Writers Drawing From Life – guest post by Debra Brown

Rage. Fear. Greed. We’re in for a treat today! I’m pleased to have Debra Brown Co-editor of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors on the blog as part of promoting this wonderful new book.

Debra and I have connected on numerous occasions sharing thoughts about writing, checking in on one another’s tweets or Facebook posts, and commiserating from time to time. She’s the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire and For the Skylark (2013 release). Debra is also the originator of English Historical Fiction Authors blog and Co-editor of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. Who knows how she finds time for all these activities!

Castles, Customs and KingsWriters Drawing from Life

As an artist must draw from what he sees or feels around him, even in abstract works, an author or writer must draw on what his senses have lent- what he has seen or heard. Authors of historical fiction hungrily pursue knowledge of persons, places and events of the past. What are some examples of what we have gleaned, and what states of mind might they pass on to our stories? The following examples are taken from the newly released Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors from Madison Street Publishing.

Rage! What woman’s rage has had more effect on a people than that of Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni Britons?

Boadicea was Queen of the Iceni, a tribe of the ancient Britons (in what is now Norfolk) during the era when Nero ruled in Rome and Roman troops occupied Britain. Her husband, Præsutagus, was King of the Iceni, and a Roman ally….

“Unfortunately, Præsutagus underestimated the greed and brutality of the Romans. Immediately upon his death, they not only took possession of his lands, but also seized all of his personal assets.

“The widowed queen was outraged and protested vigorously. For her impertinence, she was seized by the Romans and publicly stripped and flogged. Her daughters were turned over to the Romans soldiers and subjected to indignity and rape. Other Iceni nobles could not help the widow and her daughters for their homes were also plundered and robbed, and those who were close relatives of the deceased king were reduced to either slavery or poverty when their loans were called in by the Romans.

Certainly this was adequate cause for the Queen to become enraged. Not a woman to retreat to her rooms and yield to depression with its loss of will, she took the situation by storm.

Tacitus tells that more than 70,000 Romans, and Britons friendly to Rome, were massacred, and the Ninth Legion marching from Lincoln to the rescue had been nearly annihilated.

Learn how Boadicea accomplished such a feat in Teresa Thomas Bohannon’s article, Boadicea, Warrior Queen of the Iceni Britons, and learn of the final tragic outcome. The true tale of Boadicea inspired the writing of Teresa’s historic fantasy novel Shadows in a Timeless Mist.

Fear! What could fear move a people to do? In the essay Scourge of Europe: The Religious Hysteria Created by the Black Plague, Rosanne E. Lortz describes scenes that fire the writer’s imagination.

Death has always been one of the most frightening prospects faced by mankind. The fear of death even has its own word to describe it—thanotophobia.

“In a society where a third to a half of the people around you have succumbed to death within the past year, the terror of knowing that you might be next can become overwhelming. It can drive a person to bizarre and unthinkable acts as he tries to ward off death’s icy grip from descending on his own shoulder.

Rosanne describes a variety of reactions.

For some, the proximity of the plague created the pernicious attitude of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Immorality, excess, and crime became rife in towns and cities, especially in the metropolis of London, as despairing people grasped after every last piece of self-gratification before death should come for them.

“Others, however, still nourished the hope that the plague might be avoided. Doctors tried the normal remedies of bleeding and laxatives and prescribed more outlandish cures such as drinking one’s own urine. It soon became obvious, however, that medicine had failed to find the answer. As corpse after corpse was thrown in the common burial pits, the only course left to the living was to repent of their sins, cast themselves on divine mercy, and entreat the angel of death to forbear….

“Across Europe, a sect known as the Flagellants began to gain followers. Wearing a uniform of a white robe marked with a red cross—much like the Knights Templar surcoat seen in so many period films—the Flagellants were a society of ascetic laymen determined to atone for the sins of the world. They gathered in groups of anywhere from 50 to 500 men, traveling around the towns of Europe and performing the ritual of publicly scourging themselves.

Rosanne writes, “In my book, I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, the hero Sir John Potenhale encounters this group of Flagellants making their demonstration in London. His mother has already been carried off by the plague, his father has been driven insane by it, and Potenhale himself is in a spiritually fragile condition.”

Greed. In many cases, wealth does not bring contentment; it creates a desire for even more. History shows that many wealthy men devised more wealth in an interesting way. Barbara Kyle’s article For Sale: Rich Orphans—The Tudor Court of Wards tells us:

Abduction of heiresses was not uncommon. Certainly it occurred frequently enough to necessitate a statute passed in 1487 under Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch: “An Act Against Taking Away of Women Against Their Will.” A stolen heiress meant lost revenues for the Crown.

“The revenue stream went back for centuries. The wardship of minor heirs of any tenant-in-chief was one of the king’s ancient feudal rights, a royal prerogative dating back to the feudal principle of seigneurial guardianship. It entitled the king to all the revenues of the deceased’s estate (excluding lands allocated to his widow as dower) until the heir reached the age of majority: twenty-one for a male, fourteen for a female. The king generally sold the wardships to the highest bidder or granted them gratis to favoured courtiers as a reward for services.

“In other words, all orphans, male and female, who were heirs to significant property became wards of the king, who then sold the wardships. Gentlemen bid for these sought-after prizes because control of a ward’s income-generating lands and their marriage was a significant source of revenue. The guardian pocketed the rents and revenues of the ward’s property until the young person came of age, at which time the guardian often married the ward to one of his own children.


This money-grabbing scheme was employed by Barbara in a novel. She says:

Sir Thomas More had two wards, Anne Cresacre and Giles Heron. He brought them up in his household where they were educated alongside his children. Eventually, Anne married More’s son John, and Giles married More’s daughter Cecily. The marriages seem to have been happy ones.

“Anne Cresacre’s story inspired me to create another ward for Sir Thomas More: Honor Larke, the heroine of my novel The Queen’s Lady. Honor grows up revering More and becomes a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Forced to take sides in the religious extremism of the day, Honor fights to save the church’s victims from death at the stake, bringing her into conflict with her once-beloved guardian. She enlists Richard Thornleigh, a rogue sea captain, in her missions of mercy, and eventually risks her life to try to save Sir Thomas from the wrath of the King.


In Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, similarly fascinating historical facts discovered in their research are uncovered by fifty-five authors. One reviewer on Goodreads wrote, “I opened the book expecting to find something akin to a conference proceedings without ‘trained’ experts. Instead I found a new appreciation for the meticulous research and knowledge of the genre’s authors.” Another said, “I found the approach charming and reassuring.”

You can enjoy further articles by the group at the English Historical Fiction Authors blog.

Castles, Customs, and Kings is available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Kobo. It will soon be available at other online stores.

Top Historical Fiction Sites – English Historical Fiction Authors

Running the data from the historical fiction survey resulted in four top digital sites however, restricting the data to UK participants resulted in two additional favourites and today I am pleased to welcome English Historical Fiction Authors to the blog.

This lively site is run by a well-known group of authors writing historical fiction set in England. As their home page says they have “come together to share our historical work and to reach out to our much appreciated readers”. Have a read as Debra Brown, Nancy Bilyeau, Sam Thomas, Judith Arnopp and Sherry Jones talk about their passion.

Why did you start blogging? Did your group come together to create the blog or did you add authors as time progressed?

Debra Brown: In today’s publishing world, authors and readers are much more in contact than they ever were before. Social media and book sites have opened up a whole new way of interacting. To be found on the internet authors must have some kind of presence. Blogging provides one means, and we felt that those who love British history could meet together in one place to learn and share with each other. Authors write a daily post and readers can discuss them via their comments. We launched the blog on Sept. 23rd, 2011 with thirty authors. A few have been added over time as life and/or genre changed for some authors and we saw the need for others to keep things running smoothly.

Nancy Bilyeau: In the months before my first novel, THE CROWN, was published, I explored blogging and read all sorts of philosophies. Some people wrote a lot about the experience of being published or writing fiction, others focused on sharing original content. Because my book is set in the Tudor age and during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, I felt there was a wealth of material to write about. I knew I found it all extremely interesting, and I hoped readers would too. Just at the time I decided to do this, I found out about English Historical Fiction Authors, formed by Debbie Brown so that writers could take turns posting on the same site. The theory was that readers would have a lot of posts and a rich variety in historical periods to choose from and so would come back regularly. I think Debbie’s original idea was proven correct!

Sam Thomas: For me, blogging has been an extension of the other writing I’ve done. Before writing fiction, I wrote academic history, and in each case, my goal is to talk about the past in a way that the reader will find both entertaining and informative.

Judith Arnopp: Regarding my personal blog. I was advised to blog when I first published and found I really enjoyed it. I’m not the most regular of bloggers, I have to be inspired and not too busy working on a novel. I stumbled on the EHFA blog by accident and thought it was great and asked to join. It has put me in touch with a lot of other historical authors and I’ve learned a lot through them. I also enjoy promoting their work, not just my own. Debbie Brown should have a medal I think for all the hard work she puts in to the blog.

What is your philosophy for the blog? Why did you choose that philosophy?

Nancy Bilyeau: My background is magazine journalism, so I’m comfortable with nonfiction narrative. I enjoy writing about people who pass through my novel, which is a mix of fictional characters and people from history. But also I wonder if anyone besides fellow writers wants to read all the blogs about getting published. I really like writers but I want to find readers.

Debra Brown: I feel that readers of historical fiction are fascinated with the past, as I am. Yet most of us have questions about the eras we are reading – the customs, the people and the locations. The blog posts greatly enrich my knowledge of Britain – past putting context to the stories and helping them to make more sense to me. I hope that they do the same for others.

What trends have you seen in historical fiction in the past? What new trends are emerging?

Sherry Jones: It seems to me that literary authors, seeing the popularity of historical fiction with readers, are now jumping on the bandwagon and writing their own historical fiction novels in greater numbers. I’ve also heard that interest in the Tudors is waning — could it be that Hilary Mantel has finally tapped them out?

Is historical fiction growing in popularity? If so, why?

Nancy Bilyeau: Unfortunately, I have been told the opposite, that it has peaked in sales. But I see so much interest out there in the books by authors who contribute to English Historical Fiction Authors, and there are always new historicals coming out that are so rich and interesting to read. So I think the market is thriving.

Judith Arnopp: It doesn’t make much difference to me as an author, I would still write historicals. I think, like everything, popularity fluctuates and if it declines for a while it will soon perk up again. TV series like The Tudors and The Borgias seem to affect popularity of historical fiction so with the BBC running The Hollow Crown, who knows we might see a flood of Plantagenet interest. That should keep us busy.

Who are your readers? What do you know about them? Do you collect specific data about them?

Debra Brown: On our blog we do not keep track of much other than the locations that Blogger provides. We get most of our visits from Commonwealth and English-speaking countries, and interestingly, Russia. We also have a Facebook group by the same name as the blog, and many of our readers are members there, so we get to know them in person.

Nancy Bilyeau: I’m not aware of any method to collect data about my readers. On my own website blog I have a “contact” feature and I do get emails from readers. I reply to all of them, and I learn a lot from their comments.

Judith Arnopp: I only know the readers who contact me. I respond to them because they are the reason I write and I value their feedback. Each time someone bothers to contact me to say how much they’ve enjoyed one of my books it makes my day.

What features does your blog include? What features or topics are most popular? Do you plan to add other features in the future?

Debra Brown: Besides a daily post on a historical topic, we have a weekly book giveaway on a separate page. We have a page to introduce our authors and a page listing many of our books. We also have a Guestbook and enjoy comments that people leave there. We have a contact page and I reply to email or ask if others wish to at times if it is relevant to do so.

Sam Thomas: Based on what I’ve seen (which could be wrong), it’s violence, sex and death. If memory serves, our top post last year was about lingerie, and posts about murders also do well. It’s many of the same things that make books sell!

Do you think of the blog as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it?

Debra Brown: I understand the importance of branding, and we have a picture that perhaps people recognize and think of us, but to be perfectly honest, I am so busy with keeping things going and doing some writing that I have not put much time into worrying about branding for the blog. It does not seem to have hurt us as we have had to date nearly 56,000 unique visitors and we have about 1000 page views per day.  We do have our Twitter hashtag #EHFA!

What are your marketing strategies for the blog?

Debra Brown: Authors that join the blog agree to share the daily post and the weekly giveaway via Twitter, Facebook and/or whatever means they prefer to use for marketing. They have been very cooperative and successful at that. For quite some time, now, we are usually found on page one of Google for most relevant search terms, so it seems to have taken on a much-appreciated life of its own.

Nancy Bilyeau: Whenever I write a new blog post, I link it to my facebook, twitter and linked-in feeds with a little topic phrase or some way to entice people to read. Then I just hope it gets picked up! I am not good at marketing, it is a totally different skill so I just try to engage my readers in something interesting and hope it prompts them to look at my books.

Why do you think so many people blog about historical fiction or participate in blogs about historical fiction? What are the implications for writers, agents and publishers?

Sherry Jones: Historical fiction readers tend to be history buffs. They read for pleasure but also for education. And, recognizing the “fiction” in historical fiction, they want to know the history behind that. A lot of historical fiction bloggers are discussing their research in their blog posts, giving readers the history in their books in a form that is not only informational, but also well written — something a lot of academic history is not.

Judith Arnopp: It is such a vast subject that most people will have some sort of interest in the past even if it is as recent as the 1970’s. There are also many different types of historical reader; there are those who require deadly serious, very accurate books and those who like to read about a more colourful past, see the blood and taste the tainted meat, if you like. Personally, I like them all, so long as they are well written. The ‘past’ is expanding all the time so this guaranteed continued areas of interest can only be a good thing. Of course, everyone has a pet theory and this can make for some pretty heated exchanges on the blogs. I’m not sure if this draws people in or drives them away but with so much past to write about, so many different styles of historical writing and such a variety of reader, the long term future of historical fiction can only be a good one.

What do you see writers doing differently to market their books and build their platforms? What about publishers?

Sherry Jones: One new trend is the release of a short story or novella in e-book form before the release of a long novel, as a prequel. I did this, releasing WHITE HEART, telling the story of the early life of Blanche de Castille, the White Queen of France in the 13th century, before the debut of FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, in which Blanche is a mother-in-law and antagonist to the eldest sister, Marguerite. Anne O’Brien has most recently released THE UNCROWNED QUEEN, a short story prequel to her THE KING’s CONCUBINE, and I expect others will follow.

Sam Thomas: It’s become cliche that more and more responsibility for marketing is laid at the author’s doorstep and in the author’s wallet. We have to put up our own websites, arrange our own signings, etc.

Judith Arnopp: Some authors are doing lovely book trailers and things on youtube etc. but personally I stick to blogging and discussing my work on social networking sites. I don’t enjoy marketing but we have to do it. It wastes an awful lot of writing time.

What advice do you have for writers?

Sherry Jones: Historical accuracy is a must for readers, but historical detail should add to the story. It is not the story. The emotional lives of the characters is paramount; all else is subservient.

Judith Arnopp: Stick to your guns, write for yourself, don’t try to follow trends or be something you aren’t. Also never believe you are good enough, never stop striving for improvement.

I love Sam Thomas’ comment on “violence, sex and death” being popular with readers just as it is in any genre. Another aspect that strikes a chord for me is the group’s desire to appeal to readers. I am very impressed that a site launched only eleven months ago already has so many followers! Many thanks for doing the interview. Best wishes as you continue to flourish.