The story behind For Want of a Shilling


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Author Paul Feenstra returns with a story about inspiration for his latest novel, For Want of a Shilling. Over to you, Paul.

After a rather nasty injury that saw me sofa bound for seven months, my doctor informed me it was time to get out and regain strength to my surgically repaired Achilles tendon. I needed no urging and immediately set out, albeit gingerly, and decided to walk around the bays in New Zealand’s beautiful capital city, Wellington.

What caught my attention was a driveway that wound up a hill; an ominous metal bar prevented vehicle access. Further discouraging the curious was a number of signs clearly alerting trespassers that the Commandant would be displeased, and threatened action taken by the New Zealand Defence Force for those who disobeyed his stern warning.

This isn’t the USA, I thought, this is New Zealand, what could they possibly do to me?

I saw this as an invitation and without hesitation hobbled up the driveway, although I half expected black-clad soldiers in body-armour to come rappelling down thick coils of rope from assault helicopters to blindfold and whisk me away. I wondered how I would ever find out if my lotto ticket was a winner, if I was imprisoned to rot in some undisclosed dank cell.

The sealed driveway curved up a hill with low growing coastal bush on either side until I reached the summit, and there, much to my astonishment, I found a series of old fortified military style bunkers on a flat expanse of land and a young couple having a romantic picnic on the grass beside one of the buildings. I felt some relief and no longer looked over my shoulder in fear of being arrested. In politeness, I left the miffed couple alone.

The cluster of graffiti covered buildings and fortifications looked old, certainly older than other bunkers I had seen around Wellington. During WWII, New Zealand built coastal defences in preparation for a Japanese invasion, but these buildings were vastly different.

Soon as I arrived home I began to investigate the fortifications and learned they were constructed in 1885, in fear of a Russian invasion.

“A Russian invasion, surely not!”

I’d never heard of such a preposterous claim, why on earth would the Russians want to invade New Zealand? – Apparently, they did.

After further research, I discovered the plans. Written in 1864, Russia had every intention of invading Australia and New Zealand. These resource-rich colonies had exactly what Russia needed.

The Crimean war in the 1850’s saw Russia’s navy tied up and useless in the Baltic. It was old and decrepit. The brother of Russia’s Tsar wanted to reform the navy but problems at home with the serfs meant that workers were on strike and factories weren’t producing. Where would Russia obtain the resources they needed?

In 1870, the Tsar’s brother and son departed for America to begin an extensive fact-finding mission. Certainly they wanted to learn about new technology, tactics and shipbuilding where they could incorporate into their own navy’s transformation and modernization. What caught their eye was the exploits of the Confederate ship, CSS Alabama.

In its short two years of service, the CSS Alabama had an extraordinary record of success. It burned 65 union vessels, and not one passenger or crew member on those ships was ever harmed. For the Russians, this represented a wonderful opportunity, and I had an idea for a novel.

Imagine if the Russians, by using the tactics of the CSS Alabama, launched a new and powerful warship, and then sent her into the South Pacific.

There was more to learn. In January 1873, New Zealand’s, Southern Cross Newspaper printed a story that detailed how a Russian warship entered Auckland’s main harbour, captured a British warship, kidnapped the mayor, held him for ransom and then looted the city’s coffers of all its money. On leaving Auckland, the Russian ship also captured a merchant vessel laden with New Zealand gold headed for Australia. The newspaper article also listed a few other extravagant claims.

A few days later, the Southern Cross printed another story admitting the first story was, in fact, a hoax. But was it?

I discovered more which made me think.

This newfound knowledge became the basis for an exciting new historical fiction novel titled ‘For Want of a Shilling’.

For Want of a Shilling by Paul Feenstra – In January 1873, New Zealand, is a sparsely populated coastal community on Wellington’s south coast, the peaceful lives of Owhiro Bay residents are shattered with the discovery of two brutal and senseless murders.

What begins as a local murder investigation turns into a plot of global proportions. From the political agenda of England’s Prime Minister, the Machiavellian son of Russia’s Tsar, to the famed exploits of America’s confederate ship Alabama. Intricately researched, the author uses many recorded historical events and people to weave a story of intrigue, conspiracy and greed.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Looking back – 13 insights on historical fiction


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In 2017, I asked readers and authors to look under the covers of historical fiction and examine what sets the genre apart and makes it tick. Today, I’ve gathered together various insights that resonate for me.

Historical fiction adds context to modern-day social problems … my preferred approach is to let characters and their responses to the conditions around them inform the reader. Janie Chang author of Dragon Springs Road

The magic ingredient of historical fiction is the emotional truth of the time, the landscape of consciousness in the era described. Simon Parke author of The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover

I build my worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place … The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with … the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters living in a particular period.  Fiona Veitch Smith author of Pilate’s Daughter 

The historical writer has to juggle with making sensibilities and prejudices true to the time while not overly offending the reader. Rhys Bowen author of In Farleigh Field 

World building is absolutely essential, and it is probably the deal breaker as far as I am concerned. I come to the book for the setting, I enjoy plot and characters, but if the world does not come alive for me as I read, I consider it a big let down. Author, Davide Mana responded to my questions as a reader.

Details have to be woven in seamlessly, so that it doesn’t come off as a contemporary novel dressed up in historical costume. Also, an author needs to give just enough description, but not so much that it weighs the reader down and interrupts the flow. Author Michelle Cox responded to my questions as a reader.

Until scientists succeed in inventing a working time machine, historical fiction is the best means we have of sinking into vanished worlds and gaining a sense of what it must have been like to live in another time. Jennifer Robson author of Goodnight From London 

Also responding as a reader is  Margaret McGovern author of The Battle of Watling Street – History is concerned primarily with conflicts, winners and losers, and what historical fiction adds to a dry retelling of history is where it imbues the events of the past with characters that reach back in time to make it happen again for me, the reader.

“Novels are about exposing the truth” of who we are and who we have been, particularly women. Geraldine Brooks author of The Secret Chord

Character is the bridge to the distant past. Exploring the nature of a character from the past, whether fictional or historical, requires embracing what makes them different, even if that means showing how their perspective differs from how we think today. Cryssa Bazos author of Traitor’s Knot

Conflict is everything in stories and when that conflict is internal as well as external, it produces a mouth-watering cocktail. Mark Stibbe author of The Fate of Kings

As historical fiction writers, we’re chasing the bubble of verisimilitude … By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. Jeffrey Walker author of Truly Are the Free

But perhaps for historical novel readers, it is the spicy details that change our experience from commonplace to a story that transports us to a time long ago. Rebecca Rosenberg author of The Secret Life of Mrs. London

Do these resonate for you? 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website



Somewhere in France – 25th March 1916


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Apparently there’s a song: When Verey Lights are Shining to the tun of When Irish Eyes are Smiling

Henry Tod is in the trenches once again …

25th March 1916

I am writing this from the trenches  in a fairly good dug-out, full at the moment with slumbering forms and they make a fine orchestra. We have had a lot more snow and things are as bad as ever. However, things are pretty quiet over the way, [I assume he means the German lines] except for rifle grenades. a comparatively new toy, which are always coming over and find a victim now and again. We of course retaliate in kind, but exact results unknown.

I was out last night with a party putting up a fresh belt of wire in advance of our existing wire, which is too near our trenches and in rather damaged condition. It was quite exciting while it lasted; it always is in the middle of no man’s land. [Henry is such an understated guy.] All went well for the first hour or so and we had done about 30 yards when they heard us and sent up one of their Verey lights [flares]. This was followed by a burst of rifle fire but we got down in time and the shooting moreover was pretty bad. We lay low until they shut up then resumed operations.

Again they spotted us and this time they opened on us with a couple of machine guns. We got down flat as pancakes and those who could rolled into the nearest shell-holes. There they kept us quite a long time while they played up and down our pitch and sending up plenty of flares.

They were firing a shade high and the bullets were splattering the sandbags of our parapet and pinging the wire just inches above us. As long as we didn’t move we were all right as it is difficult to spot immovable objects in the dark, and the light rockets give you some warning before bursting into light. There were fifteen of us and scattered all over the place and the next thing was to get them in when the chance offered.

When they [the Germans] had expended enough ammunition to wipe out an army corps, they ceased firing and after ascertaining we had no casualties, I gave the word to get back into the trench. It was a job in itself to get through our own barbed wire and as pants and puttees ripped the language was something dreadful. I am glad the damage was no worse and so was the captain who was anxiously awaiting us on the forested. I am now second in command of the company but suppose my second star (full loot) will arrive sometime after the war is over.

Our engineers have a mine ready to blow just in front of us and are only waiting for the Germans to resume work in their counter mine before doing the trick. Meantime we have been warned what to do when it does go bang, and that is to occupy the near lip of the crater [I wrote about an action like this in Time and Regret – wish I’d had these letters then]. This is quite an operation as the mine is in enemy territory. Three separate parties will rush out, the first being the bombing party to keep the crater clear of the enemy, followed by two digging parties, one to dig the bombers in and the other to make a communication trench out to the crater. I am to be in charge of the last lot. We are being relieved tomorrow and I think we are all rather hoping the job will be left to our successors! Well, I am for duty now in the cold dark night for a couple of hours, so will close with love to all.

Imagine how vulnerable they would feel working out in no man’s land with flares going up and rifles firing at them.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website