufficient. Cakes happily in the oven I get on with my day. After the required time, I check the cakes and decide that one could do with a little longer to cook thoroughly. I leave it in the Rayburn which is on tick-over (for non Rayburn/Aga users this means it isn’t actually turned on but is still warm). I return to the fascinations of my real life. The next morning I come downstairs to get breakfast and spot a Christmas cake on the kitchen table where I had left it to cool. That’s funny, I think (turns out it is hilarious), where is the other Christmas cake? Realisation dawns. It is still in the Rayburn. The well cooked cake is quite dark and I think ‘solid’ would be a good description. Even my usual remedy (disguising the burned bits by turning it upside down) will be inadequate. Helpful Facebook friends make suggestions as to what to do with this creation, most of which involve copious amounts of alcohol – not sure if that is for me or the cake. I will be making another cake but I have found a volunteer to consume the middle if I cut the edges off.

It has been another week of dealing with incompetents. Just one of several examples:
Me to prospective venue on the telephone: ‘We would like to book your venue for 21 November 2017’
Venue: ‘We will email you’
Venue (by email): ‘Here are the dates we have available in February.’
The months have been changed to protect the guilty.

Last weekend was a rare occurrence. I went to a concert. The performers were Chris Conway and Dan Britton and I had been invited on two counts. Dan’s family were involved in the 1838 Clovelly fishing disaster, that I had researched in 2013 and some of the songs were related to the incident. I was also attending with fellow author Liz Shakespeare, in order to sell books. What a great evening.

Writing tasks this week have included finishing off lessons for my forthcoming online course about twentieth century family and local history research – don’t neglect more recent decades folks, you could even do a course ……… I have also written a guest blog, ready for my appearance on Jenny Kane’s website on 9 December, so look out for that one. Two of my blog posts (here and here) have now appeared on the In-Depth Genealogist’s website and I am writing the next in my series of articles about women’s work for their magazine. I’ve met with our lovely authors’ group again. That’s work right? Surely drinking coffee and eating cake is work.

booksNext week I am being interviewed for Tiverton Radio. So, amidst the pre-Christmas busyness and posting out books for discerning Christmas shoppers, it is all go. On the subject of books, a well known online book retailer has my books at ridiculously high prices at the moment. Don’t let this deter you. Buy from the publisher, even better buy from me but please don’t pay above the cover prices that are listed here.

Still Writing, with some Speaking and Listening too

The week began with a bang at the Society for One-Place Studies conference, which this year was held in Swindon. What an enthusiastic group; I came away really fired up to take my own one-place studies in new directions. The first part of the proceedings was a fascinating visit to the Historic England Archive, a real treasure trove this one. As the majority of their holdings are photographs they need to be kept in very cool conditions. We entered the cold storage area at six degrees, having been told to dress warmly. I’ve done the ice hotel, this was as nothing but I did wonder why the staff member who accompanied us was still in a short-sleeved dress. By way of contrast, our conference room on the Saturday began the day with additional heating and a thermostat set at 30 degrees. The temperature restored to a more acceptable level, it was fascinating to listen to our five speakers for the day talking about aspects of their one-place study. I have to say, apart from the obvious attractions of the Historic England Archive, Swindon does not rate highly on my list of must re-visit places. Just too many people, too much traffic and too few or too expensive car parks. To be fair to Swindon, they have tried to make the most of their heritage as a railway town but it is still a town and as regular readers will know I just don’t do towns.

This must be the week when programme secretaries fill their 2017 calendars; I have taken a record number of bookings and will be crossing the country as usual next year. I am relieved that the description for my Tracing your Elusive English Ancestors talk for Who Do You Think You Are? Live now matches the title. Great to see so many friends amongst my fellow speakers. Bookings are now open and early-bird offers are in place. I have also been a writer in residence in some small way. Sitting in our ‘authors in a café’ café and hoping I would not be talking to myself or the resident pigeon. As it turned out I was able to chat away for most of the morning. So thanks to John who came and stayed and others who said hello. I even succumbed to the delicious cake. I wonder if my Zumba fees are tax-deductable? After all if I wasn’t ‘forced’, purely in the line of duty, to eat all this cake……

I am the editor for the journal of our Braund Family History Society. Sometimes this writes itself, on other occasions, such as the issue for this quarter, for ‘edit’ read ‘write’. Just to prove that I am already encouraging my descendants to be creative I am reporting a conversation with Edward, aged 2¾. Conversations with Edward often have a surreal tinge but he understands that Granny does writing and I was asking what I could write to fill ten pages of a journal that was already at deadline minus a few days. “You could write a list of my vehicles, Granny.” So next time you read something from me that begins “Orange tractor, blue digger …….” you will know the source of inspiration.

Forget super moons, you may have observed some porcine shapes in the skies yesterday because, wait for it, I took a ‘day off’ to do some of my own family history. I discovered more about gg granny’s ner-do-well brother, who had more than one brush with the law. On this occasion he was in trouble for dumping the comatose body of his lodger on the steps of the workhouse – brilliant stuff.

CoverThe festive season must be upon us. I am surrounded by bubble wrap and brown paper, parceling up copies of my books that are to find their way in to the stockings of folk across the globe. Although Remember Then, which wasn’t even born this time last year, has sold better than I could have hoped, more copies are available – that would be quite a lot more – most of which are being carefully nurtured under the bed in the home of a fisherman of my acquaintance. Take pity on a fisherman – buy a book. Actually buy any book, not just mine, get the world reading again.