The Smoke of her Burning
Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to one Captain – Colonel, now – Holofernes Babbitt. Hollie to his friends. A man who begins the Uncivil Wars series as a disaffected mercenary cavalry captain in the Army of Parliament, and ends up by 1649 as a husband, father, Leveller, and political menace.
The new book, “The Smoke of Her Burning” is something of the book that shouldn’t have been.
The second, “Command the Raven”, is set in 1643, when for reasons many and various Hollie and his rebel rabble end up detached to Yorkshire under Thomas Fairfax’s command. The new one begins in early 1644. – And, of course, 1644, this was going to be Marston Moor, and the Bolton massacre, and the siege of Lathom House, and all those other great Northern events in Fairfax’s year of wonders.
Except, of course, it isn’t. Because Marston Moor doesn’t happen until the summer, and although Hollie Babbitt’s company are fictional, they are a fictionalised company in a real campaign, and I’m very proud of their being “not real but could have been”. So I got to wondering where a troop of cavalry would have been, had they rejoined Fairfax in the spring of 1644.
It was just out of interest, of course, because that’s how I research the books. I’ve got a little mental map of Fairfax’s campaigns, and I plot when Hollie might have been able to slip off home, and what that might mean for his family arrangements. How old his children might be when daddy comes home – old enough to recognise him from his last home leave, or old enough to be afraid of the strange man in the buffcoat, or so new as that he didn’t even know they were on the way?
And it was never meant that the battle at Selby should have a book in its own right. It was meant that it was going to be a tiny hiccup on the march to York, a little diversion before Marston Moor. And then, as ever in my books, the people got involved in the action – mad Puritan lieutenant Thankful Russell, and the very mysterious Gray, and cork-brained romantic posh poet Luce Pettitt. The odd ones out: Russell who’s an officer in his head, always and ever, but who can’t always manage to stay on the straight and narrow sufficient to retain his commission. Gray, who wants to be a fierce warrior, one of the boys. Which isn’t ever going to happen, for a very real and practical reason. And Luce, who’s committed to the noble ideals of the Parliamentarian cause, but who’s better at healing people than hurting them.
Really, what inspired “The Smoke of Her Burning” was those three, and their odd dynamic, both within the troop and with each other. And Hollie trying to get his head round the idea that as a captain he could please himself, but now he’s a full colonel and expected to toe the party line, and he’s really not very good at that. And set that against Selby, which was a fierce battle, and one which isn’t known as well as perhaps it ought to be. And then of course I stumble across a group on Twitter who are trying to get the Abbot’s Staith in Selby taken on as a community space, the Staith being one of the monastic warehouses in Selby, on the edge of the Ouse. And, you know, I’m passionate about local history, communities owning their own past, so I contact the people who run this group asking about the Staith and of course the next thing you know I’m getting maps of 17th century Selby and discussing whether or not Belasyse might have used the monastic warehouses as a powder store. (Which, in the book, is what he does!) And then I published an excerpt from the new book on a review site and was contacted by one of the local librarians, and we’ve been chatting about stabling horses in the Abbey and whether there were cobbles in the streets and how deep the fields flood round those parts…
So “The Smoke of Her Burning” is out on October 12, and all the royalties for the first month are going to the Abbot’s Staith community fund for the upkeep of the medieval warehouse,