DANCE OF STONE can’t claim the record gestation of Cimorene Ross’s THE EAGLE’S WING, but I do recall that I bought the first book for research purposes in the late 1980s. It had to be a book, for even in university libraries the internet was unheard-of. I researched for six happy months or more, and then Ken Follett published Pillars of the Earth, his (unreadable, at least by me) novel of mediaeval cathedral-building, and stopped me in my tracks.

Finishing the unfinished, so many years later, there have been revelations: how much information is online; how a book planned to be 50,000 words long can explode to twice its length under the pressure of history; how medieval studies have changed since I was an undergraduate (1980-1983, for the record).

Books, of course, are still indispensable. One arrived too late, or I would definitely have borrowed from it: Medieval obscenities, editor Nicola McDonald. Who knew that there were spoof pilgrim badges depicting a prick on legs? And how about the cover?

Jane SW blog illustration

One sentence in the Introduction struck me: “For all of the famed restrictions of Christian doctrine and medieval modes of social conduct, the Middle Ages was, perhaps paradoxically, a period that seems to have accommodated, in ways our liberal society does not or seems not to, what we might broadly call the rude, bawdy or obscene.”

And, if obscenity, why not homosexuality? Could the Middle Ages have accommodated it in a way later European society didn’t? And if so, why do we know so little about that?

But first, a reminder:

  1. The Church had nothing against men loving one another – in the spiritual sense.
  2. When it came to the fleshly sense, even the heterosexual population was perilously and perennially on the verge of committing the deadly sin of Lechery.

There are fifty shades of everything…

So, researching “Homosexuality in the Middle Ages”. Questions: Did it actually happen? Can I research something for which there is so little record? And – homosexuality?

Last question first: the word “homosexuality” is first recorded (not in English) in 1869. One could dive very deep into queer theory, and drown in arguments. Was there a male/male relationship culture at any period in history, or simply the act of men making love and/or having sex with other men? Whether or no: did the change between “then” and “now” happen in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or the Regency or … when? And what exactly is meant by sodomy? (quite a lot: anal sex with a woman; heterosexual intercourse with a pagan; with a Jew; with a Muslim… )

Middle question. Yes, research is easy with the internet. Accurate research is another matter. Objectivity, for example: a clerk’s Latin poem can be interpreted as an expression of platonic love or of forbidden desire (although there seems little room for doubt when a monk writes of sex “between the slippery thighs of boys” being better than sex with a woman). In the context of DANCE OF STONE, what about the Lionheart? We’ve all seen that episode with Richard and Philip in The Lion in Winter, haven’t we?

*sigh* It seems to depend on the researcher’s sexuality; and on whether said researcher likes the person in question. One gay historian includes Richard I as a homosexual because of the word “bedfellow”; another gay historian excludes (in another case) James I, because the word “bedfellow” doesn’t necessarily have that meaning. Take your pick.

Then there is the problem of what was recorded, and whether the record survived. The late twelfth century just preceded the great record-keeping mania of Henry III’s reign and onwards. Adam Lock is recorded as master mason at Wells from the 1190s to 1230. Of his predecessor there is no trace; but in the gap between the unknown and the recorded, imagination has room to play. That predecessor could have been Hugh de Barham.

First question last: Did male/male sex happen? Of course it did: as a behaviour, it’s surely as old as human desire. And there are records, of a sort: the penitentials allocate scales of penance for men confessing – one wonders how many didn’t confess! – to sex with another man. And why have a penance for something that doesn’t happen?

But, remarkably – despite all the penitentials, despite the thunderings concerning “love against nature”, despite the threat of damnation – genuine accusations, trials, convictions for sodomy, are few. Vanishingly few.


Theory a) The threats and penitence were deterrent enough, and it didn’t happen…

Hmm… seems unlikely.

Theory b) People were not actually that bothered by it to the point of bringing it to trial.

Could be. In England common law still had priority over canon (church) law, as Thomas Becket found when at loggerheads with Henry II. Sodomy was a moral, therefore a church, offence, not a civil crime – unless rape was involved, and even then it was almost impossible to secure a conviction unless the person attacked was under age.

Theory c) It happened, and it was kept secret.

I have played with this theory in DANCE OF STONE, based on the wisps of evidence that can be dug from the sources; the “half-world” that Hugh encounters in The Swan might be the evolutionary ancestor of the molly-houses and male brothels of later centuries.

One last thing made Hugh’s story possible: the time when he lived. Medieval Christianity was not as monolithic and inflexible as popular prejudice has it: there were opinions and counter-opinions and factions and even atheists, in other words a constant to-and-fro of ideas with a certain amount of give-and-take. England, in fact, was considered remarkable for housing people who held all sorts of dissident opinions while not subscribing to any organised heresy.

This all changed when the anti-Cathar, Albigensian Crusade swept bloodily across the south of France, not long after the ending of DANCE OF STONE. Faced with external threats, the Church began to draw in upon itself, to become the Us against the Other; after 1214 sodomy was perceived as a sign of, indeed part and parcel of, heresy. This perception held firm in England until 1562; quite unintentionally, I had set Hugh and his story in the last decade for centuries when he would be safe from the worst excesses of the law, if not from the prejudices of his fellow men and women.

When I began it, DANCE OF STONE was intended to be a straight – in every sense of the word – historical novel. Then Fiona asked if I would write something medieval for Manifold Press, and I planned an M/M romance with a medieval setting. Researching to the depth I needed has, however, changed the book I meant to write, and now it is – I hope – a serious historical novel, featuring two men whose just happen to desire other men, whether in love or lust. I hope you enjoy reading it!


Everyone who writes historical fiction must enjoy research and want to reflect in their writing the customs of their chosen period of history. I'm not referring to the 'historicals' read by devotees of the romance shelves back in the days when I was a junior in the library – their only connections with history were usually long skirts, carriages rather than cars, and no electricity – although I do remember we whiled away boring late-opening nights by looking for glaring anachronisms in the cheaper end of the market. The advent of the internet has made research much easier and leaves the author with no excuse for not checking facts, although I must admit that I still prefer books; indeed, Fiona and Morgan have complained for years that I love research more than writing! They may have a point, otherwise it wouldn't have taken me more than thirty years to complete THE EAGLE'S WING. The story itself, though, actually first emerged twenty years before that as a 6th Form project, after 'A' Levels were over and when we needed an occupation – apart from the 6th Form play – until the end of the term. Some of that original survived into the finished novel, so coming from a long line of pack-rats definitely has its advantages! However, as other people have already discussed the joys of research in these guest blogs, Fiona suggested that perhaps I might explore homosexuality in the ancient world – and, after knowing her for nearly forty years, I know when to take the hint!

Because very few non-religious texts survive from classical times, it is impossible to make any definitive statements. Opinions differ over the social norms regarding sexual life, and in any case there must have been considerable variation throughout the centuries and civilisations from Sumer to the Hittites. In the few texts mentioning homosexuality in Ancient Egypt, for example, only the New Kingdom Book of the Dead implied that it was condemned. As may be expected, some scholars believe that this was only aimed at priests and other personnel who were banned from any form of sex on temple premises.

Egyptian society expected every male to marry early and produce children, so both prostitution and homosexuality were officially frowned upon but probably flourished regardless. Once a man was married, with a household of his own, he no doubt lived the rest of his life precisely as he pleased. As with all ancient civilisations, however, our knowledge is based on the upper classes; the hoi polloi were too busy scraping a living to become educated or to leave much evidence of their lives.

It's in the myths of the Egyptian gods where the topic of homosexuality takes a starring role; Seth and Horus were not condemned for their night of passion so much as that it developed into complicated infighting in the hierarchy of the gods, an all-too-common occurrence in the pantheons of ancient civilisations.

There is a funeral stele showing two young men face-to-face – and, likewise, two theories. The simple one is that they were a gay couple, the other that they were twins buried together as they were born together and thus creating the balance the Egyptians lived by. Take your pick; expert opinion, as always, is deeply divided!

Another story is straight out of the defunct tabloid newspaper 'The News of the World'; a pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom was observed sneaking out of the palace at night to visit his lover, a general in the army. Funnily enough, it wasn't his choice of paramour that incensed people; their complaint was that he brought the kingship into disrepute by sloping out under cover of darkness.

By the time of the Greeks, and then the Romans, there are plenty of texts including laws, literature and graffiti. In Greece the heterosexual relationship wasn't the centre of social life; women were uneducated and confined to the home, while men conducted their lives in public. Educating a youth to become a man, a worthy citizen, was the responsibility of an older man – a relationship bound by strict rules of courtship and behaviour which was only supposed to last a specific period of time. Continuing in the passive role as an adult was frowned upon but not unknown; once maturity was reached and facial hair sprouted the youth was supposed to abandon the passive role – both cultural and sexual – to take his place in civic life, marry, raise children and become the educator of his own beloved youth. It was a way of life which had started as an initiation rite in pre-classical times and reached its peak in the last few centuries before Rome conquered Greece. The Greeks didn't differentiate between homosexuality and heterosexuality so much as between active and passive patterns of behaviour.

Rome held no truck with the Greek way of courting a beloved, or of educating the object of desire; to an upper-class Roman, this was merely lack of virility. A male Roman had to be the active one in any sexual encounter, regardless of the gender of his partner, and the passive male sexual partner of a Roman had to be of a class lower than his own – whereas in Greece the chosen beloved had to be freeborn and from a good family.

Rome rejected the Greek tradition of 'courtly love', as losing oneself in love and sensuality was considered moral slavery and thus a dark shame – especially if it affected public deportment and social relations. It was felt that a well-born man must never submit himself either physically or morally to an inferior of either sex – and all women were by nature considered inferior!

By the late Republic and early Empire standards had slipped, and Rome embraced pleasure with enthusiasm. Augustus introduced laws attempting to restore morality to his city – without much effect, as the upper-class man, including Augustus himself, continued not to distinguish between male and female partners. There was no such thing as privacy in Rome; the Romans had no need of the internet – their 'social networking' came in the form of household slaves. Members of the ruling class were never alone, and their slaves gossiped – at the fountain, in the markets and shops, and while attending their masters in public. Gossip must have spread widely to reach the ears of the masters and mistresses, and thus it's no wonder that the literature of ancient Rome comprises such a vast amount of scandal.

Sadly, however, in time the more open attitudes of the pagan world died out; belief in the old gods faded, and the harsh laws of the new religions of Christianity and Islam were enforced with a severity that had never previously been encountered. Sic transit gloria mundi.



At first, it seemed to me that I might have difficulty deciding on a subject for my guest blog, since my fellow authors have already staked out the territory so ably. I feel much the same way as F.M. Parkinson about proof-reading and editing, for example, and take just as much delight in research as Morgan Cheshire; from that point of view, they’ve already said more or less everything I might have wanted to say myself on either subject. (Although I do envy Morgan that workhouse trip, despite all the travelling involved!) However I was lucky enough to have one of those great ‘light-bulb’ moments when inspiration strikes out of a clear blue (well, grey, actually) sky, and it came to me all of a sudden that one subject I have particularly strong feelings about is the heroes themselves.

To me, the very definition of a hero is that he is flawed. Although I grew up on a diet of superhero comics, physical perfection – or any other kind of perfection – in a hero is not particularly interesting to me. After all, if a man has great physical powers and a massive intellect, as well as … let’s say … shining azure eyes and a tousled mop of blond curls, he’s actually likely to get on people’s nerves rather a lot. I suspect that’s why as a general rule we expect our actors and sports people to have feet of clay – and why we’re never really surprised when we hear that they’ve been caught out in a sex scandal or cheating on their taxes – because we know that perfection is impossible and we instinctively distrust anything that seems too good.

That’s why I prefer heroes who are world-weary, or who have been beaten-up by life to a greater or lesser extent. I like them to have achieved a certain amount of self-knowledge, to have sorted out their priorities, and to be able to recognise the potential for a satisfying long-term relationship when it comes their way – no matter in what unprepossessing guise. You see – and I say this with great respect to those authors who see things differently – I just don’t believe looks matter a row of beans; it’s what’s beneath the surface that counts most.

That’s why you’ll find very few – if any – gorgeous 27-year-old hunks in my books. (And even fewer who are younger than that!) I won’t pretend that at 27 a man isn’t capable of being heroic or of making life-changing decisions – of course they are, because men of that age are serving in the armed forces and getting married every day of the week and in every country in the world. They’re also, however, wildly over-represented in romantic fiction – to the extent that I’m aware of some people who think romance, heroism and even sex are either indecent or frankly impossible for anybody over the age of 30 or who isn’t drop-dead gorgeous. (Or indeed both!) Not only that, but there is a distinct subset of opinion that ugly or geeky or clumsy or unhappy people don’t deserve to be loved by anybody, and that’s so flagrantly unjust as well as unkind that I’m determined to do anything I possibly can to showcase more unconventional heroes and hopefully redress the balance a bit.

The storylines that appeal to me are the ones in which ordinary men – the sort you might see at the bus stop, or queueing in the Post Office – are presented with situations and choices that they’re not fully prepared to meet. I like to challenge them, to shake them up a bit, to move the goal-posts in what might previously have been a generally uninteresting life. Take Chad in DEAR MISTER PRESIDENT, for example; he’s minding his own business one day when Fate unexpectedly gives him the opportunity of saving the President’s life. If Chad hadn’t been at work that day, or if he hadn’t intervened, the history of the world would have been very different – and yet Chad’s no conventional hero, he’s an image analyst with a back-room job and no great claim to personal beauty; he’s simply the right guy in the right place at the right time. Those are the people I care about, the ones who make life pleasanter – or even possible – for others in a thousand tiny ways simply by existing, and by doing what they do.

There’s a film called ‘Something For a Lonely Man’, in which the romantic hero is played by Dan Blocker – yes, ‘Hoss’ from ‘Bonanza’ of all people – but that doesn’t make it any better or worse than your traditional love story, just different. There’s also ‘Clerks II’, which features among other things a love story between ordinary-looking Brian O’Hallorhan as Dante and the stunning Rosario Dawson as Becky; it’s believable because we’re shown why a beautiful woman might well be interested in a man who doesn’t look like a Hollywood star – she can see through the humble exterior and learns to value the person he is inside. These are a couple of examples from the heterosexual world, but the same holds true across the board – whether it’s men loving men, women loving women, or a mixture. “We do not love people because they are beautiful,” says the proverb, “they are beautiful because we love them.” Or, to paraphrase Howard Keel in ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, “If looks were all that mattered, there’d be a power of lonely [people] in the world.” Also, if looks were all that mattered, there would be far fewer interesting storylines in the world – and far fewer fascinating characters for authors like me to write about – which is one of the many reasons why I’m profoundly grateful that it isn’t so!


Some thoughts on the use of language in our work, and the vital role of the proofreader, from the author of THE WALLED GARDEN.

– – – – –

Does it matter how we spell words or whether we use the correct grammar and punctuation? Is proofreading really necessary? Does any of it make a difference to the reader’s enjoyment of the text? As someone who is a proofreader as well as a writer and, of course, a reader, I feel quite strongly about the subject and consider that it does not always receive the attention it deserves.

At its most basic, proofreading is checking that the spelling, punctuation and layout of a text are correct according to current usage and the publisher’s own ‘house style’. I emphasise current usage, because spelling, grammar and layout have changed over the years. There are many words where we no longer need to put in an apostrophe to show that they have been shortened. Who now would write ’phone (for telephone) or ’bus (for omnibus)? Where British English used to use a ‘z’ in a word, it now often puts an ‘s’, so it has ‘realise’ rather than ‘realize’. Both are correct and it may come down to the publisher’s house style as to which letter is used in certain words. The proofreader will need to know in advance which style is being used.

There is also a difference between British English and American English when it comes to spelling, word usage and punctuation. Again, it is up to the publisher to decide on whether one or the other is used, and that may depend on whether the writer usually writes in American English, or whether the story is set in the USA or Canada and reads more naturally if the text is in American English. When it comes to spelling, American English tends to prefer ‘z’ in spelling rather than ‘s’, so once again we are back to ‘realize’. Word usage is different, so ‘sidewalk’ rather than ‘pavement’. Moreover, words change their meaning from one version of English to another. In American English, ‘homely’ is usually used in the sense of ‘unattractive’. British English does not have this meaning for the word. Again, the proofreader has to be aware of which version of English is being used in a text, and can then check it accordingly. (Australian English is different again!)

Punctuation is equally important. It allows the writer to indicate what they mean in the text, and it enables to reader to follow what is happening, who is speaking and, hopefully, understand what the writer meant. That may make no difference to someone who is not bothered about punctuation but I imagine most people who read a lot have a reasonably good grasp of it. Again, it can vary according to current usage, house style and whether British or other variations of English are followed. It may even be down to the idiosyncratic views of the writer. Someone may choose to write twenty pages of text without a single full stop. Their writing may be brilliant and regarded as innovative. I suspect they are the exception. Most authors will probably be seen as not having bothered with proofreading and they, their editor and publisher may be regarded as putting out works that are poor in quality because no-one can follow what the writer is trying to say. One writer I have come across insisted on putting the full stop outside the quotation marks at the end of direct speech, because they liked the look of it that way. It may have seemed all right to them but not to anyone else.

As a writer, I want to make it clear to a reader what I mean in the text, and who is saying what. As a reader, I want to enjoy the story without constantly trying to work out who is speaking, or whether the author meant this – or that. The reader can glean this from the way punctuation is used, so it is important to get that right. What they do not want is to be ‘thrown out’ of the story through being confused by the text.

Admittedly, there are variations in style. For example, it is not always necessary to use quotation marks to indicate direct speech. It can be done in other ways. That may be up to the way the publisher prefers a text, bearing in mind that the most readers are more familiar with quotation marks rather than any variations.

It is also necessary to be aware of punctuation and how it has been used in a text. A comma in the wrong place (or missing) can make a huge difference to the meaning of a sentence. “Stick it in, Thomas” is completely different from “stick it in Thomas”. In the first version, Thomas is being asked to stick something in. The second version tells the reader that Thomas is about to have something stuck in him. It is the comma that makes all the difference. When checking the text, if the meaning is unclear the proofreader should query it, so that the author or editor has another look at it.

Styles in layout have changed and vary even now. It used to be the norm that direct speech always had to start as a new paragraph. That is no longer adhered to. You will find direct speech suddenly beginning in the middle of a long paragraph of exposition. I find that disconcerting, but it is not necessarily incorrect. I have also come across direct speech of a second character following on from that of the first, all in the same paragraph. That is not a good idea, because the text starts to become jumbled for the reader. It is much clearer if the writer begins a new paragraph when another character starts speaking. In terms of layout of text, that again will depend on the publisher, and the proofreader will need to take their cue from accepted house style.

Is it the job of a proofreader to point out other mistakes the writer has made? No, but it may save red faces all round if the error is mentioned. Then it is up to the editor and/or writer to decide what to do about it. If a story is set in 2013 in Yugoslavia, then the country name is wrong for that date, and the author or editor will have to correct it or accept that readers will undoubtedly point out the error. Or if a character has been called Kenneth throughout the novel and then is suddenly referred to as Michael (and I have come across this in published books), flag it up.

Writers do not always use the correct word and a proofreader should be on the lookout for that. I was a bit startled to read in a book by a very successful writer that the protagonist did not care whether a government official conducted his public duties in a solid building or in a marquis. While this conjured up all sorts of mind-boggling images, what was on the page was not what the author had meant, because the text made it clear that the permanence of a stone building was being compared with the temporary nature of a large tent. At this point, I was ‘thrown out’ of the story and had a good chortle. Whether the wrong word was the author’s, or whether it had been changed along the way by a second or third party, who knows. Certainly no-one picked up the error before the book was published.

Other bugbears of mine are the use of ‘precipitous’ when the writer means ‘precipitate’, and writers putting ‘may’ when they mean ‘might’ (and vice versa). Confusing ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ is another common occurrence. This is complicated by the fact that colloquially the words are often interchanged, but in both British English and American English the correct usage is the same, and putting ‘he lays on the bed’ begs the question ‘What exactly does he lay on the bed? An egg?’

As a writer, of course you should check your own work. That means proofreading the text, not just spell-checking it. No computer can indicate that you have put ‘forth’ when you meant ‘fourth’. A proofreader should then check the text and its layout and that should go back to an author to be corrected. However, do not accept all corrections as gospel and be aware that a proofreader may not have spotted a mistake. I discovered I had a character peeing into some bushes where another character was hiding. Nothing wrong with that except that it was not what I had intended to write. The character should have been peering into the bushes to discover the person hidden there. Maybe peeing was a more interesting alternative…



In the book I am currently writing the two main characters have spent part of their childhood in a workhouse at the beginning of the 20th century. I do a lot of research for my work and one of the first and best books I bought was ‘The Workhouse Encyclopaedia’ by Peter Higginbotham who is an acknowledged expert on the subject. This had a list of former workhouses and I found that The Weaver Hall Museum (formerly known as The Salt Museum) in Nantwich, Cheshire, is housed in a former workhouse. Being able to visit Nantwich quite easily, I and my research partner (she accompanies me and asks questions, sometimes awkward ones) went to Nantwich – not so much to visit the museum, as to look at the building. While we were there I saw a notice announcing that there was going to be a Workhouse Study Day in a few weeks, so I signed up to attend.

I had to set off extremely early in the morning to attend the study day; registration was at 9.45 in the morning and I had to catch two buses to get to Nantwich – but there was coffee and biscuits when I arrived!

The day had a varied programme: Roy Clinging, a musician and local historian, told us about the background to some of the songs written about the workhouse and poverty. He and his wife sang several of them, accompanied by a sqeezebox or penny whistle.

I was able to speak to Peter Higginbotham and thank him for replying to a question I had e-mailed him. He told us about the food that was served up to the inmates. He has published several books on aspects of life in the workhouse and I bought a copy of ‘The Workhouse Cookbook’.

At the beginning of the workhouse era the food was very poor; bread and butter and bread and cheese alternating for supper; poor quality meat and broth for dinner and bread and beer for breakfast, but it did slowly improve over the years. In 1901 (just before my story is set) The National School of Cookery was instructed to devise a manual of workhouse cookery containing a variety of recipes for soups, main courses and puddings. Mr Higginbotham had come prepared and actually cooked some of the dishes for us to try. Golden Pudding containing flour, fat and golden syrup was extremely nice and most of us enjoyed trying it, but other dishes were not so popular.

In another session workhouse discipline was discussed and Dr Carter used documents from Southwell Workhouse to illustrate his talk. The Workhouse, Southwell, is owned by the National Trust and is the most complete workhouse in existence (half of the Nantwich workhouse had been pulled down). To visit Southwell would mean a journey of 160 miles there and back but a friend of mine has similar interests in social history and her husband was willing to take us there and back. Bless him.

The Workhouse is a fascinating place to visit and is presented as it was in the 19th century although it was still in use in the 20th; renamed Greet House in 1913 to house elderly people, in 1926 a new hospital treated cancer and tuberculosis patients. In 1929 all former workhouses passed from the Guardians who had previously been in charge of them to the local authorities, and Southwell became a Public Assistance Institution which still segregated inmates by sex and age – and those who could were still expected to work. The women’s wing was used by the council until 1977 as temporary homeless accommodation in bed-sits for mothers and children awaiting permanent housing. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the last of the staff and residents moved away.

When visiting The Workhouse today you can explore the yards separated by high walls for men, women and children. There was only one place in the yards where you could not be overlooked by the Master, whose private rooms and office were in the centre of the complex.

As you go into Southwell there is a video explaining its history and also a scale model showing the various rooms and their relationship to each other.

It is a given that life in the workhouse was very hard. We went down into the cellars, very cold with the only light coming from small round windows high up in the wall at the end of tunnels through the walls which are at least two feet thick. Women used to work down there preparing vegetables for the kitchen, often in water up to their ankles.

The staircases in the house were arranged so that men and women had no contact with each other on their way to and from the dormitories and day-rooms. In the dormitories you could see how the beds had been arranged with a peg in the wall beside each bed to hang up your clothes at night. The guide pointed out that the rooms were well ventilated but were cold in the winter and hot in the summer, especially those near the roof. Windows were frosted so that one section could not see into another, and every aspect of daily life was ruled by routine.

The work of the house was carried out by the inmates; cleaning, cooking, any nursing that was required, laundry and gardening, but you could leave the workhouse by giving only three hours’ notice. You had to surrender your workhouse uniform and collect your own clothes, and a man had to take his family with him, but otherwise you were free to leave.

The workhouse was not a prison, but I am sure it often felt like one to the people obliged to live there.



Like all historical novelists, I do a ton of research for my books. Full disclosure – I am not a historian, I use the internet for research, and I fudge my dates. Still, there’s a lot of information that I’ve learned over the years that paints a fascinating portrait of life on the western frontier and I thought I’d share some of that with you.

(This post mostly deals with food, since that is a topic of near-universal interest. If you’d like to hear more about sheep breeding, dry land farming, and/or what gunfights and prostitution was really like in the old west (spoiler: not like it is in my books), let me know. I always enjoy rambling about research.)

The first thing to know is that food choices and availability varied wildly between the eastern costal states and the rest of the country. In the east, food was abundant and remarkably varied, with one restaurant serving over 200 different kinds of meat (each cut of meat from an animal was counted separately, and in addition to standard livestock, they also served squirrel, opossum, venison, and other wild game). The land was fertile and water was plentiful, which meant large crop yields, and the north-south stretch of the coastline covered a large temperature range, allowing for a wide variety of different crops to be grown.

Once you got past the eastern mountain ranges, however, finding adequate food supplies grew significantly more challenging. The land was fertile, but dry, which limited crop yields and variety, and the lack of easy transportation for the earlier half of the century meant that getting supplies from other locations was difficult, if not impossible.

One of the most fascinating articles I’ve ever read about food in the 1800s can be found here ( Most interesting for me is the standard list of supplies carried on the Oregon Trail. A lot of what you’d expect is on the list (flour, beans, bacon), but there are some practical items that I’d never thought of, including baking soda (called saleratus at the time) and dried fruit (which was much more commonplace and cheaper then than it is now).

The full list: flour, pilot bread, bacon, rice, coffee, tea, sugar, dried beans, dried fruit, saleratus [baking soda], salt, corn meal, ground corn, vinegar.

This list is pretty much my pantry when writing my books (where everyone lives conveniently close to a supply town:), but the reality is that many of these items wouldn’t be available to the average frontier family. For them, the bulk of their supplies would come from their vegetable garden, from the animals that they hunted, and from the wild plants that they gathered. Salt was absolutely vital for the preservation of meat and vegetables, while sugar was necessary to make dried fruit palatable (and often played a part in preserving as well).

As for the luxuries: coffee came in the form of green, unroasted beans. They would be roasted and ground right before being either simmered in the cook pan or, in the latter part of the century, brewed in percolators. Chocolate was actually available as early as the late 1700s, in some parts of the country (read: east coast), and by 1850 it was available on both coasts. Surprisingly enough, it was sometimes found on the Oregon Trail, where some wagons carried the makings of hot chocolate, though it more closely resembled coffee than it did today’s hot chocolate. Canned foods first became readily available in the latter part of the century, with the first modern-day can opener patented in the 1860s and both Borden and Campbell’s opening up canning factories in the decades immediately after.

In general, food on the western frontier was fatty, salty, and high in calories. The hard work that they had to put in just to feed themselves, however, meant that many families struggled just to meet their basic calorie needs. For them, that simple list of trail supplies would have been a feast to remember.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @IMJaneElliot


A Paean to Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia. I may have mentioned that already in my blog. A few times. But it bears repeating! And I’m sure there are some likeminded folk out there reading this right now…

Just the other day my husband and I were watching an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit when they mentioned ‘the Dark Net’ – you know, where all the really nasty stuff is kept. “They’re just making that up!” I scoff. Bruce promptly hauls his laptop over, and a few taps later he says, “Actually, there’s a page on Wikipedia…” I totally LOL’d.

I was fascinated to find related Wikipedia articles on:

  • the Deep Web, which is all the (mostly innocent) stuff that simply isn’t or can’t be picked up by search engines, which trawl the Surface Web;

  • a Darknet, which is a network where only trusted peers can interact, and can do so anonymously. Wikipedia suggests that ‘Darknets are often associated with dissident political communications and illegal activities’, so I’m guessing that’s what the SVU were investigating; and

  • the Dark Internet, which refers to computers or networks that are deliberately not connected to the Internet, or are so obsolete as to not be able to connect.

Fascinating stuff! Okay, if I were writing a dissertation rather than novels, I wouldn’t rely on Wikipedia, but still. It’s quick, convenient, and full of things you never knew you needed to know.

Perhaps my favourite page ever is Toilet paper orientation – a page so long and detailed that it includes nine sections titled Context and relevance, Preliminaries, Arguments, Survey results, Themes (three subheadings), Consequences, Similar controversies, Solutions (two subheadings) and Noted preferences. Not to mention a raft of endnotes and references… You won’t find a pesky little ‘This article needs additional citations’ warning here! Someone took this topic very very seriously indeed.

As well they might. This is serious stuff. I stumbled across the article while writing my novel The Apothecary’s Garden in which Hilary, a lifelong loner, is coming to terms with sharing his home with Tom. ‘Now,’ I wondered, ‘what are the issues they’d face…?’ I replied immediately, of course. I didn’t have to look far at all for an answer. ‘They hang the toilet paper rolls in opposite directions!!!’ There was more total LOL’ing. ‘Perfect,’ I respond, high–fiving myself.

You may well be nodding to indicate your deep understanding of this issue right now. If you’re not, well… all I can say is that Bruce and I moved into our current home over eight years ago. Neither bathroom nor en suite had a toilet roll holder when we moved in. And (despite some desultory shopping efforts way back when) they still don’t. The toilet roll sits on a nearby shelf instead, and it doesn’t matter which way up it’s standing. It’s arrangements like this that save marriages, I tell you!

In any case, I needed to know what terms to actually use to describe the different orientations, so I Googled something that must have been appropriate, for the relevant Wikipedia article was listed first in the search results. What more could I possibly need to know about the matter?

Like any encyclopaedia (or dictionary or thesaurus), it’s hard to stop at just one titbit of information… and of course those hyperlinks make it all too easy to browse your winding way through some of the four million articles… until you overload your short–term memory and entirely forget what you were looking for in the first place.

Beware the home page! It tempts you hither and thither with a featured article, current news–related articles, ‘Did you know…’ questions from the newest content, and ‘On this day…’ snippets as well.

Which is how I found out that Liu Rushi (1618–1664) was a famous courtesan and poet in the late Ming dynasty, who ‘embarked on a campaign to marry the respected scholar Qian Qianyi’ by dressing in men’s clothing and asking him his opinion on one of her poems. Within a year she’d moved in, they were together until he died, and their poetry was published together as well as separately. Wikipedia notes that ‘her affinity for cross–dressing persisted after they were married … on occasion [she] made calls on her husband’s behalf whilst dressed in his Confucian robes’. What an awesome pair they must have been!

From any Wikipedia page you can click on the Random article link, which might lead you anywhere else. Which is a useful way to introduce my last example, because I cannot for the life of me remember how I stumbled across it. I was very pleased I did, though!

The article is titled Competent man, and it describes ‘a stock character [male or female] who can do anything perfectly, or at least exhibits a very wide range of abilities and knowledge, making him a form of polymath’. This isn’t a concept I knew about when I wrote The Definitive Albert J Sterne, but it was such a joy to find the article, as that is exactly what I had in mind for Albert himself.

Albert isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article, mind you! Cited examples include the well–loved Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, and the awesome Buckaroo Banzai, along with the somewhat more expected Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and The Doctor from Doctor Who.

What really cracked me up here, however, was serendipitously discovering The Most Interesting Man in the World, a character in an advertising campaign for beer, who is ‘a bearded, debonair gentleman in his 70s’ (bless his silk socks). Outrageous tales of his youthful derring–do  are recounted in a dryly humorous style. I’m laughing just re–reading the article! (And while we’re here, I also love how these off–beat topics are somehow made to fit into the encyclopaedic template. The Most Interesting Man’s occupation is listed as ‘Advisor’.)

On that droll note, it’s time for one last random article… which in this case is the disambiguation for Salivary nuclei… And I didn’t know I needed to know that! Thank you once more, Wikipedia. I doff my hat.


For the second in our occasional series of author guest blogs, we’re very happy to present CHRIS QUINTON – author of (among many others!) the highly-acclaimed FOOL’S ODYSSEY trilogy, who addresses a particularly topical subject:

There was a long gap between the publishing of Fool’s Oath, the second in the Fool’s Odyssey trilogy, and Fool’s Rush. People have asked me why over the intervening months. I had the plot all worked out, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the various arcs, so what the hell happened? The answer is simple and summed up in one name: Xavi.

Picture the scene – versions of which occurred over and over again and ended up with Fool’s Rush sitting on the back burner for months –

Okay, I think, poised over my keyboard. This is the chapter where I can get deeper into Andreas’ head and bring in lots more about the situation back in the States. That way I can—

*No,* says the voice in my head. There’s a distinct impression of sharp elbows stuck out, heels dug in and a tantrum on its way. *No way.*

“Oh, yes,” I say aloud. The dogs on my bed twitch their ears and roll over. “I’m writing this bloody story, not you, sunshine.”

*I’m living this bloody story,* he snaps, arms folded over his nicely muscled chest, his golden eyes glaring angrily. God, he does ‘smolder’ so well! *It’s all about me! How long did you spend building my back-story? Pages of detail that’ll never appear in the story just to make me real? For fuck’s sake, woman! Stick to your own agenda!*

“I am!” I bite back. “That’s exactly what I’m doing! So you are going to sit down and shut up and let me spend some time with Andreas! Wait your turn, you little shit!” The dogs raise their heads and stare at me. Had I said ‘walk’? Or ‘treat’ Then Rain flops back onto the cushions and Hazel hops down to steal one of my shoes and I have to charge after her to rescue it. There are no treats on offer and no walk either. The Mad Woman is just talking to herself again. “It is A Cunning Plan! I’ve got the chapters mapped out, remember? This story is as much about Andreas as you, it’s his journey as well—”

*You aren’t listening to me!* It’s a hiss, and I wonder if he’s actually going to stamp his foot. *Read my profile! I start out as a street rat and end up as a fucking vampire with a lover I wouldn’t trade for all the gold in the world! What’s the name of the trilogy? FOOL’S ODYSSEY! And the fool is me, right? So to hell with the political situation in America! And your mapped chapters!* He spits that last bit out as if it’s something obscene.

“No!” I yell.

*Yes!* he yells louder, and he has that mulish expression on his face I know means that
neither heaven nor hell will drag him from his chosen course.

He’s right, of course. I’ve committed one of the cardinal sins of writing. I stopped listening to my characters.

I give in ungraciously, snarl a lot and grab my notebook. I take myself off to my local coffee shop and do some serious re-plotting… The end result is that Fool’s Rush completes Xavi’s journey in exactly the way it should, and I have chunks of text lying around waiting to be reworked.

Characters. Those insistent voices in your head that won’t shut up, won’t go away. It doesn’t matter where they sprang from. The moment they appear in your skull demanding you write their story, they are yours in a unique way that no one can take from you. It doesn’t matter if they have a physical resemblance to your Uncle George or Aunt Fanny, or to actors on the TV or cinema screen, or to characters in your favorite novels. The back-stories you give them, the plot arcs you create, the research you do, make them yours. All you have to do is listen to them. Which isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Which brings me to the skirmishing that seems to start every so often – more so since 50 Shades hit the mainstream. Fan fiction and the reworking of same for publication and sale as original work. People get on their high horses and shout their opinions – others shout back, refusing to be cowed.

Why the fuss? Inspiration comes from everywhere. It’s just as valid if it’s a scene on the screen, your favourite actor’s [rather stunning] green eyes, or a conversation overheard at the bus stop. It may seem at first that you’re streaming the character – let’s call him Billy Bloggs – but no writer worth their salt can leave the displayed details alone. Why does Billy react the way he does to given situations – has the show/film/book/explained that at all? No? Or not sufficiently? Then you create the psychological reasons. You research, you build a family tree, family relationships, things that perhaps will never appear in the story, but form layer upon layer of Billy’s personality. You place him or her in situations far removed from the show/film/book, and most of the hard work – and it is hard work – of writing a story has been done. Change the names, any of the remaining borrowed background, and you have a piece of original fiction. It may even – horror of horrors – actually be better than the show/film/book that struck the original spark.

Now it seems that Amazon has recognised the worth of fan fiction – or perhaps the profit it could glean from it. (Read more here, if you haven’t already.)

Where does that leave those who shout against the sale of fan fiction, saying that those writers shouldn’t profit from other people’s work? In the same situation of those who write it – mostly eyeing Amazon with some suspicion!


We thought it was about time our authors stepped away from their keyboards a little and introduced themselves properly, and so throughout the coming business year 2013/14 we’re going to be presenting an irregular series of guest blogs. We cannot tell a lie, we actually drew lots so that it would be completely random – and the lucky winner of the first place is our good friend R.A. Padmos, the author of RAVAGES and UNSPOKEN! So, here she is, in her very own words…

More than once, I’ve been asked how and when it all started. What was the moment I realised I wanted to write stories? Human memory is a notoriously untrustworthy thing, so I assume that even this account has at least some elements of fiction.

I must have been ten, eleven at most, and just like any schoolchild can tell you, the fresh year started with the assignment to write a short essay about what we did during our vacation. I have no idea why, but instead of writing first I did this and then I did that, I wrote about the very real and yet totally fictional family who went on a happy camping trip in the Ardennes. It was, of course, my own family and everything that happened in my story, had actually happened. And yet, by simply changing the perspective I had discovered something. I discovered that by simply changing I into they, I opened up a whole world of creative possibilities.

Soon enough I made up my own characters and situations that were truly fictional, though heavily leaning on whatever I was reading at that moment, or saw on TV. But, by imitating writers who, I assumed in my teenage adoration, knew exactly what they were doing, I learned all those neat tricks you can perform with language. Not surprisingly, I discovered later that writers have a tendency to do a lot of stumbling in the dark, and that not all fiction is created equal.

Skip many years and there I found myself writing the first words of what would become RAVAGES. Steve knows he looks like an idiot.

Knows, not knew. It wasn’t on purpose, I wasn’t even conscious of it until I had written the first few chapters. I could have easily changed it, but even if the content would have remained exactly the same, it would still have resulted in a totally different reading experience. So, I left it as it was and accepted the journey with Steve and Daniël. Would the novel have been technically better if I had thought `damn, I made a mistake` and corrected it? Probably. Would it have been easier on the readers? I have no doubt about it.

And yet, now I reread RAVAGES a couple of years after I wrote that first sentence, I know I made the right decision. Good or bad, this is the way this story had to be told by me. Just like that ten year old, more than forty years ago, had to write they and the family instead of I and my family.

Because that is how stories, and writers, are born.