Question Thread

I promised this thread on social media. It’s open for 8 days altogether – use the date on the post as a guide. How am I counting the days? It’s seven days for my timezone and eight days to allow people on the other side of the dateline to also get their seven days of questions.

This is open to anyone who has questions to ask and anyone who can answer. If you ask and the question is hurtful, I will try to answer it if I can but if it contains too much hatred I’ll probably delete it. If you answer someone else or reply to me and the answer calls for it, I may explain your answer back to you. I’ve taught for 30+ years and am very emotional this week, so think back to your high school days and to a passionate teacher who’s in a bad mood but trying really hard to be helpful. That’s me this week.

This question thread is not about the murders this weekend. This is your chance to ask Judaism 101 questions and Jewish history questions and talk about those things more comfortably so that people who are hurting don’t have to deal with them as well as their own pain. This is also not about the Shoah/Holocaust. This is not about mass murders of any kind of any period after 1600, in fact.

It’s for the questions to which you suddenly need to know the answer, because you’ve not thought about how Jewish boys get given names, or whether anyone in your community is likely to have suffered antisemitism without you knowing, or what 1290 looked like to English Jews, or what the stuff Assassin’s Creed (the film, not the game) ignored looked like for those who had to endure it, and what ‘kosher’ actually means, and how I can still be Orthodox and seldom go to synagogue, and whether I agree with Christian afterlife beliefs and … all the stuff you have stored and want answers to but that you can’t let flood social media because you need to respect peoples’ pain.

I am particularly good on the subjects of food and of history and of food history. I am not an expert in the religious side, but can answer most of the basics, because I was well brought up (which in my branch of Judaism means something quite specific), and because I do a lot of work with non-Jewish writers who want to write Jewish characters. I also wrote the Jewish chapter in The Middle Ages Unlocked. If this isn’t clear (for it’s written under emotion – my mother’s at a funeral right now for someone who died a natural death after a long life but spent her youth in Nazi Europe, while everyone she loved die around her) ask me questions about asking questions.

For anyone who has been sent in this direction and who has no idea who I am: I’m a novelist and an historian. I used to do work with the Jewish community, including the guides at the Jewish Museum in Melbourne and with the women of the National Council of Jewish Women. I work far more with the wider community than the Jewish community these days, and am the person who wrote the first ever (as far as we can find out) Australian Jewish fantasy novel.

Why am I opening a question time? Because every time virulent antisemitism has raised its head in my life, non-Jews have used this as a reason to ask me basic questions. At a time when I need support, they turn to me for help. I’m not American. If you are, then every simple question you ask me, here, won’t be asked of those who may need your support. If you aren’t, then you’re adding to your understanding of things Jewish which is not a bad thing.

For those who want my chicken soup recipe, for this is a time for chicken soup… ask away.

How to Avoid Gillian at Conflux in 2018

Saturday 29 September
1.30 pm Workshop, Writing the Other
This builds on old research and new research and is going to be very handy for any writer who wants aliens, cultures other than their own, or non-derivative characters in their work. It’s also handy for non-writers who want to understand what writers do, but the focus will be on the needs of writers. The workshop always has its own supply of chocolate hidden in my handbag, but don’t let that persuade you. Also don’t let the fact that I’m not teaching this anywhere else in Canberra in 2018 (and that I taught earlier versions in Uppsala and Merimbula, before I had the big knowledge breakthrough thing that one gets with research) persuade you. Just avoid me.

3.45 pm Encoding culture into our SFF – my talk on the subject I’m working on and… I might step on some toes. In fact, I shall almost definitely step on toes. Avoid. I’ve travelled a rocky research road since Helsinki’s paper and this is where I bring it into sharp focus. And step on toes. Probably.

5.45 pm launch of Mountains of the Mind. That collection. Including stories that I wrote as a teenager and ones that I wrote over 50. “Your writing is quite different in the first half,” readers keep telling me. . The good news Is that I’ve decided not to bring the smelly old daisywheel printouts that gave us the older stories. The better news is that the amazing Ambelin Kwaymullina is launching my book. It’s so tough: avoiding me means you miss Ambelin.


9.30am Unconventional hero’s journey
In avoiding me, you miss this amazingly witty group of people: Rob Porteous, Dave Versace, Simon Petrie, Abigail Nathan. So that you won’t notice this sad truth, focus on the PhD ratio per panellist. Or wonder how I dare talk about the hero’s journey given the things I said about Campbells’ work quite recently and very publicly. I wasn’t rude or dismissive: I was analytical. Really.

2.30 pm Guff and other fan funds – a presentation
Donna Hanson will do all the cool things. I get to explain the whole Doctor side of it. David Tennant and David Tennant and… David Tennant. At least, that’s my understanding.

3.45 pm Fan fund auction.
Look, I know this means being in the same room as me but… I know some of the stuff we have for the auction this year. Honestly, squint when I come into view. Hide under a chair. Put someone decently burly in front of you so you can’t see me. Don’t miss the auction.


11.45 am Book Love Fest – All the Books. Mine are only five minutes. That’s when you need a cuppa, obviously.

1.30 pm Unconventional writing – what is the right or wrong of being a writer?
You don’t want to miss Ion Newcombe, Katie Taylor or Paula Boer on this subject. You could get someone to grab some of my chocolates and munch them whenever I speak?

I’ll also be in the dealer’s room, helping out on tables. Lots of my books will be round. Mountains of the Mind, Masques, and all the Book View Cafe ones, for starters, plus maybe a copy of The Middle Ages Unlocked. Maybe. Train your eyes to look for other books. There will be so many good books there that this will be dreamily easy.

How to Avoid Gillian at Continuum 14

This year you’re also avoiding retro Aussie sweets. They’re bad for you. You don’t need them. Trust me on this.

In Parallel (Friday @ 6:00 pm)
Corey J. White , Alison Evans, Kathryn Andersen and I talk about parallel universes, maybe including Sliders. I love it that we all come from different backgrounds and have read and seen different things. Even our email discussion on the subject has been fascinating. I can’t see any reason to avoid this panel except for the sad fact that I’m on it.

Breaking the Mould (Saturday @ 10:00 am)
Rachel Nightingale, Marisa Wickramanayake, Devin Madson, Joanne Tindale and I talk about what so many people call ‘older women’ in fiction. Some of us are not yet older and if you call us that we want to kill you off in our fiction, but we’re not in most fiction anyhow. Everyone else in the panel is polite about such things, but I take this subject personally.

Fan Fund Auction (Saturday @ 2:00 pm)
We have amazing stuff to sell. A sea creature made by Vonda McIntyre, some really terrific books, really strange movie-related stuff and more. So much more. Shame you’ll miss is because of me. You also miss meeting Marcin (Alqua) the Polish fan who’s visiting for GUFF.

Try to be Kinder: Entitlement in Fandom (Saturday @ 4:00 pm)
Creatrix Tiara , Ashleigh, Tansy Rayner Roberts and I talk about fans. I just wrote a novel because fans wanted it. It’s going to be hard to publish, because it goes against most publishing trends. I needed to explain why you should avoid this panel, when it has such very wonderful people on (apart from me, of course).

Deep Dive (Sunday @ 10:00 am)
There will be two talks, so you can hear the other while missing mine. Simple. What will you be missing when you avoid me? A talk on how to combat cultural blindness using grammar. I made a punny title when I called it Cultural Conjugation. I will use grammar to help us get over the hump of not seeing books we should see, not remembering great films we should remember. If there’s time I will make my infamous joke about infinitives. I’m definitely making it in Sydney eight days earlier. There are so many reasons to miss this talk…

Hey, where’s my space age future? (Sunday @ 11:00 am)
Jess Flint, Jess Kapuscinski-Evans, Julia Svaganovic and I talk about people who are missing from great tales who ought to be in them. This is where I’m likely to describe my vision for Julia’s SFnal future. She already knows about it. What she doesn’t know is that I’d like a whole book about her. And I will be fighting for it, during this panel. We have a perfect SF hero in our midst who’s not been fictionalised because she happens to use a wheelchair. This is why our world doesn’t get saved, people. We ignore our heroes.

The Inequality of Magic (Sunday @ 3:00 pm)
Darren / Lexie, Dorian Manticore, Jane Routley and Marisa Wickramanayake are wonderful and you should not miss them. Except I’ll be there and I’ll definitely lead everyone astray. I don’t get to talk about it much, but I started looking at the history of magic when I was an undergraduate and I’ve used it in my research and I have Firm Views on Things.

Book Launch: Mountains of the Mind/The Time of the Ghosts (Sunday @ 5:00 pm)
My book! With ceremony and cake.

Raise the Castle or Raze the Castle? (Monday @ 12:30 pm)
Darren / Lexie, Kathryn Andersen, Elizabeth Fitzgerald will have a really wonderful time. It would have been much better for them if I weren’t there for I shall be medieval. Accurately, precisely and annoyingly medieval.

URGENT NOTE: THe program has changed since I posted this. Use the latest program to work out how to avoid me, not this page!!

Guest post – Laura Goodin

Laura gave me this a while ago, and my life intervened. It is, thankfully, well worth the wait.

Thrillingly Obnoxious: Agency, Empathy, and Enlightenment in Harriet the Spy

by Laura E. Goodin, Ph.D. W. Aust.

In 1964, Harriet the Spy, by socially unconventional author Louise Fitzhugh (Horning 2005), was published to mixed reactions (Morris 2017). It was not the thought of a powerful girl that caused the stir; after all, the previous year Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, with its heroic protagonist Meg Murry, had taken out the Newbery Award (ALSC n.d.). No, the controversy raged around the book’s moral ambiguity: “To a world in which children’s literature consisted of fantasies about stuffed rabbits and saccharine fictions of loving families, Harriet barged in with her unfeminine habits, cruel classmates, rich but neglectful parents, shallow neighbors, and worst of all, her loving governess who advises deceit” (Bernstein 2001, p.26). One reviewer wrote at the time, “Many adult readers appreciating the sophistication of the book will find it funny and penetrating. Children, however, do not enjoy cynicism. I doubt its appeal to many of them” (Viguers 1965, n.p.). In the ensuing 50 years, the book has remained continuously in print (Lodge 2014, n.p.), its sly subversiveness being one of its greatest attractions for the children who continue to read it avidly.

While a number of researchers have asserted that Fitzhugh’s homosexuality motivated her specifically to depict Harriet in coded ways (such as what was then considered her “tomboyish” dress sense) as a young lesbian (Horning 2005; Bernstein 2001), others have contended that Fitzhugh intended her to stand for all girls who push the boundaries of childhood in the agency that they claim, all children who experience social isolation, and all people alienated from their own individuality in a world that has begun to move too fast.

Since the book’s publication, options for girls seeking portrayals of a wide variety of ways of being in the books they read have expanded dramatically, but in 1964 Harriet was entirely, alarmingly conspicuous. Meek, obedient children thrilled to her obnoxious behavior (Horning 2005), her deviousness as a manifestation of the trickster archetype (Paul 1989), and her emotional self-sufficiency (Seo 2014). Harriet is a child who makes her own decisions and routinely disregards both societal norms and parental authority, exhibiting what Wolf (1975) characterizes as “extreme individualism”. She trespasses and invades adults’ privacy on her spy route and consciously rebels against rules of social decorum both at home and with her peers and teachers. She has fully formed plans for her career path as both a writer and a spy: plans that ignore accepted gender roles and traditional career tracks such as university education or corporate workplaces. Bernstein (2001, p.26) notes that in portraying Harriet’s most transgressive behavior, her spying, “Fitzhugh re-invents spying as a child’s quest to observe varied examples of adulthood as research toward choosing her own path”. Whereas child characters’ transgressions are often in opposition to an authority figure (such as Max’s unruly rumpus in Maurice Sendak’s 1963 picture book Where the Wild Things Are), Harriet’s choices are her own, made within her own frame of reference and to accomplish her own ends. The fact that these choices transgress against authority is an irrelevance to her; indeed, she often seems baffled at her parents’ and teachers’ objections to them. Harriet offers young readers a model of the powerful, self-possessed child and, by extension, the powerful individual, regardless of age.

When Harriet does engage with the people around her, she lacks the suave social graces of her parents and classmates. While she observes the hypocrisy and superficiality of the people on her spy route with a keen and critical detachment, she is less skilled at understanding and moving comfortably within her own social networks (Bernstein 2001, p.26). The very individualism that impels her to learn, grow, and achieve without regard for others’ opinions eventually turns even her closest friends against her. In the moment of the book most vilified by critics (Bernstein 2001; Paul 1989), her beloved governess urges her to lie in order to win back their friendship. Seo (2014) asserts that both the lying and the insincere apology that accompanies it show that Harriet has learned nothing and will continue to heedlessly and remorselessly hurt the people around her. In contrast, Paul (1989) writes, “As a feminist writer, Harriet learns to reconstruct herself, to adapt. She resolves the splits – between life and art, between truth and lying, and between gossip and fiction – that destroy many women writers.” Bernstein (2001, p.26) also takes a more nuanced view, writing that “the book encourages the reader to mimic one particular, important aspect of Harriet’s growth: her learning to empathize. Harriet’s growing empathy demands reciprocation from the reader”. Harriet lies not to make things easier for herself, but because she has finally begun to understand, and to mitigate, the impact of her actions on the people around her. As Thus Harriet also models not just agency, but a growing awareness of its consequences.

Both Harriet’s observations of the people on her spy route and the disruptions in her own life show her that agency is in itself not enough to guarantee happiness. Wolf (1975, pp.120-121) writes, “The image which arises is one of a fast-paced, materialistic, complex society in which individuals are isolated in their own private worlds.” As the lives of her surveillance subjects unfold before her, she sees how they deal with their unhappiness and alienation: some in productive ways, like making art and giving food to the poor, and some in unproductive ways, such as conspicuous consumption and malingering. She finds herself unexpectedly dismayed at the despair one of her subjects feels when the authorities deprive him of his beloved cats, and feels a strange exultation at his eventual triumph:

She leaned over the parapet again to study the problem at length. Harrison Withers was humming away, even tapping his foot as he worked. She watched, puzzled, until suddenly he looked up in the direction of he kitchen door. Then she saw it. Into the room, as though he owned it, to the accompaniment of loud cooing and baby talk from Harrison Withers walked the tiniest cat Harriet had ever seen. It was a funny-looking little black-and-white kitten which had a mustache which made it look as though it were sneering It stopped, looked at Harrison Withers as though he were a curiosity, and then walked disdainfully across the room. Harrison Withers watched in adoration. Harriet leaned back and wrote:


And, for some reason, as she walked home Harriet felt unaccountably happy (Fitzhugh 1964, pp.270-271).

Harriet learns by watching her subjects that what one chooses is as important as the act of choosing itself. In the same way, readers learn by watching Harriet.

While there is no denying that Fitzhugh’s depiction of Harriet has been of immense value in giving lesbian and bisexual girls a model for ways to be true to oneself in the face of discrimination and loneliness (Horning 2005; Bernstein 2001), to insist that Fitzhugh was thinking only of such girls is to limit the value of her writing and the scope of her artistic vision. Harriet the Spy has provided a multitude of children with both a manual and a manifesto for claiming, managing, and directing their own agency as they negotiate childhood and emerge into adulthood.


Association for Library Service to Children (ALSCA) n.d. Newbery Medal Winners, 1922-Present. Viewed at

Bernstein, R 2001. “Too Realistic” and “Too Distorted”: The Attack on Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and the Gaze of the Queer Child. Critical Matrix (12:1-2), p.26.

Fitzhugh, L 1964. Harriet the Spy. Dell Publishing Company, New York.

Horning, K T 2005. On Spies and Purple Socks and Such. Hornbook, January. Viewed at

Lodge, S 2014. Harriet the Spy Celebrates 50 Years of Sleuthing. Publishers Weekly, 20 February. Viewed at

Morris, B J (2017). Before Harriet Blogged: Notes on Girls with Notebooks. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 38(3), pp.47-67.

Paul, L 1989. The Feminist Writer as Heroine in Harriet the Spy. The Lion and the Unicorn, 13(1), pp.67-73.

Sendak, M (1963). Where the Wild Things Are. Harper & Row, New York.

Seo, G 2014. Harriet and Me. Horn Book, April 10. Viewed at

Viguers, R H 1965. On Spies and Applesauce and Such. Horn Book, February 7. Viewed at

Wolf, V L 1975. Harriet the Spy: Milestone, Masterpiece? Children’s Literature, 4, pp.120-126.

Laura E. Goodin has been writing professionally for over 30 years. Her novels are available through Odyssey Books (; her stories have appeared in numerous print and online publications; and her scripts, libretti, and poetry have been performed internationally. She holds a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Western Australia, and attended the 2007 Clarion South Workshop. She can be found at

Women’s History Month – guest post from Brenda Clough

Brenda sent me this early… and my life (as you might know) went awry. Some of the things she alerted us to in the post are about to happen, however, so I’ve added links. The first link you might want to check out is one to the writer herself! Also, to my favourite book by her:

I write novels. My current project: to create a powerful female protagonist, but to set the work in the 1860s. I shall fulfill a long-felt need, and write about Marian Halcombe, heroine of THE WOMAN IN WHITE. If you have read Wilkie Collins’s quintessential Victorian thriller you too probably wonder why there are no more stories about Marian. I got tired waiting for someone else to do it properly; if you want a job done right you do it yourself. And so I wrote A Most Dangerous Woman, due out in 2018.

And why does she have to be powerful? Well, putting aside how Collins himself wrote her, that’s where the reader comes in. Everyone who reads this book will be born in the 20th century, possibly the 21st as well. Do you want to read about a passive and ladylike Victorian woman who allows the men do to everything for her? No? Me neither. The first rule of the novelist is, write what you want to read! And I want to read about a powerful woman who is yet totally a creature of her historical era, and who works within the parameters of her culture.

To write a novel set in the past means putting on the mentality of that era, a fascinating challenge. It’s more than just ensuring that you don’t have Abraham Lincoln taking a selfie of himself outside Ford’s Theater. Because the characters have to think like Victorians, you have to think like one too. I have no patience with the sort of novel that seems to be about modern-day Americans only it’s set in Florence in 1490 and they wear houppelandes. It is unreasonable and totally anachronistic, for a woman born in Europe in 1826 to think a feminist. There was no such thing at that time; even Mary Wollstonecraft was but a proto-feminist. One must pursue accuracy, everywhere, like a pillar of flame by night and a pillar of smoke by day.

A purely perfect historical novel should be like stepping into a time machine – essentially stepping back into the past. But this purity of perfection is theoretical, as unachievable as the speed of light. You can never completely write that. Besides, I have to sell this thing. Characters and plot must appeal to persons who are alive today. This is the nub of the problem when a historical novel involves a powerful woman. That character must be fully historical, and yet have modern appeal. It’s like walking a tightrope.

My heroine cannot going to rebel against the strictures of her culture. To us the Victorian proprieties look as confining as whale-boned corsetry. But to Marian they are simply her environment – she is of her time. She can chafe under limitations that Victorian England placed upon women of her class and age, but she can’t overthrow them. She has to get around them in an appropriate way for the time period. And somehow her struggles have to attract the modern reader.

To ensure this, and also to make the novel more fun, the novelist has some good standard tools in her bag. I immediately began supplying the heroine with things that are allowable and historical, but that a 21st century reader would expect and enjoy. A husband, easy – that allows her to have sex in a period when all women were sorted into boxes as either virgins, mothers or whores. Modern novels mostly include sex; I haven’t tested this but my theory is that if you counted the incidents of nookie in any given romance novel you would find the number correlates to its copyright date. A gun – ladies in the 1860s could shoot, so why not Marian? Money, because adventure is so much easier and more colorful if you can afford the travel and the gear. Marian was an impoverished spinster in the Collins novel, but since I’m already supplying her with a hot-blooded husband there is no reason why he can’t be reasonably well-off. And there could be relatives, many boisterous relatives, because kindred can get into trouble and drag the plot and the heroine along.

A husband is especially convenient for social rebellion; a Victorian wife can blame him for everything and use him as an excuse for nearly anything she wants to do. He wants me to rescue him, so of course it is my wifely duty to do so! And I can’t stand characters that are unintelligent. Marian and her husband have to be self-aware; they know they are maintaining layers of masks that allow them a level of behavior that is not ordinarily accepted in their society. And once I began digging into the period I was thrilled to learn that this was by no means unknown historically. Author George Eliot (Marian Evans) had a number of poly friends, and worked an editor who kept wife and mistress in the same household — all kinds of sexual creativity, thinly veiled by concessions to propriety, elided by loyal biographers, and discreetly ignored by adoring fans. People are always people, throughout history, doing the same crazy or fantastic things – that’s the charm of historical fiction.

And plot? Well the story too must be perfectly in period. If for my readers I am sneaking in adumbrations of rebellion and feminism, I must be doubly accurate on the historical side. These modern baubles must be hung on a perfectly Victorian armature. So I have borrowed freely from the literature of the period: bigamy, unwed motherhood, murders accused and genuine, Balkan anarchists with bombs, journals improbably complete in detail left for others to devour.

And I’ve been enlisting historical characters for guest gigs. If my characters are living in London in the late 1860s they are going to meet and interact with at least some of the people who were there at that time. Charles Dickens is an easy one; the Inimitable is almost a fictional character in his own right. But people like Dr. Baker Brown, famous for prescribing clitoridectomy for every female ailment from headache to infertility. Or Isabella Robinson, the woman who wrote a lurid fantasy journal (unless it was fact!) about her torrid affair with her hydropathy doctor. There wasn’t room for all these people in the first novel, so there are sequels, again perfectly in period.

The novel is to come out from SerialBox in the grand Victorian manner, in nine parts each ending with a cliffhanger. Dickens and Trollope would be pleased, and I hope this is a book they would enjoy.


Life has been quite interesting recently. Some of it has been gloriously interesting and some of it has been interesting in ways that take a fair amount of dealing with. That’s why I’ve not updated. I hadn’t even quite finished Women’s History Month. I plan to do that this week. The last posts, including the links to all the posts, will all appear. Not that there are many of them – I was so close before life started interfering!

The not-so-good can wait, but my news right now is that The Time of the Ghosts has now been published by Book View Cafe and I’m dealing with hiccups in accessibility this week, but it should be orderable online in paper form any time now. It’s already orderable in e-book from here. What’s more, there’s a sample of the novel there – you can read a bit and run screaming if that’s your preference.

My next publication is a collection of my short stories and is only a few weeks away. Lost short stories, known short stories, new short stories: all and more. Also an introduction by the amazing and generous Sherwood Smith. And a cover by one of my favourite cover artists of all time. There will be a launch at Continuum in June, among other things. There may be feminist biscuits, for Judith’s story (the sequel to The Wizardry of Jewish Women) is in the volume.

That’s not until next month though. This month, nay, this week, I’m giving a keynote address at a conference. I like giving keynote addresses. I get to talk seriously and about stuff I care about very much. This one will have controversial elements, but they will all lead to some biting conclusions and… I am writing notes again, in case anyone wants this one to be published. I was quoted the last one at myself recently, which made me feel as if I’d crossed into a strange universe where people knew who I was.

I’ll be at Continuum in June, and a Canberra conference (for literature experts) in early July. At the Canberra conference I get to give an ordinary academic paper … about myself. The topic of the conference happened to describe my life exactly. It’s not precisely about myself. It’s more about how the research I do provides bridges from one world to another. The oddity of this is that it’s about my new research and about my fiction and about my history and examines what they do (sort of) and is in my own university. The only two other givers of papers who know me are both in my position ie fiction writers who do academic research. Except that they’re far more establishment than I am and way more respectable.

I may be out on a lonely limb at my own university right now (it’s a long story) but at Eurcon (Nemo, in Amiens in July) it’s going to be quite different. I needed to go to Amiens for research, can’t really afford it but wanted to counterbalance all the things I’m not talking about in this post, and have always wanted to attend a French SF convention and… I’m on the programme. Right now I’m in four items, but I’m sure that will diminish. I’ll find out if I’m speaking/panelling/being interviewed in French or English or both closer to the date.

I’m researching for two novels there, because it’s what I needed for both. For the 17th century novel I need Amiens proper, the other I need the bus route between Arras and Lievin, and a few streets from Lievin itself. If I have time, I also want to visit Arras, for it’s been too long and it has an underground. Almost everywhere in that part of France has an underground, but I know where the entrance is in Arras (or I used to) and I want to see the rocks again. Bookish reasons, of course. And everywhere it’s the Middle Ages, of course. Everywhere except Lievin, which was flattened by war and is oddly new.

If friends turn up the week of research, and if one of them has car and a wish to do things, my dream is to pay my respects at the new war memorial and then do some exploration of the places near it. Or to go to Cambrai and Bethune and other places with epic legend links. If there are no friends with cars, then I am limited physically, but there is so much to do that I doubt this will be a problem. In fact, I know it won’t be. Why do I think this? Because today when I was madly busy, I stopped and perused a document of dialects of certain key works written in a fifty year period and noted all the ones written in Picard… This is one of the regions that gave France its epic and legendary self.

I shall have finished the current novel by Continuum. It’s not as easy to write with all the stuff happening. One thing I didn’t realise was quite how hard it is to write a novel where I’m giving someone with illness one kind of life and then find that what I give her is not being given to me. This very obscure statement will make sense one day, in a sad way.

My roller coaster life has bigger highs and lower lows this year. I was trying to explain why I needed something yesterday and got a very blank look from someone when I mentioned – in passing, the way one does when one mentions past events – a couple of the bad things of recent years. What this means is that my life is no longer credible. It’s just as well I don’t want to write an autobiography.

Women’s History Month – guest, Mary Victoria

Women’s History Month was rudely interrupted by Passover, so I had to take a break. When we finish for the year, I’ll do you a nice list of all the posts so that you can find everything. Until then, enjoy!

Right now, enjoy Mary Victoria talking about a writer who I also love.

The wonder of this year’s topic has been finding out what good writers think of other good writers. These are the writers we think should be remembered, or should remain in the sunlight and be read. While you read, I’ll sit back and remember a conversation I had with Helen had about where some of my ancestors would fit in her invented world Mary’s own writing always evokes memory for me, and this piece is no exception.

She writes with aplomb; with heart; with grace. She is a New Zealander, a Christchurch earthquake veteran and a lover of trees. To those of you in the know, these few words will immediately evoke the name ‘Helen Lowe’. But perhaps there aren’t as many of you in the know as I should like, so I will introduce my chosen writer for Women’s History Month with a quote from one of her books. This is how she begins the tale of Lady Mouse, or Myr, one of the main protagonists of Daughter of Blood and easily my favourite Lowe character to date:

“Outside, the latest Wall storm had blown itself into a brief respite of calm weather, but inside the Red Keep the storm that had been raging between the ruling kin for weeks continued to generate acrimony and raised voices. Although, Myr thought, wrapping her arms around her drawn-up knees, ‘raised voices’ was only her former governess Ise’s way of being polite. Anyone else would say shouting, usually over the top of whoever else was yelling at the same time.”

Immediately, we are there. In one brief line, the excerpt conjures up the sound of winds blowing on a fantastical world – on Haarth, with its mysterious Wall – but more particularly of voices arguing, an all-too-familiar and very human sound. The family argument overheard by the young daughter of the House of Blood, Myr, could have taken place anywhere, from ancient Babylon to modern Brooklyn. The dispute, we intuit, is probably some petty power play between the members of a rich and influential family. With a few strokes of her pen, Lowe does something rather marvellous: she puts us elsewhere, on a strange new world, while keeping us firmly anchored to the here and now. Who hasn’t heard that family argument?

There aren’t that many writers of fantasy who are able to seamlessly blend the familiar with the strange. Often, a novel will pile strangeness upon strangeness in an attempt to shock or entertain. Characters sweep onto the scene with mind-boggling superpowers, or act with a level of amorality and brutality that would have any normal human being vomiting in the gutter, suffering from severe PTSD. It’s all done in the name of fun and games but it doesn’t necessarily convince. Lowe, on the other hand, while she doesn’t shy away from calling on strange powers and superhuman characters, also knows how to do the opposite. She knows how to draw a character whose potency and strength lies in just how recognisably human, flawed and weak she is. Myr has no special powers, nor does she need them to fully inhabit her role and win our hearts.

I was lucky enough to meet Helen some years ago, and indeed stayed for over a decade in her native New Zealand (a place I miss greatly.) She first made contact with me, in her wonderful open-hearted way, in 2010, to interview me for a podcast about a publication. And so I found myself chatting to a delightful, intelligent person about our shared love of Ursula K. Le Guin, trees, and any number of other subjects dear to both of us, a conversation that has continued in one form or another ever since. Along the way, there have been life-changing events. In February 2011, Helen’s home town of Christchurch was battered by a devastating earthquake that damaged a good portion of the city, including its historic centre, leaving nothing but rubble for blocks. People lost their homes or were left without power or plumbing, their livelihoods destroyed. Many left the city at that time. While Helen’s house still stood, it was like a great number of others undermined and affected, subject to ongoing repairs. Insurance payouts were slow, while the city merely struggled to survive. Throughout these trials, however, Helen decided to stay in Christchurch. She didn’t abandon her home, but continued to live, and write, in the city she called home.

Several instalments of the Wall series later, she is still there. I left New Zealand in the meantime, but continued to follow her exploits with interest on her blog after returning to the UK. I have discovered along the way that she is an accomplished poet as well as a novelist, and – most recently – that she is something of a star in the world of tree conservation. You won’t catch her blowing her own trumpet, though: she simply does what she does in that typically understated, Kiwi way, and manages to be a force to be reckoned with. Needless to say, I am full of admiration for her both as a writer and an activist. She doesn’t just survive: she conquers.

In sum, if you haven’t yet had the chance to discover Helen Lowe’s writing, do yourself a favour and pick up the Wall of Night series, or read Thornspell. She will not disappoint. Meanwhile, remember New Zealand, that deliciously green island of dreamers and tale-weavers in the South Pacific, and explore its worlds a little. It will show you wonders to behold, including a fine tradition of writers of fantasy. You can’t go wrong where the clouds are long, and the wind sings haere mai.

Women’s History Month – guest, Helen Hollick

In Awe of Alison Morton and ‘Roma Nova’

Alison Morton writes a thriller series. But wait a minute, isn’t this supposed to be Women’s History Month, not Women’s Thriller Month? Ms Morton has created what is, I think, something unique for her novels, not thrillers placed in an historical setting – there are plenty of those of a good, middling or poor standard – but thrillers placed in an alternative historical setting. Imagine, as she has so superbly done, if the might that was Rome, with its military and administrative expertise, had not collapsed in the West in the fifth century. Imagine if sixteen hundred years ago a group of steadfast Roman exiles had given all they had to preserve that Rome, from its language to its customs, to its gods and its ideals. The only thing to change, as the centuries wore on, were the leaders, the ones in charge. They were women. Morton’s Roma Nova series features modern twentieth and twenty-first century Praetorian heroines. With a few hunks of male heroes and a smattering of dastardly baddies thrown in for good measure. The result is a series of engrossing, intelligent, entertaining – and dare I say, thrilling – novels that have no respect for lights-out at bedtime, but an addictive and compulsory need to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. Nor does the excitement leave at the end of each book. Thank goodness for Kindle where ordering the next in the sequence is instantaneous.

Morton’s passion for Roman history is evident, as is her knowledge of military matters. She spent six years in the UK military service and a lifetime of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction. From an early age, Morton says; “I was intrigued by the role of female soldiers, probably influenced by a feminist mother and a father who was ex-military.” She saw no reason why women could not represent their country alongside men in the armed forces and joined the Territorial Army in the special communications regiment. She eventually finished her career as a captain, a career which included a variety of interesting, and some secretive things that she still cannot talk about. Which is, perhaps, as frustrating for us as it is for her, but highly valuable for a writer in need of conjuring up plots for exciting thriller novels based around a fictional military regime.

A fascination as a child with the Ampurias mosaics in Spain and the wonders of Roman engineering kick-started her interest in Roman history, and in particular the role of women. The Roman Empire spread from small beginnings via a republic to an imperial regime with periods of political stability, expanding conquest and the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in the then known world, possibly only partially matched ever since by the Victorian era British Empire. Interspersed with this stability and expansion, however, were insane or power-lusting emperors, administrative chaos, bloody battles, scheming political intrigue, inter-family at top level squabbling and murder. Morton, however, began to wonder what a modern Roman society would be like if it had survived all that, and was run by strong, capable women… Tough, disciplined, dedicated heroines who had the guts and capability to deal with any or all of the issues of the past that could re-raise their ugly heads. Even the passing of centuries does not eliminate a lust for power and disrespect for the law to achieve it. A fact which Ms Morton uses well to her advantage.

From the striking covers, which give an immediate sense of the grandeur of Rome, and the very cleverly thought-out titles – Latin, but recognisable and pertinent to each storyline – the novels themselves whisk you into an entirely made-up imagined world, but one that is utterly believable and completely convincing in the locations, the plot, the characters and the action. But in layers beneath these adventures, she does more than merely entertain. Morton examines some eternal themes: power, betrayal, personal and political breakdown and the many facets of love. While not necessarily being pro-feminist, by using an alternative historical framework she prods us to consider that public agency in a historical environment – government, military service, open political power – is not always exclusively a male prerogative.

For the characters, we meet Carina Mitela, the heroine, in Book One, Inceptio in modern-day New York, although even here things are not quite as expected, for this is not the USA as we know it. This is the Eastern United States, similar but not the same; I personally find it fun to ‘spot the difference’ where Ms Morton has made subtle changes: Central Park is Kew Park, for instance, a nod to London’s Kew Gardens? At first you think she has made a mistake, then you cotton-on to her adept twists of what is ‘our’ world and her alternative Roma Nova existence. Very cleverly done.

Here, though, at the start of this part of the series, our heroine is Karen Brown, a law enforcement officer who finds herself suddenly plunged into confusion, kidnapping, threats to her career and life – and a meeting with an arrogant Roma Novan Praetorian special-forces officer, Conrad Tellus. Karen is forced to flee with him to the homeland of her deceased mother, Roma Nova, situated somewhere in Europe, roughly in our modern Austrian/Switzerland area, and finds herself re-established as Carina Mitela, the granddaughter of one of the most important administrative families. She enrols in the law enforcement service, but remains determined to discover who it is who wants her dead, and who is hunting her so ruthlessly. Romance, of course, comes into it via Conrad, known as Conradus on his own turf, and other dominant males. Action, adventure, thriller, military precision: “The Hunger Games meets Lindsey Davis’s Roman detective Falco,” as one fan from a book club summed it up.

Perfiditas, the next instalment follows on, with Carina risking being terminated by the security services and a variety of chilling conspirators. Her decision to seek help from a less-than-legal friend brings her close to wrecking her marriage and her career. There is betrayal, emotional decisions, loyalty and hard-gut determination in this novel. The true stuff of heroines and heroes. Successio, Book Three, sees Carina working as an experienced officer in military intelligence – you can clearly recognise Morton’s own experiences in this particular book. Carina is given the task of protecting Roma Nova from a last remnant of the Empire that has survived into the twenty-first century, but to do so she must find the mental and physical strength to face her nemesis. And make some very hard decisions.

With Aurelia, Book Four (or IV, as Morton numbers them) the author not only surprises her readers but shows to full extent her magnificent talent as a competent and creative writer. She takes us back to the early 1960s and the story that lies behind Carina’s esteemed grandmother, Aurelia Mitela. Investigating silver smuggling, silver being one of the financial mainstays of Roma Novan survival, she clashes with Caius Tellus, a personal enemy since their childhood, and an enemy of Roma Nova, for through him the destruction of everything that has been established looms immanent. The story continues to a breath-taking, heart-pounding climax as a trilogy through Insurrectio and Retalio. Yes, you know that Aurelia will eventually win the day, she has to for she is there in the first three books set several years after this trilogy, but it is her journey, her fight, her courage, that is important here. Morton’s skill at pulling off such an engrossing set of classy thrillers to entirely absorb, gasp at, cheer at and ultimately, at the last page, to whole-heartedly applaud, is, to use a common phrase, awesome.

All six of these Roma Nova full-length novels have been given the Indie BRAG Medallion of excellence, with several of them carrying other as prestigious awards and Editor’s Choice selections, (Discovering Diamonds, The Bookseller, Historical Novel Society, etc.)

The latest addition, Carina, is a novella set after Inceptio but before Perfiditas and focuses on Carina’s early experiences within Roma Novan society and law. She is an inexperienced officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, and through folly, is disgraced and reprimanded for her undisciplined actions. To extricate her from embarrassment she is sent to the Republic of Quebec (Canada) to return a traitor to Roma Nova, but in true thriller adventure style, things do not go to plan.

There are several essentials that can turn a good book into a brilliant book (or a good series into a brilliant series). Obviously, good writing and good editing are two of these essentials, but for whatever the genre and sub-genre believability for the plot, the locations, the characters, indeed the entire package, is as essential. For her Roma Nova series, Alison Morton has created a cast of characters, various exciting adventures that befall them, and an entire fictional world for them to ‘perform’ in which, quite frankly, has left me open-mouthed with admiration. Nor does she pull any emotional punches. How on earth does Morton manage so consistently to write book after book to match, and outrank, the previous one for quality, continuity, thrills, spills and page-turning entertainment, again, and again and again? The answer is, without doubt, top-class writing skills, dedication, scrupulous attention to detail, in-depth research and books that are professionally produced from cover-to-cover.

My only comment against Ms Morton is that she has no regard for permitting her readers to go to sleep at night, or notice the required stop on their bus or train travels. But then, the ability to engross your reader so deeply in a novel is a very fine talent, and Alison Morton possesses that talent by the bucket-load. Once discovered, her books are pounced on by her readers; her work is an exemplar of the current crop of high-quality independent self-published writers, a group that has well and truly established itself in the genre of historical fiction writing.

© Helen Hollick

A modern Alpine Village – or, alternatively, Roma Nova?


Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction, due to be published in 2018. She founded Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, in January 2017.

Discovering Diamonds

Women’s History Month – guest Jacey Bedford

This is another background post. Jacey wrote it for the year I was so ill that things went awry. I asked her if she minded if we used it here, and she’s updated it. Why is it so important? That overnight success in only twenty years is true of so many writers. I’ll let Jacey explain…

Overnight Success in Only Twenty Years

Here’s the quick intro: I’m Jacey Bedford, a British writer of science fiction and fantasy published by DAW in the USA. I have five books out so far and a sixth under contract. The Psi-Tech trilogy (Empire of Dust, Crossways and Nimbus) is complete, Published by DAW in the USA. My Rowankind fantasy trilogy has two books out so far (Winterwood and Silverwolf) and the third, Rowankind, is due from DAW in November 2018. I used to have kids; now I have adults, but they don’t get any less expensive with age. I live with my husband (songwriter, singer, recording engineer) Brian Bedford (no, not the Canadian actor who died recently, this one is still very much alive and kicking). We have a black, long-haired German Shepherd (a dog, not an actual shepherd from Germany) and live in a rambling old house on the edge of Yorkshire’s Pennine hills, barely nine miles away from where we were both born. (Same hospital, different years.)

The beginning of my writerly story is lost in the mists of my childhood. I struggled with writing at school because, being a fluent reader by the age of five, I was put into a class of kids who’d already had over a year in school. Playing catch-up, my mum encouraged me to write a twenty-minute story every lunchtime (I went home for lunch in those days). Result: compulsive writer. I’ve never been able to stop. I’m not a writer because I can write. I’m a writer because I can’t NOT write.

I started my first novel aged 15 and the world will be highly relieved to know that I only managed to write the first six chapters, though I may have been a little ahead of my time as it was a future dystopia. (Take that, Hunger Games!) Unfortunately it was peopled by close analogues of my favourite pop stars. Oh, well… at least my school friends thought it was brilliant. (Lesson number one: never ask your closest friends to be your critique partners.)

So let’s not start right back at the beginning, let’s skip a few years to 1994 when a friend lent me her Amstrad PCW on which to write my magnum opus. Before then I’d always written longhand and being a lousy typist might never have got to the stage of having a finished manuscript. So when I returned said machine I was bereft and immediately went out and bought one. Own up, how many of you started writing on an Amstrad in all its glory: non-WYSIWYG, with green-screen and a dot matrix printer? And wasn’t it glorious compared to an Imperial 66 manual typewriter or a notebook and pen? (Lesson number two: have the right tools for the job.)

I wrote my first two (unpublished) novels on that Amstrad, juggling husband, kids and widowed mother while also carrying on a singing career with a cappella folk trio, Artisan ( which involved a lot of travelling. The family was, if not supportive (because they barely knew what I was up to) at least tolerant of erratic mealtimes, late nights, obsessive keyboard hammering. Then I transferred to a PC, discovered email, got on the triple ‘W’ and found a usenet writers; group called misc.writing. There I learned about essentials like manuscript format, how to submit to a publisher and… the fact that if I was serious about this writing lark I needed an agent. (Lesson number three: talk to other writers and learn all you can from their experience.)

By this time, through a friend of a friend in the music business, I’d met American writer Elizabeth Ann Scarborough who was writing a series of novels with Anne McCaffrey. One Annie talked to the other on my behalf and an introduction to an agent in New Jersey ensued. By that time, though I’m British and based in Yorkshire, Artisan was playing regularly in the USA, so I even got to meet said agent in person. (Not always the case when you live half a world away from each other.) She shopped around my first novel and got a ‘we-nearly-bought-this’ from HarperCollins, but regrettably didn’t actually sell it to any one of the (then) nine major publishers of fantasy and science fiction in the USA. I wasn’t too disappointed. First books don’t always sell, right? But I’d made a big rookie mistake in that the second book was a sequel to the first. (Lesson number four: stay flexible and keep your eye on practical possibilities.) Yeah, my agent shoulda, coulda warned me, but she wasn’t a hands-on agent, and we didn’t have that kind of relationship. In those days I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a hands-on agent. Anyhow, I tried to make the sequel feel like a standalone and sent it to her. After a couple of months I got an email to say that she couldn’t sell the second book.

Now, it had taken over a year for her to decide she couldn’t sell the first book, and I got a list of which publishers had seen it and when. With the second one she was vague and somewhat evasive. Who’s seen it, I asked. Everyone. Well, can you give me a list? No answer. Did HarperCollins see it? They don’t want to see the same book twice. It’s not the same book… You get the idea? So (politely) we parted company. (Lesson number five: when something is really not working walk away with good grace and no acrimony.)

Getting agent number one had been so easy that I had no concept of how difficult it would be to get another agent. I was back at the beginning, learning how to write a cover letter and deal with the whole submission process. I was used to submitting short stories to magazines (I’d sold a few) and even sending full books to publishers’ slushpiles, so I had the no simultaneous submissions rule pretty firmly in my head and I carried that forward into my submissions to agents. Submitting to only one agent at a time, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Some agents (bless them) rejected pretty quickly, some took six or nine months to reject (sometimes after going through the send-the-full-MS stage) others never responded at all. Skip forward eight years, and in that time I’d made about nine agency submissions, one painful long-drawn-out application at a time. (Lesson number six: Don’t waste time and/or opportunities.)

And then I got my break, a relatively new agent with a big New York agency who was just building a client list and whose guidelines said that [agent] did not necessarily require an exclusive submission, but if the author wished to give [agent] an exclusive then [agent] would respond more swiftly. I’d been giving agents exclusives for eight years! So I submitted, made sure [agent] knew it was an exclusive submission and waited. Bang on the time given in the agency guidelines I got a response asking for the full manuscript and shortly after that an offer of representation.

I was elated!

Unlike my first agent, Agent2 was a hands-on agent and worked with me to improve my manuscript before finally saying it was good enough to send out. I really liked Agent2 and was very hopeful. Then… with my book under submission, my agent decided to get out of agenting. Devastated doesn’t even begin to cover my feelings.

So now I had a book that Agent2 thought was perfectly marketable, but had already been seen by at least four of the major publishers with no success so far, and I was back to square one. No agent and no book sale. Though I did have a much improved book, thanks to my agent’s editorial advice.

But by this time I’d begun to wise up. (Lesson number seven: REALLY don’t waste time.) There’s nothing in the (unwritten) rules of submitting that says you can’t sim-sub to agents. I figured that I didn’t want to waste another decade with eight or nine agency submissions, so I decided to submit to all of them at once. Well, not quite all of them and not quite all at once, but…

I decided to make getting an agent my ‘job’ for the next few months. I began with research. There are a lot of websites out there that list agents and what they are looking for, one of the best being which claims to be the internet’s largest free database of literary agents. I can easily believe that, though it is North-American in bias. I supplemented this with the Writers and Artists Yearbook in the UK (I’m British and I was looking on both sides of the Atlantic), and Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents, a blog on the Writer’s Digest website.

Then, having built up my own database I started with my top picks and sent individual targeted submissions to each one, checking their websites and following their own guidelines. I also wrote a fresh cover letter for each one, picking up on their likes and dislikes if at all possible. I sent out fifty of these in a month. It was practically all I did. I was straight with them that the book Agent2 had submitted had already been seen by four publishers and that the only reason I was looking for a new agent was because my previous agent was retiring from the business, but that in the meantime I had more novels in reserve, seven in total. (Lesson number eight: whether your books are selling on not, keep writing, build up a portfolio.)

In the meantime I sent my manuscript to a publisher I really liked and one that I knew had not yet read the manuscript that Agent2 had submitted. I did it with a recommendation from a friend already published by that publisher, which may have placed me closer to the top of the slushpile and certainly got me a note from the editor promising that she would read it as soon as she could but that she was very busy. Being very busy all the time is the natural state in which editors exist. (Lesson number nine: don’t be afraid to make use of contacts freely offered – but don’t be obnoxious if contacts are NOT freely offered.)

I began to get responses from my agent submissions. Some were form rejections, others were polite personal rejections and a few – enough – were requests for full manuscripts, which was encouraging.

My fifty submissions were still in the early stages. I’d ruled out about twenty of them, had not heard back from another twenty or twenty five, yet (but there was still time) and I had sent full manuscripts to a few and was waiting to hear back. I wasn’t getting despondent.

Then in July I got that email that every author wants. Sheila Gilbert at DAW said, I want to buy your book, when can I phone you?

Let me just say that again: I want to buy your book, when can I phone you?

And it was Christmas and my birthday all at once.

I didn’t need an agent now… but, hang on, yes I did. Why? Agents do more than sell a single book, they negotiate contracts, offer career advice and support and sell books for foreign language translation. My editor said she was happy to do the contract direct with me or to work through my agent, to which I said: Can you give me a week on that? She agreed. And then she asked the magic question: What else have you got?

So while I sent Sheila two more finished manuscripts I looked back at my list of agency submissions and picked out my ten favourites. Some had already asked for full manuscripts, some had not yet responded and one had already sent me a rejection, but I figured with an offer on the table she might change her mind. She didn’t – but I respect her for that. My email basically said I’d had an offer for my book and I would need a response within the week if the agent was interested in discussing the matter of representation further.

To cut a long story short: I received five offers of representation. Within a week I’d had long telephone conversations with the five who made offers, narrowed it down to one British and one American agent, both from highly respected agencies, and dithered for a couple of days, weighing up pros and cons. In the end, there was nothing to choose between them, so I went with my gut feeling and picked the one I’d been most comfortable chatting to. And I’m so pleased that I did. That agent was the lovely Amy Boggs of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. Amy developed DAW’s initial offer into a three book deal, two of them already written, Empire of Dust and Winterwood, and a sequel to Empire, to be written from scratch. This turned into Crossways.

So there you have it, my overnight success only took twenty years. (Lesson number ten: don’t ever give up, and when the big moment happens grab it with both hands and hang on.)

An then, because nothing is ever straightforward in the world of writing and publishing, after a couple of years Amy left the Donald Maass agency, however my contract is with the agency, so I wasn’t too worried, I knew they’d have to settle me with another of their agents. What I didn’t expect—and what I’m absolutely over the moon about—is that I would be taken on by Donald Maass himself. (Lesson number eleven: things sometimes work out just fine without your intervention, so enjoy the ride.)

Thanks to Gill for inviting me to participate. If you want to know more about me this is where to find me and my books:
Twitter: @jaceybedford
Books: Empire of Dust, Crossways, Nimbus (The Psi-Tech Trilogy)
Winterwood, Rowankind (The first two in the Rowankind trilogy)

Women’s History Month – guest post by Catherine Hokin

Sharon Kay Penman

For such a seemingly simple term, Historical Fiction covers a wide ground. The spread of novels within the genre balance their engagement with ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ at quite different levels. They frequently cross into other territories such as romance or crime, or fantasy. And increasingly with novels such as Lincoln in the Bardo and Days Without End, set in the past but perhaps more remarkable for what they do with structure and theme, stray into what could be termed as ‘literary fiction.’ All these variations have their place but speak to librarians and readers (although perhaps not publishers) and the demand for ‘genre historical fiction’, what author Sarah Johnson has referred to as ‘historical fiction that simply goes out to tell a good story’ seems as constant as it was when Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton ruled.

Readers of genre historical fiction usually come at their chosen work from one of two directions: they know the novel’s world and want to extend, or prove, their knowledge; they have a vague interest in the period and a story, rather than a text book, is their way in. For both types engagement with the history is at the forefront. They demand a high level of historical accuracy which will allow them to experience the past, and the people in it, in an emotional way, living and feeling the characters’ worlds. There are many writers who do this well, taking their readers on a vast sweep through an historical landscape, focusing on the small details that make the period vivid just as well as the big events. One of the best is the American author Sharon Kay Penman.

Penman’s first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, which famously took 12 years to write on account of the theft of the original manuscript and the effect this had on the author’s confidence, was published in 1982. Since then she has written a further seven historical novels and a series of four mysteries, all set in the medieval period between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Her most recent novel A King’s Ransom (2014) recounts the last years in the life of Richard the Lionheart and her next, The Land Beyond the Sea, set in twelfth century Jerusalem, is expected in August 2018.

The Sunne in Splendour is an account of the Wars of the Roses but is, more specifically, a re-telling of the life of Richard III. Although Penman’s writing style has evolved (Richard the Lionheart’s personality matures and deepens through the two novels focused on him) reflecting historical events through depictions of characters towards whom she takes a very particular view is a characteristic of Penman’s style. Her Richard is highly sympathetic: he is not an usurper or a murderer, in fact he is hardly flawed at all. He is thoughtful, kind, loyal, popular (in the North at least) and romantically in love with his wife. This was, at the time, an interesting re-appraisal of a much-maligned figure but it is perhaps one of the shortcomings of Penman’s approach that she takes a polarised or simplified stance on historical figures. Maud in When Christ and His Saints Slept is cold, Stephen is chivalrous, Henry and Eleanor are motivated by lust. If Richard does one bad thing, he must be all bad, therefore no fault can be admitted. This ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ approach to characterisation makes him less human and less plausible, especially in the context of the bloody period he lived in. It feels old-fashioned on a recent re-read, but may be a style readers will need to learn to love – see Lionel Shriver’s recent article on the call-out culture.

Other shortcomings? Penman’s books are epics and this can effect pace, either slowing it under the weight of exposition or tumbling event on top of event. There is too often the sense that the rest of the novel is the reward for the slow-burn first hundred pages. Sentence structure can be cumbersome and word choice can veer rather too close to cod-medieval in places – for certes is an over-used favourite. The sheer weight of characters can cause confusion in the narrative perspective and she has said herself that she has not always felt comfortable allowing fictional characters to inhabit the same stage as her historical figures, although, when she lets them fly and stops being hide-bound by detail, they are as good as if not more rounded than their ‘real’ counterparts. In a sense it is detail that makes or breaks the novels: Penman sets the research bar very high and has no qualms about including everything she knows, there are no quick sketches here. For readers unused to this heavily research-overt style, it can be a daunting prospect; for those who love it, she is unrivalled.

Criticisms then, so what makes her so incredibly successful and still one of my go-back-to authors? It’s actually quite simple: she tells a great story. Penman’s books, for all their shortcomings, are incredibly readable, the kind of book you open and emerge from hours later slightly unsure of which time period you are actually in. Her novels breathe life into long dead figures and shine very bright lights into some of the most fascinating aspects of our historical past. She’s not an historian, although some approach and criticise her as such, but she has all the best aspects of one in her love of subject. What Penman is is an historical novelist in its very purest sense, and a very fine one at that.

Catherine Hokin Bio

Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This sparked an interest in hidden female voices resulting in her debut novel, Blood and Roses which brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot, Myslexia and Writers Forum magazines – and blogs monthly for The History Girls. She is represented by Tina Betts of the Andrew Mann Literary Agency.
Novel: Blood and Roses
Purchase link

Social media and web links:
Twitter @cathokin
The History Girls

Sharon Penman
a sense of authenticity in everything
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