Writing Historical Fiction – an interview with David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau mysteries

 

Serene Cover

 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about historical fiction. My childhood reading included the inspired works of Henry Treece, Leon Garfield, Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff, and my teens were filled with the swashbuckling tales of Georgette Heyer and Baroness Orczy. I’ve found adult HF a different matter; the weighty volumes that linger on pillage and destruction are not for me at all, and I shy away from those that dwell bleakly on the injustices of our ancestors. (Maybe this makes me a lightweight. But one of the joys of reading is the escape from the grievances and chores of my everyday world.) The historical fiction I’ve enjoyed lately has been mixed genre: blended with mystery, suspense, romance or fantasy. A wonderful find was the Sophie Rathenau series, where thriller meets Rococo meets romance meets quite a bit of swashbuckling, and not all of it by the men.

So I’m delighted to be able to welcome onto my blog David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau series, which currently stands as The Prussian Dispatch, Lay Brothers and newly-released Serene.

Here is the blurb for The Prussian Dispatch.

With nothing in her purse, Sophie Rathenau can’t refuse work, even from a down-at-heel pimp. But tracing the woman who’s gone off with his document is a chancy business. A gang of Prussian maniacs are hunting for it too, as well as thugs from the shadowy Versailles Club, and a Polish countess desperate to preserve her country.


Caught up in an international conspiracy, Sophie’s only weapons are her sardonic tongue and an old cavalry pistol. But it’ll take more than those to find the dispatch, keep a vengeful Chancellor at bay, and deal with a past that threatens to engulf her.

 

As well as being the creator of one of my favourite fictional characters, David is very supportive of other writers. We met on the writers’ forum Scribophile (also highly recommended) and I’ve really appreciated his feedback on my own writing, particularly on structure and on elegantly balanced sentences.

David, can you tell us a little about yourself first?

I’m retired from teaching in a Glasgow college, live nowadays on the Rhine, and haven’t so much come late to writing as to actually getting books finished. I found this pretty tough years ago, with work and life such a terrible distraction, and I couldn’t stick with anything. It wasn’t until a distinctive setting occurred to me, the Vienna of the later eighteenth century –with Sophie announcing herself as the main character a moment later – that I could get things moving.

Typical Central European cuisine, apricot dumpling
One of David’s distractions? Typical Central European cuisine, apricot dumpling

Sophie is such a wonderful, rounded character – brave, sharp-tongued, warm-hearted with a vulnerable underbelly. Have you drawn on anyone, alive, dead, real or fictional, to develop her?

Sophie isn’t consciously based on anyone, though every so often I’ll catch in her an intonation, a reaction, that seems familiar from somewhere. I know that her sheer relentlessness owes something to the woman I’ve been married to for over thirty years. Sophie is an active component in my psyche, in that I sense her presence whether I’m writing about her or not, and, once the historical differences are taken away, our perceptions of the world, even our tone of voice, are the same. Mind you, I don’t imagine that her virtues are mine. Her resolution, her constancy, all of her suppressed romanticism, are surely telling me that I’d be a better person if I shared that side of her nature instead of her faults, such as her quickness to judge and her impetuousness.

She’s very active for a woman of the 18c. How would you defend arguments that she’s an anachronism?

Certainly, there’s anachronism in the series, mostly linguistic, usually there to support the criminal milieu surrounding Sophie. The age of Mozart didn’t really rejoice in such developed and connected rogues, but Sophie wanted to be part of a noir series without giving up her Rococo world, so there you are: who was I to argue? In terms of what’s permitted to women in her time, I’m not sure that the books are as tendentious as they may seem. Sophie, as a widow, is entitled to handle her own affairs. Two centuries earlier, Katharina von Bora fought and won a struggle to control the business founded by her deceased husband, Martin Luther. Another strikingly relevant career is that of Aphra Behn, the Restoration playwright who spied in Antwerp for the court of Charles II. The traveller and adventuress Lady Hester Stanhope, who was born around the time of the Sophie series, did more or less as she pleased.

Sophie sounds in good company then! You dropped some tantalizing hints in your interview with Sue Seabury, saying that Sophie will in time adopt a child and take a regular lover. I’m holding on to this as a promise because Sophie’s had a pretty rough ride so far. Are you prepared to drop any more breadcrumbs?

The main thing is that Sophie is headed from the utter isolation of the first few pages of The Prussian Dispatch to powerful social involvement, even entanglement. The final line of the seventh book, if I ever get there, ought to show how far she’s come and how hard it’ll be for her to assess everything that’s happened in her life. In Serene she meets a character who seems quite incidental but who’ll change her life profoundly, a character who was present in chapter 3 of The Prussian Dispatch, except that no-one else knew she was there – herself included.

That is so cryptic. I’ve re-read Chapter 3 and I’m still mystified. No ‘if I ever get there,’ please!

Your covers are gorgeous. Who did them, and how, or is it a trade secret?

Thank you! I often wonder how they come across, and whether they might not be a little too sombre. The titling, which I like for its clarity, is a present from a designer who bailed out early, whereafter I started to run them up myself. All of the objects are from my toybox, carefully arranged and lit, shot on an iPad, and worked up on Photoshop. At the moment I’m looking for a good visual reference for the eighteenth-century baby shoes that should appear on the next cover – and not finding the task easy.

There’s another breadcrumb! Now, some historical questions. You say you feel very much at home in the era of Maria Theresia and Mozart. What attracts you to it? Mozart is well-loved, but the name Hapsburg means little to most of your English-speaking audience. Added to that, Maria Theresia doesn’t come over to me as very sympathetic in The Prussian Dispatch where she instigates a harsh ‘clean-up’ for Vienna that oppresses prostitutes. Is a dead Empire relevant to today’s audience?

Central European atmsphere, Linz an der Donau
Central European atmosphere, Linz an der Donau 

I wouldn’t have liked to live then (thinking mostly of dentistry and medical progress) but I do feel an affinity with Central Europe: its food, its music, its traditional architecture, its whole atmosphere. The first time I heard Act II of Figaro I had a deep sense that this actually wasn’t for the first time, though of course it must have been. The world in which works like that arose, the Habsburg empire, is as worthy a subject for historical fiction as the English Civil War or the Georgian era, even if these periods are much more congenial to British readers. Sophie is active at a time when the balance of power is changing rapidly in Germany (to speak of Germany as a geographical area, that is, rather than as a state). It’s then that Prussian militarism and discipline as a way of life are being established, and that, needless to say, has been an important component in our global conflicts. Habsburg rule profoundly influenced European culture and history. Anyone who exults in Beethoven’s Fifth might consider that its final hymn to freedom reflects impatience with the grim Habsburg determination to keep everything battened down after the French Revolution. Maria Theresia represents a much more human side than that, however. The tale of the six-year-old Mozart climbing on a ruler’s knee is often recalled, the knee in question being that of Maria Theresia. She’s by no means forgotten in Central Europe, where her portrait can turn up in unexpected corners. I was in Bratislava last year for the first time in decades and came across a life-sized figure of the Empress, sitting in a café window.

frederick II
Frederick II, Maria Theresia’s enemy, portrayed by Hugo Ungewitter, public domain

That must have been a surreal event! Joking aside, I admit to a typical British ignorance about the history of Europe.

Although your books are set firmly in a specific period, you have deliberate historical errors in the Sophie books, and point them out in the glossary. Am I right in thinking it’s a long-running joke with the readers?

I hope so! The books are stuffed with jokes and allusions. Any opera-goer, for instance, will recognise “the general’s wife and the pretty boy she hung around with” glimpsed in a café in The Prussian Dispatch. Nor is it a coincidence that a child transfixed by the sight of Sophie holding bad guys at pistol-point goes on to write the libretto of Fidelio. There’s a sense that various hands have interposed themselves in her memoirs, and the glossary assists readers in finding where this may have taken place. I have my limits, though. A café across the river from me offers its German customers “Early Grey” tea, and while I’d love to bring that in, the warping of history implied is simply too great.

That’s a shame! What’s your philosophy on historical dialogue, and has it evolved over the years since you first started writing? It’s impossible to make it completely authentic if the original was in another language, of course.

I love authentic eighteenth-century dialogue, as long as it’s in eighteenth-century texts, be they from Goldsmith, Kleist, or Goldoni. Any characters using that style in mine tend to the shifty: that tone of voice generally arouses Sophie’s suspicions. Eighteenth-century pastiche forms but part of an overall texture which is aiming for a certain breadth and richness of its own, and at all events keeping away from a style of dialogue owing more to BBC costume dramas than the recorded discourse of the time. The approach of Richard Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier, set in Sophie’s time and acknowledging the heritage, but using tonalities quite impossible for that era, has made much greater impact on me than any historical novel. Not that it would make any difference what I think; Sophie just talks the way she wants anyhow.

It works for me.

Thank you so much for visiting my blog, David.

Thank you, rather, for the opportunity!

I do hope I’ve inspired my readers to investigate further. As some extra incentives, click here for the trailer for Serene, Sophie’s latest adventure, and here for a free Sophie story.

 

You can find David on

http://sophierathenau.weebly.com

and Sophie on Amazon.

The paperbacks are very reasonably priced, while each e-book costs less than a medium latte, or they are free to read on Kindle Unlimited.

 

 

 

Boneless Vikings, Outrageous Quotes, a Literary Cat and Handel – Bookish Dublin

The Long Room, Trinity College
The Long Room, Trinity College Dublin

I’ve delayed so long in writing this blog post that I find it now coincides with Reading Ireland Month – a lucky coincidence for me!

City breaks are perhaps the best solution to the problem of a family holiday with two older teenagers keen to remind us of all the downsides to breaks in the UK. The Wade family all found something interesting here, although our tastes only collided at dinner time. It’s possible I made a mistake not visiting Dublin’s Leprechaun museum like our daughter did, but the city’s literary delights that I did visit offered me a wealth of visual and creative delights nonetheless. Photos can largely tell the story of this visit.

 

4. Oscar Wilde statue again
Oscar Wilde, Merrion Square

We arrived on a wet Sunday afternoon, and while our teenagers elected to make the most of their hotel beds, Rick and I visited Merrion Square, the park Oscar Wilde overlooked as a child. He’s honoured by a flamboyant statue (statues are big in Dublin) and a pillar covered in some of his outrageous and insightful quotes. Do I agree with the one second from bottom in this photo? If so, my day job is far less worthy than I thought!

3. Oscar Wilde quotes
Oscar Wilde quotes

 

Our trip back to the town centre took us past a sculpture commemorating Ivar the Boneless, founder of Viking Dublin. Viking surnames of the heroic era are rich and strange, and Ivar’s is one of my favourite. There are many stories and theories as to how he got his name, but I favour the wilder ones that have him carried into battle on a shield due to his inability to walk: in this one, his military daring was clearly stronger than his physical strength. The legends of Ivar link with those of Ragnar Hairy Breaches, whose murder purportedly caused the Viking invasion of England and through Ragnar to the Saga of the Volsungs (Ragnar’s wives included Sigurd and Brynhild’s daughter) and the rich family line of East Anglia (one of the legends of Ragnar’s death has him murdered by a courtier of Edmund, last in the royal line that might link back to Beowulf. There’s a story here I mean to write one day.

11. Ivarr the Boneless, Steine
Ivar the Boneless pillar

As well as statues, Dublin is rich in wall murals, and these too commemorate the literary heritage of the city.

27. Pub with Irish folklore paintings - figure from Ullyses
James Joyce mural
22. Irish folklore painting
Mural on a pub wall

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82. great fresco near Victorian pub
A mural…
83. great fresco near Victorian pub
…and the caption

But the frontages are just as delightful.

24. Pub with Irish folklore paintings

A must for book lovers is the Book of Kells exhibition, housed in Trinity College Library.

53. Book of Kells exhibition
Book of Kells, c.800 AD

The book itself is under glass and so only one spread is viewable, but there is plenty of information in the exhibition, supported by large photos from this or other examples of medieval book illumination.

48. Book of Kells exhibition
The medieval publication process – professional vellum-maker

Here is one from the 13c, showing a professional vellum-maker showing a monk one of his sheets for book production, while another is being stretched on a frame waiting for the vellum-maker to scrape the hairs off it with the curved knife leaning against it. Another shows and illustrates a lovely poem about a writer and his cat. The bond it celebrates is celebrated today via social media, but the cat’s role as cat-catcher has been replaced by havoc-maker. As I write this, our cat is sitting on my folder of research.

50. Book of Kells exhibition
Pangur Ban, 9c poem, translated

The highlight of the exhibition, however, for me, must be the library itself, a celebration of books and authors. I want to climb a spiral staircase, pick a book and sit at the top reading.

55. The Long Room, Trinity College
How to fit more books into your space
104. St Patrick's Cathedral
St Patrick’s Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral is full of visual delights, including a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, which had its first ever performance here, in 1742. It went on to be a popular item at London’s Foundling Hospital, where the ticket fee went into the charity’s funds. Libby, in my novel ‘Foundlings‘, would have heard it many times. My photo of the music didn’t come out very well so here’s some street art to illustrate it instead.

41. Handel
Handel distracted from conducting a performance

Dublin is rich in architecture from the age of Handel, and Georgian doorways are everywhere.

However, for me the highlight of our holiday was a visit to Fourteen Henrietta Street, which deserves a blog post to itself. Watch this feed!

 

In search of the Vikings – Oslo 2108

106. Hylestad Stave church portal, church demolished 17c, Sigurd legend (2)
Sigurd licks his finger while roasting the dragon

Norsemen featured heavily in my childhood reading: mostly Henry Treece and some C. Walter Hodges, with a bit of Rosemary Sutcliff and Jill Paton Walsh. Looking back, this was probably because my mother bought books that linked into my history curriculum – I was home-schooled – but the early years of British history particularly attracted me. An odd word, that, ‘attract.’ I was aware their behaviour included enslaving, killing and robbing, but my books, fiction and history text books, were written for children and did not go into detail, and maybe as a child in a safe, loving home I didn’t really think about the horror faced by the men, women and children who suffered the fury of the Norsemen.

I will make my disclaimer again: I haven’t researched for this article beyond visiting the sites and reading the plaques carefully, so don’t treat me as a historian. I haven’t done extensive research into current thinking about Viking behaviour. What strikes me each time I visit a country inhabited by the descendants of this fearsome race is how civilised they are. The people are polite, kind, and more than tolerant of tourists who can’t speak their language, their streets are clean and their children well-behaved. Our visit to Oslo, and to the museum of polar exploration, only served to enforce this impression.

Oslo spreads itself round several harbours on a low shelf in the south of Norway. Its reach is wide, but from the promenade you can see wooded islands rising out of the water, and a trip to the end of the Metro line takes you to Nordmarka, the ‘city park,’ miles of mossy woodland where you can follow the broad track with families and dog-walkers or strike off into paths laced with roots and studded with slippery rocks. Autumn colours of yellowing leaves lightened the green.

67. city forest Nordmarka woods, Frognerseteren
Nordmarka

The city centre itself is, to my untutored eye, a mix of 19c  and 20c: apartments blocks  with fine frontages  in russet, caramel or dove grey; a few brutalist wonders; and the shining flanks of the Barcode, a set of modern towers that show the best of Scandinavian design. It positively rattles with museums, celebrating its history and culture. I’m going to run through some highlights in historical order, rather than in the order we saw them.

The Viking Museum took a trip out by bus to reach. Here, four burial ships are displayed proudly, with the goods that had accompanied the dead – yes, and some bones that survived of the two women buried in one of them. The boats are wide and shallow, the curve of their prows proud and graceful. Most of the excavated items were wooden, and often intricately carved, serpents weaving  loops with warriors. Dragons? Yes, I found most of the dragon heads familiar to me from a childhood blessed with well-illustrated history books. There were two for a tent frame, one for a bedpost and four that astonished me for being so small. I’d always thought these fearsome carvings to be huge beasts designed for the prow head. Not one of these would have fitted on a shop, and the last four are thought to be meant for a burial rite, with metal rattles attached to them to clash and ring. Many of the goods were practical, including a milk churn for the two women. The dead weren’t going to go hungry, but I do wonder how the women felt when they woke up and realised that being dead only meant more housework.

38. Viking ship museum; barrel
A nice little job for the buried women
27. Viking ship museum
The Oseberg Ship
29. Viking ship museum; dragon head, quite small, possibly musical instrument
Dragon head – much smaller than I imagined

Perhaps it was the women who persuaded the Viking nations to convert to Christianity, not just to keep up with the neighbours but for a better afterlife. It must have changed the values of at least some of the citizens of Oslo, because its patron saint is valued for protecting a slave woman – and being killed in the process. St Hallvard is honoured in the manholes all over the city – and doubtless elsewhere, but this is where we found him. It’s thanks to Google Images that I traced the legend. Hallvard was a merchant, just setting out on his boat when a slave woman came running up to the bank, screaming for help. She’d been accused, wrongly, she said, of robbing a home, and three men were after her. Hallvard believed her and took her on board. But the three men chased them, shot at them, and killed them both, tying a millstone to Hallvard’s neck to make his body sink. Saints, however, are known not for being safe from violence but for the curious behaviour of their remains, and Hallvard’s body floated. His friends found him and buried him. On the manhole cover you can see he holds the arrows in one hand and the millstone in another, while the woman lies beneath his feet.

55. St Hallvard manhole cover, one of many many (2)
St Hallvard showing off the arrows and millstone

Conversion to Christianity did not mean abandoning those dragons. In the Historical Museum a room is dedicated to the 12c onwards, with saintly figures and surrounds saved from those impressive buildings, the stave churches. Once more, serpents writhe through the wood grain and their huge eyes gleam in the shine of the material. Here you can see the church porch that features the  blood-and-thunder story of Sigurd, immortalised by Wagner in the Ring Cycle. The story starts at the bottom right as we look at it, with Sigurd forging his sword, and moves up the right,  across to bottom left and up to the top with Gunnar in the pit of snakes, being killed by Atli (Attila the Hun) for the famous treasure of the Nibelung.

104. Hylestad Stave church portal, church demolished 17c, Sigurd legend (3)
Sigurd kills the dragon
116. model of stave church
Model of a traditional stave church: I asked my husband to make me one but he said no

 

The shopping centre is named after a king of Norway who was actually French. Karl Johan started life as Jean Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s marshals. He was offered the crown of Sweden after the French retreat from Moscow, and went on to lead the Swedes against Bonaparte. In 1814 Sweden forced Norway to accept him as king of their country too. This might seem a bad start to his reign over the Norse, but he appears to have been popular in his time, and firmly on the side of his subjects rather than his former master. His palace displays itself in a wide park and he sits astride his horse looking over the heads of the tourists, who come to watch the guards in their dark uniform marching up and down in front of the steps.

57. Karl Johan in front of Royal Palace
Karl Johan, freshly permed

The Fram Museum, a short walk away from the Viking Museum, really shows a different side to the Norwegian character. Whether or not their ancestors were savage robbers, Norway can be proud of Roald Amundsen. The makers of the museum certainly are, and it would seem rightly so. Amundsen led various expeditions into wild territories, and his success in the Antarctic was thanks to patient preparation and an openness to learning more and more about survival techniques. He and his crew befriended Inuit locals as they prepared for their journey to the North Pole, and through mutual respect and trust gained valuable knowledge on how to live in arctic conditions. Brave, resilient and humane – now that’s a hero to be proud of.

21. Fram, Polar exploration ship
The Polar Ship Fram

Three days in the city and it was time to go home, with a new respect for this country just across the water from me. We will be coming back!