Today I’m excited to share in celebrating the release of a new historical novel, set in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary QoS is one of the most intriguing women of the 16th century, inspiring a large body of fiction and drama, the latest being the movie Mary Queen of Scots (2018) starring Saoirse Ronan. Her story has so many facets to explore. I sometimes wonder how her experiences would look in a modern-day context, but am more than happy to read more about her in historical fiction.
The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown is being released today and is going directly to my TBR list. I’m also looking forward to interviewing Tonya later this year for Last Word of the Week, and discovering more about her historical fiction.
In the meantime….Look at the blurb! Look at the cover! Enjoy!
The Queen’s Almoner
Sometimes loyalty to the queen comes at a cost.
Thomas Broune is a Reformer and childhood friend of the young queen, Mary Stuart. When Mary embarks on a new life in her estranged homeland of Scotland, Thomas is there to greet her and offer his renewed friendship. But the long-time friends grow closer, and Thomas realizes his innocent friendship has grown into something more. Yet he is a man of the cloth. Mary is the queen of the Scots. Both of them have obligations of an overwhelming magnitude: he to his conscience and she to her throne.
The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown
When he must choose between loyalty to his queen or his quiet life away from her court, he finds that the choice comes at a high price. Driven by a sense of obligation to protect those he loves, and crippled by his inability to do so, Thomas must come to terms with the choices he has made and find a peace that will finally lay his failures to rest.
Earlier this year I had the great good fortune to review an astonishing debut novel: People Like Us by Louise Fein. You can read my review here, where I describe this as a heartbreak of a book. It’s so much more, and I recommend you read it too.
People Like Usis being released worldwide this month, and I’m thrilled to have Louise on board in this special Something to Say post. Here she isto tell us a bit about the background of the novel and how is came to be published.
Welcome, and congratulations on your novel, Louise. It must be exciting to finally have it launched, even into a world filled with strangeness. Can you tell us a bit about the process and the story behind the story?
Louise: I’m delighted to announce the publication of my debut novel, People Like Us(in the USA, it has a different cover and the title Daughter of the Reich). Like so many authors, having a book published has been my ultimate lifelong dream. As a child, my ambition was to become an author and I spent many hours writing stories, usually based around the subject of ponies. But then I grew up, needed to earn a living and the appeal of ponies dwindled (well, only a little), so the writing took a back seat for a while.
The appeal of ponies never really dies. But you did get back to writing?
The writing bug never left me, and over the years I wrote ideas for novels, poems, diaries and stories, in and around work and family commitments. But I never fully committed to writing a novel until I finally took the plunge and began a master’s degree in creative writing at St Mary’s University, London. It was then that I began work on People Like Us. My idea, initially, was that I would have the novel finished alongside the MA in a year. How naïve I was!! The first draft took around two years to complete, after I ditched the first attempt half-way through my MA year. But it was just that. A first draft. It required a lot more work, many re-drafts, and a good deal more research, until finally I had a manuscript ready for submission to agents.
I haven’t found the agent road an easy one to travel. How did you get on with it?
It took essentially another year to find an agent. There were many rejections, but I also had interest from some and that spurred me on to keep going and keep submitting. I carefully selected agents I would really like to represent me, and I was very lucky that one of my favourite agents liked my work. Much of the agenting and publishing world works very slowly, but sometimes it moves at the speed of light. I sent my manuscript to the agent who is now my agent one Friday afternoon, and I heard back from her the very next morning that she loved my book. The same process happened when I went on submission to publishers. Within a week there was interest from a publisher in the UK and then I went on submission to the US and there was interest the same afternoon. In the end the book was pre-empted by William Morrow (imprint of Harper Collins).
That’s such a great story! Rejections to instant acceptance – definitely the stuff of dreams.
My dreams had more than come true, they had exceeded all my imagination. On top of that, I have also had some wonderful foreign translation deals (eight to date) and these really have been the icing on the cake. So what I would say to any unpublished authors out there: Keep going: keep improving your work, keep submitting. What feels like an impenetrable wall can be breached. I was hooked off the slush pile and knew nobody in the publishing or agenting world at all. It is all possible, but it’s a long game.
That’s such an affirming story, thank you, Louise. Now about the book…
So, a little bit about People Like Us. It’s a story of forbidden love, set in the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Leipzig. The novel is told from the point of view of Hetty, a young girl who has grown up on a diet of Nazi propaganda and is hungry for a part to play in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Until, that is, she encounters Walter, a friend from her past, a Jew. As the thirties spiral ever deeper into anti-Semitic fervour, Hetty and Walter’s developing relationship puts her beliefs into stark conflict and danger forces them to make choices which will change their lives forever.
People Like Us by Louise Fein
I believe you have a family connection to this story?
The book was inspired by the experiences of my father’s family, Leipzig Jews, most of whom fled Germany for England or America during the 1930s. Whilst the story and the characters are fictional, the setting is authentic, and it is based around real events. My father died when I was only seventeen and he never spoke of his experiences of living in Nazi Germany.
Instinctively, I knew the book should be fictional, but its form and content were shadowy. I read Mein Kampf and learned about the experience of growing up under Nazi rule; I travelled to Leipzig and met with experts; devoured family papers and listened to the memories of survivors. The characters of Hetty and Walter came to me, and with them their story. The more I read, the more interested I became in trying to understand how a democratic, civilised nation could, in just a few short years, overthrow democracy, demonise the Jews (and others), and descend into a violent, fear-filled fascist state who aimed to exterminate the Jewish race. I felt my story would be powerful if told from the point of view of a young, innocent girl, brought up to fear and hate perceived difference. What could possibly change her beliefs?
It’s a story of the fragility of freedom, and the ease with which one group can de-humanise another to the extent of un-imaginable horror. But it is also the story of friendship, hope, and above all, the power of love.
It’s a very important book, I think, and I’m so glad that you wrote it. Thank you for telling us about the release, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon about how it’s going. Stay safe, Louise!
Christine Bell’s historical novel No Small Shame has just been released, making hers the first fully online book launch of my experience. Christine has 35 short fiction books published for children including picture story, chapter book and YA titles. Her short stories have won national writing competitions and been published in various anthologies. No Small Shame tells the story of immigrant Mary O’Donnell who arrives in Australia on the brink of WWI. Meticulously researched though it is, the story’s strongest points are its engaging and relatable characters.
No Small Shame by Christine Bell
Welcome, Christine, and congratulations on the excellent reception of No Small Shame. Thank you for sharing some words with me today. Let’s see what set you off on your writing journey. What was your favourite book as a child?
Christine: When I was in grade four, our teacher Miss Yule possessed the most beautiful illustrated story book I’d ever seen. It was a large, full colour book called Best Scandinavian Fairy Tales. Every couple of days she would read from our current story and hold up the divine full-page illustrations. Once a week, a child was allowed the very special privilege of taking the precious book home overnight to read. It seemed an interminable wait until it was my turn. I could barely breathe for excitement that evening while I turned the pages and read as much as I could. Later, I read surreptitiously by torchlight, carefully turning the pages under the sheet. It broke my heart when at the end of the term, Miss Yule left our class to get married, taking her beautiful story book with her and depriving me of a second overnight read. I’ve never forgotten that book.
And never forgiven Miss Yule, no doubt. Or those conventions that made marriage and teaching incompatible! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
There are no secrets as such, but there are always guns on the wall. Small moments that may not mean much at the time of writing, but must inevitably have a purpose. I have a scene in No Small Shame, aboard ship, where Mary is forced to have her hair cut off due to a plague of nits. The scene shows the conflict with her mother, but Mary’s hair also comes to have a deep symbolism throughout the novel. When I first wrote the scene, it was more to show shipboard life and I was concerned in the early drafts if it was earning its place. But as the novel progressed, Mary’s hair became a metaphor that echoes right to the final scene.
Guns on the wall! Eek! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Just before No Small Shamewas officially released, a writer friend emailed me from the bookshop carpark after getting caught up reading it. She emailed again, a day later, half-way through, to say how much she was loving it, and that I’d painted such a picture with words and drawn the characters so well that she felt she knew them. The next day she contacted me to say that she’d cried through the final five chapters, loved the book, and how could we get it made into a movie. It’s an author’s dream to have a reader connect so emotionally to your story and to have it come alive in their mind.
That’s wonderful feedback. Do you write full time?
I write virtually full time. My children have all grown up and left home, and I’m most fortunate to have the financial support of a partner. Royalties from my many children’s short fiction titles, together with my annual PLR and ELR payments* help financially too, even all these years after the titles were published. I work in our business part-time too, but the majority of days I can be found at my writing desk.
*Note: public and electronic lending rights, from when books are borrowed from libraries. Note 2: Support authors! Borrow books from libraries!
Excellent! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
I’ve had lots of opportunities to meet many fellow writers through writing groups, events, conferences, masterclasses and workshops. I’ve also completed two tertiary qualifications, including a Master of Creative Writing, where I met writers who’ve become good friends. I also served as the Assistant Co-ordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Vic (SCBWI) for five years where I made a lot of friends and connections in the kid-lit community. I’ve connected with lots of writers through Facebook and Twitter. My social media is predominantly all about writing, publishing, books, and related topics, and I’ve always found the online writing community incredibly supportive and friendly.
I agree, the #WritingCommunity is great. Where do you write?
My office looks over our rather lovely, tranquil back garden where I can hear the birds, see them playing in the bird bath, and watch the change of seasons. A couple of years ago, after a spinal surgery, I purchased an electric standing desk and combined with another long desk, it forms a fabulous L-shaped workspace. One full wall is floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, and, adding a red filing cabinet and splashes of red on the bookshelves and desk, I have a bit of a colour theme going. The wall opposite features a huge framed map of the Somme, the setting of my current work-in-progress; plus a large original illustration from my children’s book, Snozza; a messy corkboard of memorabilia and treasured mementoes; as well as various artefacts related to my current work . It’s a lovely space that I had such fun decorating to truly inspire and reflect what I’m writing.
Do you have launch parties for your books?
I never had a launch party for my children’s books, so I was very excited to plan an instore event at Readings Hawthorn to release No Small Shame. It was rather a large shame that the event was cancelled due to Covid-19, but I quickly became aware of the possibility of launching the book online, via Facebook. I was still very keen for acclaimed author and writing buddy Alison Goodman to launch the book. This was a little problematic since we were to be in separate houses due to this time of isolation. We decided that a pre-recorded launch was probably the only way to go. I really wanted a live, spontaneous component though. But even as I advertised it, I wondered if the live stream would work. Short story, with a little tech advice and after a practice mock event, it worked very well and No Small Shame was launched on the 2nd April. I was really thrilled that I was able to see so many friends, family and fellows present in the event comments, questions and congratulations. For anyone who’d like to view the launch, I’ll include the Youtube links: Book launch https://youtu.be/LHXC4OJvKTI. Live stream https://youtu.be/c4sJ9vamIzI.
Ooh, and readers can have a little look at your writing office on the YouTube link! Thanks, Christine; I’m very much looking forward to reading No Small Shame, and to your next book, which is also set around the time of the First World War.
Elizabeth Ducie is a full-time writer from Devon. Although she wrote prize-winning fiction at school, she went on to study science and have a career as a manufacturing consultant, technical writer and small business owner, publishing pharmaceutical text books and editing a technical journal during that time.
Elizabeth also writes and lectures on The Business of Writing, teaching business skills for writers running their own small business, and has published a set of books under that name.
Elizabeth Ducie, writer
Welcome, Elizabeth. You have a fascinating background for a novelist. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
Elizabeth: When I wrote Counterfeit!, my sister Sheila challenged me to bring some of the characters from my previous novel into the story. And there are occasionally references to real incidents from my travelling days, although usually heavily fictionalised.
Your secrets are safe with me! How do you feel about reviews?
There are many beliefs about the impact reviews have on the algorithms of Amazon and other platforms, but I’m not convinced. There are too many exceptions out there to allow me to believe in a magic number, a threshold above which exciting things start to happen.
But, as a way of hearing what readers think, they are invaluable. I only wish more people would consider posting them. Even a negative review is better than dead silence.
Yes, the silent echo chamber is unnerving. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?
There was a biology teacher who took me to one side at the start of the upper fifth year (equivalent to year 11) and told me there were girls in the year who were going to do well, but I wasn’t one of them, so I wasn’t to get my hopes up! It still rankles, more than fifty years on. I would love to send her a signed copy of each of my books to make her eat her words.
Yikes! Oh, I hope that was her way of motivating you and not her true opinion! How much research is involved in your writing?
So far, most of my fiction has been set in places I used to work (Former Soviet Union countries, Latin America, Africa) so a lot of the research was done on the hoof. However, my novels tend to have historical flashbacks, for which I do quite a bit of research. But only when I’m editing. I don’t let lack of knowledge interrupt the flow during the first draft.
Gorgito’s ice rink by Elizabeth Ducie
Ironically, my latest book is set in South Devon where I’ve lived for the past thirteen years. I’m doing far more research for that than any of the internationally-based ones.
That’s ironic, but good to know. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
Covers are critical, especially for fiction, where they are a major signpost to the reader on what they can expect from the book. I am independently-published and therefore have absolute say over my covers. When I’m teaching, I always empasise that an indie book should be indistinguishable from a traditionally-published one in terms of appearance and quality of the finished product. This means having a professionally-designed cover. I use Berni Stevens for all my novels. I developed my own covers for The Business of Writing, but I used a Canvatemplate, which still means the original design is professionally produced.
I completely agree about covers – I believe most readers DO judge a book by its cover. I’m interested in your books aimed at writers, too. Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
They say that writing is a solitary occupation, but I find it’s all too easy to meet other writers. There’s a huge writing community here in the South West of England, plus there are any number of online groups.
I am a member of two great writing groups: Chudleigh Writers’ Circle and Exeter Writers. They are very different in approach and I find my membership of each one invaluable. Plus I still meet up with a small group of writers from the MA we completed in 2012. I have a writing buddy with whom I work on each novel at the developmental editing stage. And this year, I’m Director of the Exeter Literary Festival. And that’s before I even think about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all of which are stuffed full of writers.
To be honest, it’s tempting to spend far more time ‘networking’ with other writers than I do writing. But it’s all great fun; and that’s one of the reasons I gave up the day job to write ‘full-time’.
Always. I have an event in our local parish church, the largest space in our small town, with readings, music, cake and fizz. I usually sell quite a few copies on the night, but it’s also about celebrating with my friends and family.
I’ve also been holding online launch parties since 2011. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different formats; and sometimes I don’t have one at all. Lessons I learned along the way included: don’t try running a party for 12 hours; and don’t try running an online party on the same day as the main party. Both occasions were exhausting!
But they do sound like fun. You have an MA, I see. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
It depends on the individual, their experience and their ambitions, but I’m not convinced creative writing is an academic subject. So I’m slightly skeptical about formal university courses, even though I completed one myself. I do, however, think it’s important to attend classes, webinars, conferences, anything that helps train us in our craft, keep us fresh, and build inspiration. I attend the Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick every August; I go to occasional classes or workshops such as those run by Literature Works in Exeter; and I am a real sucker for a free webinar or online conference. The ones run by ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) are particularly good.
The Business of Writing by Elizabeth Ducie
Great to know. I love the way you approach writing as a craft that can always be honed. Lovely! Thank you for talking with me in this episode of Last Word of the Week.
You can find Elizabeth’s novels and her Business of Writing books here
‘I’d always imagined attending a book launch would be something you’d only do if an opportunity to stick rusty nails into your cornea wasn’t available,” writes author Katy Colins in her blog #notwedordead
Luckily I read Katy’s fabulous piece about book launches before I prepared my speech for the unveiling of The Ruined Land, and laughed myself out of all my nerves. Book launches can be fun, and I have enjoyed every one that I’ve attended. Talking to booksy people about books? What could be better?!
I’m so grateful when people come to my launches. And kind of surprised. They must have run out of rusty nails…
How long should a launch speech be?
I aim for under four minutes, which for me is maximum 400 words.
Then I add a five minute extract (about 600 words), so under ten minutes in all.
Add 4-5 minutes for the lovely person who introduces me, and the official stuff is wrapped up in under 15 minutes. That’s my aim.
Here’s my latest, at 369 words, in case you’re interested.
Launch Speech for The Ruined Land
First up, some words of gratitude.
Thanks so much to Nat for those thoughtful words. I’m very appreciative of the love and support I have from my dear friends. I’m actually very grateful to have worked at UniMelb, because I met some of the world’s best people there.
My friends and family have been endlessly supportive, and I’m so glad many of you can celebrate with me tonight. My publisher, the cover designer, the editor – they’ve all been fab. As has Readings which has now hosted all four of my book launches.
A couple of special mentions – to my niece Kate, who along with Aveline my friend in London, is a fabulous beta reader if anyone wants a recommendation.
And my brother in law Bernard is responsible for the very cool maps which you now find inside all three books of the Chronicles of the Pale. He comes highly recommended too!
So. The book.
Having a book published is definitely a Dream Come True – something I imagined in primary school. But there’s a bit more to the dream than that. The Chronicles began with an actual dream in 2013, a dream of abandoned babies and refugees, people I couldn’t reach to rescue. In the dream, my German shepherd dog Dinny, long since departed, saved the day. The character Mashtuk is based on Dinny
This was back when PM Scott Morrison was the minister for immigration. I feel that now the world is much the same, or maybe even darker.
My dream became a short story, which became a novel, which became a series, which became some sort of fully populated, fully imagined world parallel to the real world. There are now even more stories there because this mirror world we live in hasn’t changed enough.
Dreams can come true, but I’d like some happier dreams.
OK, I’m going to read from the very beginning of Book 3. This is Mashtuk, the canini scout, recovering from the wounds he suffered when the ravine was attacked.