Living History

DSCF0061Watching wheat being cut by a team of three shire horses pulling a binder is an awesome sight. They are massive animals with amazing strength and gentle natures. When you’re that big you don’t need to make a fuss. Shetlands, on the other hand, can be twitchy and bad-tempered. I’ve attended several village shows and vintage rallies this summer. They are a link to life as it was back in the C19th and early C20th, and for a writer of historical fiction they are a gold-mine. I saw stalls displaying and selling farming implements from a hundred or more years ago. Genuine cast iron tractor seats sell for £80. Reproductions at £35 – £40 are snapped up by enthusiasts renovating rusty heaps that are rare old farm vehicles. There is usually a ‘working section’ with a thatcher and a Cornish-hedge builder. A belt-driven circular saw two feet in diameter powered by a steam engine cuts a tree-trunk into planks. The saw has no guard and the belt flaps as it turns. It’s a Health & Safety nightmare. But the operators are sensible, know exactly what they are doing, and DSCF0055still have all their fingers.
At Lanlivery Vintage Rally and Country Fair part of a field of wheat had been left standing so the horse team could cut it. The bound sheaves were taken to the huge Ransomes thresher where the grain was separated from the straw. The wheat grain was ground into flour by a small mill belt-powered by another much smaller stationary engine. The flour was then taken to three ladies in a hut alongside who used fresh yeast to bake it into loaves and small rolls. The smell was mouthwatering. It was lovely to see children of all ages mesmerised by the horses, then by the thresher and the mill. There was a queue at the hut and I saw entire families walking away eating still-warm rolls that had been split, buttered and spread with home-made plum-and-rum, damson, and raspberry jam. It was the past brought to life, us as we were a century ago.

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Cornish Village Shows

IMG_1271What an amazing summer it’s been. Not the weather – which has been hit and miss – but discovering the entertainment to be had at village shows and vintage vehicle rallies. I went out of loyalty, and was astonished by how much I enjoyed it, not just for all the stalls and displays but for the people I met. My husband has a collection of 43 (and counting) restored, repainted, working rotavators and mini tractors dating from the 1940s. He takes a different selection each time to the shows that are a much-enjoyed part of the Cornish IMG_1393summer. Nearly all are in aid of local charities like the Cornwall Air Ambulance, FLEET which provides updated equipment for all Cornwall’s rescue services, Cornwall Blood Bikes – volunteers on call every night to transport urgent blood supplies, tissue samples etc to and from hospitals and laboratories; and our local hospices for adults and children. In the thirty years since it started Carnhell Green Show has raised over £134,000. Lanlivery Show has raised over £1,000,000. Cornwall is a relatively poor county DSCF0122yet one of the most generous. My husband also dresses up! As he says, people are paying hard-earned money to come and support the event, so they want to be entertained. This weekend is the last show of the season but fortunately he has nine wrecks to restore, repaint and get working. Then he and a pal who shows a British Anzani Iron Horse, have plans to build a four-wheeler version out of spares. That will keep them busy until the shows and rallies start again in March.

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Wrecking – background to ‘Devil’s Prize’

Image taken from page 91 of 'Sea Pictures, drawn with pen and pencil'In 1795 high taxes, inequality between rich and poor, and the government’s ignorance of the problems facing rural communities made smuggling and wrecking a means of survival for the Cornish. But though the poor sympathised with the reasons for the French Revolution, they did not support the violence or bloodshed. There was also a long-standing free-trade relationship between Cornwall and Brittany which neither side wished to jeopardise.

The word wreckers is often taken to mean people who lured ships onto rocks by using false lights etc. This may have happened. but in Cornwall the term was more often – and more accurately – used to describe the men and women who, after a ship had been driven ashore in a storm, stripped it.

Many wreckers were tin miners, poorly paid and thrown out of work without warning. As 1795 was a famine year many were starving and willing to risk their lives for anything they could sell to buy food for their families. When word of a wreck arrived they, with their wives and children, grabbed axes, crowbars, ropes, buckets or sacks and hurried to the shore to watch and wait. Once a ship grounded it was fair game. But before the plunder began, locals usually helped the terrified crew and passengers ashore. It is characteristic of the Cornish that when danger threatens they are willing to risk their own lives to save others. But once the danger is past they take the pragmatic view that it’s only common sense to get what they can out of the situation.

If a ship was driven onto rocks at night, wreckers had to find their way down dangerous cliffs in the darkness with only the thin light of a lantern to guide their feet. But they dared not wait until daybreak because as word spread, more and more turned up hoping to retrieve something they could use or sell.

Even if the ship came ashore on a beach they still had to brave heavy seas to reach it. Competition was fierce. Desperate people fought to grab whatever they could before someone else got it. An added pressure was the need to get the stolen goods away before the authorities arrived to put ship and cargo under guard.

If the ship carried spirits then death was inevitable. Fierce fighting broke out as barrels were smashed open and the brandy was carried away in buckets, jars or chamber pots. Intoxicated men and women fell to their deaths, or succumbed to alcoholic poisoning and lay unconscious amid the wreckage, drowning as the tide rose.

After the cargo and everything movable had been taken off, the ship was cut to pieces. The wood was kept, brass, copper, furniture etc was sold. This demolition was often completed between one tide and the next leaving nothing but an iron keel to heavy to carry away.

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Devil’s Prize – special summer offer

Devil's PrizeDevlin “Devil ” Varcoe, braves winter weather and revenue men to fetch the contraband on which Porthinnis depends for survival. Though drawn to Jenefer Trevanion whose father finances the smuggling operation, Devlin seduces the wild and beautiful Tamara Gillis.
Craving Tamara for himself, Thomas Varcoe plots to kill his brother. Betrayed and captured, Devlin negotiates release for himself and his crew by rescuing a British agent from France but on the return voyage is caught in the worst storm in living memory. With death seeming inevitable, Devlin recognises the love he never believed he deserved. Urging on his exhausted crew he brings the boat within sight of the beach. As disaster strikes he must choose: loyalty or freedom?

‘What are you carrying?’ As the words left his lips. Devlin caught a waft of heavy burnt-sugar sweetness and heard the frenzied roar. He and Jared exchanged a glance. Spirits inevitably meant some of the howling mob would not live to see daybreak. How many would be found broken on the rocks or trapped and drowned in the wreckage? How many children would be left without one or both parents?
‘Rum,’ the captain confirmed. His weathered face was grey and etched with strain. Exhaustion had sunk red-rimmed eyes deep into their sockets. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for days. ‘And thirty casks of flour.’
‘Stay aboard and you’ll be killed,’ Devlin was brusque. ‘Is it worth your life?’
‘Surely they wouldn’t – ‘
‘They would. They will,’ Devlin said grimly.
‘Can’t you help?’
‘What the hell do you think I’m doing?’ Devlin retorted. The captain began to sway. With surprising agility for a man of his height, Jared leapt for the gunwale, swung himself up and immediately leaned down to haul Devlin aboard. ‘Take him up the beach,’ Devlin murmured as he reached the deck.
Frantic, uncaring of the damage to their elegant coats, pale pantaloons and polished boots, two passengers had scrambled down and were stumbling across rocks through waves that one moment were thigh-deep, and the next retreated gurgling and hissing into dark fissures.
That left only the man Devlin guessed was the mate and the woman whose struggles had grown weaker and more erratic.
‘What are you waiting for?’ he snapped.
‘She won’t – I can’t – ‘
‘Oh for Christ’s sake,’ Devlin muttered, and strode up the slanting deck. ‘Come on, Miss – ‘
‘Mrs,’ the mate rasped. ‘She’s my wife.’Meeting the man’s eyes, Devlin’s angry response died on his tongue. He had never seen such devastation. His gaze flicked to the bedraggled woman clasped in her husband’s arms, trembling as if racked with fever.
‘Is she ill?’
The mate’s head moved once, a brief negative. ‘Our baby – ‘
‘Where is it?’
‘He.’ The mate’s chin lifted in painful dignity. ‘My son. James Henry Vanson. He – ‘ A spasm crossed his face and he swallowed audibly. ‘My wife was holding him while I helped with your line. Then the wave – Mary fell. The deck was awash and – ‘ he swallowed again, his mouth quivering. ‘He’s only three months old. Why?’ Vanson’s voice was as raw as a wound. ‘In God’s name, why did you cut the tow?’

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Characters: background and baggage

Sunset StormWe are all products of our background: where we were born – inner city, country village, coastal town, our parents’ jobs/profession if any, whether we followed in their footsteps or chose a completely different way of life and how that decision was received. Our parents’ attitudes to each other and with us will have coloured our view of relationships and parenthood. Birth position and number of siblings also have influence. Firstborns bear the weight of parental inexperience and expectation. If more children follow, the eldest has to grow up fast, shoulder responsibility early and help with the youngers ones. The youngest might be a longed-for son after several daughters, or an inconvenient ‘accident.’
The same applies to our characters. The more we know about where they come from, whether as children they were loved, spoiled, ignored or abused, how they see themselves, what they want, and why they they want it, the more real they will be to the reader.
The reasons people give for what they want are rarely the real ones. e.g. For a person whose ambition is to be rich, money is the means by which they can be free of their current life/relationship/job. Money equals power, a chance to demand things done the way you want. The ambition to change people’s lives through funding a charity? The desire to make a positive difference might be genuine, but underneath it’s still about power.
Here are some additional ways to add depth to your characters and make them stick in a reader’s mind.
Give them contradictions. e.g. a character whose job requires mental concerntration and attention to detail – surgeon, pilot, accountant, lawyer – spends weekends trailbike racing, sand-yachting or wind-surfing. Someone whose days are noisy and pressured might enjoy scuba diving for its silence and weightless freedom. In historical fiction a city-born industrialist might re-design the gardens on his newly-acquired country estate. A tortured escapee from Revolutionary France paints delicate watercolours.
Obviously your main character will have an objective in the story: something they are driven to achieve. You raise the stakes and increase the drama if this ambition poses a threat to another character. To add depth to your characters and impact to the story give them: 1. A secret to hide – make this something important: a past event which, if discovered, will jeopardise his chance of success. 2. Something she is anxious to protect: a chronically sick child, the family name/property; a professional reputation. 3. Something to overcome: a fear or phobia; addiction; lack of money, skills, contacts.
To make the story better, make the situation worse. Force the character to act. Actions have consequences – some desired, some unforeseen. These demand new decisions and fresh actions. To increase the tension add a time limit. What will happen if your character fails to catch that plane, reach that meeting? Uncertainty creates its own drama and the outcome will either take youir character one step closer to her goal or create a setback that ratchets up the tension even further.
These are just a few ideas I’ve used and found helpful. One final word: never let your main character get comfortable. Comfort kills conflict and tension and they are what drives your story.

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Creating Characters

Panache Desai You must strive to go beyond your perceived limitations. You created them and only you can dispel themWhen I’m about to start writing a new book I know where it will be set, and in what year. But equally important is to know what it’s about. Knowing what my theme is will help keep the story focused. e.g. ambition: this can be a spur, firing a character with the determination to be the best he can be; giving her the resilience to cope with set-backs and push on to heights she didn’t realise she could reach. What if the character has a disability that at first glance makes achievement of his ambition seem impossible? e.g. A soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan becomes a world champion marathon runner in the Paralympics. The harder the journey, the more readers will empathise, and the greater their emotional satisfaction when the character wins through.
The darker side of ambition is revealed when a character uses people then drops them, claims credit for other people’s work; spreads false rumours, resorts to bribery or blackmail, determined to achieve his objective regardless of the cost to others and himself.
But the most important element of a book is not location or period or theme or even plot. While readers want to know what happens, for a story to grab and hold them they need to care about who i.e. the main character.
Fiction allows us to leave our own lives and enter a different world. A world where the characters reflect the ordinary in us – the faults, attitudes and problems. But in the most gripping fiction, the characters are also larger than life. They face situations that would devastate us; they say and do things we wouldn’t dare to;
they push themselves far beyond our strength. They are the people we wish we might be. Their choices and actions drive the story forward. They may well make a wrong move or a choice that backfires. When that happens they deal with it and keep striving towards their goal.
So though the event that kick-starts the plot may be something that happens to the main character – receiving life-changing news; a car crash; a missing child; a crime; theft of vital information – from that moment the character makes choices and takes action in pursuit of a goal he or she is intent on reaching.
Even baddies can be empathetic. A character may do something horrifying. But if readers know what has driven him to this action, they will – hopwever reluctantly – imagine themselves in similar circumstances. They don’t have to condone his actions, but if they understand why, then they will empathise. Conflict and tension in the story – and in the reader – generates page-turning quality.
You want to create characters who are realistic, believable and emotionally involving? It’s easy. Really, it is, provided you have done your preparation, and that can be summed up in three words: backstory and baggage. More next time.

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Ambition and Intrigue


The Carlist wars provide the background to my latest historical, ‘The Consul’s Daughter.’ This is how they came about.

When Philip V took the throne of Spain in 1700 he was a member of the French royal family. But the Treaty of Utrecht forbade the unification of France and Spain. So Philip decided to relinquish his right of succession to France under one condition: that succession to the Spanish crown was limited to his entire male line before it could pass to any female.
In 1830 Ferdinand VII of Spain managed to get his fourth wife pregnant which opened up new possibilities for his direct descendants. Six months before the birth he changed the law relating to male-only succession. This infuriated his brother, Don Carlos, who was next in line to the throne and had ambitions for his own son.
Ferdinand’s first and only child was a girl, and when the king died three years later, little Isabella was proclaimed queen with her mother Maria Cristina, acting as regent.
Don Carlos’s son, (also called Carlos) Count of Molina, refused to recognize Isabella as the queen. He was considered rightful king by those opposed to Ferdinand’s change in the law and his liberal tendencies, and so the wars began.
Isabella retained her throne only through the support of the army. The Cortes and the Moderate Liberals and Progressives re-established constitutional and parliamentary government, dissolved the religious orders and confiscated their property (including that of Jesuits), and tried to restore order to Spain’s finances. After the first Carlist war, the regent, Maria Christina, resigned to make way for Baldomero Espartero, Prince of Vergara, the most successful and popular general to support Isabella. But in 1843 after only two years as regent he was removed by a military and political coup whose leaders persuaded the Cortes to declare Isabella of age at 13.
Three years later, on 10 October 1846, the Moderate Party (Castilian Conservatives) made their sixteen-year-old queen marry her double-first cousin Francisco de Asís de Borbón The marriage was not happy not least because he was believed to be homosexual. Rumours began and persisted that few if any of Isabella’s children were fathered by her king-consort. The Carlist party claimed that the heir-apparent, who later became Alfonso XII, was fathered by a captain of the guard.
The queen was described as having an expressionless face and a bulky figure, her consort as small and of sickly tumblr_nkwpq24mhV1qzjmo0o1_1280 Isabellaappearance.
Isabella’s reign from 1843 to 1868 was a period of palace intrigues, back-stairs influences, conspiracies, and military coups designed to further the ambitions of various political parties. Moderados ruled from 1846 to 1854, Progressives from 1854 to 1856. Their ousting by Unión Liberals who ruled from 1856 to 1863 sowed the seeds of revolution.
Queen Isabella’s interference in politics made her very unpopular and at the end of September 1868 she was deposed during the Glorious Revolution. Her enforced exile helped bring about the Franco-Prussian War, because Napoleon III could not accept the possibility that the German Prince Leopold might replace Isabella who was a descendant of the Spanish Bourbons and great-great-granddaughter of the French-born Philip V of Spain.
In June 1870 she was induced to abdicate in favour of her son, Alfonso XII and following the collapse of the First Spanish Republic in December 1874, Alfonso took the throne.
Isabella had left her husband the previous March and, after the restoration in 1874, continued to live in Paris for the rest of her life. During her exile, she grew closer to her husband until his death in 1902. She died on 10 April 1904.

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New Release! The Consul’s Daughter

The Consul's DaughterCaseley is the 21-year-old daughter of Teuder Bonython, successful shipyard owner and consul for Mexico. After losing his first wife and elder son in an epidemic Teuder married again, had another son, Ralph, a talented artist with a drink problem and no interest in the business he will one day inherit, and a daughter, Caseley.
When Teuder falls ill, Caseley takes responsibility for the shipyard and consular matters. But as a young woman in Victorian England – a world dominated by men – she must hide her efforts even from the family. If word should leak out concerning her father’s true state of health the effect on the business could be catastrophic.

Caseley is not conventionally beautiful. A crippled foot sustained in the accident that killed her mother has left her unable to dance, so she foregoes the social events where young women of her age and class meet potential husbands and has resigned herself to a life without love … until she encounters Jago Barata, half-Spanish captain of a Bonython ship. Jago is fearless and determined – a brilliant sailor. He is also impudent, arrogant, and unnaturally perceptive. Their every encounter sets Caseley and Jago at each other’s throats.

Just when she thinks he is out of her life for good, fate intervenes. Caseley must deliver secret documents vital to Spain’s future on behalf of her father. It will be a journey filled with doubt, intrigue and danger – and the only ship leaving in time is Jago’s…

My historical romances have a very strong Cornish connection. In ‘The Consul’s Daughter’ much of the action takes place in the town of Falmouth and returns there, after a dramatic dash to Spain, for the story’s climax. IMG_1193RM

During my research I came across this photograph of Bar Road in Falmouth taken in the very early 1900s. The location was perfect for Bonython’s ship-repair yard. I rearranged the sheds and stores and added another slipway and jetty where Cygnet – the schooner in which both Jago and Caseley hold shares – would be moored up for repairs.

‘The Consul’s Daughter’ by Jane Jackson pub. Accent Press July 2015.
Ebook: £2.99 Paperback: £12.99

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IMG_1144RMAuthors are often asked where they get their inspiration. Answers from famous authors have varied from ‘A little old lady in Cheltenham’ to ‘I apply seat of pants to seat of chair and start typing.’ The truth is that inspiration can come from anywhere: a scent; a snatch of conversation; a piece of music; a building, or a view. This painting was featured in our local paper this morning to advertise an exhibition at the Penlee Gallery of the work of an important community of artists based in Newlyn in the 1800s. The painting is remarkable in its own right. But the image has special significance for me as it provided the inspiration for my historical romance, ‘Heart of Stone.’ Big Ben and the Houses of ParliamentHuge granite blocks used to be carried from quarries at Longdowns down through Penryn town to the quay and loaded onto sailing ships to be transported to ports like Plymouth, Southampton and London. Granite from Penryn Quarries was used to build the Houses of Parliament. That started me thinking: ‘What If’ the quarry owner was a young single woman left it by her father who had no sons? What if she was an outcast in her community because, after being seduced and becoming pregnant by a man who had promised marriage then abandoned her, she refused to do the ‘decent’ thing and put her baby in a Foundling Home? Instead she had kept him and he was the light of her life. What if her new neighbour was a soldier recently returned from India with terrible scars that had turned him into a recluse? What if he was a skilled manufacturer of gunpowder and she needed his help?
I added more characters and more conflict and gradually the threads were woven into a dramatic, powerful and moving love story that was shortlisted for the Historical Prize in the RNA’s Pure Passion Awards.

Here is the link:

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Georgette Heyer

If you enjoy historical fiction you will surely know the name of Georgette Heyer whose birthplace was honoured by the unveiling of an English Heritage blue plaque last Friday. She reigned supreme as a writer of Regency romances. Handsome and dashing heroes were saved from being boring by humour, irony and a cynical view of the world in which they moved. Her heroines ranged from naive headstrong young girls to women in their late twenties consigned by society to ‘the shelf.’ These characters sprang off the page as real people with strengths we wish we possessed and flaws we painfully recognise.
I discovered Georgette Heyer at an unhappy time in my life. I picked up a copy of ‘These Old Shades’ on a second-hand bookstall at a village fete. It took me into another world and I was hooked. I didn’t have much money and so haunted second-hand bookshops, stalls at fetes etc until I had acquired 29 of her 55 titles. They are my comfort reading, my go-to books when I need escape. Even now I find something new with each reading.
It would be impossible to pick a favourite. But particularly touching is ‘A Civil Contract’ in which shy, plain Jenny Chawton accepts Viscount Lynton’s proposal knowing he loves someone else and that her wealth is his only hope of providing for his sisters and settling his father’s debts. But nothing is quite what it seems.
If you haven’t yet read Georgette Heyer you are in for a treat. With perception, humanity and a dry wit she brings the period to vivid life, whether in glittering assembly rooms or the gutters of Paris. Writing this has inspired me to re-read ‘A Civil Contract.’ I doubt I’ll stop at just the one…

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