Sunday, 30 September 2012

Reminder: Warwick Words festival Appearance

If you're based in the West Midlands, do please come and hear me talk about my research for The Queen's Secret at the Warwick Words Festival.

On Monday October 1st, I'll be discussing the secrets and the elaborate preparations behind Elizabeth I's epic visit to Kenilworth Castle in the summer of 1575. Cake and tea are included in the price, which you can eat while chatting with me about the book or Elizabeth's visit. Paperback and hardback copies of The Queen's Secret will also be available to buy, and I'll be happy to sign yours on the day.

Tickets available from Festival Box Office 01926 776438

Monday 1st October: 2pm
Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick
Discover the lies and conspiracies that surrounded the Virgin Queen and her entourage, and learn about the network of spies run by Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham. From jewelled gowns to stuffed swans, marble fountains to local mummers, all the most fascinating research behind the novel will be revealed. Victoria Lamb will also attempt to unravel the various theories on Elizabeth’s relationship with her court favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and her host at Kenilworth that year.

Read more about the event or book your ticket on the Warwick Words website.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Giveaway Winner!

The winner of my publication week Giveaway for The Queen's Secret in paperback is ...

ROSY MERCER

But never fear, I'm running more giveaways in the next ten days, of The Queen's Secret and another lovely book I have here. So all is not lost if your name is not Rosy. Just keep popping back every few days and eventually a new Giveaway will appear.

Congratulations, Rosy!

Your copy will be on its way to you as soon as I get back from the Historical Novel Society Conference in London, which is where I am at the moment.



My marvellous publication day


Yesterday saw The Queen's Secret published in paperback, and it was truly marvellous to walk into Asda and find it on the paperback charts there, in the Number 25 spot.

But even more marvellous to return home and discover these beautiful and delicately fragrant flowers waiting for me, along with a card from my editor Emma, and the whole publishing team at Transworld.

My grateful thanks go to Emma Buckley, Lynsey Dalladay, and all at Transworld for supporting me in this journey towards publication, and for making this such a wonderful paperback launch day.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The most anticipated book of the year!

No, not JK Rowling's novel, but my own humble effort, published in paperback today, and most anticipated just by me and my family - rather than the whole literary world. Nothing to make the world spin faster on its axis, admittedly. But for me, one of the happiest moments of my life ...

I walked into my local Asda supermarket at 4pm this afternoon and found my own debut Tudor novel at Number 25 in the Paperback Charts: The Queen's Secret.

One of the happiest moments in my life ...

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Queen's Secret: Giveaway

The paperback edition will be published on September 27th 2012

Roll up, roll up! The paperback edition of my Tudor novel The Queen's Secret goes on sale in the UK this coming Thursday - yes, the same day as a certain JK Rowling's new book - so I thought it might be nice to have a few giveaways this week. I'm going to start with a giveaway of the paperback of The Queen's Secret, but I do have some other books to give away later.

So if you'd like to win a signed copy of The Queen's Secret in paperback, just leave a comment below. Three copies of TQS will be up for grabs over the next few weeks, but I'll just start with one copy for this week. It's open to anywhere in the world, not just the UK, and my trusty husband will randomly select a winner for the free paperback on Friday 28th September.

Please remember to check back though if you don't leave a blog or Twitter name where I can contact you - in case you've won and I don't know where to send the book.

 Desire and power collide in the court of Elizabeth I
Warwickshire, 1575
Pomp, fanfare and a wealth of lavish festivities await Elizabeth I at Kenilworth Castle. Organised by the Earl of Leicester, he knows this celebration is his last chance to persuade the Queen to marry him. But, a fickle man, he is unable to resist the seductive wiles of Lettice Knollys. Enraged by the couple's growing intimacy, Elizabeth employs a young black singer and court entertainer to keep a watch on them. Brought up by a spy, Lucy's observational skills are sharper than anyone at the castle realises, and she soon uncovers far more than she bargained for: Someone at Kenilworth is plotting to kill the queen.
Can the knowledge Lucy is gaining prevent the death of the monarch? Or has it put Lucy in mortal danger instead?

Friday, 21 September 2012

Rewriting My Lost Words

A metaphorical depiction of what happened inside my hard drive ...
Some of you may recall that I went on a writing retreat without internet access last month, and very sadly lost the last 25,000 words of my Tudor Witch novel - unbacked-up, as they would normally be at home - when my Mac hard drive died irrevocably.

Since hearing the news last week that none of the last third of the book would be coming back to me, I've been engaged in rewriting those lost words.

It's hard and often depressing work, for I'm not always sure I'm recreating the wonderful excitement and urgency of that first white-hot draft. However, this may not be entirely a bad thing. The first draft was written at such astonishing pace - over 7000 words per day was not unusual on retreat - that I did suspect, even in the process of writing it, that I was rushing the end of the book. But I knew it would be fixable even if the pace was too hurried. Far harder to speed up a novel when it's dragging than slow down a too-hurried scene.

So now I'm rewriting the same scenes, more slowly and with greater consideration for pace and character development. The sense of deja-vu is extreme at times. In media res, I often stop and frown, thinking 'What was the phrase I used for that?' and almost turn to look it up. Only then realising, of course, that the file on which that half-forgotten phrase, that line, that chapter, that draft, has been lost forever in a hard drive which may perhaps have wiped everything in the act of breaking.

A hard task, then. Heartbreaking occasionally. But a salutary lesson to me, at least to keep a USB pen handy if I have no internet access for automatic back-ups.

And perhaps the finished novel will be better for it. Who knows?

10,000 left to write. 

Monday, 17 September 2012

London, Then and Now



Now that I am living in the country, it's become even more important for me to visit the capital. Not just for research or to meet my editors, although those are vital elements of my life as a writer. But also to experience that wonderful contrast between country and capital, the peaceful greenery of a rural farmhouse versus the hustle and bustle of a world-class city.

It keeps me alive and my senses sparking to be walking the streets of London. I was born and brought up just beyond the East End, in a suburban area of Essex, so I've known London since I was a young child. In a way, then, visiting the capital is about making a connection between my present and past selves. It's a matter of nostalgia as well an opportunity to make new discoveries - for there are always new things to be seen and done in London. It's that kind of city, constantly renewing itself or revealing long-buried secrets.

I would love to live in London at some point. But with prices as high as they are, that seems unlikely at the moment. I'm also enjoying the rural life again, and these frequent visits keep me from getting too bored in the country. But maybe one day ...


This time, I spent some time walking along the river at Bankside, peering up and down the greyish-brown expanse of the Thames, and trying to imagine how it would have been in Tudor times. Far broader, of course, with the water washing up against the moss-green bases of the riverside buildings, and little channels or hidden docks running away into the city every few hundred yards. The Fleet river pours out near here, on the north bank opposite, under what is now Blackfriars Bridge, to swell an already burgeoning tidal river. Leaf-clogged now in autumn, with plastic rubbish bobbing on the brown scum, it would have been awash with yet more debris in Tudor times. Human sewage, castaway items, broken spars, perhaps even the occasional corpse to add to the stench, especially in high summer.

These banks and muddy shores would have been a place for waders after floating treasure, for fishermen and watermen, dragging boats in and out of the current. And with London Bridge, its narrow gateway hidden now at the church of St Magnus the Martyr, marking the only crossing place on foot, the waters themselves would have been crowded with boats of every size and description - most noticeably in the later Elizabethan era, when the city was smaller and Bankside became even more popular with visitors and Londoners alike than it is today. For Bankside was outside the jurisdiction of the City Fathers, a place where brothels, gambling, and the various evils of the playhouse and baiting pits could continue relatively unchallenged.



While I was wandering the river, and taking a boat trip down towards Tower Bridge, my husband headed for Aldgate. For he too is writing a novel, this one about the plague pits of London, and this trip involved research for him in the Aldgate area, where he took copious notes and investigated several important leads.

Afterwards, we met up below St Paul's on the north end of the Millennium Bridge, and strolled across in a light evening breeze to Bankside. The bridges and riverbank were lit up gloriously - it would have been mostly dark in Tudor times, by contrast, except for candlelit windows and the torches of link boys, and perhaps the bobbing lights of watermen ferrying passengers back and forth across the river - and it was a pleasure to mingle with the crowds making their way into the Globe Theatre for an evening's performance.

We ate a delicious Greek meal at The Real Greek (below) near Southwark Bridge, then wandered further along under the archways and towards Southwark Cathedral, lit up in the darkness. We admired the twelth century ruins of Winchester Palace on Clink Street, then came to the reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake's ship, The Golden Hinde, in which Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577, now bobbing in a tiny dock at St Mary Overie Wharf, next to the Financial Times building.

I don't believe, for all our advances, that Tudor London was so very different a place from London of today. I expect we followed a fairly traditional route as visitors, albeit crossing different bridges and taking other modes of transport around the city. But many visitors to London in the late 1500s would have wandered the city like us, marvelling at the sights, the sheer bustle of life on and around the river, and the grandeur of the great houses that line its banks ... then gone to eat in some exotic hostelry near the river, or taken in a play or bear-baiting, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves before making their way back to a chamber hired for the night.

Often historical fiction focuses on how different things were in the past. But I prefer to see it from the other side, and consider how similar things were in the past, at least in terms of human experience. I don't entirely agree with L.P. Hartley that, 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' For me, one of the most difficult but wonderful things about writing historical fiction is attempting to show the reader how the past might be the country we live in now - if only we could see it.



Friday, 14 September 2012

Young Shakespeare

It's easy to forget, as we witness the historical pageantry and high intrigue in many of Shakespeare's plays, that Will was a country boy at heart. Born and brought up in the rural market town of Stratford in Warwickshire, he would have fished and swum in the River Avon as a boy, helped his father sell gloves from his workshop on Henley Street, and no doubt watched the local farmers parade their livestock in and out of town on market days.

Tudor reenactors at Mary Arden's Farm, 2012
Although he lived in a town, the life of the countryside was always close at hand. Will Shakespeare was part of a large and lively family. He would have grown up helping relatives at harvest time, tending his mother's herb and vegetable garden, collecting eggs from hens and other fowl about the place, and maybe even throwing scraps to the greedy pigs. Much of the family food would have been home-grown and produced, the rest bought from the market or nearby farms. A Warwickshire town life for Will would have kept him close to the earth.


Will's mother was Mary Arden, who grew up in the mid-1500s on a farm near Stratford. Her deep knowledge of farming and country craft found its way into Will's plays, alongside a much-noted love of flowers and wild plants. Here's Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream: 
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows,  
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
Some Warwickshire dialect words creep into Shakespeare's work occasionally - such as 'Raddock' (a robin redbreast) and 'Urchin' (a hedgehog) - as though to remind us that this playwright is not simply aping a rural life, but has lived it himself, unlike many of the more urban playwrights of his time.
 
Of course, some of this may have been an instinctive grasping after memories of rural life whilst waist-deep in the dark and narrow streets of Tudor London. For we cannot pretend that Will had led a simple rustic existence as a young child. John Shakespeare was a respected citizen for at least the first decade of Will's life, not an uneducated farm labourer. Not only was he a member of Stratford town council - elected Mayor in 1568, no less - but John was also a glover, a potentially lucrative trade, who would have employed an apprentice or two in his workshop.
 
Will would undoubtedly have helped out on the market stall when John was short-handed. But I suspect his father had grander plans for his son, sending Will to the local grammar school rather than keeping him at home in the unpleasant stink of a glover's workshop, where animal skins were soaked in urine for weeks before being dried and stretched into shape. Instead of getting his hands dirty, Will became a young scholar rather than a craftsman's apprentice. At school, he learnt to read and write Latin, was taught the skills of rhetoric or public speaking, discovered a fascinating world of ancient myth and history, and most importantly began to develop a love for the English language - and its poetry in particular.

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
In my novel, The Queen's Secret, we meet Will Shakespeare at the age of eleven when he comes to visit nearby Kenilworth Castle with his father. This is mere speculation on my part, for we have no proof of his visit, only a few suggestive lines in his later poetry. But like many Warwickshire folk, he might well have travelled to Kenilworth that summer in order to see the Queen and her court, who were halting there on progress from London.
 
It must have been an incredible and perhaps life-changing experience for such a sensitive young boy, never before exposed to the reality of a monarch and a vast royal entourage. Shakespeare would later populate his plays with Kings, Queens, princes, noble courtiers and their servants - and fill out their characters with intimacy and understanding. Yet his plays never become stilted or too courtly, mere inventions of the mind, for through them runs the vibrancy of rural life, side by side with the drama of history.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Twice in a Blue Moon

Photo by Gregory H. Revera
It seems something no one would know or care about, a writer making sure the moon behaves correctly in their stories. But as anyone who has ever tried to write a novel will tell you, it's very easy to give every nighttime scene a gloriously moonlit landscape for the sake of literary convenience. But if one scene takes place roughly a fortnight after the other, there can't be a full moon on both occasions - it simply isn't possible.

So knowing the moon phases lends internal logic to your story, maintains a sense of verisimilitude, and allows you to write confidently, sure that you can't trip yourself up by having a last quarter moon straight after a new moon.

But if you're writing historical fiction - as I am - how on earth can you be certain when the moon phases took place five or more hundred years ago?

Well, believe it or not, there are online resources you can use to discover what the moon was doing at any particular time, going back for the past six thousand years!

Here's the site, NASA Moon Phases, and here are the moon phases for every date in the Tudor century, 1501 - 1600.

So if I know a date in one of my Tudor novels, or even just have a rough idea when something happened, I can check for certain whether the moon was full or dark on that night.

Many thanks to fellow YA writer Pam Bachorz for sharing this useful resource on Twitter.

Monday, 10 September 2012

A Haunted Writing Retreat


 
The hearth is the heart of a house, or so I have always believed. This is the open fire in the cottage I rented for two weeks this August, hoping to finish the sequel to Witchstruck while living there alone, with no distractions - especially as the nearest phone or internet signal was three miles away. No Facebook, no Twitter, no blogging ... just good solid writing every day.





















On arrival, I was a little disturbed to notice in the Guest Book that, since my last visit there, a few previous guests had felt a 'strange presence' in the cottage. Just trying to put the wind up other guests, I told myself sceptically.

One person had written in the Guest Book: 'We woke in the middle of the night to find an old woman standing at the foot of our bed. When we turned on the light, she vanished.'


This too I tried to dismiss as nonsense, though it was a little unnerving. I'd stayed at this same cottage twice before and only ever felt an occasional presence in the late evenings, but nothing sinister or alarming. The cottage is situated on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, in a tiny village - a hamlet, really - where most of the cottages seem to be holiday or second homes. So there are few people about during the day and the nights are utterly silent. But peace and quiet seems like a boon for a novelist, and I had always written vast amounts while there before.


This visit, however, almost as though 'turned' by the subject matter of the novel I was writing - i.e. the sequel to Witchstruck, a Tudor novel dark with occult mysteries and the summoning of the dead - the presence in the cottage began to feel malignant. Even angry. The weather became quite nasty too, with torrential downpours and the sky dark in the afternoons. I needed a fire most evenings, for the house felt damp and unwelcoming. Or was that just my imagination?


I tried to shrug it off, dismissing my nerves as part of my creative build-up to writing a story about ghosts and the occult. But odd things kept happening. I found doors open that I had left shut. Books and other items moved from one side of the room to another while I was upstairs or in the bathroom. Then there were unidentified creaking and knocking noises in the night - even the sound of the downstairs door being opened and closed several times while I lay terrified under my duvet in the dark bedroom. To add to this, my car broke down over the Bank Holiday weekend, leaving me stranded for days, unable to go out and back up my work via the internet. Then an entire chapter of my novel just "disappeared" while I was out of the room, though it had been correctly saved.


I finally got the car fixed the day before I left, and rewrote the missing chapter, though with some misgivings. It had been an account of a dark seance with John Dee, the Tudor astrologer and 'conjuror of spirits'. Had its loss been due to computer malfunction, user error ... or something more sinister?

Too nervous to go to bed most nights until dawn light had begun to show, I had written for hours every day and soon reached the close of my novel. By the last day, I only had 5000 words left to write. But that was precisely the moment when disaster struck.


On attempting to close my laptop down on the last morning, ready to leave the cottage, the screen froze. Then the computer made a loud clunking noise. I later discovered that was the sound of my hard drive breaking. Little did I know it at the time, though I suspected, but my laptop hard drive had just bitten the dust - taking with it the last 25,000 words I had written and not backed-up on the internet.



This last incident - my laptop mysteriously dead just as I was on the point of leaving - utterly freaked me out. The silence in the lonely cottage was suddenly menacing. I threw the last of my things in the car, backed out of the gate as fast as was safe, and drove towards the nearest main road like the devil was at my heels. I felt on edge for miles, only gradually relaxing as I realised I had left the cottage far behind me and need never go back there.

Of course, there are perfectly logical and non-occult reasons why things went wrong for me that week: my car broke down because I was unaware that the air filter clip had snapped; I was over-worked and tired, so imagined the odd movements of doors and books, and the noises in the night were mice or branches, or perhaps just my imagination.; the mischievous comments in the Guest Book on arrival had primed my subconscious to expect some kind of otherworldly presence, and the subject matter of my work made me especially vulnerable to that kind of suggestion; and the lost chapter about the seance and the subsequent irrevocable breakdown of my laptop were simply due to an old machine suddenly giving up - if you'll pardon the expression - the ghost.


But none of this makes the knowledge that I have lost the last 25,000 words of my novel any easier to bear. A mechanic has the laptop now, but still no news of whether my manuscript can be recovered, though it's been over a week. It looks like I will have to rewrite the last third from memory. Above is the chart I kept, detailing how many words I wrote per day in that last week - as you can see, rather a lot! The moral of this tale is, if staying in an isolated and possibly haunted cottage entirely on your own, with no internet connection for automatic backups, take a USB pen - or two - and back up your work every day. I bet Charles Dickens never had this much trouble with A Christmas Carol.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Elizabeth I at Kenilworth, 1575: Warwick Words Festival

The Queen's Secret: set at Kenilworth
If you're based in the West Midlands, do please come and hear me talk about my research for The Queen's Secret at the Warwick Words Festival.

On Monday October 1st, I'll be discussing the secrets and the elaborate preparations behind Elizabeth I's epic visit to Kenilworth Castle in the summer of 1575. Cake and tea are included in the price, which you can eat while chatting with me about the book or Elizabeth's visit. Paperback and hardback copies of The Queen's Secret will also be available to buy, and I'll be happy to sign yours on the day.

Tickets available from Festival Box Office 01926 776438


Monday 1st October: 2pm
Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick
Discover the lies and conspiracies that surrounded the Virgin Queen and her entourage, and learn about the network of spies run by Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham. From jewelled gowns to stuffed swans, marble fountains to local mummers, all the most fascinating research behind the novel will be revealed. Victoria Lamb will also attempt to unravel the various theories on Elizabeth’s relationship with her court favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and her host at Kenilworth that year.

Read more about the event or book your ticket on the Warwick Words website.