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Thursday, 31 March 2016

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain's famous words also apply to short stories.
 
These hardy little creatures battle on, in spite of the doomsayers who prophesy their extinction. They remind me of the daffodils in my garden, determinedly growing again after being checked by snow and ice.
 
Short stories may not sell in vast numbers but a good short story often stays longer in my mind than many a novel. The EDF short story prize is one of the most lucrative in the literary world and less prestigious competitions still attract hundreds, even thousands of entries. 
 
So, to celebrate the short story and the very welcome arrival of spring, I've made my varied collection free for the weekend. Do take a look and if you decide to download, I'm confident you'll find something to amuse you. To download a copy to your Kindle, follow the link viewBook.at/danc_ing or click on the cover image in the right-hand bar.
 
 
 

Monday, 21 March 2016

Use your sense

It's the aim of all good writers to bring their work alive for readers. One of the enormous pleasures to be derived from reading is that feeling that you are actually living in the world a writer conjures up for you, whether it's Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan Era or just a social strata you will probably never encounter.
 
One of the most powerful tools a writer has to achieve this effect is the use of sensory perception. Sight is an obvious example of using the senses - the old mantra of show not tell is a very valid one -  but sound, taste , hearing and touch are very important too.
 
Probably the best way I can illustrate the use of these elements in fiction is by referring to my own work, in this case my historical adventure mystery set in the Age of Shakespeare, Salvation
 
For example in a scene where one of the main characters undertakes a mission to France for spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, I wanted to convey the sounds and sensations of a crossing from England to France in a small boat. This is the passage I wrote:
 
" From the deck of the Maid of Kent, he watched the grey-green water slap and froth against the hull and felt the breeze ruffle his hair. The ship was reassuringly sturdy, built of good Kentish timber. Under sail she lumbered along like a stout laundress pegging out sheets to dry."
 
Arousing our sense of touch can be very effective as well. In the next example it is used in a romantic scene where my heroine, Meg, longs for her lover, Tom Goodluck.
 
"Was this what life held for her? Married to a man she could not love; trapped in a gloomy house that surrounded her like an ugly cloak she didn't want to wear? She leant her cheek against the stone mullion and felt the warmth it had absorbed from the morning’s sun. Its smooth texture reminded her of Tom’s lean, hard body. All at once, such a strong rush of longing and sorrow went through her that she almost cried out."
 
Yet touch may also be used to convey harsher moments, for example when your characters are suffering or in peril, as in the next example when it is combined with taste and sound:
 
" 'Hold on, Bess,’ Meg shouted. She wound her fingers into the cob’s coarse mane and clung on as they galloped out of the yard.
The cob’s hooves squelched as he picked his way across the boggy ground. A low mist made both girls shiver and left a taste of wet earth in Meg’s mouth. Behind her, she felt Bess’s chest heave as she coughed.
‘Must we go this way?’

‘Yes, it will be safer than going on the road, we agreed that.' "


So, important as it is to construct a gripping story with believable characters, don't forget the senses. Using them to the best advantage can make the difference between a good book and a great one.


To find out more about Salvation, follow the link viewBook.at/sal_vation or click on the cover image on the right hand side of the blog.



 
 

Recommended by the Historical Novel Society Review as “an exciting romp through the hurly-burly of Elizabethan England, when plots and counter plots were the order of the day and where hidden danger lurked around every corner”, Salvation will keep you gripped until the very last page."
 
"An historical tale with so much to offer. The characters are so well drawn you feel you know them intimately and they remain with you afterwards. The details to the setting and background of the story bring it vividly to life. The story is both dramatic and touching. It gives a very strong picture of the hardships and triumphs people of the time experienced."
 
"A really great read."
 
"Salvation" is captivating and intriguing, with great narrative and a realistic insight of a long gone era. It is so rare that a book leaves an aftertaste! Usually we associate "aftertaste" with wine, and a great wine leaves a pleasant one, as the historic fiction "Salvation" does. It makes you want more, and I will definitely seek Harriet Steel's books."
 
Winner of the Awesome Indies Gold Award
 


Monday, 7 March 2016

A Victorian Queen of Hearts






Readers often ask how I came across the story of Lola Montez, the Victorian adventuress who features in my biographical novel, Becoming Lola.

I first noticed Lola on a visit to the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. She was for a time the adored mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria who had her portrait painted for his ‘Gallery of Beauties’ there. Ludwig wanted the gallery to be a record of the women he considered the most beautiful of his day. I was just thinking that his taste ran to rather doll-like lovelies when I reached Lola’s portrait. Her face, with its amazing deep-blue eyes and air of vitality, grabbed my attention. The caption gave the barest of information, but I scented an intriguing story that might make an excellent subject for a novel. Back at home I set to work to find out more.

 I discovered she had been born Eliza Gilbert, the daughter of a junior officer in the British Army and his wife, Elizabeth, who was the illegitimate daughter of an Anglo-Irish baronet. At seventeen, Eliza eloped with one of her mother’s admirers to avoid an arranged marriage. The man married her and the scandal might have been buried but Eliza was unhappy and left him. Not long afterwards, she re-invented herself as Lola Montez and claimed to be the widow of a (fictional) Spanish war hero.

Sexy, clever and ambitious, with a total disregard for convention, she went on to become the nineteenth century’s most notorious adventuress. By the time she died in 1860, (of pneumonia, her lungs fatally weakened by the cigarillos she loved to smoke), only Queen Victoria eclipsed her in fame. Her life gave rise to hundreds of novels and plays and endless gossip. Thackeray probably used her as his model for Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair


 

With all that, it’s hard to understand why today, Lola has been almost forgotten. Books on her are not easy to track down and the few people who recognize her name usually do so from Vanity Fair or her colourful appearance in George MacDonald Fraser’s Royal Flash, where she was the femme fatale who delivered Flashman into the clutches of the dastardly Otto von Bismarck.

So what happened? The number of Lola’s lovers was legendary but to the straight-laced Victorians, that made her all the more fascinating. Many famous courtesans – Diane de Poitiers, Nell Gwyn, Madame de Pompadour and Mata Hari to name a few - have come down to us in history, why not Lola?

I believe the answer is to be found in other traits in her character. She loved to live on the edge of danger and her restless temperament abhorred compromise. Full of ambition and independence of spirit, she was determined to direct her own life, even if a lover provided the money. Her sexuality was also predatory and couldn’t be contained within the conventionally discreet role of a mistress, let alone the framework of virtuous domesticity. Thus, she was a woman who represented a threat to a male dominated world. Perhaps it was society’s revenge that she should be forgotten.


Cartoon of Lola and Ludwig
  

I spent a long time reading everything and anything I could find about Lola and concluded that my first instinct had been correct: her story would make a great novel. It was such a shame that time had obscured her memory. As I went on, however, I realised that successfully turning fact into fiction was going to be a challenge. Lola packed enough into her forty years to fill several lifetimes. If readers were not to give up, exhausted and bewildered by her whirlwind existence, I had to be extremely selective about the episodes I used, while still constructing a satisfying narrative flow.

The second problem was that although Lola was a charmer if she chose to be, she could also be capricious, selfish and evil-tempered and as her celebrity increased, these qualities came to the fore. My readers didn’t need to like Lola unreservedly – after all many people find heroines like Dickens’s idealized women terribly bland and dull - but I didn’t want to forfeit all sympathy for her. My solution was to focus on the period of her life when she was establishing herself and growing into the persona of Lola. That way, I could write about the feisty, courageous girl who took on the world in her search for happiness and fulfilment, before celebrity devoured her.

Writing Becoming Lola was lots of fun and the interest the book has generated has amply rewarded my efforts. She would be remarkable in any age. In her own she was a phenomenon. I’m glad to have played a part in rehabilitating her memory. 



Contemporary cartoon Lola escaping to France after being charged with bigamy.


To buy a paperback copy or download one on Kindle, tap the cover image in the  sidebar above on the right, or follow the link viewBook.at/lola_

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