28 March 2017

Tuesday Talk: The Spirit of Place

By Lorraine Swoboda 

How do you choose the setting for a novel? You may know the who, and the when, but what about the where?

I set my novel in 1817, at a difficult time in British history. I had men who had left the army after Waterloo, and who were still looking for their place in the world of peace, and a heroine who lived detached from society, isolation being a theme; and I didn’t want grand houses or great wealth or status. These were ordinary people living through extraordinary events – fiction as life heightened - and I wanted my setting to suit them.

When I first began to write what eventually became Mrs Calcott’s Army some fourteen years ago, I knew where the events should take place.  I lived then in Wimborne, Dorset, a market town which still keeps its medieval street layout. Gentlemen’s houses abut thatched cottages, ancient houses hide behind slightly more modern shop fronts, and the Minster stands at the centre, with the Quarterjack marking the passage of time over the green that used to be a graveyard. Once the figure of a monk, to celebrate the founding of the Minster as a female (and later joint female-male) monastery, this had been altered to that of a Grenadier guardsman during the Napoleonic Wars; and that provided the military link between the setting and the male characters.

Wimborne Minster Wikipedia
The rivers Stour and Allen run round and through the town, and there are two parallel roads entering on one side; West Borough, which once led directly to the West door of the Minster, and East Borough, known locally as Crooked Borough.

More important to me, however, was what isn’t there anymore. I lived at Leigh – pronounced locally as lie – in what was originally a pair of thatched cob cottages built in the 1780s. A century later, a second pair of brick cottages was tacked onto one side, and the roofs slated, so they escaped the scrutiny of developers who cleared all the other cob buildings on Leigh Common, deeming them unfit for human habitation. An elderly neighbour gave me a postcard of one of them, with milk churns outside and a cow in the lane. When the livestock market was held, drovers stopped overnight on the Common with their cattle – a scene that appears in the book.

One day I came across a stall selling old photographs of local views. My house featured in one of them, not because it was especially picturesque, but because it stood next door to a sprawling thatched inn, the Horse and Jockey. It was a vast and ancient place of dubious reputation, lying just outside the town boundaries. Records show that at one time the landlady lost her license for selling beer on a Sunday. I was told by one who did the work that in the 1930s gas supplies were fitted into chalets at the back of the inn, whose purpose was not to be mentioned in mixed company.  Digging in the garden, I turned up a gaming token which, from date and style, attested to illegal gambling there in the 18th century. There was the stub of a wall with a hinge where a gate had hung, which once led to the well at the back of the inn. The right of way remains, though the purpose is long gone.

At the time that I was writing, banks and mortgage companies were getting rid of bundles of old deeds – far too much paperwork for them to keep when everything was computerised. I asked for ours, and they made fascinating reading because the cottages had belonged to the inn which in turn had belonged to local nobility; and that fact meant that there was a huge amount of documentation. I found that before it was the Horse and Jockey, the inn had been called by other names, including The Flower Pot.

Putting the sound of the place– Leigh/lie – together with illegal gaming and a feminine name for the inn, I had the scene for part of my novel. The Stour plays its role, and I have adapted some areas to accommodate other (imaginary) houses, but it was the inn which started it all.

Wimborne – indeed, large parts of Dorset – had a history of smuggling, which is mentioned in the novel in relation to the inn and to the hero’s disreputable great uncle, whose house he is visiting. It’s part of the backstory, and may one day come into its own in another novel.
The town is still famous for its market, which has been held there since at least the 13th century.  I placed this in the centre of town, on the site of a medieval Market Hall, though at various times it had been moved out to the perimeter because of the noise and the nuisance.
I used the facts as I knew them, but it was the spirit of place that mattered most to me. I needed to be able to plant the characters against a real backdrop, and to give a flavour of the town as it would have been in 1817.

a typical Dorset thatched cottage

Places change: in the years since I left, the town has undergone something of a makeover, but it’s just one of many that have happened in the course of its history. For the purposes of the novel, there’s a glimpse of one moment in time; and that moment started right outside my own door, with a token found in the soil, and a picture of what used to be.

buy the book 

Twitter  @LorSwob

21 March 2017


by Helen Hollick, with Anna Belfrage and Alison Morton
March is Women's History Month...

Anna Belfrage
Alison Morton
Author Anna Belfrage, during a recent online conversation, mentioned a thought about the real heroines behind the fictional heroines, another friend, Alison Morton had a joined the debate. I wondered if heroes should also be included, but March is Women’s History Month, so let’s stick to the ladies here. (We can spotlight the men another time to balance the books. Is that a bit of a pun?) In this instance, Anna was referring to the writer as the heroine - the author, the person tapping away at a keyboard or scribbling with a pen on paper (remember those?)

Anna and Helen at HNS Denver 2014
The fictional heroine usually goes through hell and back in a story, or at least some sort of trauma or disaster or romantic upheaval, or complication or… well, you get the picture. But what about the writer who is creating that character, that scene, that story? Is it a case of sitting down at a desk from 9-5 Monday to Friday, bashing out a few thousand words a day, Other Half supplying a cup of tea/coffee/wine/gin on the hour every hour? Those several thousand words flowing freely, the plot flashing along, scene after scene with no wavering? Novel finished well before the deadline date, a dutiful re-write, check for the occasional missed blooper, then off to the editor for a quick once-over?

Oh I wish!

The only bit of the above that is mildly true for me personally is the tea/coffee appearing a couple of times a day in between countless re-runs of Westerns on the TV which my husband watches with avid fascination, apparently completely unaware that he watched the same John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart et al movie the day before.

Meanwhile, I struggle during the dark, miserable, drizzly days of winter. Even the effort to get out of bed some dank, dark mornings is hard work for those of us who suffer from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affected Disorder – basically a desire to hibernate during winter.) To be creative, to find the words to write when I can’t even remember the cat’s name (I am not joking!) is hard work.

Then there is the research, particularly for historical fiction writers who need to know the facts of a period or event before they can even start writing chapter one. All genres need a certain amount of research, even fantasy and science fiction – possibly even more so, because to make the unbelievable believable the facts have to be correct, otherwise all the believability goes out the window.

For writers, meeting our new characters – male or female – is not always a walk in the park, although for me, I did meet my pirate hero, JesamiahAcorne, on a drizzly-day Dorset beach. Long story cut short: I was walking on the beach thinking up ideas for Sea Witch. Looked up and saw a vision of Jesamiah. Might have been my imagination, might have been a spirit from the past – no matter, I saw him. In full pirate regalia. And immediately fell in love.

Alison says hers have been swishing around in her head for decades ever since she trod on a Roman mosaic floor at age eleven. Firmly gripped by the Romans, she started wondering what the world would have been like if a tiny part of Rome had survived… The result is her thriller series, Roma Nova

As for Anna, she blames it all on her husband. It was all because of his family history, which involved fleeing Scotland in 1624 due to religious persecution. She started reading up on the 17th century and fell in love. (Why the 17th century? A declaration of love.) One day, Matthew Graham stepped out of her murky imagination and demanded she tell his story, which she has done, over several books in the Graham Saga..

Our characters get under our skin, into our hearts, minds, lives and very being. When it is time to finish the book, or a series – oh, the heartache of saying goodbye and letting them go! To create believable characters, to bring them alive, to make them look, feel, behave, sound real, to do real (even if they are impossibly over-the-top real) things takes dedication, skill, determination and courage.

Yes. Courage.

Writing can be a hard taskmaster. We slog away in our studies, corner of a room, spare-bedroom or wherever trying to get a paragraph – a sentence – right. We edit, re-edit and edit again and again. We spend hours writing a scene, then delete it because it isn’t good enough. I have deleted entire chapters. We wake up with our characters, walk, live, play, think of, go to bed with them (no not that sort of ‘go to bed’!) They are there with us 24/7 because if these fictional people are real to us, then they will become as real to our readers. In theory.

I am not being sexist here, but I do think women writers have a tougher time of it than do the men. Admitted I am talking in general, but many women writers already have a full-time job plus the responsibility of bringing up children and organising the family, at least this was so thirty years ago when I gave up the ‘hobby’ of scribbling my ideas and got on with attempting to do it properly with the end goal of being published in mind. Usually (OK not always) it is the woman who gets the kids off to school, does the housework, the shopping, the laundry,  goes to her own job, collects the kids from school, cooks the dinner, gets the kids to bed… We grab coffee breaks or the bliss of a quiet hour in the evening to get that next paragraph written. I’m not saying that the blokes in between work and chores also have to snatch those golden moments where they can sit and write, but I’d wager that many an established male writer wanders off to his study in the morning, saunters out at lunchtime, strolls back to his desk to emerge around six-ish to watch TV. Lunch, dinner, clean shirts and a tidy house happening via the Magic House Fairy. (Come on chaps - tell me I'm wrong!) 

At least, now, women writers can create our stories under our own name. How many of our great female writers from the past had to invent a male pseudonym to be heard let alone published? I think the term ‘heroine’ definitely applies to these brave and determined ladies of the past.

So why do we do it? Why do we spend hours doing this darn silly job of writing fiction? It’s not for the money that’s for sure. Very few writers outside the top-listers make enough to equal a suitable annual wage. So why?

Ever heard the answer to a question put to Sir Edmund Hilary when he had successfully climbed Everest in 1953? “Why did you want to climb it?”
His answer? “Because it’s there.”

Well, for us, for fiction authors, we write our words because they are not there

(Which is why I wrote Sea Witch - I couldn't find the book I wanted to read, so I wrote it myself.)

(IndieBRAG Honoree)
The Three Musketeers um, 'Authoreers'?
So who is your favourite, or respected, or even most disliked, female writer of historical fiction? Do you agree with some of what I’ve said above – or disagree? Voice your views below  and you could win a giveaway prize! Read on...

Order Alison's latest novel published April 2017
Alison Morton has written an excellent post on Seasonal Affected Disorder and how it effects writers in particular. Then Click here to go to her blog to read why she felt it was important that the main characters in her Roma Nova series of thrillers lived an egalitarian society.

And go to Anna’s Blog to meet Alex and Kit – her female heroines.

Alison, Anna and I are each offering a giveaway 
of one of our books - so:

to win a book by Helen Hollick your choice which one. (book will be delivered via Amazon) Leave a comment on the MAIN BLOG post only (click here if you are reading this on Google or elsewhere )   check out all my books here: www.helenhollick.net

to win a book by Alison Morton go to her blog post
she says: 'To celebrate Women's History Month, and to show you what we actually produce, I'm giving away a signed paperback copy of my latest book, INSURRECTIO, featuring the ever brave (and ever fallible) Aurelia Mitela as she tries to battle the rising tide of a populist demagogue. Of course, the struggle is always personal as well as political.'

Buying link for Alison’s latest book INSURRECTIO (multiple retailers/formats)
or for all her books on Amazon

to win a book by Anna Belfrage go to her blog post

To buy the books:

CLOSING DATE for all three is 30 March 
The draw will be made on 31 March