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.

A Writers Workshop – led by Barbara Kyle

In mid-June I took a writers workshop, joining nine others in a two-day event led by well-known historical fiction author, Barbara Kyle. Two days of insights, lively discussion and laughter. I thought it would be interesting to illustrate some of the techniques we considered with examples from one of Barbara’s books, The Queen’s Lady.

Inciting Incident – Barbara gave us a quote from Bruce Springsteen: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” Readers want to care about a character right away. The inciting incident shows the essence of the major character in action relating to something of vital importance to him or her. That situation throws the protagonist’s world out of balance and the story tells how that main character brings their life back into balance.

Story Hook – the hook has to reflect the major essence and central drama of the story. It sets forth a significant problem for the main character.

The Queen's Lady by Barbara KyleThe Queen’s Lady – “She would remember this forever as the night she watched two men die, one at peace and one in terror.” Bang! The book opens. Right away we’re concerned. In a night of chaos, rioting and bloodshed, seven-year-old Honor Larke tries to find her father’s servant Ralph. Along the way she is threatened by thieves, soothes a dying man and has her first encounter with Thomas More. Then, at the bedside of her dying father, she watches a priest curse her father with “the pain of hell”. A short while later that same priest arranges for Honor to become the ward of a man she had never met, a man who will also control her father’s estate. We’re hooked!

Creating an Empathetic Character – writers need to create an emotional response for their readers as quickly as possible. This involves showing the characters conscious desires, motivations, and close relationships, placing them in high stakes circumstances, having them deal with everyday issues and ensuring the right blend of consistency and contradiction in their behaviour. According to Kyle, the more problems a character has, the more readers identify with him/her.

The Queen’s Lady – Honor Larke is the main character. Even as a young girl, she is feisty and courageous. Kyle immediately puts her in a threatening situation and then piles on the undeserved misfortune of being taken away from her home into the wardship of a man who only wants to marry her as soon as possible to his son and take over Honor’s fortune. With luck, Honor escapes that situation to become the ward of Thomas More but not without making a dangerous enemy of the priest who damned her father. Honor blossoms under More’s tutelage and ultimately earns a place at court with Queen Catherine. Justice and loyalty are critical to Honor’s character; both traits lead her into circumstances that risk betrayal and death. She desires love but pushes it away. She struggles with essential matters of faith. She is compassionate and yet tough minded.

As readers we engage with other significant characters: Queen Catherine, Henry VIII, Thomas More, and Richard Thornleigh. Barbara exposes their strengths and weaknesses, longings, fears and desires.

Dialogue – dialogue reveals character and must not present any barriers between reader and characters. All dialogue has subtext. Writers can augment dialogue with thoughts and body language to enhance the meaning and perspective.

The Queen’s Lady – a scene with Queen Catherine and Honor Larke. The Queen has found some evidence to prove she was a virgin when she married Henry VIII.

“Wolsey means to strangle this evidence,” she whispered. “He means to strangle my last hope. And I must do as he says. If I do not, the Privy Council threatens the most extreme consequences for my disobedience.” She dropped her forehead onto Honor’s shoulder. “Blessed Mother of God, what am I to do!”

“Madam,” Honor said steadily. “let me go to the Emperor.”

Catherine looked up, astonishment on her face. “What are you saying?”

“Send me to Spain. In Valladolid I can pour out to your nephew your pleas to release this document from his treasury. I’ll have it back here, safe in your possession, before Ascension Day. And with it you can confound these Cardinals in their legatine court.”

Catherine stared at her. “Oh, but my dear!” she whispered. “Dare I hope …? There is so little time. And … no, no, it is too dangerous.”

“Not for a pilgrim,” Honor smiled. “Don’t you see? Easter is the perfect time for such a ruse. I’ll be a pilgrim traveling to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela — just one among hundreds of English pilgrims.”

What does this reveal about Honor? She’s brave, loyal, compassionate and intelligent. And Catherine? She’s weary, fearful and almost hopeless and yet she cares for Honor’s safety and not merely her own needs.

At the end of the course, I had thirty pages of my latest manuscript full of notes and suggestions from Barbara and the other participants. Definitely time well spent.