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BOOK REVIEW: Affinity by Sarah Waters

Monday, August 31, 2015

Affinity – Sarah Waters

Blurb (from GoodReads)

An upper-class woman recovering from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior has begun visiting the women’s ward of Millbank prison, Victorian London’s grimmest jail, as part of her rehabilitative charity work. Amongst Millbank’s murderers and common thieves, Margaret finds herself increasingly fascinated by one apparently innocent inmate, the enigmatic spiritualist Selina Dawes. Selina was imprisoned after a séance she was conducting went horribly awry, leaving an elderly matron dead and a young woman deeply disturbed. Although initially skeptical of Selina’s gifts, Margaret is soon drawn into a twilight world of ghosts and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom, and her own.

What I Thought:

I have never read one of Sarah Waters’ books before. Now I want to gobble them all down as fast as I can get my greedy hands on them. Affinity is just brilliant. It tells the story of Margaret, a depressed young Victorian woman, who begins visiting the women’s ward at Millbank Prison as part of a do-gooder charity mission. She meets a number of different women, some incarcerated for acts that today would not be considered crimes. Among them is a beautiful young woman named Selina Dawes. Selina is a spiritualist. She was imprisoned after one of her séances went horribly wrong, causing the death of her patron and the hysteria of a rich young client. Margaret finds herself reluctantly convinced of Selena’s clairvoyant powers, and draw to her beauty and fragility.  

I don’t want to say much more, because the brilliance of this book is in its clever and surprising plot. I can say, though, with absolute conviction: READ IT!


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Best Research Books for the French Revolution, chosen by Charlotte Betts

Friday, August 28, 2015



Today, British author Charlotte Betts joins us to talk about the research books which were of the most help for her in researching the french revolution, the setting for her wonderful historical novel, The Chateau on the Lake:


When I began to write The Chateau on the Lake I had a great deal of groundwork to do. It was the first book I’d written about the eighteenth century and I’d never studied either this era or the French Revolution before. It was necessary to immerse myself in the period and I decided to begin with a general overview.


The English – A Social History 1066 – 1945 by Christopher Hibbert was helpful here to put the eighteenth century into context for me. Then I thoroughly enjoyed The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman. Richard Hall was a Baptist haberdasher and his diary and papers were collated by his descendent, Mike Rendell. Mr Hall owned a shop on London Bridge and the journal is crammed with details of his life and times. It’s marvellous book to dip into for those little snippets of information that can add colour to a novel. 


Similarly, Ladies of the Grand Tour by Brian Dolan was a treasure trove of knowledge when my heroine was attending a salon to meet the intellectual and artistic glitterati of the day and then when deciding what to pack to travel to France. Apparently indispensible items were a pair of leather sheets and a rhubarb grater!


Behind Closed Doors – At Home in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery gave me an insight as to how people from servants to duchesses lived at home. Amanda Vickery uses many quotations from Jane Austen’s writing and this one made me laugh, which she adapted to suit the book: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Georgian house with a drawing room, French windows and lawns must be in want of a mistress …’




My next step was to read as many of Jane Austen’s novels as I had time for. I’d loved them in the dim and distant past while studying English literature but it was very interesting to read them with fresh eyes. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Jane Austen-adapted films in the intervening years but I was astonished at how little description there was. A large part of her novels are dialogue and none the worse for that. Her perspicacious comments and sharp sense of humour most definitely stand up to the test of time. It was useful to place myself in, say, Lizzie Bennett’s shoes, for a young woman’s view of life at that time.


Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century was important for explaining how London, a city of huge contrasts, was expanding and how this affected citizens from all walks of life.


Then I moved onto History of the French Revolution from 1789 – 1814 by Francois Mignet, War and Society in Revolutionary Europe 1770 - 1870 by Geoffrey Best and Fatal Purity - Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr. These were invaluable and densely packed with facts.


For light relief I looked at A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel and The Glass Blowers by Daphne du Maurier. I found the latter very interesting because it was about Daphne du Maurier’s own family during the French Revolution. It didn’t cover quite the same period as in The Chateau on the Lake but gave a useful flavour of the time.


It’s impossible in a short post to mention all the books I studied and one of the things, as a non-historian, that I love most about writing historical fiction is the self-education aspect. Learning history because you are truly interested, rather than being force-fed dates and events at school, is a wonderful experience. I can’t imagine my enthusiasm for this will ever wane.



INTERVIEW: Charlotte Betts, author of The Chateau on the Lake

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Please welcome Charlotte Betts, the author of The Chateau on the Lake, a brilliant historical romance set during the French Revolution. I had previously read Charlotte's book, The Apothecary's Daughter, which I really enjoyed too, and so I'm looking forward to more of her books.


 

Are you a daydreamer too?


I am definitely a daydreamer and I’m not sure it would be possible for me to write novels if I wasn’t. My writing doesn’t flow until I’ve daydreamed a scene. I need to ‘see’ it in my mind and then it’s like watching a film and I simply record what happens in front of me. This sounds easy but it’s taken a while to learn how to do this. The best time for me to daydream is when walking the dog or last thing at night just before I fall asleep.

 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?


It seems extraordinary to me now that I didn’t start to write until fifteen years ago. I loved to read and always had to be creating something or other: painting, drawing, decorating, sewing, making puppets or a garden. Most of my working life has been as a designer, first fashion but then interior design for hotels and private residences. Colour and texture are important to me and I use these a great deal in my writing. The skills used for architectural drawings and detailed specification lists aren’t so very different from those required when planning a novel. I don’t have time to paint now but like to think that I paint with words.

 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?


I was born in London, though I only have a few memories of that time as my family moved to Berkshire when I was seven. I’ve lived in the Thames Valley most of my life but eleven years ago moved to a seventeenth century cottage on the Berkshire/Hampshire border, close to a market town.


This year I gave up the day job to write full time and I am so happy discovering the wildlife and the flowers in the woods that surround the cottage. There’s something new to see everyday. I’ve been busy finishing my next novel and a short story for Christmas but I’m looking forward to having a little more time to travel, read, make jam, meet friends and generally potter about at the end of my writing day. What luxury!



Tell me about your book, The Chateau on the Lake. 

The Chateau on the Lake opens in 1792. After her English mother and French father are brutally murdered, bluestocking Madeleine Moreau travels to France in search of relatives she hadn’t known existed. When France declares war on England it becomes unsafe to return and Comte Etienne d’Aubery offers her shelter in his chateau. Impulsive and sometimes self-opinionated, Madeleine favours the people’s revolution in France but her views are shaken after she witnesses Louis XVI’s death by the guillotine. The revolution gathers momentum and as passions of the populace are inflamed, Madeleine sets off on a dangerous race against time to save the man she loves.





How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?


My first three published novels were all set in the mid-seventeenth century and I decided I’d take a jump ahead in time. As usual when beginning a new novel, I researched the period, looking for a suitable historical event to use as a backdrop to my story. When I read about the French Revolution it struck me as the perfect framework for a novel because it was a dramatic, life-changing event for so many, crammed with intrigue and adventure.


 

What was the greatest challenge in the writing of it? 


I had two major challenges when writing The Chateau on the Lake. Firstly, I’d never studied the French Revolution but everyone knows that the starving poor rebelled against the greedy aristocrats and beheaded Louis XVI, don’t they? Except that, once I started my research, I quickly discovered that it was nothing like as straightforward as that.


It’s often perceived that most of the victims trundling their way to the guillotine in a tumbril were powdered and patched aristocrats but this wasn’t the case. The great majority were of working class background and had taken up arms against the Revolution, most notably in the Vendée. Those nobles who had chosen to emigrate and then returned to France were also executed as they were assumed to be spies. Priests who had refused to take an oath of loyalty to the constitution were also seen as enemies of the Revolution and guillotined. Many ordinary people were denounced for very little reason and a terrible atmosphere suspicion and fear prevailed. 


My second challenge was that whilst writing the novel I was still working long hours in a demanding day job. I place high importance on the accuracy of the historical events I portray and it was extra hard to find the time to do all the research required to enable me to meet the deadline. Everything else in my life had to go on hold!



How extensively do you plan your novels?


I do plan my novels in immense detail all fitted around the historical facts as, for me, this is the best way to avoid writer’s block. Of course, the best-laid plans always go awry! My characters develop a personality I hadn’t expected and secondary characters try to muscle in for a bigger role in the story. I find that an historical fact actually occurred two months after I wanted it to so it’s back to the drawing board for the plot. All this is normal and I don’t upset myself about it. A novel plan is like a road map but there is often another way, maybe a better way, to reach your destination.

 

 

Where do you write, and when?


Now that I’m not working in an office I tend to start writing at 9am after household chores with a break in the middle of the day to walk Hattie, my Border Collie, mid morning. Sometimes I’ll start at 5am, as ideas are usually fresh then. I generally keep ‘office hours’ but if I’m nearing a deadline I’ll work very late. Now, I’m able to take time off at weekends to spend time with family. I have my trusty Mac Air on all the time, though, and will write whenever inspiration strikes.


I have a lovely garden studio where I can watch the birds while I write but if it’s very cold outside I set up camp in our orangerie or in my little study, which has a woodburning stove for the depths of winter.

 

What is your favourite part of writing?


I love all of it, the planning, the research, the certainty that this book will be the best ever! I suppose the middle part of the book is my least favourite because, when the initial excitement has worn off, you begin to wonder if you’ve made a terrible mistake and everyone will hate it. It’s wonderful when it all comes together at the end.

 

What do you do when you get blocked?


Nearly always this happens because I know in my heart of hearts that something isn’t working. It’s usually in the middle section of the novel. In this case I question my characters’ motivation and have ‘conversations’ with them. Or I’ll do a little more research to see if I can find a new and interesting fact to add a twist to the story. Sometimes I’ll even kill a character – that usually livens things up!

 

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?


If I’m not inspired it’s generally because I’m trying too hard. I am fairly obsessive about my writing and sometimes it’s better to stop and take a walk, bake a cake or meet some friends. I think reading more or watching a film can also be very helpful. 

 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?


Tea. Chocolate. Both dark and strong like my heroes. Need I say more?

 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory, Nicci French, Sarah Dunant, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Clare Francis, Dick Francis, Jane Austen and Deborah Swift.



 

What do you consider to be good writing? 


Good writing immediately lifts me into the world of that book, the minds of the characters and into the locations so that I feel I’m really there. I also like writing to be clear and concise. Good writing shines, whatever the genre.  

 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?


  • Write every day
  • Read all you can
  • Keep a notebook
  • Never give up

 


What are you working on now? 


I’m currently checking the proofs of The House in Quill Court, which will be published on 7th January 2016. The novel is set in 1814 and the plot is perhaps best summed up as Jane Austen meets Whitechapel!

  

After Venetia Lovell’s father is murdered, she’s shocked to discover that he had another family. Since both families have been left without means of support they must combine forces to take over his interior decorating business.


Venetia discovers that her neighbouring shopkeepers have been paying protection money to a vicious gangland boss and, after he threatens their livelihood too, she is determined to end his terrifying tyranny. However, when a street war breaks out Venetia soon begins to regret interfering.


BOOK REVIEW: The Chateau on the Lake by Charlotte Betts

Monday, August 24, 2015




The Chateau on the Lake

by Charlotte Betts

Age Group & Genre: Historical Romance for Adults

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

Source of Book: I bought it

The Blurb:

1792. As a teacher at her parents' Academy for Young Ladies in the heart of London, Madeleine Moreau has lived her life sheltered from the outside world. But on the night of a dazzling Masquerade, tragedy strikes and she is left alone in the world. Desperate to find the family she never knew, Madeleine impulsively travels to France in search of them. But with war around the corner, and fearing for Madeleine's safety, the enigmatic Comte Etienne d'Aubery offers her shelter at his home, Chateau Mirabelle.

Chateau Mirabelle enchants Madeleine with its startling beauty, but it is a place of dark and haunting secrets. As the Revolution gathers momentum and the passions of the populace are enflamed, Madeleine must take control of her own destiny and unravel events of the past in order to secure a chance at future happiness.

The Chateau on the Lake is a breath-taking historical novel set during the time of the French Revolution; rich, evocative and immersive. If you love Philippa Gregory and Joanne Harris, you will adore Charlotte Betts.

What I Thought: 

I love books set in France, and have had a particular fascination with the French Revolution since reading my grandmother’s ancient copies of The Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness d’Orczy when I was a teenager. I settled down with a cup of tea, hoping for a great swashbuckling romantic adventure. I was not at all disappointed. The voice of the heroine Madeleine is pitch-perfect – intelligent, highly educated and argumentative, she is the daughter of a French nobleman and an English lady. Fallen on hard times, they have opened a school for rich and well-bred young ladies, where Madeleine teaches. There are secrets in her parents’ life, however, and when they die tragically, Madeleine sets out to discover her hidden heritage. Her search takes her to France, and she witnesses the execution of the French king, Louis XVI, which shakes her understanding of the world to the core. Trapped in a France gone mad with bloodlust, Madeleine finds herself falling in love … 

The Chateau on the Lake is one of the best historical romances I have read for a while, and I was pleased to realise that I had previously read and enjoyed one of Charlotte’s earlier books, The Apothecary’s Daughter … and she has a few other books in her back list. I’ll be hunting them down forthwith!

Writer’s website:  http://www.charlottebetts.com


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BOOK REVIEW: Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

Saturday, August 22, 2015




Falling Angels - Tracy Chevalier

 

The Blurb from GoodReads

In her New York Times bestselling follow-up, Tracy Chevalier once again paints a distant age with a rich and provocative palette of characters. Told through a variety of shifting perspectives- wives and husbands, friends and lovers, masters and their servants, and a gravedigger's son - Falling Angels follows the fortunes of two families in the emerging years of the twentieth century.


What I Thought

Another old favourite by a favourite author. Falling Angels is not as widely known as Girl With A Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s most celebrated book, but is, I think, even better. 

It has a bold and unconventional structure, with a series of very short chapters told in first person from a multitude of different characters. Some of the chapters are only a few paragraphs; one is only two short lines. It breaks so many rules about narrative structure, but I think it is utterly brilliant and brave. 

The story itself is riveting. Two families that live next door to each other, in the shadow of a graveyard, in the tumultuous years of change between Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 and King Edward’s death in 1910. It also has one of my all-time favorite last lines. 


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BOOK REVIEW: The Taxidermist's Daughter

Monday, August 17, 2015



The Taxidermist’s Daughter – Kate Mosse

Blurb (from Goodreads)

The enthralling new novel from the bestselling author of THE WINTER GHOSTS, CITADEL and LABYRINTH.

Sussex, 1912. In a churchyard, villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to be seen. Here, where the estuary leads out to the sea, superstitions still hold sway.

Standing alone is the taxidermist's daughter. At 17, Constantia Gifford lives with her father in a decaying house: it is all that is left of Gifford's once world-famous museum of taxidermy. The stuffed animals that used to grace every parlour are out of fashion, leaving Gifford a disgraced and bitter man.

The bell begins to toll and all eyes are fixed on the church. No one sees the gloved hand pick up a flint. As the last notes fade into the dark, a woman lies dead.

While the village braces itself against rising waters and the highest tide of the season, Connie struggles to discover who is responsible, but finds herself under suspicion. Is Constantia who she seems - is she the victim of circumstances or are more sinister forces at work? And what is the secret that lies at the heart of Gifford House, hidden among the bell jars of her father's workshop?

Told over one summer, THE TAXIDERMIST'S DAUGHTER is the haunting new novel from the bestselling author of LABYRINTH, SEPULCHRE, CIDADEL and THE WINTER GHOSTS.

What I Thought:

An utterly gripping murder mystery with gorgeous lyrical prose and the pace of a thriller, The Taxidermist’s Daughter was an absolute delight to read. Set in Sussex in 1912, the story begins with local villagers gathering in a churchyard to follow an old superstition that says, on that night, the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year will be seen. 

Our heroine is Constantia Gifford. Her father once owned a world-famous museum of taxidermy, but now all that is left is a few decaying specimens. The family is haunted by secrets from the past. Connie has lost her memory, and her father takes his solace from a bottle. 

In the morning, the body of a dead woman is discovered at the bottom of their garden. Connie must try to find out who is responsible, even as lost memories from the past rise to haunt her. 

Haunting, beautiful, horrifying and absolutely unputdownable, The Taxidermist's Daughter shows just what can be done with the historical mystery genre. 

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BOOK REVIEW: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Saturday, August 15, 2015



The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Blurb from GoodReads

A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. 

Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra's life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. 

Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace - the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century - Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.

What I Thought


The Forgotten Garden is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors, and a pleasure to revisit. It has everything I could possibly want: a foundling child, an old book of mysterious fairy tales, a maze that leads to a secret garden, a mystery to be solved, and a love story – its as if Kate Morton set out to write the perfect book for Kate Forsyth.   

The book is cleverly structured like a Russian doll, with stories within stories, histories inside histories. Modern-day Cassandra inherits a mysterious house in Cornwall after her beloved grandmother Nell dies. As she explores the house and its forgotten garden, she discovers that there was much about Nell she did not know – and indeed, that Nell did not know. For Nell was a foundling child, and does not know her own history.

At the heart of the novel is the old book of fairy tales written by the Victorian Authoress, Eliza Makepeace. Like so many old tales, Eliza’s story have two levels of meaning … and if Cassandra can just decipher the secret the stories hide, she may find out the truth about her grandmother’s dark past. 

 

I’m not alone in my love of Kate Morton’s books – millions of readers attest to her popularity – but if my chance you have not read this wonderful book, I’d urge you to grab it now. 


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SPOTLIGHT: Geoffrey Trease, who began my passion for historical fiction

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Today is the birthday of Geoffrey Trease, one of my all-time favourite writers for children. He was born in Nottingham on 11 August 1909, and died in January 1998. 

In all, he wrote 100 books for children. I’ve been collecting his books since I was a teenager, but I’ve managed to find less than half of them. I hope to find them all in time. 


My love for him began when I was about eleven, and I read his book Cue for Treason (first published in 1940).

It’s a wonderful adventure story set in Elizabethan England. A boy named Peter has to flee after throwing a rock at Sir Philip Morton, the local tyrant, in protest at his theft of the village’s common ground. He sees a troupe of travelling actors and pauses to watch, but then sees Sir Philip in the audience. 

In desperation, Peter hides in a prop coffin and finds himself loaded on to the actors’ wagon. Desmond, the kind-hearted leader of the troupe, takes him on as a child actor, and he travels the roads with them.  Another boy called Kit joins the troupe, and is given all the best female roles (which, of course, could only be played by boys). 

Philip is jealous and fights him, only to discover Kit is really a girl in disguise. She is fleeing a forced marriage to the evil Sir Philip. 

The troupe ends up in London, and Peter and Kit are accepted as actors by a young playwright named Shakespeare. They act in several of his plays, and then accidentally stumble upon a plot to murder the queen. A wild, fast-paced adventure follows as they race to unravel the plot and stop the assassin. All ends well, with the queen grateful to the young adventurers and Sir Philip unmasked as a traitor.  

I loved Cue for Treason. It was one of the books that ignited my passion for historical fiction. The late 16th century world was so adeptly brought to life, and the characters seemed so real. Kit and Peter were both so brave and determined, and the developing romance between them was so deftly handed. 

I began trying to find more books by him. Our library had a few, which I devoured hungrily, and every now and again I found one in a second-hand book stall. 

What I loved about his books was how effortlessly the historical background was woven into the story. The pace never lags, the story never stumbles, the characters never sound awkward or anachronistic, and yet I finished each book feeling as if I had knew exactly how people of that time spoke and dressed and ate and fought. 

He wrote books set in a number of different historical periods. My favourites include Cloak for a Spy (also set in Elizabethan times); The Popinjay Stairs, set in Restoration Times with Samuel Pepys as a character; Thunder of Valmy, set during the French revolution; and The White Nights of St Petersburg, set during the Russian revolution. 

He began writing stories in an old desk diary as a child, and earned his first half-guinea as a writer at the age of 13 with an article on ‘Amateur Journalism’. He won a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford - but dropped out, determined to be a writer. He worked to help the plight of slum children in the East End of London, and his books reflect his passionately held socialist beliefs. 

In Bows Against the Barons (1934), his very first book, Robin Hood cries out: ‘There are only two classes, masters and men, haves and have-nots.’

Such beliefs were radical in children’s literature at the time, and contributed greatly to his international success. He was particularly beloved in Russia, where his first book sold 100,000 copies. At the time, royalties could not be taken out of the Soviet Union. Geoffrey and his wife, Marian, subsequently lives in Russia for a while, enjoying the fruits of his success. What he saw there may have tempered his beliefs, as his later books – including White Nights of St Petersburg (1967) - were more moderate in their politics. 

From the beginning, Geoffrey set out to overthrow the heavy-handed archaism of historical fiction at the time. “Some of the merriment should be taken out of Merrie England,’ he wrote. 

He did away with what he called ‘gadzookery’, with people saying ‘Zounds’ or ‘Prithee’ at every breath. His characters all talk as ordinary human beings. 

Geoffrey was also determined to have the girls in his stories being as strong-willed and fully-rounded as the boys, something most unusual for the time in which he was writing. 

My love for his books led me to discover other great children’s HF writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff, Leon Garfied, and Elizabeth George Speare. Eventually I read Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and the Baroness d’Orczy … and have been an avid reader of anything historical ever since.  

BOOK REVIEW: The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

Monday, August 10, 2015



The Vanishing Witch - Karen Maitland 


Blurb (from GoodReads)

The reign of Richard II is troubled, the poor are about to become poorer still and landowners are lining their pockets. It's a case of every man for himself, whatever his status or wealth. But in a world where nothing can be taken at face value, who can you trust? The dour wool merchant? His impulsive son? The stepdaughter with the hypnotic eyes? Or the raven-haired widow clutching her necklace of bloodstones? 


And when people start dying unnatural deaths and the peasants decide it's time to fight back, it's all too easy to spy witchcraft at every turn. 


What I Thought:

I’ve really loved Karen Maitland’s earlier books, which are probably best described as medieval supernatural thrillers, and so I was keen to read her latest book. The Vanishing Witch is set during the troubled reign of Richard II, and features a number of scenes set during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. One of the most striking aspects of Karen’s writing is the way she brings the 14th century world so vividly to life, with all its stench and dirt and fear.  These are superstitious times, rammed home by small quotations of the time at the beginning of each chapter. Some are quite amusing, but others are truly chilling in their advice on how to identify witches or cure illnesses. 


The story follows the entwining fortunes of two families. The first is that of Robert of Bassingham, a wealthy wool merchant, and his wife and two sons. The other is a mysterious widow with one grown-up son and a younger daughter. 


Then Robert’s wife dies in mysterious circumstances and he finds himself entranced with the beautiful young widow and her family. Death follows death, with as Robert and his sons find themselves drawn deeper into intrigue and witchcraft.


Vivid and suspenseful, The Vanishing Witch also has a wry-voiced ghost who watches and waits and plots …



Source of the book: I bought it.

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THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY OF THE BEAST’S GARDEN

The first flash of inspiration for my new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN came to me while I was drifting in that shadowy place between being asleep and being awake. 

There are two such liminal borderlands. 

The first is called hypnagogia which means “leading toward sleep”; the second is hypnopompia meaning “leading away from sleep.”

I consciously use both of these twilight zones as a time and a space to daydream about my story. I run my narrative thread through my mind, testing for weaknesses, playing with alternatives, thinking about my characters and their fears and desires, rearranging words and images, allowing my mind to wander and to wonder …

Kinuko Craft 

The hypnagogic state (falling asleep) is the best time to ponder problems thrown up by the day’s work and to look over work that has already been written. I like to lie still in the dark silence, and consciously open my mind up to new images or visions. 

Sometimes I deliberately set about unlocking my unconscious to see what lurks within. I imagine myself walking down a flight of steps into shadows. There is a door at the end of the steps. It is locked, but I hold the key in my hand. The door is always different – sometimes a gateway through a yew tree, sometimes a great Gothic door with heavy iron hinges and a huge keyhole. The key might be as long as my arm, or so small I can scarcely grasp it with my fingers. I unlock the door and open it … wondering what I will find inside. Often it’s a garden, with a path that leads to a mysterious house. Sometimes, it’s a lake under a starlit sky, surrounded by sharp-etched mountain peaks. 

With each novel I write, the scene within will be different … and the more I unlock that door, the more vivid and real the scene within will seem.

Sometimes I choose what I will find; most times, what I find is a surprise. 

The hypnopompic state (rising from sleep) is very different. I am closer to the dream world, deeper within the dark vault of the subconscious. I float in darkness as if in a vast subterranean ocean, rising and falling, images and ideas drifting to the surface then falling away again like the undulation of bioluminescent jellyfish in the midnight tide. 

Sometimes the visions I have in that hypnopompic phase are extraordinarily vivid, filled with light and sound, like a brief glimpse of a film through the half-open door of a movie theatre. Sometimes they are strange and eerie; sometimes terrifying. 

I call it ‘liminal dreaming’, for want of a better term. It’s not quite a dream, not quite a daydream, but something in-between, a rite of passage between the conscious and the unconscious mind.

Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare

It was the 3rd November 2011. I had gone to bed the previous night unhappy and troubled by the novel I was then writing, THE WILD GIRL, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the Grimm brothers’ most famous fairy tales. I did not yet see the shape of my story, my narrative structure, which meant I could not begin writing the novel. I can never begin until I see the story’s whole shape. 

I went to sleep repeating to myself: it’s all right, trust the universe, the answer will come, the answer will come …

As I lay in the dim borderland between awake and asleep the next morning, an image came into my mind. A young woman, dressed in a sinuous golden silk dress, leant on a black piano in a dark and smoky nightclub, singing a sexy jazz number, while men in the severe black uniforms of the SS watched her. She had a flower in her hair, which was worn loose in heavy 1940s waves. 

An old photo of actress Ida Lupino 

As I came closer to being awake, my conscious mind reached for more images, more ideas. I saw her hugging a tattered book of fairy tales to her chest and weeping, I saw her living hand-to-mouth in the bombed-out rubble of a city, hiding in a dark forest, being chased … I saw her crouched beneath the weight of a heavy dark fur-coat, cramming food into her mouth … I saw books being burned in a bonfire and the girl, white-faced and desperate, trying to save her book …

I sat up and reached for my diary, and tried to write down all the phantasmagorias that had come so swift and bright into my mind’s eye. I wrote five pages: ‘why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … she has to flee and live wild in the wood – or joins the German Resistance – and she carries with her everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … I have to say this new idea – so fragile and damp still – it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems to have some kind of power to it.’

In my diary, I speculate where this idea came from: I had always wanted to write a book set in the Second World War; I’d always loved stories about resistance to Hitler; I had just read a page-turning World War II thriller about the Danish resistance; and I had been reading about the Grimm brothers and how their fairy tales were ‘used by Nazi Germany in a way they could never have imagined’. By this, I was referring to Hitler recommending all Germans had a copy of the Grimm brothers’ tales in their households, and how, after the war, the Allied had banned the Household and Children’s Tales as part of their denazification program. 

At first, I thought this liminal dream was a second narrative thread to be woven into THE WILD GIRL. I was planning to use ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a story about a king who wanted to marry his daughter that Dortchen had told to Wilhelm just days before the fairy tale collection was rushed to the printers in 1812. I wrote in my diary two days later, ‘I’ve been thinking about my WWII idea and have that bright panic in my veins that means it’s a good one. Already I can see a narrative arc.’  

On 7th October 2011, I wrote another four pages in my diary, outlining the basic sequence of events. I began a new notebook for it, filling its pages with research about Hitler’s rise to power and circles of German resistance. I began to try and weave my two stories together.

On 22nd February 2012, I wrote in my diary: ‘I’m rethinking the Nazi resistance strand of the story – I’m already at 69,000 words (of THE WILD GIRL) & the novel is growing slowly – I don’t want it to be too long - & I’m wondering if the two strands of my story shouldn’t be Dortchen as a grown woman and Dortchen growing up  … I’m going back to my original idea of having my opening scene being Dortchen dancing in a black dress in a winter forest with ravens crying overhead (my dream) … I can write the German resistance idea as a separate novel – rather than trying to weave 2 separate stories together …’ 

On 1st July, my diary reads ‘I’ve also been thinking a lot ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ and what a beautiful YA book it would make. Oh, if only I had more time. All these books I want to write.’ 

(‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ was an unusual and very beautiful variant of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale, told by Dortchen to Wilhelm on 7th January 1813).

A few days later (10th July 2013), I wrote: ‘I’ve been thinking about my German resistance story & wondering if I can do it as a retelling of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ – German girl married to a ‘beast’ – a German officer – to save her father – she is frightened of him – but really he is working to help people – inadvertently she betrays him and must go on quest to find him again – the celestial gifts – golden gown – what could the chicks be? Saves him from female Gestapo - & so on. I think it could work incredibly well.’ 

So that was how I got the idea for the story that became THE BEAST’S GARDEN. A liminal dream that was discarded, then transformed into something else through the strange and inexplicable creative process. 

It was a harrowing book to write, for many reasons, as I’m sure you can imagine.  Researching Hitler and the Holocaust for months on end was enough to give anyone nightmares … particularly someone who is used to consciously unlocking the gateway between the conscious and the subconscious …

So it was that, every night, as I walked down my shadowy steps to a mysterious locked door … it was the iron door to a Gestapo cell … and I would stand, paralysed, too afraid to open the door … 

In the end, I gave this particular liminal dream to my heroine, Ava … I gave her the strength and courage to open that cell door and rescue her love, who is imprisoned within … and so I was able to exorcise that waking nightmare …

And now, each night, as I walk down the twilight steps towards the gateway, I wonder … what new story awaits for me beyond the threshold ...


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