I don’t have green thumbs, alas! But I do appreciate a good garden, and I’ve long been fascinated by medieval physic gardens.
Physic gardens (as we know them) date back to the time of Charlemagne (742-814). Sections of a garden would be set aside for growing plants used for medicinal purposes, and for teaching apothecaries about their trade.
This makes physic gardens sound very practical – and they were! – but there is also an element of beauty within them. Many of the medicinal plants were in themselves beautiful. For example, certain irises were grown in such gardens, as their rhizomes (known as orris root) were used in both perfume and medicine. Irises are utterly gorgeous and my favourite flower, so that decisively proves my point, at least to myself!
With all those herbs and flowers growing, you can imagine how beautiful such gardens were for the nose as well as the eye! It was common practice for a bench to be installed in a physic garden so that convalescents could sit for a while and soak up not only the sun but the healthful scents.
The idea of physic gardens evolved into our modern-day botanic gardens, which have a broader interest in all plants – though of course most botanic gardens specialise in particular areas, or are shaped by their location and climate.
The University of Oxford Botanic Garden embodies this history, as it was founded in 1621 as a physic garden, and now has a wider remit with over 8,000 different plant species across a four-and-a-half acre site. True to its origins, however, the garden includes medicinal beds growing plants used in modern medicine.
GAME ON, GAME OVER happened because of cats. And Avebury, but mostly cats. Many years previously, the fur balls were a ‘thing’ in the fan fiction I was reading at the time. All of them were cutesy, fluffy, adorable, and they charmed the heroes with their irresistible appeal – well, you get the picture.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sucker for the feline kind, canids and equines as well, but I wanted something more than the saccharine sweetness of those stories, and none were to be found. So I decided to write my own.
My cat wasn’t cute. Wasn’t fluffy, either, regardless of what some poor deluded human had named him way back when he was a kitten. Though in all honesty, he probably had been appealing back then, the way all kittens are, no matter what they grow into. This one grew into an autocratic, battle-scarred and cynical tom, based on a rather large ginger and white individual I saw in the courtyard of the Red Lion, Avebury’s pub. The humans he interacted with were fleshed around two characters from a TV series. Yes, I wrote fanfiction and I make no apologies for it: fanfic got me through some difficult times in my life.
I didn’t use the characters’ screen names in the original story, as Aidan was very good at creating new identities, had gone into solitary ‘retirement’ in the sleepy little village in the heart of Wiltshire, and was determined to stay there. Scott was as determined to forge a relationship with him. And TBC, aka That Bloody Cat, merely wanted to live in his old home again.
The setting of Avebury reflected my love and fascination with the place, and its unique archaeological history. Then there are its ghost stories: the barber-surgeon, Florrie the Barmaid, the ghostly coach to name but a few.
Some time later, when I’d had a few titles published, I remembered that decades-old fanfic. Other than a few mentions of their shared past and their physical appearances, there was nothing at all to show its original inspiration, not even their names. So I began to put together a new backstory for them. To misquote a soccer commentator, it would be a tale of two halves, and the new title was a natural choice: Game On (where and how they met and parted), Game Over (where and how they got together again and reached their HEA).
I’d recently read a fascinating article on the Silk Road, and anyone who knows me, knows how I am addicted to archaeology. Add in the political situation of the area, plus a hint of Kipling’s Great Game, and I had the first part nailed. Aidan Whittaker would be an MI6 agent, undercover at an archaeological dig in Tajikistan, near the border with Pakistan. Scott Landon was a photographer tagging along behind a journalist, and we all know how much trouble a determined newshound can get into without really trying.
The second part would be entirely different in pace and setting from Part One, and its setting was Avebury. Thanks to family and friends prepared to drive me to one of my favourite places in England, I already had a large folder full of photos, but I wanted more of specific areas. This time, though, no one with a car was available, so I resorted to the buses. Getting to Avebury by public transport wasn’t easy, involved changes, and took forever. I had only a limited time before the return trip. So I chose the field where the pair of fictional cottages would sit, took many photos up and down the street, and had just enough time for a sandwich and a cuppa at the Red Lion before I caught the only bus back to where I could pick up the return bus to Salisbury.
Incidentally, the weather was glorious. Few things can beat summer sunshine in a tiny English village with thatched cottages and an excellent pub.
Above, I said I was addicted to archaeology – that isn’t an understatement. In Game On, Game Over, when Scott asks Archaeologist Aidan, ‘Why?’ his answer is as much from my heart as Aidan’s.
“… But you, these kids, you’re out here in a strange land, living in tents with basic amenities, no real freedom to come and go, watched over every now and then by the army. Just to dig holes in the ground. Why? What’s the point of it?”
“Why?” John rounded on him ferociously, taking Scott’s breath away. “Do you think we live in a vacuum? That present and future are the be-all and end-all of two-dimensional lives? The point is, Mr Landon, you, me, those postgraduates, the lecturers, the cooks and drivers, are linked to the past as surely as we are to the present. We are no different to the people who travelled the Roads and stayed in the caravanserai. We are no different from the Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall who wrote home to his mother asking her to send him more socks. And yes, before you ask, he’s genuine. Every minute fragment of the past found in excavations enriches the present. Every translation of newly discovered writing expands our knowledge and strengthens the links to our past. Human nature has changed very little in the millennia we’ve walked upright, and we’re faced with the same choices today as our ancestors were. The only differences now are our enhanced abilities to create and destroy.”
So, yeah, that’s my one and only ‘Mary-Sue’ time (apart from that one I wrote when I was fourteen, starring me and Elvis…). Come on, I was fourteen, for the gods’ sake…
When writing historical fiction set in an urban environment, with both gentlemen still living with their families, it can be quite difficult to find a suitable location to forward their romance.
ALWAYS WITH US is set in Victorian Liverpool, with its many hotels, but that meant there was always the risk of being recognised. I needed somewhere away from the city, that Harrison had legitimate reason to visit, which had suitable accommodation, and could provide a reason for not returning home. Enter the village of Eastham, across the river Mersey.
Eastham is one of the oldest villages on the Wirral and has been inhabited since Anglo Saxon times. The oldest part of the modern village is to the east of the A41 and is centred on St Mary’s church, the scene of the funeral of one of Harrison’s clients. There has been a ferry service between Liverpool and Eastham since the Middle Ages, originally operated by monks from the Abbey of St Werburgh.
A large increase in traffic in the 1700s led to a new pier being built and there could be forty coaches a day, both passenger and goods, arriving to cross the river to Liverpool. In 1816 paddle steamers replaced sailing boats, but it was less than thirty years before demand for the ferry service declined after the opening of a rail link between Chester and Woodside Ferry, Birkenhead.
The village had now spread to the west, on the other side of the main road, and to get to the ferry itself you had to drive down through farmland. To increase his profits the owner of the ferry, Thomas Stanley – the Stanleys are an old Cheshire family – built a hotel adjacent to the pier at Eastham Ferry. To attract more visitors to the hotel he also decided to build an adjoining Pleasure Garden and charge admittance. It was a big undertaking and must have required quite an investment of time and money. The landscaped gardens included ornamental trees and fountains, and in the spring Azaleas and Rhododendrons made a colourful display.
The gardens became a popular choice for a day out, especially attracting visitors from the city who came to enjoy the fresh air strolling among the flower beds. There was, however, more to see and do than admire the intricate planting. There were tea rooms to rest and enjoy cakes and sandwiches while listening to music from the performers on the band-stand; theatrical productions also appeared on the open-air stage – presumably ‘weather permitting’, although I have attended an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where it rained solidly and there were some very sodden fairies – but luckily the audience was under cover.
For the energetic there was a ballroom to enjoy, a boating-lake, and a water-chute. One of the major attractions was the zoo; lions could be seen in wheeled cages that were drawn around the park, monkeys and an antelope had their admirers, and then there was the bear-pit with its two occupants.
As a child wandering around the overgrown woodland and finding uneven stone steps, slippery with moss, that led down to a strange stone-lined pit felt like finding a place out of a fairy tale – especially as the sun never seemed to penetrate the leaves of the Rhododendron trees. It wasn’t until much later that I found out it had originally been a bear-pit, and given that the original occupants would not have had a very good life perhaps the gloom was a fitting memorial. In its day the bear-pit was a highly popular place, though, and an iron-work dome meant that people could stare at the bears in complete safety.
In the summer entertainers performed in the gardens; these included Blondin, a famous tightrope-walker, who once wheeled a local boy across a high wire in a wheelbarrow. I wonder what Health and Safety would have to say if he tried that today?
Another visitor, in 1854, was the United States Consul in Liverpool, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote admiringly in his journal about the antique houses and picturesque aspect of the village itself.
As the Gardens prospered so did Thomas Stanley. The Manchester Ship Canal was opened by Queen Victoria in 1894, just before the events of ALWAYS WITH US, and in 1897 an archway was built at the entrance to the Gardens to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee.
The popularity of the Pleasure Gardens was not to last, however. Eighty years after it was opened it was in decline, and the last paddle-steamer made the river crossing in 1929. The following decade saw the gardens neglected and falling into disrepair; the iron pier and Jubilee Arch were dismantled, and except for local dog-walkers the place was forgotten.
In 1970 it was designated a Woodland and Country Park and visitors returned to stand on the truncated pier and look out across the river to Liverpool, to watch tankers going past before they entered the Ship Canal which would take them to the oil refinery at Ellesmere Port and the docks at Manchester.
Thankfully the hotel remains, and it is possible to have a meal in the restaurant. There are no flower beds but the bluebells can be admired in the spring, and a bird-hide attracts both people and birds. A lot of the rhododendron growth has now been removed and it is possible to wander the paths and find hidden steps, including those that lead to the bear-pit. However I doubt if many people realise what a thriving centre the Pleasure Gardens once were; indeed I would not have known myself if I had not been searching for the ideal place for Harrison and Daniel to further their relationship!
The book that eventually became MAKE DO AND MEND started out very differently. It was originally going to be about four brothers, living on a not-entirely-successful family farm in Wales, fighting off a land-grab from a consortium that wanted to build a golf-course – and it was emphatically going to be taking place in the ‘present day’. However some elements of the story were in place even then; there would be conflict between the two elder brothers because Two was a nasty resentful piece of work and would undermine everything One was attempting to do, but Three and Four would turn out to be – perhaps to their own astonishment – good and sensible men who could be relied on in a crisis. There would also be a mysterious stranger to the village, a quiet, dignified older man, who would draw the attention of the hitherto flighty One and with whom he would eventually form a romantic relationship. Two and Three would be firmly heterosexual; Four’s preferences were still unknown.
I hadn’t written any of this before the plan changed dramatically. I’d been thinking about it and discussing it with friends for some considerable time, but there was something about it that just wasn’t gelling in my head. I don’t know, now, precisely what it was that prompted the change of direction, but one day it suddenly occurred to me that setting it during the Second World War would make it a more interesting project and radically change the dynamics of the situation. For one thing, there was huge pressure to produce food and other necessities for the war effort (flax, wood, etc.) so that even a farm that was struggling beforehand would enjoy a period of relative prosperity. For another, it would enable One to have a perspective on life and love that didn’t just revolve around the narrow confines of his familiar Welsh valley.
The valley itself was one of the constants. Being a regular traveller on trains between Newport and Chester, I’d always been intrigued by a village north of Abergavenny. There ought to be a station there, I thought, so that I could get out and explore – but there wasn’t. So I did my initial exploring online and on the OS map, and eventually managed to tour the area by car as well. I found the perfect site for the house, which ended up being called Hendra, but what was there was less prepossessing than I had in mind. Therefore, in a move I’m sure English Heritage would deplore, I picked up Stokesay Castle, made some alterations to its layout, and transported it a little matter of fifty miles down the road. I tacked on a somewhat rickety Home Farm a short distance away, and a couple of quarrymen’s cottages higher up the hill, and that was that – I had my location!
The joy of writing something like this is the research. Wanting a box-bed for Jim’s cottage I found just the thing online, which turned out to be in a rural museum on Orkney. Years later I got to meet it in person … and that was the trip which ended up inspiring IN DEEP. I also managed to fit in a visit to Western Approaches Command and chose one of its mysterious closed doors to be Harry’s decoding office. (I have no idea what was really behind it; it could have been a store-room or a doorway into Hades for all I know!) When I decided to make Jim a conscientious objector – because I’ve never forgotten the Dad’s Army episode in which Godfrey is revealed to be a conscientious objector – I researched the Peace Pledge Union, their white poppies, and the advocacy work they did. I hope that if I was ever in the position of being ordered to fight (unlikely now, given my age!) I would have the courage not simply to do as I was told but to say that I thought it was wrong and find another way of serving instead.
I could go on. The hotel in Liverpool exists, and has been the scene of numerous fannish conventions. The pub where Harry lodges sort-of exists; there is a pub there, but I transported a building in from another location because I liked it better. The road over Sermon Pass is a real road now, but at the time the book is set it was little more than a track. And as for Birkenhead Park … it’s a jewel, and was reputedly the model for Central Park in New York.
There are, of course, loose ends in MAKE DO AND MEND. Jack (Three) will stay at Hendra, married to Kitty, and their children will farm there in their turn. Thomas (Two) is likely to move away after the War, to some place where his predictable lack of success will be less visible to his family and he can be the person of importance he so clearly thinks he is. Harry (One) will emigrate, Jim at his side, to a country where nobody will care who they were before – possibly Canada. Jim will write books and teach; Harry will no doubt go into broadcasting in some capacity. They won’t be rich, but they’ll be happy. As for Freddie (Four), his future is more opaque; there is, somewhere in the back of my mind, a whole new set of adventures for him – one of which I’m hoping will coalesce into a short story for Manifold Press’s World War Two anthology CALL TO ARMS. In fact it would be fair to say that I have no idea, at the moment, precisely what happens to Freddie, but I’m very much looking forward to finding out!
[Oh, and the land-grabby golf-course-builders may well make an appearance at some point, too… ]
I had quite a conservative and sheltered upbringing (and am eternally grateful to my friend Cathe, and to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for helping me begin the process of opening out!) but I always took the idea of marriage equality seriously.
I also took the idea very personally, despite being an (apparently) cisgender woman happily married from the age of 20 to a (definitely) cisgender man. (I am actually way more complicated than that, as I suspect many of us are, but people tend to relate to me as such.) Despite having what everyone assumed was a ‘traditional’, legally permissible marriage, I felt the issue of marriage equality had a great deal to do with me and my own choices.
When marriage equality was first becoming a matter of wider public debate, Australia’s prime minister was John Howard, a conservative both personally and in politics. Whenever asked, he always defined marriage as being ‘between one man and one woman – for the purposes of having children’.
I could just roll my eyes at the first part of the definition, as of course that was the actual problem we were all arguing about. But the latter part of his definition really stuck in my craw. ‘For the purposes of having children.’
Mr B and I don’t have kids, and that was a deliberate mutual decision made during the first few years we were together, that we’ve never regretted. But that doesn’t mean our relationship isn’t a ‘proper’ marriage. It doesn’t mean we’re not a ‘proper’ family, despite it being only the two of us. And fie on John Howard for suggesting otherwise. (I am still rankling, all these years later!)
Not everyone wants to get married, of course, but I strongly feel that those who want to should be able to. That includes anyone of any sex, gender identity or sexuality – whether they can or can’t have (their own biological) children, and whether they intend to have children or not.
Marriage is a partnership between individuals, and each relationship will be different, and will grow and change over time. As long as everyone involved is happy and willing, the state can and should offer support, but otherwise mind its own business. In my opinion!
Why am I getting on my soapbox about this particular issue in relation to my novel BUTTERFLY HUNTER…? Because the crux of the matter was really brought home to me while researching for the story.
As can be inferred from the title, the main characters Dave and Nicholas are on a quest in the Australian Outback for a particular species of blue butterfly. As part of my research, I often browsed The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia by Michael F Braby.
Butterflies go through quite a complex life cycle, which involves four very different forms: egg, larva, pupa and adult. It’s the adult form we tend to think of when we think of butterflies – the beautiful, delicate winged creatures, who might live only for months or even days. For different (human) cultures, adult butterflies have symbolised transformation, change, joy, colour, the soul, and death.
I realise we humans are imposing symbolic meaning, and our love of beauty, on creatures who do not share our ways of thinking. However, it really brought me to a crashing halt when I read the following sentence in Braby’s Field Guide:
The adult, also known as the imago, is responsible chiefly for reproduction and dispersal.
And I’m not saying he’s wrong per se. He’s obviously right at some level. I’m just saying that this reductionist approach to life horrifies me. There is so much more to our human lives than making babies and placing them somewhere useful. Maybe a butterfly isn’t conscious enough in itself to think about more than mating, and then laying eggs in good locations. However, the facts that we can appreciate a butterfly’s beauty, and attach culturally-relevant symbolic meanings to them, proves that there’s a whole lot more to being human.
And so I say again, fie on John Howard and his reductive definitions of marriage, and fie on his successors as well. All these years later, Australia still hasn’t signed off on marriage equality. Let marriage be about choice and love, about transformation and life, about souls and joy. Let it be about a dinky-di fair go for all.
Come on, Aussie, come on! It’s more than time. We are way overdue. Get it done!
About eleven years ago, I wanted to write a vampire story. This was when that particular genre took off in the world of ebooks, and I didn’t want to follow the established tropes that closely. I’d watched films, read books, both vampiric and science-fiction rather than whichever branch of the paranormal vampires occupy, and a tentative idea began to form. I talked it out with friends, especially the biology of vampires. Luckily, I have a forensic scientist among my contacts, and her input was invaluable.
At the end of all that, I had a six page ‘thesis’ on the biology and history of the vampire, and the vampire communities. Admittedly, it did get tweaked a bit once I got deeper into what would end up being Fool’s Errand … And because of the various political situations I wanted to play with, I set it in the near future – 2042. Thanks to various movies and documentaries, plus the photos taken by my self-employed son who’d spent a lot of time there on a contract, I chose Barcelona, in that fiercely independent region of Spain, Catalunya.
Then I needed characters, and again, I wanted to avoid the usual take on a vampire, on when and how he was ‘turned’. After various name and nationality changes, I ended up with Andreas Rousakis.
Here’s a clip, as Mark Kermode says in The Film Review:
Nearly a century ago, war had swept across Europe. Germany invaded Greece in 1941 and like many of his countrymen, Andreas had managed to get to Canada, where he was trained to fly sorties against the enemy. He ended up flying Spitfires out of Malta, providing fighter cover for the bombers and striking back at the German bombers and their Messerschmitt escorts. He’d been shot down over Italy, and after a month on the run, he’d been captured. He’d ended up in a concentration camp in Austria, close to the Hungarian border. The regime was brutal, the determination to survive so he could gain some kind of vengeance was the only thing that kept him alive for the next year.
Then Benedek Nagy had been brought to the camp. Benedek was a member of a small Hungarian Resistance group, and he had a couple of secrets. Like Andreas, he preferred men in his bed, something they both made sure their captors never discovered. They had become lovers, and it wasn’t long before Andreas learned the greater secret. Benedek was a vampire.
When news came that they were all to be shipped out to the notorious camp at Stutthof, Benedek had offered the men a devil’s bargain. He would make into a vampire whoever wished it, and they would spearhead a breakout, killing as many of the camp guards as they could and ultimately releasing all the prisoners. Andreas had been one of the ten volunteers.
My second main character, and one Andreas ultimately connects with on various levels, is Xavier Peres Escuderos, a small-time crook and gigolo, on the run from the police and the bad guys after he’d witnessed a murder and become Suspect Numero Uno. Xavi is – complicated. He’s stroppy, egotistical and a bit of a narcissist. He doesn’t need anyone or anything, least of all an overbearing, controlling bodyguard attempting to keep him in protective custody.
Xavi liked gold. Solid sunshine, it lay on his smooth, tanned skin and glowed. He smiled at his half-naked reflection in the cheval mirror, and hazel eyes gazed back at him, eyes that could look guileless or seductive with equal ease. His thick dark hair was combed and styled into place, and his mouth had a sensual swell to the under lip and a crisp shape to the upper. He turned his head a little and gauged the effect. Xavi had always considered his profile was like that of a Roman god-hero.
He touched his fingers to metal that was rapidly warming to his body-heat. It was a heavy curb chain, diamond-cut, its facets etched with fine arabesques, and it looked very good on him. There was more gold on Sophia’s dressing table, a careless tangle of necklaces and pendants and other assorted glitter that cost several fortunes, all treated with the same insouciance. But this one had been bought for him. She’d said she had a gift for him when she picked him up at their usual meeting place, but he hadn’t expected anything like this.
Sophia finished fastening the clasp at the back of his neck and kissed his shoulder as she came to stand beside him. “Beautiful,” she murmured.
“Yes,” Xavi said huskily. “You are.” But his eyes weren’t on her. He knew he looked good, knew that women were drawn to him like mares in season, and he revelled in it.
To be honest, I didn’t intend to write a sequel to Fool’s Errand, let alone turn it into a trilogy, but Xavi wouldn’t shut up. He wasn’t entirely settled into his relationship with Andreas, not to mention his new life in the public eye. They still had issues between them that needed to be worked out – and let’s face it, Xavi needed to grow the hell up and take responsibility for himself and his actions.
By the time I finished Fool’s Oath, I’d accepted that, yes, I had a trilogy on my hands. Months later, I completed Fool’s Rush, and gave the three books the overall title of Fool’s Odyssey.
However, I knew I wasn’t entirely finished with the vampire genre. There’s Fox Hunt, an entirely different setting and and entirely different people, but that’s for another time …
A guest blog post
by Sandra Lindsey
author of UNDER LEADEN SKIES
Everyone loves a freebie, don’t they? Obviously, the prospect of a goodie bag isn’t the only reason delegates look forward to book-related festivals and conferences, but it certainly doesn’t hinder one’s enjoyment to return home with a quality, reusable souvenir which will make you smile with memories of the event.
Last year at Queer Company, we had very useful folders stuffed with interesting info and a fun anthology of short stories set in Oxford. This year, we have something a little different, and it’s all my fault…
You see, I have a personal connection to a company which specialises in printing eco-friendly cotton bags (among a whole host of other products, but the bags are where it all started). They’re called The Clever Baggers, they’re based here in the UK, and they offer a rainbow of different coloured cotton bags. At the Manifold Press AGM, I offered to ask if the company would be willing to sponsor Queer Company 2 by providing bags for us to fill with goodies and give out to all attendees.
They said yes!
I was lucky enough to be in the building the day our bags were printed, so I snapped a few photos of them being produced on the digital printers. I’ll try not to bore you with the technicalities, but for a variety of reasons, printing onto textiles is very different to printing onto paper. If you’re printing onto coloured (dyed) cloth, there are even more complications, and being able to do this digitally, i.e. directly onto the fabric by machine controlled by a computer, is a far more recent development than most people expect. In this instance, the machine applies a pre-treat to the bag, then prints a base-layer of the image in white, then prints the full colour image on top of this. All of the substances used in the process are water-based to make both process and product as eco-friendly as possible.
I was very impressed by the end result, and hope you will be too!
Everyone at Manifold Press HQ is certainly thrilled at the gorgeous results. We set The Clever Baggers a bit of a challenge with an event logo that looks lovely online but might not print very well. They’ve done us proud, though, as I’m sure you’ll all agree.
There are a very few tickets left for Queer Company 2. Do please join us if you can!
When I wrote the original version of The Walled Garden, personal computers didn’t exist and the internet was a thing of dreams. So what was it like then, researching and writing a novel? How did it differ from researching and writing a novel today? I had no easy access to information except through libraries and I didn’t live anywhere where there was a large library with a good reference section and a wide-range of stock on its shelves. How could I find out what I needed to know, having set the novel in the England of the 1850s? Books were certainly the answer but how could I get hold of ones with relevant information?
Above anything else, style was very important for the writing. I didn’t want to write in the way I’d done short pieces up till then. They were modern and reflected up-to-date language and pace. I needed to know how people spoke to each other in the 1850s (at least in novels), as well as the sort of style an author used in writing a story. Therefore I read novels published at that time, titles long forgotten these days, but still to be found quite easily then in second-hand bookshops. I got the feel of the pace of the stories, the words used and the way in which authors used them. Both the plots and the language used made me very aware of the class differences that existed at the time and how outwardly rigid society could be. So I adopted the far more measured pace that novel writers used, and adapted their style to suit my own story. The Walled Garden deliberately does not rush through the development of the plot or the relationship between Hillier and Ashton for that very reason. As for the language used, I would refer back to the books of the 1850s if I was concerned as to whether a particular word or term was used then, or how words would have been phrased.
But I still needed a vast range of information. I read up about the law concerning homosexuality (only it wasn’t called that then) in 19th century Britain, particularly the law as it stood in the 1850s. Quite different in some ways from the earlier part of the century, as well as from the difficulties Oscar Wilde was later to be faced with. I read about Victorian attitudes to sex. Not just the public attitudes but those expressed in diaries and letters and certainly never intended for the public eye. It became obvious that people in Victorian Britain were just as uninhibited and passionate as anyone today but they kept their behaviour far more private. And how did I find the books I needed to discover such information? By visiting the local library, checking its card catalogue, looking on the shelves to find books that might give me information, then looking through the bibliographies at the ends of the books for other titles that sounded as though they might be useful, and which I could borrow through inter-library loans. It was a slow process. One book took months to arrive and when it did, they had sent me the wrong volume (the library’s fault, not mine). The relevant volume arrived in record time!
Looking back through my research notes, I have details on men’s clothing: their outer clothes, depending on their status in life; their underwear (it was amazingly difficult to find out what the 1850s man wore under his trousers); the hats they wore; their general appearance. I have information on Victorian society of the time. I found out about Victorian servants, their jobs, and the hierarchy that existed in households. There are notes on bathrooms and plumbing in 19th century houses, on gardens and gardening, and flowers and plants that would have been grown at that time.
In libraries I found books that had photographs of London in the 1850s, including the parliament buildings and street scenes and houses to be found in the capital. I came across articles on London life, and information on railway journeys and railway stock. I read up about the Australian gold rush of the 1850s, and found out about illnesses that were common in Britain then and what sort of treatments were given to those who could call on a doctor for help.
I also wrote to museums and societies for information. I have a letter from the Merseyside Maritime Museum giving me details about emigration from Liverpool to New York and which docks the ships sailed from, as well as listing books that I might find to be of use. The National Railway Museum in York supplied me with details about Waterloo Station. I wrote to the House of Commons Library when I realised that parliamentary sessions of that period did not begin and end at the times they do today, and they gave me precise dates for the years I needed, as well as information on the buildings associated with Westminster.
I was given recipes and details of foodstuffs that an invalid might eat, as suggested by Mrs Beeton. I discovered newspapers from the 1850s in a very rundown second-hand bookshop, and they contained advertisements for servants for a variety of work and which was exactly what I needed. I bought and studied plans of the Liverpool docks at that period and postcards of paintings of them. Articles from The Illustrated London News, obtained through inter-library loan, were a mine of information on emigration and the whole process of leaving the country.
The house where I had set my story was then open to the public (it no longer is). I visited it on a weekend away to that part of the country and was able to look at its layout and grounds, including an old walled kitchen garden. I looked at plans and old photographs of the place, available from books on country houses and in guidebooks.
All this took some years (including several house moves and changes of job) and it was a case of constantly looking for information and checking what facts I could glean from the various sources. Everything was typed up on a manual typewriter with carbon papers between several sheets for copies. Insertions and additions meant pinning pieces of paper to the pages, or cutting up typed pages and rearranging where I wanted the text to go. Amstrads were available by then but I certainly couldn’t afford to own one. Compared with today’s ease of altering and amending text, it seems something of a marathon.
Would it be different today, now that the internet is available at the click of a mouse or a tap on a screen? There is a vast amount of information ‘out there’ and it would certainly be easier to find out some of what I needed to know, as well as in contacting various museums and societies through email, rather than having to compose a letter and post it and then wait for ages for a reply. I would be able to track down useful books and possibly a greater range of books than I could through looking at their bibliographies. My library service now gives me access to encyclopaedias and the full Oxford English Dictionary, with updates, which would have been very helpful when deciding what words were appropriate for the 1850s and which were far too modern.
But not everything is on the internet and not everything on the internet is accurate, as we all know. I still find in my current work that I usually have to go back to books for detailed information on a particular subject. The internet cannot help me. And details can make all the difference to a story. However, I think we now have the best of both worlds. When I came to revise the story for publication, the internet proved very helpful when I needed more photographs and descriptions of places and settings which I had not thought about before, so I was able to amend some details in the text (as well as taking editorial advice and cutting down on a cast of thousands, and rewriting the story in places). But overall, the work I did originally was not negated by anything I found out during the revisions. All the ways I used in order to do my research were of great help. It’s perhaps just a little less complicated these days.
Spies are fascinating. From the earliest times there have been men and women who risk their lives by sneaking into enemy territory to try to see what’s going on there and establish how much of a threat there is. There are even spies mentioned in the Bible, reconnoitring before invading Palestine and establishing a safe house in Jericho. The Romans had their speculators, men who could sound out possible supporters in territories ripe for annexation and spy on enemy forces. Sir Francis Walsingham had an enormous network of spies in the 16th century, and the European powers cultivated promising young officers who might prove to be good players in The Great Game.
But it wasn’t until the 20th century that anything like a formal secret service was established in the UK. Partly this was due to a lordly assumption that the Brits didn’t NEED to spy, they were just that good, but it was coupled with a very damaging attitude that spying was ‘not playing the game’ and that we shouldn’t stoop so low. Between 1900 and 1909 a series of intelligence disasters, including the discovery of a very highly placed German mole in the Foreign Office finally convinced the powers in charge that some kind of overview was needed. Army intelligence didn’t speak to Navy and the fledgling air force reported to whoever it felt like. Someone needed to draw the threads together. A small room in the War Office, designated M05, was allocated and two Captains, one of the Staffordshire Regiment, invalided out of service due to his ill health and the other from Naval intelligence, were asked to form a formal Secret Service Bureau. Not a promising start yet they outstripped all expectations.
Plagued by illness from strenuous service, Captain Vernon Kell had served all over the world and absorbed languages like a sponge. He had a formidable intelligence that didn’t hesitate to use whatever means were available to fool the enemy. He even employed criminals, even ones in jail, to produce what is now called disinformation, sending out forged letters with inaccurate figures via the foreign powers’ own ‘letter boxes’. He was also sensible enough to involve the police and worked with Scotland Yard to bring foreign spies to justice. His organisation eventually became MI5.
Kell’s opposite number, head of the infant MI6, was Madison Smith-Cumming, later known as C. He was an incredible character in his own right. He had a monocle, walked with the aid of a swordstick and had his own personal tank. His wooden leg became a secret service legend, as he never told the same story of its loss twice. Amongst other versions, he claimed that during a high speed chase he crashed his car and had to cut his own foot off with his pen knife to escape before he was caught by the enemy. But it is on record that he used to like to test the nerve of prospective spies by taking them out in his car and seeing how well they coped with being a passenger. He also used to startle people in meetings by stabbing himself in the wooden leg with a paperknife. With such an original at the helm it’s no wonder that there was a ramshackle, ‘make it up as you go along’ vibe to many of their operations. C had to use whoever volunteered and while some were genuinely talented patriots others were venal or fools. “All my men are blackguards!” he complained after one spectacularly failed mission. But they did enjoy some success and he encouraged technical innovation.
Concealed weapons, waistcoat button cameras, even exploding pens were possible. His men were also encouraged to improvise. Far from home and out of touch with their handlers, there would be plenty of times when they ran out of supplies and had to make do with whatever was to hand. For instance, C delighted in the discovery that semen makes an excellent invisible ink! However after a year or two of enthusiastic use – every man is his own fountain pen was one of his sayings – he had to recommend that it only be used with caution because the recipients of the notes complained of the smell.
If you are intrigued as we were to read Elin’s tale set in and around the British Secret Intelligence Service, do check out her novel ELEVENTH HOUR. It’s a cracking good yarn!
Elin will be off on a blog tour from Monday 22 August, during which she’ll be offering a giveaway of a backlist book plus a $10 gift card. We’ll post the links once they’re available.
It would probably not be letting too many cats out of too many bags to admit that books in general and characters in particular are usually inspired by someone or something the author has encountered in the course of everyday life. It may be a poem, a snippet of history, a person met at random at a bus stop or in a hospital corridor, a picture discovered on the Internet – or, indeed, just about anything else. (More than one book, for example, has been written as the result of someone playing a quest-type game, either online or with pencil and paper and a series of multi-faceted dice.)
My inspirations, on the whole, tend to be visual. It would be disingenuous to pretend that I haven’t, in my time, written a considerable amount of fan-fiction, some of which I’m extremely proud of, but the problem with fan-fiction is that it only works if both the author and the reader are familiar with the source material. That way there’s a kind of shorthand operating by which, for example, the name ‘Spock’ immediately conjures up a set of known reference points – he’s a Vulcan, his blood group is T-Negative, his parents are Sarek and Amanda, etc. etc. etc. It isn’t necessary to explain why Spock does certain things in a fan story, because his character is so well established already that the reader knows what to expect from him.
When you want to branch out and start writing your own original fiction, it’s immediately necessary to explain things about your characters that the reader can’t possibly know in advance. If you call your character ‘Tock’, say that he’s from a planet called Eros, his blood is X-Positive and his parents are Derek and Nora, you need to give your reader a chance to get to know him; the short-cuts offered by fan-fiction are no longer possible and, although you may have taken the TV (or indeed film) version of Spock as your inspiration, the reader has no way of knowing that and you are basically starting out to create your character completely from scratch.
On the other hand, this is also incredibly liberating; it means you get to discard features of the character you aren’t particularly fond of – you can get rid of an inconvenient spouse or partner or an irritating personal habit such as smoking – and reshape him or her to suit yourself. At what point he or she ceases to be the one you remember and becomes an independent creation is, of course, a moot point; by the end, all you may be left with is a vague memory of a certain actor in a certain film or TV series – but the character on the page is no longer that person, if he ever was. He has grown beyond that, and become uniquely himself.
This long preamble is by way of an explanation; I had unfinished business with the characters who eventually became Rick Wentworth and Harry Tilney, in the form of a piece of fan-fiction which was only ever half-written and was on my conscience for roughly thirty years. I can’t begin to tell you the tumult those thirty years represented in my life – probably best if you don’t know, actually, since I’d like you to be able to sleep at night – but, when the dust settled and I began writing seriously at last, it was important to me to return to that world and finish what I’d started there. Even if that meant going back to the very beginning and making the story over with characters who only superficially resembled the TV originals they’d once been.
If you start from scratch like that, it follows that you pretty much have to invent the details of the organisation the characters work for. In both the original TV show and the book they are employees of a British organisation responsible for national security which is perpetually starved of funds. They are cut-price James Bonds, the guys who do the day-to-day work and are more likely to end their day filling in forms than bedding a glamorous Soviet agent in a Mayfair hotel. They have their American counterparts, too, who are always better-resourced – but which side they’re on is anybody’s guess! And of course this is all set during the Cold War and it runs in parallel with John Le Carré’s ‘Smiley’ novels, because who wouldn’t want to write about the nitty-gritty of fieldwork in those days? I once stayed in an East German hotel where the listening devices had only recently been removed; it isn’t difficult to imagine what it must have been like just a few years earlier.
Constructing the London headquarters of Ghost Station in my mind, however, was the best fun of the whole book. I happen to be very fond of railways, and ghost stations in particular. (If you’re not familiar with the expression, see abandonedstations.org.uk.) Very few abandoned Tube stations seem to have been repurposed, at least as far as the underground sections are concerned, and it seemed that such a station would make an ideal secret base. It would be very similar, in fact, to Western Approaches Command in Liverpool, which I visited when I was writing MAKE DO AND MEND. Locating it involved a happy few hours poring over Tube maps, and inventing a spur line in a part of London I know reasonably well, to give my characters somewhere to operate from; Mr Le Carré has his famous ‘Circus’, and I have my ‘Ghost Station’.
It would be tedious to go into all the details of the book and describe the inspirations behind them – although a gentle online stroll around the abandoned sanatorium at Beelitz-Heilstätten is always worthwhile. Suffice it to say that, for any book, ideas can emerge from a bewildering variety of sources; the trick is combining them into something that will entertain the reader without taking too many liberties with anybody else’s copyrights.
On which note, I feel it’s probably safe to reveal that the original inspirations for the characters in GHOST STATION, thirty years ago when it was intended as fan-fiction (and pure action-adventure without any sex!) were Roy Marsden and the late Ray Lonnen in ‘The Sandbaggers’. That Rick and Harry grew a very long way beyond them and became other people goes without saying, I hope, but somewhere in the recesses of my mind they still look rather like Roy and Ray – as they were in the late 1970s, anyway – and for those who are not familiar with them this is how they looked back then. (That’s Ray Lonnen on the left, Roy Marsden on the right.) I really hope this revelation hasn’t ruined the book for anybody, though!
We’re delighted to announce that the paperback edition of GHOST STATION has just been released!