This isn’t usual for self…

But I shall try it anyway.

The thing is, in the last few days I’ve done an interview, which if I’m honest I actually truly enjoyed!  And I kind of wished to share that.

And not only but also, I’ve done another thing on the state of the country–at war– during that era we’d like to think was uber-friv, parties, pretty dresses, aristos in high cravats and Beau Brummell–the early 19th century.  And I kind of wanted to put that out here too.

So, do you mind if I just give you two charming links to these bits and say, Thanks jolly much for reading…?

A glimpse of Austen’s England. 

Bennetts and that little white pony, a salutary tale for authors.  Or parents.





dragoon2Hallo Lovelies, this is a whinge.  It’s about research. And about asking for others to do one’s research for one.

It may or it may not amaze you to know that I get asked all sorts of questions about all sorts of historical subjects all the blooming time.

I am, after all, in the eyes of the public a walking encyclopaedia.  So I can, can’t I, just open a crack in my brain and let some of those years’ worth of research just pour out, right?  I mean, it doesn’t cost the would-be novelist anything, not like an investment of time or study for understanding…and it’s just easy for me, right?  And I’ve got nothing else on my plate, right?

Or, often and often, I shall be reading the responses to a question of research and I’ll find that many say they were reading such and such a well-researched tome full of the details of the fabric of daily life, but it didn’t help their story, it wasn’t a priority, so they ditched it.

And now the whinge.  Sorry, folks, that’s not good enough!

You want to know why I know so much, on so many subjects covering the breadth of politics, the military, trade, exploration, the Navy, the daily life customs, the scandals, the interlaced relationships between families across the country, it’s because I read.  I read everything.  And I don’t put it down just because it might not be germane to some diddly plot point I want for a novel.

Yes, sometimes it’s a hard slog.  Some books much sloggier than others, I can assure you.

But you never know–on page 254, there might be some footnote or some paragraph which entirely throws open your understanding of secret societies and their history in Prussia in 1812,which are going to play into the next novel.  And nobody but me knows about these, because no one else has stuck it all the way through the current tome on Napoleon and Berlin.  (Not sure I blame them entirely.)

I know all this stuff because I have sat for days and weeks in research libraries, reading whole volumes of newspapers and magazines from the early 19th century.  And pretty boring many of them were too.  But because of this, you may believe me when I tell you that popular serialised fiction in Austen’s period was every bit as gagging and twee as pop fiction we could produce today. The only difference is the vocabulary.  It’s just as badly-written, improbable, and silly, otherwise.

If I want to know what they wore, I pore over portraits of the period, in museums.  I study their maps.  Their etchings.

This is how it works:  I do the work, I get the pay-off.

Because here’s the deal.  When you trouble your sorry-self to read a whole biography, an entire history, you’re going to be learning heaps more than just what did the leather dying process smell like in 18th century London, or why did Castlereagh shoot Canning in the thigh, or some such small detail.  You’re going to gain the very weft and warp of another world’s existence.

You’re going to pick up a narrative about how they spent their evenings, where people from one part of town liked to congregate, printshopwindow1what kind of fabric came in cheap that year, why did red and pink dyes suddenly become affordable after 1805, what the public opinion on the state of the king’s health was, who was cousins with whom, whether the weather was bad or brilliant and how that affected the crops and were there bread riots.  You’re going to begin to get it.  To gain some broader understanding of another era, another epoch’s choices and lives–the very fabric of their lives.  What they had for brekkies, and when.  Everything!  And then you’ll know.

And when you go to write it, therefore, all that wider context, that breadth and depth of knowledge is going to show.  It’s going to be there, quietly, in understated details and comprehension of mores and attitudes and will spare many a reader the agonies of emotional and real anachronisms which are the bane of so much history and historical fiction.

So, to put it bluntly.  Do your own work.  You want to write a good historical novel and receive the plaudits for it? Put in the work. Do it.  And don’t look for it to be handed you on a platter.  No, the internet isn’t the brilliant research tool they promised, but lots of university libraries now have their collections on line, as do museums and the British Library.

You want to fill your  head with the gems of past lives?  Do it.  No excuses.  For through that doing, you shall build a palace of wisdom to the heavens.  But you have to earn it and there are no shortie-cuts.

Whinge over.



It’s all in the detail…

It appears, as happens to all of us, that I deeply offended someone recently by having a less than rose-tinted pair of glasses on when I wrote a new blog about Napoleon.   Why this should have been, I don’t rightly know.  It’s not like his atrocities are news or anything anymore.  But so it was.

And anything I said in support of my argument was, er, dismissed by this individual and then, going for the kill, she advised me that I needed to learn what a good historian does.  (Which as far as I was aware was something about taking all the information in–even the bits that don’t support one’s pet theory.  Or have I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ fine novel about the subject, Gaudy Night, too many times? And believed it.)

Favourite bootsHence, in my personal defense, I wish to say this.  Once upon a time there was a little boffin named MM Bennetts.  (No, the MM does not stand for Montmorency, whatever certain people may tell you…)  And this creature, Bennetts, was not perhaps cut out to be an historian.  No, the heart and soul of this child were in music–a pianist first and Beethoven the first and great love.  

But history was what our little boffin read, fascinated by the lives and hopes and losses of all those fabulous artists and poets and people who had lived before.  (And the novelist part is all Dorothy Dunnett’s fault–a great friend and mentor, as it happened.)

strathtyrumNor did Bennetts arrive at Napoleonic controversy by a straight path.  Indeed, for a long time, our boffin was immersed in the glories of the Italian Renaissance and specialised as a mediaevalist.  But, these twists and turns happen…and through Beethoven and the architecture of the brothers Adam and all sorts of other things, this Bennetts became immersed in this world of early 19th century Britain.  (To be fair, I would have liked to have been frivolous and write immensely successful somethings or other…but the research, you see, it always drew me in further and further.  Like down Alice’s rabbit hole.)

conciergerieI had been to a huge exhibition of Goya’s etchings of the atrocities of war, from the Peninsula, you see.  And then I was in Paris at the Conciergerie.  And if you’ve not been there, well, all I can tell you is that it’s one of those places where the cries of the innocent condemned still weep from the very stones.

Anyway.  At the end of the tour, I asked about atrocities against the population committed after the Reign of Terror.  And the tour guide–after assuring me I couldn’t be English, my French was too perfect–was emphatic that there had been no atrocities committed by the Napoleonic regime or any other regime after the Terror.

Obviously, the party line.

But I knew it wasn’t true.  I had seen the evidence.

And this was shortly before the French celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution–wherein curiously I noted that there were no mentions of the September Massacres, no mention of the  genocide against the aristocracy nor the clergy…it was all a great party.

napo-creepAnd as the years have gone by, and I have relied more and more on first hand accounts of events, more and more turned to other countries’ non-partisan views and accounts, as the accounts which for 100 years were kept from us by the Berlin Wall’s presence and no sharing, and now all the forensic examination of Napoleonic grave sites, I find I am in a world of quotidienne atrocity, about which I have become, with no little reservation, an expert.

In my defense, it’s not what I like.  I like cakey, horses, poetry and antique roses.   I adore P.G. Wodehouse, Shakespeare and Donne.  I still play the piano and fill my world with music–it’s what we’re here for.

But I cannot turn aside from the sufferings of others and pretend they didn’t happen because Napoleon had the best air-brushing artist and propagandists the world has ever known.  And if that’s what you’re wanting, well, look elsewhere I guess.

I don’t, I hope, court controversy.  But I’m not going to lie.


A Progress Report…

You know that part of a project when you’ve got about a billion different elements clanging about in your head demanding recognition and attention and to be top dog and you know all of them are probably important or essential but you can’t for the life of you sort out how to make anything other than goulash out of the whole mess–maybe a bit more paprika will help?  Well, it’s rather like that.

europe1815A break-through occurred on a day-trip with my rather ingenious and maths-minded daughter a bit ago, when I put forward my difficulty with all the research (no, I am not going to tell you how many tomes or how many languages…) and asked if she could see her way to organising it all for me.  She, being very whizzy at these sorts of problems, had three different solutions in about 30 seconds.  All of which were excellent.  (I hate that.  It’s so breathtakingly easy and she makes it all seem so obvious…)

So we spent several days together with me downloading the contents of my brain and the many books and journals into her magic notebook, which she then turned into a frighteningly efficient thing for cross-referencing as well as a series of maps and other such intellectual delights…we still have several volumes to go.

But it was at this point, when she looked at the pages and pages of notes she’d made, the outsize cast of historical personages (I hadn’t even mentioned the fictional additions…) that she observed, “No wonder you’ve had problems.  This is like a game of chess with twenty players!

“For heaven’s sake, you’ve got five separate armies on the move…”

And that pretty much sums it up.  (Okay, yah, there are a great many generals and staff officers with Russian and Prussian surnames, I admit that…)

But since then, since then–and even with the delicious manifold diversions offered by the Christmas season–progress has not only seemed possible, but has got underway.  Of course, no one is more astonished at this than self.  But there it is.

NPG 891,Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (Lord Castlereagh),by Sir Thomas LawrenceA new opening chapter has presented itself which makes brilliant sense of all sorts of things and which just popped out of the too many notebooks of research notes and I find myself in the unusual position of being quite positive, hopeful and even feeling a bit of the old Bennetts wit returning to the page…

So that’s me.  Yes, a trifle overwhelmed by the too much that I know, but with help gaining some sense of control over it all…and you know what that means, don’t you?  That means a book will dribble itself out of my thoughts onto the page and into your hands eventually.

So thanks for all the support, cheer, and encouragement.  It’s meant more than you’ll ever know…

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

[do follow me on Twitter: @mmbennetts ]

The sheer delight of historical slang…

I am by nature a perfectionist.  (I know, I know, the fastest way to drive yourself crazy.)

I am also, again by a twist of nature, a stickler for detail.  (Yes, that’s right, the second most direct route to madness.  Particularly if you’re a historian writing historical fiction.)

Together these two probably constitute the fastest way to send yourself round the twist, or perhaps along the quickest route to total eccentricity.

(No comment from the pit, you!)

GreatParisCipherAnd this peculiar combination of traits has seen me doing everything from riding long distances hell for leather through gale force winds and sheets of rain–terrifying, invigorating, brilliant!–to enable me to write truthfully of an age when horses were the only mode of transportation, to learning to take snuff one-handed, to learning to crack the Napoleonic codes spies used two hundred years ago.

Obviously, it was this that led me to undertake that–what’s the opposite of a wild goose chase?–tricksy bit of sleuthing over the last few weeks about the waltz, to which I’ve previously referred after I’d come up against was the visit by Tsar Alexander to Britain in June 1814…

incroyable1[He, as the victor over Napoleon, was paying us a little visit to cement the friendship between our countries, to flirt, to play the saviour of Europe to an adoring audience, to flirt…He was wildly popular in London.  (He brought his pet poodle with him.  Does that help or hinder?)

And one of the things for which he was famous was dancing all night.  Quite literally.  Whether because he genuinely liked it or whether because it was an opportunity for him to get closer, I don’t know, but he did love to waltz.  But I kept being teased by this one thing–his visit was in 1814, yet too many authors and websites were insisting the waltz wasn’t done till 1816.

alexander 1814Still,  I couldn’t really imagine the local aristocratic lovelies saying to the 6-foot tall, blond hero and emperor in his spiffing formal uniform, “No, your Imperial Immenseness, the waltz is too immodest for me and I don’t know how…”?

No, not so much, hunh?  Doesn’t really work, does it…]

So, admittedly, some of my work is just plain bonkers.  Yes, I do know that.

But, you see, all of it–every miniscule minute iota of it–is absolutely necessary so that I can convey as powerfully and dramatically and accurately to the reader what it was to live 200 years ago.  Because above and beyond all things and at all times, I strive to put the reader in the room.  (Not to tell a modern tale in dress-up clothes, but to put you in the room!)

Still, one of the tricksier areas of research though is speech.  Because I can read their letters, their journals, even their books and speeches, but who talks everyday as they write in letters?  Or diaries?  Those may be marginally better perhaps, but it’s still not the same as a recording, is it?

So one of the great finds and great delights of my life has been to come upon and read–cover to cover and more than once–a book called The Vulgar Tongue:  Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence by Captain Francis Grose, originally published in 1785 and continuing in publication until 1812…

Imagine, a book full of words like:

Slubber de gullion — a dirty, nasty fellow;
Nocky boy — A dull simple fellow;
Basting — beating; Spider-shanked — thin-legged;
Kinchin — a little child, Kinchin coes, orphan beggar boys educated in thieving…

Go ahead, try rolling them about in your mouth, letting them fall into speech.  An intoxication of language, really.  Sheer absolute joy.

It’s all too evocative, too atmospheric not to revel in it.  But the use of just a smattering of such slang in the dialogue easily transforms it from modern to, well, a sense of what they must have spoken like.

We can’t be sure, of course.

printshopwindow1And we always have the awkwardness of, in my case (I write about Napoleonic Europe), 200 years of history and hind-sight as an obstacle.  But the slang gives us a feeling for the roistering, boisterous, rambling world of London that Jane Austen did not talk about, the world of the military, the Britain that had as yet no police force, the city that hadn’t yet been ripped up by the Victorians for the installation of sewers, and the countryside given over to farming.

But even a simple reading of dictionaries of historical slang give one a sense of their different perception of things, of what mattered to them, what their daily lives encompassed, who they met with and how they perceived their fellows.  It’s an education in itself.   Occasionally shocking, often surprising, always ebullient.

As I say, tremendous fun.

And as for me, well, I’ve learned at least one thing, I can tell you–I am without a doubt a plaguey saucebox and a scapegrace.  Ha ha ha ha.  (But you probably already knew that.  Though now, you have the precise nomenclature, yes?)

photo by B.Bennetts

The inimitable Georgette Heyer…

It would seem I’ve been procrastinating…but that’s not actually the case.

What is the case is that I’ve got so much on my plate that any multi-tasking capabilities I may have possessed have run for the proverbial hills, leaving me with about three half-written blogs, piles of reading on Russian foreign policy circa 1812, half a sonnet frollicking about in my head, and too many characters from the next books standing in the wings, tapping their feet, waiting for their cue to come on.

[And the answer to “Ha ha, how do you sleep well at night?” is “Not very well really…I wake up at about four and…”]


Recently, I was reminded by a friend’s complaints about the cheesiness of much of today’s literary marketing of a letter I received from a literary agent, a female of the species.  Which actually, in retrospect, amused me.

blokeI had sent this individual the opening chapters for my novel, Of Honest Fame, you see, along with the usual charming, banterful letter and a synopsis.

Then, after the obligatory wait of several months, said agent had returned the sample chapters along with a rejection letter in which she compared the work to the novels of Georgette Heyer–novels for which, she assured me, there was no market.

From this fatuous comparison, I deduced she had either been drinking…and/or was terminally stupid…and most assuredly had never read any of Heyer’s work.  [Even since her death in 1974, Heyer’s works have NEVER been out of print.]

Hence after my incredulous, “What?” you will understand that my uppermost emotion was relief at the lucky save!

[Exactly what about a boy setting a corpse alight and later getting the basting of a lifetime could possibly remind anyone of a novel by Georgette Heyer still eludes me.  But then, I fear I am too literal in my understanding of these things.

What I’m guessing this creature was dim-wittedly trying to say was that the novel was set in the early 19th century, quite possibly the Regency, and therefore something or other…And I confess, one longed to meet the dotty female and say, “Yes, dear, the novel is set in the early 19th century.  And so is War and Peace.  Or can you not spell that?”]

But lately, you know, I’ve been seeing Miss Heyer’s name splashed about a fair bit–usually on the cover of some allegedly Regency novel  [just like Georgette Heyer, the endorsement gushes] a term which was coined to describe some, though not all of her work–and this has actually made me want to spit teeth.

1812_greatcoatFor this comparison can only be based on the crudest and most simple-minded assessment of Heyer’s work–although, interestingly enough, in Heyer’s lifetime, critics of her work dismissed it with the words, “another Georgette Heyer.”

And perhaps this is the problem.  And it’s an ongoing one.

Because both of those statements about Heyer reveal how little the author/reviewer knows or understands of Heyer’s work, whilst at the same time committing  the absolute bimbonic folly of fancying that a novel’s quality can be deduced from what the characters are wearing and where/when the thing is set..

To imagine that a novel is nothing more than a plotline, a time period and a few stock characters–thus anyone who writes a thing set in the early 19th century must of necessity be writing like Miss Heyer–is to wholly underestimate and undervalue the extra-ordinary talent, apparently effortless prose style, and wit of this quintessentially British author.  It’s like saying all bars of soap are the same.

Or put another way, it is to be criminally stupid and terminally, intellectually myopic.  Ehem.

(Just as when I see contemporary authors comparing their own works to hers, I mark them down as delusional.)

Because Georgette Heyer is inimitable.

There is no one like her.

Just as no one is like P.G. Wodehouse.

Heyer was a one-off, an original, a woman of tremendous talent who backed up every book with oodles of hard work and endless research, at a time when the historical novel–light, dark or in-between–hardly existed.

She was a pioneer.

Both Wodehouse and Heyer were authors of a certain era, who because of the tremendous ease with which they created their fictional worlds, their prodigeous talent for making prose flow like rippling, streams of wit, dominated the literary scene for more than five decades of the 20th century, without equal.

Like Wodehouse, her sentence and paragraph construction are peerless.

Highgate Tunnel Mail coachAnd like Wodehouse and the world of Blandings Castle, Heyer created a parallel Regency London and initially Sussex (where she grew up)–one without politics, the nastiness of war or assassination or Napoleon, one where the West End and Mayfair were clean and bright and rarely raining [we wish!] and most people rubbed along tolerably well.  And it is against this delicious confection of a backdrop that she set her tales, many of which were plays on the traditional favourite, the Cinderella story.

You know the drill, poor female requires handsome rich prince to see through the tatters of her shyness and the ashes of her genteel poverty, her lower position in society, and recognising her true merit, her lovely laughter and wit, sweep her off to a happy, rich, life…Yadda yadda yadda…

And certainly given that during the early 19th century and indeed looking honestly at the career opportunities for women in the early 20th century, the Cinderella story is a fitting one–without a man, particularly a rich one to provide, life didn’t offer many choices, and even fewer bonuses.

Equally, unlike in real life, in Heyer’s world, the aristocracy and gentry were plentiful; the male of the species were witty, urbane, amused, well-dressed and loaded–all alpha males with a sublime sense of humour, great shoulders and a starched cravat.

But this, my friends and companions, is where Heyer gets interesting.  Because she is not writing the standard Cinderella story in as many permutations as she can manage.  Rather she is subverting the genre even as she is creating it.

Georgette Heyer was born in 1902, in Wimbledon.  She lived through and remembered all her life that period of turmoil when women got the vote, when at last they were allowed into universities like Oxford and Cambridge, when a certain equality with males appeared possible.  For women, the world in which Heyer grew up was one of new, untried and unexplored horizons.  And Heyer, rather than writing the same old same old took that standard formulaic romance, broke the mold and turned it upside down, bless her.

If, as the Arab saying has it, “stories teach people how to live”, then Heyer was writing the template for the new millenia’s women.

Indeed, from the outset, Heyer’s females were not the simpering, swooning simpletons beloved by her fellow pioneers of historical fiction, Baroness D’Orzy and Raphael Sabatini.  [Recall, Heyer’s first published work, The Black Moth, came out in 1921.]  Instead, she started as she meant to go on and in her works, it was all to play for.

tea on the lawn-sandbyThe Masqueraders, published in 1928, gave the female protagonist the lead male’s role and gave to her brother the role of pantomime princess, beautifully dressed and undetected in female garb.  And whilst this may have been a play on the history of the Scottish uprising of 1745 and the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped from Scotland dressed as a servant woman, and equally, the British stage has a long tradition of males in female roles, I cannot begin to imagine how this played in 1950’s America.  If it played at all.

The Corinthian, published in 1940, took the Cinderella lead and gave it to the rich hero.  Sir Richard Wyndham is rescued (he says it himself) from the onerous duties and ties of family and financial expectation by the young rebel, Pen Creed–the ashes of his wealth and the tatters of his fine clothes seen through by this rebel-child of a girl with decided opinions, a wicked sense of humour and wearing boy’s clothing, thus ensuring Richard’s future happiness.

The Grand Sophy (1950) takes matters even further.  Sophy isn’t just masterful, she masters the whole family–who admittedly need it.  But there is nothing shrinking or feeble or swooning about her.  She’s about as far from the Victorian virgin-ideal as one could hope to get.  And reading her, I have no doubt, empowered a whole generation of young women, engendering in them the belief that they could surmount any and all obstacles, even as it encouraged them to be amusing, wise and formidable, and still be lovable.

(Since girls of the 1950s were still being encouraged to laugh at a bloke’s jokes, even when they weren’t funny, to shut up and listen and hide their own intelligence, this is probably a great deal more subversive than we might today think.)

tomkinsVenetia (1958), Frederica (1965), A Lady of Quality [Annis Wychwood] (1972), all provide further proof of her talent for upending convention.  None of these main female characters are blushing debutantes.  They are all older, wiser, savvier, pragmatic, with good, sound heads on their shoulders, shouldering burdens that the men in their lives have shied from.  They are vibrant, confident, self-assured, the intellectual equal if not superior of their male counterparts, with a self-knowledge to rival that of a seasoned philosopher.

And none of them want rescuing.  Indeed, often it is they who are more likely to mount the white charger and ride to the aid of their men…

But while Heyer may be mounting a subterfuge of a campaign on behalf of capable women everywhere, she does so with such finesse, such charming irony and delicious wit, that what might be a provocative storyline of female empowerment is couched in a flow of easily digested, apparently innocuous delight.

And yet, what an ironic wit she had.  Her authorial voice was unique.  Delicate, graceful, laced with genial good-humour, and without the cruelty of some of Austen’s observations, Heyer poked fun without poking anyone in the eye.

Listen to this:  “Fashion was not kind to George…”  Or she will write of a lady “enjoying ill-health”–how much more tolerant than Austen’s descriptions of Lady Bertram?  That lightness of touch has more in common with Wodehouse, surely.

And she is, I will be honest, quite possibly greatest though when she writes of sisters, aunts and mothers.  She captured these relationships with all their  invisible, manipulative, endearing and powerful strings attached as no one before her or since.  She writes them all honestly, graciously, humorously, with her tongue firmly fixed in her right cheek…

Her prose is as smooth and effortlessly elegant as the unfurling of silk pennants in the breeze–like “drowning in honey, stingless”–and is unmatchable and unrivalled.

And behind of and in back of all this was the strength of her unending research, her notebooks filled with slang, with details of dress, of society, family, invention and history.

Interestingly too, unlike the current craze for implausible aristocratic titles that one may encounter between the pages of contemporary historical romances, as she grew older, Heyer came more and more to favour stories of the gentry and professional classes.  

Almacks CruikshankBlack Sheep, A Lady of Quality, Frederica, Charity Girl, The Nonesuch, Cotillion, Arabella, The Toll-gate…whether she was playing to the new ideal of meritocracy and equality in the 20th century or whether she was sidestepping the Labour-inspired class warfare issues, I cannot tell you.  But these novels are most assuredly not filled with scenes at Almack’s, tales of the ton, or tired witticisms allegedly spoken by George Brummell–the cliche-ridden world of so-called Regency romances.

If Heyer has a failing at all, it is in her male protagonists–too many of them read exactly the same and might be carbon copies of one another:  bored, well-dressed, sporty, self-indulgent.  And they become invariably soppy at the end–which I personally find sick-making.  But that’s just me.

Still…when I recounted the sorry tale of my rejection to a friend, an Oxford don (male), his reaction was as far from mine as could be.  “She compared you to Georgette Heyer?” he said.  “No one has ever paid me a compliment like that.  If they had, it would have been the greatest compliment of my life!  I would give anything to be compared to her…Wow!”

Which also makes me laugh.  For truth is, I know how hard she worked and I respect her too much to even dream of aspiring to be her equal…

Turn of the Tide…

Today, I have a bit of a treat for you.  An interview with someone I’ve known for a while–Scottish author Margaret Skea.
Now the thing is, Margaret and I should have crossed paths when we were both students at the University of St. Andrews.  But we didn’t.  Mainly, I suspect, because Margaret was the very sensible kind of person who attended lectures and wrote her essays and did her work and was in all ways exemplary and charming, while I was…er…not. 
That is to say, I was more an idler and a shirker and a feckless scapegrace…
[Margaret has since confessed that she wasn’t swotting all the time–she was on the putting green.  The things one finds out…]
And whilst she might have run into me inadvertently in Mrs. Whibley’s or in Pepita’s (fine establishments known for their excellent fudge gateau…) I am more than a little certain that had she known me or known of me at all, it would undoubtedly be as the owner of the rather spiffing little classic dark red 1967 Triumph (with a cherrywood dash and red leather seats–utter yum!) in which I zoomed about town…and out of town…and down to Edinburgh for luncheon and a wander in the National Gallery…
(What in heaven’s name ever possessed me to sell that car?  What was I thinking?  Honestly!)
But I digress.  Back to my rather superb guest today.  Because she is quite superb and she’s written a rather superb book in my humble estimation. 
MargaretSkeaI read it sometime ago and I’ll be honest, after twenty years as a book critic, I don’t genuinely like very much, but I liked Margaret’s book, then known as Munro’s Choice.  I enjoyed it.  Her prose was stark and spare and raw which suited the subject matter, conveying the whole mood of the work.  And very much I enjoyed the reality of the Scotland about which she wrote, which was the Scotland I knew and lived in, buffeted by the winds off the North Sea, fierce and beautiful and honest…with not a Disneyfied kilt-a-thon in sight.
Not only that, but I genuinely liked her protagonist, Munro.  I can’t really say what it is about him, but he just got under my skin and stayed with me.  And I truly appreciated the very real difficulties in which he was caught up and his efforts to do the right thing and remain true to himself and still protect his family…He’s just a really well-drawn character.  And I loved that about this book.  Just loved it. 
TurnoftheTideAnyway, many permutations and rewrites later (ha ha–don’t we all know that story) Turn of the Tide, as it was to be renamed, was Historical Fiction Winner in the Harper Collins /Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition 2011.  And now, it’s just out, courtesy of Capercaillie Publishers…
So without further ado, here’s Margaret answering a few of my impertinent questions.
 First off, can you tell us a little about the novel?
“Turn of the Tide–described as a cinematic blend of fact and fiction set in 16th century Scotland–is essentially the story of a fictional family trapped in a real-life vendetta, which at the time the novel opens has been running for 140 years.
“It is about the difficulties and dilemmas of living with an ever-present danger, and the problems posed by divided loyalties and their impact on family, on relationships, and on personal integrity.

“Munro’s family have owed allegiance to the Cunninghames for more than 100 years and in 1586 he is commanded to lead the ambush and slaughter of a group of Montgomeries.  Though he escapes the bloody aftermath, he cannot escape his wife’s disdain or his own internal conflict, struggling with his conscience, with divided loyalties and, most dangerous of all, a growing friendship with the opposing faction.

“The action moves between the domestic setting of a minor laird and the court of James VI, peopled by characters across the spectrum of society – from a snotty-nosed urchin to the King himself.

The period of Scottish history in the novel may not be one readers are familiar with.  I mean, there are scads of books about Robert the Bruce, and heaps about the ’15 and ’45 Rebellions, but very little has been written about Scotland in the 16th century (with the exception of Dorothy Dunnett, of course), so can you tell us a bit about the political and social life of the times, give us a sense of what was going on in Scotland at the time?
FalklandPalace“The late 16th century is a fascinating period in Scotland’s history when every aspect of life–social, economic, political and religious, is on the cusp of change.  In some ways life then wasn’t so very different from our own.  Parliamentary records from the mid 16th century deal with issues such as binge drinking on the streets of Edinburgh, a credit crunch and pressures on Scottish trade.
JamesVI“But the years of James VI’s minority were characterized by lawlessness and the escalation of many of the centuries old feuds between clans and families.  In the Lowlands ‘reiving’–raiding a neighbour’s property, driving off all their livestock and burning their homes–was a seasonal pastime.

“The distinction between England and Scotland is illustrated by the domestic architecture of the day.  While wealthy Elizabethans are building elegant manor houses, with large, mullioned windows, surrounded by parkland, the socially equivalent Scots are still living in tower houses built in inaccessible places, and for protection rather than comfort, with gun loops, narrow windows, and secondary defensive iron grid doors.

 “James set out to subdue the earls, to raise up a ‘professional’ aristocracy from among the lairds and to promote a more settled and stable society.”

And what about this period intrigues you and keeps drawing you in?  Because let’s face it, writing a novel about a particular era requires that one is wholly engaged and almost mesmerised by it–it’s what keeps you going over the years of research and rewriting…

“This period of history intrigues me partly at least because it is my own story, as I am (or at least I think I am) a descendant of Scottish ‘planters’ who settled in Ulster in the early 17th century.  And partly because growing up in Ulster during the worst of the ‘Troubles’ I understand a little of living with ever-present danger–not expecting violent death, but knowing it might happen at any time.”

I’ll be honest, when I first read Turn of the Tide, many drafts ago, one of my favourite things–and I still love this and it’s stayed with me–is how genuine and real your main character, Munro was.  There is nothing false or cliché or stereotypical about him.  He’s just this real guy–okay, yes, a little bit macho–caught up in this political mess.  (I love that!)  How did you come by him?  Did he evolve for you?  Was he always there, just nagging to be written about? What?
“In my first draft the historical character Hugh Montgomery was the main character and Munro was merely a two-bit messenger boy, making a ‘cameo’ appearance at the beginning of Chapter 3, charged by the Earl of Glencairn with setting up an ambush.  70,000 words into the draft, James Long (Ferney / The Plot against Pepys) suggested that he would make a fantastic main character.   The following morning I ditched the 70,000 words and the two pages that remained became the opening of Turn of the Tide.

“It was hugely liberating to have a fictional rather than historic main character–one who could move between factions and provide a commentary on both.

“Of course it is a very different story from my original intention, but (I think) a better one.”

Outside of Scotland, there can be this generic view of Scottish history–my Scots son-in-law calls it MacScottish history–and they all talk with a MacScottish accent and there’s this image of castles and glens which is the Highlands or even the Western Isles…you know what I mean.  But it’s hardly the whole picture.  And you’re writing about the Lowlands too–so how was that different in the period of the novel?  And did writing about a Scotland which people think they know, but don’t really know, did that present any unusual challenges?
HallibarTower“There are no kilts and claymores here, so not the stereotypical Scots.  Their clothing and their weaponry, unlike the architecture, was closer to that of the north of England than to the Highlands, which made the process of research the more interesting.  Most of the minor castles which feature in this story no longer exist, but it was important to visit similar tower houses and experience at first hand what it would have been like to live there, summer and winter including small details, as, for example, what it felt like to run up a narrow spiral staircase, and just how much ‘puff’ that required.

“Research is an insidious thing–endlessly fascinating–the difficulty is to stop researching and start writing.  And sometimes you stumble across something that you know you just have to include in the story.  In my case that was a 16th century sketch of a ‘walking-stool’–virtually identical to the baby-walker I had for my children–except that it was made of wood and linen, rather than metal and plastic.”

 Without giving away any spoilers–what was your very favourite part of the novel?  What did you write and say about–if only to yourself, “That’s fantastic!  That’s good stuff.”  Equally, what was the hardest part of the writing for you?  The violence?  The ‘trying to keep the clan loyalties straight’ for the reader?  

“I can’t single out any one part of the novel either hardest or easiest to write, but I am proud of the sections dealing with horses and horse riding, for not being a rider myself, nor having had the courage to try, it was encouraging not to be shouted down for inaccuracies by those who do.

“And the most fulfilling moment?  Perhaps the one where what I was writing made me cry.”

And finally, can you quote a passage for us, one that you just feel is your work at its best–maybe a bit of setting or character building–the whet our appetites?

“On the Alan Titchmarsh Show we were given the task of choosing a 30 second extract to provide a flavour of the novel. Here is mine – introducing in 77 words, both hero and villain.

William Cunninghame turned, dark eyes sparking. He made no offer of his hand to Munro, not any attempt at ordinary courtesy.

“What kept you? The job is done?”

There was only one suitable answer. “She will provide the signal.”

“As she should. And willingly, I hope.”


“She can be trusted?”

“Oh yes…” Munro thought of the last look with which Lady Margaret had dismissed him. “Your father is a dangerous man to cross. She understands that.”

The novel, Turn of the Tide, is now available from Amazon, from the Book Depository which offers free worldwide p&p, or check out the Facebook page:

And many thanks to Margaret for joining me today.  Slainte!