Wrong but romantic

I am in Devon as I write; overlooking glorious rolling countryside and listening to ducks, jackdaws and the trees rustling.

En route at Westbury station, I had a sudden thrill. A steam train passed through with all its noise and smoke and glamour. For one exhilarating moment,I felt I’d slipped back in time. My heart raced and I grinned like a loon.

I love that sense of history as a fluid thing. I have rarely been happier than at Oakwell hall years ago wandering around the candlelit hall in costume and listening to old carols sung live. For me there was the echo of a scene in The Children of Green Knowe where Tolly and his great grandmother hear a woman sing Lully Lullay – and a baby goes to sleep four hundred years ago. It still brings tears to my eyes.

I have a deep affection for many old things – and it’s not a product of my age. I loved brass rubbings in the Lower VI form, declared  that I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was nine and haunted castles and museums and churches happily all through my childhood and beyond.

Partly I am seduced by beauty. I find carefully handmade things be they ancient or modern, a joy, but there’s something even more special about an object that has been treasured for centuries.

In Hennock church somehow  an original painted rood screen from the Middle Ages has survived. It’s no masterpiece in many people’s view – but I found it rather moving. How did they keep it from the zealots of the Reformation or the Puritans in the Civil War era?

That’s the sort of story I respond to: where an object or a house or some such embodies the tale of survival against the odds. It’s not the thing itself that moves me – it’s the story beneath.

So I embrace the idea that my stories are far more likely to involve candlesticks, gargoyles or moorland crosses than mobile phones. In fact, I am unlikely to reference the 21st Century at all. Let my talented colleagues tackle that with their own passion and knowledge.

I will carry on being a ‘romancer’ in my own way.

Besides, whether they wear zips or calico buttons, trainers or hob-nailed boots, people are still endlessly fascinating.


Past and present

Most of my writing thus far could be labelled ‘Historical Fantasy’, I would say. I have had lots of fun and inspiration from visiting the settings of my stories and looking around.  I try to get a sense of how that place came to be that way- the story before mine, how the geography evolved, the way it might have been governed – as much physical, political and social background as I can imagine.

But until relatively recently, I couldn’t really deal with the people. I’d go early morning or wait to catch shots without people in them . I avoided them a bit if I’m honest – be a bit shy or perhaps wary.

I had some idea that people then were different – different in a way I could only access through period images and accounts. And there’s clearly a great deal of validity in reading contemporary voices, and looking at what they saw – especially for ‘true’ historical writers.

But I take liberties.

I don’t think there were any selkie colonies between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay in the 60s nor a girl who could talk to stone on the south coast of Sussex in Jane Austen’s time. Yet there can be in my head – and through the page – in my readers’ heads.

Understanding this, and accepting that we can only imagine people through what we experience now, has made me much happier to move characters about in time. Years ago as a schoolgirl,  I remember seeing some of Holbein the Younger’s drawings. I’ve never been a fan of the Tudors – but those drawings fascinated me. They were  ‘just like real people in Tudor costumes!’ I recall thinking.

Mary, Lady Guildford, by Hans Holbein the Younger

So now, if I’m in Chichester and I see a huge bloke walking with his legs wide apart to accommodate the movement of his belly like draymen used to roll beer barrels to pub cellars – well, I think ‘you’d fit in well in Selchester’s less reputable streets’. Or I see a girl waiting, shifting her weight from one foot to another, making a pattern on the flagstones like choreography – I wonder if she might anticipate the quadrilles at the Solstice Ball if I slide her back to the winter season 1809.

I reckon it could work the other way too.

Could this woman fit in a contemporary drama?

Perhaps not – but how about this one?

(If you like this pair, there are more here on the Telegraph website – I am indebted to Caroline Lawrence and The History Girls for this)

So what do you think – am I right to mash-up people from different eras – or are people so shaped by the period they live in, it’s just plain wrong?

Truth and tradition

The Penny Farthing Post

I am indebted to the BBC news for this treasure – the wonderful Graham Eccles who collects and delivers post around Bude by penny-farthing bicycle ( video link here). Who could not admire his initiative? We all like active heroes and the rise in the price of stamps won’t harm his enterprise. But there’s more than just this.

Certainly there is the sheer visual charm – which cannot but delight tourists and locals alike – but he is carrying on the fine British tradition of eccentricity. He is also providing a service by putting a new spin on an old idea.

Carlin Sunday

This report I owe to the venerable yet lively Whitby Gazette (established 1854). It is the custom to serve carlin pease (a kind of medieval mushy pea) on Passion Sunday – and it is still done in some pubs in the North- East – report here. There are a variety of stories to account for this – in different ports in particular – a fine example of how folk tales evolve to explain customs. You can read more here.

I love how the much-neglected English Civil War crops up in this – reminding us of our shared history. The people of the British Isles should be proud of who they are. I don’t believe this excludes anybody – our much-settled isle has enough stories to share with the whole world.

 What relevance to the writer for young people?

These (and so many, many more) traditions go beyond quaint. I happily accept that quirkiness is to be cherished for its own sake but the observation of Pace Egg Rolling and Shrove Tuesday Skipping in Scarborough and the like is also a reply. The continuance of shared customs – through taking part and celebration in writing – is a counter-blast to the dominant celebrity ‘culture’.

It’s not corporate. it’s not blandly international like the wall art in hotel rooms, it’s ours.

Recently I  heard someone fear that books can be rejected for being ‘too British’. Well, pah to that.  Felicity Bryan at the Chichester Writing Festival ( see my reports here & here – and also  Liz Fenwick’s here) gave an excellent answer to that, which I paraphrase:

Don’t worry about a book’s appropriateness for a given market – if the story and the characters are universal, the rest won’t matter.


Being true to who you are, to the ways of your own background whatever that maybe , is essential to you as a person and as a writer. I’m not saying you must mention Morris Dancers in your next book ( though the wonderful Terry Pratchett has given them a boost) but be aware of your tradition.

I want to see more writers exploring and reinventing folklore. Tradition dies if it is not re-invigorated – like marriage has received a fillip from the influx of same-sex couples.

I’ll leave the last words to the marvellous Show of Hands:

Seed, bark, flower, fruit
They’re never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
They need roots 


Roots by Show of Hands