Category Archives: History

An Exciting Day

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Wednesday 13th June, 2012. A pretty fabulous day. At least until I realised I was catching a cold. Before that it was brilliant though. I went to London, with work, to help deliver the education program at the Royal Courts of Justice. But on the way I had a royal encounter…

It just so happened that the Queen was visiting Nottingham as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour that day. Nottingham has quite a history where Diamond Jubilees are concerned–it was as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations in 1897 that Nottingham was given city status. And the people of this city were certainly excited to see her…they think there were 35,00o just in the Old Market Square. I hadn’t given it much thought though, since I was off to London. Then I arrived at the station and found that the Queen would be arriving shortly and, since I had a train ticket, I could wait in a place beyond the ticket barriers where only a few people were waiting to see her (compared to elsewhere).

So I did. And I reflected on why I wanted to. Politically, I’m fairly ambivalent about the monarchy. I recognise their privilege, the inherent unfairness of anything hereditary and their real irrelevence to the politcal life of this country. And yet…and yet…I can’t help but be a bit of a fan. Perhaps because the Queen seems like a genuinely good person. Perhaps because I recognise that even if we didn’t have a monarchy we would undoubtedly still be led by with privilege and money, so I can’t hold that against them. But mostly I think it’s that I’m aware that I’m looking at history. The figures of the queens of the past fascinate me, all of them, but especially the first Queen Elizabeth. I was awed to see her tomb in Westminster Abbey and to just be a few feet away from her earthly remains. So to see a living queen, plus a future king and his future queen consort is exciting to me. I can’t help it.

Anyone who hears me talk about history will know that I am all about the history of the ordinary people. I love the untold stories, trying to work out the little details of the lives of the poorest people in society. My writing research and my job give me endless opportunity to understand those tales and to try to breathe life into them once again. However, it is impossible to ignore the big events of history, the stories of the powerful, the great and not-so-great. Those stories are interesting too and part of the fabric of this country’s history and culture. I can’t help but enjoy it. I was unashamedly excited to get to see the Queen, and Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. When I’m an old woman, I’ll be able to say that I saw a Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year. No one’s been able to say that since 1897. It’s an event, a moment in time. And so very British.

So, without further ado, here’s some photographs, for anyone who hasn’t already seen them!

And if that wasn’t excitement enough, then I headed off to London. I love the place. History just oozes from every building and flagstone when you look at the place through my eyes. The Royal Courts of Justice are amazing…to be able to enter that grand doorway and actually have a job to do in there was wonderful. It’s an impressive and awe inspiring place, but I didn’t feel scared of it. When I was at Oxford University all those years ago the sheer grandeur and weight of history of the place terrified me. Now I feel quite at home in those surroundings, I find. I loved it there. Significant historically and such an important place–the highest civil court in the United Kingdom and main court of appeal. Wow.

And then I wandered around the vicinity. The Strand, Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill, Old Bailey, Cheapside, Holborn Viaduct. Even then names fascinate me. Bread Lane. Wow. And I saw so much history…not to do with kings and queen and great events…to do with what London has been to Londoners, and Britons, for centuries. The area destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, the churches rebuilt by Wren. The churches which house the bells of the rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’. St Paul’s Cathedral. The site of the old, infamous Newgate Gaol and the public executions outside, now the location of the Central Criminal Courts. The old newspaper offices of Fleet Street, the Temple Bar boundary dragon, site of the old City gate. The oldest tea shop in London. There is so much to see. I tried to soak it all in, but there’s never enough time in London, it seems!

Temple Bar boundary dragon, the Strand

Twinings tea shop, there on the Strand since 1706

I loved this. The site of an old well outside St Clement Danes Church.

The corner of the Central Criminal Courts…the site of the old Newgate Gaol

St Mary-le-Bow church, home of the famous Bow Bells.

Old newspaper offices on Fleet Street.

St Paul’s Cathedral

And the best part of all? I wasn’t remotely intimidated by any of it. Not the grandeur, the history, the hustle and bustle, the crowded tube or the very solemn Evening Prayer service at St Mary-le-Bow. I just enjoyed it all. I don’t know where this new confidence came from exactly and I can’t pinpoint on which day exactly I stopped being scared. But it feels very, very good indeed. 13th June just showed me how far I’ve come. It’s a wonderful adventure.

Good Queen Bess

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Just a quick post…because it follows on so well from my last one in which I posted photographs of the two Queen Elizabeths. I spent the whole of Monday and the whole of today performing my own interpretation of the first of them at work. The greatest queen ever to rule Britain…as I’ve been telling people all day. I’m not sure whether she is or not, but I certainly believed it while I was still in the wig, costume and make up. What do you think? 🙂

True, my interpretation probably owed more to Miranda Richardson’s fabulous Queenie in Blackadder II than historical accuracy. But I still found myself embodying the character. It struck me how similar creating a character in a novel as a writer is to creating a character as an actress. I always try to embody the characters in my books for a while too. It’s a fascinating process.

And it was amazing fun. I don’t know where the girl who was terrified of public speaking went…but I can’t say I miss her!

Oh, and just in case you wanted to know, I didn’t win the Lambda Award I was nominated for. But I honestly don’t mind at all. I’m thrilled Ghosts of Winter was nominated, it was a real honour. And I don’t write for awards. I’m getting good feedback already for The Locket and the Flintlock. One reader writing to me to tell me how much they enjoyed it…that’s what keeps me going more than any award ever could.

Aside

Just wanted to point you to the Bold Strokes Books authors’ blog, where you can read my two recent posts on the theme of writing historical fiction and why I’m especially enthusiastic about my new release, The Locket and the Flintlock!

I’m very excited. I’ve had some wonderful feedback so far. 😀

Bold Strokes Books Authors’ Blog

Ramblings…

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I’ve got one or two things to talk to about tonight. Nothing very profound, but still, good things. I’ve been tired lately, I’ve been working so much. At my day job, you understand, at the Galleries of Justice museum, which is many jobs rolled into one. I’ve been a Victorian warder, a Georgian murdress and a servant-whore in the last couple of weeks, as well as working with school groups.

Today was an interesting day at work. The Galleries of Justice also operate the City of Caves, a short distance away. This is a network of caves, accessed through a 1960s shopping centre. The caves, like the hundreds of others beneath the buildings of Nottingham, are manmade, cut into the sandstone rock on which Nottingham stands. It’s the same rock that Nottingham Castle is perched on, and into which the dungeons of my usual haunt at the County Gaol are cut into. They go back as far as medieval times, but found their heyday later, when used as a tannery (where leather was made). Still later, the residents of Drury Hill, an infamous thoroughfare in Victorian and early-twentieth century Nottingham, cut down into the rock to make cellars and extra rooms below their houses. Later still, they were used as air raid shelters during the Second World War. It’s a fascinating place. The history is tangible, and you can see it in layers, like a physical timeline. In one part of the cave system you can look above your head and see the concrete underside of the uncommonly ugly Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. Just below–in places almost touching it–are the remains of the red brick walls of the houses of Drury Hill.

Drury Hill

You can even see some of the old kerb stones. You are practically standing in the cellars of those houses, looking at the steps they cut into the stone, the broken dividing walls that made them into seperate properties. And you see the sandstone itself, the older caves, the medieval well. Just a little further on and you find an old tavern cellar, divided by just a wall from the railway tunnel that brought about the demolition of the tavern itself. The whole place is a mess of chronology and archaeology, fact and fable.

Part of the Tudorl tannery

It’s hard to be a tour guide there. But what a privilege to spend time in such a meeting point of history. So many human stories, over so many centuries, all gathered in some gloomy holes in the sandstone, cowering under the concrete of progress. But still there, persisting, when they could have been filled in and lost. Even Drury Hill, once so notorious and now invisible from the surface, still lingers there. A ghost of the past. These are the things that move me. These are the things that make me want to write historical novels. I want to find the stories, resurrect the ghosts, find their traces in our present and bring the history back into the light. It makes me feel excited about being a writer again.

On a different–but related–topic, I’m excited to talk about a new anthology. My writing group, Sapphist Writers, have been busy for some time writing and collecting poems and short stories. And now we’ve put it all together into an anthology. Even the wonderfully exuberant front cover was a collaborative effort. This collection is all about celebrating the diversity and creativity of a group of women brought together by a love of words. It will be available online (we’re finalising in which formats) through the Sapphist Writers’ blog, from 28th February. That’s the launch night, and also the night that Sapphist Writers are receiving an award at the Nottinghamshire’s Rainbow Heritage Celebration Evening. The anthology contains two of my poems and two short prose pieces, and a whole host of other wonderful pieces. All proceeds will be going to Nottingham Women’s Centre.

So, good things. And writing about them has made me happy, despite my being hormonally grumpy tonight. I’m finding life’s like that at the moment. There’s lots of depressing, agonising, sad and difficult things. They don’t go away. But the bright, happy, exciting, colourful things are always there too. And that’s wonderful!

Surprising myself…

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I’ve not posted for a while. I guess life has rather got in the way of reflections on life…I’ve also barely written a thing, depsite two  nagging streams of creative inspiration which I am convinced will lead to full novels at some point. I’ve just not had the chance.

But I have got a new job. A job I don’t mind telling everyone about, because it seems to compliment my writing, my academic interests…and is generally more reflective of who I am than any of my other recent employment. I’m now an Interpreter at the Galleries of Justice musuem (in the Shire Hall and County Gaol of Nottingham, the place I fictionalised as a setting for my first novel Truths).

The Galleries of Justice

I love my job. It’s very random. Just yesterday I sat down facing a severed head…walked past a sword propped in a doorway on the way to the staffroom…had a conversation with a witch who then went on to kill the Sheriff of Nottingham in a Victorian courtroom…dodged through the shadowy cells so as not to interupt the ghost hunters…oh and spent the day dressed as a stern Victorian. In the coming week I’ll be a reform school teacher and a drunken Georgian prisoner. I’ll also work, as myself, with groups of school children, helping them understand their experience of visiting such a historic building…

And I am constantly surprising myself. I first had a taste of the job when I was 18. At that time I was terrified of public speaking, but my desire to share my knowledge of history won out and I found I could talk to huge groups about what went on the gaol exercise yard. But I’m still not comfortable being the centre of attention, or with the sound of my own voice. So before every tour group reaches me, I have a moment of wondering “what on earth am I doing? This isn’t me! Why would anyone listen to what I have to say? I can’t even act!”

But then, anywhere from one to thirty pairs of eyes are on me and I open my mouth and…I surprise myself. I am stern. I am loud. I am authoratative. I share my knowledge. I crack jokes and get laughter in response. I gesture emphatically. I let myself become a character and don’t feel remotely reserved about it. And I am shocked every time. I wonder where Rebecca’s gone.

It’s an amazing learning experience. That surprise is very similar to how I feel when I remember I’m a writer. The revelation is “wow, I really can do this…and people are actually liking what I do…”

I hope to never lose that sense of wonder. Because I think it’s crucial to not taking life and it’s opportunities for granted. I think it’s essential to fulfilling the potential we’re all born with, to knowing just how much we can do. Just now and again you have to surprise yourself. And in order to do that, you have to push…you have to take risks…you have to try to do the things you don’t think you can. Because when you discover you can, it’s the most amazing feeling. You see the true miracle of how multi-faceted we all are, the skills and traits we all keep hidden because we’re not confident in them…and seeing that, you realise how much fun life can be if you stop being scared of it.

I’m not saying give everything a go. There are things you don’t want to try in life. I have no interest at all in adrenaline rushes and will never be a thrill seeker in that sense. But there are always those nagging thing. The things you want to try…the things you see others do and suspect you could do just as well…the things you’ve always wanted to do. If the opportunity arises…go for it. You have to. We’re here to live our lifes and keeping the things you want to do buried under a lack of confidence stops you living life to full…

So. Go for it. Let your light shine into the world. Tap into your creative side and trust your instincts. Surprise yourself by finding just what you can do. It’s the way I’m trying to live…one day at a time, learning about myself, one surprise at a time…I’m getting there…

Oh and my third novel now has a beautiful front cover! The Locket and the Flintlock will be released in May 2012 by Bold Strokes Books. That’s a thrill that never goes away…and the wonderful surprise of seeing my name on a book cover never really diminishes…

Please check out the Galleries of Justice on facebook and also add our very own Villainous Sheriff, to see photos and find out about special events!

Historical musings…

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I’ve been embroiled in the commercial side of my trade this last week or so…trying everything I can think of to get people interested in the Bold Strokes Books event in the UK in July. If you’re thinking of coming to event, you can now follow us on Twitter and add us on facebook. I’ve sent more e-mails than I’ve kept track of this week, with flyers attached. I really really want this to be a bigger event than last year. Not to raise my own profile, or to sell books…those things are nice, but not of primary importance. What I want is for aspiring writers to be inspired to keep writing…for queer readers to know there are more books out there written for them than they think…to bring a community together with a shared love of books and writing…

Do I sound idealistic? Good. It’s better than cynical. 😀

Oh I’ve been editing too. My new historical novel. But it’s got to the point that I’m just reading and making no changes…so time for a break from that too, methinks…

Anyway, I decided it’s time to think about something else. So a blog post called to me…I asked my facebook friends for questions they would like me to answer in a blog a few days ago. My fellow history lover Melissa McGuire asked me this: “What historical character would you most like to meet? What time period would you most like to explore in a novel?” Thanks Melissa! 😀 I’ll try to answer now. Although this could be an endless essay on one of my favourite topics if I let it run away with me!

What historical character would I most like to meet? It’s a hard one. To begin with, does it have to be someone well known? Historical figures usually are. Kings and Queens, heroes who made their name with some feat of daring or great invention, some clever battle plan or inspired work of literature…But if you’ve read my books, Truths or Ghosts of Winter you’ll know that I’m fascinated by the ordinary people and the untold stories…I’d love to have a chat with someone who watched the execution of Anne Boleyn in the crowd…with a factory worker during the industrial revolution… with a soldier on the field at Waterloo…with a maid in a Victorian household…

Truth is, I love history so much that virtually any historical figure, famous or not, would hold my interest. But, for the sake of an answer to this question, I can think of a few of the more famous names. In the world of literature, tempted though I am to say Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, it’s actually Lord Byron I want to meet. Would he live up to his “mad, bad and dangerous to know” reputation, given to him by Lady Caroline Lamb? Would he be as handsome as he was thought in his day? Just what did go on with all those women, and those handsome boys? I want to meet the man who gave the adjective “Byronic” to the world. I remember standing in the church where he is buried (in Hucknall, near Nottingham) and wishing I could conjure him into life.

Lord Byron

Outside of literature…well…The Duke of Wellington, just to see if he’s as obnoxiously intelligent as he seems to have been…Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley and one of the earliest advocates for women’s rights…”Mad” King Ludwig of Bavaria, to see if he really was mad…

The list could go on and on. But I must just mention the one woman who has always intrigued me, from my earliest days of understanding history. Queen Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I

 

Strong, powerful, in many ways tragic, the woman who defined an age, a golden age for this country. I would be terrified of the woman. But I would love to meet her too.

Okay, that was more than one figure. I hope you’ll forgive me… 😀

Now for the second part of the question…what time period would I most like to explore in a novel? This is just as hard! My favourite historical period is, without a doubt, from the French Revolution in 1789 to the end of the Regency in 1820. I love everything about the history, culture and literature of this period. Romanticism, the Napoleonic Wars, Jane Austen, the industrial revolution and the growth of the cities, the rise of the Gothic, the Enlightment…everything about the time fascinates me. I connect with it in ways I don’t entirely understand. The historical part of Truths and the historical novel I’m working on now are both set in this time period.

However, I’m not limited to one period! When I first thought of writing historical novels, it was the Tudor period I wanted to explore. All the power and poltics, life on a knife edge, a time of great discovery, hugely significant kings and queens…And at the moment, I am planning a late-Victorian novel, with all the decadence, anxiety, aesthicism and Gothic sensibilities of the fin de siecle period.

And yet, if I had to choose one period of history to explore…I would say the 1920s. That few short years between the two world wars, when Britain was already changed beyond recognition by the tragedy of World War One, but optimistic, full of the spirit of modernity, a drive to avoid the mistakes of the generations before…It seems such an exciting time. But all so futile. One shiny, glistening decade before the Wall Street Crash and the Depression…before the devastation of World War Two which followed…To explore that, to capture the spirit of that time in words, is something that is very much one of my writing ambitions.

1920s

I hope that answered your question Melissa! 😉

Now, I am going back to my editing. Otherwise known as banging my head against a wall constructed out of my own words…

Oh and Ghosts of Winter is out NOW!!! 😀

Talking history and Ghosts of Winter

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Just a quick post to say please check out my new post over at the Bold Strokes Books Author’s Blog…I’m talking about my feelings about history and why I like to write historical fiction, ahead of the release of Ghosts of Winter this month…

Oh and you can read an excerpt of Ghosts of Winter here 😀

I can’t believe April’s here already. I’ve been a “published writer” for a year now. My second book is about to be released into the world, read, and hopefully enjoyed. It’s exciting, and I am still tremendously grateful. I will never take this for granted.

😀