Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Alexander Hamilton's Account of a Devastating West Indian Hurricane

As a child growing up in St. Thomas I never learned about Alexander Hamilton's unique West Indian story. We were never taught about the moving letter he wrote to his father James Hamilton on St. Kitts after surviving the devastating hurricane of 1772 that tore through St. Croix. When the younger Hamilton showed the letter to Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister who had taken him under his wing, the latter was so impressed by Hamilton's talent and erudition that he published it in the Royal Danish American Gazette, thus preserving it for future generations. The rest, they say, is history. When the local business community read the letter, they pooled their resources to send Alexander to Harvard University in the future United States of America where he played a pivotal role during the war as General George Washington's aide-de-camp and as the first Treasury Secretary.
Young Alexander Hamilton as he would have looked when he left St. Croix.
Like Hamilton, I spent my adolescence and early adulthood working in various businesses in Charlotte Amalie. One of my employers, Luis Bared, was so impressed with me that he would pay my airline ticket twice a year so I would work in his store on Dronningens Gade during school breaks. He wanted me to return to St. Thomas after I graduated to help him manage one of his stores, but I never took him up on the offer. I knew instinctively that my future lay elsewhere, on the mainland. When I left St. Thomas in 1985 to finish college, I didn't return for more than 20 years.
Childhood photo of me on St. Thomas circa 1977-78.
During my years on the mainland the island haunted my dreams. I would see places from my childhood, and imagine myself soaring over the turquoise blue Caribbean Sea. When you leave the West Indies it always remains a part of you. From the Danish colonial architecture to the palm tree-lined alleyways, to Market Square where the native women sell their fruits and vegetables, to the shimmering white sand beaches and the tropical foliage—the islands work their way into your soul, as I'm sure they did with Alexander Hamilton. As he lay dying on the dueling field of Weehawken, New Jersey, I'm sure he imagined himself standing atop the battery of Fort Christiansvaern, or laughing with his friends in Beekman and Cruger, or strolling down King Street or Company Street, past the market women with their turbans and straw hats, or standing on the Christiansted wharf watching for signs of a tall sailing ship from America. I'm sure the last images he saw were of his island home, imagining what it would be like to visit his former colleagues and friends so they could congratulate him for his extraordinary achievements in the country that he would help found only four years after he sailed away for good.
Fort Christiansvaern St. Croix, USVI

From Alexander Hamilton to The Royal Danish American Gazette, 6 September 1772


St. Croix, Sept. 6, 1772

Honored Sir,
I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of one of the most dreadful Hurricanes that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st ultimo at night.
It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! what horror and destruction. Its impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keeness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its most hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country. A strong smell of gunpowder added somewhat to the terrors of the night; and it was observed that the rain was surprisingly salt. Indeed the water is so brackish and full of sulphur that there is hardly any drinking it.
My reflections and feelings on this frightful and melancholy occasion, are set forth in the following self-discourse.
Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine2 arrogance and self sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements—the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! how durst thou offend that Omnipotence, whose nod alone were sufficient to quell the destruction that hovers over thee, or crush thee into atoms? See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise3 thyself, and adore thy God. How sweet, how unutterably sweet were now, the voice of an approving conscience; Then couldst thou say, hence ye idle alarms, why do I shrink? What have I to fear? A pleasing calm suspense! A short repose from calamity to end in eternal bliss? Let the Earth rend. Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder. Yet what have I to dread? My staff can never be broken—in Omnip[o]tence I trusted.
He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage—even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed—and his perfections have I adored. He will snatch me from ruin. He will exalt me to the fellowship of Angels and Seraphs, and to the fullness of never ending joys.
But alas! how different, how deplorable, how gloomy the prospect! Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke. On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds. And Oh! thou wretch, look still a little further; see the gulph of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge—the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! whither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself? Thou canst not call upon thy God; thy life has been a continual warfare with him.
Hark—ruin and confusion on every side. ’Tis thy turn next; but one short moment, even now, Oh Lord help. Jesus be merciful!
Thus did I reflect, and thus at every gust of the wind, did I conclude, ’till it pleased the Almighty to allay it. Nor did my emotions proceed either from the suggestions of too much natural fear, or a conscience over-burthened with crimes of an uncommon cast. I thank God, this was not the case. The scenes of horror exhibited around us, naturally awakened such ideas in every thinking breast, and aggravated the deformity of every failing of our lives. It were a lamentable insensibility indeed, not to have had such feelings, and I think inconsistent with human nature.
Our distressed, helpless condition taught us humility and contempt of ourselves. The horrors of the night, the prospect of an immediate, cruel death—or, as one may say, of being crushed by the Almighty in his anger—filled us with terror. And every thing that had tended to weaken our interest with him, upbraided us in the strongest colours, with our baseness and folly. That which, in a calm unruffled temper, we call a natural cause, seemed then like the correction of the Deity. Our imagination represented him as an incensed master, executing vengeance on the crimes of his servants. The father and benefactor were forgot, and in that view, a consciousness of our guilt filled us with despair.
But see, the Lord relents. He hears our prayer. The Lightning ceases. The winds are appeased. The warring elements are reconciled and all things promise peace. The darkness is dispell’d and drooping nature revives at the approaching dawn. Look back Oh! my soul, look back and tremble. Rejoice at thy deliverance, and humble thyself in the presence of thy deliverer.
Yet hold, Oh vain mortal! Check thy ill timed joy. Art thou so selfish to exult because thy lot is happy in a season of universal woe? Hast thou no feelings for the miseries of thy fellow-creatures? And art thou incapable of the soft pangs of sympathetic sorrow? Look around thee and shudder at the view. See desolation and ruin where’er thou turnest thine eye! See thy fellow-creatures pale and lifeless; their bodies mangled, their souls snatched into eternity, unexpecting. Alas! perhaps unprepared! Hark the bitter groans of distress. See sickness and infirmities exposed to the inclemencies of wind and water! See tender infancy pinched with hunger and hanging on the mothers knee for food! See the unhappy mothers anxiety. Her poverty denies relief, her breast heaves with pangs of maternal pity, her heart is bursting, the tears gush down her cheeks. Oh sights of woe! Oh distress unspeakable! My heart bleeds, but I have no power to solace! O ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them. Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withold your compassion. What are you[r] sufferings compared to those? Ye have still more than enough left. Act wisely. Succour the miserable and lay up a treasure in Heaven.
I am afraid, Sir, you will think this description more the effort of imagination than a true picture of realities. But I can affirm with the greatest truth, that there is not a single circumstance touched upon, which I have not absolutely been an eye witness to.

Our Govoernor-General has issued several very salutary and humane regulations, and both in his publick and private measures, has shewn himself the Man.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Historical Fiction Round Table Discussion - January Edition

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this blog post will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

 —Mark Twain

This is the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing feature on this blog, a round table discussion by a diverse panel historical fiction authors with the purpose of entertaining and enlightening the audience. For this first discussion I will be a participant, but henceforth will act as host. Readers are encouraged to pour themselves a cup of coffee or, if the hour allows, a glass of red wine. Chocolates are encouraged but not always mandatory. Good humor is mandatory, but not always encouraged.  And so, without further ado, let me to introduce our panel of authors:


Heather Gilbert is the Grace Award-winning author of the bestselling Vikings of the New World  Saga and A Murder in the Mountains mystery series. Her novel Forest Child  received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.


Sophie Schiller is the author of Race to Tibet and the forthcoming Island of Eternal Fire. Kirkus Reviews has called her “An accomplished thriller and historical adventure writer”.

J.S. Dunn is the author of Bending the Boyne. She has lived in Ireland and traveled to museums and megaliths in Orkney, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and northern Spain to research the Atlantic Bronze Age.


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and the award-winning author & writer of Anglo-Saxon fiction & non-fiction, including To Be a Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker.


Wayne Turmel is the author of  Acre's Bastard. His life motto is "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it; the rest of us are doomed too, but get to sit there smugly and say, "Told you so'".



MJ Logue is the author of The Serpent's Root, the fifth installment in the bestselling Uncivil Wars series featuring the adventures of Hollie Babbitt and his rebel rabble of Parliamentarian cavalry. She hails from Lancashire and writes from West Cornwall, Southwest England.


E. Paul (Ed) Bergeron is the Canadian born author of In the Shadow of Vargas, book #1 of the A Land in Turmoil series of historical fiction set in America’s southwest. He lives in Idaho.


MK (Mary) Tod is the author of Time and Regret  and 2 other novels that focus on the Great War. A Canadian citizen, she has lived in Hong Kong, travels extensively, and blogs about historical fiction at A Writer of History.




Catherine Kullmann is the author of The Murmur of Masks. She lives in Dublin and writes ‘historical fiction for the heart and for the head’. Her books are set in England during the extended Regency, the period between hoops and crinolines, and against a background of the Napoleonic wars. 


Panelists, thanks for joining us! (Heart emoji) Please start by telling us where you were born:

Heather:   Southern West Virginia

Sophie:    Paterson, NJ

JS:            Minnesota, USA

Annie:       Sennelager, Germany (I have two birth certificates!)

Wayne:     New Westminster, British Columbia

MJ:            Lancashire, England

Ed:            Montreal, Quebec

Mary:        Toronto, Canada

Catherine:  Dublin, Ireland


What is the first book you read that took you to another time and place?

Heather:  Oh wow! That's a tough one as I try to think back to childhood...I suppose one of the earliest historical series I read was Little House on the Prairie.

Sophie:   The Cay, by Theodore Taylor, because one of the characters was from my home town of Charlotte Amalie and the entire class fought over the book.

JS:        Treasure Island 

Annie:    Ferdinand and Isabella by Jean Plaidy.

Wayne:   Winnie the Pooh, it was a magical place where you had to wear sweaters but not pants. If only….

MJ:      Eagle of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Ed:      I don't recall the name, but it was a book about a woman who moved with her husband to Alaska and built a log cabin. [Editor's Note: When you can think of the name, Ed, kindly leave it in the comments ;) ]

Mary:    When I was 12 I read one of my mother’s historical romances – no doubt with three children and a husband who often traveled, she needed an escape. In any event, it involved a Scottish lord who demanded ‘first rights’ from a young woman. Need I say more?


Catherine:   What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. It is a children’s book set in the US Midwest and was first published in 1872. I read it when I was six or seven.

Rosemary Sutcliff and Jean Plaidy are perennial favorites of historical novelists. Who are your favorites? Tell us in the comments section below.

Who is the first writer that inspired you to become a historical novelist?

Heather:  I would say Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring showed me that one could bring an entire historical period to life through first person point-of-view, although I also love Thomas Hardy's novels which are highly atmospheric and character-rich.

Sophie:   Leon Uris. His historical stories were so powerful and so gripping I was completely mesmerized, and I stuck with the genre all my life.

JS:        James Michener, Rutherfurd, Geraldine Brooks, Susan Vreeland, Mary Renault; all adept at showing the essence of their subject.

Annie:    It must have been Jean Plaidy, I suppose. Actually, no, I think it was the novels I was reading in my late teens and early 20's - a whole variety, from George Eliot to Kathleen Woodiwiss to RA McAvoy.

Wayne:  Alexander Dumas! The 3 Musketeers is still my all-time favorite book, but The Count of Monte Cristo and countless others are amazing… one of my mottos is “swords are WAY cooler than guns.”

MJ:       Rosemary Sutcliff has a way of reducing the reader to tears with small details. (I can't finish Song for a Dark Queen.)  

Ed:       Kenneth Robert, who wrote Northwest Passage and Arundel.

Mary:   I devoured Rosemary Sutcliff. Her stories thrilled my imagination. But my inspiration for writing came from my grandparents’ lives. 

Catherine: Georgette Heyer


Girl with a Pearl Earring was notable for transporting readers to 1660's Holland and for using the word "Girl" in the title, which has been shown to catapult a book to the top of the best-seller charts.
What are you reading right now?

Heather:   Actually, I'm reading through The Message in a Bottle Romance Collection, which includes a Viking/Irish novella I wrote (The Distant Tide). I'm thoroughly enjoying the other stories, set in Scotland, early New York, Georgia, and California. This historical collection releases in March!

Sophie:   Pompeii  by Robert Harris, an astounding work of genius.

JS:       The Blind Astronomer's Daughter  by John Pipkin.

Annie:  Alas, not fiction. English Historical Documents 500-1042. I’m an Anglo-Saxon nerd, yes, but this is for research as well as pleasure. And yes, I really do get pleasure from reading this kind of stuff!

Wayne:  It sounds pretentious, but Malcolm Barber’s The Crusader States.  It’s research for the second installment in the Lucca series.

MJ:    Katherine Pym's Erasmus T. Muddiman (1660’s adventure - a delight) and Better Fighting than Starving about the Royalist Army in exile post-1640’s.

Ed:     Will and Ariel Durant's History of Civilization.

Mary:   The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. It’s a quiet story that begins in the 1920’s but the main character is fascinating.

Catherine:  I’m re-reading Elizabeth Vaughan’s Dagger Star  trilogy, dipping in and out of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters and following Sydney Lady Morgan’s adventures in France in the early nineteenth century.


In your opinion, which characters in history have been written about so much they have become stock characters? 

Heather:   Honestly, I'm not sure, but I would say that "Bloody" Mary has been covered from various angles. I enjoy medieval reads because they don't seem as overdone as the Regency period right now.

Sophie:    Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

JS:            Anything Tudor

Annie:      Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Wayne:   Oh Lord, if I ever have to read anything else about Henry VIII, or any of the Civil War Generals  (US Civil War 1.0)  it will be too soon.

MJ:   Prince (insert expletive *here*) Rupert, the apocryphal Cavalier Prince. And he's always portrayed as gorgeous and glamorous and intense and romantic. He got more interesting after the Civil Wars, but he'd stopped being dashing by then, and he wasn't half so handsome, so no one's ever interested in that part of his life! (Slightly bashed-about vet who stuffed his house with antique weaponry and random scientific inventions and wasn't really that bothered about women, being long-term shacked up with a succession of actresses.)

Ed:       Hmmm, General Custer maybe. 

Mary:   Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII would be at the top of my list. But I also think Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart and a few others are in that category. 

Catherine:   Henry VIII and his forty—sorry, six wives.

[Editor's Note: We hear Ken Follett is coming out with his own Tudor mystery in 2017 so it's safe to assume that Tudor fiction is safe at least for the immediate future ;) ]


Has there been too much Anne Boleyn in Historical Fiction or not enough? Tell us in the comments section below:
In your opinion, which characters in history have been not been written about enough?

Heather:   Vikings, although I hope I've done my part to bring them into the reader world. :) Also, I have heard people mention they'd like to read more about Celtic warrior women. I know there are treasure troves of Roman historical stories out there, too. I'd also love to read more about Asian history.

Sophie:   People like you would find in a Graham Greene novel, mostly expats living in a fading colony or in a country undergoing revolution or political turmoil. Their stories are usually hard to put down!

JS:    Figures in lesser known cultures in India, Egypt, Asia; and pre-Roman Europe.

Annie:       Any Anglo-Saxon that isn’t Alfred the Great or Bernard Cornwell’s fictional Uhtred.

Wayne:   Maybe it’s my secret slightly Canadian-Lefty leanings but my concerns aren’t with the “great and powerful.” I’m much more concerned with the people who do the work of history… the second-in-commands, the common people who have to live with the disastrous decisions the powerful make. I’m way more interested in the poor devils stuck on Gallipoli than the agonizing in Whitehall that led to it.

MJ:      John Lambert, one of the regicides - I am obliged to be brief and witty here, so Google him for the full back-story. His eventual fate is an eye-opener to the dark side of Charles II though. Lambert was locked up in exile on Drake Island in Plymouth Sound. Alone. For twenty years. Predictably, he went mad, and he died there. Drake Island is a bleak place....

Ed:     Great explorers like Amundsen and Byrd. 
[Editors note: Ed has read Race to Tibet and he gave it 4 stars! (smile emoji)]

Mary:     Rather than characters, it’s time periods that should be broader, in my opinion. There are far too many stories set in the Tudor period, for example. And I’ve read so many set in WWII that I usually skip over new titles in that period now.

Catherine:   I am more interested in reading about periods than characters. If I want to know about an individual, I prefer a biography to a novel. I find the third to six centuries AD very interesting, as they cover the break-up of the Roman Empire, the end of the western Empire and the rise of Christianity to a state religion. Frequently dismissed as the beginning of the Dark Ages, they were in fact a fascinating time of change.

Roald Amundsen, an explorer whose life story would make a great novel!
If you could go back in history and relive an event, what would it be?

Heather:   I used to think I'd go back and save Julius Caesar. LOL. But I would say I would love to go back and see what really happened to my alleged ancestor, Eirik the Red's son Thorvald, who was shot and died from a native arrow in North America. No one has yet found his grave.

Sophie:   The signing of the Declaration of Independence!

JS:  The building of Maes Howe or Bru na Boinne (megalith, passage mound.)

Annie:   What an interesting question. I don’t think I can answer it, because most of the pivotal moments in history would be horrific to relive, so I’m not sure I would want to witness them.

Wayne:  Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the tavern wall when the US Constitution was being hashed out? The level of intelligent discourse mixed with deep personal animosity and bitchiness was unprecedented. And they used big words!

MJ:  Relive, or intercede? The murder of Thomas Rainsborough, the Leveller leader, by persons unknown in 1648. Did the King order it? Did Oliver Cromwell authorize it because Rainsborough was a threat to his authority? Was it a robbery that went wrong, or a couple of likely lads showing off to either the King, or Cromwell, or both?
Derailed the burgeoning democracy that was the Leveller movement altogether, which split the Army of Parliament down the middle, which meant that Cromwell became the power in the land when maybe if Rainsborough had lived he would never have been.
Which is a very interesting alternative history plot line indeed....

Mary:   Since I’ve read and written so much on WWI, I think that would be the event I would relive, despite the horror and destruction.

Catherine:   Major Percy arriving in London with the captured French eagles from Waterloo. We are so used to following everything live on television and in social media that it is hard to imagine the explosion of feeling when word finally reached England that Napoleon had been finally defeated.

Two writers on this panel opted to witness the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 
What is your writing goal for 2017?

Heather:  Working on my contemporary mystery/suspense novels.

Sophie:    To finish my current novel, Island of Eternal Fire.

JS:            To finish and launch 2 titles.

Annie:      To meet my publisher’s deadline with more than an hour to spare!

Wayne:    To finish part 2 of my series and make enough money off of Acre’s Bastard to continue financing my writing addiction.

MJ:     Finish the Marston Moor book - Babylon's Downfall - which is possibly the grimmest, hardest thing I've ever had to write, knowing that from that point on it's downhill all the way for the Army of Parliament and my lads.

Ed:       To publish 2 books already written. 

Mary: To finish my current WIP and have it accepted by Lake Union Publishing. Plus, to begin the next story – a sequel to it. Both are set in 19th century Paris. Beyond writing, I’ve set goals for my blog and for participation in the historical fiction community.

Catherine:  I plan to publish two new novels: Perception & Illusion in March and A Whisper of Scandal in November. I hope to start a completely new work as well, but as yet do not know what that will be.

What is the hardest thing about starting a new writing project?

Heather:  Plotting. I plot really loosely, but I often have to get into the flow of the story (getting to know the characters) before I know where the twists are coming.

Sophie:  I agree with Heather, and I would add the research takes up an enormous amount of time, but it's fascinating!

JS:     To not research it to death!

Annie:   Convincing myself that I have done enough research and it’s time to start writing my own words.

Wayne:   Knowing when it’s time to quit Googling and start writing. It’s way too easy to go down the research rabbit hole, never to be heard from again.  

MJ:    Stopping!

Ed:    The outline.

Mary:  The research? No, I love that. The writing? No, I love that too. The hardest part is creating the story outline – figuring out all the pieces that need to come together to entertain readers.

Catherine:  Working out a plot. I don’t over-plot in advance, partly because I think you lose some of the freshness when you finally start on Chapter One and partly because my characters have a habit of taking control. I love it when that happens. For example, when Napoleon escaped from Elba, Luke Fitzmaurice insisted on heading off to Brussels to join Wellington.

How has writing about history changed your perspective about history?

Heather: I realize that everyone comes at the facts with their own worldviews, whether they're writing textbooks or novels. It's inevitable, and I think we need to teach our kids to read with discernment.

Sophie:  There are many stories that went “under the radar” and were forgotten by the public. Some of these stories are worthy of being told again and again. The job of the historical novelist is to find these hidden gems and dramatize them in an entertaining manner. An excellent example of this is Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.

JS:   It shifted the timeline and location for processes in science, astronomy, and genetics.

Annie:  It has made me think more about the emotions and personal dramas of those involved.

Wayne:   Everyone talks about the grand plans and schemes, but so much of how history turns out is pure luck or hinged on crazy things happening. If you understand people (that they will always do what you least want or expect) and geography (they fought there because the land was flat, not because it was the most strategically important and nobody can control the weather) history becomes a lot more interesting.

MJ:  Almost unbearably. Not so much "what if?" as "what about?"-the people who fade out of the picture after their moment in the spotlight, the ordinary people, the little people.The me and you of history who made it possible, but whose names have been forgotten. Who tells their story?

Ed:  That it's true that history repeats itself again and again. And we don't learn the lessons from the past.

Mary:  I now see the humanity that lies behind history – the good, the bad and the ugly parts of those who make history or participate in historical events. And like Ed said, I also see the repetitive tragedies of history – the elements referred to in the saying: those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Catherine:  I look at it more in close-up, I suppose. I want to see the nuts and bolts not just the big picture.

What is your favorite “writing drink”?

Heather:   Coffee!

Sophie:    Canada Dry lemon lime sparkling seltzer 

JS:    Coffee, OK! Just gimme coffee…

Annie:   100% cocoa made into hot chocolate with unsweetened almond or soya milk. Afternoons - tea, very strong.

Wayne:  I’m usually a tequila guy, but I always celebrate writing milestones (like finishing a draft or the arrival of the first paperbacks) with a Templeton Rye on the rocks. It’s a tribute to the main character in my first novel, The Count of the Sahara.  I like to think Byron de Prorok would approve.

MJ:        Pepsi Max, out of the bottle, because I am wholly without class. (*wink* emoticon)

Ed:       Coffee of course, but not instant; I could never be like Hemingway and say whiskey, but no! 

Mary:    Coffee! A decaf latte to be exact, which my husband often makes for me. He’s the best.

Catherine:  While I am writing, tea or coffee, afterwards gin or wine.


Coffee: The drink of choice for historical novelists.
 What is your favorite “writing snack”?

Heather:   I don't really snack a lot while writing, but if I did, it would be chocolate.

Sophie:    Dark Chocolate!

JS:        Frozen yogurt, pref. chocolate, of course.

Annie:     Will you hate me forever if I say that I never snack?

Wayne:   Gummy bears or Swedish fish. I am secretly a 12-year old boy.

MJ:       Cheese, sour cream, and hot sauce sandwiches. True fact.

Mary:  Ah, the challenges of being at my desk for hours on end. Often hunger strikes, and occasionally I use it as an excuse to break away from writing. I love things like apples with peanut butter or a small bowl filled with nuts, dried cranberries and granola.

Catherine:  I try not to snack but find it hard to resist a dark chocolate Goldgrain biscuit.


American authors may have a hard time finding Goldgrain biscuits on their supermarket shelves.

Which authors have influenced you the most and why?

Heather:   Thomas Hardy because of the way he gets into the characters' heads. Agatha Christie because she was a genius who wrote so many outstanding, unpredictable mysteries it makes my head spin.

Sophie:  Jules Verne, for his style of putting ordinary characters in the middle of fascinating adventures, Ken Follett, for his suspenseful writing style, and Lionel Davidson, for his mastery of thriller writing.

JS:    James Michener, Rutherfurd, Geraldine Brooks, Susan Vreeland, Mary Renault; all adept at showing the essence of their subject.

Annie:    On an aspirational level - Jane Austen, Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick. On a personal level, Helen Hollick. Her support when I was just starting out was the difference between giving up and not.

Wayne:     I am the literary love child of Alexandre Dumas and Hunter S Thompson. I aspire to write grand romantic adventures—imagining people are capable of amazing things—but have a cynical attitude towards human beings that tells me they’ll probably disappoint me in the end, but what the hell give it a shot.


MJ:    Rosemary Sutcliffe for heartbreaking understatement - the Song of Solomon for its sensuous romance. That you can make a reader think, or feel, without ever directly referring to the thing you want them to think or feel...

Ed:   Recently I have found Patrick O'Brien's work inspirational. His characterizations especially.


MK:   I have read so many authors that I can’t settle on any one in particular! Rather, I learn from them all both in terms of what to do and what not to do.


Catherine:  Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, who introduced me to the period. Heyer also set such a high standard of research. I have enjoyed following in her footsteps and love when I discover the original of, say, one of her cant phrases. I enjoy reading other 19th century novels, including those of Maria Edgeworth, Anthony Trollope, and Mrs. Gaskell and this has helped me find the right voice for my own work.



James Michener (1907-1997) One of the most prolific and popular historical fiction authors of all time.
What is your favorite historical movie?

Heather:  I love A Room with a View and I also just watched The Last Kingdom and enjoyed it for the most part.

Sophie:   Emma’s Shadow, a Danish film about a Depression-era girl who fakes her own kidnapping, and Dark Eyes, a Russian-Italian film about a Victorian-era man who has to choose between a life of ease and a life of integrity.

JS:   Quest for Fire  for its credibility and Garden of the Finzi-Continis for its utter pathos.

Annie:   Well if you don’t already hate me for not snacking, let me put that right by saying Braveheart. Yes, I know it’s a heap of tosh, but it’s fun, it gives a good period ‘feel’ and I challenge anyone to tell me an historical film that is completely accurate...

Wayne:   When I was a kid, I loved anything set in a time when swashes got buckled: pirate movies and Robin Hood. But for real history it’s hard to go wrong with David Lean. Lawrence of Arabia  rocks. There’s also a wonderful movie called The Mountains of the Moon which introduced me to the person I’d most like to have dinner with, Richard Francis Burton.

MJ:   The Horseman on the Roof  or Ladyhawke! [Editors note: You seem like a Ladyhawke kind of a person!]

Ed:     Can't say, so many stray from the actual in order to create conflict.

Mary:   The first one that comes to mind is The English Patient – a sweeping story with lush settings, conflict, mystery and romance. But I could also choose Sophie’s Choice with Meryl Streep, or Elizabeth I with Cate Blanchett, or 12 Years a Slave or … you see the problem with choosing a favorite?

Catherine:  I watch very few movies, but enjoyed Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. And, although not strictly historical, I loved all the Lord of the Rings films.

If you could have dinner with any historical personage, who would it be and why?

Heather:   Jesus would be choice number one, but outside that, probably the Vikings I've written about or Agatha Christie for the reasons I've mentioned above.

Sophie:    Raoul Wallenberg or Karen Blixen

JS:       Otzi the Ice Man (das Man im Eis)

Annie:   Charles II. We’d have drinks, we’d feast, we’d have a party and then we’d dance the night away.

Wayne:  Without a doubt, Richard Francis Burton (google him, people, it’s worth the trip.) Explorer, Speaker of 13 languages, Fencing master, World Traveler [Editor’s note: He went to Mecca]….He’d be insufferable over the long haul (he wore out most of his friends) but that would be one amazing night. I’d bring the brandy.

MJ: Thomas Fairfax, Commander in Chief of the Army of Parliament. Because he had remarkably fine eyes, wrote appallingly clunky poetry, and was one of those decent, honorable, earnest, ardent gentlemen that popular history has exclusively on the Cavalier side. I would be sad when he went home, though.

Ed:     Helen of Troy or Moshe Dayan, but leaning toward Helen. 

Mary: Winston Churchill comes to mind for his keen intellect and the courage and leadership he gave to Britain and the world. 

Catherine:  Jane Austen and her family. I would love to observe the social dynamics of the family and, if I could get over my initial awe, talk to her about writing. 

Sir Richard Burton in Mecca.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Heather:   Often inspiration strikes when I'm driving in my van, without any kids! LOL. But I love the woods and the beach.

Sophie:    The Caribbean, the islands are steeped in history.

JS:     Very strange, remote places. Pyrenees mountaintops to Welsh islets.

Annie:   Into the history books. I was doing some research the other day and kept coming across a name and realized that was my next novel!          

Wayne:  On a regular basis, I get my lazy crack to meetings of The Naperville Writers Group (NWG Represent!). I work out of my house, so I don’t get out enough, and to talk writing with people who are passionate about all kinds of genres is inspiring. My new book arose from an argument with some members about how YA is killing the book business. There may have been alcohol involved.

MJ:      Reenactments J

Ed:    The trails, the mountains. It used to be the seashore. If I have time we’ll drive to the Washington or Oregon coast for sea food and stark, rugged  beauty of the untamed ocean.

Mary:  Books, the Internet, personal travel, old letters and diaries, obituaries, art, photos, poems. The list is long but in many cases, serendipity strikes based on whatever is at hand.

Catherine:  First there is a spark—a ‘what if?’ or ‘what then?’—something I have read, or a sentence I have just written. The Murmur of Masks came from a throwaway phrase in Perception & Illusion. I thought ‘What happened then?’ Or I see a picture or a photograph. Ideas occur to me all the time and I jot them down in my notebook of Possible Plots.

What is the je ne sais quoi that makes a novel unforgettable?

Heather: For me, it's memorable characters, setting, and/or events, although bonus points if the plot line seriously surprises me. I was addicted to psychological thrillers for a while for this reason—I wanted something I couldn't predict. But they are so dark I went back to reading regular mysteries.

Sophie:  Feeling you are a part of history, or that you can relive history through the pages of a novel. When the character’s dilemma completely draws you in, you have an investment in the outcome. Whether good or not so good, the ending has to be satisfying.

JS:     When the author captures the era and immerses the reader.

Annie:    Hmm, well, the correct answer is that it can’t be defined otherwise it wouldn’t be the je ne sais quoi (pedant? Me?) But actually, a good book has to start well, make me not notice the writing because it seems so effortless, leave me bereft at the end, and hold me in its atmosphere for at least two days after I’ve finished reading it.

Wayne:  By definition, if I knew that it would be a je sais quoi…. but that’s beside the point. To me it’s that scene that creates a cinematic moment in the reader’s brain: Jim Hawkins hiding in the barrel overhearing the plot to kill the captain… that sense you get when the descriptions of a battle give you those freeze-frame images that transport you elsewhere... and great dialogue that sounds like real people having real conversations even if the stakes are unimaginably high.

MJ:  That the characters have a plausible life outside the book.  Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie and Clasire Fraser have it: the reader can imagine them talking, laughing, worrying about the bills - having an existence that we only step into when they're having an adventure,  but that carries on even when we're not watching.

Ed:   The characters, conflict if it is true. I don’t like super heroes. Although Ian Fleming’s James Bond was fun to read at the time.

Mary:  Well-drawn characters facing high-stakes dilemmas in tumultuous times.

Catherine: Speaking as a reader, first you have to care about the characters and their stories, and then the ending must ring true and feel right, even if it is not the simple happy end you had hoped for. And you must gain something from reading it, something that stays with you.


When you pick up a novel you enter a whole new world.

Readers: thanks for joining us on this first installment of historical fiction round table. If you have a specific question for any of our panelists, please enter them in the comments section below and we will get you an answer (and not just on Wikipedia). To learn more about the authors, please click on their names above and you will be directed to their Amazon author page where all their books are listed. Check back in February for the next installment! 👯😂😄😎