Sunday, 20 September 2015

Bare-knuckle Fighting, Burned Records and Jacobites: Julia Brannan Casts Light ...

Today I am delighted to have as my guest Julia Brannan, author of Mask of Duplicity.

Can you remember the first thing you wrote? How old were you?

I don’t remember the first thing I wrote. I was quite a precocious child. I learnt to read and write early, and when I went to school at the age of five, I was half way through reading Tom Sawyer. Imagine my disappointment when I was given my first reading book, which was a ‘Happy Venture’ book, with maybe five words per page! I couldn’t write as well as I could read, but I wrote in full sentences, with punctuation.  I know as a small child I would write stories and make them into tiny books, complete with illustrations (dreadful illustrations – I can’t draw to save my life). I would spend hours doing these. My father worked for a national newspaper, and I would also make little newspapers with reports from Fairyland, etc.

What ignited your love of history - was it lessons at school, or something else?

I was definitely not inspired by history lessons at school! I went to the local comprehensive school, and our history lessons consisted of the teacher telling us to open our textbook at a certain page, and then to copy the text into our exercise books. To be honest, I was in one of the worst classes in the school, behaviourally speaking, and I think he just wanted to keep us quiet. I was bored rigid, and dropped history as a subject as soon as possible.
My love of history was really ignited by my mother, who used to tell me stories about her life during the depression, and during World War II, when she helped to make Lancaster Bombers. Her father had also told her stories about his very colourful life in Glasgow at the end of the nineteenth century, and she passed these stories on to me too. My granddad died when I was ten, but when we visited him in the old folks’ home, he used to sit me on his knee and tell me jolly stories of life as the leader of a razor gang, and as a bare knuckle fighter in the Depression, while my father tried desperately but unsuccessfully to change the subject. I think they made me realise from an early age that history is not just a series of dates to memorise, but that it happened to real people, with hopes and dreams, just like us.

What is it that draws you to the Jacobite period? 

For most of my life I had almost no knowledge of the eighteenth century. I’d read a couple of Georgette Heyer books at one time, but they didn’t inspire me to research the period. I was far more interested in the Victorian period, or the Tudors and Plantagenets.
Before her death, my mother started researching her family history, but didn’t get very far back, as she couldn’t find her grandfather’s birth certificate, and hit a wall there. Some considerable time after she died, I was looking through her papers, and realised that I had enough hearsay information to bypass his birth and continue searching. It actually became an obsession with me for a while, and I fanatically researched all the branches I could of my mother’s and father’s family trees. This was pre-internet, so I got to travel all over the country and spend hours going half-blind trying to decipher faded microfiche!

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Most of my mother’s side of the family came over from Ireland in the 1820s-30s, and most of them had Irish surnames. Except for the Gordons. My mother was brought up for a time by her grandmother, Margaret Gordon, and told me many tales about her. Margaret was a devout Catholic, fanatical Scottish nationalist, detested the English, and taught my mother a number of Jacobite and IRA songs as a child. Due to the IRA burning down the records office in Dublin, I’ve been unable to trace my family further back. But I was intrigued as to why the Gordons would have been in Ireland at all. Which led me to research the period, whereupon I discovered that after Culloden, many Scots fled to America, but a good number went to Ireland.
At the time, all I knew of Culloden was that a lot of Scots died there, and that Bonnie Prince Charlie looked good on tins of shortbread. 

But when I started researching, I discovered that it was a fascinating period of history, and appears to have been almost totally overlooked by historical novelists. I then determined to write a novel about the period, because really, there was just so much material, I had no choice!

What are the particular challenges faced by HF authors?

I can only really speak for myself, because I don’t personally know many other HF authors. There are a number of challenges, but two in particular stand out for me. One is knowing when to include and when to leave out research. I researched the period intensively for a year before I put pen to paper, and know all sorts of details, which was really helpful in allowing me to write relatively naturally about the eighteenth century. But I have to be constantly aware that whilst I might find the tiniest details of domestic life in the period fascinating, for example, that my readers will not appreciate pages of description. Nor will they appreciate long accounts of the political machinations of the day, as fascinating as I found them!
The other challenge, which I didn’t think about at all until I started writing, was to make my characters true to their period, whilst ensuring that I don’t alienate them from a 21st century reader. It’s relatively easy to write a villain, because he or she can be a racist or misogynistic without any problems, because the reader isn’t necessarily meant to like them. But with the heroes of the book, it’s much more difficult. Although my books are fictional, they include many historical characters, and I also want my fictional characters to be believable, and appealing to a modern reader, but true to their time. And it’s actually virtually impossible to do. The attitudes towards female roles, slavery, corporal and capital punishment, to name just a few, that were universally accepted at the time, are abhorrent to a modern reader. But writing a hero who believes in feminism, gay rights, racial equality, etc would be a travesty. Instead you have to tread a very fine line between historical reality, and fictional license. The same goes for physical issues. Writing a paragraph in which your hunky hero delouses himself, or wanders the hills and glens wearing the same clothes for months without washing them, may be accurate, but will not romantically endear a fastidious, two-showers-a-day 21st century reader. And after all, I do want people to read and enjoy my books!

How did you go about researching for Mask of Duplicity? Did your research throw up anything unexpected or unusual? 

I actually wrote the first two books, and drafted out books three and four, before the internet became widely available (and free!) Consequently most of my initial research was undertaken via the local library, which is why I’ve acknowledged the staff there at the start of Mask of Duplicity. They were incredibly helpful, and it got to the point where I could go in and say such outlandish things as; “Do you have a book that describes exactly how someone looks when they’re being hung?” without raising an eyebrow from any of the staff. And then they would source such a book for me. I can’t even begin to say how important I believe libraries to be!
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As well as that, I spent two weeks in Manchester reading the newspapers of the day, mainly The Gentleman’s Magazine and The London Gazette, and visited Didsbury to get the lay of the land.
A couple of enriching things happened – I got to spend a week on the beautiful Isle of Skye, doing an intensive Scottish Gaelic course. The Skye Celtic music festival was going on at the same time, so I had a fabulous time.
Also whilst researching, I read a number of books about Prince Charles Edward Stuart. In one book there was an illustration of a painting of the Prince, with two of his followers. One of the followers looked exactly like my mental image of Alex MacGregor. I found this interesting, but was even more interested when a couple of days later, my friend Mary, who was reading the book as I wrote it, and giving me invaluably feedback, phoned me up and told me that she’d seen a picture on a car boot sale, and thought; “That’s Alex!” It was the same picture!  It’s owned by the Queen, and is hung at Holyrood House in Edinburgh, but in a room that’s not open to the public. A short while later I visited Holyrood whilst walking Land’s End to John O’ Groats. To my disappointment, one of the rooms was closed for renovation. But then I discovered that they’d temporarily opened another room to compensate – and it was the room with the painting in! I got to stand there and admire it in all its glory.

the painting that Julia saw

I happen to know that you live in a beautiful part of the world - how much does the landscape inspire your writing and in what ways?

It’s true that I do live in a lovely part of the UK. I can walk out of my house and be in the woodlands and mountains in minutes. The scenery is not unlike some parts of Scotland. My first instinct was to answer by saying that it doesn’t inspire my writing, as my books are not about Wales, but on second thought, indirectly the beautiful countryside around me does indirectly inspire me, as I love to go for long walks, and whilst walking, often ideas for scenes in my books will pop into my head. The trick then is to remember them until I get home and can write them down! I really should be more organised and carry a notebook everywhere with me!

Do you have a writing routine - how easy is it for you to find time to write?

I don’t have a writing routine, but I really wish I did. I admire those authors who say; “I get up every morning and write for four hours,” and I would love to be that disciplined, but I’m not. I do have a day job, which pays the bills, and I also do editing and transcribing work, which is intermittent but very intense when it comes in, but there’s nothing to stop me devoting a couple of hours each free evening to writing. But that’s not the way I work. Instead I tend to read hundreds of books about the period I’m writing about, and then I’m really reluctant to actually sit down and start writing. I’m not sure why that is. Once I do sit down, though, I can write for twelve or fourteen hours straight – basically until I’m just too hungry, thirsty and tired to write any more. 

Once I get started, I’ll write every spare moment I can, and my boyfriend will phone me periodically to make sure I’m still alive, and occasionally drag me out of the house to remind me that outside my window is the 21st century, not the 18th!

What's next?

Next is to finish off Book two, The Mask Revealed. I had hoped to release it in October, but it’s looking as though, due to unforeseen circumstances, I might have to postpone until December or early January. After that, the other four books are in various stages, ranging from nearly finished to rough plotting. After that...well, I’m thinking of writing about another period of Scottish history...

Find Julia Here
and buy her book Here Here or Here
Julia is also on Twitter and Pinterest

Thanks, Julia, for such illuminating answers


  1. Thank you so much - I found your questions really interesting, and they made me think more deeply about my writing. I love the pictures you've enclosed. Lovely!

  2. Thank you so much - I found your questions really interesting, and they made me think more deeply about my writing. I love the pictures you've enclosed. Lovely!

    1. It was an absolute pleasure to interview you Julia :)

  3. I have known Julia going on 6 years now and I can tell you she is an extremely intelligent and vibrant person. I think we are witnessing the beginning of a very successful career in writing. We just have to get her books noticed by the world.

  4. Hopefully this interview will help with that, Michael. I've read Julia's book and I thought it was wonderful; beautifully researched and really well told. It was after reading it that I invited her onto the blog to tell me and everyone else a little bit more about her research and writing methods. Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment here :)

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  6. Argh, evil typo demon is evil:

    I remember that painting. It's on a book about Culloden I bought back in 1998. I suppose it's Cameron of Lochiel looking like your hero. He's really handsome on that painting and I was a bit disappointed to see other, later ones where he'd grown more ... round. ;-)

  7. Thanks for your comment Gabriele. I suppose the lovely thing about historical fiction is that the characters don't have to grow round - if Julia wants to keep her hero a bit more svelte, then she can :)