Historical Fiction & Meaning with Glen Craney

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I’d like to welcome Glen Craney to Layered Pages to talk with me about Historical Fiction & Meaning. Glen is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, journalist, and lawyer. The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences has honored him with the Nicholl Fellowship prize for best new screenwriting. He is also a two-time indieBRAG Medallion Honoree and has three times been named a Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Award Finalist. His debut novel, The Fire and the Light, was recognized as Best New Fiction by the National Indie Excellence Awards and as an Honorable Mention winner for Foreword’s BOTYA in historical fiction. His novels have taken readers to Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade, to the Scotland of Robert Bruce, to Portugal during the Age of Discovery, to the trenches of France during World War I, and to the American Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. He lives in southern California.

What are the periods of history focused on for your writing?

I’m an outlier, I guess. Most historical novelists tend to specialize, which makes sense for developing expertise and brand marketing. But I’ve always been drawn to a good story first, regardless of period. I blame my background in journalism. When I covered national politics with the Washington press corps, I chafed at being stuck on one beat. Because of this ranging curiosity, I’ve set novels in eras and places as varied as 13th-century Occitania, 14th-century Scotland, 15th-century Portugal, World War I, and the Great Depression in the United States. My current work-in-progress is an American Civil War story.

Why Historical Fiction?

I’ve always loved history. I had my imagination fired as a boy when a great uncle took me to the Kentucky battlefield where his father, a Union captain, had fought. Yet I never dreamed I’d one day be writing historical fiction. In college, a history professor suggested I become a medievalist. I laughed and thought the idea was absurd. But I’ve circled around from stints as a lawyer, a journalist, and a screenwriter. I’m partial to historical mysteries and uncertainties, and I’ve always had a soft spot for those whose voices have been suppressed or forgotten. Historical fiction gives one the freedom to fill in gaps and explore new explanations and theories.

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When did you know you wanted be a HF writer?

I had a flirtation with the movie business after winning the Nicholl Fellowship, an award given by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences. I’m often told my novels have a cinematic quality; maybe that’s because I first learned the craft of screenwriting. I soon discovered two hard truths about Hollywood: 1) It’s difficult to get any movie produced, but particularly an intelligent, sophisticated one that stays true to historical events; and 2) the original writer’s vision inevitably gets lost in the shuffle of multiple writers and studio demands for taking dramatic license. So, I decided to write the historical stories dearest to me as books. Then, if the filmmakers come calling, I’ll always have my version preserved.

How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?

I’ve spent months, even years, on research for each novel. It’s the part of the process I enjoy most, making discoveries and watching the puzzle take form. I try to travel to the places I write about, too, often more than once. Walking battlefields and climbing castles feeds the subconscious and yields unexpected insights. I also like to muck around in the archives. Primary sources for medieval novels can be challenging, but for my novels set during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, letters and files left by my characters have offered up a trove of nicknames, personality quirks, and motivations.

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What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?

Former GOP congresswoman Michele Bauchmann once said she went into politics after becoming enraged by Gore Vidal’s irreverent imagining of American icons such as Jefferson and Lincoln. Vidal must have welcomed Bauchmann’s umbrage with a wry grin. In my opinion, there can be no higher calling for an historical novelist than to rattle the cages of the powerful and expose history’s encrusted myths and hagiographies.

Before I decide to tackle a subject, I apply a three-pronged test: 1) Is it a great story? 2) Will it reveal or develop some new aspect about the period or person? and 3) Will it deal with issues relevant today? If you can satisfy two of the three conditions, you have a novel worth writing. If you find all three present, you’ll have a chance for one of those rare books that stands the test of time.

Who are your influences?

Because I’m always researching leads and possible projects, I read more nonfiction than fiction. Some of my favorite authors include William Manchester, Robert Caro, and David McCullough. On the fiction side, you can’t go wrong with Nigel Tranter or Sharon Kay Penman. Probably my earliest influence was the Classics Illustrated collection of comic books. My mother, a high school English teacher, would bring them home, and I would devour them. They were fantastic for introducing kids to the great works of literature.

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 How much fiction (in your opinion) is best to blend with historical facts?

History itself is a fiction. If you don’t believe me, read historian Thomas DesJardin’s marvelous book, These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory. By retracing the hours and days immediately after Pickett’s Charge, Desjardin demonstrated that much of the battle’s lore in fact never happened. Eyewitness accounts were found unreliable and twisted by hearsay, to such an extent that many Union and Confederate veterans went to their graves years believing they had participated in events that never occurred. Desjardin’s book should be required reading for historical novelists.

My favorite maxim was set by Tim O’Brien, who wrote novels about the Vietnam War: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” If you can offer a plausible alternative to the traditional historical narrative, simply alert the reader to the variances in your author’s note and justify your reasons for adopting them. That’s why it’s called historical fiction.

How do you feel the genre has progressed in the last ten years?

The indie publishing boom has breathed new life into the genre. Traditional publishers usually chase the latest fad, making it difficult for authors writing in less popular periods or with unique styles to break past the gatekeepers. Now we authors can get our books directly to readers while maintaining control over our content and cover design. It’s a golden age for those eager to take charge of their careers. And wonderful organizations like indieBRAG have done the angels’ work by putting a spotlight on the many superb indie authors out there. I do wish more Americans took historical fiction as seriously as the Brits do. I’m envious when I see how valued and esteemed historical novelists are held in the UK.

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What are the important steps in writing HF?

Don’t write a story unless you have a passion for it. Champion your characters with the zeal of a trial lawyer pleading their cases before a jury. Learn the mythic structures of the classics–start by reading Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell–and develop the second sight of a sculptor who perceives the outline of his finished masterpiece in the unhewn block. Accuse history’s victors and comfort its losers. And never forget Shakespeare’s admonition: “It is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in’t.”

What must you not do writing in this genre?

Two sins I see committed most often: Jarring point-of-view shifts and information dumping, especially in dialogue. After you’ve done so much research, you want to demonstrate your acquired knowledge about the subject. But you must avoid that temptation, and instead apply time-tested techniques for weaving backstory into the action. Informing the reader of historical context should be like slowly boiling a live chicken; turn the temperature up degree by degree, and by dinnertime, the bird is on the plate without a squawk. No one wants to endure a lecture.

When writing, do you use visuals to give you inspiration? Such as historical pictures of people, castles, towns and such? What about historical objects?

 I don’t collect pictures, but I do gather maps to orient myself to place and distances. And I find it helpful to play music evocative of the period while writing. I used Loreena McKennitt’s songs for my Scotland novel, troubadour music for my Cathar novel, and blues/jazz for my Depression-era novel.

Thank you, Glen!


Author Margaret Porter’s Five Top Reads

During the past 6 months I was on a reading binge. Partly because I was travelling for pleasure and book promotion. Also because I’ve been in a heavy research phase for a novel, and sought out a variety of books for pleasure and entertainment. My choices are not in ranked order of preference.

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

So many close personal friends were telling me, “You have to read this book! You will love it! This book reminded me of you!” I have had some less than wonderful experiences with recommendations. As a very selective reader (aren’t we all?), I’m never quite sure whether to trust other people’s impressions of what I would like. I was on book tour shortly after this nonfiction memoir was released, and I saw it prominently displayed in the stores where I was signing my novel Several times I heard Helen MacDonald interviewed on radio, and was intrigued by her story of training and bonding with a goshawk while in the throes of grief at her father’s death. I’m bird watcher and photographer, we have resident raptors, I’ve explored falconry for book research and in real life, I’ve witnessed falconers at work in England.

I therefore had very high expectations for this book by the Cambridge scholar and hawking enthusiast. Her writing is lyrical and at times brutally—but always beautifully—descriptive. Exploring the nature of grief, a universal and yet a unique experience, is never easy. The little murders perpetrated by a raptor make for difficult reading. But MacDonald’s devotion to her hawk Mabel, the demands of the training, and the healing capacity of their bond, are magnificently depicted.

She weaves in the experiences of reclusive author T.H. White (famous for his Arthurian novel The Once and Future King) and his attempt, many decades previously, to train a goshawk he called Gos. MacDonald had read The Goshawk as a child and found it baffling and distressing, as I did, from her descriptions of it. Training her own goshawk, Macdonald was prone to self-doubt and depression, and she dreaded repeating White’s mistakes. This element strengthened the tension between her hopes, her fears, and the challenging reality she creates for herself and her feathered companion.


Three Amazing Things About You by Jill Mansell

Three Amazing Things About You by Jill Mansell

This author has a gift for depicting the lives of young-ish British women and men in a lively and believable and highly entertaining way. But in doing so, she can hit notes of pathos and deep pain that make it hard to categorise her work as the fluffy variety of “chick lit.”

There are three main characters. Hallie, living with cystic fibrosis, is on the list to receive a lung transplant—which means the continuation of her life depends on somebody else’s loss of life. Because of the restrictions on her mobility, she writes—an online advice website from which the novel takes its name. Her recommendation is based upon three things her correspondents use to describe themselves. She’s secretly in love with someone, but in her situation can’t depend on a happy ending for herself.

Tasha meets the man of her dreams, only to discover he is a risk-taking daredevil whose adventurousness threatens their relationship and could even endanger his life.

Flo, a dependable, reasonable woman, inherits a cat from the wealthy lady she worked for—and her charge comes with a valuable property attached. She must endure the insults of her late employer’s highly suspicious granddaughter, who insists that the place should be hers and is determined to dislodge her, and the grandson—to whom Flo is attracted.

Jill Mansell is an auto-buy for me and hasn’t let me down yet.

The American Heiress (My Last Duchess in the UK) by Daisy Goodwin

The American Heiress (My Last Duchess in the UK) by Daisy Goodwin

Cora Cash is a wealthy American—the nation’s richest heiress—whose title-hungry mother is determined to leverage the family fortune to make her the bride of an English aristocrat. Cora has a worthy and devoted suitor, whose marriage proposal is forestalled by an accident during a lavish farewell party at her family’s Newport mansion. Bertha, Cora’s black maidservant, travels with her to England for the husband hunt, and the pair must navigate a new and unfamiliar world. Cora discovers that a dollar princess, however attractive and popular, won’t necessarily have an easy time convincing British aristocrats of her worth. Cora’s chosen husband is a duke whose heart might not be whole, and her mother-in-law thrives on scandal and mischief-making. Gilded Age America and Late-Victorian England are rendered with telling detail, and the social rules, culture of marital infidelity, and ruling personalities are very well depicted.

Moving from spoilt, untested girl to determined wife to desperate mother, Cora faces an increasingly difficult decision about exactly where she belongs—and with whom. And her choice will have a corresponding effect on Bertha’s future, just when it begins to look most promising, because race is not the barrier to acceptance and prosperity as it was in America.

This was my introduction to Daisy Goodwin, and immediately after finishing this, I read The Fortune Hunter. It deserves a mention, but as often happens, the first book I read by an author is the one that really sticks in my mind.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Ballet novels can be either excellent or extremely predictable. As a former dancer, who still dances for exercise, I can be very critical. I was extremely pleased that this one, told through multiple viewpoints, is extraordinary! Joan, a former dancer, has a husband, a son, and a past. After assisting Russian dance star Arslan’s defection, and the end of their affair, she abandoned her lackluster ballet career for marriage to teacher Jacob and motherhood. They attempt to assimilate in a quiet California community where she doesn’t feel entirely at ease, and where the neighbors regard her with curiosity. As professional dancers often do, she becomes an instructor at a ballet academy. In this role she’s responsible for forming the skills of her disturbingly gifted son Harry and his best friend Chloe, the neighbours’ daughter. By preparing the younger generation for the career she surrendered, Joan finds herself propelled towards the New York ballet world she left behind, and her former life, friends, and loves—with the worst imaginable consequences.

Enchantress of Paris by Marci Jefferson

Enchantress of Paris by Marci Jefferson

I was a big fan of Girl on the Golden Coin, about Frances Stewart, and one of the best historical novel debuts I can recall. So of course I had to read this book as soon as it was released. Marie Mancini is probably less well-known than her sister Hortense, one of Charles II’s mistresses. Marie’s relationship with Louis XIV in an early period of his rule, is well-drawn, as are her relationships with her sister Olympe, their uncle Cardinal Mazarin, and various other members of the Sun King’s court. Her fate seemingly fore-ordained by astrology, the protagonist must either accept it or fight against it. The novel gives an insider’s view of courtiers’ machinations, and the highly-charged atmosphere surrounding a monarch seeking to establish his power.

Margaret Porter with book

Margaret Porter is the author of the bestselling A Pledge of Better Times and eleven other British-set historical novels for multiple publishers, in hardcover and paperback, and many foreign language editions. She studied British history in the U.K. and returned to the U.S. to complete her theatre training, and subsequently worked in film and television. After earning her M.A. in Radio-Television-Film, she was a freelance writer and producer for film and video projects. She worked on location for three feature films and a television series. An occasional newspaper columnist and book reviewer, she also writes for lifestyle magazines. A member of the Authors Guild, Novelists, Inc., Historical Novel Society, London Historians, and other organizations, she is listed in Who’s Who in America; Who’s Who in Authors, Editors and Poets; and Who’s Who in Entertainment. Margaret returns to Great Britain annually to research her books. More information is available at her website, www.margaretporter.com. Her blog is Shaping the Facts, and she is a monthly contributor to the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. She tweets as @MargaretAuthor.



Cover Crush: Brighton Belle by Sara Sheridan

Brighten Belle

I will gladly admit I judge a book by its cover. Over all presentation is important to pull a reader in. Well, this reader that is. I cannot speak for others. When I read a story I want to be completely immersed. A grand cover helps that along. Imagery and all-if you will.

Brighton Belle’s cover sets the tone for the period in which the story is written in. This story is staged in post-world war II England. The woman’s clothing and her facial expression shows her intelligence, her attention to detail in her dress. How her face is turn and her expression shows she knows many secrets. The door she is either opening or closing has the old European style to it. Basically, the whole layout of the cover gives you a mysterious and atmospheric feel. I love it! How does the cover make you feel?

Here is the book description of the story:

In post-World War II England, former Secret Service operative Mirabelle Bevan becomes embroiled in a new kind of intrigue…

1951: In the popular seaside town of Brighton, it’s time for Mirabelle Bevan to move beyond her tumultuous wartime years and start anew. Accepting a job at a debt collection agency seems a step toward a more tranquil life.

But as she follows up on a routine loan to Romana Laszlo, a pregnant Hungarian refugee who’s recently come off the train from London, Mirabelle’s instincts for spotting deception are stirred when the woman is reported dead, along with her unborn child.

After encountering a social-climbing doctor with a sudden influx of wealth and Romana’s sister, who seems far from bereaved and doesn’t sound Hungarian, Mirabelle decides to dig deeper into the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. Aided by her feisty sidekick–a fellow office worker named Vesta Churchill (“no relation to Winston,” as she explains)–Mirabelle unravels a web of evil that stretches from the Brighton beachfront to the darkest corners of Europe. Putting her own life at risk, she must navigate a lethal labyrinth of lies and danger to expose the truth.

Here are two other cover crush post from fellow book bloggers you might like to check out.

2 Kids and Tired Books

A Bookaholic Swede


Confessions of a Book Blogger with Holly

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Today on Layered Pages I’d like to welcome, a friend and fellow book blogger, Holly, to talk with me about blogging. She has some mighty interesting things to say on the subject!

 Holly, what is your blog’s name and address?

2 Kids and Tired Books 

When did you start a book blog and why?

I started my book blog in October of 2007.

I had a couple of friends who had blogs and I enjoyed reading them. I love to write and I’d missed having opportunities to write. So, one day in August of 2007, I just created a personal blog. Our extended family is literally worldwide so it was also a way to share our daily lives and pictures with them.

I have always loved reading and I realized that I would often read a book and later, not remember what I thought of it. So, the book blog grew out of my desire to remember what books I read and what I’d thought about them.

The reviewing part came about accidentally. As I posted my reviews, I met other reviewers through commenting and I discovered the world of review copies and ARCs. It exploded from there.

What are the kind of posts do you feature?

Mostly reviews. Occasionally a preview or highlight. Sometimes a giveaway. This year I’ve gotten to know some other book bloggers better and because of our associations, I’ve found more ideas for posts, including some monthly and weekly collaborations. It’s been a ton of fun and I’ve so enjoyed getting to know these terrific women. I’ve also added way too many books to my reading list because of them!

How often do you blog?

My goal is 3 times a week. My actual reading dropped last year because of some health issues so I haven’t been doing as many reviews. My goal is one review each week (usually on a Monday). Something bookish and funny, usually on a Wednesday. I do a weekly Cover Crush on Thursdays and a semi-regular, more personal Weekend Reflection post on Saturdays. Sometimes I meet all those goals, sometimes I don’t, occasionally I exceed them.

What are some of the positive feedback you have received?

Over the years, it’s been mostly positive. I’ve met some amazing people through blogging. Authors, publicists, fellow book bloggers.  Friendships and associations are the best parts of blogging.

On average, how many books do you review a year?

 Last year it was 39. My high since I started tracking was 163 in 2010. I don’t set any specific reading goals. I have learned that I enjoy reading more when I don’t have deadlines, even if it means reading fewer books.

What is your favorite genre?

I love historical fiction and Christian fiction. I want stories that resonate with characters that grow together as well as individually. I need an emotional connection. I seem drawn to books set in England during World War 2!

What is your less favorite?

Traditional romance novels. I don’t like the “bodice rippers” or books that seem to be simply excuses to write detailed sex scenes. Those aren’t romantic to me.

I don’t love horror/crime novels either, which is weird because I could watch a show like Bones, but I couldn’t stomach reading the novels the show is based on.

How do you feel about negative reviews?

I have a rant about negative reviews. Hopefully this will spare you that!

Negative reviews are normal. I think that honesty is important. When I read a review, I want to know what someone really thinks about a book. I don’t want a sanitized version of the jacket synopsis.

I don’t relish writing negative reviews, I don’t think anyone does. But a negative review doesn’t need to be an attack on an author. I have a disclaimer that says I don’t promise a positive review, but I promise an honest review and that while I will say what I don’t like about the book, I won’t attack the author.

It can’t be easy, as an author, to see negative reviews of something you’ve put your heart and soul into. Every writer has an idea in their mind of what they want their books to say and how they want them received. Every reader has expectations about books, whether from what is clearly printed on the back of the book, their own experiences or other reviews. To have every reader love and adore the book like they do is incredibly unrealistic for any author.

Sorry. Was that ranting?

When considering a book to review what do you look for?

If I see a book that only has 5 stars, I question it because my first assumption is that all of those reviews must be from the author’s family and friends.

When I am looking at reviews to see if I want to read a particular book, I actually look at the 2 and 4 star reviews because I think they are the most honest. I want to know how the reader felt. I appreciate knowing ahead of time if there is explicit sex or profanity because that will affect my decision to read it.

The cover plays a big part because it is usually the first thing I see and a striking cover will tempt me to read the synopsis.  Recommendations from friends carry a lot of weight too.

List three book covers you love.

Covers are so important. Three more recent covers I’ve loved are:

Confectionaers tale

 I will see you in paris II

the girl on the train

How do you feel about authors using social media to speak out or badly of reviewers who did not give the author’s book a glowing review?

 It’s wrong. There is no reason in anything to be mean. Readers can review a book negatively without criticizing or bashing an author and authors need to be appreciative that people are reading their books, because even a negative review is publicity and there have been times that a negative review has caused me to look further into a particular book or author.

It serves no purpose to speak badly of anyone, reader or author, on social media. When I see authors go after reviewers who write negative reviews, whether on Amazon or Goodreads, it affects my impressions of them and will almost guarantee that I never read any of their books. In the same vein, a reviewer who is unnecessarily harsh and critical of an author can put that reviewer in a bad light as well.

Have you had any negative experience with blogging?

 I have had two specific experiences where authors took offense at negative reviews even when they claim to have respected my opinion. Each time they tried to tell me why my opinion was wrong. In the first one, it was the first negative review I’d written and I did go back and softened a couple of sentences because I realized in hindsight they were unnecessarily harsh, but I didn’t change my review. It did teach me a lesson and it’s where I realized that one can and should be kind even when writing a negative review.

In the second experience, the author and/or friends created blogger profiles simply to comment on my post and tell me my opinions about the book were wrong. Because I try very hard to be fair in my reviews that experience really put a damper on my desire to review for awhile.

Do you read more than one book at a time?

Occasionally. I’ve learned that I often need to be in a particular mood to read certain books. I might set one aside unfinished and pick up a different one. Sometimes I just switch back and forth. Most of the time though, I read one until it’s finished.

Do you read self-published books? If so which ones have you read this year so far?

Early on in reviewing, I accepted nearly every book that came my way. Many of those were self-published and many of those were not well written. I used to get a lot of free books from Amazon and most of those ended up being self-published. Too many of those were also not well written or even edited. I applaud and commend people for writing and publishing themselves. But, I wish more would go through an editing process with a professional. Every book needs editing and proofing. Every book.

Because of those experiences, I stepped away from self-published books. If a cover looked self-published, I didn’t even consider it. Becoming acquainted with indieBRAG has changed that for me. I’m learning that there are some fantastic self-published books and it’s important to get them out there and known.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting a blog?

Blogging takes time and passion.

Be thoughtful in your posts. Proofread and edit them. It takes time to build relationships with publicists and eventually receive free books. Places like Netgalley often require you to have an established blog presence. Review books you’ve already read and own, or find them at your library at first to build your blog.

Utilize places like Goodreads as well as Facebook and Twitter. If you like authors, follow them. Do some book-related memes. Weekly memes like Booking Through Thursday or Mailbox Monday has helped me get to know other bloggers and increase my readership. I’ve even participated in linky parties that help to get visibility for posts.

Get to know other bloggers. Read their posts, comment on their posts, and share their posts on social media. They will share yours. That is huge and building those relationships leads to so much more fulfilling blog experiences.

Awesome questions Stephanie! Thanks for the opportunity to chat. Loved it!

Thank you, Holly! Enjoyed our chat very much!

Stay calm and support book bloggers

Characters in Motion- Two Sides of a Coin

stags head

The location for this interview is the Stag’s Head Tavern at the rough end of Edinburgh’s Cowgate where Sergeant Angus MacIan and Hugh (Shug) Nicolls have taken their seats. Supplied with a tankard of the finest dark ale they welcome Mistress Moore-Hopkins.

Stephanie: Good afternoon gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to join you here (looks around and  suppresses a shiver of horror) I have brought cake. (She looks at two men, one in the   uniform of the Town Guard, the other dressed in rough, everyday clothes resembling a slightly down at the heels gentleman. Both are over six feet tall, powerfully built and looks slightly menacing. Sergeant MacIan is in his late fifties. Shug Nicolls, about thirty)

MacIan: It’s our pleasure, madam. I believe you have a few questions for us? I hope you don’t mind me saying, but it makes a nice change to have someone asking me questions for once!

Stephanie: Just a few, gentlemen. (Sips the offered tankard) Would it be possible for a glass of red wine? I’m not really an ale drinker.

Shug: (to the barmaid) Maisie, fetch Mistress Moore-Hopkins a claret, hen. Mind and put it in a clean glass!

Stephanie: Umm, thank you. Perhaps a slice of cake first, do we have a knife? (in the blink of an eye Shug produces a stiletto knife with a six-inch blade, just as quickly MacIan displays a dirk, twice as long and twice as broad, both are sharp enough to shave with) Err, thank you. So shall we begin?

MacIan and Shug: Aye, dad on!

Stephanie: A simple question to begin with. What are your normal habits in a standard day?

MacIan: Well, as the senior sergeant of Edinburgh’s ancient and respected Town Guard, my day consists of making sure that folk keep their noses clean, and don’t get up to any mischief. I do this through good old fashioned persuasion and kindness.

Shug: (laughing) Aye, and a fair amount o’ knocking heads together, eh! Dinnae listen tae his  nonsense missus. He’s the biggest rogue in a redcoat ye’ll meet here in toon!

Stephanie: Pardon?

MacIan: Nicolls! This wifie is frae the Colonies! Speak English or she’ll no’ ken what yer havering aboot! Aye, and less o’ yer cheek! Yer nae angel yersel’

Stephanie: (blank look)

Shug: Forgive me, madam. I was just suggesting that Sergeant MacIan is no stranger to bending the rules when it is called for. I’m not calling him a bad man though. There are those who would cut a throat for a few shillings, aye, and those that think themselves above the law because of their position in society! They consider themselves to be untouchable. MacIan here…well, let’s just say that he doesn’t think that’s right. So, when he needs to, he’ll bend the rules, or if you want me to be completely honest, he’s willing to break the rules into a hundred pieces to see the guilty pay for their sins!

Stephanie: And yourself?

Shug: All I can say is that everything I do, I do with the best of intentions. If Mr. Young asks me to help him in any way during his work, well, I am always happy to do my wee bit to assist.

Stephanie: Ah yes, Robert Young of Newbiggin. I believe you owe him your life?

MacIan: Aye that he does. Shug here, well he was going to hang for killing a man not two feet from where you sit. I was convinced that he was guilty of murder. Mr. Young however decided to look into the matter. Turns out, Nicolls here was the victim of a deadly assault. He had no choice but to defend himself. Let’s just say that the man who attacked him ended up on the floor at your feet with a meat cleaver in his head! Are you alright? You’ve gone awfully pale!

Stephanie: Thank you, I’m fine (looks at the floor) Really? Right here? Moving on! How are you    influenced by your setting?

Shug: You have to remember, missus, that this is a violent town at times. For the folk that live down here on the Cowgate, it can be dog eat dog at times. I’m not saying that everyone is bad, far from it! The vast majority of people would give you the shirt of their back if you needed it, but there are always those that see everyone else as a potential victim. I’ve lived my whole life on these streets. I learned early on that if you want to succeed, then you need to be able to look after yourself. Aye, and thanks to my dealings with Mr. Young, I’ve learned that there is satisfaction to be had by helping those weaker than yourself too.

MacIan: As for me? Well, I hail from Glen Fenstrae originally. Ran away to join the army when I was just a young man. Why? Because I thought the girl I loved didn’t love me! Turns out I was wrong, but I only learned that last year when I was blessed by our Lord and reunited with my  Marie. A wee bitty older, a wee bitty wiser, but still just as feisty as I remembered her. Anyway, I fought on the Continent and over in your Colonies, up along the Canadian border against the Frenchies. When I got too old for marching and fighting, I settled here in Edinburgh and joined the Guard. Now, what, ten years later? I’m still here! Like Nicolls, I see it as my duty to protect the weak and defenceless. If that means that I sometimes have to get a bit rough with ne’er-do-wells? Well, let’s just say that they brought it upon themselves.

Stephanie: Yes, I can understand that. You are both quite intimidating fellows; it has to be said. From what I have heard though, you are both honourable in your own way. May I ask what are the emotional triggers of your characters and how do they act on them?

MacIan: Thank you Mistress. Emotional triggers? For me? That would be knowing what’s right, and what’s wrong. Too many people seem unable to tell the difference! When I see someone who has suffered violence through no fault of their own, it raises my hackles. I try to stay within the law when dealing with those responsible. Just occasionally though, you need   to take a step over the line to see justice done.

Shug: And sometimes you need to get your feet wet, eh MacIan! But you don’t want to be hearing about that Mistress. Some things are best left out of this interview! What was the question? Oh aye, emotional triggers! Like MacIan here, there are some things that just annoy me. Rich men thinking they can do as they please with the poor, aye, that is something that gets my back up. Violence towards women and children? Let’s just say that if a man does that, then they had best pray that I don’t hear about it, or they’ll be sorry!

Stephanie: Would I be right in thinking that you are actually two sides of the same coin?

MacIan: (looking offended) Indeed you would not! I have nothing in common with this man. He’s nothing but a common thug!

Shug: (laughing) a thug, perhaps? But common? I think not. No. MacIan here is all about upholding the law, and seeing the guilty brought to trial. As for me? I do my best to avoid having any  dealing with the law if I can help it. The Town Guard have spent the last few years trying to find a way to put my neck in a noose on the Grassmarket! No, we have nothing in common.

Stephanie: I see. Very well, I shall allow my readers to make up their own minds about that then. One final question then. Self-image is important in your characters I would imagine. How do you hope that people see you?

MacIan: A year ago, I would have said that I was seen as a loyal servant of the town. A hard, but fair, member of the Guard, and someone that folk could turn to for assistance. These days? Aye, all of that, but more importantly, I’d like to be remembered as a good man to my Marie, and a good father to the daughter I never even knew I had until forty years after she was born! And not forgetting my grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter. Aye, just to be remembered as a family man! That would do me fine.

Shug: I’d settle for being seen as something more than a bar-room brawler! I know I don’t have the best reputation in town. Folk see me coming and think I’m about to rip their head off! Just because I have broken a few people along the way, others tend to see the worst in you. I see myself more as a victim of circumstance. I was born with nothing and everything I have, I  have had to work for. I would hope that my dealings with Mr. Young have allowed people to see that there is more to me than a one dimensional character whose only role is to turn up and break faces! Thankfully Mr. Young could see the man within. He has allowed me the opportunity to become a better man. That is why I am always there to keep a careful watch over him, his family and friends. He saved my life. Now I see it as my duty to protect theirs.

Stephanie: Well, thank you very much for your time gentlemen. I think I have all that I need here. Do you know the best route back to Leith? I have to catch the evening tide for Georgia!

Shug: I’ll rustle you up a coach, missus. Don’t worry yourself, we’ll make sure you don’t miss your boat. Would it be alright if I take this cake? I hate to see good cake go to waste!

Interview arranged by Stuart S. Laing, author of the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.

With thanks to the management and staff at the Stag’s Head for allowing the use of their premises.

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Stuart Laing

Born and raised on the east coast of Scotland in the ancient Pictish Kingdom of Fife, Stuart Laing grew up looking across the Firth of Forth towards the spires and turrets of the city of Edinburgh and its castle atop its volcanic eyrie. He has always been fascinated by the history of Auld Reekie and has spent most of his life studying Scottish history in all its aspects whenever he finds the time between family, work and the thousand and one other things that seek to distract him. Despite the vast panorama of Scotland’s history, he always finds himself being drawn back to the cobbled streets of the Old Town. Those streets have provided the inspiration for his stories and characters. He would urge all visitors to Scotland’s ancient capital to (briefly) venture into one of the narrow closes running down from the Royal Mile to get a flavour of how alive with mischief, mayhem, love and laughter these streets once were.



Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer before the war II

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

A few of my thoughts:

I admit I have not read many novels that center around Word War I or the Great War-if you will. For that matter I have not studied in length this war as I have of the second War. So my curiosity was heighten when I read that this story takes place in 1914. This is the first book I have read by Helen Simonson and I am looking forward to reading her others.

There are several elements to this story that really grabbed me. The character development is one of them and a stunning language throughout. I found this to be a splendid account of life of a small village leading up to the war and how their lives began to change was really fascinating. Beatrice Nash is a character I look up to and admire. Truly I did not want to stop reading about her. Another theme was how this village took on refugees and explores a little of the attitudes and the coming together to support others in this changing time in history.

This story is full of smart wit with a flare of grandeur, simplicity and sensibilities all blended together. A variety cast of characters who will charm you, frustrate you and leave you wanting to never leave their company.

A must read!

I rated this book four stars and received a copy of this book through NetGalley for an honest review.

Stephanie M. Hopkins