Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Spare a Thought for Witches at Halloween

Strangled, hanged, burnt or boiled alive, and drowned: the fate of witches
Halloween in modern times has become a time to celebrate monsters of all kinds, particularly fictional ones like vampires or Frankenstein monsters. Indeed, dressing-up in any fun costume - even non-monster ones! - is now part of this wider celebration of putting on a mask and adopting another identity for a few hours. But Halloween was traditionally a time when ghosts and spirits walked abroad - All Hallows Eve - and later, an evening when witches were thought to worship the darkness. And in earlier times it was definitely not a celebration of those things, but a night when decent folk stayed in their houses and left the forces of darkness to rule the wildness outside.

Of course, English attitudes to witchcraft during the Tudor era were always less extreme than those of Europeans. Indeed, under the right circumstances, the British witch could occasionally become an acceptable – if not quite respectable – member of society. Acceptance was not universal, however, and those who attracted the attention of the witchfinder – or even the Inquisition under Mary I’s reign – often ended up on trial for their lives.

Happily, many of these ‘witches’ escaped conviction, since most English tests tended to favour the accused. One common test was ‘swimming the witch’; in a village pond test, the guilty floated and the innocent sank (and were pulled to safety, one hopes). Another test was to weigh the accused against the Bible; if the Bible was heavier, she was clearly a witch. The unfortunate few convicted by such bizarre methods were generally spared the flames. Whereas the Europeans burnt or even boiled their witches alive – occasionally strangling them beforehand as an act of mercy – the more usual sentence for a British witch was death by hanging.
Yet there was a deep ambivalence surrounding the figure of the Tudor witch, for even occult powers had their uses. A Christian-Cabalist, Dr John Dee suggested the date for Elizabeth I’s coronation and enjoyed her patronage as court astrologer most of his life, despite openly conjuring ‘spirits’ from the ‘super-celestial sphere’ using rituals found in ancient magical grimoires. Dee’s abilities as an astrologer and his potentially lucrative experiments with alchemy kept him above the law, despite Elizabeth I’s punitive statute in 1563, enforcing the death sentence for the practice of witchcraft.

All witches were equal under Tudor law, it seemed, but some were more equal than others. Particularly perhaps if they were male. Indeed, it was not until after James I came to the throne in 1603, with his treatise Daemonologie  and his fear of the supernatural, that the witch-hunting craze in England really took off.

So this Halloween, while trick-or-treating with the kids, spare a thought for those unfortunate women accused of witchcraft in earlier centuries, whose fate was often sealed by nothing more sinister than a birthmark where the Devil was thought to have suckled ...

NB. A longer version of this article appeared at History Today in August 2012. 

WARNING: Witches are variously depicted as hanged, burnt alive and 'floated' in WITCHSTRUCK.

WITCHSTRUCK is now available in the USA.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

PERFIDITAS: Alison Morton guest blog

Browse PERFIDITAS on and

The Second One
When I launched my first novel, INCEPTIO, on the unsuspecting world earlier this year, it was the end of three years’ slog, some of which was writing, rewriting and polishing the book, but an equal part was learning How To Be A Novelist. I went on specialist courses, to conferences, joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association (where I met the fascinating Victoria Lamb who kindly endorsed INCEPTIO!), networked and drank a lot of coffee and wine in the process. 

There followed a frantic period of a high-profile launch with Sue Cook the broadcaster, blog tours, library talks, speaking at conferences and events, signings, shortlisting for the International Rubery Book Award and the award of a B.R.A.G. MedallionTM for excellence. Oh, and I sold a few books.

Seven months later and the next book is out. Set in the same imaginary country of Roma Nova, it bursts with spies, intrigue, Roman themes, romance and derring-do, all tied together with a tough, but sometimes bewildered, heroine. And betrayal and rebellion are in the air.

When you write a book, you hope someone will read it. In fact, you hope a lot of someones will enjoy it and tell their friends, workmates, family, their local reporter, the cousin who works on the national newspaper – you get the picture. Fellow writers can be especially supportive; as purveyors of literature they know a good (or bad) thing when they read it.  So I’m honoured by Victoria’s second invitation to be a guest here today and blather about my new book. 

What’s PERFIDITAS about?
Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces is in trouble – one colleague has tried to kill her and another has set a trap to incriminate her in a conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents and ruled by women, Roma Nova barely survived a devastating coup d’état thirty years ago. Carina swears to prevent a repeat and not merely for love of country.

Seeking help from a not quite legal old friend could wreck her marriage to the enigmatic Conrad. Once proscribed and operating illegally, she risks being terminated by both security services and conspirators. As she struggles to overcome the desperate odds and save her beloved Roma Nova and her own life, she faces the ultimate betrayal… 

PERFIDITAS: what others have said
“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning. Roma Nova is a fascinating world” - Simon Scarrow
Powerful storytelling, vivid characters and a page-turning plot”
– Jean Fullerton
Scenes and characters are sometimes so vividly described that I felt I was watching a movie” – Sue Cook
 And here’s a PERFIDITAS book trailer with some exciting music:

PERFIDITAS is available through your local bookshop (paperback), on your local Amazon (paperback and ebook) and on other online retailers.

You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here on her blog at
Twitter: @alison_morton

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

North Cornwall Book Festival: THIS Friday!

My latest paperback Tudor novel - about Shakespeare's mistress - is out December 5th: pre-order from Amazon here.


North Cornwall Book Festival, St Endellion

I'm delighted to announce that I'll be appearing at the North Cornwall Book Festival this October, along with a host of other writers, both local to Cornwall and from further afield.

I'm delighted to be delivering the opening event at the North Cornwall Book Festival this coming Friday 25th October. The Festival is held in the beautiful location of St Endellion, North Cornwall.

Friday 25th October: 3.00pm Victoria Lamb

A talk by the award winning author of The Queen's Secret and Witchstruck, which was voted Young Adult Novel of the Year 2013 and has been described as "Twilight meets The Other Boleyn Girl", Victoria Lamb talks about her latest title and how she researches her historical and romantic novels. She also explores the contrasts between writing historical romance for grown-ups and for young adults.
Event lasts one hour. Tickets are £5 unreserved.

 I'll be talking about these books and others...

Hope to see you there!

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Tweeting of Fictional Characters

For those who have become interested in my evolving Tudor Witch Trilogy, you can now chat with characters from WITCHSTRUCK and WITCHFALL on Twitter!

Meg Lytton, English witch

Alejandro de Castillo, Spanish priest in training

Richard, apprentice to John Dee

Marcus Dent, English Witchfinder 

To enable these Twitter accounts to have a full and interesting life, dear tweeps, please follow, chat and occasionally RT so they can get more followers and chat going as they build up.

Many thanks!


Friday, 11 October 2013

Manx Lit Fest trip in photos

I was recently invited to the Isle of Man for the second Manx Lit Fest. I had a fabulous time, and when not going round schools, signing books or giving talks on writing and Tudor fiction, I was driving about the beautiful island where I was once a resident and snapping photos in some very familiar spots.

My grateful thanks go to the various sponsors of the Manx Literary Festival, especially the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company and the Isle of Man Bank, and to the very generous sponsors of my individual events, Lingua Franca, a translation company run by the charming Franca Fritz. Without such generosity, literary festivals could not be run, and authors like myself could not attend them.

Here are some of the highlights of my trip. I'm afraid I didn't snap any pics during actual events, but perhaps I will be sent some photos taken by other people, and be able to blog them later. If using any of these elsewhere, please attribute them to this blog.

All these photos were taken by yours truly with a humble iPhone. None have been edited, they are straight from the can.

Between Heysham and the Isle of Man. Aboard the Ben-My-Chree, or Woman-of-my Heart in Manx Gaelic.

An inspired mirror tile ceiling on the boat over. It took my mind off the incessant pitching ...

Port Erin beach, Bradda Head in the distance. An iconic scene from my 23 years on the island, living just a few minutes' drive from this spot.

Further along Port Erin beach, the small harbour and headland.

A fantastic indie bookshop opposite Port Erin beach, always there for as long as I can remember.

This is the Darrag. A tiny hilltop cut-through for locals between Port Erin (straight ahead) and Cregneish (behind). Above this spot is an ancient stone circle and burial ground with fantastic views around the south of the island.

View from the Darrag (towards Cregneish) looking at the Calf Sound, a famous bird sanctuary.

Hango Hill, Castletown: site of the execution by firing squad of Illiam Dhone, popularly considered a Manx martyr, for his part in surrendering Castle Rushen, last Royalist stronghold in the English Civil War, to the Roundheads. I wrote a poem sequence about him once.

Next to Hango Hill, a selfie with King William's College in the background: I didn't 'quite' go to school there, it was the all boys' equivalent to the all girls' public school I attended nearby. So we mingled a lot, you know ...

Castletown beach, from the head of the promenade at Hango.

This was the best view I could get of my mother's old home, Crogga Castle, on the Old Castletown Road. They have a miniature railway running round the grounds there now. Shock, horror!

Under the railway bridge ... taken while driving. Tsk, tsk.

The view from my hotel bedroom. I stayed at the Station Hotel, Port St Mary. I could see my old cottage up at Glen Chass from the back landing window. A nostalgic visit ...

I went back on the faster craft to Liverpool, the Manannan. The sea was very choppy. Meh.

See the man on the ceiling playing cards ... ?

Quocunque Jeceris Stabit: 'Whichever way you throw, it will stand.' The motto and 3-legged symbol of the Isle of Man, spotted on a glass panel in the ferry cafeteria; that's the food counter behind it.

The chairs on the Isle of Man Steam Packet ferries are chained to the floor. This should give you an idea of how rough the seas are in winter. Just as well the Manx Lit Fest - who very kindly invited me back to the island for this 2013 visit - is held in early autumn!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Kickass Heroines v. Too Stupid To Live

Kickass Heroines: Too Stupid To Live, or simply female?
Witchstruck on
A few years back when I was first starting to write romance, I kept coming across the phrase TSTL, short for Too Stupid To Live.

This epithet seemed to be directed at female characters - in fact, I have never seen a male character described as TSTL - who took risks in the story, and tended to make 'bad' or 'poor' decisions, according to readers. I never really understood the mechanics of this insult, but basically it was used in reviews to indicate a character who made ludicrous and unlikely choices that could lead to her endangerment.

Recently I noticed that some readers of my Tudor Witch Trilogy, starting with Witchstruck, have described my heroine Meg Lytton as making 'stupid' or 'dangerous' decisions. So I guess she must fall into the TSTL category.

Puzzled by this, I looked at Witchstruck in detail. I had intended to make my heroine kickass. Had I in fact made her Too Stupid To Live?

Reading through, I could not find any situations where the decision Meg took was one that could not have been taken by a male character without incurring any criticism whatsoever. This made me wonder whether TSTL actually translates as 'not feminine enough'.

It strikes me that, although trends in Young Adult fiction demand 'kickass heroines', when we come across a heroine like Meg Lytton in Witchstruck, a teen witch in the 1500s who puts her life on the line for the people she believes in, some of us are actually repelled or horrified by that side of her character. So while feeble decision-making by a heroine allows us to consider how differently we would have played a scene, a too-strong response turns us off and makes us feel the writer has overstepped some invisible line.

This far, and no further, thank you. Kickass, but only within these limits.

Am I wrong to wonder this?

Yet along with the TSTL complaints comes this odd contradiction. Those who have seen Meg as making foolish and dangerous decisions also tend to comment on the fact that she faints twice during the story, and flag this up as a sign of her feeble nature. Hmm.

Without wishing to run a spoiler, one of these two instances of fainting is where she is physically exhausted and stressed beyond human endurance, which I agree may be outside the experience of many people, but which did happen to me once. I know ... I fainted once, under the combination of terrible stress and physical exhaustion. What a feeble person I am!

My point though is a serious one. Is it possible for a character to be both feeble and reckless? And what is going on in literature when readers look for impossible standards of behaviour from Young Adult heroines, so a teenage girl whose life hangs in the balance is required to stand any stress without cracking, and at the same time make wise and rational - which presumably means 'safe' - decisions in dangerous situations?

I applaud YA writers like Laura Dockrill, whose recent blog post at We Love This Book calls for more 'inspiring, refreshing or honest female protagonists in fiction for young people'. And I agree with her.

But I do wonder whether we are ready for female protagonists who don't tow the 'I'm a girly' line, whose decisions are more those of a typical male action hero than a YA heroine, and who ALSO occasionally behave in an honest way by fainting or losing the plot under stress.

The world is changing rapidly, yes, but not always by moving forward. Sometimes the world moves backwards, and we have to dig in our heels and stop it ruining advances we have made as women, as feminists, as readers, and as writers. If honest failures in our heroines are no longer welcome, and if Too Stupid To Live has started to mean Too Bold For A Female Character, we're in trouble.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

HER LAST ASSASSIN: cover reveal

The final book in my Lucy Morgan, Shakespeare's Mistress Trilogy: HER LAST ASSASSIN, out Feb 2014

Tudor court fiction, Shakespeare, romance, spies & plotters