Alfred of Wessex, Battle of Tewkesbury, Bosworth, Dominic Smee, Historical Research, Lady Rascal, Tudors

Research For Writing–The Painless Way…

Not Big Ned’s Finest Hour

There’s been a thread on the LinkedIn board for Historical Writers asking whether or not we do our own research. It’s had dozens of replies and although I haven’t read every one they all said the same thing as I did. Research is half the fun! When I was researching Lady Rascal, I was looking through a local newspaper archive for ideas and found the cautionary tale of a man in Georgian Bath who visited his brother, who happened to be eating his dinner.  Cheerfully offering a chunk from the roast, the host went to pass the carving knife. He dropped it, and slashed his femoral artery. The poor man was dead in minutes. From family visit to bloodbath…talk about truth being stranger than fiction.

I haven’t written any historical fiction for a while. After listening to Carol McGrath and Pamela Hartshorne speak here, the idea of writing my own timeslip novel has been brewing in my mind. Silence and solitude helps me come up with ideas, so at this stage of research I spend long periods out in the greenhouses or garden. I didn’t have much luck doing that this week though, as there were some brilliant history documentaries on TV.

First up was Michael Wood with Alfred of Wessex. The photography was stunning, and as always Michael Wood’s enthusiasm for his subject draws you in then tugs you along until you’re completely absorbed. It’s always such a shame when his programmes end but good news–it’s available online, with another episode on Tuesday, 19th August. See here for details

Then it was Dr. Susannah Lipscomb’s Henry and Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History. I have two terrible confessions to make about this. I grew up in a staunchly White Rose household (Family Motto: Nos spoliatum :D) so Tudor-mania was something that happened to other people. The second shameful secret is that I only watched this because the guy playing Henry VIII (Jack Hawkins) bears an uncanny resemblance to the current Bishop of Tewkesbury. Well, in my overheated imagination, anyway. I didn’t care for the presentation of this drama-documentary (apart from the bits with the Bishop of..sorry, King Henry in) but it sparked a great family discussion afterwards. That gave me several ideas for further research, which may or may not prove productive.

TV saved the absolute gem until last. If you haven’t watched Dominic Smee’s battlefield promotion from mild-mannered IT specialist to Last Real King of England (oops- a bit of “automatic typing” there by my father), then get a load of this. Nothing I can write could possibly do him justice, except to say if you see a guy walking around Tamworth with his underpants on the outside, then that’ll be Dominic–the Superman of re-enactment societies everywhere.

So now it’s over to you. Which historical period do you like reading about? The pre-and-post Battle of Hastings world of Michael Wood and Carol McGrath, the Tudor turbulence of writers like Phillippa Gregory, or England’s very own Game of Thrones?

Christina Hollis, fiction, historical romance, Jewel Under Siege, Lady Rascal, Writing

Writing (and Rewriting) Romance As Ebooks…

Photo by Bertil Videt

I love putting my own spin on historical events by using them as the background to romance. At the beginning of my fiction-writing career, I wrote six books for Harlequin Mills and Boon’s Masquerade imprint under the pen name of Polly Forrester. These were originally only available in the UK so I’m currently working to introduce them to a wider audience by bringing them out as ebooks. Lady Rascal is already available and my next title, Jewel Under Siege, is due for release later this summer.

Jewel under Siege is set in Constantinople, at the time of the Crusades. Elena is a young widow who finds herself in an impossible situation when tough warrior Emil literally falls into her life. He is an enemy who has nothing but contempt for her people, but the lure of the forbidden means Elena and Emil are soon attracted to each other despite all the dangers.
Revisiting my earlier fiction means I can add a few little touches to the text. At the moment I’m taking the chance to make Elena and Emil’s romance sizzle still more under the Turkish sun. How do you like your historical romances – hot or homely?
You can keep up with the progress of Jewel Under Siege towards publication by subscribing to my newsletter. Just send an email to me at with the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.

3 Top Tips, J K Rowling, J.R.R.Tolkien, Lady Rascal, Lindsey Davis, Nemesis, Open University, Writing

Three Top Tips On Writing That Book… URL: Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsHTML Attribution not legally required
By Johannes Vermeer
It’s said everyone has a book inside them. These days it’s tricky to forecast what is going to be the next  blockbusting best-seller that spawns a film franchise, but all successful writers have something in common.  E.L James, J.K Rowling and J.R.R Tolkien don’t only share a love of initialising. Each of them did more than dream. They buckled down and did the work: day after day of drafting, researching, writing, re-writing, editing  and reading. It doesn’t matter whether they had help with some of the grunt work. The fact is, their ideas wouldn’t have made it around the world if they hadn’t had the conviction to start putting them into words and then kept going until their stories were told. 
I can’t promise that your dream project will outsell Shades, Potter or TLOTR, but there’s nothing surer than this. To be in with a chance, you’ll have to get your masterwork written. Here are three top tips for doing just that…
1. START… in the right place. I wrote Lady Rascal because I’d got bogged down while studying an Open University course on The Enlightenment. I really wished some of those posh, privileged gentlemen doing the Tour of Europe could get a taste of how the other half lived. My hero Philip Adamson has a lot in common with the Paris he’s visiting: despite grand appearances, there’s trouble on the horizon. At the same time, heroine Madeline discovers that changing her appearance can get her out of trouble. As I was writing an historical romance rather than a text-book on Eighteenth-century Paris, I wanted to get Philip and Madeline together on the page as soon as possible. Madeline’s career as a revolutionary ends with a bang right at the beginning of the book, when Philip assumes her looted finery means she’s an aristocrat in danger. She’s swept off her feet, and whisked away to a new and completely alien life.
2…AND THEN… make sure your plot has enough twists to keep your reader turning the pages. A good way to tell if you’re on the right track is how easy it is to stop writing. If it feels like your fingers are pushing through treacle, that’s a warning sign. If you’re scribbling or typing as fast as you can, desperate to capture the movie playing in your head, there’s a chance your reader might be carried away by your story, too. Ironically, it’s when the words are flowing easily that you should finish for the day. Then your enthusiasm will carry over to the next session, and you’ll be raring to go. With that method, there’s no sitting down in front of a blank page, wondering what to write. You’ve been thinking about your next scene since the moment you stopped work the day before, and that’s a great way to avoid the scourge of Writer’s Block.
3. FINISH…in a way that will satisfy your reader. They should have learned a lot about your hero and heroine along the way – and maybe something about themselves, too.  Tie up all the loose ends of your story. Never introduce a character or plot thread and then abandon them, thinking no one will notice. Someone always does! Nemesis, the last book in Lindsey Davis’ Falco series, deals with huge, emotion-wringing themes of life, death and family relationships. I lapped all that up but discovered, too, that I’m an obsessive when it comes to animals. I thought I’d be the only reader left worrying over the fate of one of the most minor of minor characters – Nero (aka Spot) the ox. I needn’t have worried – he wasn’t forgotten after all. If his disappearance hadn’t been explained at the end, I would have felt Nemesis was like the old jigsaw puzzle of Great Britain’s counties we had when I was a child. The smallest county, Rutland, was missing. Apart from that our jigsaw was perfect, unless you were interested in that teeny-tiny- well, spot!

Heroes, Lady Rascal, Romantic Fiction, Writing

Three Top Tips: Writing Heroes By Voceditenore (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsHTML
Jonas Kaufman 
My previous writing tips have covered the general themes of getting started, and how to keep going. Now it’s time to focus on writing fiction, and more particularly romantic fiction. This is a brilliant form of escape for millions of people. It’s a non-fattening, affordable indulgence and it relies on sweeping your reader into a fantasy world. That means you’ll need a hero. Here are my three top tips for breathing life into your creation:
MAKE HIM ATTRACTIVE – This doesn’t mean only drop-dead gorgeous, physically perfect specimens need apply! Good looks go a long way to seducing your reader, but they’ll need more than that to keep them involved in your story.  Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted. Write a short biography of your hero to discover what makes him the man he is. Give him a past and a future, as well as a present.  Upbringing and ambitions forge character, and suggest motivations. Little details such as whether or not he has a pet, what car he drives and the type of music he likes all add colour to your work.
MAKE HIM SUFFER – give him a problem that is too big to be solved easily. In Lady Rascal, Philip Adamson starts out by being too decent for his own good. He’s a highly intelligent, hardworking man who has sacrificed his career as a doctor to return home and run the family estate. The strain has begun to tell, but he refuses to give up. Then Madeleine invades his life, and turns it upside down. Unless he can resist her, Philip faces following in the disastrous footsteps of his older brother. He was a man who tore the Adamson family apart.  The conflict between the way hero Philip works with cool efficiency to keep everything running smoothly, and the dangerous attraction he feels for Madeline keeps the action moving.  
MAKE IT WORSE – Once you’ve presented your hero with a problem, magnify it. In real life, men tend to work on instinct, rather than emotion.  Present your character with a dilemma. Make him choose between an easy decision, or a tough one – between his head and his heart. Will he do the right thing for the wrong reason, the wrong thing out of a sense of love or loyalty, or will he compromise? Whatever he does, make his action consistent with his character.  Imagine your heroine’s car has crashed on a level crossing, leaving her trapped. A train full of children on a day-trip is running out of control and heading straight toward her. Who would your hero save? As this is romance and we want the story to end happily ever after, he’d manage to board the train, fix the fault and save both his heroine and the children, of course. But not before your reader has turned lots of pages, desperate to find out what he’ll do, and how. 
Who is your hero? Is he fictional, or a real man of flesh and blood?
Hollywood Tower, inspiration, Lady Rascal, Location, work in progress

A Sense of Place

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If you’ve read the recent posts here about my current work in progress, you’ll know that I use inspiration boards as I write. There’s one in my office, and you can see my public one online here. These are just hints – I don’t base my characters on any one person. They’re an amalgamation of many different people, with a dash of pure invention added for good measure. 

The same doesn’t always apply to places. Sometimes I use real life locations for my fiction work. As I was writing Lady Rascal,I had a very particular interior in mind for Philip Adamson’s country house. My OH’s office used to be based in Hollywood Estate Mansion, which is in Easter Compton near Bristol. As luck would have it, my father’s best friend used to work there back before the Second World War, so I had some background information about the place before I started. The exterior of the house didn’t quite match my idea of Philip’s house, so the trailer you can see at the top of this post includes shots of a completely different property. That’s the great thing about fiction – you can fiddle with reality until it’s exactly the way you like it.

While dialogue and action bring characters alive and keep the plot moving along, the “genius loci” or spirit of a place forms the background of your story. You can use this in two ways: as a straightforward clue to tell readers what to expect, or as a contrast to what goes on there. The forbidding Transylvanian castle on a crag is an instantly recognisable shorthand for a vampire story. Alternatively, you can use your setting to shock. Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead is a cosy country setting. Who would expect an idyllic English village like that to be the setting for murder? Yet Agatha Christie used it in the perfect contrast of place and event. In the same way bad things happen to good heroes and heroines, nasty things can happen in the best places.

What’s your favourite fictional place? Whether you’re a reader or a writer, I’d love to hear from you.