Posts Tagged ‘history’

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Liza wandered awe-struck through Lady Sarah’s house. It was more like a palace than a house, with a dozen rooms at least, most with their own fireplaces, fancy carved furniture and rugs on the walls. There was even glass in the windows, though not in the kitchen where Liza’s mother was talking with the steward. Glass was only for the richest people.

Liza walked quietly. She wasn’t meant to leave the servants’ rooms, but she couldn’t resist coming to see the glass, like squares of perfectly clear ice, rows of them filling each window.

She walked through a doorway and saw a man in a black dress standing by a fireplace, talking with Lady Sarah. There was a hole in the wall behind him, where a wood panel normally stood.

“Hello, who are you?” the man said, crouching to look at Liza.

“Oh God, the brewer’s daughter.” Lady Sarah’s hand darted across her chest like she was sewing four giant stitches. “What’s she doing here?”

“It’s alright.” The man smiled at Liza, and she almost believed that he was happy to see her. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

“But the family aren’t—”

“What’s your name, young mistress?”

“I’m Liza.” She finally remembered to curtsy. Doing that felt fun. “Or Elizabeth.”

“Like the Queen.”

Liza smiled. The Queen’s house must be a lot like this one.

“What do we do now, Father?” Lady Sarah’s voice trembled. “If Topcliffe questions the girl we’re all undone.”

“We will carry on with our game,” the man said. “That’s what we’re doing here, Liza, playing a game. I’m hiding from some friends, who are looking all over the country for me. You wouldn’t spoil the game by telling them where I am, would you?”

Liza shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Not even if they ask very nicely?”

“No, sir.”

“Or if they ask very meanly?” He scowled comically.

Liza laughed. The man was far friendlier than Lady Sarah, who stared at her like a dog that might bite.

“No, sir.”

“Then I think we will be alright. God would not send an innocent to do the devil’s work.” The man walked into the hole in the wall, then turned and waved. “Goodbye, Liza.”

The wood panel swung into place and the hole was gone. Liza curtsied, then ran away before Lady Sarah could tell her off.

#

Liza was in the kitchen of the big house, watching her mother argue money with Lady Sarah’s steward, when men burst in with muskets, clubs, and swords. The fiercest of them wore armour on his chest and a fancy hat with a feather.

Liza’s mother pulled her close, holding on so tight that her fingers dug into Liza’s shoulder. The steward spluttered, but was silenced by a slap from the armoured man. Liza buried her face in her mother’s skirts, wishing that the men would go away.

“Spread out,” the armoured man said. “Search every nook and cranny. I’m not letting that damnable priest slip through my fingers again.”

“This is an outrage,” the steward said.

Liza opened her eyes a crack. Two men had the steward pinned against the wall, but the armoured man was looking at Liza’s mother, and that made her really scared.

“Where’s the priest?” he asked.

“I’m here on business,” her mother said. “We’re good Protestant folk, and I don’t know anything about a priest.”

“If you’re such a good Protestant, what are you doing in this den of papists?”

“Their money’s as good as anyone’s.”

“Good for buying silence, I’d wager.” The man’s eyes narrowed as he stepped closer, then looked down at Liza. “I bet you see things, don’t you, child?”

Liza tried to curtsy, but her legs wobbled and she almost fell. The man laughed.

“Do you know what a Catholic is?” he asked.

Liza remembered the church bells ringing the year before, and people telling stories about Spaniards, ships, and storms. The Catholics in those stories were terrible foreigners coming to kill the Queen.

“Bad men,” she said.

“That’s right. And one of them is hiding in this house. Have you seen him?”

That didn’t make sense. The man she had seen was friendly. He couldn’t be one of these Catholic devils. And besides, he had asked her not to tell.

She shook her head.

“Have you seen anything strange here?” The man took hold of her mother’s chin and tipped her head from side to side, staring into her eyes. The trembling of her mother’s hand passed into Liza’s shoulder. “Remember, bad things can happen when you lie.”

Liza didn’t want to tell the angry man about the friendly man. She had promised that she wouldn’t even if he asked meanly. But she had never seen her mother scared before, and that made her more frightened than she had ever been.

“There’s a man in the wall,” she whispered.

#

Liza watched through a veil of tears as the men smashed the wood panel with axes. The friendly man didn’t look scared as they dragged him out, not like Liza’s mother or Lady Sarah or any of Lady Sarah’s friends, who stood by one wall, swords pointing at them.

The man in armour had a terrible smile.

Lady Sarah stared furiously at Liza, but when the friendly man saw her, he only nodded and smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Liza wailed.

“Don’t be,” the friendly man said. “None of this is your fault. Besides, I’m going to a better place.”

Liza hoped that place was a palace, like the one the Queen lived in. She hoped it had rugs on the wall, carved chairs, and those perfect squares of glass in the windows. She hoped the friendly man would be happy, no matter what a Catholic was.

***

During the 16th century, attitudes to religion got pretty screwed up in England. Fear and anger led to a brief period when Protestants were oppressed by a Catholic government, then a much longer period when the Catholics were oppressed by Protestants. There were covert religious services, a secret printing press, and a long, deadly game of hide and seek as the authorities hunted down priests sent to England from abroad. Those priests hid in specially built hiding holes in the mansions of sympathetic nobles, only to be tortured and executed if they were caught. Richard Topcliffe, the only real named person in this story, was among the more fervent priest hunters, and by all accounts a nasty piece of work. If you want to learn more, check out God’s Secret Agents, a very readable history of the period by Alice Hogge.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Captain Baptiste’s voice was a saw blade cutting into Verdier’s chest, leaving his heart and soul exposed. As the captain finished reading the telegram from home, the base’s officers stared at him in stunned silence.

“You cannot be serious?” Verdier said, his throat squeezing tight around the words. “We are simply to give in and collaborate with the Nazis?”

Sand swirled through the doorway of the officers’ mess, blown in on the last gasp of the past week’s defiant winds. Out in the streets, ordinary Algerians were going about their business, oblivious to the turmoil inside the French barracks, oblivious perhaps to the war raging across Europe.

“Deadly serious,” Baptiste said. “France has fallen, but Pétain remains, a good military man. When our orders come, we will obey. Go tell your men.”

Verdier walked slowly across the parade ground, dragging the captain’s words behind him like a ball and chain. He had heard the rumours of a government in exile, of De Gaulle in London and the Free French rallying to fight on despite their country’s fall. But discipline was everything, order was everything, and as long as Baptiste was his superior, he had to obey.

He entered the barracks room and surveyed his men. Their open books and half-finished hands of cards were a charade, and their attention focused on him the moment he entered. Every brow was furrowed, every back rigid with tension.

“It’s over,” Verdier said. “An armistice has been signed. We are to collaborate with the Germans.”

“But…” It was the closest any of them had come to challenging him since their first days together. They knew better. This was the army. Discipline was life.

In the corner, one man let out a stifled sob. Another flung his book down in disgust. Private Plantier gathered up the cards he had been playing with, straightened the pack with a sharp rap against the table, and then stood up.

“What are our orders, Lieutenant?” he asked.

Verdier opened his mouth, then closed it. An unexpected realisation swept over him. There were no orders yet, not from Baptiste or from any other officer. Those orders could end up being almost anything, depending upon who was giving them. On the one hand, there was Baptiste, the wavering conformist. On the other hand, there was Major Chapelle at the next town over, an opinionated officer and old friend of De Gaulle.

“Load your packs with provisions for three days march,” Verdier said. “Then assemble on the parade ground.”

He saw their confusion as they bustled about, and the growing hope as they whispered to each other and glanced his way.

Ten minutes later, they stood to attention on the parade ground. Verdier completed the roll call, straightened his own pack, and turned to face the gate.

Once he did this, there was no going back. It wouldn’t matter that he had followed every order he was given, not to anyone but him.

Baptiste emerged from the officers’ mess. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Verdier.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Going out for a march, sir,” Verdier replied. “Our presence should remind the locals of who is in charge during these chaotic times.”

Both statements were true. If Baptiste chose to interpret them as connected, that was his own fault.

Verdier tensed. His men stood stiff behind him, perfectly disciplined, their expressions giving nothing away. If Baptiste gave Verdier different orders now, would he obey them? Could he ever do otherwise?

Baptiste frowned, then nodded.

“Good idea, lieutenant. Carry on.”

They were halfway out the gates when Baptiste called after them.

“Verdier!”

Verdier froze, turned on the spot, and looked back at his captain.

“Yes, sir?”

There was a knowing look on Baptiste’s face, and a flicker of sadness. “Good luck out there.”

“You too, captain.”

***

I have a new comic out this week, an issue of Commando featuring Lieutenant Verdier in a tale of action and adventure set in the Second World War. So if you’d like to see what happens to him next, check out “Desert Vultures”, available on Comixology, through British newsagents, or as part of a bundle of issues via the publisher’s online shop.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

1817, Waterloo Bridge.

Fred and John stood on the south bank of the river, watching as the excited crowd paid their tolls and stepped onto the new bridge. It stretched across the Thames in nine elegant arches, north and south banks meeting somewhere above the darkly flowing waters.

“Grand, isn’t it?” John said. “Like looking at the future.”

“It’ll be handy,” Fred agreed. “Much easier to get to those apprenticeships Master Brown offered.”

“Easier for me to see Sally, too.” A distant smile suffused John’s face.

“You know there are other girls in London, right?”

“Not for me.”

Fred rolled his eyes, but he smiled. At least they could cross the river together each day.

“If we’re going to train as masons, we might get to build things like this. We should go across, see what it’s like.”

“Well then.” John patted his jacket, and there was a clink of small coins. “Let’s try the future of bridges together.”

*

1831, New London Bridge.

“That’s good work,” John said, eyeing the new bridge. “You must feel proud.”

Like Waterloo Bridge before it, this was a series of granite arches, an elegant stretch of grey stone connecting the south bank to the north, the world of home to the world of work.

“It’s grand to think I helped make it.” Fred grinned. “But now I’ve got to look for other work. It’s not like building houses.”

John shrugged. “It won’t make me rich, but I need the reliability.”

“Come on, I haven’t tried my own handiwork yet.”

They joined the swell of people making their way across the bridge, some hurrying about their business, others taking time to watch the demolition of the old London Bridge.

“How’s family life?” Fred asked.

“Wonderful but tiring.” John smiled. “I haven’t had a night to myself in years.”

“I know.” Fred looked away, scowling at the demolition crew. “I’m proud of what we did here, but I don’t like the way the city keeps changing. It was good enough when we were young.”

“World’s got to change. You can’t keep crossing the same bridge every day, because the river changes underneath it.”

“I liked the old bridge,” Fred snapped. “I still like Waterloo Bridge too. Why do we have to leave them all behind?”

“To build a better future.”

“That’s just an excuse to abandon what you had.”

They reached the end of bridge and stood staring back across, unable to meet each other’s eyes.

“I should get to work,” John said.

“Good for you,” Fred replied, and strode away.

*

1862, Westminster Bridge.

Fred saw a familiar face, framed by hair that had mostly gone grey. He hesitated, caught between fond memories and bitter ones, then walked up to John and held out his hand.

“Hoped I might see you here,” he said.

John smiled back, a little awkwardly.

“New bridge replacing an old one, I thought you’d come and see, even if it’s not stone this time.”

“Got to see what the competition are doing.” Fred gazed at the sweeping structure of cast-iron beams, and nodded approvingly. “There’s a few years left in stone, and that’s all I need.”

“Want to give this one a go?”

Fred swallowed, then smiled. “Of course.”

They set out across the crowded bridge, working their way around riders, carriages, pedestrians, and the occasional hand cart.

“How have you been?” John asked.

“Not bad. I kept thinking about something you said, about the river not being the same. Realised I needed to change, so I set up my own business, working on those grand houses in Kensington and Chelsea.”

“No wonder you’re dressed so smart.”

Fred looked down at his tailored suit, then at John’s patched jacket. Doing well usually made him feel good, but not today.

“How’s the family?”

“My Alf worked on this,” John said proudly, tapping a foot on the bridge. “Iron work keeps growing, so that’s him and the grandkids sorted. Did you ever…?”

“No.” Fred shook his head. “That was one thing that didn’t change.”

They reached the end of the bridge and stood in awkward silence while the crowd jabbered around them.

“I missed something out,” John said. “Back when I talked about the bridges always changing.”

“Oh?” Fred looked at him, catching the weight of emotion in his voice.

“All that change is easier to accept with the right person to talk to as you cross.”

Fred smiled. “Let me buy you a pint or three. We’ve got years to catch up on.”

*

1873, Albert Bridge.

Fred stood by the end of the bridge, an elegantly simple looking construction whose cables reminded him of the rigging of ships on the river. He used his walking stick to keep him steady as the crowd battered at him. It was harder to spot anyone these days. His sight wasn’t as good and he couldn’t look over heads any more. But at last, a familiar face emerged.

Except that it wasn’t. This face was younger, the eyes brighter, and for a moment Fred felt the decades fall away, before they came crashing in.

“Mister Jones?” The younger man asked, moving in to shelter Fred from the worst of the traffic.

Fred nodded and fought back a tear. He knew what was coming.

“I’m Alf, John’s youngest. He passed away two days ago. We weren’t sure how best to tell you, and…”

The words drifted off as Alf fought to control his own grief.

Fred gestured across the bridge with his stick.

“We were going to walk this new bridge together,” he said, a lump in his throat. “I think I’ll still go. Will you lend me an arm to lean on? I can tell you about your dad when he was young.”

Alf smiled and brushed dust from his eye.

“That would be grand. I always love to hear about the past.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

This Thursday sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Out of the Woods. It’s a First World War story, telling the tale of Canadian brothers caught up in a gas attack at Ypres. But why tell this story?

The First Gas Attack

This April marks the 105th anniversary of the first poison gas attack on the Western Front. The German army had tried to use gas against the Russians that January, but cold weather had stopped the weapon working. It was at Ypres that the full horror of chemical weapons was unveiled.

The results of the attack were horrifying. Chlorine gas causes the lungs to fill with fluid, drowning its victims on dry land. Survivors were left with terrible damage. It was as terrifying as it was deadly.

That attack was the first of many. Rather than abandon these weapons in horror, each side escalated its efforts to develop killer chemicals. Phosgene, mustard gas, and Lewisite left men dead or forever scarred. Medical staff had to develop whole new approaches to save lives.

By the end of the war, these weapons had a sickening reputation. Countries that were happy to bomb and shoot thousands of young men agreed that chemical weapons were beyond the bounds of war. But for the men scarred in those battles, life would never be the same.

An International War

That first gas attack hit the French army, in particular Algerian troops stationed around the village of Neuve-Chapelle. These North African troops, already caught in a strange and bewildering environment, were hit by a weapon beyond their worst nightmares. Unsurprisingly, they fled in panic.

The gap in the line was filled by the Canadians, who were on the receiving end of the next chlorine attack. Knowing what was coming, and with improvised masks at the ready, they managed to hold out against the assault that followed, even retaking ground lost to the Germans.

This was one of the moments on which the Canadian army’s reputation was built. Like the Australians and New Zealanders, they faced some of the most deadly encounters of the First World War, earning themselves a reputation for toughness and courage. Modern Canadians might be known for politeness, but during that war, they were hardened warriors that the other side didn’t want to mess with.

That’s why the Canadians are at the heart of this story. Their part in the First World War isn’t widely recognised, but they played a crucial role, and on this occasion, they saved the day for the Allies.

That Name…

As for the title of this story, yes, it’s a Taylor Swift reference. My friend Al sings a modified and much more sweary version of the song at larp events, and when I was writing a story set in a wood, it ear-wormed me for hours on end. That made it the perfect title.

So here it is, a story of courageous Canadians and terrifying trauma, to a soundtrack of upbeat pop. Enjoy!

How do we turn the past into stories?

It might sound like a simple question, but the relationship between stories and real events is complex and messy.

The Nature of History

Last week, I received editorial comments on a history article I’m writing. High on the to-do list was making the article into more of a story. As soon as I read that, I knew what they meant, and I knew that they were right. I also knew why I hadn’t done it the first time around.

The past isn’t a neat narrative. It’s a jumple of people, places, and events. At one time these were facts, and what we’re left with is the evidence of what those facts might have been. It’s jumbled and disjointed, but also complex and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing happens for one reason.

One step removed from the past lies history. This is an attempt to establish facts from the evidence, to put those facts in order, and to squeeze meaning from them. It narrows the focus of what we’re looking at, asserts cause and effect, and prioritises some patterns over others. To do this, it draws boundaries about what’s included in any particular account of history, from the infinite variety of options available.

And then there are stories set in the past, whether told as fiction or non-fiction. These narrow the focus further, to individual people and what happened to them. It turns patterns into narratives, the mechanical procession of events into human experiences. It simplifies some things and exaggerates others so that they come to life for us.

In writing my article, I’d taken the jumble of facts and turned them into history, but I’d missed the next step. I had something that showed patterns in the past, but that didn’t engage well with our humanity.

Framing the Narrative

Whether you’re writing history or a story, there’s also another element to how this works, and that’s framing.

Take the First World War. It’s a messy business. It began and ended at different times in different parts of the world. It was fought in different ways on different fronts, in land and sea and air, was tangled in with events on the home front, and its effects linger with us a century on. Parts of France and Belgium are still inaccessible due to munitions from that war.

Last month, I saw Field Music perform their album Making a New World. Composed for the centenary of the armistice, it’s all about the knock-on effects of that war, from tanks to plastic surgery to sanitary towels. The album tells the story of the First World War not as a self-contained event from 1914 to 1918 but as the epicentre from which vast tremors of change erupted.

My upcoming Commando comic Out of the Woods tells the First World War from a very different perspective. To look at the introduction of chemical weapons, it follows two fictional Canadians from before they signed up through to the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. There are many other ways I could have told that story – from the point of view of the Germans, of civilians, of communities affected for generations by the chemicals. I could have followed a medic, a general, even a gas cannister or a patch of ground. I chose the perspective that suited my purposes, but whichever one I chose, I would have had to cut down and rearrange the history, which itself cuts down and rearranges the facts, in each case forming a different pattern.

Telling Your Story from History

So remember, when telling a story from history, you’re never going to fit in all the facts. You’re already missing some of them and you don’t need them all for your goal. Explore the different ways you could look at the topic, pick a story that will bring the past to life in an engaging way, and let the rest fall by the wayside. You’re not here to tell history. You’re here to tell one story against its background.

 

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write. For me, there are several factors. One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand. Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character. The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for. The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head. Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen. Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard. And that makes it part of the fun.   ***
From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution
What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods? What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior? What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work? These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants. From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

From A Foreign Shore - High ResolutionOlivia pushed her cart down the track, feeling each stone beneath her feet. Up ahead was a small lowland town, the sort where people kept their voices quiet and did what their lord told them. Hardly a place to start a revolution, but maybe one more she could connect in to the cause.

There was a wooden palisade around town, charred and battered by an English raiding party. No-one stopped Olivia as she walked in and set up shop in the muddy square, pulling out needles and thread, hammer and rivets, all the tools of the cobbler’s trade.

“What’s this then?” The man striding toward her was tall and stern, flanked by a pair of guards in chainmail. She knew him by reputation.

“Lord Fraser.” She bowed her head deferentially. “I’m just a cobbler on my way to Edinburgh. Hoped to drum up business here on the way.”

“What kind of Cobbler wears no shoes?” He glared at her bare feet.

“A poor one.” She didn’t say where her money had gone. Depending on his views, that could get her arrested.

Olivia’s stomach tightened as one of the guards leaned over her cart and start peering into bags. If he found her Bible, that one precious object on which she’s spent all her money, and if he realised it was a translation…

Fighting the trembling in her hands, she tore her eyes away from the cart and looked up at Lord Fraser. She took a deep breath. Perhaps she would get lucky, and he would be the contact she needed. Perhaps he’d have her locked up. But if he was going to find out anyway then better to stand by her belief than to try to weasel out of it.

“You’ll want to see this.” She rose, reached past the guard and took out the Bible. Heart racing, she handed it to Fraser.

“I see.” His voice was icy cold as he turned the page and saw it was printed in Scots rather than Latin. “Another Protestant plotter.” He slammed the book shut and glared at her. “The last thing this country needs is more plots.”

“The last thing this country needs is foreigners trying to tell us how to live.” Barely able to believe that she was talking to a lord this way, blocking out the terrified voice of panic in her mind, she nodded toward the town’s damaged defences. “Whether they’re Protestants or the Pope.”

Lord Fraser’s guards had closed in on her. One of them grabbed her arm. But then Fraser held up a hand and the man released her.

“This I should confiscate.” He held up the Bible. “But I also think it’s time I had my boots mended. And there’s no law against us talking while you do that.” He placed the Bible in the cart. “Let’s hope I don’t forget that when we’re done. Now, about my boots…”

* * *

The more I read about the 16th century the more fascinating it is to me. I’ve recently been doing some freelance work relating to Scotland in this period, which is where the subject of this week’s story comes from. Maybe another day I’ll write a story about a Catholic in the period, to balance things out a little.

This one’s for Olivia Berrier, who recently wrote a lovely review of my history and alternate history collection From a Foreign Shore on her blog. Please go check it out, and if you like what you read then you can get From a Foreign Shore for free today and all this weekend via Amazon.

And as always, if you enjoyed this story then please share the link or leave a comment below.

Further reading, for those who want to know more about poor Mary Tudor

I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.

Poor Bloody Mary

Lets start with a history lesson.

Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.

There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.

As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.

Feeling History

Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.

There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.

Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.

And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.

Dealing With the Pain

There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.

And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’

These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?

More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.

I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.

*deep breath*

OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.

And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.

I love the Middle Ages, that period in European history when feudal lords spent centuries bullying each other in a battle for domination, and from which the first fragile seeds of our modern society emerged. I love it in the same way that I love villains and traitors – it’s a great subject for stories, but I’m bloody glad I wasn’t there. War, plague, famine and of course death – Europe got a huge dose of the four horsemen during that period, not to mention some pretty unsavoury religious and political practices.

Those of you who’ve read From a Foreign Shore or paid attention to my responses to the Writing Excuses exercises will have noticed that I channel this passion into a lot of my writing. It helps that I have an MA in medieval history and two years research experience, which between them save me a lot of research time. But that experience comes from the same source as my medieval writing, rather than inspiring it. My fascination for that era keeps drawing me back.

Happily, I have medieval stories coming up in the next two issues of Alt Hist, the magazine of historical fiction and alternate history, edited by Mark Lord.

Issue 7, available now via Amazon (the ebook edition isn’t up there yet, but I’m sure it will be soon), features my story ‘Cold Flesh’, a horror story set during the fallout from one of England’s many medieval rebellions. The rebels have been hanged, but will their memory let the victors move on?

Following on from that, I’ve just had a story accepted by Mark for issue 8. This one’s a straight up piece of historical fiction, giving a child’s perspective on the horrors the Hundred Years War inflicted on northern France. When writing historical and fantasy fiction, it’s all too easy to glorify war and focus on its more active  participants. But stepping back and remembering the victims isn’t just important, it’s a way of finding different sorts of stories, different perspectives on life.

So if you’re in the mood for something medieval, why not pick up a copy of Alt Hist or check out their website.

This weekend I went to a historical reenactors’ market with Laura and her aunt. While the ladies were perusing hats and finding bargain fabric for costumes, I instead took the opportunity for some ad hoc writing research. Among the interesting things I saw and discovered were…

Take two weapons into the fight? Not me, I just shoot and hack with this handy axe pistol!

Take two weapons into the fight? Not me, I just shoot and hack with this handy axe pistol!

Sometimes real weapons are even crazier than those in steampunk and fantasy. Take this combination axe/pistol from Radbourn Designs. It was used in boarding actions by 17th century Italian sailors, so that they could shoot someone out of the way as they swung onto the enemy boat and then immediately start hacking people up. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of high seas brutality, and the next pirate I write is having one.

The blunderbuss, designed for your shooting convenience

The blunderbuss, designed for your shooting convenience

According to the chap running Derbyshire Arms, blunderbusses have those wide mouths to make it easier to load them on a moving ship or carriage. It’s those sort of practical details most of us don’t know, and that can make a story more convincing.

And these are meant to make you feel better...

And these are meant to make you feel better…

This horrifying looking surgeons’ kit includes hooks, second from right, which may have been intended to hold the wound open, allowing the surgeon to finish their work as quickly as possible in the days before anaesthetics and blood transfusions, when speed was of the essence. Though to my modern eye it looks more like a torture device.

I was shown this by Mark Annable, UK Team Captain for Battle of the Nations, the sport where people engage in full-on full-armoured combat. I can’t find the fantastic trailer he showed me, but this should give you an idea of what’s involved:

 

That is so not for me with my terrible fear of pain, but Mark and his friends clearly love it.

Viking knives!

Viking knives!

These knives were made by Andy Colley of Aarg Armouries, a third generation blacksmith whose grandfather started the business after serving as a farrier in World War One. Apparently these knife designs are mostly found in coastal areas, and those strangely shaped metal handles are probably designed to make it easier to keep your grip if the knife gets wet. Andy’s theory about the chunky blades is that this was a fashion that arose because metal was expensive, and so having lots of it in your knife, sword or whatever was a way of showing off your wealth.

I also got some great insights into metal working from Steve of Reddog Forge and on the technology and culture of bow production from Nick Winter of Arbalist Armoury.

I learnt so many fascinating details from the day, and have several pages of notes that I’ll be using later. But the main thing that I learnt was how willing people were to talk about their craft. I’ve come away from the day with business cards for half a dozen passionate, excited experts in their fields, people who said that they’d be happy to help me with research questions further down the line. A nice day out with family proved to be a really useful one for me as a writer, and a fascinating one for me as a history geek. So writers, get out there, go to events related to your genre, pick people’s brains – odds are you’ll get some great results.

This weekend is Stockport Viking Market – more research here I come!