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Today’s the Day! Launch of The Lifeline #WW2 #Fiction

Confession. I have never been to Norway. I have never been to Shetland. Normally I would have done both. When writing and researching a book I like to do as much ‘on the ground’ research as possible. But this year it just wasn’t possible, because of the virus.

This book takes place in Nazi-occupied Norway, and though I could have visited Norway, my experience of it wouldn’t have been the same as those who lived through the occupation by the Nazis in WW2. In one sense, the past can never be revisited, and every historical fiction author must supercharge their imagination to conjure the past into being. In this instance, I relied on archive material, books, websites, memoirs and facebook interest groups, as well as a native Norwegian to guide me through the research.

research by Deborah Swift for The Lifeline

Shetland was a lot closer to home, but visitors from the mainland UK, especially virus-ridden Lancashire, were still not exactly welcome. So, I was indoors much of the time finishing my research from my desk, and watching videos of men fishing in the Northern waters, or Shetlanders farming the windswept Shetland hills. In depth research is as much to do with the quality of attention that you pay to it, and how you use it, as to do with what you actually see.

One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is that you learn so much about the events of the past that might have been forgotten or overlooked, and you can bring these back to life for other people to marvel at and enjoy.

So The Lifeline is out today, published by Sapere Books. I hope it will give people an insight into what life was like for ordinary teachers caught up in the Nazi indoctrination machine, and how they risked their lives to rebel against it.

And I hope more people will get to know about the brave Norwegian men who risked their lives in bringing arms and intelligence to the Resistance across icy waters and under enemy fire.

The Lifeline by Deborah Swift

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The Last Blast of The Trumpet – Marie Macpherson – excerpt

I’m delighted to welcome Marie Macpherson to my blog today with a fascinating wintry excerpt from her novel The Last Blast of the Trumpet. First, here’s the blurb to entice you!

1564: Conflict, Chaos and Corruption in Reformation Scotland.

He wants to reform Scotland, but his enemies will stop at nothing to prevent him.

Scotland 1559: Fiery reformer John Knox returns to a Scotland on the brink of civil war. Victorious, he feels confident of his place leading the reform until the charismatic young widow, Mary Queen of Scots returns to claim her throne. She challenges his position and initiates a ferocious battle of wills as they strive to win the hearts and minds of the Scots. But the treachery and jealousy that surrounds them both as they make critical choices in their public and private lives has dangerous consequences that neither of them can imagine.

In this final instalment of the trilogy of the fiery reformer John Knox, Macpherson tells the story of a man and a queen at one of the most critical phases of Scottish history.

Publisher: Penmore Press

John Knox historical novel

The Extract:

Chapter 12 – Hogmanay

Coldingham Priory, December 1562

An ice storm at the solstice heralded the start of winter. It smoothed the muddy earth with a silver glaze, creating a winter wonderland. Frozen crystals sparkling like crushed diamonds sprinkled the bare branches of trees and turned bushes into pillars of salt. The low winter light glinted on spiders’ webs as if spinning them into delicate lace on a christening shawl.

As they left the priory chapel, Elisabeth took Lady Morham’s arm. ‘It’s slippery underfoot,’ she warned. The giddy grandmother was sliding about the ice yet refused to hand over her precious bundle to his wet nurse.

Behind them, the queen stopped on the threshold and inhaled deeply. ‘It’s heavenly to breathe fresh air. Everything here seems so pure and clean and white. Perfect for a christening.’

Confident that no one would pursue her in this treacherous weather, Mary had stolen away from Edinburgh with the four Maries and a handful of bodyguards to be godmother at the furtive Catholic baptism of Jean’s new-born son, Francis. The atmosphere at court where she was surrounded by spies and critics all too eager to cram Knox with intelligence about her. was stifling, she confessed. Everything she did was sharply censured. It was sinful to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas; it was wicked to shoot at the butts, to listen to music or poetry, to bring needlework to the council chamber, to play chess, to dance and be merry.

‘However much they goad you, never let the dour Calvinists quench your zest for life, madame,’ Elisabeth had said.

Now a helpless giggle escaped Mary’s lips. ‘Look at those two bairns.’

Elisabeth followed her gaze. The proud father, Lord John, and his brother, Lord Robert, were fencing with icicles they’d broken off the overhanging eaves. In the silent, falling snow they loomed like the wraiths of ancient warriors.

‘It’s a pity Bothwell couldn’t be here to stand as the bairn’s godfather,’ Elisabeth said, ‘but at least he’ll be safe in France, far from Moray’s clutches. Thanks to you, madame.’

‘And you, dear prioress. He’s been the victim of great injustice.’

Their eyes locked in mutual understanding. For over two months, Bothwell had been cooped up in the dank, dark dungeon of Edinburgh Castle in conditions worse than the caged animals in the palace menagerie. Moray had stripped his sister of her only loyal supporter and kept him in prison without a trial. Disgraced and friendless, he suffered a living death.

Unable to thole the rank injustice any longer, Elisabeth had sought clemency for Bothwell, telling Mary some stark truths. While sympathetic to his plight, the queen regretted being powerless to release him, adding that he should do the best he could. Taking this as tacit royal approval, Elisabeth had anointed the palm of a jailer to open gates for her nephew while she organised a boat from Aberlady to take him safely to France.

After the christening feast, the family huddled by the hearth to wait for midnight to bring in the new year. Like All Hallow’s Eve, Hogmanay was a magical time of the year when the auld year gave birth to the new, and Elisabeth couldn’t let it pass without telling scary stories of ghosts and bogles, roasting nuts and fortune telling.

‘You break the ice, Isabelle,’ she said. ‘Tell us the gruesome tale of St Abbe and the nuns of Coldingham.’

Their curiosity aroused, the eager listeners hunched forward, and Isabelle began, her voice a low whisper. ‘A long time ago, in the time of the king of Alba, a raiding party of frenzied Norsemen landed at the coast near Coldingham abbey and went berserk. Terrified the heathens would violate their virginity, the abbess urged the sisters to maim themselves. They slashed their noses and lips, hoping to slake the lust of the marauding pagans and keep their vow of chastity.’

‘What happened to them? Were they saved?’ Mary asked, wide-eyed.

‘Nay,’ Isabelle replied. ‘They were all murdered but went to their deaths singing like angels.’

‘Rejoicing for losing their maidenheads, I wager,’ Lord John sniggered. ‘Virgins no longer.’

Scowling, Isabelle snapped back, ‘But martyrs in the eyes of God.’

Mary bent forward, leaning her chin on her hand. ‘Womankind are always at risk. I wish I were a soldier. In the highlands, I envied their freedom. I never felt more alive than when I slept on a bed of heather, wrapped in a woollen plaid. The spice of danger, the nearness of death is exhilarating.’ Her pale face glowed in the firelight. ‘Yet I’ve no stomach for bloodshed: it gars me grue.’ She rubbed her hands and held them out to the flames. ‘My ghastly tale took place in the highlands not so long ago. Doubtless you’ll have heard about the Gordons’ treasonable conspiracies to abduct me and how we had to daunt them at Corrichie.’

‘And how the Cock o’ the North suddenly fell off his horse, stone dead,’ Lord John said.

‘His son John’s execution was even more grisly. It will torture me to my dying day.’ Mary wrung her hands in agitation. ‘My brother forced me to witness it. Before he put his head on the block, the condemned man cried out that he loved me and would marry me.’ Her hands flew to her face. ‘The ham-fisted headsman was clumsy at his task. He took several strokes, hacking at his neck, sawing through the bone. Thon rasping sound echoes in my nightmares.’ She caressed her neck. ‘It wasn’t an execution but butchery. I broke down in a fit of sobbing and then fell into a swoon.’

‘Did he die for love of you, madame?’ Jean asked.

‘Love!’ Elisabeth spluttered. ‘How could he love her? John Gordon never knew her. He was in love with the idea of becoming a royal consort, if not king.’

As most men vying for the queen’s hand would be. Moray had successfully cut down a potential rival. Under the cloak of law and order and piety, he was carrying out personal feuds against the Huntlys and the Hepburns to carve a path to the throne.

‘Sometimes I think James is testing my mettle against his,’ Mary said quietly.

‘Forgive me for being plain-spoken, madame,’ Elisabeth said, ‘but your brother is doing his utmost to destroy the power of Roman Catholics in Scotland.’

‘Knox is Auld Clootie and Moray is his familiar,’ Lord John piped up. ‘Perched in his crow’s nest pulpit, the hooded cleric croaks and squawks six feet above criticism and contradiction.’ Standing on a chair he waved his arms up and down to give a comical impersonation of the ranting preacher.

Though she chuckled, something tore in Elisabeth’s heart. Despite everything, Knox was still her son. Nevertheless, she rued the day she’d breathed life into those heretical lungs.

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FIND Marie on her website

Twitter @MGMacpherson

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Historical Fiction – Halloween winter reads #HistFic

The Dark Side of Magic

Sunday morning, and outside there is what my mother used to call a ‘mizzle’, which is a cross between rain and mist. Autumn is already here and after a hectic time launching Pleasing Mr Pepys, I’ve finally got the time to write reviews for some of the books I’ve read, including one I actually read in the summer. But it seemed appropriate just before Hallowe’en to feature two books which show the darker side of magic. In Anna Belfrage’s book the magic travels through time, through the Inquisition, to 17th century Scotland and even to modern times. In Pamela Mann’s book the magic is anchored in the Elizabethan world – it could be superstition or it could be magic – and Pamela leaves the reader to decide.

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A Rip in The Veil – Anna Belfrage

This one had been on my kindle for ages and came highly recommended, but I’m not really a fan of timeslip novels so I had kept putting it to one side. I think I always find that the actual time shift moment stretches my disbelief a little too much – the moment when someone falls through a picture, or gets sucked into a vortex. However Anna Belfrage is an expert at making the most of that moment, so I need not have feared it was going to be ‘too cheesy’. Instead we are treated to a moment which tingles all the senses, and allows us to feel what such a moment might really be like.

Of course being transported back into the 17th century gives Anna Belfrage a chance to refect on society both then and now. There is what you would expect – the repression of women, the narrowness of society, but also an understanding of just how violent society was before our modern judicial system, the importance of agriculture and land, and the lack of material possessions, all things that Alex Lind has to come to grips with in her new life in a new century.

More than just a romance, this will please readers who like accurate history, but also appreciate a passionate relationship that is realistically portrayed. I appreciated all the minor chracters in the book too, such as Matthew’s bitter and vengeful brother, and Alex’s traumatised husband, as they each have a story to tell. Multi-layered and exciting, this is romantic fiction at its best.

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Birth of GossipThe Birth of Gossip – Pamela Mann

I met Pamela Mann at the Historical Novel Conference where she first told me of this novel which sounded interesting, and an unusual way to approach an Elizabethan story. Midwife Margory has never lost a child, but becomes the subject of malicious gossip by two other midwives who are jealous of her success. Things take a darker turn, when Margory is invited to attend at the birth of one of Lady Winchester’s children and things do not quite go to plan.

Through the book we learn Margory’s backstory, how she met her husband Arthur, and became a well-respected wife in a big house, and then how her fortunes fell. Of course it is also a story about witchcraft and about rumour and the deliberate blackening of another’s name, not to mention the responsibility of midwifery in an age before anaesthetic, caesarians, or edpidurals.

It is also a story in which the narrator may not be all she seems, and Pamela Mann skilfully uses this twist at the end to untether the reader’s presumptions. Told in the first person, we are privy to all of Margory’s thoughts, and her changes in status, and she shows a strength, even a stubbornness, which is very convincing. The cover, in my opinion, does not do the book justice, as it conveys none of the colourful atmosphere and detail of the times which are present in the actual story. Pamela Mann’s descriptions of the Manor and how much Margory regrets the loss of its heyday, are very atmospheric. All in all, this is an immensely engaging read which rattles along at a good pace.

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The Prodigal Son – Anna Belfrage

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In retrospect, I suspect my subconscious had been doing its own little things for years before I finally sat down to write The Graham Saga. Since well over a decade, I had nursed an interest for the 17th century, and in particular for the religious conflicts that dominated this period in history. Why, you might ask, and the reason for that is quite personal.

My husband comes from a family old as the rocks (most of us do; it’s just that the majority of us spring from families that were illiterate and dirt poor, ergo leaving nary a trace in the historical documents) that emigrated from Scotland to Sweden in the early 17th century. In actual fact, the only ones that emigrated were a twelve year old boy called John, and his mother Joneta. This woman with her most unusual name was of Stuart blood – albeit a cadet line – but for whatever reason she was compelled to flee Scotland, citing religious persecution as her reason.

While subsequent research has never succeeded in establishing just how Joneta was being persecuted, it is undisputable that the 17th century was extremely turbulent from a religious perspective. The Reformation movements of the 16th century spilled over into the new century, and with the Protestant view that man was fully capable of reading the Bible and understanding it all on his own, the door was opened wide on multiple orientations. In Scotland, the formidable Scottish Kirk, originally headed by John Knox, proclaimed a “tough-love” version of Christianity, while in England the Anglican Church was more moderate.

As we all know, the religious divides in England would develop into a political schism that would explode into a Civil War. Of course Scotland was affected by this as well – Charles I was king of Scotland just as much as England – and people didn’t know what leg to stand on; become a Covenanter and support the Scottish Kirk, or remain a loyal subject of the king? Maybe this is what Joneta fled from, and even if she did make it over the North Sea to build a new life for herself and her son, the price was high; she was never to see her husband again.

The third book in The Graham Saga, The Prodigal Son, is set in the years just after the restoration of Charles II (and yes, it can be read as a stand-alone).  The reality Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex, experience is a consequence of the religious upheaval in the preceding decades. Charles II came to the throne with the intent of staying on it – and while he showed commendable clemency on most matters, he came down like a ton of bricks on the men who had signed the order of execution for Charles I and on anyone arguing religious matters fell outside the king’s control. This included those stubborn, loud-mouthed Scottish ministers and their refusal to kowtow to their king as overlord of their Kirk.

For men raised on the National Covenant, for men who had fought for their right to pray and believe as was taught by their Kirk, it was impossible to meekly abjure their faith. Instead, the congregations followed their ministers out on the moor to listen to the word of God as they considered it should be preached (a lot of brimstone and fire, no mealy-mouthed references to gambolling lambs in green pastures, not in a land defined by its core of harsh granite – both in its mountains and in its people). A deadly cat-and-mouse game followed, with the soldiers of the king chasing ministers and followers over the moors, while said ministers (and followers) did their best to evade them. Men were fined, they were flogged, and many of them were deported, some were executed in creative ways (such as being tied to a stake while the tide was out and left to drown when the tide came back in…) Still these stubborn Scots clung to their Kirk, still they refused to accept the hegemony of the king.

“Idiots,” Alex Graham mutters when she reads this. (For Alex all this religious stuff is totally incomprehensible. Well, it would be, seeing as she was born in 1976… Being yanked out of her time and propelled three centuries backwards comes with serious complications.)

“How idiots?” Matthew looms over his wife. He looks quite intimidating, but Alex seems unperturbed.

“You’re risking everything. What if…” She breaks off and turns her back on her husband. “One day your luck will run out, Matthew Graham, and then what?”

“I go canny, lass. But you can’t expect me to sit on my hands when…”

Alex wheels. “Why not? Why can’t you just stay out of it?” Her hands whiten as she tightens her hold on her skirts and her eyes are uncommonly dark in her pale face.

“I can’t. These are my brothers, Alex, these are my ministers. Of course I must help.”

“And risk your life – our lives.”

“It won’t come to that,” he tries, placing his big hands on her shoulders.

“How do you know?” Her voice wobbles. “How can you stand here and tell me things will be okay when both of us know that sometimes they go very, very wrong?”

“I…”

Alex holds up her hand and backs away. “I don’t want to hear, okay?” She stumbles off. I think she’s crying, but knowing Alex, she wouldn’t like me to go after her – at least not now. I throw Matthew a long look.

“She’s right, you know. Your involvement may come at a heavy price.”

He gnaws his lip. “I must follow my conscience.”

“And what about her?” I point at his wife, now halfway up the hill. “Who comes first, Matthew? Your wife and family, or your faith?”

“Both,” he tries.

I shake my head, “Ultimately you’ll have to choose. Don’t leave it too late, okay?”

“Too late?” His eyes are stuck on Alex.

“Too late,” I nod. “Some things lost can never be replaced.”

Matthew blanches and looks at me. “I have no choice,” he says hoarsely.

“Of course you do – all of us do.” I pat his arm. “Let’s just hope you make the right choice – for you and for her.” I’m talking to air. Matthew is bounding off in pursuit of his wife.

It is somewhat ironic that the two king(s) that succeeded in totally rubbing most of the Scottish Protestants up the wrong way were, in fact, Scots. Charles I and his son were Stuarts, a dynasty young on the English throne, old on the Scots, but they were quick to forget their old homeland when presented with the tantalising – and exceedingly richer – aspects of their new, southern kingdom. As we all know, pride comes before fall, and some years on the last Stuart king would lose his throne to a large extent due to the lack of support from the Lowland Scots. But those events, dear reader, are the matter for a future instalment in The Graham Saga.

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Find out more about Anna and the other books in the Graham saga –including the latest release  ‘A Newfound Land’ on her website:

http://www.annabelfrage.com