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Friday, 26 September 2014


The Historical Writers Association  in association with ‘Previously ....’ . 17 – 23 November 2014, present

History and Story

 To celebrate History Writing Month in Edinburgh, fellow writer Andrew Williams and myself have gathered together some of the most interesting and respected writers of historical fiction today to present a thought-provoking series of events. The events will be held in Adam House, Chambers Street. The periods covered range from 11th to 20th centuries. Together, they not only reflect how fiction can reveal the realities of history and help us understand the present, but also represent an interesting variety of approaches to writing historical fiction. 

You can buy tickets now to these events by clicking on the links below each panel descriptions

1.      Spies, Traitors and Secret Conspirators: A question of loyalty? 

 William Ryan, Edward Wilson and Andrew Williams
Monday 17th November at 18:00. Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

Historical novelists, Andrew Williams, William Ryan and Edward Wilson discuss the shadow world of spies and secret policemen, from World War 1 to Vietnam. 

Ticket link

2.     From Hot to Cold War: Portraying Reality in Fiction
John Lawton, Laura Wilson and Aly Monroe

Tuesday 18th November at 18:00. Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

Join historical novelists John Lawton, Laura Wilson and Aly Monroe as they discuss the living sources they draw on and how the social and political changes that characterised the post-war era provide fertile ground for the fiction they create.

Ticket link

3.     Secrets and Signposts: the Past within the Present.

Tom Harper and Iain Pears

Wednesday 19th November at 18:00. Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

Tom Harper and Iain Pears write multi-layered novels, seamlessly intertwining stories across different eras of history from the ancient world to the present day. Join them as they discuss how they tackle these complex books, peeling back layers to reveal why the past is never truly dead and buried.

Ticket link

4.     Female Characters – Writing Women back into History
Imogen Robertson, Samantha Norman and Sara Sheridan

Thursday 20th November at 18:00. Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

History is full of fascinating characters, male and female, who have for generations been dismissed as irrelevant by the historical establishment. Now a new approach to social history is beginning to make some of their stories available and historical writers are finding new perspectives and people with which to populate their fiction and enthral their readers. Come to hear three female writers of historical fiction discuss what inspires and informs their writing and how they bring the women of history back to their rightful place - centre stage alongside the men.


5.     Terror, Faith and Reform: Stories of Renaissance Scotland
Shona Maclean, Marie Macpherson and Louise Turner

Sunday 23rd November at 14:30.
Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

From Flodden to the union of crowns, historical novelists, Shona Maclean, Marie Macpherson and Louise Turner discuss life in Scotland at a time of riot, murder and reformation, in the context of their novels. 

Details for ticket bookings will be available soon on the 'Previously ...' website, as well as here.

Ticket link

Looking forward to seeing you there if you're anywhere near Edinburgh!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Rank Truth

Wing Commander Guy Gibson
I am occasionally taxed because Peter Cotton is made an acting Lieutenant-Colonel in his twenties just after the end of World War 2.  This doesn’t happen now. No problem there.

What is a little curious is that some 21st Century readers believe that because they are incredulous, such a promotion at such a young age couldn’t have happened in 1945. It’s an extraordinarily confident opinion, sometimes aggressively expressed - but I’m afraid it is not backed by any research whatsoever.

 In World War 2 promotions could be astonishingly rapid. To name someone people may have heard of, the late professor and contentious politician Enoch Powell went from private soldier to Brigadier (a much higher rank than Lieutenant-Colonel) without ever seeing action. He became a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1942. Powell was nearly thirty then – but my point here is the rapidity of his promotion. Private, Corporal, Sergeant, 2nd Lieutenant, Lieutenant, Major, Lieutenant-Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier in six years. The only other man in the British army to do similar was Fitzroy Maclean.

But a relatively large number of people did become Lieutenant-Colonels in their twenties. If they continued in the army after the war, their rank was often reduced to Major.  War speeds things up. Peace slows them down.

In Peter Cotton’s case, he is embarrassed by his promotion but it is an intelligence/ diplomatic one, to give him a certain rank in Washington DC and enable him to do his job. People’s use of his title is a courtesy, sometimes with a little irony - and he does not use it himself.

The best I can do is to apologize for upsetting some readers’ views of what they think should be believable. But when forty is regarded by some nowadays as young, those doubters should just step back and think. Perhaps they should consider the other armed forces. Guy Gibson of Dambusters’ fame was a Wing-Commander (the equivalent of Lt-Col) at 23. Similarly there were Naval Commanders of that age.

So what can I say? Young men were asked to grow up very quickly in WW2 and to take on responsibilities and duties not associated with peacetime. Cotton’s father considers that his son’s generation has ‘missed out’ on growing up, have been put through a crash course but not prepared for life outside war.  I think he has a point when he calls them a sort of ‘lost generation’ – sometimes with, in times of peace - absurdly high ranks.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Tipping Point

Originally published in 2010, Arturo Fontaine's novel La Vida Doble has now appeared in an excellent English translation (by Megan McDowell) under exactly the same title.

I don’t know that a more commercially driven publisher than Yale University Press would have allowed this but I have read that English readers can work out that ‘doble’ means double and have probably heard of ‘vida’ as life.

‘Double Life’ is very firmly set in the Chile of Salvador Allende and Pinochet and has – a good sign – managed to upset many with vested interests in their version of events. At one level it is the stuff of thrillers but, despite for example, an excellent account of an armed robbery in which a very short period of time is slowed down and heightened, it does not read like a thriller but something very much grimmer and more harrowing.

It is an exhaustive and careful account of people under unbearable pressure and particularly one person, then a young woman with a small daughter, now a woman dying of cancer and speaking in Sweden to a journalist. She has several names – Irene, Lorena, La Cubanita – given to her as aliases by others. She is a pawn but a pawn prone to self-justification, vanity, guilt and hopelessness.

The historical background to this is that a woman really did crack and moved from armed revolution in a left wing group to working for her torturers and indeed joining them.

The book begins with torture. The woman does not break when physically brutalised.  She is released. What she cannot resist three months later when her torturers have worked out who she is, is the threat to her five year old daughter. She recognises the moment she switches sides, transfers her loyalties and a perverse sort of love to the people who had treated her so badly.

Stockholm syndrome exists. Reading of a particularly brutal case of it may seem depressing. It may even shock. But there is an element here of a gruesome fairy tale of what happens to girls who need approval, want to be attractive, want to love and be on the right side of history. There is a funny scene in which the main character is sent to Paris and behaves like a groupie dropping her university degree to the floor like a paper napkin when she see the great Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar. In Chile, her side have the aspects of a cult – she does not know who anybody really is (for security they all have aliases). And the poor are tediously recalcitrant when it comes to armed revolution.   

Arturo Fontaine is a founding member of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile. La Vida Doble however is not limited to Chile. Similar brutality is happening now in many parts of the world.  

I don’t recommend this novel as a thriller – I do recommend it as a timeless account of what happens when extremism takes hold of the political process.

One of my deepest impressions of my time in Spain was the bafflement, the look of sheer incomprehension on the faces of the young when they learnt what their grandparents had done during the Spanish Civil War.  ‘And in the name of what?’ one disbelieving girl said.

La Vida Doble does not explain that – but it does explain the dynamics of what can happen anywhere. History can be a mincer. 

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Some Events for 2014

This year is shaping up to be busy. Apart from the new book I’m working on ( more of that later ...) I will be getting around the country, with events in London, Newcastle, York and Wales, among others. Here are some of the places where you can find me this year:

Wednesday 23 April, 2014, 6 – 7.30 pm – Morpeth Library I will be with Andrew Williams and William Ryan, discussing our latest books.

Monday 28 April, 2014, 7 pm -  Chiswick Library in London.  I’ll be there with Laura Wilson and Imogen Robertson – three women writers of historical fiction in conversation.

Tuesday 29 April, 2014, 7.30 pm – Leighton Buzzard Library Theatre. With Rory Clements and William Ryan. We’ll be chatting about Traitors, Conspirators and Secrets.

Saturday 3 May, 2014 (time to be confirmed) – Newcastle Lit and Phil: With John Lawton and Samantha Norman 

Thursday 22nd May – 7 pm –  Gateshead Central Library. I’ll be heading north again, with Andrew Williams and William Ryan, discussing our latest books.

21st June - ‘Order and Chaos’ at the York Festival of Ideas
The 2014 York Festival of Ideas will run from 12 – 22 June and the theme running through the events this year will be ‘Order and Chaos’. I will be speaking on a panel for the festival focus day (Saturday 21st) on the genesis and development of detective, spy and thriller fiction. More details to follow shortly.

11 – 16 August 2014, Tŷ Newydd.

 Together with Andrew Williams, I will be tutoring the Crime Writing course organised by Literature Wales at Tŷ Newydd (guest writer Hanna Jameson).

I hope to see some of you!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

New Agent.

As I said in an earlier post, my previous agent, Maggie McKernan, has returned to publishing, this time to Head of Zeus. She took up her post on November 20th.  I was in need of a new literary agent.

Last Wednesday, December 11th, I took a flight from Edinburgh to London. As has been much reported, there was a fog problem at Heathrow so, after a flight that ended up taking almost as long as a train trip, I arrived late for my appointment with Judith Murray of the literary agency Greene & Heaton.

I am delighted to say that Judith agreed to represent me and I am very happy to have joined her list of writers.

Anybody who has anything to do with the publishing world will have heard the word ‘subjective’. Sometimes it is something of an excuse. But authors and agents really do have to balance the subjective with the professional side to work well together. So when I was working out which agents to approach I sat down to compile a list. I was first struck by what could be called the recognisable things. That Judith represented Poppy Adams, for instance, an excellent writer whose The Behaviour of Moths (The Sister in the US) I thoroughly recommend, was one of the initial things that attracted my interest.

My editor Kate Parkin, now at Hodder, also drew up a list of possible agents for me.  We both had Judith on our respective lists.

And then it was a question of contact, talks, plans – and finally an enjoyable meeting over lunch. I returned home – by train – very happy, having shaken hands and toasted with my new agent.

Some weeks do go well. The day before, on December 10, my younger daughter gave birth to a lovely little boy.


Thursday, 31 October 2013

Girl Power

I always reply to readers who write me emails.  The reasons readers contact a writer vary a great deal, from suggesting a correction to a personal memory, from questions to, yes, some very kind words. Of course there have also been some complaints. Cotton is not a gentleman I was told and had treated a female character ungenerously.

Fair enough. After four books, however, I have been surprised to be taxed for my use of vocabulary. A reader has emailed me to protest about my using the word ‘girl’ or ‘girls’ twice to refer to female characters on the first page of  Washington Shadow,  the second Cotton book. This has prevented the reader from getting past that first page, for fear of being ‘ambushed by this belittling term’. The use of the word ‘girl’ - to describe a secretary - is ‘not acceptable in the 21st Century’.

As always, I replied, saying that I always try to take readers back into the atmosphere and attitudes of the period in which the books are set, and that Washington Shadow particularly deals with a number of issues: among them, the way women were treated - but also the way homosexuals were treated and the race relations in the US in 1945. These are things that we should not forget.

Of course I do appreciate that vocabulary is power. And that the words we use portray us. I am, of course, also conscious that our view of history is through our view of now.

But I write historical novels in an effort to see how we got here. I am aware that misogyny, racial hatred and homophobia continue, sometimes but by no means always less overtly but I am not convinced that efforts to rewrite the vocabulary of the past do the past - or us - justice.  

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Agent Farewell

Last Sunday, October 20, I learnt that my agent, Maggie McKernan, was returning to publishing. She had been talking about this move for some time.

I can’t be entirely sure but I suspect the draw she feels is in seeing a book right through to the end of the publishing process. Bluntly agents make deals, editors oversee books. While agents give advice of course, many other people are involved when a book is edited and goes into production.

I wish Maggie every success as a once, and now again, editor.

Of course, I have to find another literary agent now - but I’m thinking about it.