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On the Record – The Permanence of History through Fiction #amwriting


“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” – Desmond Tutu

Mr Swiftstory and I have been watching The Secret History of Writing on TV. If you live in England you can watch this programme on ‘catch up’ and it’s well worth a look. One of the things that surprised me was how places like Turkey changed their written language from Arabic letters to Latinate letters overnight, and how this affected their society. Writing meant the unstoppable spread of ideas, and to me as a writer, this is its first appeal.

The Permanence of Speech

But it’s not only the printed word that is permanent. Yesterday I gave a zoom chat along with some other authors and discovered afterwards that it had been posted on Youtube here. It made me realize that now, even the words you speak – far from being transient, are now indelible on the internet for everyone to see/hear. So they have gained a kind of longevity. (But no-one knows for exactly how long). Making a gaffe could be painful, and worse, it could be around for very long time. So now, instead of the written word being recorded, the spoken word is also being made less ephemeral through podcasts, youtube and other types of recording equipment.

Tape Recorder Permanence of Words
Pic from Encyclopedia Britannica

The Urge for Permanence

When we write books, often we are looking to give our words some weight and permanence, and this is why authors love to be published in a paperback or hardback edition. Digital words are only on loan to us, and so the kindle versions of books might be lost to us if no physical copy ever exists. So why do we want our words to be permanent? One obvious answer is, as a salve to the ego. A sort of proof that you were here on Earth and had made a big enough impression to leave a physical object behind.

The Inside Story

Yet its more than that, because books actually come from INSIDE us. They are a form of direct transmission experienced like an intravenous drug from one vein to another. And the fact you have experienced that journey is evidenced by the physical object, the book. This is why we can’t bear to part with books that have meant something to us, even if we never read them again. A novel transports us from the surface to the interior of who we are, and helps us understand why others behave the way they do.

It isn’t just the words but the story they carry. The novel can be a record of lived experience. In fiction the experience is an imagined one. This often makes it more of a reality for the reader than a non-imagined history. When writing A Plague on Mr Pepys, I turned to Daniel Defoe’s book Journal of the Plague Years, even though it was written years after the event and he must have had to re-imagine it all. The re-imagined history was stronger than the bare facts.

Historical fiction seeks to render realities of the past into present lived experience. But will historical fiction be permanent?

Pic by Guillaume Henrotte

Archivists will probably not save historical fiction from the fire or flood. They have to decide which documents contain intrinsic value for future generations and so deserve permanence, and often this decision is based on whether the documents are ‘true’ or ‘first-hand’ accounts, and so there becomes a hierarchy of sources:

“One word in the archival lexicon used repeatedly without reflection is the word permanent. Archivists speak almost instinctively of their collections as being the permanent records of an individual or entity. The materials in archives are separated from the great mass of all the records ever created and are marked for special attention and treatment because they possess what is frequently identified as permanent value. Whether by accident or design—and the distinction is at the heart of the modem idea of appraisal—certain materials are selected by archives for preservation into the indefinite future. They are in that sense permanent.’’

On the Idea of Permanence  – James M O’Toole American Archivist 1989


Our interpretation of the past shifts with every generation, so historical fiction needs to tap the archives anew for new fresh ways of re-presenting the same stories from history and then by making sure those interpretations are as widely available as possible.

In the programme The Secret History of Writing, much was made of the impact of printing on the permanence of ideas.

The Massachusetts Historical Society declared in 1806:

“There is no sure way of preserving historical records and materials, but by multiplying the copies. The art of printing affords a mode of preservation more effectual than Corinthian brass or Egyptian marble.”

So by printing multiple copies, we ensure that our re-presentations of history are never lost, even if archivists don’t save it, and despite any dystopia where there is no wifi, electricity, or wind-up radio.


Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – 7 Virtues. No 3 – The Past Does Not Exist

Prague Astronomical Clock Tower
Prague Astronomical Clock Tower

This might seem like a rather existentialist title, especially as in one sense we a brought to look at the past every time we read a newspaper or trawl online for yesterday’s sports scores.

But in this article on a new theory of time, Jonathan O Callaghan says that ‘When you ask people, “Tell me about the passage of time,” they usually make a metaphor,’ he said. ‘They say time flows like a river, or we move through time like a ship sailing through the sea.’ We often hear the phrase, ‘Time’s Arrow’, or some other image which produces in us the idea of time as a linear ordered entity.

But all novelists, espcially those who write historical fiction, know this to be untrue. Our books weave timescales in the way that best tells the story. We are not subject to that linear construction where time cannot be malleable, and everything must be in a fixed order.

In the new theory of Time, scientist Dr Bradford Skow maintains that the idea of time flowing like a river is not correct, and that space-time is what he calls a ‘block universe’ – one where past, present and future all co-exist. ‘The histories of the universe,’ says Stephen Hawking, (Huffington Post) ‘depend on what is being measured, contrary to the usual idea that the universe has an objective observer-independent history.’ So, all history is an illusion. As a novelists I have long suspected this to be true, but nonetheless we storytellers are the ones whose histories live longest in the minds of humanity.

It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

says Hilary Mantel in her excellent in-depth article in The New Yorker

Well, I can’t say I have ever encountered a ghost, but I feel the ghost-like presence of my characters – the ones in the finished novels, and the ones in my current work-in-progress, the characters who are still lurking as half-formed presences, calling to be made concrete on paper. And historical personages loom large because they have the accretions of previous storytellers, wearing their own stories like armour. It can be hard to penetrate to the real breathing person beneath. I admire anyone who decides to write about Anne Boleyn or Richard III. Their publisher and agent might leap for glee, but the novelist will have to work hard to crack through the carapace. Still, it is this that fascinates – the power to bring the dead back to life, to make them living, breathing ghosts in the mind of the reader. For the time you are reading, that person, long-since dead, is in the room with you, but when you look up from the page there is nobody there.

In Skow’s ‘block universe’, our ghosts can appear at any point on the space-time continuum.

On the flexibilty of time, Robert Lanza M.D. says:

Choices you haven’t made yet might determine which of your childhood friends are still alive, or whether your dog got hit by a car yesterday. In fact, you might even collapse realities that determine whether Noah’s Ark sank. “The universe,” said John Haldane, “is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Hothouse FlowerLife after LifeThis view of time as infinitely flexible gives us great opportunities in fiction – particularly in historical fiction. Apart from time-travelling, such as in  dual time narratives such as The Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley, (1930’s and present day), and my own novel Past Encounters, (1940’s and 1950’s) there is also the oppurtunity to bend time even more, as in Kate Atinson’s Life after Life. This is something I’d like to do much more, to play with cause and effect, effect and cause, and how, as in Robert Lanza’s view, they can be mutually arising.

The past does not exist. This is a virtue only historical fiction can give us, the ability to juxtapose two narratives from different time periods, and try to understand how, at some deeper level, they are sewn seamlessly together.


Picures from wiki-commons


Blog Reviews

Historical Fiction – learning from ‘The Nightingale’ and ‘The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez’

Nightingale 2Vianne and Isabelle are sisters whose challenge is to survive after the fall of France to the Nazis in WWII. Vianne’s house is requisitioned by the Gestapo, whilst her husband is away fighting, leading to knife-edge tensions as she tries to protect her daughter Sophie, and her Jewish neighbour, and best friend, Rachel. Meanwhile, rebellious Isabelle thinks her sister too passive, and joins the rebel partisans in the French resistance. Isabelle moves back to Paris to live with her father, with whom she has a less than warm relationship. She falls in love, but the relationship cannot blossom under these dangerous circumstances. Isabelle eventually becmes responsible for saving downed airmemn by leading them across the Pyrenees and into Spain, until she is caught – with harrowing consequences.

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.

For a historical fiction writer, Kristin Hannah’s book is a masterclass in maintaining tension through plot and character. It is not just the setting that creates the edge-of-the-seat drama. Both female characters are strong in their own way, with allegiances for which they are prepared to sacrifice everything. For both women, every chapter contains a harsh choice to be made, and one that will affect not just the protagonist, but those vulnerable people who under her care. The choices also force the women at each step to re-evaluate their position, and so each of the sisters changes and grows through the story. Both women make mistakes, but this adds to their humanity as they do their best to make the right decisions when every choice could lead to disaster. For me this was a five star read that I couldn’t put down, and when I’d finished I wanted to start all over again to see just how she did it.

Christoval AlvarezIt is the year 1586. England is awash with traitors, plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and bring about a foreign invasion. ‘The young physician Christoval Alvarez, a Jewish refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition, becomes a reluctant spy in Sir Francis Walsingham’s espionage service. His religion is one secret, but I shan’t spoil the surprise by telling you about Christoval’s other, and even more dangerous secret. Despite the espionage theme, this is a novel that relies not on plot, or even on tension, but on immersion to hold the reader. Ann Swinfen’s descriptions of Tudor London are lengthy, but also delicious.

A short way along Bankside, near the church of St George, we came to the Marshalsea, a towering grey wall surrounding it, crowned with iron thorns, blackened with London’s sooty smoke, and somehow greasy, oozing a foul stench and dirt of its own, like some diseased and rotting body past hope of any cure. Hell in Epitome, it was called. I had never been inside, but Simon knocked confidently on a low-browed door in a kind of lodge bulging out from one of the corner towers like a carbuncle. He exchanged a few words with someone inside, and we were beckoned in.

Reading this first book in the series I was transported effortlessly to late 16thc London. The plot meanders a little in the middle, because as it is based on the real events of the Babington plot, not everything can fit conveniently to move the reader on. This didn’t matter though, because what the book showed me was that authenticity of setting, and the application of the right detail adds an enormous amount for a historical fiction reader. I read historical fiction to be taken to another time and place with all its sounds, sights and smells, and at this, Ann Swinfen is a master. I shall be reading the rest of this series. Very highly recommended.


Spinning a Tale – writing and weaving

The language of story is peppered with references to the craft of spinning. We ‘spin a yarn’, and ‘weave’ a tale. The art of ‘fabric’ation has very deep roots as one of the earliest forms of creation.

Spindles and spinning are also built into our mythology and folklore. Who can forget childhood tales of Rumplestiltskin or Sleeping Beauty? Plato says the axis of the universe is like the shaft of a spindle with the milky way as the whorl of wool in his Republic. In Greek mythology, Arachne challenges the goddess Minerva to a spinning and weaving contest and when she fails she is turned into a spider. Theseus follows a thread out of the Labyrinth. The three Fates, or Norns, spin, measure and cut the threads of life. The art of spinning is also identified with nature’s spinner, the spider, and her web. Most of us writers use the web every day, without thinking much about its roots.

Before the spinning wheel, to make yarn, wool or plant fibre was twisted or spun by hand onto a stick or distaff and then wound onto a second stick or dropspindle. The act of turning the fibres bonded them together into a continuous thread. (Have you ever lost the thread of your story?) The female side of the family used to be called the “distaff” side of the family, the spinning of flax on a distaff being a female occupation.

Thus, the dropspindle was ‘the primary spinning tool used to spin all the threads for clothing and fabrics from Egyptian mummy wrappings to tapestries, and even the ropes and sails for ships, for almost 9000 years.’ (

In order to increase the spin, a whorl was added. The spindle, or rod, usually had a raised lip to hold the whorl. A wisp of prepared wool was twisted around the spindle, which was then spun and allowed to drop. They are amongst the most common Medieval finds, as the process of spinning was the most common occupation. The majority of whorls were made from stone or recycled pot but some were carved from wood or cast out of lead.

It was a natural evolution that spinners invented a way of speeding up the process – the spinning wheel. However, no one knows who invented the first one, but it probably originated in India between 500 and 1000 A.D. It is said that the hand spinners in India were able to spin almost half a million yards of yarn from a single pound of cotton (Hochberg), a fine quality that machines until recently were unable to do.

In the  past spinning was mostly done by women.The resulting thread was woven by men onto looms to produce cloth. Hand loom weavers were men because of the strength needed to batten the cloth. Many superstitions abound about winding thread – for example fishermen’s wives would not wind wool after sundown, for if they did they would soon be making their husband’s winding sheets.(Dictionary of Superstitions).

By the13th century spinning wheels appeared in Europe, putting an end to handspun thread, and in 1764, a British carpenter and weaver named James Hargreaves invented a hand-powered multiple spinning machine that was the first machine to improve upon the spinning wheel, ending the ‘homespun’ era for good and paving the way for modern machine produced goods.

Like Theseus, when writing  I often feel I am following my own thread out of the maze of the plot, and after writing a book, I often think of  editing as ‘tidying up loose ends’ and ‘winding it up’ neatly, both expressions which have probably originated in our lost spinning culture.

I can recommend this book, Women’s Work, for those who want to know more about spinning and weaving in early history.

Want to try metal detecting to find some spindle whorls of your own?

This post has been re-blogged from my old blog – The Riddle of Writing


Life with Anne Boleyn – Interview with Judith Arnopp

I am delighted to welcome Judith Arnopp who has just released her Tudor novel about Anne Boleyn – The Kiss of the Concubine. I was interested to find out from Judith about the endless appeal of the Tudors, and about how she has welcomed them them into her writing life.


Q What is a typical writing day for you?

My writing day usually starts before I get out of bed. I check my email, scroll through Facebook, sharing links to other writer’s blogs and special offers. Then I let the dog out, have breakfast, look at the mess on the carpet and the dust, and decide I really don’t have time to sort it out. Sometimes I promise myself I will just work for an hour and then clean the house or garden in the afternoon but usually I get so involved with what I am doing that I don’t realise the time until my other half comes home from work. Often, especially if I am writing, I sit at the computer for so long that my bottom is totally numb when I get up. A day of research is more leisurely because it doesn’t take hold of me like the creative process of writing does and I don’t come away from it exhausted. Depending on the season, I usually decamp to the sofa or the garden and make copious notes to be transcribed onto the computer the next morning.

Q. To develop your writing style did you do any courses or read any books on writing? How has your writing style developed and what has influenced it most? Does it vary for different books?

I have a degree in English and Creative writing so much of my style developed at university but I have been writing privately for so long that my ‘voice’ was pretty much established before I began to write seriously. I have been to a few writing courses but to be honest I am not very sociable and like to be in bed by 10pm. I find all that chatting in the evenings to be quite tiring and then I don’t write well the next day.

Reading plays a big part in learning to write, I think. A writer subconsciously adopts a favourite style. I’d say my biggest influences are classical writers. My old mates Shakespeare and Chaucer certainly helped with the shaping of Joanie Toogood and her sisters in The Winchester Goose. I don’t think my style varies in different books but I hope my voice does. I think my skills have developed by never being satisfied that my writing is quite good enough and striving to improve it. I will never stop doing that. I will never be good enough.

Q. Your books involve massive amounts of research. How do you structure your research and what sort of resources do you use?

I use the university library at Lampeter and Aberystwyth which have a wonderful array of books and research material. Aberystwyth has the national library which can acquire just about everything I need.

I read around the subject as widely as I can, taking on board all the varying opinions and theories and then I find my own way. History is not so much a matter of ‘fact’ but of ‘opinion’ and I always bear that in mind. I have data bases on my pc of all the historic characters but since I’ve studied it so long I now rely on my instincts for the ‘world’ in which I write.

I write in the first person and my husband was intrigued at how well I grasped the voice of the 16th century whore, Joanie Toogood in The Winchester Goose. I just hope I can pull off the voice of Anne Boleyn so well in The Kiss of the Concubine which is out now. J

Q. You made the decision to publish your books yourself, and they have done well. What are the advantages of going it alone, and what is the hardest part about self-publishing?

I have no regrets at all about ‘going it alone.’ I can work at my own pace, make my own decisions, choose my own title and book cover, and I don’t have to share the royalties. I am not great at marketing and may not sell as many as those authors with a mainstream publisher but neither do I have the associated hassles. I make a modest living, have a lovely team of people; proof readers, a splendid editor and a cover designer who seems to understand that all I require is simplicity.

The hardest thing about self-publishing is overcoming the stigma and putting up with prejudice from people who refuse to even open the cover of a self-published book. My books have mostly 4-5 star reviews, as do many other independent authors that I know, but there are still people who refuse to accept that self-published authors are worth reading. Of course, there are those that are not so good but these aren’t exclusive to the world of self-publishing and there are many traditionally published books riddled with typos but sadly, these books are not subjected to the same disdain.

On my journey I have discovered that Indie authors have to stick together and I’ve met some fabulous writers from many different genres, all of whom have the talent, the dedication and the work ethic required to produce excellent books. People who avoid self-published authors are missing out, read one of mine and see.

Q. Although you are a medieval history expert, you also seem to have a bit of a thing for the Tudor period. What excites you personally about this era?

I’m not sure ‘expert’ is the right word. I have a Master’s degree in medieval studies which covered the Tudor period. I try to ensure that I produce an even weave of authentic history and fiction. When I began to write seriously I thought there were too many Tudor novels out there and people were getting tired of them and so my first novels were set much earlier.

Peaceweaver is set the years surrounding The Battle of Hastings, and The Forest Dwellers just after covering the period from 1068 -1100. My third novel The Song of Heledd is set even further back in the 7th century. Quite early on in my career I published a pamphlet of short stories called Dear Henry: The Confessions of the Queens which isn’t a serious historical story at all but rather a consideration of the experience of being married to Henry VIII. The response was startling.

It was a bit like marmite. Some people loved it, others hated it but I had so many emails asking if I’d written any full length Tudor novels that I obliged with The Winchester Goose. And since that went down so well with readers I followed up with The Kiss of the Concubine.

And I’ve discovered that I really feel at home there. There is no denying that the Tudors are endlessly fascinating. I love the intrigue, the romance, the clothes, the politics. With each book I research I discover something new, some new twist in the tale. Because I write in the first person I am able to imagine the workings of their inner minds and provide possible explanations as to why they behaved in a certain way.

For instance, when you study Anne Boleyn solely through historic channels she comes across as proud and cruel but it is important to remember that the chronicles concerning her were written by her enemies. It is only when you add human sentiment and some rationality to the story that a possible explanation for her actions emerges.

We all do bad things and, when we do, we always rationalise our behaviour to ourselves. In The Kiss of the Concubine Anne is genuinely in love with Henry, very insecure as queen and desperate to keep both him and her position. To give the illusion of confidence before the court she dons her pride like armour but all her enemies see is arrogance. Desperately afraid of Catherine of Aragon and Mary she treats them badly but I think there are many second-wives out there who have treated their husband’s ex negatively.

Anne is human and she tells her own story honestly and while she doesn’t come across as purer than snow, her impatience and sharp tongue are given context. Good lord, if I were ever judged on my sharp tongue alone I’m sure I’d not come out very well at all.

Judith on US Amazon

Judith on UK Amazon

Find out more on Judith’s Blog

Many thanks Judith for such frank and interesting answers and best of luck with your new release! Deborah