Babbitt, Het, history,, new books, ponderations, present, Russell, writing

Scenting Blood…. what does historical fiction smell like?

I should like you to imagine, gentle reader, a soft, late April dusk. The darkening sky is a lightless violet, and in the apple tree at the end of the little walled kitchen-garden a blackbird is singing as if the heavens are falling.

So far, so the view from Het Babbitt’s parlour window. (Give or take the smoke-blue cat stalking through the long grass with an eye to the blackbird. Mathurin, regrettably, is a very real cat with a very real habit of slaughtering the wildlife.)

Imagine the smell of woodsmoke on the air. Imagine, if you can, that faint tang of incense that means that someone’s burning apple logs. The sweet, thin, heady slightly-almond fragrance of the last wallflowers, in a blaze of brick red and yellow against the garden wall. The smell of clean air, and damp earth.

I like to think I write three-dimensional fiction. It’s a matter of record that Hollie Babbitt is a ragged at the edges, slightly over six foot, underfed-looking individual with a prominent nose and rather too much reddy-brown hair. I know what he looks like. (Remarkably fine eyes. An aside. Het quite agrees.) but that’s not really enough. If you’re to think of my Rosie as a real, thinking, feeling, breathing man who was alive in 1642 – more than a vehicle to drive a plot along – then there’s got to be more.

Try a little experiment for me. Close your eyes, and put your face to the crook of your elbow. What can you smell? What does it feel like? You smell of soap, in all probability – soap, or washing powder. Hollie – and even the fastidious Russell – would smell of neither. Depending if he was at home, in which case Mistress B would have him changing his personal linen with zealous regularity and his shirt would likely smell of lavender, or of the sweet sachets with which she’d be hoping to disguise the smell of horse keep the moths out. Of fresh air, and air-dried laundry, and a little of the rosemary bushes Mistress B spreads her washing in to dry.
And, yes, let’s not lie about it, Hollie is going to smell a little bit of sweaty male, because he’s a guy in 1640s England who probably has a strip-wash first thing in the morning with cold water and that’s him done for the day, thank you, till bedtime, no matter how hard he happens to be working during the day.
– Nat Rackhay of blessed memory was a man for oil of civet as a substitute for soap and water, and he did smell like a cheap bordello.

(Russell, if you’re curious, is almost obsessive about changing his linen – but then you may have come across his sister in the books. Cleanliness being next to godliness, which is it’s a hard habit to break. So. Anyway. Russell smells of something like lye-soap, and sunshine. Luce? Clean, uncomplicated, slightly sweaty healthy young man, who will occasionally dab a bit of rosewater behind his ears on special occasions but feels very degenerate when he does it.)

Smell is a much underrated trigger to imagination, I find. Rackhay’s horrible greasy musk fragrance as a substitute for washing – tells you all you need to know about Nat Rackhay, doesn’t it? Poseur. Fur coat, as his best mate might grumpily put it, and no drawers. Somewhat vain, and very lazy.
Luce’s mother’s house at Witham, that smells of baking bread and pot-pourri and beeswax and faintly of river-damp – is a home, where a family live.

The smell of the back room of a charity shop is one of the most forlorn odours in the world: of old dreams, and cast-off hope, and airlessness. A stifled, hopeless smell.
The belly fur of a sunbathing cat, on the other hand, smells of sunlight.
I used to sniff my late fiance’s hair sometimes, when he came in from work. “What do I smell of?” he’d say. and, “Thoughts,” I’d tell him.

The smell of frying onions and cheap sausages is eau de fairground.
Woodsmoke is the smell of camping, to me – woodsmoke and wet canvas and black powder, but then I am a re-enactor.
Someone used to say to me that my old leather jacket smelt of cheese on toast and patchouli oil – which actually, I deny, most fervently, but she reckoned it smelt of me

Smells trigger memories. I can’t smell Je Reviens without thinking of the inside of my mum’s handbag, and how when I was little that was the most fascinating and exotic place I could imagine, full of grown-up secrets and surprises. Roasting lamb smells of Sundays, when my nan used to roast a joint in her freestanding gas cooker.

Anyone can describe an appearance. But if you go that bit further – what does it smell like? taste like? – you’re tapping into something richer, and more memorable, and more real.

Immerse yourself in what you’re writing about. Live in it, cook with it, wash in it. And then revel in it.


Kersen – the Early Years free to download

Kersen – free short story

To celebrate the release of A Wilderness of Sin, the Uncivil Wars prequel Kersen is available for free download until April 30.

And yes, the Thirty Years War will be next, when I run out of English Civil War. I think Nat Rackhay has rather too high an opinion of himself for anything so banal as death to put a cork in it!

(And as for the Amazon… Well, she has unfinished business with that lad, doesn’t she?)

free stories,, new books, ponderations, present, writing

Writing. Responsibility. Ramblings.

Someone sent me a review of Wilderness earlier on and I am still pondering this one. Lots of bits in my head but heck, if you read my meandering regularly you’ll know all about that.

My late father was a jazz musician in the Swinging Sixties, playing the club scene. My mum has always told me the story of how they first met – you have to imagine, Michael Caine with a tenor sax and the incredibly glamorous, slender, black-haired dolly-bird in matching mini-skirt and knickers, in a smoky dive where you had to buy chips to stay after pub closing time because that made it not a pub and therefore not subject to the same opening hours legislation. Anyway. I am responsible, he told her, very seriously. I am responsible for making all these people happy.

And I think in that respect I am my father’s daughter (although I look nothing like Michael Caine). I read the review, which was a wonderful piece of writing in its own right, and I was very flattered and I sat about looking smug and the cats looked at me oddly and then I thought – yes, and that’s going to go Out There. People will read that and think, that’s an author who can write, who can entertain me, who can maybe teach me a bit about history, who can make me feel like I’m there. And actually, that’s a hell of a responsibility.

On the one hand – there will be more hands going on than Kali here – I’ve got Rosie Babbitt muttering darkly that he’s bloody sick of being called a Crophead, with his hair halfway down to his backside, and how come people don’t know that half of it’s cobblers – there was no more poets in the King’s Army than there was in Parliament’s, and even Cromwell’s fearsome Ironsides were just lads doing a job, wanting to get home, wanting to get paid. And Russell with his head up, quivering like a greyhound, passionately declaring for freedom of thought and conscience, and the poorest he that is in England having the same right to a voice as the richest. And Het in the background, carefully piecing them all back together, having the same problems as wives and mothers through the ages: trying to keep a safe, secure roof over her family’s head, bringing up her children right, trying to make a pound stretch till payday.

So there’s that lot, the fictional lot, wanting me to tell it like it was, to make the lived experience of ordinary men and women in the 1640s real to you guys. On both sides, King and Parliament. Not people in books who talk in thees and thous, but people like me and you, who loved and hated and felt just like we do. Had favourite foods, got cold, worried about the state of their linen. And, you know, I hope I do a sort of okay job there. Someone told me once they could imagine bumping into Rosie Babbitt out shopping, to which I could only think God help them both, then, for I’d not imagine he’d be good at queuing.

And then on the other hand there’s the real lot. The people (who will remain nameless) whose good opinion matters to such an extent that the Babbitt-boy keeps the cursing down to a dull roar unless under extreme provocation. Who expect good writing, and a bit of adventure and a bit of sweariness and a bit of romance and a bit of intrigue, and who’d be disappointed if they got less. Who are proud to say they know me as a friend as well as an author.

So. Well. It’s hard work,.then.


Doing something wrong….. surely?

It’s all right, I’m not going to promote this post

– but seriously…. what??

You know like when you write and you idly peruse your Amazon ranking, thinking, ooo, check me out, aren’t I summat like, and you come across –

Gay werewolf Highlander porn.

What am I doing wrong? How come I’m not writing gay werewolf Highlander porn, which must be an absolute laugh riot to write, let alone read?

“Show me your claymore, MacDubh!”

Instead of thrashing about in the mud with Rosie Babbitt, whose definition of nakedness is leaving his sword on the table.

Going to keep me up all night, that is. Gay werewolf Highlander porn. And I thought keeping your bloody buffcoat and boots on was kinky.

Standard, humour, new books, present, writing

A Confession – Happy Happy Joy Joy

Probably, some time over the weekend, I am going to pull the paperback copies of all three books from my storefront temporarily.

No, I’ve not retired. Not given up, not run out of Babbitt stories, because when I’ve done the Civil Wars in England, the russet-haired ruffian spent the better part of twenty years kicking around in Europe raising hell with Nat Rackhay, and since he came out of it with one sergeant, one best mate, a wife, and a maladjusted horse, that’s quite a lot of story.

Anyway, when I run out of Babbitt stories I’ll be about a hundred and three, and then there’s a degree of insistence from certain people to know what’s going to become of Thankful Russell, so he’s next up.

– an aside, at this point. Hapless is not a brooding romantic hero.Seriously. Don’t worry about him. He’s having a rough time occasionally, but he’s not going to turn into Ross Poldark. He’s twenty-one. Most things can be cured by the generous application of cake. I would not leave Russell alone and cake-less, okay?

Oh and then there’s Drew Venning, the world’s least likely romantic hero, but there he is.

Anyway. That lot are okay.

It’s like this. The National Civil War Centre have had a copy of my books for review, and they like them, I think they liked them quite a lot. So the Babbitt-boy and his rebel rabble are now officially endorsed by the Civil War Centre. (They said that. In words. Well, they didn’t call them a rebel rabble, but – meh.) They liked the content, they liked the cover art, they thought the template enforced by Amazon sucked the big one and they couldn’t market them alongside mainstream published novels in the current format.

Um, just go back and read that again. They couldn’t market them alongside mainstream published novels in the current format. 

No, I didn’t believe it either, so I asked the Commercial Services Manager to repeat it for clarity’s sake, and yes, he is happy to take the Babbitt books. My Rosie, and Luce, and Hapless, and Tinners-the-dog and Drew Venning, all glowering across the shop at the likes of Bernard Cornwell and Michael Arnold. Bestselling proper authors, who make a living out of it, not mad cake ladies in possession of a cavalry backsword. I d’reckon we know what Rosie Babbitt would say and it would start with “Eff” and end with, “Me.”

But, he needs them to look more like professionally published books and less like some bint with a laptop knocked ’em up in the back room.

And so the bint with the laptop is talking to people. And is talking to a publisher who actually likes the covers. And a very helpful friend in the business who is talking to their manager about borrowing Babbitt, or rather borrowing Mistress B, for a day or so to corrupt young innocents buying decent sensible military books into reading ungodly fiction, probably with lewd promises of cake.

So. There you go. Still astonished. Still inclined to say “Bloody hell!” in a strong Lancashire accent, but –

See that bint with the laptop? Thass a proper writer, that is.

history,, new books, ponderations, present, writing

"STOLEN" by Sheila Dalton – a review; Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

 “Stolen” by Sheila Dalton

I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to review this book recently. Well. What can I say?

I started to read this and I thought it was serendipity.
I’m a West Country 17th-century historian. The book begins in 17th century Devon, where young Lizbet, a fisherman’s daughter, is sent on an errand by her mother. It’s set in places I know, and clearly, so does Sheila Dalton, because I recognise them from her writing!
While she is away pirates raid the village and capture or murder all the inhabitants, and there begin Lizbet’s adventures, as she tries to pursue the pirates and free her beloved parents.
At first, in the early part of the book, when Lizbet is held willing captive by an enigmatic French privateer, I thought that the book was going to take a traditional romantic turn – lush erotic fiction reminding me of a less graphic version of Anne Rice’s “Beauty” series.
And then I was surprised.
And after that, when Lizbet achieves her goals, I expected the book to take another turn, that of the fierce woman-pirate, holding her own in a man’s world, fighting for her independence and taking on all comers.
And then I was surprised again.
I expected Lizbet to fall in love with her ungentlemanly pirate, and – maybe she does, and maybe she doesn’t, but it’s not glorious technicolour high-seas swashbuckling heroic fantasy, and Gentleman Jake is no Errol Flynn.
I don’t envy the author trying to categorise this book, because it’s so complex and multi-layered: it’s not a romance, it’s not an adventure, it’s not a book about coming of age, but it’s something of all three and much more than the sum of its parts. The characters are so well-drawn and rounded that it’s impossible not to sympathise with characters even that you don’t necessarily like – or agree with – for instance Gentleman Jake’s defence of slavery is shocking to our modern sensibilities, but it’s so cogently argued that it’s impossible not to see a sympathetic logic to what he says. You might not agree with it, but he’s no leering caricature slave trader. Likewise, the controlling privateer Jean, who teaches Lizbet her first lessons in love, has the potential to be a deeply sinister and disturbing character, and instead is darkly alluring – but he’s not her hero. I think it’s a measure of the author’s skill that she has created a believable, fantastically detailed world peopled with characters so three-dimensional that they are able to say and do things that we as contemporary readers find disturbing, whilst remaining sympathetic. (Murder. Piracy. Slavery. That kind of thing. When I say pirates, we are not talking cuddly Jack Sparrow piracy here. We are talking grim, realistic, bloody vicious piracy, with no quarter given.)
It’s a world where heady romance and brutal realism rub shoulders, where men are definitely men, and women are equally expected to stand on their own two feet. It’s a very real and convincing world, where the author’s research is seamlessly incorporated into fiction, so convincing that you can almost taste sea-salt on board the ship and feel the blisters on your palms.
I loved it, and I cried at the end, because the thing that happens is almost what you want to happen and yet it’s not quite all of it. It’s got proper, awkward loving in it between real, awkward people – this is important to me, as a long-time loather of romances where only beautiful people find happiness – and yet it’s also got proper, awkward friendships between people who are afraid to be friends, and proper, developing relationships. The heroine who begins the adventure is a different woman to the one who ends it; she’s stronger, more self-reliant, yet at the same time she is not wholly triumphant. She has found serenity, but at a cost.

If you like Diana Norman, or Diana Gabaldon, or any other authors where the heroines are strong, stubborn, human, but ultimately realistic – you’ll love this book.