Friday, 8 July 2016

Once Upon a Time - And Other inspiring Stories

My little blog is one year old today. I wasn't sure how to mark this 'bloggiversary' and then I started to think about what inspired me to begin writing in the first place:

I belong to a fantastic online reading group where the discussions recently have focused on old favourites. It got me thinking that in fact, although I was an historian before I became a novelist, it was fiction which inspired my love of history. I'd like to share a few of these special books.
First, and still in my possession, the Ladybird Story of clothes and Costume. Who could resist these wonderful illustrations?  (Look at the 'Late Victorian' lady above.) I remember I could almost feel the sumptuous fabrics and I wanted to be the ladies in those paintings. To get an idea of how old I was at the time, here's a picture of some 'notes' that I made:

We moved around a lot when I was a child, so it's easy for me to remember where I was when I read certain books. And it was in the Netherlands that I discovered Jean Plaidy, and in particular, Castile for Isabella.

I vividly remember how much I enjoyed reading about this strong woman, who ruled in her own right and was determined to marry the man of her dreams. Intoxicating stuff for a pre-teen with her head in the clouds! (and themes which were echoed years later in To Be A QueenHowever, it also put a few pieces of the history jigsaw together for me, because I knew from an early age the historical geography of Spain, and the family connection with Katherine of Aragon. I read the sequel, too:

Around this time, there were costume dramas aplenty - and as well as Glenda Jackson's remarkable portrayal of Elizabeth I, there was also Henry VIII and his Six Wives, starring Keith Michell.

This, as I recall, belongs not to me, but to my elder sister. As did Royal Flush by Margaret Irwin, which left me far better informed about the sister of Charles II's life at Versailles than the recent TV series called Versailles!

Two books which definitely belonged to me came via the school book club. I wasn't allowed to order very often, but these two books remained special to me, for not only did I learn about the Fire of London (above) and the French Revolution, (below) but they began a long-standing relationship with the author's books, such that only recently I bought the entire box-set of the Follyfoot DVDs, having loved the books and the TV series so much when I was younger.

These books were aimed very much at children, and hitherto I had been reading 'grown-up' novels, but these books featured characters of my own age, and that was something of a novelty for me. Monica Dickens was the grandaughter of Charles Dickens, but I'm afraid that whilst she encouraged my love of history, and inspired me to read her other books, she did not persuade me to read her grandfather's books!

In 1974 we left the Netherlands, and in the summer of the same year took a rain-drenched family camping holiday in Scotland. On our way north we stopped at what must have been a filling station and I was allowed to buy a book. Marjorie Bowen's The Glen O' Weeping tells the tale of the Glencoe Massacre.

Where better to read this book than in my little tent, camping out in the highlands? The inside cover shows my boarding school identification number, (we all had a number, followed by the school initials, and all our lockers etc had the same number on them) which proves that I took this book with me to read again when I started secondary school that autumn.  

I didn't read very much once I set off to navigate the choppy waters of the Teenager Ocean, but I returned to historical fiction around the time of sixth form. Now I learned all about Cornish tin mining... 

and earned my mother's disapproval when I read the scandalous life of she who was Forever Amber

1981 was my 'A' level year, and was also the year that brought Jeremy Irons and Evelyn Waugh into my life. Granted, Waugh was not actually writing historical fiction, given that he had lived through such times, but it whetted my appetite. 

More war stories followed, with Jennifer Johnson's How Many Miles to Babylon, KM Peyton's Flambards series, and this, which I found tucked away in a little book shop in the town where I was working:

The job and I fairly swiftly parted company as I realised that I did, after all, want to continue my academic studies. So off I went, but not, as I'd supposed when still in the 6th form, to study for a degree in English, but in History.

These days, I read all manner of books, but historical fiction remains a passion. In those lonely days after graduation and relocation to a new part of the country, I discovered Sharon Penman and Helen Hollick. Whilst still a student, I'd set my heart on writing the story of Queen Emma. Years later, when I'd had my family and had a bit of time to start writing, I discovered that Helen had beaten me to it, and what a fantastic read it was:

Little did I imagine that several years down the line my name would appear alongside hers on a book cover! (1066 Turned Upside Down will be published on 1st August and is available for pre-order.)

Sharon Penman's books also inspired me when it came time to plan our first family holiday. With three young children, and my parents, we booked in to a Guest House in North Wales. I name-checked all the places in the area which I recognised from her Welsh Trilogy,

but the place we were staying, Clynnog Fawr, kept ringing different bells. And then I recalled that Aelfhere of Mercia had been at that very location in AD978. I re-avowed my intent one day to write his story and in February, that vow was fulfilled with the publication of Alvar the Kingmaker.

With this trawl through my reading moments, I'm not looking to draw any profound conclusions. Historical fiction is, always, fiction, but it does help one make sense of timelines, add colour to what can be dry and dusty history lessons, and yes, these stories most definitely inspire. Not only that, but they become good friends. I've had a smile on my face today as I've pulled these old friends out of cupboards and off shelves for their photo shoot.

I'd love to know about other people's childhood favourites. Which book first got you interested in history? Or inspired you to pick up a pen, keyboard, tablet...


  1. Excellent blog, Annie. Perhaps what we read when were young makes a lasting impression. For me, my early books were King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood - at least one of which was by a little known (?) writer called Carola Oman. I also adored King Somolon's Mines by H Rider Haggard. All these were read whilst at primary school! And it was there that I became fascinated with Edmund Ironside - such a heroic, warrior sounding name, yet there ge was in the table of kings of England, stuck between Ethelred and Canute, with only 6 months kingship to his name! Later on I discovered Rosemary Hawley Jarman and more recently Sharon Kay Penman and Helen Hollick - both of whom reinforced and enhanced my love of historical fiction. Bernard Cornwall is a favourite, of course.....

    1. Thanks Richard. I always thought (and still do) that Edmund Ironside was a hero. I read two of Rosemary Hawley Jarman's books, relatively recently - one about Katherine de Valois and one about Elizabeth Woodville. Bernard Cornwell and I have slightly different ideas about the Mercians, of course ;)

    2. The RHJ one was about Richard III (blessed if I can remember the title!)and I think was the first one I'd read that treated him sympathetically. BC started with Sharpe and continued with his gritty Arthurian trilogy, though I wasn't so keen on some of his other ventures. Until Uhtred came along. Of course I know Uhtred's position and influence is contrived and possibly not quite historically accurate, but they are all a cracking good read, especially for one such as I who enjoys the adventure and warfare involved!

    3. He is, undoubtedly, a consummate story-teller. Was the Richard III RHJ novel "We Speak No Treason?" - I've just looked it up, since I couldn't remember the titles of the books of hers which I've read. I wonder why her titles are not so immediately memorable?

    4. That's the one!!! Thank you!!

  2. I have read many of the same books , some again and again. Being Ftom US, (Nebraska), I also read Hone With the Wind, beginning in grade school, and WAITING TIL HIGH SCHOOL to finish it as my mother didn't consider it appropriate for a 7th grader. Sigh.

  3. Hi Kate, thanks for your comment. 7th grader would be about 11 or 12 years of age, wouldn't it? I was in a Nato school and 6th Grade corresponded to our last year of Primary school for 10-11 yr olds. By the following year, in Secondary school they teach adult books - a lot of which probably weren't appropriate either! My mother thought Forever Amber far too salacious for me, but like you, I bet, reading 'inappropriate' books didn't put me off reading :)