Sunday, December 1, 2013

ENTERING THE LABYRINTH: Writing The Light in the Labyrinth ~ by Wendy J. Dunn.

The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full-stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network (Foucault, quoted in Hutcheon 1989).

 All novels begin with an idea, a response to living life. The idea for my first published novel was seeded when, as a teenager, I first read one of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poems, the poem I will always think of as Dear Heart, How Like You This? Many years went by before I was brave enough to marry this poem with my heart and mind to discover it enabled me to tell Anne Boleyn’s story through the voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, which ended up becoming my first Tudor novel.

The idea for The Light in the Labyrinth, my first young adult Tudor novel, arrived close to a decade after the publication of that novel. In late December 2008, one of my writing friends asked me to accompany her to the Melbourne Short and Sweet Festival, a ten-minute play competition. We spent an inspiring afternoon watching the performances of the ten finalists, so inspired that we challenged ourselves to write our own ten-minute plays and see if we could write something good enough to enter into the 2009 Short and Sweet festival. I wanted to do it because I hadn’t written a play since High School, too long ago to count. Smile – since taking up the calling of a serious writer, I am very prepared to push myself out of my comfort zone because I want to grow as a writer. Sigh. Signing up for a PhD in Writing provides a perfect example of how willing I am to suffer for my craft.

But back to my story. Weeks went by and I realised my first idea for a funny play was proving not funny at all, and I had to face the fact that writing comedy is something I still need to conquer. My summer break fast disappearing on me, I tried to think of another idea for a play; I picked up a copy of my novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This?, and pondered once more the beautiful painting used as its cover.  Edouard Cibot’s Anne Boleyn in the Tower (painted in 1835) helped to inspire my first novel; now it inspired me anew.

For reasons I explain in this article, I feel absolutely certain that the weeping woman in the background is the artist’s depiction of Anne Boleyn. But who was the girl in the foreground – the girl so desolate, so still with despair, that she can only hold the hand of the older woman?

That summer day, my years of research ignited my imagination, and I asked myself the question asked by all fiction writers, “What if?” “What if, I asked myself, the girl depicted Anne Boleyn’s teenage niece, Katherine Carey?

I mulled over what I knew about Katherine Carey. During my research about Anne Boleyn, I had also been tantalised by titbits of information regarding Kate.  A number of historians suggest she may have accompanied her aunt to the Tower. They also suggested she stayed with her during the long nineteen days of her imprisonment and witnessed her death. But most historians generally put forward the year 1524 for Katherine’s birth, some even claim as late as 1527. If one accepted 1524, that means she was no more than twelve at the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution.

In the past I asked myself:  would Anne ask an untried twelve-year-old to support her on this dreadful day? A girl she would have to trust to keep calm on the scaffold and help deal with her decapitated body afterwards. I could not give it credence.  Even sixty-seven years in the future, a thirteen-year-old was “held too young” to sit by the body of Elizabeth I during the nights and days of Watching over the Dead (Cressy 1997, p. 428).

I also asked myself one further question: would this be Anne Boleyn’s desire, that her twelve-year-old niece accompany her to the scaffold and witness her death? No, I thought. Anne Boleyn would have chosen only witnesses of proven maturity; witnesses who were not only capable of speaking of her end but also understood their duty to bear witness to her “good death”.

I have no doubt that Anne would have been utterly determined to make a good death.  Her culture believed the innocent died well, not the guilty. By achieving a good death, she left behind a legacy of doubt about her guilt. Considering how important these witnesses were to her, choosing a twelve-year-old to number amongst them, a girl who might break under the strain of watching her aunt’s final moments and also possibly undermine Anne’s fortitude to achieve a good death, made no sense to me.  

Then I read Varlow’s `Sir Francis Knollys's Latin dictionary: new evidence for Katherine Carey'. This article added more weight to the uncertainty of Katherine’s birth year. An argument for a fourteen-year-old Kate, a girl mature enough to be with her aunt on the last day of her life, strengthened – enough for me to imagine her with her aunt on Anne’s final night in my play Before Dawn Breaks.

My play first gave Kate voice, but now she wouldn’t leave my imagination. Further tugged by what I already knew, I wanted to know more. I asked myself, could she be a good subject for my next historical novel? A character I could construct through novel writing and, by doing so, would also help me understand and gain meaning about life?  For writing has always been one of the ways I achieve growth as a human being. I want to build a bridge of empathy between my text and my reader, but more than that; my own empathy grows by building that bridge.

My next step was to study the portraits of Katherine Carey. Kate’s friendly face made it easy to imagine why Anne would have wanted her with her in the Tower, and until the very end.

Until the end…I thought about that. Anne Boleyn’s witnesses also had the duty to oversee proper burial of her remains.  Religion narrates the context of the Tudor period; the majority of men and women whole-heartedly believed in the resurrection of bodies on Judgement Day. Thus, it was very important to them that all body parts were buried together, for the “bodies of the faithful ‘shall be ‘quickened and raised up, their souls restored to them again’” (Cressy 1997, p. 385).

Who took up these final duties of caring for Anne Boleyn’s body? While history does not tell us their names, we can easily guess their gender. Women, just as they gathered together to bring life into the world, prepared the dead for burial. As also in childbirth, the women who took on these duties were, in most cases, kin or close friends of the dead. If Kate had been there for her aunt’s death, then it follows she was also one of those committed to care for Anne’s body afterwards.    
My research for my first published novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This?, concentrated only on what was necessary for the point of view of my character, Sir Thomas Wyatt. Now, thinking about Kate, I could not remember reading a detailed account of what happened to Anne Boleyn’s body afterwards – besides noting the fact that they were forced to use an empty arrow box for her interment because no one had readied a proper coffin.  Did they expect the king to send a last minute reprieve? Wondering about that, I also reminded myself that their lack of preparation could be easily explained: no one had ever written before the script for the execution of a crowned queen of England.

I also wondered who provided the necessary burial winding cloth? Man or woman, in this time and place, to be buried unclothed was to be treated like a beast (Cressy 1997, p. 430). I re-checked two biographies about Anne Boleyn. Denny (2007, p. 315) and Ives (2004, p. 359) both provided identical accounts. One of her ladies covered and then carried her head while the other women wrapped her body. Unaided, they carried her remains to St Peter ad Vincula. Once in the chapel, they removed Anne’s blood soaked clothes and placed her in an emptied arrow box. More and more, my imagination placed my Kate in the chapel. My imagination painted her as a grief stricken young girl who now helped ready her aunt for burial.  

Hoping to find out more, I soon added another book to my Tudor library. Geoffrey Abbott’s Severed Heads, British Beheadings through Ages. Abbot (p. 42) includes the account of the historian Crispin, who lived during these times. Crispin describes the understandable anguish of Anne’s women, bracing themselves for the duty of carrying her body from the scaffold for burial. One of Anne Boleyn’s chaplains, Father Thirlwall, blessed Anne’s makeshift coffin before it was interred in the vault near the altar. Already in this vault lay the remains of Anne Boleyn’s brother, George (Abbot 2003, p. 43).

They interred her with the brother she supposedly committed incest with? Why? The more I thought about that, the more it felt an act of appeasement. Novel fragments opened up in my mind, and I wrote down in my writing journal:  

 I smell the pungency of bruised rosemary, seeing in my mind the dark, candle lit interior of St. Peter ad Vincula. Out of the gloom, a hooded woman emerges, closely followed by another. The bowed woman behind her clasps tight to her chest a bundle of herbs used for burial. Stepping into the amber glow of candlelight, the first woman lifts her pale, worn face.

“Mother! Grandmother!” Kate cries, running into her mother’s open arms. Once there, she weeps. There is no other sound in the chapel but the echo of her sobs, scarring time itself.      

These jottings in my journal, helped by the erasures of history and my memories of my visit to St. Peter ad Vincula in 2007, led to writing other scenes, or ideas for this new novel. While I still yearned for a stronger sense of certainty about Kate’s age before really committing myself to the long, gruelling journey of novel writing, I knew I was now willing to do the research.

Katherine Carey presented, I thought, the perfect voice for the Young Adult historical novel I wanted to write, a vehicle I also hoped, as a writer, would help me reach a better understanding as to why Henry VIII chose to bloody his hands with the death of Anne Boleyn through revisiting the last months of her life.  But of course it is more than this. My concerns about Kate Carey’s age at last put to rest through thorough research, The Light in the Labyrinth, also my PhD artefact, became a story of a young girl forced to grow up fast in the adult world ruled over by Henry VIII.  

The Light in the Labyrinth is now scheduled for publication in 2014 with Metropolis Ink, the publisher of my first novel.
P.S.  I wrote Before Dawn Breaks, my ten minute play, in one day and realised I still had time to enter the 2009 Eltham Little Theatre’s Quickie Competition. Sending it off, I put it out of my mind and concentrated on other writing. I planned to look at the play again when I knew the Melbourne Short and Sweet festival was opened for entries.  But fate had other plans – my play was selected and performed in May that year as one of the ten finalists of ELT festival.  A lovely moment of my writing life!


Abbott, G. (2003) Severed Heads: British Beheadings through the Ages. London, Carlton Publishing Group.

Cressy, D. (1997). Birth, marriage, and death: ritual, religion, and the life-cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford [Eng.]; New York, Oxford University Press.
Denny, J. (2007). Anne Boleyn: a new life of England's tragic queen. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press.

Dunn, W. J. (2002). Dear Heart, How Like You This? Yarnell, AZ, Metropolis Ink.

Hutcheon, L. (1989). ‘Historiographic Metafiction’ (accessed 29/07/09).

Ives, E. W. (2004). The life and death of Anne Boleyn: 'the most happy'. Malden, MA, Blackwell Pub.

Varlow, S. (2007). `Sir Francis Knollys's Latin dictionary: new evidence for Katherine Carey'. Historical Research 80 (209): 315-323.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Historical Fiction Survey 2013

The wonderful MK Tod from A Writer of History  blog conducted a survey of historical fiction readers last year to ascertain just what readers exactly love about this genre. The survey uncovered insights about those who read historical fiction and those who do not - demographics, story preferences, favourite time periods, reasons for reading or not reading this genre, top authors, the different perspectives of men and women, sources of recommendations and so on. Here are some of the highlights of the 2012 survey.
The 2013 survey will augment these results with a broader focus on reading habits as well as social media’s role in enhancing the reading experience. Survey questions were developed in collaboration with Richard Lee, Founder of the Historical Novel Society.
Whether you read historical fiction or not, please take a few minutes to complete the survey. To add to the robustness of data collected, please pass the survey URL along to men and women of all ages and in any part of the world you can reach!
Aussie readers were only a small segment of responders last time so here's your chance to have your say :) I know Mary and Richard would be delighted to hear your opinion. 
Click here to access the survey.  Have fun!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Breaking the Meniscus

One thing leads to another.

Many years ago, I had a job helping write a man’s autobiography.  He was Hungarian and migrated to Australia in the late 1940s.  His story contained many eye-opening details (the late 1960s didn’t invent casual sex) but the details that intrigued me the most were those of the night-life of Budapest in the early 40s.  Despite the war raging around them, Budapest swung to a beat not unlike that described in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  In nightclubs called The Moulin Rouge and The Arizona, Chappy’s Big Band jived through the hits of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, the lyrics translated to Hungarian.  Each evening, the owner of The Arizona would appear in a finely-tuned evening gown, accompanied by two Afghan dogs.  The dance floor rotated.  The stars of the Hungarian film industry mixed with the A-list visibles.  Almost anything went... 

Chappy's Big Band

But amongst these stories was a paragraph or two about a family of converted Budapest Jews.  They owned an enormous manufacturing plant on Csepel Island on the Danube River.  When Hitler finally lost his patience with Regent Horthy and occupied Hungary in March 1944, this family were so wealthy they were able to bribe the Gestapo to fly them to neutral Portugal. 
Two things astounded me.  Firstly - that the Gestapo could be bribed.  I’d always seen them as an inhuman military machine, driven by ideology.  But they were all-too human.  Of course they could be bribed to do almost anything if “The Price is Right” – deal or no-deal?   
But secondly - that a family could have that type of wealth.  The price imposed by the Gestapo was indeed very high, including signing over the manufacturing plant.  In the latter part of the war, Germany had lost most of its manufacturing plants to allied bombs and was in dire need of functioning plants to manufacture the machinery for war. 
So I began a literature review.  I ratified the story but really didn’t find much, certainly not arriving at a personal drama for a novel.  The review of available material was definitely hampered by my lack of Hungarian but also the story seemed relatively unknown.  A librarian at the Sydney Jewish Museum eyed me with great suspicion. 

Based on a real story of a wealthy converted Jewish family

“You’re talking about the Kasztner train,’ she said, lips pinched. 
Rudolf Kasztner paid the Gestapo an inflated train fare for many Jews out of Budapest.  But I knew of that event too and this wasn’t that story.  She thawed slightly when I found some information but it was largely just reiterations of the bare facts. 
During my search I noticed there was very little in the way of novels available in English about Hungary’s role in WWII.  In recent times we’d had the French experience reconfigured with Sarah’s Key, the British with Atonement, even the German with The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  Maybe The English Patient (shouldn’t that have been The Hungarian Patient?) touched on the Hungarian experience (remember Almásy spoke all languages but assumed no identity) but largely there wasn’t much.  
But, I had no story, just an event, so I shelved it.  But while I played with other projects, this story did play on my mind. 

Budapest during the later part of WWII

For another project I pondered the limits of survival.  How far would I go to survive?  Beyond a few armed holdups at work, I’ve never really been threatened.  What could I be made to do to survive? 
And I thought about being young, only seventeen again, with all that raging uncertainty but living that out in a hostile, uncertain time.  And I thought about a first affair, played out against a backdrop of secrecy, an impossibly private affair that could never be spoken or celebrated.  And I thought about the damage and wounds inflicted by love.  All these stories tumbled back at me again and again like washing in the rinse cycle.  
One afternoon I saw a photo of a statue on the Danube.  It was a collection of shoes.  The owners had simply stepped from them, left them behind on the retaining wall as they were shot into the Danube.  The statue is at once playful and horrific.  The faithful shoes remain waiting for their owner’s return. 

Heart rending sight along the Danube

I wrote a scene of a young man of seventeen spotting a beautiful woman in a forest near Lake Balaton, the Hungarian Rivera, in 1943.  He sought to capture on moving film the ephemeral nature of the incident, her beauty, the play of light, her hesitation, caught between two worlds, her decision to run in one direction. 
And I was away.  The meniscus was broken.  And the lovers began their tryst... 
The Skin of Water had begun. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Michelin Guide to a Story Idea

I am absolutely thrilled that over the last few months my cross genre story (mystery, history, romance and ghosts!) , GATHER THE BONES,  has received a number of award nominations:  Australian Romance Readers Association, CRW Award of Excellence, GDRW Booksellers Best Award and the 2012 Rone Award.  It may not be the eventual winner but for a story that does not sit in any one genre, it is a pleasing recognition that cross genre stories can interest readers.

Writers are often asked where they get their idea for a story.  Inspiration can strike in the most unexpected ways and sometimes there is no one trigger point for a story.

An acclaimed cross genre story

The inspiration for GATHER THE BONES, which is set in 1923, came from a number of different sources but it is, perhaps, a little brown book--“Ypres and the Battle for Ypres 1914-1918, An illustrated history and guide” published by Michelin--  published in 1920 that I found at the back of my parents bookshelves that sowed the seeds of my hero, Paul Morrow’s, war.

 It seems extraordinary that less than two years after the end of the war there was already a tourist industry around the battlefields, but the clue comes from a little insert on the town of Ypres which describes it as the “Centre for English, French and American Pilgrims”. In this little leaflet are advertisements for “Touring Cars” (wreaths by arrangement “placed on graves and photographed”), Hotels bearing the names “The Splendid” and “Hotel Britannique”. A good cup of tea in three minutes can be obtained from the Patisserie and Tea Rooms of Mme Ve Vandaele on the Grand Place.

The spark of inspiration

We are informed that during the Great War, Ypres was bombarded continuously for four years and 250,000 British fell defending the city. “Today Ypres is being quickly reconstructed,out of 5,000 Houses destroyed, 3,000 will have been rebuild by the end of 1923; thanks to the tenacity of the Population and financial help from the Belgium Government”

“A number of quite up to date Hotels, providing every comfort:  Central Heating, Electricity, Baths etc are already in full swing. ..The country around is agricultural, with villages and farms being rebuilt once more...Every convenience and comfort for Pilgrims and Tourists is to be had in Ypres...”

Ypres: a theatre of great suffering during WWII

So in our imaginary world we have hired our touring car (with a British Driver), fortified ourself with a three minute cup of tea and off we go. The most extraordinary thing about this little book are the illustrations:  Before and After shots of little towns, chateau, woods and churches. Our touring car is pictured driving down a road lined by the broken stumps of trees.

My husband and I visited modern Ypres in 2005. Even ninety years after the last gun was silenced, the bodies of the missing were being discovered and a reinternment was occurring while we were there.  I tried to imagine what it was like for the families of those young men who had no graveside to mourn and slowly the idea for Gather the Bones took shape.

Ypres still draws many pilgrims

In that non descript little book I had the images of the battlefields, the trenches, the concrete machine gun posts but more importantly I had the pilgrimage.  Evelyn Morrow, Charlie’s mother, has to see where her son died, to really believe he is dead.  It was the Evelyns who bought the 1920 Michelin Guide, booked the Hotel Splendid, bought their wreath and in their hired touring car, laid their ghosts to rest.

To find out more about Alison and her books, visit her website, and to read an excerpt from GATHER THE BONES, click HERE.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Blame It On Google (or What Was I Thinking??)

My life of being a sole charge physiotherapist and EMT in a remote rural community was pretty normal. The usual assortment of injuries (bruises, broken bones, sprains, etc.  - my patients’, not mine!) filled my days until a very unusual item came up in a Google search for a medical condition: women pirates.

What the heck? I didn’t even know that there were such things. Curious, I clicked on it and began to read. Well, it turns out that not only were there such characters, but there were many of them, and the lives and adventures of most of them were very well documented. In particular, I read about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who, stranger than fiction, both disguised themselves as men, and quite by accident, ended up sailing on the very same pirate ship in the 1700’s through the West Indies. I read on, learning that these two ladies were described as being more determined and fearless than most of their male crew members, as they fought and pillaged their way up and down the Caribbean coastlines. Now this was good stuff - treasures, sea battles, brutal medical procedures, hurricanes, and swordfights!

I was hooked.

Dianne Greenlay, a physio turned novelist

Being that these two female pirates were already well documented by writers who were much better writers than I, I didn’t dare try to retell their stories, but I thought that I could write my own story filled with characters from that era and lifestyle, and just let my imagination go wild. And, oh yeah, maybe throw in a few historical facts now and then, just to add realism. Boy, was I misguided!

It took only one sarcastic comment from an acquaintance to set me straight: “You are a prairie girl. You don’t sail. You don’t fight. You’re not even a history buff. What on earth makes you think that you could, or even should write about that stuff?”

Pirates everywhere!

Sometime during the pity party that I immediately had for myself, my hurt feelings morphed that comment into a challenge. I began to research. Several months later, I had ordered in so much reference material, that I was on a first name basis with every librarian in our library, and had tables ( yes, tables!) full of binders, notebooks, scraps of paper with details that I felt I needed to know. I also visited several marine museums, and did short sails, even attempting once to haul the main sail up on a tall ship, but failing miserably; I talked with sailors, strolled through historical sites, hoisted real cannonballs, and made my own grog out of dark rum. (After all, I wanted to involve all my senses, right?) And I began to write.

I became immersed in life in the 1700’s. In my mind as I wrote, I saw my characters, felt the tilt of the ship’s planks beneath my feet (ahem, ... there may have been a little of that grog involved there), and at one point, while writing a sea battle full of cannon and musket fire,  I thought I could actually smell the smoke. Turns out it was just my neighbor’s barbeque.

'Quintspinner' book launch

Nevertheless, a few months down the literary road, QUINTSPINNER – A PIRATE’S QUEST was published. The story ended up having both a strong female and male protagonist (I am mother to two daughters and four sons and I had to keep peace in the family.) I held a book launch party complete with a pirate theme, sea shanties, author reading and book signing, sea food platters, and a surprise enactment of one of the book’s scenes by a local drama group, all looking and acting very pirate-ey. The launch party lasted several hours and attracted over 150 people.

Then, much to my surprise and delight, my novel went on to win multiple awards, including Best Historical, Best Commercial Novel, Best Beach Read, Best YA, and Book of the Year awards. At one point, I was in contact with Tyler R. Tychylaar, Ph.D, historian, and noted historical author, and we discussed writing in the historical genre. He stated that it was generally agreed that the historical genre is the hardest one to write in because of the amount of time and effort that the research requires, above and beyond producing all of the ingredients that make up a great novel.

Dianne & family holidaying on a pirate ship

I hadn’t given a shred of thought to this when I started out. I wrote only for the sheer joy of storytelling, and the fun of weaving historical fact into a tale of adventure. But when Quintspinner neared  the end of an acceptable length, there was still oh-so-much more story to tell, not to mention the rest of the yet-unused, often juicy, historical details that my research had unearthed, just sitting on those tables, whispering to me. And those whispers most decidedly told me that it was going to be an historical series that I was writing.
“What??” That was the logical side of my brain chiming in. “What are you thinking? More historical? The hardest genre to write in, remember?”

And then I heard my heart and imagination reply simultaneously. “No worries,” the two of them soothed as I was swayed.  “Remember how much fun it was? Why not help yourself to a mug o’ the grog and let the storytelling begin!”

Fearsome pirates storm a book launch!

Now a year later, DEADLY MISFORTUNE, Book Two in the Quintspinner series has been published and it too, has won an award in Best Historical division. And fearlessly sailing forward, just like Anne Bonny and Mary Read, I am already writing Book Three and still enjoying every detail along the journey.

Quintspinner - an award winning pirate yarn

Sunday, June 16, 2013

'City of Jade' by LJ LaBarthe

"City of Jade" is L. J. LaBarthe's first full-length historical novel. It is set on the Silk Road in 1131A.D., covering the journey between Constantinople and Chang'an and beyond. It was a great labour of love for her; L. J. LaBarthe has said that researching and writing this book has been nothing but a joy. As she is an avid historian, this has long been a period of interest and fascination for her, especially the Byzantine Empire in the 11th—13th centuries.

  The story follows the lives of a Byzantine soldier named Gallienus, and the man he has fallen in love with, Misahuen, a refugee from Gyeongju in Korea. They meet in Constantinople where Gallienus, now a city gate guard, is inspecting wagons of merchants arriving at the city and encounters Misahuen among the guards of a merchant train from the far east.

  As they grow closer, they realize that between the laws of the Byzantine Empire and Gallienus's own lowly status as a gate guard, the best thing for their budding relationship would be to leave, and so they do, taking work as guards for a merchant named Stephanos.

  As Stephanos, his family and his trading caravan travel to Chang'an in China, Gallienus and Misahuen encounter all manner of situations, from brigands to the merely curious to turbulent weather to culture clashes to injuries and more.

Gallienus and  Misahuen encounter many adventures

   "City of Gold" is published by Dreamspinner Press, and readers can purchase the ebook here: and the paperback here:

  If readers are interested in L. J. LaBarthe's other books (and there's a section for the extensive bibliography of resources that she consulted while researching "City of Jade" too), her website is here: 

  Below is an excerpt from "City of Jade." This is from Part Six, at the Alay Mountains, which are found in modern day Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.


The Irkeshtam Pass was busy.

Gallienus was surprised, although he knew he shouldn’t be. There were bound to be other merchants and traders on the road, and here, at the pass that would lead them safely—he hoped—through to Kashgar, there were two other large caravans waiting to begin the crossing.

Stephanos squinted at the caravans with a suspicious expression on his face. As Gallienus watched, enthralled, the merchant’s expression cleared and a smile curved his lips. Stephanos slid down from his camel and marched toward the two caravans. Two other men came toward him, wearing the same sort of smiles—cautious yet friendly.

“This is interesting,” Gallienus said to Misahuen.

“Indeed.” Misahuen was watching with just as much fascination. “I imagine that Stephanos is going to suggest all three caravans cross the pass together.”

“Strength in numbers?” Gallienus answered his own question. “Perhaps, or better pickings for bandits.”

“Perhaps,” Misahuen agreed. “Although there are other dangers. Avalanches, landslides.”

Gallienus grunted. “That will always be a danger no matter what pass we take over the mountains. We cannot war with nature.”

“Some would like to.”

“It would be futile.” Gallienus fell silent as he watched Stephanos and the other merchants.

A boy, perhaps fourteen years old, rushed over to the merchants, carrying a small amphora and three goblets. He poured for them, sloshing some of the contents onto the ground, and the merchant he worked for barked a sharp command at him.

“Persian,” Gallienus identified the merchant. “Most likely from Tehran.”

“The other looks to be from Samarkand,” Misahuen said.

As they watched, the merchants drank from the goblets and then shook hands, laughing and talking. There was much gesticulating and more laughter, and then Stephanos drained his goblet and turned and walked back to the caravan.

“We are all going to cross together,” he said, confirming Gallienus and Misahuen’s suspicions. “Stay close and do not mingle too much. There may be thieves about. Gallienus and Misahuen, I want you to guard my wife.”

Gallienus and Misahuen exchanged a surprised look.

“Of course,” Gallienus said, “but would your sons not be better guards?”

“No.” Stephanos glared at him. “I want her protected by warriors, not boys.” He looked at his sons. “Watch and learn from Gallienus and Misahuen,” he said. The three nodded, mute in the face of their father’s resolute attitude.

Gallienus rode Adrastos up to stand beside Lady Tahirah’s mount, noting Misahuen on her other side. Stephanos climbed back into the saddle of his camel, bellowed orders to his guards, and then they began to move.

The road had been climbing steadily upward since they left Osh several days ago, but now, here at the pass that would take them across the Alay Mountains and into China, it became extraordinarily steep. There were times members of all three caravans had to dismount and lead their animals single file, along narrow, winding switchback paths that led upward, ever upward. The mountain rose to one side, and the drop on the other was a long, long way down.

It was cold, too, not as cold as Gallienus had been expecting, but cold enough. The mountains bred their own weather, and he found himself getting short of breath much quicker as they climbed higher and it got colder. He took a small measure of satisfaction from seeing that everyone was reacting as he was.

His leg ached almost constantly now, but Gallienus ignored it. The combinations of teas, ointments, potions, and Misahuen’s tender ministrations had reduced the ache in the lowlands, but here, where there was no such thing as an easy path, in the thin atmosphere of the heights, there was always pain. Breathing was hard, and, Misahuen explained as they took a rest period, that was because they were higher than they were used to.

“How long will it take to cross?” Gallienus asked during a rest stop on the third day.

Ahmad shrugged. “Difficult to say. It depends on the weather. The journey from Osh to Kashgar will take nearly three weeks, I would wager.”

“And winter is ever on our tail,” Gallienus said.

“Yes”— Ahmad frowned—“but it is late this year. The road is still dry. There should be snow. I am not taking this for granted, friend Gallienus. Enjoy this respite from winter while we have it. We have yet to reach the Taklimakan and that will, I fear, be a harder crossing than this.”

Gallienus took scant comfort from his friend’s words. He ate the heel of bread and drank the small cup of wine that was their allowance when they stopped to rest and heaved a great sigh as the caravans moved out, picking their way slowly over what felt like the rooftop of the world.

The view, however, made up for the pain and difficulty of the journey. They rounded one of the tight corners of the switchback road, and Gallienus gasped, pausing as he stared at the vista that met his eyes.

Mountains stood as far as he could see, colored blue and white. The snow gleamed in the sunlight and the clouds were thin, allowing him to see the very peaks of those mountains. They seemed to reach forever, like a giant dragon’s spine that covered the world.

“The Tien Shan Mountains,” Misahuen said from behind him.

“They are magnificent,” Gallienus said.

An avidly researched novel set in Medieval Byzantium

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Past Perfect by Karen Zelas (Novel Review)

  The life journeys of two women weave the fabric of this part-historical, part-present-day New Zealand novel.

The weft is the Frenchwoman Brigitte Dujardin, who arrived in Akaroa in 1840. The warp is her descendant – contemporary Sue Spencer, who is tracking her genealogy.

Zelas judiciously employs the parallel storyline technique to good effect. She achieves complementary roles for each, and harmoniously merges the historical echoes into the 21st century.

The two women’s lifestyles are drawn as a study of contrasts, yet they are bonded by more than a bloodline. Both confront relationship difficulties, mortality and racial, specifically anti-Maori, prejudice.

Dujardin flouts the social and moral conventions of her time, and takes a bold, almost confrontational stand on several issues. Spencer discovers kinship and finds her spine in the face of family opposition. While Dujardin’s chosen path was the stonier, Spencer’s track is strewn with more insidious obstacles.

Their experiences resonate against a background of historical and contemporary Akaroa, and the plot moves to France and back to New Zealand. This exploration of how two women mature and find inner independence is sensitive and trenchant.

Threads of hypocrisy and racism provide lively trigger points. In particular, Zelas takes a healthy swipe at the double standards and posturing of a white, academic, middle-class Kiwi male. Her aim is unerring.

She has produced a novel that sits comfortably in its New Zealand skin. The storyline maintains a steady pace while ranging over some thought-provoking aspects of our heritage and current social climate. Key characters are fleshed out into realistic personalities, and there is an acute eye and ear for nuance.

With poetry and short stories already in her literary portfolio, Zelas’ foray into the novel genre ha[s] achieved depth.

– Bronwyn Dorreen, in the Waikato Times

Republished by Interactive Publications, Brisbane, 2012. Available as ebook and print-on-demand at . Within New Zealand, available as paperback at (first edition: Wily Publications, Christchurch, 2010).

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Call for Readers #1

One of the objectives of the HNSS is to assist novelists to identify readers who can provide useful feedback about their WIP (work in progress). If you are passionate about historical fiction, you may wish to reach out to the following talented writers:

Bronwen Jones

Hi all. Would anyone be willing to read my manuscript Home to the Lake, a historical novel set in New Zealand (NZ), to give an opinion on my story and publishing possibilities, and to help me write a more compelling synopsis? A publisher in NZ (branch of big int'l publisher) was complimentary but has rejected, saying a second opinion would be beneficial at this stage rather than an edit.

The traditional NZ publishing industry is tiny, bleeding, and publishing very little. So I am seeking wider help.

My purpose in seeking assistance here is to ensure my story is in good shape before trying a publisher or agent abroad, or self-publishing on Amazon. Also, I am hoping that someone may be able to suggest a few agents/publishers to approach, given the nature of my story.

This is a very big request. But if anyone could assist, I would be thrilled and forever grateful. I could find a tiny budget - and definitely a spare room if you visit New Zealand.

Also, perhaps I could offer some assistance in return, editing or "community service" hours donated to HNS. My email is

Hello all.

I'm looking for someone willing to give my novel a look over and some critique/editing/proofreading help.

My novel is set in 1904 in the (fictional) Principality of Dalnerechensk in the Russian Ural Mountains; at the time when Europe was drawing itself into the jealous alliances that would lead to World War One. Into this rather backwards principality comes Laura Asanton, an early "Dollar Princess", who marries the Prince Regent Aleksei Vakhtangov. 

But she is snubbed by his elitist, aging court and finds herself more and more in the company of Olaf the stablegroom, who opens her eyes to the beauty of the mountains, and the dire economic crisis Dalnerechensk faces.

Revolution is coming, and so is a Russian Army, to take back the territory it lost four hundred years ago. But there are tragic secrets in the Royal Line of the Vakhtangovs, secrets that will tear the principality apart, if the Socialists and the Russians don't do it first!

Please send an email to if you would be willing to help out.

Congratulations to the Long List Contenders ~ General Fiction!

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On Inspiration: Interview with Sherry Jones

Edith Cavell: A Heroine of the Great War

Historical Fiction Survey


Meet the Historians

Sunday, March 17, 2013

St Patrick’s Day Stories

It’s St Patrick’s Day. What do you think of when you think of the Irish? One of the first things that usually comes to mind is that they are reputed to have the gift of the gab. Where I live in County Fermanagh most people will stop and chat when you meet them on the street. They love a good yarn, as they say around here.

They also love another kind of yarn: a good story. There’s always been a strong tradition of storytelling in Ireland and the art has been kept alive in many places, especially rural ones like where I live. I first encountered the wonders of storytelling at a local historical society’s Christmas party. During the evening’s entertainment, in between the jigs and reels played by traditional musicians and the dancing, several storytellers told tales – they made you laugh and they also moved you.

It’s believed that Irish short stories evolved from this storytelling tradition. There are many noteworthy Irish short story writers. Among my favourites are Michael McLaverty, Maeve Binchy, Eugene McCabe, Bernard MacLaverty and Claire Keegan. There’s been a lot written about what makes a good story and how to write one but I won’t go into the theory today.

One of the important elements for me, and one I think many Irish writers excel at, is capturing places and people. That’s what brings the tale to life.

When I first read Michael McLaverty’s stories back in the 1970s I was a teenager living in Toronto. They conjured in my mind the places and people and their way of life in rural areas during the first half of the twentieth century. It was so different from my life in a huge city and the tales intrigued me.

Irish writers excel at capturing places

Let me show you what I mean. Here’s a couple passages from McLaverty’s The Prophet in his Collected Short Stories:

 “The byre door was open and the dark entrance showed the rain falling in grey streaks; it stuttered in the causeway and trickled in a puddle around the stone, carrying with it bits of straw and hens’ feathers. Beside him was a steaming manure heap with a pitchfork sticking in the top, its handle varnished with the rain.”

“For a moment the woman leaned on the half-door, looking at her son, at his brown jersey black with rain around his shoulders, his tattered trousers clinging to his wet-pink knees, and his bare legs streaked with mud.”

As I read McLaverty’s stories I could see the people and places in my mind and the images stayed there for years afterwards. When I moved to rural Ireland nearly a decade ago I found modern rural life as strange to me as the scenes described in McLaverty’s stories. It was far removed from my Canadian urban experience. As I puzzled over my new way of life I began to write about it. Most of the stories in my short story collection, Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves have come from this, a newcomer making sense of life around her.

Dianne has been influenced by Irish writers

I’m not an Irish writer but I have been influenced by the Irish writers I’ve read. And now that I live in their land it’s only natural that I write about it. I put pen to paper in order to interpret my new home as I see it.

I think there’s more to St Patrick’s Day than green beer. So why not step into the land of the Irish – open a book and enjoy one of the many wonderful stories set in Ireland. Then the Shamrock Isle will linger in your mind long after St Patrick’s Day.

Founder of the Irish Chapter of the HNS

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Were Victorians Obsessed with Death?


When Do We Start Burning Books?

A Trumpet of Sedition


Historical Novel Society ~ 2013 Conference


Triclinium: On Inspiration: Jesse Blackadder

Triclinium: On Inspiration: Jesse Blackadder:   Ingrid Christensen (left) and Mathilde Wegger  on the way to Antarctica in 1931 My guest today is Jesse Blackadder wh...

Monday, March 11, 2013

In Search of Dr Louis Gabriel

(Fontenay-le-Compte, sans Frittes)

Ingloriously free after fifty-five days of non-stop work, I am exhausted. Freed from driving duties, baggage handling, guiding, negotiating hotels, providing leadership for my pilgrim customers, I search for home comforts in a friendless French Vendee. Rather than walking into nothingness, into zombeedom, I set myself a final task- searching for the family history of my central character in Belonging, Dr Louis Gabriel.

I must have been mad, Bourdeaux was my recovery centre, staying at a much visited down market hotel near the railway station, all the facilities lovingly familiar and nearby, not least a laundry. If that didn’t satisfy, there was always energetic La Rochelle.

But after writing a ‘fictional biography’ of Dr Louis Gabriel, set in the 1890’s, this was unfinished business. A prequel? A requiem? Discovery after discovery, revelation after revelation, meant that so many loose ends remained. The Gabriel family came from France in the early-mid Nineteenth century, but no one knew their home town, a rare clue, the name of Louis Gabriel’s Gundagai home, called Fontenoy. 

'Belonging': a delicious serving of Australiana

How many Fontenays are there in France? First, the Battles of Fontenay, fought in 841 between Charlemaine’s inheritors. Unlikely. Next, the Battle of Fontenoy, fought in 11 May 1745,[1], a major engagement of the War of the Austrian Succession. Unlikely, as the Gabriels were African slaves, brought to the West Indies before being taken to Napoleonic France. 

Next, the Battle of Fontenay-le-Comte was fought on 25 May 1793 during the French Revolutionary Wars, between forces of the French Republic under General Chalbos and Royalist forces under Marquis de Lescure. The battle was fought near the town of Fontenay-le-Comte in Vendée, France, and ended in a Royalist victory. Pre Napoleon, but did involve the town of Fontenay le Compte.

There’s also the Abbey of Fontenay, and thirty locations in France with Fontenay, Fontanoy or Fontenai in its name! Ouch.

On the other hand, Louis Gabriel’s grandfather jumped ship in Australia in 1836?, after his month as ship’s doctor, the lowest level of medical practice, usually by the least trained and most desperate characters. These ships leave France on its Atlantic coast, Fontanoy le Compte, being fifty kilometres from La Rochelle’s port.

So it was more by hope than cold calculation that I fell upon Fontenay-le-Compte, the family stranded in France after Napoleon’s defeat. They and all the other former slaves had won their freedom and professional training as medicos, probably in Napoleon’s army, later dispersing throughout France, in pursuit of acceptance and a decent life for themselves and their families. The Black Jacobins, as they came to be known, had a strategy of staying in one town for their entire lives, believing longevity of residence and professional practices unknown before the revolution brought familiarity, dependence, repute and acceptance, at a time when a black skin carried with it suspicions, prejudices, difference and strangeness. 

The hearsay says the Gabriel family fell upon hard times, the son unable or unwilling to complete medical training. The 1830s were a time of economic depression (then, the 1890s, 1930s), the solution for the least favoured peoples was becoming a ship’s doctor: a high-seas medico a terrible, high-risk job. 

So if Louis Gabriel’s father was a ship’s doctor, Fontenay le Compte was possibly their home. 

Drive on.

What did I discover? From a quick drive in the late afternoon, Fontenoy has perhaps five thousand people, with a long main-street leading up to an ancient hill, probably once a fortification overlooking the Vendee’s expansive plains. It had seen better days, its shopping strip uninspiring on a wet, late autumn afternoon. 

Garry at a public reading of 'Belonging' in Balmain, Sydney

Night soon fell, like some drunken sailor. With nothing to do on a Saturday night, I was hungry, hungry for more than restaurants and eateries. Running on empty for manyhours: how long ago did I last eat? I had almost forgotten who I am, where I am from; even, where I was. There’s a place called home, an odd word, yet my finger pressed down on my emotional map- ‘here’, with a big cross. I needed to eat, to fill myself up with identity, to eat for the sake of my being. Every fibre of my worn and swooning body says ‘eat, consume, fill’. 

From the far side I see it- there it is: eatery lights flashing green and red, fluorescent dreams in a tiny three-metre booth, a brown and blue falafel roil illustration of spit-fired chicken, tabouli, tomato, onion, lettuce and tahini wrapped in glorious Lebanese bread. Served simple. It’s food, warm food, wholesome, homely food; food known and loved, food of grave familiarity.

I cross the wet and glistening road carelessly. Home sweet home- before me, a smiling man with a huge moustache.

-Un falafal roll. s’il vous plait. Poulet.
He smiles knowingly, slow to move.
-Avec sauce? 
Sure. Lots of it, I signal. 
Wonderful. Oh yum.
-Avec fittes (or chips)? 
Frittes? Hell no.

Journey-ridiculous ended in La Rochelle, no clues on Gabriel found, the chicken and falafel roll eaten, my folly making barely a dent in hope. 

C’est la vie.