I encourage anyone who likes Historical Fiction to take the survey. I believe that the results will be made public in the future – so you’ll be able to understand a little bit more about your fellow readers and the genre as a whole.
Here’s the introduction to the survey if you want to know a bit more about it:
Your views on reading and on historical fiction are very important to us, and we very much appreciate your time.
THE SURVEY SHOULD ONLY TAKE 5-10 MINUTES. In addition to the survey results, as a thank you we would like to offer a free e-copy of the Historical Novel Society’s historical fiction anthology from authors at the London (UK) conference in 2012. You will be prompted for your email at the end of the survey.
Survey questions were developed by M.K. TOD, author of UNRAVELLED and blogger at www.awriterofhistory.com, in collaboration with RICHARD LEE, founder of the Historical Novel Society. We are grateful to the many authors and bloggers who contributed ideas for this year’s survey and agreed to publicize it.
The steampunks are taking over the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and we need someone to write about them! Jurassic London are looking for authors for an anthology called Irregularity to accompany next year’s longitude celebrations and events, including Longitude Punk’d.
The brief is quite wide – fiction set between about 1660 and 1860 that looks to the systematic (and not so systematic) attempts to impose order on nature’s chaos. We’re looking for stories about the efforts, successful and unsuccessful, to know the world better, to comprehend it, and to make it comprehensible. And, just as importantly, we are looking for stories about that chaos which ultimately proves itself unknowable.
This is a really good theme for the material we’ve been looking at in the project and which will feature in our various exhibitions, since the search for longitude methods is so full of glorious schemes of all sorts. And there are plenty of sources for inspiration, what with the Board of Longitude archive now available online, not to mention our own collections, which include many instruments associated with the Board and other stuff we like from the period. I’ve been having another look through the archive recently and was struck again by some of the ideas on perpetual motion:
William Parr’s dial or orrery for finding the longitude
not to mention the splendid illustrations projectors included:
Johann Vetter’s machine for measuring currents, submitted in 1777
In this, her third case, the reputation of Frances Doughty, Victorian female private detective has grown substantially. Now known as a discrete London investigator she has become an expert at solving small mysteries like lost pets, unusual ones like the alligator who is reputed to bask daily in the Serpentine and gruesome ones like murder. Her reputation has in fact grown to such an extent that she now has a fictional counterpart, Miss Dauntless, the lady detective of Bayswater, heroine of a series of romance novels.
In A Case of Doubtful Death, Miss Doughty investigates the fascinatingly bizarre world of the Life House. This is a mortuary where the corpses of clients are left to decompose after deathwhilst mortuary staff check that there is no mistaken diagnosis and ensure the client does not suffer the fate of being buried alive. Frances is engaged to find Henry Palmer, a young mortuary assistant and one of the Life House’s most reliable employees, who went missing the same night that one of the founders of the Life House, Dr Mackenzie, was found dead. As Frances keeps digging to uncover the truth surrounding Palmer’s disappearance and Mackenzie’s death, her investigations, despite the obstructive male medical establishment, lead to the uncovering of fraud, blackmail, and finally murder.
Frances Doughty is a great character, a strong young woman determined not to accept the strictures of Victorian society when it comes to her career. Consulting detective is an unusual career for a woman in Victorian times but Frances is an unusual woman. She talks composedly of distressing medical matters with doctors reluctant to accord her the same respect as they would a man, she has bodies dug up and even dresses as a man; escaping the confines of social convention to further her cases. She has a keen wit, “he smelled of gutta-percha and the burnt rubber scent of dead sap was the liveliest thing about him”, but she is not a revolutionary, Frances keeps her thoughts to herself when they do not serve her clients or her cases.
It is a pity then that there are too many minor characters clogging up the story, and consequently not allowing the character of Frances to take centre stage; there seems little opportunity for the reader to get to know her better. The narrative is similarly hampered with the main plot interspersed with too many sub plots which slow the action down at critical junctures. While these stories are cleverly plotted so Frances can eventually unravel them, Miss Doughty is involved in too many cases in this latest episode for the main narrative to compel.
The novel’s setting is perhaps its strongest suit. The intriguing and strange place that is the Life House is expertly described with a level of detail that would satisfy the curiosity of the most exacting reader and here the author’s non-fiction writing is a huge asset. Throughout the novel there is an obvious and intimate knowledge of Victorian life, from the polite side to the wild side that both absorbs and reassures the reader.
A Case of Doubtful Death will surely not be the last report we have of Frances, the doughty lady detective of Bayswater.
Last (but definitely not least) in our series of interviews with authors from Issue 5 is Priya Sharma. Priya is a fairly regular contributor to Alt Hist, see “Orchid Hunters” and “The Bitterness of Apples”. I would heartily recommend that you also take a look at her latest story for Alt Hist, “After Mary”.
How did you get the idea for “After Mary”?
I’m going to try and answer this without spoilers- I wanted to write my own “mad scientist” story, although I hope that Daniel’s quest is unexpected. The original story was written in a modern day setting but it didn’t work- it needed a historical setting.
I was lucky enough to see Danny Boyle’s production of “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre in London. It made me think a lot about science in that period, as well as the responsibilities of scientists towards their creation.
Your stories for Alt Hist tend to cross boundaries between horror, speculative fiction and historical fiction. How you happy fitting into a genre category and if so, where would you place yourself?
To be honest, I’m greedy. I want to try everything. I don’t place myself anywhere. The core of the story I want to tell dictates which genre it’s going to lean towards.
I like reading stories that are neither literary or genre, or one genre masquerading as another- writers like Kuzuo Ishiguro, Iain Banks, David Mitchell, Sarah Hall, Margaret Atwood, Vonnegut and Jim Crace.
At the time of our last interview you were working on two novels. How are these getting along?
Terribly. I’m trying to work through it to iron out the problems with the first one. The second was as awful to write as it is to read. When I can cope to look at it again, I’ll dismember it and use what I can in other stories. If I’m being completely honest, the whole process has left me with a morbid fear of novel writing. As much as I want to try again, my bowels turn to water and I break out in a sweat at the thought of embarking on a novel.
Can you tell us a bit more about the other short fiction that you have published recently?
I’ve been lucky this year- “Rag and Bone” appeared on the Macmillian speculative website, Tor.com. It’s about a pseudo-Victorian Liverpool, where the poor are fodder for the factories of wealthy merchants, who also find other uses for them.
“Thesea and Astaurius” is my version of the Minotaur myth and is published in Interzone. “The Anatomist’s Mnemonic” is a horror story about hands that’s appeared in Black Static. it was a love story when I started to write it but strayed. “The Beatification of Thomas Small” is an alternative history/horror (subtitled “How to Make a Saint”) and is included in Arcane II, an anthology available from Cold Fusion Media.
What other stories are you working on?
I’ve got a couple of things on the go that I’m hoping to find a home for. “The Rising Tide” is a horror story about guilt. “The Firebrand” is about a sideshow act that goes wrong. The one that I’m wrestling with is “Panopticon”, which is dystopian (hopefully).
Working as a doctor must mean you don’t have a lot of time to write. What’s your strategy for making time for your writing?
Note to self – get a strategy!
There are a lot of writers out there juggling jobs, families and other commitments. I don’t imagine there are many people who have great swathes of time to write. I try and use what I have. If it’s not long enough to get stuck into writing something new, I try and use it for planning and editing. It’s not just about trying to protect time, it’s about using it to write efficiently.
Three stories from your series Battalion 202 have now appeared in Alt Hist. Can you tell us what’s next in store for the people of Pontefract?
Unfortunately, things are going to get far worse before they start getting better. The Nazis have been gradually consolidating their power, as they would have done in reality had they successfully landed in Britain. The next story, “The Sheep and the Goats”, again focuses on the local police officer Harold Storey and his growing awareness of the sinister aspects of the Nazi project, and how he reacts to this. The next story that I’m working on now deals again with the local Auxiliary Unit which has a traitor in its midst.
What’s the historical background for your story? Was there really an organisation called Battalion 202?
Yes, there really was an organisation called Battalion 202. In 1941 there was a growing realisation in Britain that Hitler intended to invade Britain. Churchill ordered for a nascent resistance movement to be organised against that possibility, with the umbrella title of ‘The British Resistance Organisation’. The spine of this organisation was to be dozens of Auxiliary Units, teams of between four and eight men who had been trained in clandestine warfare and who were to go to ground as the Nazis swept over Britain. They were actually supposed to focus on sabotage and interference rather than fighting and assassination, but there is little doubt that there would have been a lot of violence, both on their parts and that of the German occupiers. Administratively, they were organised into three battalions: 201 covered Scotland, 202 the North of England, 203 the South of England. AUs were established in Wales, but were not organised under an overarching title as in other parts of Britain. Their uniforms were ordinary Home Guard uniforms, apart from the shoulder patches which identified their Battalions – although the numbers would have been meaningless to anyone not in the know. George Orwell, with his experience of front line warfare in Spain, was involved in training AU volunteers in London. Many of these men served from D-Day onwards in the regular army.
There were also “observers”, civilians who had been trained to gather intelligence which they would then pass on via intermediaries to radio operators. These operators would transmit the intelligence to AUs in the locale, which would then plan attacks. Finally, there were deep-level agents, members of local and national government and the civil service, primed to apparently collaborate with the Nazis, who would also be sending intelligence out to the Resistance and doing what they could to frustrate the Occupation. These people were known as “the other side” and would have walked a daily knife edge as well. Although some members of the AUs have been identified, as far as I know no one in the “the other side” has ever been made known to the public. They would have all been taking appalling risks for their communities and their country, and in researching and writing these stories, I’ve heaved several sighs of relief that history spared us the horror of occupation. So, yes, there was such an organisation, and they really were told that in the event of the Nazis arriving that they could expect to live for fourteen days.
For our readers not familiar with Pontefract, can you tell us a bit more about your home town?
Truth to tell, I’m a bit of an interloper, not being a native of Pontefract. I was born in Stockport and as a child lived just South of Manchester. My father was an engineer, so we moved with his job. When I was eight we went to North Berwick, near Edinburgh, and when I was thirteen we moved to Southport, near Liverpool. Since leaving home and taking my degrees, I’ve lived and worked in Japan, France, Norwich, Oxford, London,… and now Ponte! Pontefract is ace! It’s a market town of about 30,000 inhabitants. Previously it relied heavily on mining, and retains quite a bit of farming. There is still a sweet factory (one of its products is the world-famous liquorice Pontefract Cake). Pontefract is a fairly tightly-knit community which has weathered a lot over the years. Its castle was where Richard II was imprisoned and died, and where Richard III was declared king. It was also besieged during the Civil War by Cromwell’s Roundhead forces (if you look at the town crest that I use on the Resistance newspaper, it includes the town’s motto: Post mortem patris pro filio – Latin for “After the death of the father [Charles I] we are for the son [Charles II]”). It occupies a central position, being fairly central in the island of Britain if you look at the map, as well as central to the North and to Yorkshire, which means that although it was and is relatively small; its strategic significance has led to its involvement in several historical developments. It also meant that I could imagine the Nazis being keen to establish themselves here.
I met my wife whilst I was teaching in North London, which is another lovely place, but my wife prefers to visit London rather than live there, so being a Northerner I started to look for teaching jobs in quieter, leafier climes North of Watford Gap. The job I have now came up, so we moved here. Pontefract is a hard-working, good-humoured place to have fetched up in and I think we’ll be here for quite some time to come.
How did you get into writing?
I think many writers are similar in that they have always felt an urge to write. When I was young (five or so), one of my aunts visited us from Canada. I was already making up little stories in my head and playing around with words, and one day she had me tell her a story, which she wrote down and then read back to me. That sense of pleasure from making up stories stuck with me and I carried on doodling away. In school I wrote Science Fiction stories for fanzines that some friends were printing, and at university got involved in the campus newspapers and magazines, and so on.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Be with my family, day dream, teach English at a sixth form college, read as much as possible, listen to music (Folk, Jazz and Classical mainly), watch films (just watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again for the first time in twenty years, and it’s still brilliant!), attend my local Quaker Meeting, dig over our allotment, go walking….
Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?
Beyond Battalion 202, I’m mulling over a story set during the witchcraft trials in Seventeenth Century Scotland, which I first heard about when I was growing up there, so that would be interesting to return to. I’m also thinking over a short comic play about allotment holders, just for a bit of a change! I used to write comic sketches for my friends to act in at school, so it would be good to have another go at that kind of writing. On top of that I’m hoping to write about Quaker communities in Prague and Budapest for the national Quaker magazine, The Friend.
What are your ambitions as a writer?
To keep writing and getting my work read! I enjoy writing short stories and articles, so that’s where a lot of my energy goes. I have an ambition to communicate with other people about the things that I find exciting, interesting and important. If someone enjoys reading something I’ve written, and also gets something useful from it, that’s fantastic. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed developing a series of interlinked short stories in Battalion 202 – it’s been very challenging and rewarding. I hope that people who have read the stories have enjoyed them and are looking forward to more – please do keep reading!
If anyone would like to read another of Jonathan’s stories (which is set in the present day and doesn’t deal with WW2 at all, please follow the links below to read ‘Magic Christmas Snowballs’ online, or to purchase a print version of Gold Dust Magazine.
I work for Cambridge University Press in the maths and astronomy departments, where I write a lot of blurbs and steal cake from the production editors. In September, I’ll be starting a creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia. I hope, at some point after that, to go to Japan. How did you get the idea for the story?
Keita Mori coelesced one evening while I was watching Dr Who. I built everything else around him; I read through some old editions of the London Illustrated News to see what was happening in the 1880s and found that there had been an Irish bombing campaign, and that there had been a Japanese presence in Knightsbridge in the form of a show village. One of the lovelier things about historical fiction is that it practially writes itself.
I understand that your story is part of a series. What does the future hold for the characters of Watchmaker of Filigree Street?
Gilbert and Sullivan, a clockwork octopus and some suffragists, although possibly not all together.
Do you write exclusively historical fiction or do you stray into othergenres? If so what do you think the main challenges are of writinghistorical fiction compared to other genres?
I write fantasy too. In some ways it is much easier than historical fiction, because you can make up your own timeline and your own rules; in others, historical fiction is a gift to plotting because often the things that actually happened, or could have happened if somebody hadn’t had toothache, are much more extraordinary than something completely imaginary. I think the main difficulty is finding the line between fiction and biography. It doesn’t do to get too bogged down in whether the Earl of Salisbury grew petunias or not, but at the same time, there needs to be enough research involved to avoid any howling errors.
“The second issue of ‘AltHist’ magazine builds on the solid basis of the first issue, bringing a collection of historical fiction and alternate histories from a broad cross-section of history. There are some wonderful stories among them.”
“‘Long Nights In Languedoc’ … was a highly enjoyable start to the magazine. ”
“‘The Apollo Mission’ by David X. Wiggin is pretty short but does a good job of imagining the setting and the feelings of the unfortunate volunteer.”
‘Son of Flanders’: The horrors of life in the trenches are atmospherically portrayed”
‘In Cappadocia’: “short but intriguing”
“‘The Orchid Hunters’ is a superb story by Priya Sharma”
‘Death In Theatre’: “an interesting study in motivation and human nature.”
‘The Scarab Of Thutmose’: “an amusingly quirky tale of intrigue”
“‘The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street’ by NK Pulley is an intriguing Victorian tale set in London”
Remember if you want to order Alt Hist Issue 2 there are lots of options available. Visit the How to Get Your Alt Hist page for details.