Thursday 16 June 2016

Guest post: Making Sense of the Past by Martin Lee

It is my pleasure to welcome historical novelist Martin Lee to my blog.

Martin Lee has spent most of his adult life writing in one form or another. As a University researcher in history, he wrote pages of notes on reams of obscure topics. As a social worker with Vietnamese refugees, he wrote memoranda. And, as the creative director of an advertising agency, he has written print and press ads, TV commercials, short films and innumerable backs of cornflakes packets and hotel websites.

Now he's written a guest post for my blog!


This is the first line of L P Hartley’s great novel, ‘The Go-Between’, made into a wonderful film by Joseph Losey in 1971.

It strikes me that, as writers of historical fiction, one of our jobs is to bring this ‘foreign country’ to life, and make the things they do ‘differently’ comprehensible to modern readers.

Personally, I write historical crime fiction and there’s a whole host of things I can’t do in my books on Shanghai in the 1920s and Pepys’ Restoration that more modern authors are allowed.

For example, I can’t simply call up DNA evidence to prove the presence of a criminal at a scene. In Death in Shanghai, I do have a pathologist, Dr Fang, who performs medical examinations but his guiding book was written during the twelfth century in China. It’s called ‘The Righting of Wrongs’ and was the world’s first book for medical examiners.

I also can’t pick up a mobile phone to call somebody. Everything takes far more time, and a copper looking for help has to blow his whistle or look for the nearest police box (and no, he won’t find Dr Who there!)

I can’t even use luminol to detect blood at a crime scene. You know, the stuff the CSI guys spray prodigiously on walls in the dark. The chemical wasn’t discovered until 1927 and its use at crime scenes not introduced until 1939.

So the historical crime writer has to create an old world to modern readers weaned on the fast fix of one hour TV programmes. A world where an investigator uses his mind to solve problems rather than science. Where poison, knives or a revolver are used as weapons rather than an AK47. And where human motivation for a crime is far more important than the scientific detail of the crime itself.

The latest book I have written, The Irish Inheritance, had a whole different set of problems.

How can a modern day investigator reveal the truth of the past?

And in this case, how can she discover who is the father of a young boy when he is listed as being killed in the Great War, eight years before the boy was born?

In this novel, there is no crime to be solved, but there is a story to be uncovered, a truth to be found. Here, the skills of genealogical and historical research come in. Parish registers, lists of war dead, interviews with veterans, meetings with relatives, old books and old pictures, all can be brought to life to reveal the truth.

Like all historical writing, it’s a foreign country waiting to be discovered. And it’s different there.

Our job is to make it comprehensible and believable, so that readers immerse themselves in the period.

Whether it’s the wars of Anglo-Saxon England. A murder in Art- Deco Shanghai. The theft of a diary in Restoration England. Or finding the real father of a young boy.

It’s one of the beauties of writing historical novels. There are thousands of foreign countries to be discovered in the past.

And our job is to make them our own country.


When he’s not writing, Martin Lee splits his time between the UK and Asia, taking pleasure in playing with his daughter, researching his family history, practicing downhill ironing, single-handedly solving the problem of the French wine lake and wishing he were George Clooney.

He can be found at, on twitter @writermjlee and Facebook as, you guessed it, writermjlee.

All his books can be found on Amazon. His latest release, a genealogical mystery called The Irish Inheritance, is launched on June 15th.

Buy it here:

Tuesday 14 June 2016

What Samantha Wilcoxson Learnt when Writing about Historical Figures

Next in the "What you learnt..." series of blog posts comes from historical fiction author, Samantha Wilcoxson. Samantha released the first in her Tudor England trilogy, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen, in 2015 and this week sees the publication of Faithful Traitor, which continues the story of the Plantagenet remnant in Tudor times with Margaret Pole.

I was lucky enough to meet Samantha and her husband when they were visiting the UK last year and I gave them a whirlwind tour of Bath. It's always a bit of a worry when you meet someone in real life that previously you had only "met" online. But luckily, I needn't have worried, Samantha was as nice as she is talented. So I know you are in safe hands as she takes the reins of my blog today. Enjoy!

Samantha Wilcoxson with me in Bath, UK

What Samantha Wilcoxson Learnt when Writing about Historical Figures

People seem to have two states of mind when it comes to historical fiction. One wonders how we can read and write so many different books about the same people and events. The other loves the idea of bringing the past to life and is in awe of how it is done. I have read historical fiction since I was able to string words together and feel blessed to be able to write it. Along the way, I have learned a few things.

Some things are not as clear as they seem. Those who are not students of history assume that the past is known and easy to define. The truth is a much different animal, varying with the time period and setting one is researching. The Wars of the Roses and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty is a fairly well documented era, however, I was still forced to make some decisions when it came to writing about it. For example, Margaret Pole was born to the heir apparent of England and her birth and death take place on known dates. The same is not true of her children. Dates given for Ursula Pole’s birth vary by years, so I had to choose the one that seemed most likely. Then there is the famous mystery of Margaret’s cousins, the Princes in the Tower. Regardless of what an author does with this historical tidbit, there is going to be a backlash. Which brings me to my next topic . . .

People can be very touchy about their favorite historical figures. These historical unknowns mean that people form widely ranging opinions of people and events. My Elizabeth of York was quite well received for she is not too controversial. However, readers can be touchy about whether or not she was in love with her husband, Henry, or had an affair with her uncle, Richard. Reviewers either love or hate my depiction of Richard III, who may be one of the most divisive historical figures to date! Do you believe he is the romantic prince of Sharon Kay Penman’s Sunne in Splendour or the villain of Shakespeare?

I have also learned that people are rarely saints or sinners, but made up of a complex combination of personality and ambitions. While many people are written as better or worse than they truly were, I try to portray each person as realistically as possible. This seems to have been best demonstrated in my Henry Tudor. He is often characterized as cold and cruel, and one author has even written him as a rapist. I chose to create a Henry who was certain of his fate but not always sure how to carry it out or who he could trust to help him. He was a faithful and loving husband, who may have given his mother too much power over his decisions and household. He was not a glorious soldier, but he was a wise manager of assets. In short, he was a real person made up of flaws and gifts, just like the rest of us.

There are advantages to writing about real people. Not all historical fiction writers choose to write about real people. A story can be just as compelling when it is written about a nameless knight rather than a famous king. At times, I feel that I have taken the easy way out by selecting real people to write about. My outline is already prepared for me in the form of their life’s timeline.

However, I have also learned that there are disadvantages to writing about real people. Besides the preconceived notions and expectations that readers have, I do not have freedom to have these people say and do whatever I would like. As much as I may have enjoyed having Elizabeth of York force her mother-in-law to move from the Queen’s quarters next to her husband’s, it is simply not what she did.

All those writers who wish that Richard had survived Bosworth know exactly what I mean. I cannot place one of my characters somewhere they weren’t, which at times makes it difficult to include historical details without ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing.’ In Faithful Traitor, Margaret gets her news in various ways to suit her situation and the storytelling. Whether it is a secret messenger or a clandestine night ride, she has her ways.

About the Author

Samantha Wilcoxson is an American writer and history enthusiast. Her 2015 novel, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen, features Elizabeth of York and was selected as an Editors’ Choice by the Historical Novel Society. This novel is followed by the recent release of Faithful Traitor, which carries on the story of the Plantagenet remnant in Tudor times with Margaret Pole. The Tudor England trilogy will be completed with the story of Queen Mary. Samantha has also published two middle grade novels, Over the Deep: A Titanic Adventure and No Such Thing as Perfect. Each of these are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format.

Samantha lives on a small lake in Michigan with her husband, three children, two dogs, and two cats. This crew provides plenty of good times and writing inspiration. When she is not reading or writing, Samantha enjoys traveling and learning about new places.

Connect with Samantha:

Buy Samantha Wilcoxson's books:
Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: (US)
Faithful Traitor: (US)

Thursday 2 June 2016

Swords, Seaxes and Saxons

I have a guest post on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog today. Check it out to find out more about Anglo-Saxon swords, pattern welding, the Staffordshire Hoard and more.

Swords, Seaxes and Saxons on the EHFA blog.

An example of a pattern-welded seax blade

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Interview in which I show a monk my seax!

Check out my first non-written interview. The Anglo-Saxon Monk asked some very interesting questions and got me talking about my approach to writing historical fiction, whether I am the new Bernard Cornwell (I blooming well hope so!), Fifty Shades of Grey, singing in a rock band and lots more.

He even manages to see my nice shiny seax!

Listen here:

Publication day for THE SERPENT SWORD!

Today's the day!

THE SERPENT SWORD is published today by Aria, an imprint of Head of Zeus.

Thanks to everyone who's read the first edition of the book and left a review on Amazon, Goodreads or elsewhere online. If you haven't yet read it, now's your chance!

The paperback should be available very soon. The audio book will follow in a few weeks.