I AM writing, right now. Really I am. Words have appeared where they weren’t before. But I’ve also just taken a little side research trip that I wanted to share (and remember!)
Without giving the game away, in my next book I have a character who is very ill one night and rumors of what went on cause a scandal that haunts her for the next twenty years or more. Naturally I need to get the medical facts right about what she says was happening, as well as what perhaps was actually happening on that night in Virginia, in October 1791. It was only a short internet jump from there for me to spend a good hour or so learning about the famous physician, Benjamin Rush. Here’s some highlights.
Benjamin Rush was born in Philadelphia in 1746 about an hour away from where I live now. I’d consider going to see the site, but apparently is was ‘accidentally bulldozed’ in the 1960’s. He studied law at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland (my home city!) He was active in the American Revolution and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. A friend of Ben Franklin’s, he was an anti-slavery advocate, active in reforming the treatment of the mentally ill, and had a huge impact on the field of medicine in the US as a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania. He was married, had thirteen children, and died of typhus in 1813.
My two favorite things I’ve found to do with Benjamin Rush this morning, though are these:
His medicine bag – photo and contents:
2. The Mutter Museum’s Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden
This screenshot is just to give you an idea. A pdf leaflet is available here. The herb garden listing is the perfect resource and if that’s not enough, they also are currently asking people to help them name a new ‘corpse flower’ in the garden. Check it out here. Who will you vote for? I chose… well that would be telling now wouldn’t it!!
If you are not familiar with it, do check out the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia online or in person. It’s one of my favourite museums with highlights that include slices of Albert Einstein’s brain (yes really, I’ve seen them) and a cast of the liver of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, two men I’ve an interest in because of their connection to P.T. Barnum.
Susan B. Anthony has been in the news lately. This year is the centenary of women (well, white women) getting the vote in America and then there has been a little bit of extra controversy about a presidential pardon. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony set out to cast a ballot in a presidential election. Firm in her belief that the Fourteenth Amendment gave her – as a US Citizen – the right to vote, she entered a barbershop in Rochester, New York, and persuaded the men working there as registrars, to register her and three of her sisters and allow them to vote in the election.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1.
As a citizen, she declared, she had the privilege of voting, and she cast her vote for the Republican incumbent, President Ulysses S. Grant. (He won.) But Susan B. Anthony’s action, as she probably expected, did not go unnoticed. She ended up being arrested some days after the election and was charged with knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully voting. She was tried, found guilty and fined $100 – a fine, it should be noted, that she never paid. Her actions brought national attention to the question of equality.
Twenty four years later, Susan B. Anthony was interviewed by the journalist Nellie Bly. In early February, 1896, Anthony was just days away from her seventy-sixth birthday and Bly was thirty-one. Anthony had spent her life devoted to women’s rights. Here’s Bly’s first impression:
She sat in a low rocking-chair, an image of repose and restfulness. Her well-shaped head, with its silken snowy hair combed smoothly over her ears, rested against the back of the chair. Her shawl had half-fallen from her shoulders and her soft black silk gown lay in gentle folds about her. Her slender hands lay folded idly in her lap, and her feet, crossed, just peeped from beneath the edge of her skirt. If she had been posed for a picture, it could not have been done more artistically or perfectly.
Nellie Bly, The World, February 2nd, 1896
In typical Nellie Bly style, the interview is wide-ranging and moves seamlessly from the serious to the personal and back again. Read it and you will learn how Anthony came by her middle name (Brownell), what she liked to eat for breakfast (fruit, grain and coffee), and how many times she had fallen in love. You’ll discover a sharp intellect – she begins by asking her interviewer her own question about current events in Cuba – and a keen memory, as she describes with great good humor her years as a teacher. She lays out how she came to see that voting rights was the battle that had to be won before all others. In her own words:
I had barked up the temperance tree, and I had barked up the teachers’ tree and I couldn’t do anything. I had learned where our only hope rested.
Susan B. Anthony, The World, February 2nd, 1896
Susan B. Anthony looks very serious in this portrait, but Bly brings her to smiling life in her seven column interview. Anthony comes across as approachable, humorous, and intelligent, but also very human, rooted in her family, relentlessly committed to her cause, and full of optimism for the future. From her views on flowers, bicycles and bloomers, to her committed temperance (she never tasted alcohol in her life), Susan B. Anthony fully comes to life in this interview. As such, it is also a tribute to Nellie Bly’s skills as a journalist, her readiness to ask questions big and small, and her ability to bring her subject’s voice and character to her readers’ attention. In Nellie’s own words, “Miss Anthony enjoys a good joke and can tell one. She never fails to see the funny side of things though it be at her own expense.”
Anyone curious to quickly know Susan B. Anthony, beyond the standard biographical record, could do a lot worse than read this whole interview. It’s available on line as a pdf here, and photographed for slightly easier reading here. But as internet resources come and go, and as has been my habit during my research for The Girl Puzzle, I’ve also transcribed the whole thing and you can read it here. I hope you will!
For me, one of the biggest (and toughest) decisions when setting out to write a new book is figuring out whose story I’m writing, and who is best placed to tell it. I’ve made false starts on more than one occasion. In The Road to Newgate I started out with only one first person narrator and ended up with three. I’ve read books on the topic (for example The Art of Perspective by Christopher Castellani) and I’m always interested as a reader to see what other writers do and consider how those choices impact on the way characters and plot develop.
Which brings me to Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. Here’s a little bit of the blurb:
One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them are a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured veteran returning from Afghanistan, a business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. Halfway across the country, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor.
The novel tells two stories really. At the forefront is what happens to Edward afterwards. He leaves hospital, moves in with his aunt and uncle, and tries to cope with life and school now that he is ‘the boy who lived’, albeit without the joys of Hogwarts, Butterbeer and Chocolate Frogs. He does have his own Hermione though, a new best friend called Shay.
The other story line keeps the reader on the plane – from boarding to the crash – and its hard to read at points because here we are getting to know the hopes and dreams of individuals who we know from the very outset are going to die. And yet it’s not a gloomy book. Sad, poignant, funny and even hopeful – definitely not gloomy.
I didn’t actually do a head-count of how many different character points of view, Napolitano uses in the book, but its certainly a crowd. There’s those mentioned in the blurb above and others too. She sets up it from the get-go. By page five we have been introduced to – and been in the heads of – six characters: Edward, his brother, and his parents Jane and Bruce, a grumpy disabled man called Crispin Cox objecting to having his wheelchair tested for explosives, and a young woman, Linda Stollen, who has an as yet unused pregnancy test kit in her pocket. Another three pages in and now there’s a Filipino woman with bells on her skirt, Benjamin Stillman, a black soldier on his way to see his grandmother, an attractive air stewardess and Wall Street ‘type’ called Mark Lassio.
So what’s the key to carrying this feat off? As a reader it works for me because the narrative form is established right from the start. This isn’t a case of a writer having a primary main character and then ‘head-hopping’ into a different character without warning, just because it suits them to do so. That can be a real weakness in a story, breaking the bond of confidence that the reader has with the author. Not so here. With Ann Napolitano there’s no question that the reader can trust her. By page eight the reader/writer contract has been established. Shortly thereafter, her wider structure is clear as she alternates chapters between Edward’s post-crash life and the hours of the flight, but in both cases the narrative time-line moves forward with each point of view (even with internal back stories) firmly bolting on, one to the other, in a linear fashion. It’s really very well done!
Writing like this is not easy. Many of the interviews I’ve read with Napolitano focus, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the inspiration for the story, Edward’s character and life after trauma, but I did find some interesting questions on her process. For anyone who reads the book (and really it is super gripping, beautifully written, and moving) it’s worth hearing this from its author:
“Dear Edward took eight years to finish. I spent the first year taking notes and doing research (I don’t let myself write scenes or even pretty sentences during that period) and then I spend years writing and re-writing the first half of the book. In this novel, the plane sections came fairly easily, but I re-wrote Edward’s storyline countless times.”
Read more about Ann Napolitano and Dear Edward here:
As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I always love the real history behind the stories and often read ‘around’ the novels I’ve enjoyed. No surprise then, that this post from Bookbub was right up my street:
If you click on the photo, you can read the article and see 9 well-known historical novels paired with a non-fiction counterpart. You’ll see The Paris Wife on there, a book I really enjoyed a few years ago. It’s paired with Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I did read that after finishing The Paris Wife, as well as The Sun Also Rises and as I’d never read Hemingway before, I’m happy to say I got an extra benefit from picking up Paula McLain’s novel.
Of course this got me thinking about my own book pairings. I have a shelf of research books for each novel so choosing just one is not easy, but if I had to do it, here’s how I’d pair each of my 3 books to date:
Find out more about Charlatan here, and The Affair of the Poisons here.
And about The Road to Newgate here and The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey here.
And finally take a look at The Girl Puzzle here and Nellie Bly, Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist here.
I’m SO tempted now to post a photo of the main non-fiction source for my current work in progress…. but I’m holding that back, at least for now 😉
Sometimes in book-related Facebook groups I’ve seen posts with many comments about whether people read one book at a time or multiple books. I’ve always thought I was in the former category – always having a book on the go, but only one book at a time. Not right now though. It’s partly COVID-19, but also partly format/content related. Here’s the books I’m juggling this week:
I have to tell you, I am loving this book! The story is told by different characters – a teenager, Lily, who doesn’t speak because of a past trauma; Flo, her best friend; and Grace who is (so far anyway) the villain of the piece.
A teenage girl is murdered. The question is why?
This is a real page-turner, slickly written and fast-moving. I love books where you get thrown in with the characters and their back-stories and motivations get slowly revealed as you follow the action.
I’m also reading (on a much more relaxed schedule!) 18 Tiny Deaths: the Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics. I first came across Lee a few years ago when my mum and I took a trip to D.C. to go to an exhibition of “The Nutshells of Unexplained Death.” The nutshells are dollhouse models of crime scenes. This might not be everyone’s idea of a mother/daughter outing, but if you know me and my mum at all, you will not be surprised. Mum has always made dollhouses and we both love crime! The 18 houses or dioramas we saw were built by Lee and her assistant when she was in her sixties. They were used to educate detectives on crime scene and are quite incredible in their detail and realism. This book – highly readable and well researched, tells Frances Glessner Lee’s whole story and for anyone who, like me, likes to learn about amazing women from the past, it is just excellent!
So far so good with the book juggling. But then I’m also listening Far From the Madding Crowd on audio loan from my local library. Here’s where I admit that despite doing English at university, I have managed to live my life without reading any book by Thomas Hardy or even watching any tv/movie adaptation.
It’s going to take me a while to get through it. Audio book time is reserved for gardening and dog walking and it’s very warm here so dog walks are on the wane and sweaty gardening is only happening in short stints. But I am enjoying it so far. Farmer Gale is rather charmingly naive and Bathsheba Everdene (ooh – Hunger Games connection?)’s rejection of his proposal had me chuckling.
These are 3 very different kettles of fish/book and I think that’s the only reason I can have them all on the same go at the same time. What’s your experience of book juggling? Does it work for you?
The minute I saw the call for submissions for the Dark London charity anthology I knew I’d be submitting a story. London is so rich in history and plenty of it is dark.
I’ve already spent much time there – in my head and on the page – when I wrote The Road to Newgate (Crooked Cat, 2018) and my mind jumped to Newgate prison and Jack Ketch’s kitchen. As I wrote back then, “most people give little thought to the bodies returned to Newgate and delivered to the kitchen. That’s where Jack Ketch completes his work; he is not only a hangman. He’s also responsible for stripping the bodies, and poaching heads and limbs in his kettle to better make them last out on those spikes and gibbets, and keep the birds away.” I had an idea about a daughter, living in the prison, facing some unknown threat. And so I thought about that for a bit. But the idea didn’t really take off.
Initially I’d thought it would be good to use my knowledge and prior research, but instead I decided to explore some other part of London’s history. The Blitz, I thought. WW2 is so popular in historical fiction these days. So I did a little research and came across the story of Gordon Cummins, known as the Blackout Ripper, who murdered four women and attempted to murder at least two others in 1942. I even read a book about the murders… but still… I wasn’t quite committed.
Then – an idea. Out of nowhere. I thought of this…
Evie and the Sea Monster started to take shape. Here’s another note from that first spark of an inspiration that became pretty important:
Of course I needed a time period and historical context for the Evie’s story. I needed real locations in London and characters busy living historically accurate lives, wearing appropriate clothing and so on. And that’s when I came across this TREASURE of a primary resource for anyone wishing to learn about 19th Century London.
Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was a London journalist, a co-founder of Punch, and a social researcher. London Labour and the London Poor began as a series of articles for the Morning Chronicle where he surveyed, interviewed and described the poor people of London. It’s highly readable and remarkably thorough. Here’s just a snippet from a section I found useful. It’s about mudlarks:
“On questioning one, he said his father was a coal-backer; he had been dead eight years; the boy was nine years old. His mother was alive; she went out charing and washing when she could get any such work to do. She had 1s. a day when she could get employment, but that was not often; he remembered once to have had a pair of shoes but it was a long time since. ‘It is very cold in winter,’ he said, ‘to stand in the mud without shoes,’ but he did not mind it in summer. He had been three years mud-larking, and supposed he should remain a mud-lark all his life.”
I hope that has you rushing out to order your copies of Dark London! There are two volumes due for release in paperback and ebook on June 25th and July 2nd. All proceeds from sales will go to two London-based charities and all the writers have contributed their services for free. It was great fun to write mine and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading both books. I’m sure you will too!
I was a big fan of Lisa Wingate’s last book, Before We Were Yours – about the scandalous adoption agency run by Georgia Tann in the 1940s – and jumped at the chance to review her new book for the Historical Novel Society.
So this is not a review – because that’s for the HNS magazine – but instead its a taster of some of the history behind the story in The Book of Lost Friends.
This is a dual timeline novel, set in Augustine, Louisiana in 1875 and 1987. The earlier story concerns a young woman, born into slavery, called Hannie Gossett. Hannie is eighteen in 1875, but when she was six her family were sent to Texas for the duration of the Civil War. Enter a scurrilous nephew of Hannie’s owners who sells off the slaves as they travel, separating Hannie from her eight siblings and mother. Now eighteen, Hannie is free, but still tied to the Gossett family, trying to earn a portion of land. All of her family members are still missing.
Here’s the real-life Lost Friends advertisement, written by a woman called Caroline Flowers, that inspired Wingate’s story about Hannie. It’s chilling to read and think about people being treated like objects in this way, not to mention the longing and uncertainty they endured not knowing what had happened to their relatives.
One way these individuals tried to find answers was by advertising. The Lost Friends database, where Wingate found and was inspired by this and other stories, is a project run by The Historic New Orleans Collection – a website to lose yourself in for a few hours if ever there was one.
Within that, The Lost Friends database is an easily searchable record of nearly 2500 advertisements placed in the Southwestern Christian Advocate (a methodist newspaper published in New Orleans and distributed to preachers, post-offices and thousands of individual subscribers) between 1879 and 1900.
Many advertisements are much shorter than Caroline Flowers’, but all have the same polite and restrained sense of yearning for answers. And of course they are not lost friends being sought here, but real, flesh and blood, lost families. Written by sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles – each one is a real human story of loss and suffering. Here’s just one that caught my eye with the poignant lines, “I left two or three other sisters behind, but I can not think of their names. I was small when I left…”
I’m still reading The Book of Lost Friends so I don’t know how Hannie’s fictional journey to find her lost family will turn out. But I’m now interested in reading this book:
In it, Heather Andrea Williams “follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion.”
This Monday, I’m excited to share news of a two-volume anthology of dark short stories set in London that will be released in ebook and paperback at the end of the month. I have a story in Volume One called Evie and the Sea Monster. Its historical (no surprise there) but not based on real events which is my usual m.o. I’ll be back to write more about the story and the research and inspiration about it very soon!
Please rush to Amazon and pre-order both volumes today ;). I have heard from a lot of people that with so much going on in the world, reading a whole novel can feel like a mountain to climb. Well, these are short stories – and really good ones too!
But why am I so, so excited about these two volumes? Well because my brother has a story in Volume Two!! It feels very special to be book buddies together.
In celebration of the fact I got onto our mum to find a cute photo of us together. Here we are aged five and seven in a place that definitely gets a mention in Alan’s story, Finding Victoria, in Volume Two. Is it just me or was everything a bit browner and fuzzier in the 1970s?
I’m reading The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel right now and one of my favorite characters across the trilogy is the painter Hans, the younger Holbein. Throughout the books, Hans is busy painting portraits and I thought it would be fun to bring together the paintings referenced in the novels.
One of my favourite parts of Wolf Hall is when Thomas Cromwell gets to look at his own portrait, as painted by his good friend Hans. Perhaps he might have felt a bit better about it if he had looked at Hans’ self-portrait too. As it is, Cromwell has to content with himself with his son, Gregory’s casual surprise that his father hasn’t always known he has the face of a murderer.
By book 3, Gregory is old enough to be married and his busy father pairs him up with no less than Queen Jane’s sister, Elizabeth. Here they are:
Which takes me to other royal women. Here’s a Holbein sketch believed to be Anne Boleyn and his portrait of Henry’s fourth wife (for all of six months) Anne of Cleves. Now I am only on p579, but I’m pretty sure this portrait will rate a mention before the story is complete.
Anne of Cleves
And what about Henry, the ‘mirror and the light’ I believe (or at least the mirror anyway… Cromwell might be the light. Again, I’ve not finished the book yet.) Here he is in all his familiar glory…
Holbein’s time spent painting this next picture (or as it was then, mural, on the walls of Whitehall) also comes up in The Mirror and the Light. Even though the original (as well as the portrait of Henry above) was destroyed by a fire in Whitehall in 1698, thankfully there was a strong tradition of copying famous and well-loved images. Here then is a copy of Holbein’s mural of Henry and Jane, imagined with Henry’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
But where I started all this today, was with a description in the novel of Holbein painting of someone who is barely a character at all. Meeting the new French ambassador, Marillac, Cromwell mentions a previous ambassador, Dinteville, now disgraced. He “thinks of the ambassador, muffled in his furs, splendid as Hans painted him: the broken lute string, the skull badge he retained in his cap.” Here he is on the left:
With under 200 pages to go, I wonder how much more I will hear or see of Hans Holbein? If anything comes up, I’ll be sure to come back and update this post!
….. and I’m back! I flew through the last chapters and have a couple more Holbein portraits to add for the record. First here’s Christina of Denmark (also somewhat confusingly to my mind, the Duchess of Milan) who Henry seems to favour in looks over Anne of Cleves. Not sure I’m seeing what he was seeing but you can make your own mind up…
Christina of Denmark
Anne of Cleves
And lastly here’s Henry’s son Edward, whose painting gets a mention when it is presented to the King as a gift. Yet another incredible painting!
Okay. New week, new plan. Every Monday I’m going to post something about a book I want to read/want to recommend/have on my mind.
And so I’m kicking off with a new piece I have up on the Historical Novel Society website, based on a Q&A I was lucky enough to do with historical novelist Stacey Halls. I’ve read both Hall’s books now and am a definite fan. There are so many great books about these days, but I’d put her very high on my list of go-to authors. The Lost Orphan (The Foundling in the UK) is one of my favourite books so far this year.
Forced to abandon your child into public care with only a token and a number to trace them again by, what token might you choose?
You can read my write up by clicking here:But here is the full set of my questions and Stacy’s answers:
What was the original spark for the novel?
I get my story ideas from places, and this one came to me when I visited the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London. I wasn’t looking for a story idea – in fact I’d just finished the first draft of The Familiars the week before – but I was so moved by the museum and the concept of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 1730s for babies at risk of abandonment. I was particularly moved by the tokens left by mothers who hoped one day to claim their children – they were like secret deposits that only the mothers knew about, and would describe to prove their identity if they ever found themselves in a position to claim their son or daughter however many months or years down the line. They are all worthless objects like scraps of fabric, coins, playing cards, made priceless because of their significance; they were the only things connecting the mothers with their children. The idea came to me to write about a woman who has saved enough to buy her baby back, as a fee was payable for the care the child had received at the hospital – only to be told her daughter has already been claimed.
You have two very different narrators, both flawed in some ways. How did they come to be and how do they help you explore themes of motherhood, nature v nurture etc?
I’m not a writer who dreams up a character and feels compelled to write a story about him or her – all my characters develop from my story idea, or rather I create them to fit into the story. The problem is then they do take on a life of their own – I feel as though all my characters, particularly my main ones, have their own souls, and don’t always do what I want them to, and they often surprise me. I knew that the two narrators in The Foundling – Bess and Alexandra – had to be very different, each providing different things for their daughters. Bess is straightforward and Alexandra complicated, exhibiting characteristics we would now associate with mental health disorders including OCD, PTSD and agoraphobia. Saying that, she was the easier one for me to write; I felt as though she was channeling me and I was just a medium for her voice. I’ve never written anyone quite like her before.
Historical fiction is sometimes criticized for a lack of diversity in its characters but you have people of colour and immigrants feature in this story. Was that a conscious decision, a natural result of your research, or a bit of both?
A bit of both. I wanted the London in the book to reflect the London I live in now, and the city in the Georgian period was just as diverse as it is now. It was a few decades before mass immigration, but I think there’s a preconception that London was white until 1945, and that’s just not the case.
This is such a vivid picture of mid 18th century London. Did you have any research highlights?
Loads! London has taken on many personalities in its lifetime but the Georgian city was particularly rich, with new wealth from the empire and overseas trading. The book might have been set 250 years ago but there’s so much that we would recognise: the theatre, gin, magazines, hot chocolate, shopping. But as well as that, it was also a place of crushing poverty that led directly to high mortality – in London, 75% of children died before their fifth birthday. It was also much smaller then, with a population of about 750,000 at the turn of the 18th century – it’s ten times that size now – and its boundary was much smaller. Where the Foundling Hospital was located in Bloomsbury was the very edge of the city, with countryside beyond, and Lambeth (where I live) was completely rural.
The book is called The Lost Orphan in the US and The Foundling in the UK. Do you have a view on that, or a preference of one over the other?
The Foundling was the working title of the novel while I was writing it, and was changed for the American market because I think the word foundling is less known there.
You have jumped period from The Familiars – early 17th century – to mid 18th. What’s next?
My third novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, which feels like a huge leap forwards in terms of modernity – they had cars and phones then, so it feels almost contemporary to me!
Reading this book and chatting with Stacey made me really want to visit the Foundling Museum in London. I love these tokens and the part they play in the novel.
Thanks for joining me for my first Monday Bookishness post! Have you read The Lost Orphan/The Foundling? What did you think? Any views on the different titles and cover styles? I’m leaning toward the American version on this one…