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


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.




Earls in Devon and Aunts in Wales: author interview with Regency Romance writer Jayne Davis

eBook Cover small
Cover reveal for the first book in the Marstone Series

I’m delighted to host an interview today with Jayne Davis, author of the Marstone Series, historical romance spanning the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries with a big dash of adventure. The first of the series, Sauce for the Gander, came out on Kindle yesterday. A standalone book which is loosely linked to the series, The Mrs MacKinnons, debuted last year and has already built up a firm fan base. Jayne, welcome to Queens, Quotes, Quills and Quests. Tell us more about the Marstone series.

Jayne: I started writing fiction for fun, and had drafts of novels called Playing with Fire and The Mrs MacKinnons done before I decided to take things seriously and knock them into shape to be published. I dealt with The Mrs MacKinnons first, and in that process I learned a lot about marketing books.

Tea Plantations under sky
Jayne’s debut, a standalone novel that links with the Marstone series

One of the things I learned was that books in a series sell well – readers like familiar characters. An important secondary character in Playing with Fire also has a walk-on role in The Mrs MacKinnons (the Earl of Marstone, for anyone who has read the latter). I thought he would make a good linking character for the series, so I went back in time and wrote the story of how Will, who later becomes the Earl of Marstone, falls in love and ends up in the position we see him in later (I’m not going to say what that is as it’s a bit of a spoiler for the novel). His story is in Sauce for the Gander. Playing with Fire is set 16 years later, so I want to write about one of Will’s sisters for Book 2, and Playing with Fire will become Book 3. I have ideas for one or two more books after that as well.

Lynden: Excellent. The series is growing. What made you choose historical romance as your genre?

Jayne: I enjoyed Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen in my teens, and always wanted to write stories in this era. There are a lot of restrictions on the characters that we do not have, and these can provide great possibilities for stories. I’m not only talking about things like lack of women’s rights, but also more mundane things like no analgesics, letters taking days to reach their recipients, going abroad taking weeks or months, if you weren’t shipwrecked on the way, and so on.

Lynden: That’s very true. I’d not looked at history quite like that before. Now, you’re clearly very productive (I know this because I can view all Jayne’s draft novels on Scribophile, the online forum we both belong to.) What’s your way of working? Do you have a daily routine, or does writing fit in with other commitments?

Jayne: I started off as an engineer, then became a teacher, then a publisher of school science text books. During this third career I started writing some of the text books and discovered I was quite good at it. So after only a few years in that job I went freelance, and I’ve been earning a decent living by freelance writing ever since. I’m lucky in that I can accept work or not, and can usually say I only want to work half days – this leaves me half of each week for fiction writing, and even more time when I haven’t any science writing on.

Sadly, I’m still very poor at making use of my time. I waste too much time on the internet instead of buckling down and getting on with it. I do try to buckle down and get some writing done each morning, but it doesn’t always work!

me 2 copy
Jayne hard at work. It’s research!

Lynden: Ah, that’s a very common problem among writers. How about ideas? Where do you get your ideas from?

Jayne: I don’t know – they just come! Not always when I want them to, though. Odd things can set off a train of thought. For example, I was on a walking holiday in Wales last year – 5 days across the middle of Wales in beautiful countryside. I got to thinking about a few Regency Romances I’d read where a heroine was threatened with the punishment of being sent to an aunt in Wales or, in one of Heyer’s books, going to said aunt for protection against a horrible father. So the ‘aunt in Wales’ of this trope appears to be rather dragonish (quite appropriate for Wales, really). Then I got to wondering what would happen to my heroine if she found when she got there that the aunt wasn’t the dragon that her father thought, and the plot for An Embroidered Spoon was born.

Lynden: I wonder why so many Regency aunts lived in Wales? How curious. My next question is, what’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? And what’s the worst?

Jayne: Best – first drafts can be fixed, just keep writing and get on with it.

Worst – that’s harder. Probably the most useless and irritating was an American critiquer who ignored my comment about the work being written in British English, and added a . after every Mr and Mrs in the chapter.

Lynden: Mmm, that doesn’t sound wildly helpful. Whose writing do you admire most? I’d be interested to see if it’s an author in your genre or not.

Jayne: That’s a difficult question! At the moment most of my reading is within the genre I write, or non-fiction books about the period. So I’ll give you a fiction answer – Courtney Milan and Emily Larkin both write excellent stories with characters I can believe in, and both good for period detail. Larkin has some paranormal elements in her stories that I don’t normally like, but she does it well.

Lynden: I’m not familiar with Emily Larkin. I’ll have to look her up. Tell us more about your freelance work. What are the similarities and differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, in your experience?

Jayne: My non-fiction is all commissioned. School textbooks these days are a huge undertaking, with all sorts of teacher support materials and worksheets, so the authors are very much part of a team. There is a detailed writing brief that sets out not only what needs to go in each section (based on the curriculum), but also the educational features needed, how many illustrations I can use, and so on. And a schedule for when each bit has to be delivered. So in many ways that is far easier than fiction writing, and someone else does all the proofing, publishing, marketing and sales.

But it’s nowhere near as much fun as thinking up characters and telling their stories (and in some cases having what were supposed to be very minor characters elbowing their way into the story!)

Lynden: That’s so true! So, Jayne, thank you for visiting. If this piece has whetted my readers’ appetite, where can they find your books, and for those of us who are suckers for a shiny cover, is paperback an option as well as Kindle?

Jayne: The Mrs MacKinnons is available in Kindle, Kindle Unlimited and in paperback from Amazon. It can also be ordered from bookshops in paperback.

At the time of writing, Sauce for the Gander is only available in Kindle and Kindle Unlimited, but will be available in paperback soon.

You can find out more about Jayne by:

checking out her website

following her on Facebook @Jaynedavisromance

following her on Twitter@Jayndavis142

Sauce 3D jpg




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


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!


Charcoal Cats and Dragonflies


Extract from “The Charcoal Cat”, in Of Legends and Lore

This month I bring you an author interview, a chance for my readers to meet Julian Elliot, pen name J E Klimov, author of the Aeonians trilogy. It’s morning here, and Julian, you’re on the other side of the Atlantic and might still be asleep! It’s thanks to the wonders of modern technology that we can have this conversation. Julian, it’s lovely to have you on my blog. How long have you been writing, and what made you start?

J E Klimov, author of The Aeonians

Julian: I’ve been writing since the seventh grade. It was a huge year for creativity. I always loved spinning stories, although most were made in the form of hand-drawn graphic novels. Then, I played Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and I just had to write a fan-fic of that! Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop!

Lynden: It’s a common theme – so many writers get the bug as children. I know you’re going to tell us later what you did with that fan-fic, so I’ll move on to my next question.  We ‘met’ when we both worked on the first JL Anthology. These are a series, all fantasy, put together by the Just-Us League, a group of writers who met online. I believe you have stories in several of these. Tell us more about them.

Julian: Joining the Just-Us-League was one of the most monumental experiences of my writing life! Everyone I met has been incredibly supportive and helpful. I can’t recall exactly how we came into starting anthologies, but I was 100% in from the start. Currently, I have four short stories published in these JL anthologies:

The Guardian’s Secret in “From the Stories of Old” (JL Volume 1): For my first fairy tale retelling, I wanted to dive deep into a Japanese folk lore. It challenged me because I was terrified of not serving the original story justice; however, I learned a lot through the editing process and am very proud of it.

The Fate of Patient Zero in “Between Heroes and Villains” (JL Volume 2): This is hands down my favorite. Keeping in the theme of superheroes (or villains), I wanted to create an origin story for a science fiction series that I will be working on soon. The characters are near and dear to me, and it was interesting to explore what would happen if humans played around with their genetics too much…

The Charcoal Cat in “Of Legend and Lore” (JL Volume 4): I decided to enter the ring once more with another fairy tale retelling. I wanted to steer from the main stream and found yet another endearing Japanese tale. It also had cats in them!!! The story follows a young misfit whose artwork literally saves his life.

Of Legend and Lore 400x625 copy                                     Secrets in Our Cities 400x625 copy

Soul of Mercy in “Secrets in Our Cities” (JL Volume 6): Ah, paranormal/urban fantasy. I haven’t dabbled in this sector of the fantasy genre; however, I had a storyline tucked away in my to-write list that was worth trying out. It wasn’t novel-length, so a short story fit perfectly. This story follows a teenager named Gabby who flips out when she discovers she already has white hair. An angel with an unusual name pops into her life and bestows upon her the title “Soul of Mercy”. Gabby needs to put spirits to rest before they wreak havoc on the human world. I took a light-hearted approach when writing this, and I also channelled my inner Ghost Busters. It was a lot of fun.

Lynden: Wow, you really flexed your genre muscles there. I have a story in the first anthology too, and saw that several reviewers particularly loved your story.  Meanwhile, you published your debut novel, The Aeonians, which won the Purple Dragonfly award. You have two books out in this trilogy now, don’t you? What are they about?

AeoniansCover - Copy       PurpleDragonFlyAwardsLogo     Shadow_Warrior_Cover

Julian: Yes, I have the first two novels out, and fingers crossed that the final instalment will be released late 2019. Remember when I mentioned that fan-fic back in 7thgrade? Surprise! During my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I chose to recycle that fan-fic and transform it into my own unique story. Silver Leaf Books picked me up and helped me work on expanding it into a trilogy.

In short, The Aeonians is a story of a tomboy princess, Isabel, who inherits an armlet containing four precious stones that possess the powers of wind, water, earth, and fire. As she struggles with her new responsibility that she never wanted, an ancient enemy labelled as the Aeonians breaks from their cursed prison to reclaim the country that they believed was theirs. Isabel runs into Bence, the captain of the Aeonian Army, whose questionable allegiance leads her into a cat-and-mouse game up until the very end.

The second book, The Shadow Warrior, came seamlessly as it follows Bence and the consequences that followed his actions from the war. He tries to run away from his problems while Isabel faces a new threat to her country.

Lynden: Congratulations on those publications – that’s a massive achievement. And best wishes with the launch of the final instalment.   I gather you’re branching out now into romance, is that right?

Julian: That’s correct. It seems like a far stretch from fantasy to romance, and it probably isn’t the best idea when trying to “build a brand”; however, the romance isn’t being written for my brand-sake. In my endless list of fantasy and science fiction ideas, there was always a desire to write one damn good romance. I’ve been through a lot the last few years, and this side project is a way to channel my new energy.

Lynden: I’m sorry to hear you’ve had a bad few years. I do hope the project really inspires you.

I remember you said another source of inspiration is your career – as a pharmacist. Can you give us an example?

Julian: I really couldn’t have gotten into a more boring career… or so I thought. I’ve spent many years working at a pharmacy before becoming licensed (about 12 years total?!?), and I’ve seen and dealt with a lot of things – things that make you say that cliché phrase: “Truth is stranger than fiction”. While I can’t give exact examples at the moment, it’s the unique interactions with customers and co-workers that really inspire my range of characters. Think of a pharmacy version of the famous television series, The Office.

Lynden: You’d better add that to your ‘to-write’ list!   Now, I understand you love travel and other cultures. What country or culture have you found most intriguing, and why?

Julian: I’ve found Chinese and Japanese culture the most intriguing. As a disclaimer, I am half Chinese and considered a first-generation Asian American, so I already was brought up with knowledge of Chinese culture. Growing up, I embraced it. I learned the language and looked forward to the Lunar New Year even more than the regular New Year!

In 2008, I was lucky enough to fulfil my dreams and travel to China. Since then, I’ve visited the Great Wall, Beijing, Hong Kong, my nana’s hometown, most of Taiwan, and finally Japan.

I appreciate the deep cultural history and fantastic architecture. Everything is so colorful and meaningful. I remember bringing a sketch pad to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The statues, palaces, and stories behind them were inspiring. I found this to be the same when I visited Kyoto. I rented a bicycle and must’ve visited at least a dozen temples, large and small. There’s just something so mysterious and noble about the East, from their perspective on life (including family and medicine), clothing, mannerisms, to music. Finally, I appreciate their love and attention to food. Real, authentic Chinese and Japanese food are prepared with love and packed with intense flavor.

Lynden: That sounds like a fantastic trip. I expect we could trace all sorts of details in your writing that were inspired by your travels. It’s been great to talk, Julian. All the best with the launch of your last Aeonians book, and with your new venture into romance!

You can find out more about Julian by following her on Amazon or her blog. If you sign up for her newsletter you’ll get regular updates and writer tips. You can find out more about The Aeonians here.

You can find out more about the JL Anthologies here.


Was Maid Marion an Essex Girl?

Matilda Fitzwalter?
Matilda Fitzwalter?

I don’t remember now where I found the story that Maid Marion was buried in Essex. The internet is a wonderful, rich and unreliable source of information. I did however find various versions of the story online, and a photo of the church. With a husband who can find anywhere in this country with an Ordinance Survey map (no Satnavs for him!) I thought we had a good chance of locating the tomb. The biggest problem would probably be getting into a country church.

Surely this is a film set?

Little Dunmow is ridiculously pretty. Surely it’s a film set? We saw no-one in a bonnet or top hat, however, or indeed doublet and hose. A short walk following a sign-post brought us to this little building. What serves now as the parish church is part of the former priory, a small establishment but an impressive building from the information inside. And yes, it was actually really easy to get in. I’ve always felt too embarrassed to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for the key, even though the notice on the door of a church often says as much, but confidence comes with age, and the owner of an enthusiastic spaniel handed the key over with no questions asked at all.

Little Dunmow Priory Church

Inside, we found two tombs and one memorial. The memorial is to Robert Fitzwalter, leader of the baronial opposition to King John, one of the sureties of Magna Carta, and bearer of this wonderful title: ‘Marshall of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Founder of our Civil Liberty.’ 

Memorial to Robert Fitzwalter
Memorial to Robert Fitzwalter

The tomb nearest the door is identified as Walter Fitzwalter, who died 1432, and his wife Elizabeth, nee Chiddock, who died 1464.

Walter and Elizabeth Fitzwalter
Walter and Elizabeth Fitzwalter

Local tradition says the stone effigy lying with hands clasped and eyes staring at the roof beams is Matilda, the daughter of Robert Fitzwalter. In 1212 he was part of a conspiracy to kill King John, and escaped trial by fleeing to France, where he told the French king he’d risen up against his master because John had attempted to seduce his daughter. The local legend, recorded by Philip Morant, historian for Essex, says she lived at Dunmow, and was poisoned when she refused the king’s love.

Traces of the poison that killed Lady Matilda?
Traces of the poison that killed Lady Matilda?

Meanwhile, we have an Elizabethan play written by Anthony Munday about Robert Earl of Huntingdon, whose alias was Robin Hood, and whose wife was Matilda, daughter of Robert Fitzwalter. The nineteenth century antiquarian Joseph Hunter identified these two as being Robert Hood, a yeoman from Wakefield, Yorkshire, and Matilda, who joined him in Barndsdale Forest after the Battle of Boroughbridge.

This claim on Robin Hood by Yorkshire will doubtless outrage the good folk of Nottingham. The rest of us will be noting that there are two problems here. Firstly, the Essex tradition has Matilda dying, and the Munday play has her fleeing to the forest. And secondly, the Battle of Boroughbridge was 1322, more than a century after Robert’s struggle with King John. Besides, the headdress and gown worn by the lady on the tomb are quite obviously late Medieval. A more likely identification is that she could be the mother of Walter, who lies on the next tomb.

It’s rather a dull solution, though, isn’t it? I wish there was more to back up the stories. We do have a King John tradition further south in the country. He apparently owned much of the land here as a hunting chase, and a local house is said to be his hunting lodge.

King John's Hunting Lodge, Thundersley
King John’s Hunting Lodge, Thundersley
St Peter's Church, Thundersley
St Peter’s Church, Thundersley

The parish church, according to an account which has more holes in it than a colander, was burned down Christmas Day 1215 for defying the Pope’s ban on services. The catchment school is named after King John, who I always think is quite an unsuitable role model for our young people. Even putting these traditions together, there isn’t much evidence.

But hey, I’m a writer, not a historian. I love the idea that Maid Marion was an Essex girl, part of the struggle for English liberty on several fronts. There’s a story here, I’m sure.




Book review: The Sophie Rathenau Mysteries


Do you ever read an enthusiastic book review and wonder if the reviewer is hoping to get something out of writing fulsome praise? This, dear reader, is not the case. At least, I hope not. I am, I confess, in the middle of an exchange of manuscripts with the author just now: I will read and give helpful feedback on the manuscript of book 3 in the series while he will do the same for my hopefully-debut novel. But I did check out the sample of the first book in the series before contacting the author, because I didn’t have the energy to read and comment on a whole novel that didn’t appeal to me. While I was waiting for him to get back to me I bought that first book. And the second. And the collaborative anthology that includes a third Sophie mystery. (And in case you are concerned at this lavish spending, dear reader, be assured that on Kindle the combined price of all 3 would buy me less than two barista coffees.)

The Prussian Despatch

1772. Sophie Rathenau, adrift in 18c Vienna, only has a few coins and her dead husband’s pistol. To pay the rent and keep starvation at bay, she advertises as a finder of lost things. Now she has no less than three people approaching her asking her to look for the same thing – a lost despatch of a sensitive nature. She is thrown into a web of lies, crime and intrigue. Or maybe she throws herself in?

Sophie is one of the most engaging characters I have encountered in a book for a long time. Feisty and brave, with a tongue that gets her into trouble, her brain works ten times as fast as mine in working out who is doing what – but she doesn’t always get it right, and she has a self-destructive streak, thanks to a deep unhappiness over her past. She has clearly had adventures before, and while part of me wishes the author had started the series at the outset of her career, it gives her extra depth and the story extra interest for us as we are given snippets about her past.

Vienna in the eighteenth century, its sights and sounds and smells, its fine buildings and its rough poverty, is drawn vividly. The story tears along at great speed, and I found it hard to keep up with what was going on. To be fair, though, I am like that in crime dramas on television as well. Plus, I didn’t realise at first that there was a glossary of terms and names which made things clearer. There are scenes at the end where characters talk and more is explained about what really happened to the dispatch. Besides, I was so interested in Sophie and her world that I wanted to keep reading.

In fact, when I’d finished The Prussian Despatch I did something that I never do normally, being a professional procrastinator. I went straight on to buy the next book in the series.

The Lay Brothers

Sophie Rathenau has had to flee Vienna after double-crossing the Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire. She’s working as a barmaid in Munich and hating it. When she loses her job, and her friend disappears after becoming involved with a Jesuit priest, Sophie picks up her pistol again and gets herself entangled with an unscrupulous conspiracy.

A new background gives this series a chance to pit Sophie against new dangers in a new setting, and once again the alley ways and taverns of an eighteenth century city are brought to life so you can almost see and smell them. Old villains and new, old friends and new mean Sophie will need to constantly question who to trust. The trouble is, she is not only brave and warm-hearted but also very vulnerable as the anniversary nears of the death of her beloved husband. Will she trust the right comrades?

The Sophie Rathenau mysteries move along at lightning speed, and as with the last one I had to go back and re-read many of the passages to follow the twists and turns of the plot, but as the books are fairly short this was not a chore. What really makes the series, for me, though, is the character of Sophie. Is she an anachronism? I’d suggest not. As well as plenty of compliant housewives, a few women were also pirates and highway robbers: Sophie just happens to be less corrupt than those adventurers. But anachronism or not, she is a layered character with mixed motives, a complicated background and a whirlwind of emotions that sometimes threaten to destroy her.

Sweet Nightingale

This one is a short story, fitting in timeframe between novels 2 and 3, and can be found in the anthology Winter’s Edge, an Anthology of Historical Fiction. Familiar characters feature in a new adventure. For a change, Sophie’s plan works right first time and the broken heart is not hers.

I’ve found out the author currently plans five more books for the series, news that gives me great pleasure. My only complaint is that I’m going to have to wait for the rest of the series to be written!


I had fun with the photo. A Kindle doesn’t make for a great picture in itself (the cover is best in colour, but the screen version is only black and white) so I copied the fashion for what my daughter informs me is a flat lay (Why? It’s not flat) and is borrowed from makeup Instagram posts. The beer bottle is neither eighteenth century nor Viennese, but the picture was brought back from Vienna by said daughter and, I think, features St Peter’s Church. It took quite a lot of angling to eliminate miscellaneous 21c household paraphernalia from the frame, but hopefully I will remember the ideal positioning for another time.

Edit: the author has told me the picture actually features in Chapter 31. I checked it out. Sophie is outside the church ready for a dangerous rendezvous when a friend comes out and tells her, “There’s a man I don’t like the look of. Tall and swarthy, with a moustache like an Albanian.”

“He’s Turkish,” says Sophie.

Writer’s Progress – revising

What editing should look like. I didn’t get much written that day, but the coffee was excellent.

I’m editing. Again. I’ve just finished an edit checking plot consistency, at the same time tidying up repeated or unnecessary words or unclear sentences. I’m bored with revising. I want to get a novel out there, and write something else. But I don’t think my book is the best it could be.

Now, I might be aiming too high. As someone who’s never paid more than £10 for a writing course, and has had only stories published, it’s probably unrealistic of me to expect to write smooth prose with cunning leitmotifs, brilliant plotting and masterfully handled unreliable narrators. BUT – there are certain things I really need to get in place if my book’s got half a chance of being read by an agent: a plot without holes, a protagonist desperate for something, high stakes. Why haven’t I got these in place already?

What my editing actually looks like, only it got messier

I started off fairly confidently. I had a theme, a story-line with a start, middle and resolution, each with some detail. But when I’d written it all, it was far too short to interest any traditional publisher. It was only a novella, in fact.

So I followed the advice of a writer friend and added a sub-plot. This got me up to a very thin novel.

I asked my husband to read it. He did. He liked lots of it, made various suggestions for improvement, and expressed incredulity at my plot twist. It relied on my protagonist being young and naïve, having grown up in a sheltered upbringing. But no, it was too far a stretch. Oh. Half my story replied on this twist.

So a significant rewrite was needed. Draft three.

Trying out my revised chapters on Scribophile, an online forum (this site has been invaluable to me) I found I had a new issue. Readers assumed that, because my protagonist was fourteen, it was a YA novel. I didn’t feel I could put it out as YA seeing as the sub-plot was only of interest to adults, but I was very attached now to this sub-plot and didn’t want to abandon it. Besides, I didn’t see myself as a YA author – it wasn’t the way I wanted to go. The solution? Upgrade the sub-plot to a parallel plot.

In one respect, I saw this could work out very well. To complement the foundling searching for a mother I had a mother who had lost a daughter. I enjoyed weaving the two together. The woman who protects my first protagonist became the sister of the second protagonist. The pauper boy who gives the first protagonist directions for escaping her cruel mistress became the son of the beggar who gives a dangerous illness to the second protagonist. However, the sub-plot had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the spotlight. It was planned thinly, because it was quite thin – being secondary. As a sub-plot, Meriah’s story lacked shape, drama and high stakes. So I added and added to it. This built up the word count, but now I had a bit of a mishmash. I had a ghost story, a romance, a mystery and the story of a woman trying to keep her job. I really needed to decide what I was writing. I went over and over the story-line to decide what was my main thrust and to get the other themes to submit to it.

Rethinking the shape of my plot, complete with tissue for rubbing things out


Next, there was the shape of Meriah’s story. As a main plot, it needed definite peaks and troughs. About this time, I started reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods, and discovered the concept of the direction twist in the middle. I spent days playing round with Meriah’s story, writing out the plan in different ways, using my whiteboard and colour coding. Moving on, I rewrote her thread extensively. As I’ve worked, I’ve constantly questioned, tweaked, doubted. As a sub-plot heroine, Meriah could be quite passive. As a main protagonist, is she strong enough? And so I go on patching, and fearing I will never get to the end of it.

Would I have avoided all these problems if I’d planned in more detail? Even after putting away my outline for a few months?

I’m not sure. I think I could have avoided the issue of audience by thinking that through carefully. And now, after drafting the third novel that’s then fallen apart due to plot holes and story-lines that beggar belief, I might finally have a nose for them.