Daisies, Blue Poppies and other Flights of Floral Fancy

I am excited to announce that I will be working with Blue Poppy Publishing to bring #Daisy to a discerning audience. Who am I kidding? There’s no need to be discerning. Blue Poppy focuses on local authors and was founded by Ollie Tooley who was one of the historical novelists that I chose for my advent calendar last year. Do check out the Blue Poppy website and like their Facebook page. Publication date is set for November 2018. That may seem like a long way off – please tell me it is a long way off – but it means that I have a deadline that is considerably before that. I am going to need to up my production rate.

I have finished off a chapter this weekend. It had stalled because I was unable to identify which Bideford house one of my main characters worked in in the 1890s. It’s a novel, does it matter? Ah but it mattered to me. I have finally worked it out so can wax lyrical about the cream bricks and arched windows phew. You learn so much researching historical novels. I now know when telegraph boys started using bicycles and what the stair well in front of the servants’ door is called. I knew that anyway but had a crisis of confidence and needed to convince myself. A quick speed read of 96 pages of my battered copy of Upstairs Downstairs (yes they were books before it was a 1970s TV series) and I was vindicated – despite a certain amount of scepticism from a fisherman of my acquaintance.

Also on this weekend’s agenda, a research report for a client. To be honest, genealogical research for others is a very small part of what I do nowadays but this has been a fascinating case. There are reputed murders (several), actual murders (one), separations, confusing stage names and the longest service record I have ever seen (61 pages), complete with the soldier’s temperature chart.

DSCF3888Then it was the village garden and produce show. I always try to get involved in community events. The cooking classes were clearly a non-starter. I hadn’t had time to create something crafty. As my garden is a wasteland, being as it is mid re-vamp, plant and vegetable classes were challenging. Fortunately I could fall back on my herb garden, which was made-over last year. So second prize for a posy of herbs, or Tuzzy-Muzzy as we say, I’ll take that. I am sure I should be Daisy writing rather than blog writing so that’s it for today. I wonder if I can get another chapter finished amongst two talks to present in two days and the return of the job we must not mention.



Ailments of various kinds: your ancestors in sickness and death

In the three weeks since my last post (three weeks! – you’ll guess I have been busy) I have spent four wonderful days in schools, swording and spindling away, extolling the virtues of the seventeenth century. Summer hit the west country last week. Temperatures rose to 85 degrees – that’s 30 to some of you and yes, in the UK, that’s hot. Four hours ensconced in crowded classrooms with a bunch of 13 year olds and no air-con – great. Followed by a chance to get outside – hurrah. Or rather not hurrah, as now I am on a scorching sports field for an hour, without a smidgen of shade, banging a drum – as you do. Well as I do. I should perhaps add that I was attired in multiple layers of thick wool at the time. I then went straight on to an evening presentation. Let’s just say that we brought the smells of the seventeenth century with us. I have also been finishing off the job I must not mention and presenting on various topics to adults. Today’s will be the fifth talk in four days – why do I do this?

dscf3202#Daisy is making some progress. Some lovely friends have read a chapter and didn’t hate it, which was encouraging. I am currently immersing myself in suffragette activities, purely in the historical sense, though I am not adverse to a bit of banner waving. Next on the list is research into the wartime experiences of a new character who has forced his way into the narrative. This did lead to that exciting moment when your ‘based on fact’ historical novel requires you to research someone new and you find that he attended a school that has an archivist. Better still, said archivist responds to your email (written after office hours) within minutes with information and a photograph. Ok, so he wasn’t the heart throb I was hoping for but I can get round that with a minor re-write!

I am looking forward to the start of my online course “In sickness and in death: the ill-health and deaths of your ancestors”, next month. I keep finding more and more gems and am resisting the temptation to add them all to the course text or it will become another novel. Did you know that bookbinders are adversely affected “by the smell of the putrid serum of sheep’s blood, which they used as cement.” (C Turner Thackrah 1831)? On the subject of ill health, I manage to move awkwardly and pull a muscle in my back so have been hobbling around all week. Great excuse for not doing any housework; now I just need an excuse for the preceding five weeks. May not try the C18th remedy, which is cow dung and vinegar.

Added to this a new research client has presented me with some fascinating family members to pursue. Despite explaining that I would not be able to start this for some time, it was just too tempting.

I am excited that a webinar I gave earlier in the year on surname studies around the world is now available online. That wasn’t the exciting news I hinted at in my last post; that‘s even more exciting but still under wraps – patience is a virtue and all that.

Women Authors, Women Ancestors, Women’s History

On International Women’s Day it seems appropriate to have a female themed post. As the mother of daughters and the grandmother of a granddaughter (and two super-cool grandsons who must not be left out), I am ever mindful of the maternal line. I have already outlined who these women are in a post I wrote to celebrate the arrival of the newest generation. Since then I have confirmed two earlier generations, so we now have an unbroken line of eleven generations of women, stretching back to the early eighteenth century. What were they like these women? What sort of life did 5 x great grandmother, Ann Fitch née Palmer lead? She married at seventeen and then spent the next thirty years producing twelve children. Her daughter Elizabeth Oliver lived to be ninety five, no mean feat. I am still hoping that I may be able to extend the direct maternal line further back into the shadowy past of rural Essex. Or perhaps my autosomal DNA will highlight fellow descendants of some of the earlier generations. In the the absence of much biographical detail for most of these women I content myself with finding out out the social history of their time. So I know what sort of clothes they probably wore, something of their household routine, how they might of cooked food for the family and the homes that they may have inhabited. Of course, I would love to know more, to now what they looked like, whether I would have liked them, if I have inherited any of their characteristics but it has to be a ‘glass half full’ scenario and I am thankful that  at least know their names and I can commemorate their existence.

My general interest in women’s history, led me to write my Ladies First Column for The In-Depth Genealogists’ Going In-depth Magazine. This column investigates the working lives of our female ancestors, covering both paid employment and household tasks. It is often easier to research the occupations of the men in our families, so I enjoy redressing the balance and putting the ladies first.

DSCF3606Today, intrepid members of our Authors in a Café group ventured out of their usual haunt to combat fog, drizzle and the steep street of Bucks Mills, in order to recce the venue for our up-coming Writers in Residence weekend. We are all very enthusiastic about the inspirational setting, if less enthusiastic about the ‘rest room’ facilities, or lack of the same. So if you enjoy chatting about books and writing and want to experience the spectacular North Devon coast, do drop in at The Cabin, Bucks Mills on 29 April, 30 April or 1 May between 10.00am and 4.00pm. Who knows which of our merry band of seven you will encounter (possibly with their legs crossed)? My ‘shift’ is the morning of Monday May 1; come and say hello, copies of all our books will be available for purchase.

Things that go Bump …. in my world of spinning historical stories

Yesterday was a first for me. I attended two workshop for writers of historical fiction, led by Vanni Cook, who is a reviewer for The Historical Novel Society. This was an excellent and thought provoking day, run by the Way of the Wharves project and we were taking the eastern bank of The Torridge at Bideford as our inspiration. The area breathes history and there was plenty to stimulate discussion, from a variety of eras. We were meeting in the beautiful Kingsley Room, with its unique snake bedecked ceiling, overlooked by a portrait that was allegedly of Francis Drake. We were sceptical about this identification; sorry Royal Hotel if this sells rooms but Francis Drake this was not. Our suggestions were Richard Grenville or John Davie, the tobacco merchant who was probably responsible for the seventeenth century building. We were using Grenville as a possible character inspiration and one of our group was reading biographical information about him when a wine glass, thoughtfully provide for water, sudden moved from well away from the table edge and any people to the floor, where it lay in two pieces…… The next sentence of the contemporary description of Grenville that was being read was……. “He would carouse three or four glasses of wine, and in a bravery take the glasses between his teeth and crash them in pieces and swallow them down.” Well there’s an inspiration for a story then.

#Daisy is making gradual progress; this week’s investigations centre round bankruptcy proceedings, hiring domestic servants and walks from Horns Cross to Bideford. Oh, and more on writing, my house is now part of the publicity material for the eagerly awaited Postman Poet  novel by Liz Shakespeare and accompanying CD by Becki Driscoll and Nick Wyke, which also has a contribution from the fisherman of my acquaintance.

For those of you who are following the story of the five lockets, we have now located a third. Strangely, this one has the initials of the first christian name and surname of its original owner (although she had a middle name), whereas the others use the first and second christian name initials. The only possible explanation that I have for this is that the first name/surname one, which belonged to the oldest daughter, in shades of Pride and Prejudice, was a reflection of the etiquette of the time. Suggestions on a postcard, well in a blog comment box at any rate.

gwen-and-dep-c-1933I have also submitted some pre 1939 photographs of my family’s pets, in order to assist in a research project. Pets are an often forgotten aspect of our family story, do submit your own if you have any.

Finally, in an interesting blog post Jane Roberts asks if Family History is ‘proper’ history. My response: To me (an academic historian and a family historian) the answer is, ‘it depends’. For some, who take their research seriously, investigate context and immerse themselves in primary sources, then the answer has to be yes. They are a valuable part of the historical debate and this intensely personal brand of history is a wonderful way of encouraging people (who might otherwise be disinterested) to engage with history and heritage. There are also pedigree hunters who leap from branch to branch of the family trees of others in pursuit of the shaky leaf. I am not saying this is wrong (ok, deep down it really irritates me but it is none of my business what people do with their leisure time) but it is not history.

Birthdays and another Historical Novelist

I don’t suppose many people have time to read (or indeed write) blog posts at this time of year but I committed to twenty four days of historical novelists and twenty four days thou shalt have. Today’s distraction was the ‘big’ birthday of my significant other. For the past month I have endeavoured to keep various secrets associated with the occasion. This has not been easy. You have no idea the difficulties I have had ensuring that the birthday boy was in the right place at the right time today and not dragging a boat up a slipway, or on his hands and knees cleaning a church. I had asked a few people back to my house to celebrate (or should that be commiserate) his great age. This required an unprecedented level of cleaning and tidying that immediately aroused suspicion. I have decided that I am really no good at subterfuge but the day seemed to pass off well.

the-outcastAnother great historical series for today’s novelist: the Morland saga by Cynthia Harrod Eagles. The thirty five books take this comfortably off family and their estate from The Founding in the time of the wars of the Roses to The Phoenix, which is set in the 1930s. Over the years, the family have links to succeeding generations of the royal family and we watch major events of British history unfold through the story of the Morland family. They become embroiled in the English Civil War, the Jacobite Rebellion, The Industrial Revolution, Suffragism, The First World War and many other key events. We follow one branch of the family to America, so the American Civil War also gets a look in. Family trees in the front of each book help the reader to keep track of the ever spreading clan. The number of characters is kept in check by unrealistically frequent marriages between cousins but I can forgive that. A little like Jean Plaidy, this series is a gentle way of familiarising yourself with historical chronology. Harrod Eagles has the advantage over Plaidy, in that she can work with fictional characters and is not constrained by writing solely about the lives of real people. Forget box-sets, give me a great historical saga any day. I am so glad that the original plan for twelve novels was expanded to thirty five. Harrod Eagles has now turned to writing mystery books but the original brief was to take the family to the Second World War, so we can hope there may be a few more still to come.

Christmas Preparations and Advent Boxes reveal another Historical Novelist

Sorry folks, it has been a day of cleaning, cooking and present wrapping, so not much time for blog writing. I will spare you the details of my cleaning regime! I am sure you don’t want to read about the gory details of my swirling ecologically sound cleaning products round toilet bowls. Cake icing then. I should explain that this is not some elaborate creation; I usually opt for a rough snow scene. Something strange happened to the texture of today’s efforts, which somewhat resembled rice pudding. That would be very runny rice pudding. It wasn’t quite as bad as the year when the icing was so lacking in substance that I ended up with a bald cake and a halo of icing on the plate but it was close. My present wrapping efforts were not of the most elegant but the majority of my recipients are not of an age to appreciate the finer points of envelope corners and delicate bows. Time to relax.

saturnalia-255More Roman sleuths today in the shape of Lindsay Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco and her later creation, Flavia Alba. Between 1989 and 2010 Davis published twenty novels about the hapless Falco who, together with his sidekick Petronius from the vigils, attempts to solve murders and mysteries in the Roman world. Several of the novels are set in Italia but others take Falco across the Roman Empire, including Roman Britain. We first meet Falco in 70AD in The Silver Pigs. His stable but socially daring, relationship with senator’s daughter Helena Justinia follows the reader throughout the series and we watch their family grow over the years. The historical background is convincing and it is easy to picture Ancient Rome, from Falco’s perilous accommodation in Rome itself, to well known landmarks such as Pompeii and Bath. Falco’s nemesis the Emperor’s official spy, Anacritis, crops up in many of the books; the final one in the series is actually called Nemesis. There are other recurring characters, such as Thalia the exotic dancer. We also learn more about Falco’s own, slightly disreputable, family; these too become people we come to know and love. In fact the careful drawing of minor characters, such as Agatha the laundress, is one of Davis’ great strengths.

The heroine of Davis’ more recent books is Falco’s step daughter, Flavia Alba but somehow I can’t quite take to her as I did to Falco. In a rare departure from the Roman Empire, Davis wrote Rebels and Traitors, set during the English Civil War. Parliamentarian, Gideon Jukes, inhabits a believable seventeenth century world and you can absorb the social history woven within the fast-moving plot. A favourite author and a favourite time period – winner! PS her audio books are on offer this month

Of Christmas Stockings, Stairgates and Historical Novels

Christmas preparations are underway. Firstly, we are attempting to go some way towards toddler-proofing the house. We managed to acquire a couple of second hand but never used, stair gates, which, with luck, will stop small persons who are no longer entrapped in cots from endangering themselves. These were officially A Bargain but required screwing to the door frames in a semi-permanent fashion. As I am just about capable of not hurling myself down staircases (I hope this isn’t a case of famous last words) I was relieved to find that the gate parts are removable and I am not going to find myself crashing into barricades during nocturnal wanderings. The instructions had clearly been badly translated from an obscure foreign language but with very little profanity, one is now in situ, with the assembling of the second on tomorrow’s ‘to do’ list.

Sixty years ago my mother was hand crafting a large Christmas stocking from netting, bias-binding and ribbons. Actually, she was better organised than I, so it was probably sixty years and some months ago. I used it every year for twenty six years, then it passed to my daughter. Thirty years ago, having two daughters requiring stockings, I made one that resembled the first as closely as possible, using different coloured binding and decorative ribbons. My grandchildren have their own Christmas traditions when they are at home but at Granny’s, the stockings are again in use. So, another thirty years on and I am making a third stocking. Realistically, I suppose I might just still be here in thirty years. I wonder if there will be the need to make another then?

Making a third stocking was not without its complications. First I needed to assemble the raw materials. Net curtains seemed the way to go. As my house is hidden away I have no need for net curtains and none survived my last house move. Luckily a horder near me found not only a surplus to requirements net curtain but an alternative in the form of a prawn net. I was tempted by the prawn net but I thought that small fingers might get caught in the mesh and in the interests of making all three stockings as similar as possible, I went for the net curtain. Next bias-binding. Time was when I put a reel of cotton and a card of bias binding in my mum’s Christmas stocking each year; it became a standing joke and a family ritual. Unfortunately, I did not inherit the life-time’s supply of bias binding when she died. I used to get these from Woolworths. Woolworths is no more. Does bias binding even exist in the twenty-first century? I found a local fabric shop and keeping a low profile, kept an eye out for bias bonding. I didn’t want to make a complete fool of myself by asking for something that no one has used for twenty years. It seems it is still a thing, although you now buy lengths from a roll, phew. I am now in the process of hand sewing the binding what suddenly seems to be a very long way round the third generation stocking.

4581718Another North Devon author is pulled from today’s advent box; there is so much talent in this county. Pamela Vass has written several books that are rooted in the Devon landscape. Seeds of Doubt is a novel that has the catastrophic 1952 Lynton and Lynmouth floods as its inspiration. Thirty four lives were lost in the flood, as the monthly rainfall was 250 times the normal level. Pamela’s novel is the product of careful research and reflects the actual speculation about what caused the tragedy; was it a freak weather incident or were there rainmakers at work? Shadow Child has Lundy Island as its setting and investigates the workings of Children’s Services as a young boy is abandoned in mysterious circumstances. Pamela has also written a biography of the computer pioneer Thomas Fowler in The Power of Three. She is currently working on another historical novel, Fire in the Belly: the North Devon Suffragettes. This is another opportunity for me to indulge my love of historical books and those with a local setting in a two for the price of one way, what a delight!