Friday 30 October 2015

'I walked in Elen's shoes...'

I love my intelligent readers and it is always a delight to read
their reviews. So I could not resist sharing with you a new five star Amazon review from JMG.

***** The Pathfinder by Wendy Robertson. An evocative novel of a rarely researched time in history. An excellent read.,October 29, 2015

The Pathfinder (Kindle Edition)

What a treat! I have long been an aficionado of historical fiction, delighting in the sensation of living in another time and place. The Pathfinder transported me to a world of otherness, a world permeated by myths and mysteries, a world with vastly differing constructs of reality. Within this well researched novel I glimpsed not only the land of my forefathers but the people who populated it, people who came to life as they lived and loved in a country I know well but within a historical context I barely understood. Wendy Robertson is to be congratulated on her diligent research of a less well known era of British history, alongside her capacity to take the reader from a daily world dominated by scientific concepts of the 21st century to the magical ethos permeating pre and post Roman Britain. I walked in Elen's shoes. I observed through her eyes, I empathized with her feelings - all thanks to the skill of the writer.

Thank you JMG. And thank you from Elen, for walking in her Celtic shoes.   

Walk in Elen's shoes. Read the novel

Monday 26 October 2015

Houses As Inspiration

 Houses can  be very inspiring.They can sometimes become characters in fiction. I think of my favourite Daphne Du Maurier’s Manderley. My own Victorian house has featured - in disguise  - in several of my novels. My novel The Lavender House was inspired by a very unusual house in North London, And my novel Writing at the Maison Bleue was set in a
house inspired by a house I know very well in Agde France.

In Paperback 

And on Kindle 

So I was delighted when my friend Kathleen Jones emailed me about a poem saying 'I came across this poem in the Poetry Review (summer issue I've only just opened!)  and immediately thought of you.  It has a lovely, elegiac feel and resonates with your novel.  So I thought I'd send it.'

 So for you, here is an extract from Graham Mort’s Poem. (Read all of it in The summer issue of The Poetry Review).

La Maison Bleue

Before I died, we rented a blue house
on a narrow street that twisted down 
to a river bridge's leaping arch.

The house had photographs of a family 
just like mine: the parents happy back 
in time, looking sideways to the future,

© Graham Mort (See link below)

You can read all of this great poem in the Summer Issue of the Poetry Review.

And here, from Writing at the Maison Bleue, is the first time Francine sees  my own  Maison Bleue:


... The Maison Bleue is half massive old stone and half rendered, peeling plaster; its garden sprawls down to plane trees that line the Canal du Midi. The window shutters are pale blue, framed in dusty white. There are nine windows – two on each side of the door on the ground floor, two on the first and second floors and one at the top under the white-painted arch of the roof. All of them, even the small one at the top, have narrow balconies. On the rendered walls the pale blue paint is dusty and peeling and quilted with dozens of cracks, gauzy as spider’s webs…
        When we reach the old woman’s salon it’s completely bare except for one great armoire with glittering mirrored doors and a long narrow buffet table against a wall.  Thick curtains seal out the sun. My nose itches with the faint smell of disinfectant covering something much worse: something to do with age and failing senses. The walls, though, are newly painted in a white that’s slightly off, like the skin on top of milk that’s been boiled and left.  
         Aurélie  flicks a switch, flooding the room with cold, white light.  She nods with such vigour that a strand of hair escapes from her severe chignon. ‘Electricity.’ she beams, ‘thanks to those Boches who stole this place in the war. Still works. That’s something, is it not, whatever other nasty things happened here in those days?’ She sets about opening all the tall windows and the clean warm air of the morning seeps into the room, chasing away the foetid evidence of its last occupant.
We check out the other large salon and move onto the big square kitchen with its two great dressers, its one square Formica topped table, its one small stove, something begins to gnaw away at me, like hunger at the pit of your stomach. I am hungry for this house. Hungry! Just as once I was hungry for the Foxe house.
          As I walk around I begin to realise that only the very big armoires, the great wardrobes and tables - all too heavy to move, too big to sell - are left. The intricate detritus of the old woman’s daily life is  gone.  I am disappointed. ‘Everything else has gone?’ I say...

Question: Do you have a house that inspires you? Let me know 

Links :

Find Kathleen HERE
Find Graham  Mort's Poem  HERE
'Graham Mort’s eighth collection Cusp is a rich, visceral tour-de-force that rides the cusps of life and death, animal and human, love and hate, winter and spring with the ambition and craft of someone engraving a razors edge...'
Find The Poetry Review HERE

Find Writing at the Maison Bleue HERE/

Tuesday 20 October 2015

The Complex Attraction of World War One Novels.

I have been working my way through novels inspired by World War One for a discussion TOMORROW in Durham’s Belmont Library which I have signalled here on the blog a while ago (Scroll down…) . I hope our discussion will tomorrow surround the almost perpetual dynamics of those events for succeeding generations of readers and writers.  

The list of possible reads is almost impossibly diverse – from Willa Cather to Pat Barker, from Jaroslav Hasek to John Boyne.

Of course Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy sets the marker for modern fiction as a literary illumination of the impact of trench warfare on individuals. Then there is ...
Willa Cather’s 1921 novel One of Ours – which drew misogynistic criticism in its time – was a surprise and a delight.
Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Sweik reminded me how comedy and irony can enhance our understanding of an individual‘s experience of the madness of war.

John Boyne’s very readable Absolutist, like The Lie, (See
below), visits the emotional territory of the friendship between two young men and the now not so forbidden territory of homosexual friendship at that time. It also brings conscientious objection into the fictional mix of this very readable novel. (My Novel Riches of the Earth also reflects on the experience of a conscientious objector as well as the individual experiences in and over the trenches of the Somme)
My Favourite Novel to date is Helen Dunmore’s novel: The Lie

I find The Lie hard to summarise. It is not a typical ‘World War One Novel.’
 In The Lie one person’s highly personal story is  revealed in retrospect: Daniel’s experience of war and its impact on his life is seen through the prism of his experiences in the trenches. A persistent ghost   dissolves the past and the present into one.     
This is a delicate love story between two men of different classes at a time when even officers in the trenches had their ‘soldier servants’ – not yet called ‘batmen’. This relationship survives the war as, in the present; the dead Frederick’s sister becomes Daniel's surrogate for Frederick.
The Lie is a novel of character
-       - of the present Daniel in his post war torment
-        - of Daniel the soldier at annihilating war,   bewildered when his intimate childhood friend becomes his office
-        of the two boys in their self-defining childhood, lodging with us the differences between them and their impact of each on the other
-        of Daniel’s deluded present when he encounters death and ritualises burial, fatefully breaking social taboos in the post-war world.

The Lie is a novel of a haunting

The layers of Daniel’s heartbreak and tra gedy beat under the subtle storytelling made manifest in the story by Frederick’s ghost. The Lie at the centre of his story which is in one way the saving of Daniel is also his undoing.

Th Lie is a novel of place

-      -  of the stinking despairing territory of the trenches and no-man’s land

 -  of the life-enhancing green routines of a Cornwall village – a boy’s paradise and then the location of haunted post- war terror.

The Writing

In novel after novel Helen Dunmore demonstrates her subtle ability to chart the threatening psychological universe of the personality under stress. Perhaps the sustaining inspiration of World War One seems perpetually to function as a demonstration of the brutal end of innocence right across the European landscape.

I hope you find time to read or re-read some of these novels. Their relevance resounds today when we reflect on the nightmare experiences of both soldiers and civilians in the succession of Middle East conflicts  Might we recognise that  as another world war of the Twenty First Century kind?


Thursday 8 October 2015

Our Very Own Serial Killer – Not!


One of the many joys of publishing my novels on Kindle and in Paperback with Room to Write is watching my recent publications trickle out week by week.

 I don’t subscribe to the notion that publishing on Kindle will lead  to thousands of sales but it’s still a delight for a writer to know that someone in Aberdeen or London or Tunbridge Wells is buying and reading – and I hope enjoying -  my stories. If you are she or he – here is a great thank-you!

So in this way it’s great to know that people are buying and reading my two latest novels Writing at the Maison Bleue and The Pathfinder.

But I am now intrigued to notice that among these more recent

Obtain the Book

titles readers out there are now buying copies of A Woman Scorned which was published a decade ago.

This marvellous development probably has something to do with the fact that subtitle to A Woman Scorned is; Serial Killer or Scandal Victim?  I am aware that serial killers have something of a hold on people’s imaginations in these insecure modern times.

I also note that there is to be a forthcoming TV drama based on the story of Mary Ann Cotton. I hope the film makes don’t roll out the usual stereotyped macabre melodrama which would confirm the fact that we’ve made no progress at all in our understanding of this woman and the times in which we lived.

In my novel, I put the case for the defence of Mary Ann Cotton, who was alleged to have killed at least three and at most eighteen people in the mid nineteenth century. Hanged for her ‘crime’ in Durham Goal, she has become a dark legend in the north as our very own female serial killer. Mary Ann Cotton lived a mile from my house.   There is even a nursery rhyme which begins Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten.

I have to say that part of the fun of writing historical fiction is delving into the research. Every one of my novels has required me to get not just the facts right, but also the feeling.

The facts are often easy – laid out there in histories and argued about in learned articles. Of course contemporary press reports, court data, images, diaries and letters are great for that specific 'feeling' research. This art of gathering materials to illuminate feelings and world-views of a particular time plays an important role in creating fiction around a real event. 

To my mind the charismatic itinerant nurse Mary Ann Cotton is as worthy of this process as Henry the Eighth.

A Woman Scorned was to be a work of fiction, but inspired and informed by a detailed study of the papers the records and the real people and events surrounding the trial and execution of Mary Ann Cotton in 1873.

The newspapers were a strident then as they are now. This trial became a national sensation reported in lurid terms assuming her guilt well before the actual trial.

Looking for some balance I was pleased at the extent of the detail available.  Newspapers, like the court and the police reports, which I also read, involved verbatim accounts where you can hear not just what people say but just how they say it.

Interestingly in these Mary Ann Cotton years, Charles Dickens as a young man was a trained court shorthand writer. This is where he must have honed his ear for intricacies of accent, semantics and idiosyncrasies of speech.

I had actually started to research and write this novel assuming the basic rightness of the myth. I started out feeling that the Mary Ann Cotton event could make a very good novel.

But my perspective on her case changed as I read of the judgemental public pre-trial outcry and noted the idle carelessness of Mary Ann’s first solicitors who gave her very bad advice, obviously having assumed her guilt, and neglected her proper defence and even robbed her of money.

I eventually realised that modern rules on forensic medicine would have blown out the forensic evidence presented here as ‘proof’ of her guilt. At one point to enable a re-examination, the viscera of one ‘victim’ they  dug up out of the bare earth where they had been buried in the doctor’s garden. Unreliable evidence indeed.

And then there was this very big gun was imported into the case in the form of barrister Sir Charles Russell (see my footnote *) made the long journey north to mount the prosecution of this bold, pretty woman, this outsider in a very tight old-fashioned village where deaths were common from the diseases of poverty, including the scourge of typhoid.  

So it dawned on me that by modern standards of justice this case was at least unproven.

A Woman Scorned makes the case that Mary Ann was probably not guilty but rather was the victim of rising hysteria in the region and in the country, creating a powerful and enduring myth which put on a false cloak of hard truth.

I know from response from my readers that the novel has changed a few other minds too. Perhaps you might like to see what you think?

Mary Ann On Kindle Now

And in my heart I hope the film makers incorporate a fresh   perspective on the fascinating case of Mary Ann Cotton.

Mary Ann Cotton

To give you a taste of the story here are two excerpts.

The story is told through the eyes of Victoria Kilburn, niece of Doctor Kilburn the doctor central to the story. She is visiting her uncle from London and is delighted and eventually horrified at what she witnesses in this small Durham village. Like Mary Ann she is an outsider and it is she who witnesses the runaway injustice visited on this unusual and charismatic woman. 

Excerpt One:

Victoria encounters Mary Ann

 … The porter had taken my hand luggage and settled me in the solitary First Class carriage. I was sitting there in secluded splendour when the door was wrenched open and a pale-faced woman peered in. She pushed a heavy bag and a basket onto the floor of the compartment and lifted a fragile boy of eight or so into the carriage. Then she leapt lightly up the steps herself and settled into the corner opposite to me. I choked for a second on the scent of fruitcake and almonds, with some kind of back-smoke of lavender and honeysuckle. She filled the whole carriage with her perfume and earthy warmth.
I turned to stare out of the window, but not before I’d taken in the image of a woman of thirty or so, of taller than average height with thick glossy black hair under a rather becoming bonnet. She wore a surprisingly fine paisley shawl and - finely polished although stitched and mended – small button boots. Instinctively I pulled my own boot, with its built- up instep, further under the hem of my skirt.
Staring at the puffs of steam dissolving into trails of vapour that streamed past the window I wonder at the audacity of this unlikely woman in entering a first class carriage. Then her voice, low and surprisingly well modulated, cuts through the air between us. ‘And how have you been these past days, honey?’
In the silence that follows I realise that the woman is talking to me. I turn my gaze to meet the darkest blue eyes, large and shining in a perfect oval of a face. Now I see that she is actually quite beautiful, despite the workaday clothes. I want to smile and my cheeks feel hot.
‘Well, honey?’ she says….

Excerpt Two:

Here is Victoria having tea with a new acquaintance Kit Dawson:

… After the usual pleasantries about the weather (gloomy) and our own health (blooming), Kit Dawson tells me a tale about his day sitting at Mr Chapman’s elbow in the local magistrate’s court, making notes regarding a case about two women in West Auckland who came to blows over the abuse of a washing line, and renewed the battle again in court only to be fined five shillings each and bound over to keep the peace.
He thinks this is very funny, but I am concerned at the fine. ‘That would mean such a lot of money to these women. Two week’s wages for Lizzie, my aunt’s maid.’
Kit Dawson is entirely indifferent about this. ‘If they care about that, they shouldn’t start bashing each other. They’re barbarians, every last one of them.’
I shake my head. ‘Mr Dawson. To be poor is a misfortune, not a sign of barbarism.’ I regret the primness of my tone but mean what I say.
To my surprise he laughs. ‘Ah, you live a protected life, Miss Victoria. You should see what I see in court! Drunken miners, low women, thieves and vagabonds, wife-beating husbands, husband-beating wives. For me it’s like that first, most absurd circle of Hell in that courtroom...’

Footnote * 

Interestingly in1889, seventeen years after this case, Sir Charles Russell, Mary Ann’s prosecutor, defended the middle class Florence Maybrick against a charge of poisoning her husband with arsenic. Amongst other legal strategies he touched on some of the arguments employed by Mr Campbell Foster in the Mary Ann Cotton case. Russell seemed to be on the verge of securing an acquittal when Maybrick destroyed her own case by making a statement admitting a degree of culpability. Unlike Mary Ann, Maybrick was not hanged. She served fifteen years in prison and lived to an old age in the United States. Russell later became an MP, then Attorney General in Gladstone’s ministries of 1886 and 1892, ending up as Lord Chief Justice of England in 1894.

The case has had its historians. Arthur Appleton, in his book, Mary Ann Cotton 
 concluded that Mary Ann probably killed 14 or 15 people. Tony Whitehead, whose well documented account Mary Ann Cotton, Dead But Not Forgotten is presented in rigorous style but in the end – in my view, unable to deny the power of the myth - he almost drifts to the conclusion that Mary Ann was probably guilty in three cases.


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