Blog Writing Craft

Introverts and Extroverts in Historical Fiction

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA

I recently came on a discussion in a facebook group about introverts and extroverts in fiction. (Sorry to whoever started this thread; I can’t find it again now!) But it really made me stop and think, because as a reader I have always been a fan of what I call ‘quiet books’. The more page-turning a book is, the less memorable. So as a writer I need to find a balance between the speed my reader devours the book, and the feeling or memory that the book leaves behind, both of which rely on slowing the pace.


The fashion these days in books on the craft of writing is to tell you to concentrate on high action and drama and to have plenty at stake in an external way. This is what we see a lot of in film and TV drama, when the focus is on the physical demonstration of action. In these media, it’s necessary because we have no access to the interior thoughts of the characters.

But novels are different, and as a novelist I’ve always been much more interested the in motivation of my characters. They act, but not necessarily in a high stakes way. The suggestion that some readers might prefer to read about introverted characters, but that most fiction is aimed at extroverts, is a refreshing idea.

What is an introvert, and what might they want to read?

According to Healthline Carl Jung wrote that introverts and extroverts could be separated based on how they regain energy. Introverts prefer a less stimulating environment, and need time on their own to recharge their energy levels, whereas extroverts recharge by social interaction and being with other people.

It made me wonder if introverts prefer reading books written in the first person, where the ‘I’ conveys the inner feelings of the protagonist, and it is as if you are the only person through whom the story is being told. Perhaps a more extrovert reader would prefer multiple points of view and multiple characters which would mimic their preferred way to refuel?

Drawing Room Drama

In historical fiction, the history that has survived is often of the ‘high stakes’ variety. War, bitter battles for control over crown or state, murderous religious divides. Yet one of the most enduring historical fiction periods is the Regency period, presided over by the giant Jane Austen, whose quiet wit, and focus on the drawing room intrigues of societies marriage market, prove endlessly popular.

The Spectrum

As a reader I enjoy both types of fiction, but I couldn’t read an endless diet of historical thrillers. The non-stop breathless action makes me long for a quieter book. I suspect that like most readers, I am on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert, but heading more towards the introvert. As a writer, I need to recharge often after my most dramatic scenes, as I am literally living them as I write.

What do you think? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you like to read about introverted characters, or must they always be the ‘go-getting’ adventurous type? What type of books do you like to read, and would you categorize yourself as an introvert or extrovert?

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – the joy of writing extraordinary commoners

I’ve just started a new book and after quite a bit of research, this is the first week of actually typing anything for my new project, book two of a series set in Italy. I’m a pantser, so I just launch straight in and then try to write my first draft as quickly as possible, and allow a lot of time afterwards for editing, refining and re-structuring the story. I have an overarching view of the story in the form of two sheets of A4 paper which are my only outline, plus of course the memory of what happened in Book 1. So far this week I’ve managed just over 7000 words, which is average for me. It gets slower as the story develops in complexity and as I figure out where the characters are taking me and what new research I need to do.

The piles of books on my desk (above)represent the things I am working on. On the left – things I’d like to write about – the writing wish-list. In the middle, books about my last series (in case anyone asks me awkward research questions!) and the next two piles are books about the stories I’m working on right now. There’s a lot about poisons as my main protagonist is a poisoner.

Again, the second book in my ‘Italian’ series is about a commoner. Publishers are often keen that novelists should write about ‘marquee names’ – which means to say people they’ve heard of. They know they can sell any number of books about Anne Boleyn. If the book is about someone people have heard of, its much easier to sell.

This is not actually true. The Girl with the Pearl Earring sold well, despite having an unknown woman at its heart. As did The Miniaturist. Besides,  Royal courts have never much interested me. Instead I’m interested in individuals who have made their mark in history despite being supposedly ‘nobody special.’ My job as a novelist is to make them special and unforgettable. This is a joy, as unlike Anne Boleyn, where there are thousands of interpretations of her life, each of my characters can shine out from her historical past like a gem in a very direct way.

The three women I wrote about from Pepys’ Diary were women he mentioned in passing. Yet now I have re-imagined rich and vibrant lives for Deb Willet, Bess Bagwell and Mary Elizabeth Knepp. You won’t know who they are because they are footnotes in history. The only portrait of them that exists, is in Pepys’ Diary and my books, and so to me these characters are unsullied by other interpretations. I got to know them through my own internal imagination and Pepys’ direct descriptions rather than through some other biographer’s lens. These women now live as more than footnotes and have been given imaginary voices, and I hope voices that concord with their status in the period.

Pepys Library in Cambridge

Because of the fact my characters have no biographers, my research is mostly background. I read very few books that pertain directly to my main characters. I love old maps and take great care with the settings to make them as authentic as possible. Here’s one of old Palermo I used in Book I of my new series. Historical events, and their impact on the people in my stories are my main interest. The cities of Palermo and Naples at that period were subject to earthquakes, rebellions and the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Politics always looks very different from the bottom, rather than from the point of view of those who make the decisions at the top.

My new series is based around the life of Giulia Tofana, an Italian 17th Century poisoner. She allegedly killed 600 men in the cities of Rome and Naples. She is half legend, half real person. Her story has been embroidered and changed over the centuries, but no-one has written a biography of her. So I had to find an internal way to bring her to life, and one of the ways I attempt to do that is to give her a strong setting, and within that to furnish her with a strong set of opinions. For her poisonings to be convincing, her view of the world has to be skewed in some way by her life’s events. In the first book we see these events brought to life, but by book 2 she is now in a very different situation. From being a courtesan in the first book, she now finds herself a nun in charge of a family of young women incarcerated against their will.

The first novel in the series, ‘The Poison Keeper’, is finished and has been contracted to Sapere Books for publication early in 2021. In my first week writing Book 2, I’m wrestling with how much backstory a new reader needs to jump them into the story. I’m also researching the history of the silkworm which will play a big part in the unfolding events. And as always I’m enjoying breathing life into Giulia Tofana, a woman who has not yet been voiced in an English-speaking novel.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

My new WW2 novel will be published soon, and my latest book is here


Building Blocks of Historical Fiction no 2 – Suspicion versus Suspense #HistFic

FAMsf Cornelis TroostOften writers think that in order to convey mystery, or to keep the reader in suspense, they must withhold information. A typical example is that someone (mystery man) kills/kidnaps a mystery person on page one. In practice, this is just annoying. Much better is to give the maximum amount of detail. Name the character, give us a detailed description, tell us exactly who they are and who the other person is that they are interacting with. That way, we might actually care about the victim, and also care about the man who is perpetrating the crime.

Suspicion: What we don’t want is the reader to think, ‘Who are these people? What the heck is going on? And can I be bothered to find out? I’m suspicious as to whether this author is going to give me a good story.

Suspense: Instead we want them to think, ‘Mr Smith is an interesting character. I wonder why he hates Mrs Jones so much? What has Mrs Jones ever done to him to make him feel this way? If I read on I might find out. I trust this author to tell me everything I need to know for a satisfying story.

Tension is created in a reader when they’re not sure what will happen in a story — and the best way to make tension is to make it between characters of opposing personalities or goals. If your characters are unknown or ‘mysterious’ then instead of gaining tension, the tension is lost. A reader will also lose interest because lack of specificity conveys the idea that what they are reading does not matter to the author enough to give details, or that the author themselves does not know.

Cut the vagueness and mystery from your prose, but keep it in the specifics of your plot. Don’t use ambiguous sentences. Aim for specific concrete details that bring clarity and help the reader visualize your scene. And as historical fiction writers we have a wealth of detail that can be used which will anchor our story in its era. If you pay attention to these details, your reader will also pay attention. If it matters to you; it will matter to them.

Anything that is vague weakens your writing. Here is an example with as much vagueness as I can inject.


It was about an hour ago that Mr Greaves had gone away, so Miss Allcott was trying to open the door, but when she pulled the handle it seemed to be stuck. Maybe someone had locked it at some time after she came in. She thought she’d better look through the keyhole, but she couldn’t see anything because apparently the key was somehow still in the other side.

Now I’ve made it more specific:

After Mr Greaves had been gone an hour, Miss Allcott tried to open the door, but when she pulled the handle it was stuck. Someone must have locked it after she came in. She looked through the keyhole, but could see nothing, for the key was still in the other side.

The bare facts, nice and clean without the vagueness. But it lacks period detail.

With more period detail, including the emotions of the character:

The odious Mr Greaves had gone an hour ago, and in that time Miss Allcott had unpacked all her valises, put away her new bombazine riding habit, and was getting hungry. She reached out a lace-gloved hand to the doorknob, and pulled. The door creaked but did not budge, so she twisted the handle again and put both hands to the task, leaning back with the full weight of her five-foot two frame. She frowned. Someone must have locked it after she came in. She hitched up her tight-fitting skirt and bent down to peer into the keyhole. Dark, with a mere glimmer of light on metal. How dare he! The key was still in the lock.

The more specific the detail, the more interested we are in the event.

Did you ask more questions about the third version of events? Did you start to ask why? Did you want to edit it for me? The more specificity, the more curiosity in the reader. I encourage you to add to this fictional scene with more detail, and begin to make it come to life. What do you think might be going on? Do feel free to improvise!

So, make sure your reader is treated to suspense, rather than suspicion.

You might like Building Blocks of Historical Fiction no 1 – Balance

Picture Credit — Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – engraving by Cornelis Troost

Blog Writing Craft

Secrets of Historical Fiction versus Non-Fiction by Annie Whitehead

I’m delighted to welcome Annie Whitehead to my blog today. Annie is both a historical novelist and a historian, and here she lets us into her writing secrets. Over to Annie:Whitehead

September 15 2018 saw the publication of my first full-length nonfiction book. I’m incredibly proud of it, and sometimes look at the pages and think, ‘Did I actually write this? How?’

But then, sometimes I look at my historical novels, and think the same thing, so perhaps it wasn’t that difficult.

I do remember that the research process for the nonfiction book was difficult and, at times, frustrating. Now, I’m not for one minute saying that authors of historical fiction don’t do diligent research, but this was different, somehow. There were many points at which I had to think not ‘Why did this character behave in this way?’ but ‘Do we definitely know that he did this?’ I had to be absolutely sure, or it couldn’t go in the book, at least not without some exploration of the veracity of the source in question. I found the research very stop-start, whereas the fiction research could sometimes be left to one side: I’d write the chapter, and then go back to fill in the details about what the characters would have been eating/drinking/wearing.

I’m sure all fiction authors will be familiar with the brackets, or the red text that will prompt them to go back and fill in exactly how many hours a certain journey might have taken at a given time of year and precisely which type of carriage/horse/train would have been used.

I did find though, that once I had all the research in place, the writing process for the nonfiction was perhaps easier because I had everything I needed; it was then just a question of putting it all in the right places.

So my experience would suggest that:

Fiction = do as much research as you need in order to get the scene written, but don’t let the research slow your flow.

Nonfiction = don’t write a word of your book, not even the introduction, until all your research is done.

Which do I prefer? Well, that’s really difficult. Writing fiction, there were times when I was happy that there was a gap in the records. When characters disappear from the pages of the chronicles, the author is at liberty to make up all sorts of stuff about them behind their backs. Gaps in the records don’t help the nonfiction author much though, leaving little choice but to say, ‘We simply don’t know.’

The reverse is also true: When we know for a fact that a person was in a certain place at a certain time, it makes piecing together the nonfiction story so much eWhitehead 1asier. But it’s very inconvenient if that person’s known and recorded presence gets in the way of a good fiction story arc. Then comes the difficult choice of removing them altogether or changing the dates. Either of those decisions might be frowned upon by readers.

My nonfiction book is a history of Mercia, and by the time I wrote it I’d written three novels all set in this ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom and all written about characters who actually lived. In the course of my research, I discovered new (to me) evidence about some of these people, which I thought might be at odds with my original portrayals, but I found that I was able to keep my nonfiction, historian’s hat on throughout the writing process, and could separate my fictional characters from my factual subjects.


I’d come to an especially tricky period of Mercian history, where kings chopped and changed almost with the days of the week, and at a time when murder was still as good a way as any of removing ones’ political rivals.

In the early eighth century the royal dynasty which had retained power from the middle of the seventh century was on the wane. A successful king, Æthelred, son of the famous pagan king, Penda, had won supremacy over the powerful Northumbrian kings, and decided that his latter years would be better spent in contemplation, so he abdicated and retired to a monastery. He had a hand in choosing his successor and, though he had a son, Ceolred, he chose his nephew, Coenred, to take his place. The nephew reigned for a few years, to be succeeded by Æthelred’s son. It seems Æthelred was right not to pass the kingship immediately to this son, who turned out to be rather feckless and Ceolred seems to have been pretty much universally loathed. Some even think that he was poisoned.

The official history then declares that the crown passed to Æthelbald, who was no direct relation of the previous kings and reigned successfully for the best part of half a century.


Whitehead DSCF4260There is one – just one – mention of another ‘C’ king, by the name of Ceolwald. Was he another son of Æthelred’s? If not, where did he come from? What happened to him? Whoever he was, his reign, according to this particular list, was sandwiched between that of Ceolred and Æthelbald.

Ceolred died in 716, and Æthelbald succeeded in 716. So where did Ceolwald fit in? If he had indeed been related to the ‘C’ kings, and if indeed he became king, then he surely didn’t reign for very long and this hints at some kind of palace coup. And for the historian, that’s it. That’s all we can say about him, unless we follow the example of one eminent historian who simply declared that the one and only source which mentioned him had ‘simply got it wrong.’

But oh, how the novelist part of my brain was whirring! Of course, if he were to be included in the plot of a novel, he’d have to be introduced so much earlier.  Was he the brother of the feckless king? Was it he who administered the poison? How did he then get bumped off? I got quite giddy with the possibilities and, who knows, he might just make an appearance if I write a third novel in my series about Penda and his family.

Research is never wasted. Whether it involves the chasing down of every charter issued by a certain king or finding out when the fork was first used at English dining tables, it all adds to the files. For nonfiction, we can try to pin down every known detail, which is extremely satisfying, and for fiction we can base chapters and chapters on one single record. Both are equally rewarding.

Photograph above is Annie’s own, the Repton Stone, said to depict King Æthelbald.
Find Annie on the links below:

Author update Summer 2018

My blog has been somewhat neglected for the last couple of months because I have become involved in two exciting new projects, at the same time as releasing my second book in the Pepys Trilogy.

Black DeathThe Black Death

I am collaborating with a group of historical fiction authors to bring you tales from around the world about the Black Death.  My story is finished and you will be able to read ‘The Repentant Thief’ along with the other stories in our anthology soon.

The Repentant Thief

Edinburgh 1645
When 12 year old Irish immigrant Finn O’Donnell steals from his neighbours, he knows it is a sin. So when his father dies of the plague, and his family are cast out from their home, he fears he is to blame. For didn’t the preacher at the kirk warn him that sinners’ families would be visited by famine and pestilence? Determined to save the rest of his family, there is only one thing Finn can do — he must brave the plague-ridden city and return the stolen goods.

The Resistance in WW2

Darkest HourThe second collaboration is with a group of nine authors writing in the era of WW2. Here is our website for The Darkest Hour:

Do go and take a look, and you’ll find my novella The Occupation, set in Jersey, listed there, along with its own book cover. Some of the novellas are not ready yet, so their individual covers are still to come.

The Occupation

When Nazi forces occupy Jersey, Céline Huber, who is married to a German, must decide where her loyalty lies. Love for her island, and fear for her Jewish friend Rachel, soon propel her into a dangerous double life.

The Darkest Hour is currently available for pre-order at Apple Book store. Because proceeds from this anthology of novellas will go to the Washington Holocaust Museum, we want this anthology to reach as many readers as possible and not only those on Amazon. If you’re interested in reading this or supporting our contribution to the Holocaust Museum, I encourage you to pre-order a copy now. The more copies we can sell on book stores outside of Amazon, the more it will help us to reach a wider, international audience. You can pre-order the copy by clicking here . (On our website you’ll find details of how to get an alert when the book is on general release to other retailers.) Pre-order price is 99c or 99p (for ten novellas!) and the price will increase after the book is released.

The Launch of A Plague on Mr Pepys

A Plague on Mr Pepys - newA Plague on Mr Pepys is out, and the irrepressible and ambitious Bess Bagwell has sprung to life, along with her mild and long-suffering husband Will, her feisty mother Agatha, and Will’s scheming cousin Jack. And Pepys too. Who could possibly forget him?!

‘A novel that transports readers with astonishing and engrossing detail’ Reader’s Favorite 5*

For the launch I have been zipping around the virtual world guesting on other people’s blogs, and you can read just a few of my posts here,  collected together for your interest:

An Interview about A Plague on Mr Pepys

Seven Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Money and House Ownership in 17th Century London

The Institution of Marriage in 17th Century England

Quackery and 17th Century Medicine

A Plague on Mr Pepys: Read a Review and an Extract


My schedule has quietened down a little now, and I am editing The Occupation as I’m working on the third in the Pepys Trilogy, Entertaining Mr Pepys. Of course I have another life as well as my writing life, and some of the other things I’ve been doing are playing with my drumming performance group, running a Tai Chi Summer School, teaching Yoga and learning to dance Rock n’Roll.  Writing is such a sedentary life that I fill the ‘away from the desk’ hours with as much physical exercise as I can. And my husband and I will have a walking holiday in Wales very soon, so here’s hoping the good weather holds out for us.


Historical Fiction – The Ending is in the Beginning

King art-carving-close-up-189528How many of you have found a book has been ruined by its ending? Me too.

Turns out that in fact we are hard-wired to wait for that pay-off, that final few moments of the story when it gives us its meaning. Here’s what a scientific experiment told us about endings:

The Peak-end Rule

The peak–end rule was proposed by Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman. This model dictates that an event is not judged not by the entirety of an experience, (in our case a novel) but by remembered moments (or snapshots) which dominate the actual value of an experience. Fredrickson and Kahneman’s theory was that these snapshots are formed by

a) the most intense moment of an experience and

b)even more often the feeling experienced at the end. (From our point of view; the climax and the ending).

In brief, Kahneman and Frederickson proved this by doing some experiments. In a 1993 study titled “When More Pain Is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End”, participants were subjected to two different versions of a single unpleasant experience. The first version had subjects plunge their hand in freezing water for 60 seconds. The second trial had subjects submerge the other hand in 14 °C water for 60 seconds, but then keep their hand submerged for an additional 30 seconds, during which the temperature was raised to 15 °C.

Subjects were then offered the option of which of these trials to repeat.

Subjects were more willing to repeat the second trial, despite a longer exposure to uncomfortable temperatures, because of its ‘happy ending’. Kahneman’s theory: “subjects chose the long trial simply because they liked the memory of it better than the alternative”, in other words the ending where the temperature was more comfortable, was remembered. From this we can see that the ending is what lets us make sense, or meaning from the story. (For more info on Peak-End Theory go here)

So, how do we make an ending memorable?

For me, one of the first criteria is resonance. The novel has to feel as though it means something, and that it hasn’t just stopped randomly in the middle of events. Series writers often have trouble with this as their book does need to stop in the middle of a plot. Resonance can be achieved by using the key theme and image for a book, and for a series, this image can overarch the series.

Resonance can also be achieved by examining the opening pages of the novel and looking for the promises implicit in them. Many historical novels use their settings and the history to place the story in a greater context at the end. Often the reader knows what happens next, and most readers have great imaginations which can be needled into action by an apt image. For an ending, the image of a character standing at the executioner’s block is usually better than the one describing the execution in graphic detail. Particularly in tragic endings, we can let the reader do the work for us, as with great events, they know what comes next.

In the picture at the top of this post, the moment just before the crown is placed on the head is the poignant one. It would be much less so if the crown were already on the head.

Endings shouldn’t be too neat or they will feel contrived. A reader likes to be left with food for thought, so that the book continues to grow in the mind. This makes for memorable fiction. An understated ending is often better than one which is over-dramatic. Even a small thing can have resonance – your novel builds to this single moment funnelling everything towards it. So make it an image or a sentence or a paragraph to remember. Also try to give it some movement, something upon which the reader can travel out of the book, so that the reader can segue away naturally.

Here’s one of my favourite endings:

‘She stared intently up at the low ridge of hills ahead where rumour had it that the Communists camped out, as if she could keep him safe by sheer force of will alone. She sent out a ripple of her own.

The train growled to a start.’

– Kate Furnivall, The Russian Concubine

It works because it shows an intense emotion. It also has forward movement. The train is taking us out of the world of the book. We are also hopeful that the Lydia sending out her will to Chang An Lo will enable him to survive. As for the ripples – earlier, Lydia says that  ‘Everyone who touched your life sent  a ripple effect through you, and all the ripples interconnected.’

Have you a favourite ending to a book?

My latest History Post – The Problem of Letters for a Historical Novelist is on The History Girls Blog

Want more on writing? Try my posts on the sins of Historical Fiction:


The Silsden Hoard: West Yorkshire’s Mysterious Treasure

KC Author Photo croppedby Katherine Clements


One coin marks the first to go

A second bodes the fall

The third will seal a sinner’s fate

The Devil take them all…

So recites Mercy Booth, the protagonist of my latest novel, recalling an old folkloric rhyme, remembered from her childhood.

The ancient coins she refers to, with their ominous associations, are a fiction – I created the rhyme, just as I created the story behind it – but they are inspired by a real archaeological artefact: The Silsden Hoard.

Fans of the (highly recommended) TV show Detectorists will know that the holy grail of metal detecting is the discovery of gold. In 1998 keen detectorist Jeff Walbank hit the jackpot, uncovering 27 gold coins at Silsden near Keighley in West Yorkshire.

These Iron Age coins, known as staters, were not common currency. European in origin, the first British coins were minted in bronze about 100BC, and in silver and gold from about 50BC. It’s thought that they were not used to purchase goods, but were given out by tribal leaders, perhaps in recognition of kinship or military service – a kind of medal or status symbol. What’s so unusual about this particular hoard is that the Brigantes, the tribe that contrSilsden Hoardolled the West Yorkshire area at this time, never made their own coins. Production was mostly limited to the tribes further south; the coins found at Silsden almost all come from the Thames area, a territory governed by the Catuvellauni. Most were issued by the powerful leader Cunobelinus who ruled from about 10 to 40AD and was dubbed ‘King of the Britons’ by Roman historian Suetonius.

Only two other similar hoards have ever been found in Yorkshire, almost a hundred miles away at Beverley and Walkington, so how did these coins end up at Silsden? Archaeologists’ best guess is that they were left behind by refugees fleeing the Roman invasion of 43AD. As the Romans advanced north, it’s possible that people sought protection from the Brigantes; the Brigantian territory, which extended over most of northern England, was the last to fall. They were not defeated until the AD70s and even then maintained a resistance movement that was never fully subdued.

The Silsden Hoard was declared as treasure and now resides in Castle Cliffe Museum, close to where it was found. This museum is a little gem, full of fascinating local artifacts of the sort that would be overlooked by a bigger, richer institution.  The coins are presented in a simple display case, with sparse information. Something about their humble appearance is at odds with the troubled times they represent. I was intrigued.

In The Coffin Path, Mercy describes the coins thus: ‘Each is small, about the size of a buttercup head, decorated with strange patterns and the crude impression of a horned beast – perhaps a stag, or something more sinister.’

Silsden Close UpHere they are:

The coins are not worth an awful lot of money – you can buy similar on auction sites for a few hundred pounds, with rare examples reaching the thousands – but they are quite beautiful and very evocative, and the mystery of why they were left behind remains unsolved.

What happened at Silsden? Were these valuables buried in haste as Roman soldiers approached? Were they abandoned as people fled in fear? Or was it an attempt to secure their wealth as they prepared to stand and fight? And what became of their owners? Why did they never return? These are the questions that feed a novel.

Intrigued? – You can buy The Coffin Path Here



Who remembers Shorthand?

00015-Samuel-Pepys-DiaryPepys wrote his famous diary in shorthand, and I wanted to try to get a feel for the way it might have been translated. Pepys used a method that was common at the time, invented by Thomas Shelton.

Shelton taught his system for speed writing over a period of thirty years, improving it from the stenography of John Willis. Shelton published several books about shorthand which he sold from his house – ‘Tachygraphy: The most exact and compendious method of short and swift writing, that hath ever yet been published by any’. Between 1626 and 1710 more than 20 editions of this book were printed. His shorthand was used by Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Newton as well as by Pepys for his famous Diary (left).

Here’s an example (below) of the Lord’s Prayer from Shelton’s 1674 edition in the Folger Collection.

Shelton Lords Prayer

Shelton’s method employs simple straight lines and curves for the consonants and vowels. There is little punctuation in Pepys’ diary, as the commas and dots would interfere with the meaning of his text, when the same marks meant differentiations in vowel sounds. But one of my friends from my tai chi class reminded me of how she had studied Pitman’s shorthand at secretarial college, and that they also used little punctuation. Pitman’s Shorthand was very widely used when offices were run only by men and women worked as secretaries or in the ‘typing pool.’  Before the photocopier and computer, pools of typists were needed to type documents from handwritten manuscripts, re-type documents that had been edited, or type documents from dictaphones that had come from the ‘boss’. The video at the bottom of the page shows the typing pool of a large bank and the kind of work they had to do. Awe-inspiring!


I’ve found a video on youtube which shows some basics of the Pitman method really well, and explains that heavy and light strokes are used, which was effective when using pen and ink, when the system was invented in the early 19th century by Sir Isaac Pitman. The Pitman method is also based on the phonetic sound of the word and not how it is commonly spelled. Shorthand is a skill that is not so much used now, but I think it is fantastic to be able to write at the speed of speech, and shorthand is still used in Courtroom situations. I imagine Pepys used Shelton’s Shorthand because he had to take copious notes of Navy Board meetings and take official government minutes. I’m sure there are many readers out there who still have the skill of shorthand, and I wonder how close Shelton’s method is to Pitman’s.

Blog Writing Craft

10 tips for Editing Historical Fiction no.8 ‘Suddenly’

300px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fogIt must be a month ago that I started thinking about writing a blog post on the difficulties of writing about sudden events, which was something highlighted by Hilary Mantel in her Reith Lectures. In the meantime I’ve been on holiday in walking in Wales, and with historical fiction writers Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden in the Mani peninsula in Greece.

The thoughts about ‘suddenly’ have come and gone in that time, but I realised that in my own writing I tend to use a change of viewpoint to denote that something is about to happen. In fiction, a sudden event can feel unbelievable if it just pops up without warning, and the result is that it often makes the reader laugh – very much like someone jumping out of a tree and shouting ‘boo!’

So the sudden event needs to be foreshadowed in some way. Often sudden events are heralded by a noise: a bang at the door, the sound of musket fire, the cries of an angry mob. Sudden events in the middle of a scene are harder to manage, than at the beginning or end of a scene where white space can help isolate and give impact to the incident.

But one of the effective ways to do this is to shift viewpoint. Here’s an example;

‘William gave a sudden lurch forward and pushed her into the water.’

Now remove the ‘sudden’ and foreshadow it with a change of viewpoint.

Bird’s Eye View

The cry of a gull caught her attention. She looked up. Their two figures would be like dots, she realised, two dark smudges on the edge of the rolling green, where the white line of the cliff cut into the blue of the sea. The gull swooped, hoping for food.

Without warning, Wiiliam lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Magnifying Lens View

Alice saw the change in his eyes, the way the irises opened out into round circles. A wave of uncertainty. He blinked once.

Without warning, William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Far Distance View

Mrs Rogers shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun. Two figures stood on the edge of the cliff. A man and a woman; the man was hatless; the woman’s skirts billowed in the wind. They arrested her attention because they weren’t looking out to sea, but at each other.

Without warning the man lurched forward and pushed the woman into the water.

Far Past View

She had the impression of standing on the back of an ancient animal. She almost expected to feel it breathe. Time slowed. He was looking at her with a strange, amused expression.

Without warning, he lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Far Future View

A pause. Years later she would wonder why she hadn’t felt an ounce of warning.

That one minute her feet were on solid ground, the next; William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Of course these are extremely crude examples, without any novel to give them context, but the principle of shifting the viewpoint seems to de-stabilize the reader and make the sudden event feel more natural. The important thing is to provide a context, so the sudden event flows naturally from the preceding text, although still remaining sudden. Try it, and see if it works for you.

But – Character Reaction is Key

The sudden event need not be explained, but the character reaction must be short, quick, visceral. It is this that makes the event seem sudden and brings the reader along with you. Try using strong verbs which contain a sense of movement, and aim for clarity and precision.

A rush of air.

Her back slapped into something hard.  A shock of cold sucked the air from her lungs. Her feet thrashed in the heavy dark until her head broke water, eyes stinging, into the cries of the gulls. Through the blur of salt, she tilted her head up to squint against the sun. Where was he?

The cliffs were empty.

Notice also the amount of white space around the sudden event.

The picture for this post is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar Friedrich. 

You might like these posts too:  No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6 Status No 7 Detail


Ten Tips for Editing Historical Fiction No.6 Status


Lady with a servant in a meadow Circa 1500 German Engraving

Writers of historical fiction are often concerned with the relationships between servants and masters (see this post) because your rank was extremely important in previous centuries. This picture above expresses it well – the servant sees a lot of her mistress’s back because she is always behind her, and this gives her a particular view of the world. In previous centuries, laws such as the ‘sumptuary’ laws about what you were permitted to wear applied to people of different classes, and unlike today, not everyone could vote or influence the decisions of governing bodies. So historical novelists seek to convey the era and the status of their characters by their behaviour towards each other. A rounded character is a person who fits their milieu and changes their behaviour according to the situation. A cardboard character never changes or adapts and is always the same.

I know this seems obvious, but it is also not as simple as that. Because how you write the status of a character in a novel will denotes the person’s strength. A decisive maid with a strong purpose might develop a higher status (to the reader) than a vacillating and weak mistress, although she in turn might have to concede status to a master who is ‘in control’ of his household (and more importantly, himself.)

In Wuthering Heights for example, Catherine falls in love with Heathcliff, who has a lower status, because he was found on the streets of Liverpool and taken in as a child by her father. But Catherine chooses to marry Edgar Linton instead, a man of higher social status than Heathcliff. After Mr. Earnshaw dies, his resentful son Hindley humiliates Heathcliff and treats him as a servant. The status is reversed when Heathcliff’s humiliation inspires him to seek revenge. Heathcliff becomes of higher status in the reader’s eyes because of his strength of purpose and intention.

A person loses status when he expresses emotion without self-control (cries, gasps, screams etc). A calm and controlled antagonist is always stronger and more threatening than a villain who curses, shouts and threatens. There is something too about endurance – naturally we have to push our characters through life-threatening ordeals, but their capacity to endure them, makes for a strong character. A silent, listening character is actually ‘bigger’ than a character who has lost his temper and his self-control.

From Punch, Maid & Mistress in Crinolines
From Punch, Maid & Mistress in Crinolines

Above, the mistress is not pleased when the servant apes her dress sense – because it confuses the order of rank. Status can be shown through body language and this is really effective if you want a person of lower status to come up in the estimation of the reader. Characters who slump, cringe, fidget or babble, are seen as weaker than those who look you straight in the eye, raise the chin in defiance, stand up tall, and walk and talk without hurry. So be careful if your protagonist cries or shouts; it will weaken them in the reader’s eyes.

So on one of my passes through my manuscript I like to analyse the status of each of the main characters. I check the person reacts differently to those of higher or lower status. Perhaps they might be kind and considerate to a servant, but the servant is often still, in their eyes, a servant. However, compassion and kindness raise the character’s status in the reader’s eyes.

In a moment of intense emotion, a person might deliberately be outspoken to a person of superior rank, but probably only then. So arguments between characters of differing rank must take this into account. The universal entitlement to express your own opinion (free speech whoever you are) is a modern sensibility.

In addition, if I’m looking at a main character I like to make sure they don’t lower their staus with the reader through indecision, lack of control, or lack of compassion.

Further Reading: Status, rank and class in Jane Austen’s novels

Posts so far on Editing Historical Fiction:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing plus more to come!!

Pictures all from Wikipedia