‘ALL CHARACTERS IN THIS NOVEL ARE ENTIRELY FICTITIOUS...’
Q: What’s in a name? North Carter Moor Farmhouse
I had a fun conversation with my Mum yesterday. She had done some family history research into her own ancestors and was bemused to discover that she had a seventeenth century relative called BARNABUS GOULDSMITH. For some reason this tickled her pink. She loved the sound of his name and spent twenty minutes persuading me to put Barnabus into my next novel. To keep the peace and to avoid being disinherited, I finally agreed. However, I may draw the line at her suggestion that I make him into a smuggler.
This made me wonder how many other authors find themselves under similar pressure to adjust their plots and characters for the amusement of their loved ones? And more intriguingly, how do authors choose the names for their characters in the first place?
When I wrote Catching the Eagle the naming process should have been simple. This novel was based on the true story of our criminal ancestor, Jamie Charlton. Genealogical research had already revealed the real names of his family, the witnesses at his trial in 1812, the court officials and half the population of rural Ponteland.
But it quickly became obvious that I would have to make some adjustment to those names. For a start, nearly everyone back in 1812 was called ‘John.’ This included Jamie’s father, son, brother, best friend, the man he robbed and the magistrate who charged him. Obviously some of them had to go or be known as ‘Jack.’ (Or even Nathanial.) This tradition of calling children after other family members had helped us trace our relatives back through the centuries and uncover Jamie’s sorry tale of injustice. But to write a novel about three generations of the same family, all in the same farmhouse and all called either ‘John’ or ‘Ann’ would have confused the hell out of my readers.
Then there was the problem of the sheer number of people our research had uncovered. They had big families back in the nineteenth century and ours was no exception. A cast of thousands may have worked well in the bible but it rarely works in modern fiction.
Fortunately, novelists can use artistic license. In Catching the Eagle, I changed names, liberally handed out nicknames and killed off one character a couple of decades early. However, this process can still be dangerous in a novel based on a true story because someone somewhere is going to be unhappy that you have altered history. I think I may have inadvertently offended a distant cousin in Australia when I changed the name of his 4 x great-grandmother from ‘Ann’ to ‘Mary.’
From the naming point of view, it was quite refreshing to sit down and write my second novel, The Missing Heiress. Apart from Detective Stephen Lavender and a brief appearance by Magistrate Clennell, the rest of the characters were fictitious and I could call them what I wanted. I took a pragmatic approach. I picked a different letter from the alphabet for each character, chose names indigenous to Northumberland, appropriate for the Regency era and tried to make sure that there was no repetition. I often find it confusing if characters in novels have similar sounding names or if they begin with the same letter.
However, when I called the younger brother of the missing heiress, ‘Matthew’, I never imagined the embarrassment this would later cause me. Matthew was a very popular name in late 18th century England. It is also the name of my own younger brother. (Yes, I think you can see where this is going.) When I plotted the book I instinctively named Matthew Carnaby after my own brother and thought nothing more about it. In my head, this was a convenient – possibly temporary - arrangement which would help me remember who he was while I sorted out the rest of the details about him and the other characters.
At the start of a novel, everything is fluid and full of potential. Minor characters like Matthew Carnaby are particularly sketchy; his personality and circumstances were vague. He eventually became a sad and tragic figure, the victim of horrific abuse in his infancy which had left him mute and physically scarred. He developed into one of my favourite characters and will probably appear in a later novel in the series, but somehow while I was writing the novel I completely forgot about the significance of his name.
Post-publication, my slip up came back to haunt me. Mum was the first to contact me with feedback after Heiress was released. Of course she loved the book (bless her) and was full of praise. But at the end of the conversation she quietly asked me:
'Why did you name the ‘idiot’ younger brother after our Matthew?'
Ooops. I didn’t see this one coming. Cue a blustering and red-faced author. I can honestly say that until that moment, I hadn’t realised the implications when I gave the Bellingham village idiot the same name as my sibling.
‘Our Matthew’ also read The Missing Heiress and he sent me a text:
Reading Heiress and loving it. Just got to the bit were the idiot younger brother has the shit kicked out of him…
Ouch. He noticed. In fact, he’s mentioned it several times recently. Matthew has made it clear that I’m not going to get away with this one lightly - innocent mistake or not. I sense a lifetime of ribbing ahead. Happier times: My siblings and I
It is amazing what else those close to you read into your work. In the same conversation, Mum also wanted to know why I had called the unsavoury Baxter Carnaby after my gentle, God-fearing uncle: Howard Baxter. I hadn’t. In my mind, Baxter was just a strong, memorable name. Memorable is vitally important in fiction.
I will be more cautious in future when naming my characters but I’m not sure that it will help. In my experience, authors face an uphill struggle against the boundless imaginations of their close family and friends. Our nearest and dearest fly off on a tangent when they read our books. They hear our voices as they read and automatically look out for connections – obscure or real - to the life we lead and the people we know. Their spiralling tangents have no limits.
The last I heard, I am still in my parent’s Last Will and Testament (just) but I may have to avoid being alone with my brother in the same room for a while. In the meantime, for penance, I am doing a little research about Kentish smugglers and sketching out the character of one Master Barnabus Gouldsmith...
Q: What’s in a name?
Bow Street Runners and Early British Detectives
Kirkley Hall, Ponteland
In 2005, we made two surprising discoveries while researching my husband’s ancestors. We first learnt that he had a convicted felon, a Regency jail-bird, roosting in the branches of his family tree, called Jamie Charlton. Then we found out that a Bow Street detective, Stephen Lavender, had been involved in the investigation which sent our Jamie to trial.
Naturally, our first priority was to find out more about our skeleton in the closet but we were also intrigued by Detective Lavender. He was referred to as ‘a principal officer’ with the Bow Street magistrates’ court in London. I had heard the phrase ‘Bow Street runner’ many times before but I had no idea that there were British detectives as early as 1809. I had always assumed that detectives were created along with the rest of the police force by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.
Years of research at The National Archives in London and the Northumberland Records Office gradually disclosed that our Jamie had been convicted of stealing the rent money from the Northumbrian manor house, Kirkley Hall. It was an audacious crime; over £1,157 had been taken from the estate office at the hall. Our research also revealed that Nathanial Ogle, the wealthy owner of Kirkley Hall, had paid for Detective Lavender to come up from London to solve the case.
To Ogle’s delight, Lavender recovered the bulk of the missing money. It had been thrown back over the wall of the kitchen garden in a sack, and lay half-hidden by a currant bush for several days until the detective instigated a thorough search of the grounds. Only £162 of coins remained outstanding. This is not as surprising as it may seem. Most of the recovered money was paper banknotes which had only been in circulation for a few years; in 1809 most British commoners did not understand or trust paper money.
Lavender also discovered that Jamie Charlton, a disgruntled ex-employee of Kirkley Hall, had been on a generous spending spree in the weeks after the robbery and his investigation focussed on him. In May 1809, he had Jamie arrested and sent for trial at the August Assizes in Newcastle. However, they released him after an initial hearing because there was no evidence to actually connect him to the crime. At this point, Stephen Lavender went back to London, famous for retrieving most of the stolen rent money but unable to secure the conviction of his main suspect.
Jamie Charlton also went home but he was rearrested a year later. This time the evidence came from Jamie’s former cell mate, William Taylerson, and the local magistrate instigated the arrest. Taylerson claimed that when they shared a cell together in prison, Jamie Charlton had confessed to him that he had, indeed, committed the crime. Taylerson was a horse thief, already sentenced to death. After a trial which lasted fourteen hours, a jury of local landowners and nobility found Jamie guilty in just five minutes. They sentenced him to transportation, and granted Taylerson a full pardon. The whole thing smacked of a miscarriage of justice - even by the dodgy legal standards of the Regency.
The ideal plot for a historical novel had just landed in my lap and Catching the Eagle was born. It took two years to write this book, which was eventually published by Knox Robinson Publishers of Historical Fiction in December 2011.
Bow Street Magistrate's Court, London
According to my research, when the principal officers like Lavender went out to work on cases in other counties of Britain, they usually worked alone. As a novelist, this presented me with an interesting dilemma. Literary convention in any crime fiction usually requires that the detective has an assistant. In the end, I decided to veer away from historical fact with Catching the Eagle and bow down to the literary convention; I gave Lavender an assistant, Constable Edward Woods. Although they were only minor characters in this first novel, I thoroughly enjoyed creating Woods and Lavender and developing the rapport and humorous dialogue which erupted spontaneously between them. I felt that I had created a winning duo of crime fighters and I didn’t want to let them go.
Natural curiosity drew me towards their world. I began to invest time, money and effort on investigating those early British detectives. ‘A Certain Share of Low Cunning: A history of the Bow Street Runners 1792 – 1839’ written by David J. Cox became the main source of my research. I discovered that back in 1809, Bow Street Magistrates’ court, was the thriving centre of policing in the crime-ridden capital of England. Bow Street and the Old Bailey Criminal Court were the vibrant partners in London’s justice system.
http://www. oldbaileyonline.org/ is ripe source of information and inspiration for any author interested in crime, criminals and early British detectives. This website documents the proceedings of the Old Bailey, between the years of 1674-1913 and contains details of 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court. Stephen Lavender frequently appears on the stand as a police witness in these documents.
Number 4 Bow Street was where Sir Henry Fielding, novelist and magistrate, first persuaded the British government to establish a police force in 1747. This was in response to the growing call to find an effective means to tackle the increasing crime and disorder in the capital, where every fourth shop was a ‘gin house,’ a vast sex trade sprawled across hundreds of brothels and gangs of highwaymen and cut-throats terrorized the roads on the outskirts of London. Fielding brought together eight reliable constables, who soon gained a reputation for honesty and efficiency in their pursuit of criminals and later came to be known as ‘the Bow Street Runners.’ But Fielding faced an uphill struggle against both organised crime in the capital, and the mistrust of the politicians who paid for his policemen.
George IV, The Prince Regent
In the late eighteenth century, the wealthy elite of Britain preferred to spend their money on personal security, rather than funding a communal police force. If you needed to track down a criminal there were plenty of ‘thief takers’ – an early form of bounty hunter – whom the rich could employ to drag a suspect into the dock. There was huge resistance to the notion of a centralised police force because of the brutal excesses of the French police system across the Channel, under the revolutionary fanatic, Joseph Fouché. Nevertheless, the crime fighting force started by Sir Henry Fielding expanded and gained national recognition.
By 1809, the year of my novels, the number of police personnel had dramatically increased and a horse patrol had been established to bring some law and order to the crime-infested outlying areas. Principal officers were restyled ‘detectives’ and had various roles. Apart from supporting their colleagues in the capital, they were often sent out to help magistrates in the provinces with difficult cases. They took part in undercover work in periods of insurrection, for example, during the Luddite riots in the Midlands.
The principal officers were a policing elite, famous throughout London, and the aristocracy loved them. They did security work for the Bank of England and acted as bodyguards for Royalty, especially the Prince Regent. They were the only policemen allowed into Buckingham House, the forerunner of the palace. On occasions they were even sent abroad to help with crimes and criminals who had spilled out over our borders onto the continent.
According to the records I have unearthed, Stephen Lavender spent a lot of his time working on difficult cases out in the provinces. Wealthy landowning citizens, like Nathanial Ogle of Kirkley Hall, could request the help of a principal officer. Bow Street would charge them a hefty fee and the detectives could claim lucrative expenses on top of their salary. Many principal officers became very rich.
The arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst
However, the Bow Street officers were still regarded with mistrust by the general population and there were many allegations of police corruption – some of them genuine. In 1829, the government charged Sir Robert Peel with the task of creating a new national police force; a force which was properly funded and more accountable. Following this transition, Stephen Lavender became the highly-respected Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester.
Bow Street itself remained a magistrates’ court until 2004. During its two hundred and fifty year reign as Britain’s most famous police station, it has had both the famous, and the infamous, pass across its threshold. From the legendary lover, Giacomo Casanova, to the murderer, Dr. Crippen, and the notorious East End gangsters, the Kray twins; from the famous mother and daughter suffragettes, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to the brilliant, homosexual playwright, Oscar Wilde and more recently, the Chilean dictator , General Pinochet.
In that tense and frustrating period between the completion of my debut novel, Catching the Eagle, and securing a publisher for the book, the first seeds of a Regency whodunit began to germinate in my head. As far as I was concerned, there were only two policemen in England who could crack this mysterious case. I sat down at the computer and The Missing Heiress was born, with Detective Stephen Lavender and Constable Woods as the main characters. Ultimately, Stephen Lavender was the man who charged our ancestor with stealing the Kirkley Hall rent money and placed him in the dock but I’ve never held that against him. He was the natural choice for the detective in my new novel. In my mind, he had grown from an interesting minor character to a fully-fledged and fascinating protagonist. The Missing Heiress flew off my keyboard like silk and I completed it in ten months.
In this first novel in a new series, the two policemen are called back to Northumberland, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful young heiress from a locked bedchamber. Convinced that this is a simple case of a young woman who has eloped with her lover, Lavender and Woods are later alarmed to discover a sinister world of madness, violence and secrets lurking behind the heavy oak door of the ancient pele tower at Linn Hagh.
The Missing Heiress was published by Knox Robinson Publishing on 6th December 2012.
(Article first published on Shots: Crime and Thriller eZine, December 2012)
The Frustrations of Plotting Crime Fiction
Artwork by Bradley Wind
Successful crime fiction needs the fertile imagination of a confident author who can plot with the precision of an engineer, while juggling motive, clues, suspects and conflict like a circus clown. It can be a frustrating process.
Crime fiction is essentially plot driven, which is rather annoying when you consider that it is primarily the strong character of the sleuths whom everyone remembers. From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, Rebus to Morse, this truth is self-evident. No matter how well they are crafted, crime and thriller plots are easily forgotten. Yet, crime fiction demands a compelling and credible plot to sweep the reader to a satisfying dénouement.
Ideas for crime novels often come from seemingly unconnected events. Recently, I viewed a BBC program Imagine, which followed best-selling writer Ian Rankin for six months. I watched with fascination as he pulled out a battered manila folder bulging with press cuttings, scribbled notes and photographs. These unconnected events were the source of his inspiration.
The two unconnected events which led to my own novel were my desire to set readers the challenge of a locked room mystery and the chance discovery of a family will from 1770. Back then, ours was a dysfunctional family of ten half-siblings, two mothers and a mistrustful father. This damning document revealed that favouritism, injustice and cruelty were rife in that farmhouse. I began to imagine the burning resentment the will could ignite in the unbalanced mind of one of those spurned, and the murderous consequences which might follow.
A crime fiction writer who relies exclusively on real life murders for stimulation may find that their work becomes flat. Stripped of their grisly horror, real murderers are remarkably predictable and murder is one of the easiest crimes for the police to solve. Criminology reports throw up the same information time and time again. Murder victims tend to know their killer. A trio of three deadly motives, money, sex and revenge, generally lie behind the bloody act. Statistically, serial killings by fiendish monsters are a relatively rare occurrence. Women usually murder in self-defence or after years of abuse by a husband or partner, whereas men tend to kill out of sexual jealousy or as a matter of honour.
This is where the fertile imagination of the crime fiction author needs to enrich the banal, avoid the stereotypes, switch genders and exaggerate. Have the honour killings committed by a woman. Let two Hannibal Lecters lurk in the dank alleys of your sleepy town. Blur the edges of the motives. Yes, a large inheritance is an excellent reason to kill someone but alone it can become predictable and one-dimensional. Spice up your novel by allowing your sleuth to also uncover the murderer’s deep-seated psychological need to take revenge on the dead father who always favoured his youngest child.
Many, if not most, crime fiction writers fear readers will suss out their plot before the end of the book and be left disappointed. This fear sometimes pressures authors into the fantastical, or they create a plot with more twists and turns than a staircase in a New York skyscraper in order to stay one step ahead of the reader. These decisions can be a disaster. Crime fiction writers need self-confidence and control. Have faith in yourself and faith in the imagination of your readers. If you’ve got doubts about your plot ask for the help of a couple of honest friends to tell you how your storyline has developed.
I was initiated into the genre of crime fiction in the bizarre world of Murder Mystery Weekends at a luxury hotel. I wrote the scripts and directed the action but quickly learned that the guests’ imaginations were more twisted than my own. What seemed obvious to me, sent them spiralling off on a tangent. I didn’t need to create red-herrings; they went fishing and happily netted plenty for themselves. This experience gave me confidence. When I wrote The Missing Heiress, I felt comfortable drip feeding clues into my story, knowing that my readers would not always spot them or understand their significance. I wrote the book I wanted to write – and so should you.
Crime fiction writers also need supreme organisational skills and discipline. The first step is to strip the story down to its bare bones and pin point where the conflict lies. Make notes and place these sparse details onto a timeline or blank calendar which covers the timespan of your novel. This helps you keep track of everything - especially the suspects. Insert subtle clues into the plot and check your plan for pace, flow and balance. Is your sleuth’s investigation a frenzy of activity on some days, while not much happens on others? Does the conflict build gradually towards the climax of your book?
In its initial stages any novel is fluid and gradually evolves. Nothing is sacred, and authors can reinvent and reject until they settle on something that feels right and continues to feel right. But as criminal investigations intensify one wrongly placed incident can throw the whole thing off track.
Half way through writing The Missing Heiress, I hit a wall. I just couldn’t see the ‘big picture’ of my novel on the computer screen. So I grabbed the family noticeboard from the kitchen and divided it up into days. I scribbled down the scenes of my novel onto post-it notes and pinned them into the cork. It worked. I now had a physical representation of how my story would unfold and could shuffle everything around with ease until balance and pace were restored. On top of this, I had the added satisfaction of watching the post-it notes vanish as my novel crept towards the finish line.
I have since learnt that Apple Mac have devised an ingenious computer program called Scrivener which provides a digital representation of a cork noticeboard. No doubt, it reduces the frustration of some authors busy plotting crime fiction. However, I wonder if it can mimic the kinaesthetic satisfaction I experienced when I ripped down those final post-it notes, rolled them into a ball and hurled them into the bin?
This article was first printed in The View from Here magazine on December 3rd, 2012.
The View from Here online literary magazine has published my article on 'The Frustrations of Plotting Crime Fiction.'
If you are interested in writing crime fiction, or who just wants to know how I wrote The Missing Heiress then please feel free to check it out... oh, and please leave a comment on the page.The View From Here Magazine
POOR J. K. ROWLING
I never thought in a million years that I would utter those words. But two nights ago when I clicked onto her new novel ‘The Casual Vacancy’ on amazon.co.uk and read the reviews, this exclamation of sympathy escaped from my lips. And, yes, the irony of that phrase for a fellow author allegedly worth over US$1 billion dollars has not escaped me.
Amazon has priced the hardback edition of her novel at a mere £9 whereas the kindle version is retailing at the higher price of £11.99. EBooks, which cost hardly anything to produce, are traditionally far cheaper than the dead tree version of novels and they now outsell both paperbacks and hardbacks across the globe.
Clearly amazon has decided to capitalise on this fact - and J.K. Rowling’s incredible popularity - by making kindle owners’ pay a higher price for ‘The Casual Vacancy.’ A calculated decision to maximise profits, this was bound to be controversial.
The backlash from furious kindle owners was swift and vitriolic.
Out of thirty five reviews posted on Thursday, over twenty three people had given ‘The Casual Vacancy’ only one star out of a possible five. This brought the overall ranking of the novel down to a pathetic two and a half stars - somewhere between the worrying ‘I don’t like it’ and the apathetic ‘It’s OK.’
But these poor reviews were not about the quality of her prose. Each one contained an angry protest about the high price of the eBook.
Hence: ‘Poor J.K.Rowling.’
Yes, she is a big girl now and the world’s most famous living author. I suppose in some people’s eyes she is fair game, cushioned by a huge fortune and it won’t matter to her if she becomes the centre of a bitter pricing row between amazon and kindle owners. They might think that a rating of only two and a half stars for her new novel won’t not upset her… but will it?
Of course it will.
Beneath her wealth and fame, J.K. Rowling is a sensitive woman and an artist who desperately wants to be taken seriously as an adult author. She has abandoned the lucrative world of wizardry and witchcraft to prove her skill as a decent storyteller for grown-ups. In switching genres she has taken a brave step and become a debut author all over again. Debut authors in any genre are nervous creatures.
Those comments on amazon, those stars and those reviews matter. They are the voice of the general public and are usually honest and revealing about the true merits of a work of fiction. The price row about the eBook has overshadowed everything else and distorted the launch of her new novel. I have no idea if she is aware of the drama unfolding on amazon but I would be devastated if this had happened to me.
Chin up, J.K. You were never destined to have an easy ride. Unlike the wonderful fictional world of loyalty, friendship and honesty you created at Hogwarts; jealousy, meanness and avarice still rule the world of muggles.
Plotting and Planning...
I recently arrived at a very confusing stage in the writing of The Missing Heiress. I had spent a long time laying down the chronological outline of the plot into an excel document but I could not work with it. Every time I thought of a new clue, redherring or lead for Detective Lavender to follow, I struggled to place it into the scheme.
I just couldn't see the 'big picture' using the excel format and the 'balance' did not seem right. There is majot event about three quarters of the way through The Missing Heiress. My plan revealed too much information in the days leading up to this event and left nothing for Lavender to uncover afterwards. On some days, his investigation was a frenzy of activity - on others not much happened at all.
I had read somewhere that many authors use postcards to help them with the hundreds of ideas flashing around in their imagination. Events and scenes can be written down on postcards and shuffled around physically, to see how they follow each other and build up to the climax. Well, I didn't have any postcards handy but I had a pair of scissors and plenty of paper. Two hours later, I had a huge pile of paper slips, all covered with scribbled notes.
The next thing to do, was to lay them out in a chronological format which worked. I needed something big. Whilst the family were away at a football match, I requisition the kitchen noticed board, covered it with paper and marked out large squares. Each square was a different day of the investigation. Finally, I laid out my scribbled notes and shuffled them around until I felt the plot flowed smoothly and balance was restored.
It worked. Delighted with the results, I promptly sat down and wrote another 1,000 words. Is this the way to beat writers' block, I wonder? I can see at a glance where I am going next and I love the tactile and visual nature of my two foot by three foot novel plan. I look forward to steadily removing the slips of paper, binning them and gradually watching the kitchen notice board reappear.
Sadly, my family were not impressed with my brilliant idea when they returned home from the match. They were more concerned that the flyers from the pizza takeaway shops had disappeared. It took a while before peace was eventually restored...and I think I'm going to have to buy another kitchen notice board. ;)
The dreaded editing and revision process
Like most authors, I loathe it. It took me six months to completely revise and edit Catching the Eagle. I have just finished revising a short story for the Knox Robinson website, and have been reminded again just how gruesome this process is.
Unfortunately, unless you want to appear a complete fool to your publisher and the general public, necessity demands that writers go through a finished story with a fine tooth comb. But typos, missing apostrophes and commas are only part of the process.
The first thing I do when revising a finished story is hit the 'find' button on my PC and type in '-ly.' I have often been accused of over doing the adverbs and this is by far the easiest way to check out whether they have been breeding like rabbits again across my prose. Once balance has been restored on the adjectival front, I then examine how passive and/or active my verbs are, by using the 'find' button to seek out the words 'was' and 'were' and anything ending in '-ing.'
By this point, I am usually ready for a stiff drink but somehow I have to resist because I need to check out my very Northern habit of using the word 'that' in every sentence - often incorrectly. Having spent years telling Secondary school children to try to avoid the infantile words 'get'/'big'/'little' and 'small' - I next examine whether, or not, I have been practising what preach.
At this point the mood in my study has usually turned sour with boredom and the concentration has become a strain. While the written language may be improving, the audible language has turned a pale shade of blue. After a final look for any overuse of the word 'as,' and the misuse of the word 'whilst,' I then hit the 'print' button and grab my 'red' pen. Yes, 'Miss' marks her own work - in red ink.
It is unbelievable how different a story looks on the printed page; how many mistakes there are; how many sentences and whole sections exist which are surplus to requirement. The first draft usually ends up covered in crossings out, arrows and other strange hieroglyphics. Finally, the corrections are transferred to the word processed version.
I then breath a huge sigh of relief, grab a glass of wine and seek out a trusted friend to review the whole thing. :)
The Birth of a New Book
At last the muse is with me.
And I've found the time to make a start. :)
I sat down yesterday evening and started plotting my new novel onto an excel sheet. Just twenty two chapters at the moment, with a few sentences each, and a massive 'to do' list at the bottom, concerning the research I need to undertake. It has got no title (although, I think the words 'disappearing heiress' may feature prominently) and it is very, very rough. But it is a start. Detective Lavender and Constable Woods have another case to solve.
The location is sorted and it will mean spending more time spent at one of our favourite hotels, The Riverdale in Bellingham, wandering around beautiful Northumberland to get 'a feel' for the backdrop. How we have to suffer for our art... ;)
I'm looking forward to a good summer. Research aside, I'm setting myself a target of 5000 words a week for the next seven weeks and then maybe, 1000 words a day during the six weeks school summer holiday. Hopefully, it should be finished by September. It will not be as long as Catching the Eagle but the events only span six weeks, rather than the twenty six months of my first book.
Wish me luck, folks.
The Incredible Kindness of Friends...
A wise woman I used to to know, once said to me that if we have just one good friend in this world then we are blessed. At the time I thought that this was rather sad -which poor souls have only one friend? But this week I have really appreciated the wisdom behind those words. It is the adjective, not the numeral, which counts.
Youngsters often seem to be involved in a competition with their peers to have the busiest social life: Christmas and birthday cards are counted and the tally displayed; the number of 'friends' on facebook is regularly reported. Being 'popular' and part of the 'in-crowd' has never gone out of fashion and I'll admit to being this shallow when I was young. Then we age, move around the country, change our jobs and family circumstances and the number of our friends (those people for whom we consistently make time) dwindles. We can become so wrapped up in work and family life that we neglect good people. Sadly, I realise now that I have let many good friendships go. It can be quite a shock when those significant birthdays or anniversaries come around and you suddenly realise that you can barely fill a back room at the local pub for the party, never mind the O2 arena.
The upside of this, however, is that hopefully the quantity of friends we had in our youth has been replaced, in our thirties and forties, by the quality friendship of a few.
And it is to those stalwarts who have stuck beside me - especially over the last few years when I have been distracted with this novel - that I would like to pay tribute in this blog.
Without the unswerving support and encouragement of Zena Breckner and Sam Blain this novel would never have been finished. Both of them volunteered to read it, chapter by chapter, as it progressed and gave me invaluable feedback and help. The nagged me, criticised me and encouraged me in the way that only good friends can. Very often I forced myself to sit down at the computer and get on with it only because I knew they were waiting for the next installment. More often than not, it was their praise which motivated me to run back into the study and write some more. Whether Catching the Eagle ever takes off or not, I will be eternally grateful to these two for guiding me to the finish line.
Now Jill Boulton, a friend I have sadly neglected over the years, has come back into my life and, without hesitation, has volunteered to use her experience and skill as a professional editor to help me with the proof reading. I am delighted.
In fact, when I start to count my blessings - as I have this morning - I realise that there has been a whole army of people out there who have been encouraging me, one way or another, from the sidelines. I also realise that there are other friends in my world who would not hesitate to step in and help me if I needed their specialist skills; they are simply just waiting for the call.
In a bleak fortnight which has been dominated with personal problems and bad news, the continuing help, encouragement and advice given to me by my friends stands out like a beacon of hope. It is simultaneously humbling - and a cause for pride.
In one of my more insecure moments, I chanced upon an MSN survey which revealed to me that I had far below the number of good friends everyone else in the UK claimed to possess. I remember that this bothered me at the time.
Today, I smile and think back back to Katie's words: 'if you have just one good friend in this world then you are blessed....'
Today I feel very blessed.
Thank you, my good friends.
Researching a two hundred year old mystery…
Morpeth market and gaol tower c.1890
We started researching my husband’s Charlton ancestors when our daughter was born in 1994. There’s something about having children which not only makes you look forward to the future but also makes you curious about where you all came from. We knew that the little stranger in our arms was the latest in a long line of Charltons but who were those shadowy figures in history that had passed down her surname and contributed to her genetic makeup? What were their stories? We wanted to give our children a history which was uniquely theirs.
In August 2004, we made an amazing discovery. I was chatting on a genealogy message board when a very helpful stranger gave us the following extract about hubby’s Great-great-great-great- Grandmother:
“In Heddon on the Wall baptism register there is recorded the baptism on 27th of July 1815 of Mary, the daughter of Priscilla Charlton. A note in the register says “mother a married woman: her husband transported.”
We were stunned. Transported? If hubby’s 4x great- Grandfather had been a convicted felon, what had he done?
I was also amused. My mild-mannered husband was descended from a notorious criminal. It was good to know his ‘respectable’ family had a skeleton in the closet.
Being eternal optimists, our first instinct was to Google ‘James Charlton, Kirkley Hall.’ Unbelievably, it paid off.
There is an article called ‘Liberty is Sweet’ on wearside.online which tells a potted version of the story. James Charlton was controversially convicted of stealing over £1,157 from Kirkley Hall in 1810. However, our surprise quickly turned to indignation: James was found guilty mainly on the testimony of a condemned horse-thief with whom he shared a prison cell in Morpeth gaol. This treacherous cad gained his own freedom and escaped hanging as a result of turning King’s Evidence against his cell mate. Our ancestor was framed. The mystery of the burglary at Kirkley Hall had never been properly solved.
I had always dreamed about writing an historical novel and now the perfect plot had just fallen into my lap. But how to uncover the rest of the story?
Our first attempt at research was a failure. We contacted wearsideonline.com and politely asked them where they obtained their information. The foreign owners of the website replied, quite rudely, by telling us to: “go and read some books.”
However, since this shaky start we have been bowled over by the kindness of strangers. People have gone out of their way to help us gather what information there still remains about this two hundred year old mystery. A woman I had never met found us the records of the prosecution case at The National Archives. A professional genealogist, who was also researching shady Regency criminals, contacted us and helped us solve the mystery of what ultimately happened to James Charlton.
We made several visits down to The National Archives ourselves; gleaned valuable information from the helpful folks at the Ponteland Local History society and spent hours trawling through two hundred year old newspapers in the Gateshead Central Library.
Sometimes the research was fun and formed part of an amusing family day out. Although, after a few years, the kids started complaining about the number of graveyards we visited. My son also recently informed me that our trip to see the ‘family pile’ – Morpeth Gaol – was a sobering experience for an eight year old.
More Charlton villains case the joint at Kirkley Hall.
Once we all turned up on Open Day at Kirkley Hall (now an Agricultural College.) The staff happily gave us access to their own information about the burglary in 1809 but strangely enough, they were unwilling to let us roam freely around the hall. We can imagine the frantic whispering: ‘Quick – lock up the silver! The Charltons are back!’
We enjoyed a drink and toasted hubby’s beleaguered ancestor in every public house mentioned in the court case documents. As James Charlton sipped brandy and gambled away his meagre wages in most of the pubs in Ponteland, the pub crawl took quite some time... ;)
Bit by bit, the story came together. By January 2009, I decided I had enough information to start writing the novel – and then the hard work began. A Literature degree and a lifetime of teaching English is not a guarantee that you can turn into an author overnight. It has been a steep learning curve and I am still learning. Turning this Regency miscarriage of justice into a historical ‘who-dunnit’ quickly became an obsession. For twenty months I spent every spare minute hammering away at my keyboard. By the summer of 2010 I finally completed Catching the Eagle.
Or so I thought. The editing and revising process has been gruelling.
I posted the first 20,000 words on ‘Authonomy’ in November 2010 and again, thanks to the helpfulness of strangers, the revision and the editing continued - and will do so until I find an agent/publisher for Catching the Eagle.