Doggerland

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Now that Britain has severed ties with Europe, I reflect on the origin of their geographical separation, the inspiration for my short story: Doggerland (link).

Doggerland is a submerged area stretching from the east coast of England across to Jutland and the Netherlands. A long time ago this was above sea level and it is thought that around 6500 BC there may have been a tsunami which led to it being inundated and cutting Britain off from the continent of Europe.

We know very little about the Dogger folk but every now and again North Sea trawlers have dredged up an old implement, ancient bones, or some other remnant of that lost Mesolithic civilisation. What else might lie buried under the shifting sands of the seabed?

I wanted to write about a distant people who have left virtually no trace of their existence.  Perhaps some of their language lives on in the accents of East Anglia and of the Netherlands and Jutland.

I imagined the Dogger people as fisherfolk, living amongst wide waterways like the Norfolk Broads. I thought of a man with a dog and a home and a family, but threatened by inundation. Not knowing whether to move, or whether to remain in place and accept whatever fate might bring. 

This is even now a universal dilemma: it belongs to the émigré, to the refugee. It is exactly how my partner and I felt in the UK as we watched the approach of Brexit, so universal that across thousands of years I sense a commonality with that lost people. Eve and I chose to move, and settled in Ireland; we now look back with sorrow, but forward with hope.

Doggerland can be read here (link) and appears in my collection of 20 historical short stories In Other Times (link), available as a free download for subscribers to The HistWriter e-newsletter.

 

The Scarlet Thread – free short story

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In November 1793, Philibert Aspairt went missing. He was the doorkeeper of the Val-de-Grâce hospital during the French Revolution.

His body was not discovered until 1804, 11 years later, in the catacombs of Paris, and was buried where it was found. He must have entered the catacombs via a staircase located in the hospital courtyard. His motives are unknown and the cause of his death was never determined. Aspairt might have been identified by the hospital key ring hanging from his belt.

The above information is from Wikipedia.

My short fiction, ‘The Scarlet Thread’ (link), is an imagination of the events that led to his death.

It’s included with 19 other historical short stories in my free eBook ‘In Other Times, an anthology of 20 historical fiction short stories.

To download your copy and subscribe to the free monthly newsletter ‘The HistWriter’, subscribe below:



At the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month:

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We shall remember them.

Hinky-Dinky Parlay-Voo’ is a free to read short story about the call-up, the media frenzy, and the popular songs of the day – and about the dark reality that lay beyond in the mud of Flanders.

Tree of Knowledge is about the Eastern front – in Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq.

These stories are included in my free eBook ‘In Other Times’, an anthology of 20 historical fiction short stories.

To download your copy and the free monthly newsletter ‘The HistWriter’, subscribe here:



I also highly recommend Susan Lanigan’s war novels, available via Amazon:

White Feathers

Lucia’s War

And short fiction:

Unfortunate Stars

Writers Ink ‘Page Turner’ Challenge

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I’ve signed up for a cross-genre 5-day writing challenge to be held via a private Facebook group, starting 9th November. It coincides neatly with NaNoWriMo, as well as with a week of annual leave that I booked from work so that I could write. 

To quote the blurb:

This 5 Day Page Turner Challenge will show you how to bring all the elements of a fast paced, gripping read to your fiction, whatever genre you are writing. We’ll be looking at characters, plotting and how important conflict is to generate story – and how to keep your reader turning those pages.

Each day there will be one daily task, this will take between 10-20 minutes to complete (you can devote as much time as you wish).

We’re going to be looking at character, plotting, story development, dialogue and those all important opening lines.

We’re also going to be look at those other writer problems like writers block, imposter syndrome and building good writing habits.

You’ll be given EXCLUSIVE access to our private challenge members only Facebook group, along with everyone else taking part in the challenge. Places are limited so don’t dither!

Every day Sam Blake and I will share one action item in the group for you to complete and post in the comments your results so we, and the rest of the group can see how you got on.

Each task can be done in 10-20 minutes and we’ll be on hand to answer any questions you have. The best bit is the wonderful energy and community vibe that comes from joining a challenge – it’s infectious!

There’s nothing like a reliable and supportive community to turn to when you get stuck – and the challenge always delivers on that. We’ll be live every evening in the group to discuss the day, answer questions and to see how you’re getting on – and we’ll be inviting some special guests along to say hello too.

It’s €35 to join, and open to writers everywhere.

The November Page Turner Writing Challenge

HEART of CRUELTY: on ‘romances about brutal men’

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One of my Amazon.com reviewers has written that the ending of HEART of CRUELTY annoyed her so much that she ‘wanted to throw it across the room.’ Spoiler alert: my novel isn’t intended as a standard romance.

In the standard romance – think of a cover featuring large male muscles and a lady in satin – the alpha-male hero is in some kind of conflict situation with a vulnerable yet feisty heroine and the conflict is overtaken by their mutual attraction; they have a big showdown and separation four-fifths of the way through the book, but end up rapturously united.

I’m not doing that, sorry.

Those alpha-male heroes are hugely suspect individuals and if we met them in real life we might want to run a mile. Ruggedly handsome, brutally strong, devoid of self-criticism, they occupy positions of high social status: royalty; aristocrats; billionaires; warlords. It’s arguable that mostly they maintain their roles by exploiting other people. The elegant and leisured lives of Jane Austen’s heroes were dependent on someone else’s labour, whether that was down an English coal mine or on a Jamaican sugar plantation. And however blissful the marriage, a heroine would still have had to make sure that their husband’s socks were washed and their shirts were ironed, even if this was by the servants.

Have you stopped trusting them yet, ladies?

It makes me wonder if these romances are actually a way of trying to persuade women that these stereotypes are desirable. Does the romance fiction genre promote a patriarchal society?

And a further question: does the notion, widespread in fiction, that good must triumph over evil, promote negative judgments of the down-trodden? ‘Loser’ is a favourite Trumpian insult: what if the loser is in fact a victim?

Here’s an extract from HEART of CRUELTY in which I explore these ideas. Doughty is talking to Jane:

‘If you read a work of fiction, or see an opera, or a play at the theatre, is it the hero or the villain that triumphs?’

‘The hero, naturally. Good triumphs over evil. It is the natural order.’ 

‘But our prejudices of the natural order corrupt our view. What I have found at inquests is the difficulty in persuading the jury that the deceased are not villains, but victims. The woman who is cruelly violated and murdered is argued to have provoked her attacker. The abandoned infant is deemed illegitimate, unbaptised, it has no place in society. We withhold pity from the weak and the defeated, and instead we forgive their abusers. I blame the scribblers of novels for this pernicious state of affairs…’  

I wondered whether his mind had been running on what I had told him but could not ask. He was too caught up in his own argument: ‘…Why, some ladies are only content when reading romances about brutal men.’ 

HEART of CRUELTY: on the conflict at the core of the novel

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So my book is launched today. Initial reactions from my reviewers are: ‘gripping’… ‘a page turner’… ‘hard to put down’. It’s a dark novel and the evil at the heart of it is abuse that is unchallenged.

I’m influenced by my own experiences of working in child protection, as well as by modern day press reports of rape cases, by the #metoo movement, by the Jimmy Savile Inquiry and by the writing and work of Graham Wilmer, survivor of clerical abuse and founder of The Lantern Project.

My experience of prosecuting child abuse has been that every time, even when we know the abuse has happened, it’s a hard battle to prove it in court. To give evidence under cross examination one has to state a complex case in very simple terms, as the lawyers won’t admit to any medical knowledge, and keep stating it over and over again. The defence barrister will attempt to completely discredit the paediatrician, and deliberately twist their evidence or misinterpret facts out of context to try and disprove everything. I have had abuse cases where I had to attend the court for multiple hearings because (in my view) the lawyers did not choose to understand the medical evidence. I won in the end.

If it is stressful for me: an experienced medical witness, articulate, educated, and well-prepared, to appear in court, what is it like for a rape victim? For an underage girl? The adversarial nature of the English court works powerfully against victims who are vulnerable, made to feel ashamed and find it hard to describe what has happened to them. It is no accident that many of the words we use to describe sexual acts are taboo: embarrassing to utter to one’s friends or family, let alone in the austere setting of a courtroom.

In my novel the victims are silenced. My narrator, Jane, knows about the abuse, but lacks evidence and lacks a voice. As she gradually assembles the proofs she gains the courage to state her case and convince those who are reluctant to listen.

For more on HEART of CRUELTY (Link)

HEART of CRUELTY: introducing the characters

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I feel as if I’ve spent years with these two characters from my novel HEART of CRUELTY. Who are they?

Coroner William Doughty is a medical man, but not a successful one. He’s been promoted beyond his competence, yet cares about his work, and tries to develop it.

Doctors began an evidence-base for medicine in the 1800s by studying disease through postmortems, and pathology began to inform inquests. In the 1700s, the inquest verdict for a sudden death might well have been ‘Act of God’. A century later the inquest jury would ask why the death had occurred: if the deceased had obtained the right medical treatment, or if they had suffered neglect, or poisoning?

In 1840, Doughty is on the cusp of this change, and as a young and inexperienced Coroner he believes he will get his juries to trust the medical science. A Coroner – ‘the Friend to the Poor’ – was the last recourse for justice in state institutions, especially the workhouse, where the lock-up was unique in that an inmate could be held captive for an undefined length of time without a court order or any external scrutiny.

Doughty’s a romantic, capable of losing his heart and head over a woman, and of pursuing love into disaster. He knows he should act like a gentleman, but his physical instincts tell him otherwise.

Jane Verity abandoned the advantages of an affluent upbringing, seduced by an actor and the promise of a glamorous life in the theatre. She has been ruined by that love affair, has seen her newborn baby die, and is at rock bottom in the workhouse when Doughty encounters her.

Nothing any more can be worse than what she has already been through. From the depths of her despair she must find the courage to speak up for herself and others, to expose the truth about the evil she has witnessed, and to return to what she loves: playing the piano.

For more on Heart of Cruelty: (Link)

Haunted by Workhouses

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#HeartOfCruelty #Histwriter #Birmingham

Wherever I had a job in the NHS – in London or the West Midlands – there was almost always an old workhouse, often still in use as a part of the hospital. I was employed for years in Sandwell and West Birmingham: at City Hospital the office was in a converted workhouse school, while at Sandwell the office was in a former workhouse’s venereal diseases ward. Now I work in Wexford, Ireland, where, just down the hill from the modern district hospital, is… a former workhouse.

Peter Higginbotham’s amazing website workhouses.org.uk provides a complete catalogue and history of these darkly gothic buildings.  

My debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’ is set in the old Birmingham workhouse, which was on Steelhouse Lane, near the city centre. I have no evidence of any wrongdoings occurring in that workhouse and the events in my novel have been rehashed from other places and times. But in 1840 it would have been a harsh experience: the ‘Workhouse Test’ meant that life inside had to be harder than for the lowest paid worker on the outside. Paupers fared worse than convicted criminals, with less food and longer hours of forced labour.

Attempting to starve the poor into work caused huge suffering in the Victorian age, and failed to create the healthy and educated workforce which the labour movement achieved in the 20th century. In the 21st century, that hard-won advantage has been forgotten. Welfare cuts have caused severe hardship. For Anna Burns to acknowledge her local food bank in her prize-winning novel ’Milkman’ shows how far down we have sunk.

As I watch the Covid-19 pandemic rage around the world I become convinced that it cannot be eradicated unless poverty is eradicated. If people are homeless, or in overcrowded accommodation, how can they self-isolate?

For more about my debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’: (Link)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To subscribe to my free newsletter ‘The HistWriter’ and receive a free eBook of 20 historical short stories: (Link)