Born in 1969, Phil was one of the last children born before man walked on the moon. Working at Australia’s National Dinosaur Museum since 2000 and as an educator at the Australian War Memorial since 2006, he has previously worked at Questacon Science centre and could be seen haunting the halls of London’s Natural History Museum and The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Here he even played famed palaeontologist O. C. Marsh during the Smithsonian’s centenary celebrations. When asked why the 19th century palaeontologist was speaking with an Australian accent, Phil blithely stated that everyone on the 19th century spoke with an Australian accent.
Published in newspapers and magazines across the globe, Phil is the paleo-author for the world’s longest running dinosaur magazine, The Prehistoric Times. He has also been a comic shop manager, a cinema projectionist, a theatre technician and gutted chickens for a deli. All of these influences seem to make an appearance in his writing, especially the chicken guts bit.
Congratulations on the publication of Golgotha.
What inspired you to write this story?
PHIL: Thanks, I’m so pleased how this story came out. I have worked for museums all over the world for the last three decades and was lucky enough to work as an educator at the Australian War Memorial for a decade. I was always looking for interesting stories to pass on to the AWM visitors. During my research I found several stories, and further research led me to even more oddities. Many of these I used in my tours, but some I filed away for later use.
The story of a crucified soldier was the first of these, but I do have a few more that will hopefully make an appearance with my international team of investigators in the near future.
Golgotha is set during the First World War.
Why are you interested in the war, over a hundred years later?
PHIL: OK, this may get deep. Working in places like the London Natural History Museum made me confront the lack of history I feel connected to. Not only am I am Australian – so part of one of the youngest nations on the planet – but I’m also from Canberra – arguably the world’s youngest city/capital. Certainly, our country is old, and the indigenous have some serious history, but in many ways, I feel that’s not my story to tell.
I collect stories, and many of these I find in strange locations, meaning they are often unreported. This has led me to creating a new history for Australia for a podcast I’m about to release … and it will all be bizarre Australian history that I’m certain many have never heard about, and all real. A samurai invasion of Australia decades before Cook arrived, the Fall of the Roman Empire leading to the Dutch landing in Western Australia … Napoleon sending an invasion fleet to Botany Bay … all true.
All of this has led me to understand – as many of us do – that our identity as Australians really did begin with Gallipoli. It’s when we first started to think of US and not THEM. The First World War is our American and French Revolution, our Civil War – it’s the conflict that forged us into the nation we know today, I mean, even the word ANZAC has become something for more than its original meaning, its something sacred.
Do you think that WWI still has lessons for us today?
PHIL: HELL yes. I believe statics show that, by population, no Allied nation lost more in the Great War than Australia. Similarly, no nation (that wasn’t physically part of the battle – like France) is still as affected by these losses as Australia.
Drive through many rural towns today in Australia and you’ll see a large monument in the town square noting their losses. The monument is often full of men with the same last name. Entire generations from these towns joined up and were often buried together in some field overseas.
These towns never truly recovered from their losses and rural Australia still feels underpopulated.
I feel this has all left something of an emotional national scar. One way we have been dealing with the great loss is the way we reverently look on those who served.
I feel what other nations can learn by this is perhaps the way we use the past, but we are not tied to it. Mateship is part of our national identity, but rather than let us restrict who we include into this circle, we try tp be inclusive.
I think our natural outlook towards others, which is usually friendly, is why Australians worldwide are beloved.
Very interesting reflections, thanks Phil.
Now a bit about you! If you were stuck on a desert island
– or maybe in lockdown LOL –
what five books would you want with you?
PHIL: Ouch … only five … actually, challenge accepted.
The Black Company by Glen Cook. I love this series and it’s been a massive influence on me. The way Cook uses a bare-bones way of writing his stories is something I really have taken form heart. Don’t waste your time getting your characters from A to B – just get them there and move on with your story. I also just love his characters and the entire story line … this leads me to
Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook. This book and this entire series is da’ bomb. It’s also part of the inspiration for my first novel, Brotherhood of the Dragon. The books are about a fantasy hard-boiled detective called Garrett. I recall reading ‘Old Tin Sorrows’ when it suddenly struck me that many of the plot points were from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In fact, the entire series is also heavily influenced by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, so I decided I wanted to join in the fun and also use these mechanics in Brotherhood.See if you can spot them? Golgotha also has similar influences – most notably the Third Man with Orson Welles.
Cetaganda/A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold Ok, I may be cheating here, but let me explain. The Vorkosigan saga is one of the greatest novel series ever put to paper (and not just Sci-fi, but all series). Each one takes on a different theme. Cetagandais pure political/detective thriller. There are plots within plots and action and intrigue and red herrings and Mile Vorkosigan mentally pulling it all apart and finding the truth. Great stuff. The next book though is a romance/political thriller with plots within plots and intrigue and red herrings and Miles fumbling his way to asking the lady he loves to marry him. It’s the funniest book I have ever read and pure genius. I’ll also cheat here and suggest you get the audiobooks. Both of these I listen to at least once a year.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis Possibly the most influential book on this list. Moneyball is about baseball statistics…and yet it’s so much more. The lesson it teaches is anything can be interesting if you find the right angle. Moneyball is about how to win when you’re losing, how to change tac when you realise you are going in the wrong direction, how to create something from nothing, how to make a weakness a strength and how to tell just a great freakin story. You can watch the movie – its great too – but honestly, read the book – especially if you are interested in facts more than fiction – you simply won’t regret it!
The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark JaffeThe history of palaeontology bookended by the greatest battle in science – the intellectual war between ED Cope and O C Marsh. Dinosaurs, palaeontology, cowboys, train robberies, explorers, nation building, the Smithsonian, political intrigue … and did I mention dinosaurs? What’s not to love?
You write across genres and have a wide range of amazing interests.
How do you juggle all of these with work and writing?
Do you have some time management or focus tips for us?
PHIL: Well, for one thing you will never suffer from writer’s block … you can always move onto another subject for a while and get refreshed/re-inspired.
That’s the cheat answer. To be helpful, I guess I would say work smart.
Research is fun but can create a serious freeze on your brain as you find yourself swamped by too much info. You will take notes – so many notes – well put them in Word! DO NOT USE A NOTEBOOK! Trust me, I’m a researcher and I love carrying around a notebook. The problem is, you end up with lots of notebooks – but do you ever look in them? And do you find what you’re looking for? So, work smart – put them in Word and then you can word search later for what you’re looking for.
Keep folders. You will be astonished how often you will be looking for some info, and you’ll find something that links into something you are working on. Don’t stop what you’re doing, cut/paste/save– take a screen shot or a photo – but save that info in the folder you have for that project and then get on with what you’re doing.
And this brings me to my most important point.
Finish your projects. Don’t get distracted, and I mean distracted by outside as well as internal influences. If you are working on a crime story, don’t start watching documentaries about the First World War, even if that’s something you are also going to work on. You’ll get distracted/inspired and lose your train of thought.
Stay on point – stay on theme – and you’ll get an astounding amount of work done.
Wow, Phil, thank you so much for your insightful answers. Wonderful!
And thanks in advance for sharing a chapter from Golgotha, which I know is wonderful.
Just one more to join our happy band of adventurers, Fitzhugh thought as they entered the Australian lines. They were immediately joined by several large men wearing the quintessential slouch hats the antipodean troopers favoured.
These men referred to themselves as ‘six-bob-a-day tourists’, referencing their daily wage, and their service meant the Australian government and senior commanders treated them with more respect than other nations treated their own men. The most obvious example was that no Digger could face a firing squad for any offence without the permission of the Australian government, and that permission was never forthcoming, despite the pleas of generals like Douglas Haig.
Soldiers being soldiers, the Australian servicemen took full advantage of this leniency by rarely saluting their officers and hardly ever answering with the proper use of rank. Instead, the Aussies called their commanders by their first name, never wore their uniforms in the ‘correct’ by-the-book-way, nor took part in much of the silliness that soldiers from other nations had to endure.
Fitzhugh knew full well the reputation of these men, both on and — in this case — importantly off the battlefield.
At one point, the unruly Diggers had found themselves located in the lines near the 10th Royal Fusiliers, and here they became concerned for their fellow soldiers when the Fusiliers commander ordered them to parade every morning. The very English and newly minted colonel had decided he would have his men march a full-dress parade, with spit-and-polish uniforms, during their morning mounting of the guard. This was all done as the unit’s brass band played a merry ditty for the Fusiliers to march back and forth under the braying vigilance of Sergeant-Major Thomas Rowbotham. A lifelong military NCO, Rowbotham agreed with his colonel that strict discipline within the ranks was the only way to go.
Amid the mud, carnage, and death on the Western Front, the Diggers watched these parades with growing incredulity. Stationed next to each other, the two units inevitably began mixing and the Aussies eventually had to ask their British comrades if they enjoyed all that marching and dressing up.
‘Not on your life!’ replied one of the Fusiliers.
Another jumped in. ‘We have to do the parade during our downtime. Even at rest, we’re busy polishing buttons and boots, all so our bloody officers can feel like they’re leading proper soldiers.’
One burly Australian grinned an evil grin at his new friends and, slapping the much smaller man on the back warmly, said, ‘Right-o, cobber, we’ll fix that for you.’
The next day, Sergeant-Major Rowbotham called his men into parade. The Fusiliers all dutifully filed in and the regimental band lifted their instruments, awaiting the Sergeant-Major’s signal. As Rowbotham lifted then dropped his arm to signal them to play, he was greeted by a cacophony of what some would later recount fondly as noise.
Marching up and down behind Rowbotham were the Australians, playing what could be kindly described as instruments. Most were rusty and showed the signs of a hard life, but none of this mattered as the Aussies couldn’t play them anyway. Instead, they just blew and banged as hard and loud as they could, to drown out Rowbotham’s orders. Each time the makeshift orchestra began to wane, and the Sergeant-Major tried to regain control of the situation, the Australians began playing again with even greater vigour. After nearly half an hour of this, the Sergeant-Major, in utter defeat, finally strode away in a huff and the Fusiliers were never called to parade again. The Australian trench band was always watching and ready to start up their battlefield symphony if they did.
‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ one of the Australian soldiers asked.
‘No, thank you, just passing through,’ Fitzhugh answered as Andrews manoeuvred to place himself between the two men.
‘What have we here? It seems the officer is taking his dog out for a walk,’ another Aussie said. ‘Down there, Fido. Sit!’
Another of the soldiers asked, ‘Does your dog do any tricks?’
‘Sergeant,’ Fitzhugh cautioned, as Andrews took a threatening step toward the jokester.
‘Nice leash, puppy,’ the Australian said, indicating Fitzhugh with a nod of his hat.
‘Actually, perhaps you men can help me?’ the captain asked, his tone remaining warm.
‘What’re you after? A German flag? A helmet? We got lots of souvenirs to impress the folks at home. You can even say you collected them yourself, you big brave British soldier you.’
‘Even have an officer’s uniform. It’s still a little bloody from where Barney here gutted the bloke.’
Ignoring the clear threat, and taking the statement as a joke, thus passing the test the Australians had laid out, Fitzhugh replied sincerely, ‘No, no, do not offer me any of your baubles. I was hoping for some information. Do any of you men know Sergeant Hank Ash?’
‘Now what would a proper British officer like you want with Mr Ash?’ the soldier called Barney asked with a heavy Irish accent.
Both Fitzhugh and Andrews caught the sudden change in attitude. All had gone from casual, fun-loving jokesters to rigid and aggressively hard.
‘I’m here to try to save his neck!’
The newly demoted Private Hank Ash sat in his cell, his sleeves sporting discoloured sections where his sergeant chevrons used to be. Two armed English guards stood directly outside his cell, situated in a small outbuilding of the farm that was being used as a temporary prison behind the Australian lines. Outside stood more guards, while the farmhouse itself had been converted into a makeshift barracks.
Through a small field that should have been full of feeding chickens and a garden, but now housed a small latrine on one side and a smouldering fire on the other, Fitzhugh, Andrews, and their Australian retinue marched. Approaching the farmhouse door, Fitzhugh took off his cap and stepped inside, returning the salute of the guards as he did. His retinue moved on to the barn, calling out to their mates inside.
Walking into the prison’s makeshift office, Fitzhugh found an English major with a Douglas Fairbanks moustache taking a cup of tea from a brawny NCO.
‘No milk in mine, Corporal,’ he said, inviting himself to sit down at the major’s desk.
The corporal looked from one officer to the other, not sure if he should be turfing the intruder out and hoping for a cue from his commander as to what to do. The major flicked a look at the door and the man left.
‘Perhaps a little sugar if you have it, Corporal,’ Fitzhugh called after the departing man, ‘and a bikkie.’
‘How can I help you, Captain…?’
‘Fitzhugh, Major Preston.’
‘It would seem you have me at a disadvantage, Captain Fitzhugh.’
‘So it would seem, Major,’ Fitzhugh replied, mirroring the senior officer’s reference to his rank to let the man know he knew that trick and wasn’t about to be cowed by an officer just because he had a little more brass on his shoulders.
‘How can I help you?’
‘Well, sir, I’m here to take Sergeant Ash off your hands.’
‘Very funny, Captain. Now, why are you really here?’
Rather than repeat himself, Fitzhugh removed a letter from his breast pocket, unfolded it, then slowly and deliberately smoothed its creases before handing the paper over. As the officer read the letter, Fitzhugh could tell when he read the name scrawled on the bottom of the page, as his eyes suddenly grew very wide.
‘This is signed by Haig.’
‘General Haig.’ Fitzhugh smiled warmly, continuing their game a little longer.
‘Are you sure it’s Ash you want?’
‘I have been hearing that question a lot recently. Absolutely it is Ash I want.’
‘And you know what he did?’
‘Let me see, he was wounded at Gallipoli after showing enormous courage, and has been serving very bravely here since….’
‘Since he broke a lieutenant’s jaw–’
‘From what I heard, the lieutenant deserved a broken jaw.’
‘He was still a superior officer,’ Preston said.
‘Senior officer, Major. I’m not too sure how “superior” the man was. Let’s not be conjuring facts we have no actual evidence. Personally, I refuse to condemn a man standing against a practice more in tune with the brutality of the inquisition. Now, I believe Sergeant Ash is yet to be convicted of this crime?’
‘May I ask why it’s taken so long to court-martial a man who struck an officer? The official report is frustratingly vague on why he has missed his last three court appearances. For that matter, how are you still in charge, having failed to get your prisoner to his hearing…if I may be so bold as to ask?’
‘Very simple.’ The major opened his hands, as though displaying something on the table before them. ‘My predecessor was a total and utter moron.’
Biting off a laugh from the unexpected comment, Fitzhugh regained control of himself. ‘Care to elaborate, sir?’
‘The buffoon arrested Ash and placed him in this stockade, a stockade, I’d like to point out, that is surrounded by the entire 1st Australian Division.’
‘Gotcha,’ Fitzhugh said, realisation striking.
‘Every time we have tried to move ‘Private’ Ash, those bloody Australians have intercepted us. It seems they are determined to make sure he never sees the inside of a courtroom, and their own officers are uninterested in doing anything to help clear our path.’
‘How are they stopping you?’
‘Well, you may have noticed the Aussies have men posted along every route into and out of this place, and they seem to be ready to move on a moment’s notice if they sense we are up to something. The first time we tried to take Ash to his court appearance, we found nearly a thousand men choking the road, doing the finest parade drill I have ever seen. Every time we tried to cut through them, some unseen voice would order a platoon to move into our way, and they would begin vigorously marching.’
No longer interested in hiding his mirth, Fitzhugh asked, ‘And the next time?’
‘We tried to sneak him out after making sure the time of his hearing was never announced. Somehow, when we went to move him, we suddenly had hundreds of Australian soldiers pushing into the little courtyard out there. They managed to never disobey an order, as the ones who could hear us became hopelessly trapped by the men at the rear continuously pushing forward. It took hours to disentangle everyone, and by then the court had dispersed for the day.’
‘So, I assume you next tried to bring the court here?’
‘We did, and here’s why I really hate those fucking antipodeans.’ The major almost spat. ‘Clearly, they have either befriended or bribed some of my guards, as no sooner did I have it planned for the court to visit us, the Australians struck again.’
‘Well, of course, I have no proof of this, but I find it suspicious that the horses the court were going to use to get here disappeared, and of course, they refused to walk all the way, and vehicles would never have made the journey through the trenches.’
‘The Australians stole the horses?’ Fitzhugh asked, grinning.
‘They steal everything not tied down, bloody convicts.’ Sensing he may have said too much, the warden backpedalled. ‘Well, as I said, there’s no proof. Though the Aussies did seem to eat well for the next few days. They had themselves a grand barbeque. They even invited us for a meal.’
Fitzhugh gasped and looked toward the heavens. ‘Thank God!’
‘Captain?’ the major asked, a little confused.
‘Sorry, sir, I was just thanking the Almighty that they’re on our side, because I wouldn’t want to be facing the bastards if they ever got really angry at us.’
‘I hadn’t thought about that,’ the warden said. ‘Thank God!’
Also, don’t forget that as a special for July, Golgotha is included in the Fromelles Anniversary Book Bundle from Odyssey Books – along with my novel The Stars in the Night, and Jim Ditchfield’s Nursing Fox. Something for everyone!
This statue, titled “Cobbers” by Melbourne artist Peter Corlett was was installed in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles, France in 1998.
In the days after the battle rescuers recovered some 300 wounded from no-man’s land.
As one soldier carried a wounded companion from the field he heard a call for help.
Don’t forget me, cobber
The “Cobbers” statue in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles in France features Sergeant Simon Fraser from Western Victoria carrying a fallen comrade from the field.
Cobbers is a memorial to Australian service and sacrifice at the Battle of Fromelles. Fraser risked his life and a possible court martial when he returned to save a stricken soldier whose identity is unknown.
Preparing for the annual Anzac Day celebration, I’m taking a break from interviews.
Around this time every year, there is renewed interest in my World War I academic book, The Purpose of Futility, as well as my historical novel, The Stars in the Night. Both of them came out of my PhD studies at the University of Melbourne. Today I have three goals:
to share some of the fascinating background to my story
to let you in to some of the secrets hidden inside the covers
and offer you a free copy of The Stars in the Night*#
*#UPDATE April 18th: Thanks all, the free copies are GONE 🙂 … but feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you wish in any case
Behind the story
Here are some facts and figures for you. I know some of you love numbers and weird trivia.
Australia of all the combatant nations in the First World War did NOT execute any of its own soldiers.
Over 316,000 Australians served overseas in WWI, but only about 7000 remained in service from Gallipoli to Armistice.
Originally, only those soldiers who served at Gallipoli were called ‘Anzacs’. Their identifying colour patches were distinguished by a gold letter ‘A’.
After the war, more than 250,000 servicemen returned to Australia, bringing with them a new perspective on our place in the world.
My reasons for studying WWI novels in the first place had to do with family. My paternal grandparents arrive in Port Adelaide in January 1914, escaping the threat of European war. My father had some stories of their experiences. Some of these have made their way into my novel.
Harry Fletcher’s German grandmother, Liesl, is modelled on my grandmother Albertine. She died when my dad was only 9 years old, so I never met her. Quite possibly, I have a rose-tinted view of her.
Harry Fletcher’s birthday is the same as mine!
Harry’s mother Ellen is based on my mother-in-law Nell. Watch out. I’m sure she’s still around in one way or another.
The German widower and his son, who come into Harry’s bakery early on in the story, represent my dad and his bereaved father. I wanted them to have jam doughnuts.
Finally, free copies!
*#UPDATE April 18th: Thanks all, the free copies are GONE 🙂 … but feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you wish in any case
To help commemorate Anzac Day 2021, I am offering a free print copy of The Stars in the Night to the first three readers who sign up for my newsletter. *Australia only this time. See the panel to your right to sign up. I promise there not to deluge your inbox with spam!
Malve’s forthcoming book, The Amber Crane (to be published by the fabulous Odyssey Books this year), is set in Germany in 1645 and 1945. Currently, she is working on a biographical work about a woman coming of age in Nazi Germany.
Today she is sharing an extract from her novel Alina, and explaining how history inspired the story.
Malve’s Inspiration: the trobairitz
Malve: When writing my historical fiction novel, I wanted to incorporate and give voice to the trobairitz, the women singer-songwriters of the 12th century. My protagonist Alina is a young woman who aspires to become a trobairitz.
Who were the trobairitz?
Trobairitz are female troubadors. In the early 12th century, the troubadour school or tradition originated in a region of southern France as well as parts of Italy and Spain known as Occitania. The art of the troubadours declined and eventually died out by the middle of the 13th century. Trobairitz came from that same tradition.
Why did most of the known trobairitz emerge from the Provence and other areas in southern France?
The social-economic factors defining the lives of ordinary women in that part of the world reduced their choices. Other than marriage and childbearing, few alternative paths were available to women in the 12th century. Women from the upper classes had the same restrictions, unless they chose the church. In rare instances, women made names for themselves as writers or healers, or managed to carve out positions of political power at various courts.
In southern France, compared to other regions in Europe, women had more control over land ownership. That meant women had access to sources of power. This was perhaps reinforced by the fact that during the Crusades, many men were away, leaving their wives to administer their estates.
The trobairitz moved far beyond the traditions of the troubadours. Like the troubadours, they often sang about courtly love. However, trobairitz had a much sharper, more grounded, and even mocking tone. Their lyrics were often more sincere, direct, and passionate than that of troubadours. They wrote about political and social inequality and questioned the prevailing mores of the times that silenced women and relegated them to the realms of motherhood.
For the first time in European history, women could claim authorship of their lyrics and compositions. All known female composers who preceded them wrote sacred music, with their works published under the names of men for their music to have any chance of being distributed and played.
Sand had gotten into everything I owned. I gave up trying to shake it out and resigned myself to being covered with a layer of dust until we arrived in Jerusalem. My hair was even more disheveled than usual, and I could taste the salty sweat on my cracked lips. My eyes burned from the hot glare of the day. I was tired.
And I was happy.
It was as if I was drunk on the colors of the desert, the silence, the vastness, and the impersonal harshness, drunk on traveling and on being far away from home. With one ear I tried to catch the sounds of the men talking. Occasionally I could make out Count Stephen’s voice.
“Let’s play some music.”
Startled out of my reverie, I glanced around. Milos had walked over and crouched on the sand next to me. He helped himself to a date. “How about it?”
I hesitated. During the journey from France, it had seemed a natural thing to do in the evenings, but now with Count Raymond, Count Stephen, and other older knights, I felt uncomfortable. I hardly needed to draw more attention to myself.
“Come on, Alina. This might be the last chance we’ll have for a while.”
Reluctantly I took my lute out of its wrappings. “What would you like to sing?”
“How about Can vei la lauzeta?” Milos asked.
For a moment I yearned for home. Right now the hills would be covered with wild thyme.
I began to play a few chords, and then Milos began to sing, softly at first. Heads turned, and a few of the knights wandered over to listen to us.
Behold the lark
In the sun’s rays and
Swooping into the depths, borne down by the delight in its heart.
It makes me yearn to be one with all who have tasted happiness.
After the first few lines, I forgot my discomfort. Milos and I had done together this so often that we didn’t even need to look at each other for cues about when to increase or lower the volume or when to slow down or to pause. For Milos, it was just one of many facets of his being. He liked to perform, but he had never hounded our father to teach him new songs.
For me, it was so much more—not just a joy, but something vital in a way I couldn’t explain. Maybe in part it was because I could control it when I couldn’t control anything else. Perhaps it had been like that for our father as well. Of course he was a man, and nobody could force him into a marriage or tell him how to act. So maybe it wasn’t the same. Anyway, for me it was more than that.
When Milos finished, the last drawn-out note echoing through the still evening air, I made a sign to him and whispered, “Now it’s my turn. I’ll sing Ar em al freg temps vengut.”
Milos shook his head. “But that’s about winter, and it’s too long,” he whispered.
“We’ll do just a few verses,” I said stubbornly. All afternoon I had watched the shifting light transform the desert into a glowing purple void, the silvery green leaves of the scrubby desert brush the only signposts reminding us of the ground beneath our feet. I had kept thinking of the right music to convey all this splendor. Finally, I remembered the song my father taught me by the trobairitz Azalais de Porcairagues. Gently I strummed the strings and began.
Winter is upon us, and time stands still,
Trapped in ice and snow and mud.
All birds have fallen silent
(for none wants to raise her voice in song).
Milos picked up his flute and followed my voice. The melody was sparse and severe, a song of immeasurable sorrow, glorying in desolation. It was as if one could hear the high-pitched whistling and groaning sounds from a frozen lake, echoing across the ice.
Now, with the heat of the day drifting away into the darkness, the flute’s plaintive notes evoked the wind sweeping over the sands. I kept my eyes on Milos as I sang. A hint of sadness in his eyes reminded me of our father and his lost, hungry expression at the end.
When we drew to a close, Milos lowered his flute, but I didn’t want to stop yet.
I concluded with one of my father’s pieces. Eerily, he had composed it a year before my mother died. It was about a dreamer who walks through a misty valley, blind to the flowers at his feet, in search of his love. He walks and weeps and does not hear the birds all around him. Faster and faster he rushes through the woods. His steps lead him to the brink of a ravine. He never falters as he steps into the void. I didn’t sing the lyrics, instead just picked out the chords of the simple melody.
A last dark note and I placed my fingers on the strings to still them. When I raised my head, I looked directly into the face of Count Stephen. He had moved quietly to join the others listening to us. The fire lit up his features—plain, with a jutting nose and a wide mouth slightly off-center, a broad forehead, and grey eyes under thick brows. Courteously he inclined his head toward me and smiled. It transformed his face.
I realized that I was staring at him, and felt myself go red, hoping he could not see this in the dark.
“Thank you, Mistress Alina. I hope we will hear you perform again.” Then he turned and walked away.
The next day we arrived in Jerusalem.
Goodness! Now I want to read on. I hope you do too. Here are some useful links to help you do that. Many thanks to Malve for sharing this with us. Until next week!
Frances Quinn is the author of The Smallest Man. Her novel tells the story of Nat Davy. Nat becomes court dwarf to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1, just as England heads into the civil war. The war that will end in the execution of the king.
Who’s behind the Smallest Man?
I came across the real life character that inspired The Smallest Man quite by accident. I was working on a historical murder mystery, and I wanted to feature a character with a disability who, as a result of attitudes at the time, would be a bit on the edge of society.
Hudson went on to kill a man in a duel and survive an attack on the Queen during the Civil War. He was later captured by pirates and taken to be a slave in Morocco. He then came home and went to prison as a traitor – quite a life!
Real life v fiction
I instantly wanted to abandon the murder mystery and write a story about Hudson instead. It seemed to be a gift to a novelist.
Little did I know!
As I tried to plan the novel, I discovered that turning a real life into a novel isn’t as easy as it sounds. A novel needs a shape, and a direction. Real life meanders around, goes off at tangents and has no respect for the need to tie all the ends together in the last chapter.
If the interesting part about the person’s story focuses around one event, or even a shortish period, you can zoom in on that. But Jeffrey’s story had almost too much going on, with the key events stretching over 50 years. Long, boring bits occur in between the action and a vast cast of characters appear who were relevant historically but not necessarily very interesting. His life also had a sad ending – it’s thought Jeffrey died alone and in poverty. Not a very satisfying conclusion to a novel.
I was at the point of giving up on the story, when I re-read Armistead Maupin’s Maybe the Moon . Maupin’s main character also has dwarfism and I wanted to remind myself how he’d treated her disability in the story.
I’d forgotten that the heroine, Cadence Roth, was inspired by the actress Tamara de Treaux, who played ET in the film. Maupin’s novel isn’t Tamara’s story, but it’s the story of an actress with dwarfism who played an iconic character in a children’s movie.
That gave me the idea of creating a fictional character, Nat Davy. Nat becomes a court dwarf and has some of the same adventures as Jeffrey did, and some of his own.
What to put in, what to leave out
Once I’d made that decision, the novel took shape.
However I still had to wrestle with real life events. The middle part of the story happens against the background of the build-up to the English Civil War and the war itself. That meant a lot of well-documented events that potentially needed to be woven in.
Fortunately, my early choice to write in first person meant that Nat only needed to talk about the events that touched him personally. I concentrated on the things that the real life Jeffrey Hudson might mention if you bumped into him in a tavern and he told you his life story.
That got me out of writing about a lot of very tedious political and religious stuff from the build-up to the war. I also made sure Nat was well away from the fighting, because there was no way I wanted to write battle scenes!
A final twist
It took me four years to research and write the book, going through six full drafts. But the real life aspect still had another curveball to throw me, even after the book was sold to a publisher.
From early on, I’d had my doubts about having Nat kidnapped by pirates and taken to Morocco, as Jeffrey was. That would have meant moving the action not just to a completely new setting but a new cast of characters.
Also, because it was first person, some familiar characters would disappear for many chapters, because Nat wouldn’t know what they were doing.
Everyone I spoke said no, it’s exciting, leave it in. So I did. As it turned out, my editor saw the same problem that I had, and asked me to ditch the pirate section.
That meant not only writing a new third section of 30,000 words, but also tons more research into the last years of the Civil War. I hadn’t thought I’d need to do that because Nat would be in Morocco and know nothing about it! It felt like a mountain to climb at the time, but the book is, I think, much better for it.
So building a novel on Jeffrey Hudson’s story turned out to be much more difficult than I thought when I read that Wikipedia entry. But I’m very glad now that I didn’t give up on him.
When should my story begin? Not when I was born, a butcher’s son, in a tiny cottage just like all the other tiny cottages in Oakham. Who’d have thought then that I’d ever have much of a story to tell?
Perhaps it starts when people began to nudge each other and stare as I walked with my mother to market, or the first time someone whispered that we were cursed. But I didn’t know then.
No, I think my story begins on the day of the Oakham Fair, in the year of 1625. When I was ten years old and I found out what I was.
Nat Davy is a dwarf. He is 10 years old, and all he wants is to be normal. After narrowly escaping being sold to the circus by his father, Nat is presented to Queen Henrietta Maria – in a pie. She’s 15, trapped in a loveless marriage to King Charles I, and desperately homesick.
Loosely based on a true story, this epic tale spans 20 years; during which the war begins, Nat and the queen go on the run, Nat saves the queen’s life, falls in love with the most beautiful girl at court, kills a man, is left in exile. Told from his unique perspective as the smallest man in England, with the clever and engaging voice of a boy turned man yearning for acceptance, this story takes us on an unforgettable journey.
He’s England’s smallest man, but his story is anything but small.
In difficult times, we look to our leaders to guide us to safety and security.
Wow, do we ever need good leaders in 2020!
Writing about leadership
A few days ago, I featured on the Hist Fic Chic website. I wrote a guest post about leadership in fiction.
This is something I studied for my PhD. At that time, I was looking at how leaders are portrayed in World War I fiction. In this post I summarised the heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Leadership is a topic that has intrigued us down the ages.
What about Shakespeare?
To see my take on King Lear, Macbeth, Henry V and co, please visit this blog:
Tonya Ulynn Brown writes mostly historical fiction, and has a particular interest in the 16th century. Tonya confesses to an unhealthy love for Mary Queen of Scots, so much so that Mary is her number one topic of conversation whenever possible. I might say she’s a little obsessed, and she says that her family thinks so. Tonya lives in rural Ohio, USA, and teaches fourth grade when she’s not writing or enjoying life with her family and their springer spaniel called Oscar (yes of course I got a dog reference in…).
Welcome, Tonya, it’s great to have a longer chat. I hope the book is going well in this strange year! Let’s talk about you as an author: Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
Tonya: I don’t know that I would call it a secret, but I do use a little hidden imagery in The Queen’s Almoner. The main character has a dream and the dream is rather prophetic. Anyone who knows Mary Stuart’s history will probably recognize the meaning of the dream right away. But don’t worry—if you are not familiar with Mary’s life all will be revealed in the end.
Oh, a little treat for history buffs and Mary fans 🙂 Is writer’s block a thing for you?
Yes, I do get hung up at times. Since I write historical fiction, it usually has to do with an aspect of history that I am not familiar with. When that happens, I have to stop writing and do a little more reading/researching. That usually helps. Another thing that helps when I get stuck is to go back and re-read what I have already written in the story. This helps me get back into the mood of the story and figure out where I want to go next.
So a lot of research is involved in your writing?
Usually, quite a bit. But it just depends on if I am writing in a time period that I am already familiar with. A lot of research goes into the events that happen in a particular individual’s life. If I have written in that time period before, then I will probably not need to research the types of foods they ate, the way they conducted their households, and other important details that make historical fiction so engaging.
How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?
I have a really great group of beta readers that read my manuscripts and make suggestions for improvements. They are able to give me insight on things that I am just not able to consider because I’ve been immersed in the story for so long.
Beta readers are the best for blind spots! Do you write full time?
No, I am a 4th grade teacher as well. I currently teach Social Studies and Science.
Goodness! What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
That sounds very interesting. If you could write a note to someone about to read your book, what would you say?
I take great pains to make sure my stories are as historically accurate as possible. But at the same time, I have added fictional characters to my story, and have used some creative license as well. I try to separate the facts from fiction in the historical notes included at the end of my book, and hope that readers will find the notes useful, should they wish to read further on the subject.
Notes are a good idea. Do you write in more than one genre?
I write mostly historical fiction. However, I do have a women’s fiction story that is finished, I just have not submitted it for publication yet. I have also started a middle grade story, based on what I know my students like to read. But I really consider myself a historical fiction author.
Who helped you most when you were starting out?
My friend, author Janice Broyles, gave me A LOT of advice and guidance years before I was even ready to publish my book. Her insight on querying [publishers], attending writing conferences, and marketing has been invaluable, and put me several steps ahead of the game.
She sounds like a gem. Her books look interesting too – thanks for the tip. I look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
Roxi Harms didn’t set out to write historical fiction, but some stories are irresistible. A chance meeting, a true story, and much research later, her book The Upside of Hungeris helping to finance high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’m eager to learn more.
Hi Roxi, great to talk with you. How did you break into writing? What happened?
Roxi: I don’t know if I would call it a break, but there was definitely an inciting event. LOL. It was January 2012. I was in Costa Rica on vacation. As I stood on the patio looking out over the ocean and enjoying the sunset, I heard the clink of ice in a glass and looked down to see an gentleman in the yard below, also gazing out over the water. I called out hello, and he got up and came over. Next thing you know he and his wife, and my hubby and I were headed out for dinner together. What happened in the next couple of hours changed my life.
As we chatted and got to know a bit about each other, I realized I was sitting across the table from someone who had experienced and survived monumental historical events. Adam was raised in eastern Hungary in the 1930’s and ended up on the Eastern Front at 15 years of age – on the “wrong” side. I was fascinated not only to learn of his involvement in WW2 and how he was affected by Hitler’s rise and reign, but also by his family of origin and probably most of all by the life he built as a result of his indomitable spirit and unquenchable hunger for living. It took me two years to get up the courage, and when I finally did, I asked Adam if he would be interested in sharing his life story as a basis for my debut novel. Five long, but precious and irreplaceable years later, The Upside of Hungerwas published.
What made you want to write this story?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I decided to write Adam’s story. I just had this pull, deep in my gut, to record it before it was lost (Adam was 82 when we met). I didn’t really think too deeply about why, it was more of a strong, instinctual desire. Since publishing it, I’ve learned so much from my readers about why Adam’s story is important. I’m so deeply touched when I read reviews that talk about how The Upside of Hunger illustrates our common humanity, regardless of which “side” of a conflict a country is on or which faction society judges to be right or wrong.
As I was saying, I had no idea what I was getting into when I committed to writing a book. And it was hard! Harder than anything I’d ever tackled in my business or personal life to that point. I just kind of made it up as I went (until I finally found an amazing coach later in the journey). About half way through my second or third draft, I woke up one morning and thought, “what if this book is successful, and makes a profit?” I hadn’t even considered that possibility, and I was perplexed… I didn’t want to profit from Adam’s story. That just wasn’t at all why I was writing it. We talked it over, Adam and I, and decided to establish a fund that is distributed to high school graduates from financially strapped families each year, to assist with first year college or university tuition. In 2020 we awarded our first two Upside of Hunger Bursaries. A few weeks later, I received this thank you card in the mail. Nothing could be more rewarding.
I crossed out the young man’s name as I haven’t had a chance, with COVID, etc. to meet with him and confirm he’s okay with sharing his story about receiving one of our bursaries.
So now, bottom line is that every reader who purchases The Upside of Hunger is helping our youth access an education.
Oh, and another amazing thing that has happened with The Upside of Hunger is that high schools have begun picking it up to use in History 12 and English 11 & 12. I’ve just completed a 35 minute film of Adam discussing events in the book, as supplemental material for classroom use. I just love so much that kids (well, young adults really) are reading and discussing the life lessons in Adam’s story! It’s like a way that the terrifying events that Adam lived through and his response to difficulties throughout his life can serve a purpose and add value to the world for generations to come. I’ve posted a little video of commentary by some teachers and students: https://roxiharms.com/2020/01/13/upside-used-in-bc-schools/
Now that you are a writer, what’s your favourite writing food and drink?
Depends. Early morning writing is generally very productive as long as the first strong, black coffee lasts, then it peters out as I wake up and my mind starts to wander. Afternoon writing is rarely productive for me, perhaps because I can’t keep my hand out of the Hawkins Cheezies bag long enough to type anything.
Late night no food or drink is needed. The creative wheels just seem to turn and the words flow freely late at night.
Sometimes night lets our minds go free, I agree. Has your work been compared to other writers?
I can’t recall any direct comparisons to other writers, but I did have a girl put down the copy of The Testaments (Margaret Atwood) that she’d been clutching as she headed to the checkout, in favour of a signed copy ofThe Upside of Hunger, at a book signing event just before COVID started. I took that as a HUGE compliment! Oh, and last New Year’s I was tagged in this book club Instagram post. That was pretty amazing too!
Is writers block a thing for you?
Isn’t writer’s block a think for every author?
Partway through my first novel, I figured out that when I have writer’s block, I have to stop trying. Just stop. There is just no point in staying at the keyboard because whatever I write when I’m in that mode is garbage anyway. The best solution, which also happens to be pure bliss, is to pick a book from my shelf – often something by Michener or Ken Follett or Diana Gabaldon, an author whose prose I admire – get comfy on the sofa in my writing room (acquired for just this purpose), and read for an hour or two.
I don’t usually pick up whatever book I’m actually reading at the time or I might not get back to writing that day. Instead, I pick any one of a number of favourites on my shelf, and just read for a while. Somehow it gets my brain firing again. Resets the rhythm and opens the locked doors.
What kind of reader would like your book/s?
My knee-jerk reaction to that question is readers who love true stories and readers who gravitate to historical reads. BUT, then I look at a list like the Hey Girl Book Club Top 5 from 2019 (I still kind of blush with pride and disbelief when I think of that list) and I wonder if my mindset about who my target readers are is too narrow. Apparently readers who enjoy coming of age stories, dystopian fiction, LGBT romance, and crime thrillers also love The Upside of Hunger!
If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?
Definitely Adam, the protagonist. He’s 91 now and loves nothing better than a good chat. But then again, readers also love Jean, the quiet heroine of The Upside of Hunger. Adam and Jean are wonderful people – both highly intelligent and great conversationalists. And given they’ve lived almost a century, there’s never a shortage of things to talk about.
I’m sure there isn’t! Thank you so much for sharing your story with me today. All the best for the future of the bursary too.
Mark Turnbull is a young English author who lives in the seventeenth century.
Well, he would if he could. He’s a passionate enthusiast of seventeenth century history. When he’s not writing or researching, Mark enjoys battle re-enactments and visits historic sites.
Mark’s here today to tell me about his fixation on all things English Civil War, a period of great interest to me. Many decades ago I read Margaret Irwin’s novel The Stranger Prince. It’s the story of the romantic Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and that led me down all sorts of paths back to the 1600s.
I even once visited Linz on the strength of it. The Linzer Torte made it well worth our while!
Great to speak with you, Mark. I owe my interest to Margaret Irwin. How did you become interested in the War of the English Civil War?
When I was ten years old, my parents took me to Helmsley Castle, in North Yorkshire. I’d had a love of history from an early age. Like any child, I was eager to see what the gift shop had in store, eventually landing upon a pack of cards. But this was no ordinary pack. Each card featured an image of a monarch of England, along a short biography of their reign.
After flicking through many tombstone effigies, my eye was caught by Van Dyck’s portrait of King Charles I at the hunt. The colours, clothes, the beautiful artistry, as well as the King’s pose – imperiously looking at me as if I’d interrupted him – all drew my interest.
I was shocked to find out that he was publicly executed in the name of his people. Like a murder mystery, I now wanted to know who did it, when and why. Back then, of course, there was no internet to help with such questions.
How much research is involved in your writing?
My research is almost daily. Noting down observations, descriptions, or facts that I can use. I list historical characters’ movements as I come across them, jot down plot lines, or simply read about the period. It is constant research, although it’s all a pleasure. I feed my interest in the period, and that, in turn, feeds my writing.
Why are you the perfect person to write your books?
My friends tell me that I was born in the wrong century!
I really love the period I write about, and find the historical characters and events fascinating. They inspire my imagination.
For me, it’s the small details or snippets of personal facts that bring a person, event or an era to life. After reading and writing about the civil war and re-enacting it in The Sealed Knot as a pikeman, I feel as if I live and breathe the era when I write. Thirty years of passionate interest has helped me get to grips with the 17th century world and I stay true to the history.
What was the first book you bought for yourself?
Not long after my interest was sparked, I watched the film Cromwell, starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness (not historically accurate, but is wonderfully visual!). This led me to purchase Cavaliers and Roundheads by Christopher Hibbert to expand my knowledge of the period. It’s timeless, and I have re-read it numerous times. It takes you through the war and skilfully brings it to life. I was hooked by every detail.
The book survives to this day, sitting on my bookshelf like a proud grandfather amongst the array of civil war books that followed it!
Do you plan your books, or do you listen to your muse?
A bit of both. I map out a chronology of factual events and then weave my story around that. I find that this brings my characters to life and grounds them in the history, motives and risks of the day. Consequently, the national events direct the life of my fictional characters – as they would have directed those who lived through this pivotal part of our history.
I also find that the storyline takes on a direction of its own as my writing progresses, and I really enjoy that; it’s great to see the plot come alive and to feel transported back in time to become part of it as I write. When writingAllegiance of Blood, one fictional character ended up meeting their maker, even though I had not planned for this to occur at the outset.
What would be a dream come true for you?
Ultimately, to be able to become a full-time writer, fully indulge my passion for the civil war period and entertain readers with books that transport them back to an overshadowed 17th century world.
Perhaps even to have a book adapted into a drama series, like the ones we see that are set in the Tudor age!
Now that would indeed be the pinnacle! Why is writing important to you?
Writing started as a hobby but is now part of my life. I believe we all have our own passions that can help us focus, get through tough times, give us both pleasure and challenge us, but also help us learn. This is mine.
I enjoy creating and crafting; whether it is a novel, non-fiction, short story, or a post for my blog and hope that my writing, along with that of other authors, helps play a small part in keeping the era and the people who lived through it alive.
What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
Keep writing. In my own experience, writing – whether it is a novel, short story, or an article – has not only helped me find the style I enjoy, but it helps me improve and develop.
I recently read Andrea Zuvich’s inspirational story. In 2010, she bought a novel set in the 17th century on her way home from work, and at the time she, too, dreamed of writing one set in the period. Ten years on, she is an established author of fiction and non-fiction and has just published her sixth book, which has been reviewed by none other than the well-known author of the book she bought all that time ago.
She is truly amazing, and now advises on television and film set in the period! What is your writing goal for the next twelve months, Mark?
I am currently finishing off a non-fiction which looks at the early stages of the English Civil War and am working on a sequel to Allegiance of Blood.
I’d also like to start compiling a book of short stories about minor events that occurred during the civil war, which would entertain in the way of fiction but put meat on the bones of these small, often overlooked occurrences.
A sequel, that would be wonderful. Thank you for speaking with me today, Mark. All the best with your work. Keep writing!