Plum Pudding, riots and lechery: Christmas in the 17th century

Christmas pudding cartoon in the 1884 Christmas edition of The Figaro

In 1644, the Puritans gained control of Parliament. With Grinch-like fervour they set about cancelling Christmas. At a stroke, the traditional 12-day festival – a prolonged period of merriment and revelry characterised by rich food, dancing and excess – was banned.

The Puritans regarded Christmas celebrations as sinful, ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. Even worse, the traditional decorations of holly, ivy, rosemary and bays were pagan.

To bring the country to its senses – or its knees – Christmas Day was initially turned into a day of fasting and repentance until, in June 1647, it was abolished altogether.

This extremist Puritan attitude was typified by one ‘Praise-God Barebone’, a leather-seller in London’s Fetter Lane who is described by historian Walter Thornbury as “one of those gloomy religionists who looked on surplices, plum-porridge, theatres, dances, Christmas pudding, and homicide as equally detestable, and did his best to shut out all sunshine from that long, rainy, stormy day that is called life”.

So extreme was the Puritan intolerance of Christmas that special constables were appointed to search ovens on Christmas Day and confiscate any food being prepared for the festival!

This went down badly with the people of Kent who – like many of their compatriots – were addicted to the festive season. The matter came to a head in Canterbury resulting in what became known as the ‘Plum Pudding Riots’.

At this time, the city had a particularly severe – and humourless – Puritan as mayor who encouraged a mob to “insult and molest” church-goers on Christmas Day. This led to an unseemly brawl which – although quietened by the intercession of three leading citizens – resulted in armed forces being sent in to attack the city. The city gates were torn down and burned, parts of the wall were destroyed and many people – including the peace-makers – were sent to prison.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Christmas celebrations were reinstated and church-going once more became a part of the festive calendar. However, notes from the diary of Samuel Pepys reveal that his attendance at church served a purpose other than that of salvation.

On 3rd December 1665, Pepys noted with evident pleasure that, in church, he sat “very near my fat brown beauty of our Parish, the rich merchant’s lady”.

His entry for Christmas Day reveals an even deeper streak of cynicism. A wedding was held during the Christmas service and, having noted the young couple’s apparent happiness, Pepys remarks: “strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and woman gazing and smiling at them”.

Perhaps the Puritans had a point!


Posted in 12 days of Christmas, 17th century, Canterbury, Christmas, Christmas pudding, Festivals, Food, Grinch, History, Pepys, Plum Pudding, Puritans, Riots | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bulls, Bears, Tippling and Lewder Places: The Thames Frost Fair of 1684

The Frost Fair 1683 – 4 by Thomas Wyke

Over a period of 250 years, the River Thames froze so hard that its icy expanse provided the venue for a special festival: the Frost Fair. The reason for the big freeze was a combination of exceptionally hard winters and the unique, medieval construction of London Bridge which slowed the flow of the water.

Between 1564 to 1814, at least nine Frost Fairs were held featuring sports, food tents, pubs, coffee-houses, all manner of trades (including a seller of insurance) and even a lottery.

Of all of the Frost Fairs, that of 1684 is one of the best-documented thanks to John Evelyn. A courtier, man of affairs and founder of the Royal Society, Evelyn took a keen interest in the world around him, recording his observations in a diary which opens a fascinating window onto 17th century Britain.

On 1st January, Evelyn notes: The weather continuing intolerably severe, so as streets of booths were set upon the Thames.”

Just over a week later, he records that: “I went across the Thames upon the ice (which was now become so incredibly thick, as to bear not only whole streets of booths in which they roasted meat and had divers shops of wares, quite cross as in a town, but coaches and carts and horses passed over)”.

Within days, the Fair had turned into an extension of the City with booths arranged in formal streets with ‘all sorts of trades and shops furnished and full of commodities, even to a printing press where the people and ladies took a fancy to having their names printed and the day and the year set down when printed on the Thames.”

Apparently, these commemorative cards became such a craze that printers could make up to five pounds a day ‘for printing a line only at six-pence a name’. Printers also sold ballads, some specially composed in honour of the occasions such as ‘Freezland-Fair or the icey Bear-Garden’.

Map of the Frost Fair 1683

For travellers, the River provided a convenient highway. After dining with the Archbishop one night, Evelyn made his way home by “walking over the ice from Lambeth stairs to Horse Ferry”.

During the Frost Fair, various modes of transport were seen on the Thames. Coaches provided transport from Westminster to the Temple while sleds glided along on skates.

The River also provided an arena for a variety of sports such as: ‘bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks and tippling, and lewder places; so as it seemed to be a bacchanalia.’

By the end of January, the Fair had grown to such a size that it ‘was become a camp, ten thousands of people, coaches, carts and all manner of sports continuing and increasing’.

However, while the Fair resembled a ‘carnival on the water’, Evelyn notes that it was ‘a severe judgement on the land’ with trees ‘splitting as if lightening-struck, men and cattle perishing in divers places and the very seas so locked up with ice that no vessels could stir out or come in’.

Fuel became so expensive that the poor had to rely on charitable donations to stay alive and the fumes from sea-coal became so dense ‘that hardly could one see cross the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one could scarce breathe’. In addition to these difficulties, Evelyn also notes that there was a severe outbreak of small-pox.

A keen gardener and horticultural author, Evelyn was dismayed at the toll taken by the severe weather on wildlife and vegetation, noting that birds, fish and exotic plants died and deer parks were destroyed.

On a personal level, the greatest loss to Evelyn was the destruction of many items in his garden at Sayes Court.

He records that: ‘I found many of the greens and rare plants utterly destroyed; the oranges and myrtles very sick, the rosemary and laurel dead to all appearance’. The one spark of hope was that his cypress tree was ‘likely to endure it out’.

The first sign of a thaw came on 4th February when, despite a new freeze, all the booths on the Thames were taken down. More welcome news came a few days later when the sea-ports were once more accessible to ships, Evelyn noting gleefully that: ‘After 8 weeks missing the foreign posts, there came abundance of intelligence from abroad’.

After six weeks of extreme weather, the great freeze was over. However, many souvenirs of the Frost Fair remained including ballads, printed cards, pictures and a map cut in copper ‘representing all the manner of the camp and the several actions, sports and pastimes thereon in memory of this signal frost’.

Sadly, Frost Fairs are a thing of the past due to warmer winters and the construction of a new bridge in 1831. However, they are not forgotten and visitors to London can see a depiction of the Frost Fair in the pedestrian tunnel under Southwark Bridge on the south side of the Thames. This consists of five large slate slabs engraved by sculptor Richard Kindersley. This impressive artwork includes a rhyme inspired by handbills printed during the Frost Fairs.


Posted in 17th century, Diarists, Frost Fair, History, John Evelyn, London, London Bridge, Pepys, River Thames, Royal Society, Sayes Court, Southwark | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

10 Creepy Choices for a Rattling Good Read (+ 4 great films)

While not all the books on my top 10 Creepy Choices are ghost stories,  I think you’ll agree that they all deliver a certain frisson. For good measure, I’ve also added four films that never cease to get my heart racing, even though I know what will happen next (or, perhaps because I know!)

Having read quite a few of these stories while researching a recent workshop on writing the supernatural and sinister, I was surprised to spot several key themes common to both ancient and modern works such as Beowulf (7th century) and stories by Susan Hill and Henry James.

For instance:

  • An isolated house in the marshes haunted by a child and its mother
  • A stranger who arrives to confront them
  • A number of terrible deaths

In fact, there are even links with the film Alien if you think about it.

What also occurred to me on a  re-reading is how cleverly Henry James plays with our perception of the truth in the Turn of the Screw. Interestingly, a friend confirmed what I thought about this story. On a first reading, you accept it  at face value. However, on a second, more critical reading, you begin to pick up on the many contradictions that James has deliberately planted in the text. No wonder that this work is still a subject of heated debate.

While Donna Tartt’s The Secret History may not seem an obvious choice, it’s the only one that caused me to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I dreamed that I was one of the participants in the events described by the narrator. That’s really getting under the skin of a reader!

I’ve listed my top 10 spine-tinglers below (in no particular order) along with four films that always have the power to scare me, even though I know what’s coming.

What would you add to the list?


  1. The Woman in Black                            Susan Hill
  2. The Mist in The Mirror                        Susan Hill
  3. The Turn of the Screw                          Henry James
  4. The Bloody Chamber                           Angela Carter
  5. Frankenstein                                         Mary Shelley 
  7. Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook                M.R. James
  8. The Signalman                                     Charles Dickens
  9. Beowulf                                                 Seamus Heaney
  10. The Day of the Triffids                       John Wyndham
  11. Hawksmoor                                         Peter Ackroyd
  12. The Secret History                             Donna Tartt


  1. Alien
  2. The Blair Witch Project
  3. The Birds
  4. Psycho
Posted in Angela Carter, Books, Charles Dickens, Donna Tartt, Fiction, ghost stories, Halloween, Henry James, John Wyndham, M. R. James, M.R. James, Mary Shelley, Myth, Peter Ackroyd, Seamus Heaney, Short stories, Susan Hill, Vampires | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Vampires, Witches, Myths and Magical Realism

For readers and writers of supernatural stories who are weary of the well-trodden themes of the genre, research can provide new material and a fresh approach.

It will help you to understand how some of the common elements of supernatural stories have developed and give you an insight into the psychology of fear.

Supernatural stories usually consist of two opposing forces: superstition and rationality, innocence and guilt, gullibility and cunning.

Considering the origins of many of these supernatural elements will not dissolve the mystery, but deepen it by leading you into some dark corners of the human psyche.


Historically, there is a connection between the plague, vampires and the beginning of forensic science.

In times of plague, there were mass burials. Cemeteries were constantly being dug up to accommodate more bodies. In the process, gravediggers got a hitherto unrecorded view of bodies in various states of decay. In Venice, this consisted of shrouds disintegrating around the mouth – due to the action of various bodily chemicals – which was interpreted as the undead chewing through their shrouds to get out and wreak terror on the living population.

So, in order to prevent this, bricks were forced into the jaws of the corpses to prevent their unnatural activity. In fact, one of the most terrifying images to emerge from plague-ridden Venice was not that of a vampire but of the plague-doctor with his beaked mask. [See my blog: Shroud-Eaters, Vampires and Plague Doctors.]

Plague was a scourge and rightly feared. Due to the incredibly high mortality rate, society was completely dislocated. To get an idea of what this was like, read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague year. While there is some discussion as to whether he was the author of this piece or was simply editing someone else’s manuscript, it gives you an insight into what happens when an organised society breaks down. It is hostile, unfriendly and lawless. People are terrified and turn on each other. The world is out of kilter, no longer a familiar place, no longer predictable.

Hostile entities as the personification of fear

I have a theory that stories of supernatural happenings tend to surface at times when societies are under grave threat. It is somehow a way of giving shape to a faceless fear. For instance, a news correspondent reported an extraordinary superstition that took hold following the earthquake in Haiti. The survivors were living in tents and reported that their children started screaming because they saw werewolves sitting on the roofs of the tents.

The Grease Devil

In Sri Lanka, where the civil war resulted in terrible massacres and disappearances, newspapers recently reported the recurrence of an old belief. The Grease Devil. These were supposed to be bandits or murderers who covered themselves in grease when going out to commit their crimes so that, if cornered, they could not be captured because they would literally slip through the hands of their pursuers. Following the disruption and dislocation at the end of the civil war, newspapers documented several cases of ‘Grease Devils’.

Spring-heeled Jack

Sometimes, myth precedes reality preparing the ground for future horrors. From around the 1830s – 1880s, Britain became prey to stories of Spring-Heeled Jack. Jack’s appearance went through a number of changes, starting as a white bull and developing into a demonic figure that could leap over houses and was reported to rip at his victims’ clothes.

Ultimately, Spring-Heeled Jack was replaced by a real man, Jack the Ripper, whose attacks on women in the East End of London threw Victorian England into a state of near hysteria.

Witches and magic

Through the ages, witchcraft has touched on science, alchemy, medicine, religion, mediums and fraud.

Accusations of witchcraft have served a variety of purposes from straightforward religious persecution to the discrediting of rivals. It was an effective means of discrediting the powerful – particularly women – and a basis for blatant land-grabs.

King Henry V accused his stepmother, Joan of Navarre, of witchcraft in order to reclaim lands which his father had bestowed on her. Joan was eventually restored to favour (without her lands) and is buried next to her husband, Henry IV, in Canterbury Cathedral.

Henry V’s sister-in-law, Eleanor of Cobham was not so fortunate. Eleanor was a commoner married to Henry’s popular brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. A powerful and charismatic couple their wealth and influence was resented in many quarters.

Eleanor’s visits to astrologers were conveniently interpreted by her enemies as witchcraft. She was forced to do public penance, walking through the streets of London barefoot, wearing only her shift and carrying a lighted taper. She was forced to divorce Humphrey and incarcerated in a number of remote locations until her death.

For further information, see my blog: The Devil’s Advocate? Witches vs The Law.

Mythology and Fairy Tales

Old legends and tales can be a fertile source of inspiration. The writer Angela Carter said that she liked to put old wine into new bottles. Her re-working of traditional fairy-tales creates a dark and sinister environment.

Her book The Bloody Chamber puts a Gothic spin on stories with which we are well-acquainted. The introduction of the unfamiliar and unexpected into what we regard as safe and familiar creates an unsettling frisson. Suddenly, we are no longer sure of our surroundings. The literary landscape that the reader thought they knew suddenly becomes unfamiliar, menacing and distorted.

A blog by the British Library considers some of the influences on Angela Carter’s writing. These include Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade.

Magical Realism

I used magical realism as a sub-theme in my novel The Devil Dancers to explain some complex historical and religious subjects. By referring to a people’s beliefs and mythology, magical realism can provide an insight into their psychology.

In The Devil Dancers magical realism reflects the legends through which a particular ethnic group explained its own origins and justified its claim to power. Those beliefs led to civil war.

However, magical realism needs to be used with caution. In my view, it is appropriate for cultures which have a strong belief in the supernatural. However, it may not be appropriate for societies of a more secular, sceptical nature.

For further reading on this subject, see my blog: What Makes a Great Ghost Story? 10 Tips for a Rattling Good Read

To come: 10 Creepy Choices for a Rattling Good Read (+ 4 great films)

Posted in Angela Carter, Daniel Defoe, Eleanor of Cobham, Fiction, ghost stories, Grease Devils, Halloween, Henry IV, Henry V, History, Italy, Jack the Ripper, Law, Leeds Castle, Magic, Magical Realism, Myth, Plague, Plantagenets, Spring-Heeled Jack, Sri Lanka, The Devil Dancers, Travel, Vampires, Venice, Witches | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Raid on the Medway: an eyewitness account

Dutch Attack on the Medway by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest, painted c. 1667.

While most of us are familiar with stories of the Plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666), few are acquainted with the third catastrophe that hit England in 1667.

On 9 June, the Dutch fleet led by the renowned Admirable De Ruyter, launched audacious attacks on the Medway and the Thames that threatened to wipe out the royal fleet and bring London to its knees.

Having begun in 1665 with a number of English victories, the second Anglo-Dutch war between England and its trading rival Holland ended in a humiliating episode which the diarist John Evelyn described as “a dishonour never to be wiped off”.

Being both a courtier and a minor official, Evelyn was well-placed to observe the impact of the Dutch attack that summer. It is clear from his account, that the English were unprepared for the raids.

While Parliament had granted the Crown £2.5 million to prosecute the war in 1665, both the plague and the fire of London had had a devastating effect on resources. With much of the City’s financial sector destroyed by fire, it became impossible for the Crown to raise sufficient money to continue an effective campaign.

Due to this lack of funds, the fleet was laid up at Chatham providing a sitting target for the Dutch who fell upon it “by a most audacious enterprise … doing us not only disgrace but incredible mischief in burning several of our best Men of War, lying at anchor and moored there”.

Evelyn makes it clear that the British response was too little, too late. Despite the despatch of land forces, the fortification of Upnor castle, and the laying of chains and bombs across the Medway, the Dutch managed to break through “and set fire on our ships”.

He tells how he saw the smoking carcasses of the warships Royal Oake, James and London just outside Chatham and how “now when the mischief was done, we were making trifling forts on the brink of the river”.

But the raid on the Medway was only part of the Dutch attack. Evelyn describes how “triumphantly their [the Dutch] whole fleet, lay within the very mouth of the Thames, all from North-Foreland, Margate, even to the Buoy of the Noore”.

Evelyn describes it as: “A dreadful spectacle as ever an English men saw.” His intensity of emotion was probably sharpened by fear for his own possessions. Evelyn’s home, Sayes Court, was located near Deptford and a further incursion up the Thames could have proved disastrous. For this reason, Evelyn “sent away my best goods, plate etc from my house to another place”.

Both the county and the city were stricken with “a panic fear and consternation such as I hope I shall never see more: for everybody were flying, none [knew] why or whither”.

The Dutch blockade of the Thames also caused other problems. With this vital artery blocked, the city and surrounding area had begun to run out of fuel. The price of coal rose from 15s to 140s a ton. Evelyn, along with a number of other officials, was tasked by King Charles II to search for alternative sources of peat or turf.

As part of this project, Evelyn – a founder member of the Royal Society – was invited to explain his recipe for a new type of fuel made from charcoal dust and loam. Although Evelyn claimed that the fuel burned “without smoke or ill smell”, it does not appear to have been put to use on this occasion.

While the raid on the Medway was effectively over by 14 June, the blockade of London continued into July. Finally, at the end of the month, the war was brought to an end by the Treaty of Breda.

According to Evelyn: “Now did his Majesty again dine in the Presence, in ancient State, with music and all the court ceremonies, which had been interrupted since the late war.”

Evelyn was ordered to free the prisoners of war in his charge who had been held at Leeds castle. With obvious relief, he records “peace being now proclaimed according to usual form by the Heralds at Arms”.

However, the humiliation suffered by the English did not end there.

As if the burning of the ships in the Medway was not enough, the warship Royal Charles had been captured and taken back to Holland where it was exhibited in Amsterdam as a trophy of war. For the price of a few guilders, members of the public were able to climb aboard and explore. It was an insult that added to the injury already inflicted on the British fleet.

Stern section of The Royal Charles in the Rijksmuseum

Featuring the royal coat-of-arms supported by a lion and a unicorn, the stern section of the Royal Charles can still be seen in the Rijksmuseum.

Of the hat-trick of historical disasters that afflicted England in the mid-17th century, the Dutch raid on the Medway is – not surprisingly – the least well-known. While the first two were Acts of God, the last was man-made and largely self-inflicted.

According to Evelyn’s succinct summary: “All this through the unaccountable negligence of our delay in setting out our fleet in due time.”

Further reading:

The Diary of John Evelyn published by Everyman’s Library

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Click here for The Historic Dockyard Chatham


Click here for 10 days of events celebrating the 350th anniversary of the raid

Posted in Charles II, History, John Evelyn, Kent, Medway, Raid on the Medway, Thames, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inspiration and Writers’ Block: Fact or Fallacy?

Some hints from the gurus

Some hints from the gurus

The tags ‘inspiration’ and ‘writers’ block’ strike terror into the hearts of writers. However, it is possible to debunk these myths with a little common sense.

It is a fallacy that you sit around waiting for inspiration. If we all did that, no-one would write anything.

The other toxic path to literary paralysis is ‘Writers’ block’.

But just ask yourself a couple of questions:

Do journalists skip deadlines because they have ‘writers’ block’ or lack inspiration?

Have you ever heard of ‘painters’ block’?

The answer to both is a resounding “No!”

In both cases, what we are really talking about is discipline – or a lack of it.

In order to write, you must make time to sit down in front of your PC and produce something. No matter what, no matter how foggy your brain feels (and mine is often filled with cold porridge). Just make the time and you will be surprised at the results.

If musicians or dancers do not practice regularly, their skills become rusty. The same is true of any artist, including writers. We are no different to anyone else.

You may have no idea of what you are going to write before you start but the very act of writing – whatever it is – will unlock ideas. Themes will develop and new characters will step out of the page. Just give them the chance.

Do not be afraid of the blank page. Fear of this is what many people wrongly describe as ‘writers’ block’. Artists sometimes have the same experience when confronted with a blank canvas. They deal with this by covering a fresh canvas with a wash of colour. Writers can do the same with a free-writing exercise. How does this work?

Here are some tips:

  1. Jot down some ideas. It doesn’t matter what. Just play around on the page. This is not meant to be the finished article. You may even reject it later, but writing something down on the page will rid you of that ‘blank canvas’ feeling.
  2. I find that it helps to use a different font and always write my drafts in italics. Because it looks less formal, it helps me to relax when I am writing. A voice in my head says: “Don’t worry. It’s just a draft. You can come back and edit it later.”
  3. Finish the first draft and leave it for several days or weeks before you begin to edit. It will be much easier to spot mistakes and discrepancies when it has gone cold.
  4. Develop your editing skills. Editing is a crucial and much underestimated part of the writer’s art. It is what makes sense of your ideas, however chaotic they may be in early drafts. Like artists who paint over a section of canvas that they don’t like, you can edit any text that does not work. As writers we have a unique privilege, we can edit as many times as we like. No book is complete at first draft stage. It can take many drafts – at least ten – before you have anything that resembles the finished article.
  5. Forget the big ideas. Start small. Keep a notebook and jot down events, places or conversations that strike you as interesting. You may not have the idea for a novel, but you may have a scene or short story.
  6. Stay fresh. Experiment with another genre. Write a short story, poem or article.
  7. Hone your powers of observation and keep your eyes, ears and mind switched on.

Edna O’Brien described writers as being constantly ‘open’ to what is going on around them. In one case, she used an observation made by her son as the starting point for one of her stories.

Your mission is to cultivate that quality of openness and the discipline that gets you to sit down in front of the PC even when you don’t feel like it.

And please, please forget the myths of ‘inspiration’ and ‘writers’ block’. They are just convenient excuses for avoiding the hard slog.

Posted in Editing, Fiction, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Makes a Great Ghost Story? 10 Tips for a Rattling Good Read

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Introducing the story: Ghost stories often begin as a fireside entertainment, usually in winter at Christmas or New Year. The narrator is sometimes reluctant to tell his/her story because it is not mere light-hearted entertainment, but the account of a gruesome or disturbing event that would be best forgotten. (Cambridge don and celebrated writer of ghost stories M.R. James wrote his first spine-chilling tales as part of a Christmas entertainment for his friends).

First person narrative: This is a good way for the storyteller to carry the reader with her/him. This is a common device used by many authors. The narrator does not have to communicate directly with the audience. Sometimes their story may consist of a written account set down some years previously and ‘discovered’ by a second narrator who feeds the story to the audience.

Atmosphere: Good examples are the period settings provided by Susan Hill in The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror. In most novels, you need to keep descriptive passages to a minimum or you lose the reader. However, with ghost stories you can let your imagination off the leash. Descriptive scene-setting is used to create atmosphere and build tension. Locations often consist of derelict houses or buildings in remote locations such as islands, moors or woods where the protagonist is cut off from help and humanity.

Unfamiliar surroundings: The sense of psychological disturbance is often created by the protagonist finding her/himself isolated in unfamiliar surroundings. For instance, the governess in The Turn of the Screw takes up a new post; James Monmouth in The Mist in The Mirror returns to Britain from many years abroad; Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black travels to an unfamiliar part of the country to perform an official duty.

Warnings of disaster: These can be conveyed by other characters or by signs communicated to the narrator/protagonist. However, they should not reveal the full story, but merely create a sense of deep unease about a certain subject – a place or person. Instead of protecting the story’s protagonist, such warnings create a tantalising hook, increasing the protagonist’s curiosity to a point where he/she is determined to discover the truth despite all warnings of danger.

Mystery: This drives the plot and is often linked to the warnings/signs of disaster mentioned above. It may consist of unexplained remarks, strange happenings or sightings.

Pathos: This is a frequent element in ghost stories which engages the reader’s emotions. Look for the character that compels compassion and draws the reader into the story. Despite his initial unpleasantness, Scrooge captivates the reader and wins their sympathy. In The Woman in Black, the narrator is drawn in by his sympathy for the mysterious woman.

A distorted sense of reality: Is there really a ghost or are the terrifying events simply a manifestation of a disturbed mind? The best ghost stories have a strong psychological element and some may leave the reader wondering whether the strange happenings really took place or were a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Sensation: The sign of a good ghost story is the thrill or spine-tingling effect. The reader must experience a heightened state of anxiety and fear, experiencing the events through the eyes of the protagonist or characters in the story. A lingering sense of uncertainty about the facts or the ending itself helps to heighten the effect.

Length: Long enough to provide a meaty read but something you can finish in one sitting (preferably in front of a roaring fire with the curtains closed). This helps to maintain the tension.

Note: Further blogs related to writing the supernatural, sinister and unexpected will follow shortly.

Posted in Books, Charles Dickens, ghost stories, Halloween, Henry James, M.R. James, Susan Hill, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Leeds Castle: the tragic romance of a medieval duchess

Leeds Castle where Duchess Eleanor was imprisoned

Leeds Castle where Duchess Eleanor was imprisoned

Leeds Castle has been linked with a number of royal love-affairs, most notably that of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. But there is another tale – less well-known, but equally poignant.

The marriage of Henry V’s brother, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and his wife, Eleanor of Cobham was a love-match doomed to failure. Their story features as a secondary theme in the recent Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare’s historical plays and is worthy of a plot-line in Game of Thrones.

Eleanor of Cobham was born at Sterborough Castle, near Lingfield c. 1400. The daughter of a knight, she was of respectable, but lowly, birth. Described as beautiful, intelligent and ambitious, Eleanor caught the eye of Duke Humphrey when she joined the entourage of his wife. She became Humphrey’s mistress, then his wife, after his first marriage was annulled. From humble origins, Eleanor had ascended into the social stratosphere.

Duke Humphrey was the younger brother of warrior-king, Henry V, who died unexpectedly leaving an infant son (later Henry VI). Humphrey lost no time in assuming the mantle of regent with all its attendant powers. With Eleanor, he established his own, splendid court and was a patron of the arts. He also enriched himself and his followers with royal lands which, if he died first, would revert, not to the Crown, but to Eleanor. Moreover, if the child-king died, Humphrey would succeed to the throne and Eleanor would be his queen.

The long regency proved fatal to the stability of England. Court and country were torn apart by aristocratic in-fighting as noble families jostled for power. Humphrey headed a group that wished to pursue war with France; but he was opposed by an equally powerful faction which favoured peace. As the young king approached adulthood, Humphrey’s hold on power became more tenuous. Eleanor – the woman he had married for love – was his Achilles heel.

Possibly driven by her husband’s growing insecurity, Eleanor consulted two astrologers, requiring them to draw up a horoscope for the youthful king with a view to predicting her own fortunes. Unfortunately, the astrologers predicted that the king would soon fall seriously ill. Rumours began to spread until finally, they reached the court. The astrologers were arrested and charged with necromancy and heresy. The instruments of their trade were “openly showed to all men at the Cross” in St Paul’s churchyard upon a purpose-built scaffold along with one of the accused, Roger Bolingbroke.

Terrified, Eleanor sought sanctuary at Westminster before fleeing to the castle at Lesnes, near Erith. When questioned, Bolingbroke named Eleanor as the instigator of a treasonous plot. Her innocent pursuit of a horoscope was swiftly translated into a conspiracy to poison the king and she was incarcerated at Leeds Castle.

Her terror can only be imagined as, friendless and alone, stripped of power and deprived of the companionship of her husband, she awaited trial. Potentially, necromancy, heresy or treason meant execution – and some methods were even more terrible than others. Just 40 years previously, a new statute had introduced death at the stake for heretics.

At trial, Eleanor protested her innocence. While admitting that she had procured various potions from Margery Jourdemayne (the witch of Eye), she insisted that these were only to help her conceive a child. Yet she was unable to save her associates. Margery was burned at Smithfield; Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn and Eleanor’s chaplain, one of the two astrologers, “died in the Tower for sorrow”.

While Eleanor escaped with her life, her enemies were bent on revenge. She was forcibly divorced from Humphrey and made to do public penance, walking bare-footed and carrying a lighted taper through London to pray at various churches. She was then condemned to life-long imprisonment, being moved around the country from one remote gaol to another until she died, lonely and forgotten, eleven years later.

As for Humphrey, although a loyal servant of the Crown, he was charged with treason. He died while awaiting trial, probably from a stroke although many, including Shakespeare, believed his death to have been due to more sinister forces; a murder arranged by his political enemies.

Click here for my previous blog ‘The Devil’s Advocate? Witches vs The Law’ for more on Eleanor and Queen Joan of  Navarre who was also accused of witchcraft.

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Posted in Castles, Eleanor of Cobham, Henry V, Henry VI, History, Kent, Leeds Castle, Plantagenets, Shakespeare, Wars of the Roses, Witches | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Publishing: what I learned from the gurus

Some hints from the gurus

Some hints from the gurus

Self-publishing has come of age. According to one respected academic, it is now just another arm of the publishing industry.

This is one of the inspiring messages that I brought away from the recent Matador self-publishing conference.

In this third blog on the subject, I thought it would be of interest to list some of the comments and tips from two experts whose lectures I attended.

Professor Alison Baverstock of Kingston University, the academic referred to above, has a background in the traditional publishing industry and has taught and written about the subject for many years. Her research reveals some fascinating facts which challenge many of the old preconceptions about self-publishing.

One such is that self-publishing is for sub-standard, uneducated writers.

However, Professor Baverstock’s research debunks this supposition. She revealed that 32% of self-publishers interviewed by her had a degree while 44% had a higher degree. (See her blog for the Guardian for more on this subject)

The results of her survey also show that 65% of self-publishers are female.

While this is encouraging, I suspect that the high preponderance of female self-publishers may also highlight a darker side to the publishing industry: that is, a distinct gender-bias. This continuing inequality in the traditional literary and publishing industry is the topic of frequent research by the American-based organisation, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts

My suspicion is, that finding themselves largely excluded from a traditional publishing industry which seems to focus heavily on crime-writing and romantic fiction (traditional genres for female writers), many women with original ideas are turning to self-publishing.

The advantage of this is that female authors such as Kit Berry have begun to invent their own genres. Once successful, they have a route into traditional publishing houses and, because of their strong commercial position, are more likely to be able to dictate the terms of their contracts.

Helen Lewis, Director, Literally PR discussed the secrets of running a successful book launch. This is a tiger-trap for many debut authors (including me!) who are so keen to get their first book published that they forget to plan any form of advance PR. It’s simple, really. If you don’t tell anyone your book is out there, how will they find it?

Firstly, consider whether you really need a book launch. Launches cost money and this could be spent more usefully on a publicity campaign

Calculate the total cost. Factor in items such as: the cost of a venue, building your guest list, food and drink, goody bags, décor and entertainment.

If you decide on a book launch, set a date and allow at least 5 months to organise it. Work on your mailing lists and social media to create a buzz. Give journalist invitees 3 – 6 months advance notice of the launch.

Consider filming your launch (and the preparations for it) and posting clips on YouTube.

And for all those authors (most of us, I think) who get hung up about the subject of bookshop signings, here’s a pearl of wisdom. Don’t bother. Bookshops are not expert at creating publicity and the press are unlikely to attend.

Phew! That’s one less thing to worry about.

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Posted in Books, conferences, publishing, self-publishing, women self-publishers, women writers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Publishing: 7 ways to get the most from a conference

Write up conference notes asap!

Write up conference notes asap!

Having recently attended Matador’s conference on self-publishing, I thought it would be useful to jot down a list of essentials to help you to get the most from a conference whatever the topic.

Prep your questions in advance. Why are you going? What do you want to learn? Which lectures would help you most? Try to identify the gaps in your knowledge.

Take lots of writing materials. You always need more. Write up notes asap. It will be fresh in your mind so you should still be able to decipher illegible text.

Remember your business cards. You will get through a stack of these at an event. If you haven’t got them, then get some quick. You will regret it if you don’t. Always remember to get other people’s cards. They can provide a valuable follow-up.

Make friends. You can learn a lot from speaking to other people. At the self-publishing conference, I met a couple who had started their own self-publishing business, a lady who was ghost-writing the story of a disabled celebrity and a fisherman who was planning to crowd-fund his book. Most pertinent to my interests was a former Reuter’s correspondent who had worked in Ceylon in 1956, the year that provided a turbulent setting for my historical novel The Devil Dancers.

Share concepts without giving away unique information. A lady behind me in the lunch queue was describing the intricacies of her novel’s plot to a complete stranger (and anyone else within earshot). A very bad idea. Most people are honest but, as a young and inexperienced freelance journalist, I had a raft of ideas stolen by a national magazine. It was extremely galling to see my story ideas being written by staff writers without a penny paid to me. There is no copyright in ideas so your only recourse is to rant to thin air.

Keep an open mind. Even if you think you know a subject inside out, there is always something new to learn. Try to let go of prejudices. Things are done very differently in this media-savvy age. While it may be galling for a vlogger who can hardly string a sentence together to be offered a book deal, it’s because he/she has a large following. Don’t get sniffy. Get down with the kids and follow their example. Traditional publishers are no longer able to give long-term nurturing to the next generation of great writers. They can’t afford to. Margins are too tight. What counts now is the bottom line. If you can show commercial nous – and a healthy media following – you have a better chance of both getting your work accepted and selling it once it is published.

Ask for advice. Don’t be shy. No question is silly. You’re here to learn. Speak up and you will find that there are lots of other people wrestling with similar problems.

Next: Self-publishing: What I learned from the gurus

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Posted in book festivals, Books, Ceylon, conferences, Copyright, Fiction, History, publishing, self-publishing, The Devil Dancers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment