Historical accuracy: It’s good to be right

Last year when I started promoting my historical novel Sharavogue, I got several wonderful and very positive reviews on amazon.com, but was looking to spread the news to other readers. I requested a review from another place my book was listed, Indiebound.com. Great people there, but unfortunately I was matched up with an anonymous reviewer who I can only believe is a bitter and lonely individual. I say that not just because I received a bad review, which I did, but because it was unreasonably bad.

Upon reading it, my hands began to shake. I had spent years carefully researching the time, the characters from that time, and all the details. It was the details this reviewer zeroed in on, questioning in a rather nasty tone the book’s title, whether a certain kind of tree was present at the time, and so on, including the basic opening sequence in the book in which Oliver Cromwell arrives in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland. The reviewer claimed Cromwell had never traveled that far.

Cromwell in Ireland, a history of Cromwell's Irish Campaign ... with map, plans and illustrations

From Cromwell in Ireland, digitized for the British Library (public domain)

Now, since this is historical fiction, and it was at least plausible that Cromwell had visited the village in question, it does not really matter whether he actually did or not as long as I am clear in my author’s note about the places where I have stretched the facts in support of the story. But I had studied Cromwell and found that he did in fact visit Skibbereen. I made two mistakes here.

First, I had found an historical map (above) that actually tracked Cromwell’s progress in 1649, going through and past Skibbereen in southwest Cork. It gave me a premise to work from but, not realizing I might need it later I did not file a copy. If I’d had that copy I could have submitted it to the reviewer to request a revision in the review.

Which leads to my second mistake: engaging with the reviewer. Upon reading the erroneous review I sent back a message to Indiebound pointing out the errors in it based on my research. They sent my message to the reviewer for a response, and the result was a longer and even more erroneous and spiteful version of the original review. Indiebound passed it off as just a difference in opinion.

Happily for me anyway, while researching my new book I came across the map again, from the British Library no less, and saved it in my files.

Readers of historical fiction love a good story intertwined with fact, so that they can learn about historical  lives and times as they are entertained. I know, I am an avid historical novel reader myself. But as they used to say, tongue in cheek, when I was in journalism, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Do be as accurate as possible because you will have to defend some of the details. Don’t sweat a minor detail if it helps move the story forward or it doesn’t really matter. And don’t follow my example — keep copies of or document everything you find that might be useful to your story. You never know when it might come in handy. I won’t be sending this map to the reviewer at this late date, but I feel vindicated anyway. And that’s why I say…it’s good to be right!

SharavogueCover2Get a copy of Sharavogue to learn about Cromwell’s march in Ireland. When he gets to Skibbereen, the village is called “Skebreen” — a shortcut the locals used. Cromwell is real, his march is real, and Skibbereen is real. The protagonist and her companions are fiction. The bridge in question is fictionalized based on undocumented legend, and a good story for sure!

Roads into the past

KillarneyART162687Roads have always been important to civilizations, from narrow dirt pathways leading to water and food supply, to major super highways that support international trade and industry. In researching the past, knowing the roadways is key to understanding the way communities lived and operated. That’s why I was thrilled recently to discover the Down Survey Project online.

This is an amazing effort called the The Down Survey of Ireland Project, funded by the Irish Research Council under its Research Fellowship Scheme. The 17-month project was completed in March 2013. In short, the project combines digitized versions of surviving maps of Ireland from the 17th century (barony, parish and county level) with historical GIS (including various census and deposition sources) and georeferencing them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps and satellite imagery. Got that? Simple, right?

Well, no matter. If you have any interest at all in the history of Ireland, you will be amazed as I was to see the incredible public resource that this project has established.

Just as an example, for my book which begins in 1649, I can look up what landholders were in the area of my research, see exactly where their properties were located and what roads were in existence at the time. The old roads are represented as straight lines in the version I was able to bring up, and I doubt there were too many straight lines back then, but it does give me a general idea of locations and directions for ingress and egress. I’d say, for historical fiction it is a far better information source than my imagination.

Many thanks to the project team Micheál Ó Siochrú, David Brown and Eoin Bailey for creating this remarkable website. And thanks to Micheál Ó Siochrú also for his book God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland — another valuable resource to me.

For England’s roadways, historical novelist and blogger Patricia Bracewell has produced a four-part series on early English roads, featuring Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, and the Icknield Way. The series includes old maps and photos of present-day trails, and is featured on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog site.

Do you know of similar resources that might be helpful to authors? I’d love to know about them. Please comment.

SharavogueCover2Meantime: There are just three days left for my great giveaway of copies of Sharavogue on Goodreads. Sign up here!

Reviews & book promotion

I am pleased to say the Historical Novel Society review of my novel Sharavogue has now been posted. I am glad to see it after several months of waiting. HNS reviewers can be tough, and do not hold punches if they don’t like something, so overall this seems to be a positive review.

HNSLondon14-220By the way, HNS has a conference in London first week of September. I won’t be able to attend but I am sure it will be a great event.

It is wonderful, of course, to see “nicely written” in the first line of the review. The reviewer goes on to summarize the story, and notes that it moves along at a quick pace, “sometimes too quick.” This may be true, I did intend to maintain a momentum, and most of my readers say “I couldn’t put it down” — which is a good thing.

A few other comments about timing and events I believe are subjective, but well taken as I work on the story for the prequel.

So what next? How can I maximize this review? I have shared it on social media. I am one who avoided all but Facebook for a long time because it consumes time that I would rather use in other ways. But it is hard to argue with the reach, if I have no data to actually recognize results in terms of sales. Last week I received a reader review on Amazon. I shared it on FB, and where usually I might get between 15 and 85 views, this one was reshared and drew more than 300 views and several very favorable comments. That was certainly worth the time invested.

My goal as an author is not to sell millions of books, just to sell at least enough to break even and support the next one. But there is no getting around the fact that promotion is hard work, requires constant maintenance, and is at least as much if not more time consuming than writing the actual novel — and far less rewarding!

In a very interesting post, author Eileen Goudge explains why she left her traditional publisher to pursue self publishing. Initially I felt bad for her because it would mean she would have to take on all the promotional work independent writers and publishers have to handle themselves. But Goudge dispels the myth that traditional publishers offer a marketing budget for your book. Apparently authors are on their own anyway, and then are discarded if their book sales are not stellar. Perhaps she is better off not having to play the game of traditional publishers. I wish her great success!

Heiress abduction for wealth and status

The abduction of an Irish heiress occurs in my next novel, a prequel to Sharavogue, so I have been looking into this practice which, for men, was a rather acceptable means of elevating one’s station in life. Not surprisingly, the heiress abduction theme has been a favorite for the ages among romance writers and those studying legal history.

On a quick search I came up with historical fiction/romance authors Amanda Scott, Claire Thornton and Paul B. McNulty focusing on this theme, plus numerous scholarly articles. I’m sure there are countless more.

LimerickHeiressAs part of my research I just finished reading The Abduction of a Limerick Heiress by Toby Barnard. I think the picture on the cover tells the story — the woman as ornament, possession and plaything (according to the fellow on the left with the come-hither finger), but the look on her face suggests she is at times complicit.

In this case, the heiress Frances Ingoldsby is abducted not once, but twice. Her family pulls her away from the first fellow (and she is glad to go because he is already having affairs with household servants). While the fellow claims to have married Frances, her family presumes the marriage illegal and not consummated, and hides her away in a rectory. From there she is again abducted by a fellow of slightly higher standing in the community, Hugh Fitzjohn Massy, who aspires to a gentleman’s status. Massy soon realizes he has his hands full, because Frances is a bit of a belligerent alcoholic, and he requires his entire family to keep her in check and support his scheme.

Soon the agendas of all who believe they have a stake in Frances’s inheritance start playing out, and family members with political standing exert pressure on the lawyers and judges to ensure their own profitable outcome.

With abductions, once the crime had been done in most cases the family did not fight too hard for the woman’s return, because it was assumed the heiress had been, shall we say, “damaged” by the abductor and they would have difficulty finding her a suitable husband once she was back on the marriage market. So it came down to negotiating the best deal for the stakeholders. Poor Frances, treated like the prize pig.

In the end, she willingly marries and has a son by Massy, but in fact the story continues. When Frances dies, the maneuvering begins anew, the same arguments are revived, and the fight is on for her inheritance.

In her book, Stolen Women in Medieval England, Caroline Dunn writes that abductions, sexual violations and elopements were all classified as “thefts” in statute law at the time. (See review by Emma Osborne.) As Julia Pope points out, it was not the victims themselves who were seen as stolen property, but rather the lands and wealth that would be transferred through them. The crime of abduction was taken very seriously, and resulted in courtroom battles and sometimes more violent responses, but the heiress did have a bit of sway. Under 13th century law, if the female victim did not consent to the marriage, or consented after the fact, the criminal punishment remained the same.  However, if she had consented in advance of her abduction, no crime had been committed.

Blogger Susanne Saville writes about a more recent event, the 1826 abduction of 16-year-old Ellen Turner in Scotland. Her abductor convinced her that only by marrying him could she save her family from the poor house. Thus, she unwittingly consented, and it took an act of Parliament to annul the marriage. The abductor was convicted of the crime and spent three years in prison.

In the PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey there have been two abductions. Between Lady Sybil and the chauffeur Branson, it is actually an elopement because Sybil is consenting, and the family persuades them to return to the castle together where Branson’s status is elevated. In another episode — horrifying to me as a Labrador retriever owner — Thomas the footman abducts Lord Grantham’s dog Isis in hopes of being seen as a hero when he later rescues the dog. Someone else finds and returns Isis, but Lord Grantham, seeing the deeply concerned Thomas after an all-night search, mistakes his fear for loyalty.

The lesson for a storyteller? There are a thousand ways to go with the abduction theme, and all of them can be dramatic and interesting!

The Eyes of Anthony van Dyck

Can the eyes in a portrait reveal the secrets in a person’s character, or foretell their fate? Can a portraitist see through a person’s eyes to the fears hidden behind them?

In researching Thomas Wentworth, the first Earl of Strafford, for my book The Prince of Glencurragh, I am struck by my subject’s eyes as captured by the eminent artist and portraitist of the period (1640s) Anthony van Dyck. The eyes are both striking and haunting with emotion as if the artist clearly saw through to Wentworth’s inner feelings. And this was the artist’s magic.

Anthonyvandyckselfportrait

Self portrait, Van Dyck after 1633. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Born in Antwerp, van Dyck studied and painted throughout Europe before he moved to London in 1632, at age 33, to work for King Charles I.

“Van Dyck was now an artist with an international reputation and was widely traveled…He knew the art of pleasing distinguished and demanding patrons; he was equipped with a brilliant technique, and had at his command the whole repertoire of baroque painting. Above all, he possessed extraordinary imaginative powers, and, as a portraitist, an almost unequalled feeling for character and nobility of spirit,” wrote Malcolm Rogers, in Anthony van Dyck 1599-1641, a catalog of work published for the artist’s 400th birthday.

Wentworth

Thomas Wentworth, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

More than nobility, when I look into the eyes of Wentworth, I see anger, distrust, and a heightened fear. Wentworth began life in April 1593, the second son of a wealthy Yorkshire landowner, and ended as the closest advisor to the king. He is best known for his brief tenure as Lord Deputy of Ireland. He could not have known at the time the portrait was painted that he would be found guilty of treason by Parliament, for supporting the king’s prerogative over the people’s elected representatives, or that the king himself would sign Wentworth’s death warrant. Wentworth was beheaded in 1641, and those eyes suggest he could see it all coming.

From that portrait, Macaulay’s History of England described Wentworth this way: “That fixed look, so full of severity, of mournful anxiety, of deep thought, of dauntless resolution, which seems at once to forbode and to defy a terribly fate, as it lowers on us from the living canvass of van Dyke.”

As Judy Egerton writes in the same book, “No portraits painted by van Dyck in England more brilliantly demonstrate his penetrating powers of perception than those of Charles I and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, two sharply contrasting personalities.”

Sir_Anthony_Van_Dyck_-_Charles_I_(1600-49)_-_Google_Art_Project

Van Dyck’s study of Charles I from three perspectives. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Van Dyck completed many portraits of King Charles I, but no matter the pose, the king’s eyes suggest sad resignation. Here is the king who fought Parliament to preserve the king’s prerogative–basically his right to rule his kingdom through royal blood and divine right, without approval of Parliament–even though it led to a bloody civil war. But his eyes do not show the light of an impassioned leader, and sag as if he would rather close those lids  than see what was coming. He and his Royalist army lost the civil war, and Charles was beheaded in 1649 by order of Parliament under the leadership of John Pym. Then the Parliamentary army, led by Oliver Cromwell, proceeded to Ireland to crush a bloody rebellion.

In addition to many portraits, van Dyck’s paintings of courtly life and other settings do much to chronicle 17th century England. Van Dyck died in London in 1641 after a long illness. He was 42.

Writing: Building Story out of Chaos

My reading list right now is has about six legs, so I liken it to a bee flitting all about and drinking up honey. I never know where it is all leading, and frankly it is none of my business at this, the research stage of writing. My job is to soak it in and when I have enough, the empty spaces will fill in and show me how everything is connected. As Jeffrey Rush said as the character Philip Henslowe in “Shakespeare in Love,” strangely enough, it all turns out well. How? “It’s a mystery!”

FrenchMistressRecently, I started The French Mistress by Susan Holloway Scott. I enjoy her books and wanted to learn a little more about what went on in the Restoration years. This is about the relationship between the Duchess of Portsmouth and the amorous King Charles II.

After the Amelia Island Book Festival in February I exchanged books with author Dee Phelps. Her first novel, The Disappointment Room, is set in South Carolina during the plantation era, about an evil mother who hides a disappointing child in an attic room and pretends to her politician husband that the child is dead.DisappointmentRoom

Last week I picked up Winter King, Thomas Penn’s book about Henry VII and the dawn of Tudor England, which was recommended to me by my friend John King. It was published in 2011 but I had not seen it before. The reading is slow-going at first, because of the complexities of family WinterKingconnections, but fascinating and informative.

As I am now living in the South, I also like to learn about the local area history, so I am studying the Timuqua Indians, from a book by Deon L. Jaccard. The Timuqua were in North Florida for about 4,000 years before the French and Spanish arrived to build forts and colonize. Apparently they were tall, fit, peace-loving people who, to their own downfall, helped the Europeans survive. I should have learned about all of this in high school, but if the story of the Timuqua ever was mentioned to me it fell on deaf ears, I’m sorry to say.TimuquaCultureClash

I am eager to get through this material and see where it all goes, but as we writers all know, life happens in the meantime. Yesterday I spent most of the day recaulking a bathroom. Ah well, somehow that may end up having a role in the mystery also. You never really know which part of your experience will ignite the story.

Happy writing!

Tribute to the Pirate Queen

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day today I am honoring a famous woman in Irish history, Grace O’Malley, also known as “the pirate queen,” and “Granuaile.” Grace was an amazing woman who supported her countrymen in rebellion against the English, defended her family castle, and stood face to face with Queen Elizabeth herself.

photo-3Born in Ireland during the time of King Henry VIII, her father was a chieftain, her family seafaring, and her home deeply rooted in Clew Bay, County Mayo. Her family owned a string of castles protecting the coast, and the fishermen in the region paid a tax for that protection.

Story has it that Granuaile was a nickname her father gave her — it means short or cropped, and that’s exactly what she did to her hair when her father told her she could not accompany him on a trade voyage because her hair would get caught in the rigging.

Apparently she married two or three times, and had several children. When she took to the seas two of her sons, Tibbot and Murrough, were beside her.  With their ships tucked into the bays, they awaited merchant ships passing through their waters, then stopped and boarded them to demand a toll in cash or cargo.

In 1593 when her two sons and half brother were taken captive by the governor of Connacht, the pirate queen sailed to England for an audience with Queen Elizabeth to argue for their release. Even so, Grace defiantly refused to bow before the English queen because she did not recognize her as queen of Ireland.

Grace’s story is long and complex, twisting and turning as many Irish stories do. She inspired legends, poems and songs, and I had her in mind as I set the character Elvy on a path toward her territory in my book, Sharavogue.  For a good biography on Grace and her adventures, look for Anne Chambers’ book, Granuaile.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Who cares about historical fiction?

I suppose I’m not the only author who sometimes asks herself, “Is anybody out there really going to read this?” But I was pleased to read M.K. Tod’s 2013 Historical Fiction Reader Survey to find out that in fact there is a strong audience, and it is growing in the under-30 age group.

Tod’s survey (funded by the Historical Novel Society) reached nearly 2,500 participants, mostly female, during 2013 and her results were published in January this year. While it is not exactly a scientific survey and Tod notes the probability of bias because the survey was distributed through historical fiction blogs and websites, it still provides useful information.

pirate ship1670The highlights for me were that historical fiction is now mainstream, and most readers are aware when a book is independently published but it does not it does not stop them from making a purchase. The strongest driving factor for the purchase is a GOOD STORY. (This one’s my favorite.)

And, the top three reasons respondents read historical fiction? (1) To bring the past to life, (2) Because there are great stories, and (3) To understand and learn without having to read non-fiction. That’s right! The authors read all that stuff for you and weave the details together into something that is true, entertaining and educational!

At a recent book festival, a gentleman approached me and felt the need to tell me why he would not purchase my book. He said he believed historical fiction distorted the facts, and he did not know which parts were true, and which parts were fiction. I tried to tell him that usually you can tell that the events are real, and most of the details, but the characters are often from the author’s imagination as a device to help tell the story from a certain perspective. The author’s notes and acknowledgements also tend to explain what is true and what is fabricated. Many books, like mine, include a list of readings (if not a complete bibliography) and sources for historical accuracy.

He was not particularly open to what I was offering, but we can’t win them all. I am sure he continued through the book festival to find a hot new crime thriller.

Another big takeaway from Tod’s survey is about the importance of social media. Readers favor online sources for book recommendations. Seventy-eight percent said they use blogs, websites and other social media. I guess there is little justification for holding out on that one. My good friend Andrea Patten, a non-fiction author, says she uses Facebook religiously, but it is Twitter that attracts the most new readers. (Sigh!)

If you are an author of historical fiction I encourage you to read Tod’s report. I found the results inspiring!

Setting yourself apart for readers

Part 9 in the “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

Picking up where I left off on my series about my writing process for Sharavogue, today I am focusing on “What makes your book different from other books like it?” This is a question that might come during a media interview or from an anyone who is considering reading your book. To answer, I had to do my homework. When I selected the time period for my story, I searched for books in the Cromwellian years, the Interregnum, and on the bookends of that period during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, the Restoration.

SharavogueCover2Specifically during Cromwell’s time there were very few historical novels – I found only two, in fact — that take place in this turbulent period. I have since found several more but I think I am safe to say I have written of a time often overlooked by other authors. So, for readers like me who also like to learn about history as they read, it might be a good choice.  Sharavogue (the title of my novel but also the name of the plantation where the protagonist was indentured) also illuminates what life was like for slaves and indentured servants on the sugar plantations of the 17th century. These plantations were a boon to England’s economy but could not have been profitable without slave labor.

An intriguing  and distinguishing fact is that a colony of Irish planters developed on the island of Montserrat, and they too had to own slaves. The focus is on an Irish colony and perspective rather than an English one.

My style of writing is also quite different. I have used devices and structure to keep the book light, exciting and fast paced, but still packed with story, action and historical information — just enough, and interwoven as best I could so the story did not become a history lesson. My page count is under 300, not the tome of some historical novels. This required quite a bit of brutal editing, but I knew the costs of printing would make a larger book a difficult sell for an unknown author. Some people like this style — the book keeps them engaged so that they read it all the way through in a day or two. (One reader laughingly complained that it was my fault she did not get her Easter cooking done). But others have told me they would have liked more time for contemplation by the characters.

My hope was always that after finishing the book my readers would come away satisfied, entertained and informed. I also hoped to tell a good story about the Irish, who have held my imagination since childhood. A recent reviewer captured the gist of the story just as I had hoped:

“The Irish were no different, after all, than the English. Cruelty reigned. We were without justice, without recourse. We were without hope.” Fifteen-year-old Elvy Burke only wants to live up to her destiny. As the daughter of a great warrior, she dreams of being a leader of her people and a defender of her country. But Oliver Cromwell and his brutal army change her destiny. After cursing Cromwell to his face, she flees her village determined to find a way to kill Cromwell and free her land. She thinks that only Cromwell is brutal, but she discovers the hard way as she becomes an indentured servant in the West Indies, that the English do not have a monopoly on brutality. Elvy learns to survive and she finds kindness in unexpected places. She uncovers her own strengths as she fights her way back to her home in Ireland.

via Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Sharavogue : A Novel.

This will be my last post in this series, unless any readers have additional questions that I will be most happy to answer. I look forward to any comments or suggestions for future posts. Best wishes and happy writing!

Is history relevant in a 140-character world?

Part 8 of my “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

In this edition I’m focusing on another question asked about historical novels: “How is this relevant in today’s society?” Sharavogue takes place in the 1650s, far removed in both time and location to what most of us experience today. But it is based in fact, so an obvious answer is to refer to the quote attributed to philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or the same with similar wording attributed to Winston Churchill and several others — all the way to Jesse Ventura. Then there is the ever-positive Kurt Vonnegut, who says “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

As one who loves history and historical fiction, I sometimes wonder why writers need bother with trying to prove history relevant. It is, because it is. History is fascinating and woven from the lives and experiences of everyone who lived before us. Most humans love a good story, no matter what century it comes from. When I read historical fiction I also love learning about what life was like at a different time, and what circumstances caused things to be that way, and why people made the choices they did. It always in some way informs my own life without the author having to draw direct connections.

HouseGirl I recently read House Girl by Tara Conklin, which flips back and forth between pre-Civil War slavery and a present-day lawyer trying to attribute works of art to the slave girl. The whole story is about connecting past to present, and parts of it were quite good, but I found the historical portions by far the most interesting and well written, and the present-day portions sometimes feeling forced and distracting.

I also recently stumbled across The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, a book someone had given my husband when he retired. It is basically a trip back in time to get seven philosophies for success, with the underlying message that each of us has a gift and the things we do have value and importance, whether we know it or not at the time. At one point we visit the Battle of Little Round Top where Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s desperate last-minute charge is key to the Union victory there, which ultimately leads to the end of war, the end of slavery in America, and the growth of a superpower that is able to do good in the world. An oversimplification to be sure, but a strong message about relevance.TravelersGift

In my book, I chose to stay in the 1650s. While the relevancy is not mapped for readers as in the books I’ve just described, I think it derives from the characters themselves and the struggles and obstacles they work to overcome. One of my readers talked to me at length about the character Tempest Wingfield, who becomes a plantation master only because he inherited when his father died. She related strongly to his internal ragings against a life he never chose, and the sorrows he felt nonetheless for not being a better son, honoring and loving his father while he had the chance. Other readers related strongly to the pain of the poor choices Elvy Burke makes that lead her down more difficult pathways. As noted in an earlier post, Sharavogue itself (the plantation on Montserrat) is a character, passively supporting the plantation lifestyle  in its own harsh existence.

Who has lost a loving parent and not felt deep regret? Who has not made poor choices in life and learned from them? And who has not witnessed injustices large or small and felt powerless to change them?

True relevance comes from the heart. But on a political level I must add that Oliver Cromwell (the bad guy in my book) remains today a relevant and controversial figure. I talked once with a British citizen who believed the commonwealth Cromwell established was the right and appropriate idea for his government, and the monarchy was irrelevant. Yet the Cromwell name is mostly associated with the 16th century Thomas who destroyed the Catholic monasteries, and the 17th century Oliver who slaughtered the Irish.

These stories and the jigsaw puzzle of factors that created them are impossible to deliver in a tweet or a Facebook post, and I worry about the lack of reading that could surely lead to the “forgetting” of history. (For example, I shudder when I hear women say they want to be stay-at-home moms, having lived through the time when women fought tooth-and-nail for the right to work and vote, and still struggle for equal pay.) But I take hope from something another writer once said to me: “People don’t care about history until they realize they have one.” And then it becomes all-important.