Tag Archives: historical fiction

Farewell the Day

By Carole Green

Tuesday morning begins bright and sharp. By three o’clock those who have shift work are up and heading out to meet the day.  Others – like his Da, having come off at midnight with a bad knee – turn back into the snug of their blankets.  Having left behind the warmth of the cottage some minutes before, Harry sounds now like a train chugging along in the clear cold air which catches at his breath and makes it rise in white puffs. A curious redwing follows his progress, darting through the hedge as he crosses first the snowy fields and then the icy lanes and makes his way down the Jarrow row to meet his cousin, Robert. It is dark but a half moon hangs grinning at them in the velvet blue like a prop from one of Mr Kelley’s fabulous entertainments. Robert is a decade older than his eager cousin, and less impressed by the freshness of the day. Harry’s joking description of the moon raises only a wry smile. Robert has come off shift only five hours previous and slept through most of his dinner and breakfast.  His lids are hooded as he follows laggardly behind young Harry. He crunches on a rock of cinder toffee, which his wife makes weekly and in great quantities in winter, in hopes of keeping him awake and going. He grumbles at the lad’s cheerful whistling. There is nothing to whistle about where they are heading.

The men congregate in the lee of the engine house as they wait their turn to be let down. Harry nods goodbye to cousin Robert here. Although it is Harry himself who, fourteen years old and hating the constraints of the schoolroom, has insisted on starting at the works – he is relieved that he has found a place with the pit cuddies and horses. They are docile beasts and nuzzle softly at any treats a boy can bring them.  They are excellent listeners also; their soft brown eyes convey a great deal of sympathy for the problems a lad might sound off about. And they never break a confidence. Harry has told them about his impatience with school and how only last summer he discovered that he is a fair hand on the water. He has earned some good pocket money helping his cousin run the ferry crossing at Dunston. His mother’s family are a friendly lot and keep a well-stocked table; a fellow never goes hungry no matter what kind of work he gets up to. He enjoyed the order of their household and how things got done in congenial spirit. A lot seems to be accomplished with a great deal less of the shouting and moaning that fills his own house.

But Harry cannot stay on beyond August. His mother needs him at home – who else can get the old man from the pub in one piece? His brothers are too impatient with the task and inevitably it ends in a scuffle and a black eye. But Harry is different. He remembers Da when he used to romp and play with them, when he had more time in the day. It is Becky from next door taught him the trick: don’t think of your Da as he is now, think of him as he was before. Becky is a year or two younger than Harry and has bright green eyes and a small gap between her two front teeth. She kissed him once behind the outhouse the cottages share. Her lips were warm and dry like a caress. But then, before he even had time to open his eyes, she’d slapped him hard upside the head so that his ear rang.  If you tell anyone I’ll knock your teeth out, Harry Clasper, she’d said. Harry believed her. Becky’s Da spends every minute he can throwing money away on the cock fights. He is not alone in his pursuits. The grind does the same to families up and down the town rows. This hauling in and scooping up of wayward men from the pubs and cockfighting pits and gaming houses is a daily ritual. Gateshead and Newcastle town are booming and if a fellow seizes the chance he need never be short of work. But the fruits of this labour do not always find their way to the ever growing families which require feeding and the cottage rows in which they cram have no land fit for cultivation. It is a sorry fact that a fair portion of wages are paid in beer from the company alehouse. It is easy to drink beyond the allotted share and tabs quickly mount up. There is a sad joke that some men worked to drink, and others drank to work. Harry understands that his Da falls into the latter category. Robert makes good money as a brusherman, setting off the charges that widen and deepen the shafts, but oh, how he hated to say goodbye to the light and, instead of becoming accustomed to it, he loathed and feared the stygian blackness more each time he went down. And so, instead of a fresh warm beer in the morning, he began taking something stronger; until that no longer had its effect and he found something more potent still. He is not a loud nor an aggressive drinker, on the contrary, as the years wear down he becomes a quiet man, sitting in the corner, knocking back the drinks at a rate which might have surprised his companions had they been counting.  Trouble is it is well neigh impossible to get him off that stool and back home – timing, as Harry discovers, is everything. There is a certain point, before a kind of mad oblivion transforms him, that Da can be coaxed home for his supper. You have to address him very clearly, but respectfully, and pretend that whatever gibberish he is talking makes perfect sense. If you nod and aye convincingly then he will let you sling an arm under his and around his back and together you can amble your way to Ma’s long cooled dinner.  Harry has come to discover that his Da’s ramblings are oft times lucid in their way:  bits and pieces of stories from his days growing up in Dunston, and as a keelman on the Tyne. He has one-sided arguments with long lost companions about the boat and the water and what to watch out for. When he is fair sober he forgets these tales and he refuses ever to speak of the water.

And so it seems Harry’s destiny that he will follow the Jarrow Claspers into the colliery. At least for now he is not working the depths. It is his task to lead the gin-horses which wind the mechanism that draws the coal up the shaft. This work does not pay as well as that below ground, but his Da has forbidden he go down the shaft ‘till he is a year or two older. Impatient to prove himself as he is, Harry has agreed to the old man’s condition. He’s seen the wee trappers crawling out after an eighteen hour shift: they are like broken twigs, their eyes red with coal and crying, and all for a measly fivepence a day. Harry shivers as he takes over the care of the gin-horse. It stumbles clumsily as he swaps with the other boy, and he feels its weight bear down heavily upon him for a second. But then the creature straightens into its routine, the well-greased mechanism running lightly along with it. Harry can hear the heavy clang of the cage as it begins its descent. The Bensham seem is the deepest they have clawed out yet: 175 fathoms straight into the heart of Hell or so the brushermen, who blasted it open, claim. But Harry knows his cousin Robert is oddly proud to be a hewer of the deepest workings. It is almost a thousand feet to the river above and, given the direction the shaft plays out, it is likely that Jarrow church itself perches smugly upon them – constituting the other end of the religious spectrum, the men joke.

The conversation among those descending is minimal this morning but the outrage of the previous week is still fresh on the tongue. Three little girls were only last Tuesday sentenced at the Assizes to a months’ imprisonment in the House of Correction for confessedly lifting a small quantity of pig-iron from Hetton Colliery. There is no question the young ‘uns were wrong to do as they did; but the sentence is a hard one for their families to live with and it is disgusting that such a weight of law has been brought to bear upon such young offenders when mightn’t a good minute with the switch have resolved the matter? And hasn’t Billy Miller’s fall down the Bensham shaft to his death only the Friday previous been recorded by the same court as accidental, when everyone knows that the mine is short on Deputies with the new seem opening and that Billy’d overbalanced pulling in a tub when the shaftside had crumbled away? Why is there no sentencing of the owners, Thomas and Robert Brown, Esqrs., of London, to even one day’s hard labour in said House of Correction for such criminal penny-pinching? Robert spits on the ground as he listens to Black Jimmy’s impassioned speech. He doesn’t like Jimmy much – the man is too given to jabbering when the face is obstinate and refuses to yield to the pick and it is all you can do to put your back into it. But the fellow is right. The way things are, men cannot go on like this much longer. And the snivelling trappers well broke a man’s heart, even though nearly everyone did sneak the odd sweetie and kind word to the poor lads, as the waggons trundled by. Day in and day out, opening trap-doors; and the rest of the time sitting alone in the dark like toads. Even the Galloways get better treatment. It is scandalous. Black Jimmy is right, something is sure to give.

A half hour later Robert is at the coalface. He is sweating heavily and can barely see to raise his pick. He cannot afford a lamp of his own yet and candles are forbidden at this new depth. Black Jimmy’s Geordie lamp is quickly corroding in the humid conditions and Robert does not trust it. The man holds it up for closer inspection as it looks as if the flame is turning a faint blue behind the guard when Robert sees rather than hears one of the thin wires peel back from its mesh. He stretches out his hand but too late. Jimmy lowers the lamp to the ground and then the whole place goes up in one single ball of fire. A quarter mile above Harry feels the whump and has seconds to pull the horse away from the track and towards the open door as the flame shoots out the top of the workings. The banksmen are severely burned. None of the thirty-four miners working below survive; almost a dozen of these are lowly trapper boys, not yet ten years old. Forty-five gentle Galloway ponies, some eating oats in their underground stable, others still hitched to their load, are also blown clean off the face of the earth. The scene is black and chaotic. The pitmen topside are barely able to keep the women and children back from the gaping hole; they claw at the ground and wail pathetically for their lost husbands, fathers, brothers. There is no hope of rescue. The corpses, human and horse, are later brought up the shaft in nets. For some of the ponies it is the first time in a decade they have reached the surface. Now the sunshine plays across their carcasses.  Harry, working the gin-horse, helps in this gruesome task of recovery. It is something he never forgets. The sight and smell of the mangled flesh will stay with him for the whole of his life and, although he will work at a colliery again, he never will go down the pit.

The Abbey public house is crammed to the rafters for the wake. A collection is set up and everything is now on the House. Harry has had a few pints more than he is accustomed to and is jostling with some bigger lads towards the back. Someone has foolishly started the rumour that there will be entertainments. The older lads are joking about Sally’s ‘hams’ and calling rowdily for some ankle and the barmaid is grumpily avoiding them. Harry blushes, uncomfortable at the crude joking. These are cousin Robert’s friends and Harry is out of his depth. Robert would have taken just the right tone, have said the right words to make light of it. Harry feels a sad pang at his absence. And then from the far corner, near the bar itself, comes an odd stomping sound. The men are squeezing back, clearing room for something. In all the shoving Harry finds himself sausaged towards the front and suddenly has a clear view of the man at the centre of the circle. He is short and squarely built and he is leaning forward banging first one foot then the other hard upon the wood floor so that he looks, like a bull, as if he is about to run at something. And then he begins to call out. His voice is loud and his words carry over the swift silence in the room. Poor horse, he calls and Harry, in a flash of comprehension, understands it is a rant unfolding about the pit horses and ponies. He has heard of such performances but has never witnessed a ranter in action before. The hair on the back of his neck and down his arms prickles as the man’s voice rings out and speaks to something deep in the guts. The man bellows and shouts and then raises one arm, his voice ascending whenever he repeats the word horse so that it becomes a braying squeel. The horror of the pit and the load and the biting harness and the furious darkness as it cuts into the ponies fills the air as the ranter brings it forth so vividly. The finger of one hand stretches upward as if apportioning blame, but those who hear his words feel themselves shouldering the guilt and the devastation in his performance; in the horses’ terrible existence and fiery death.  Of course the images which flare in the mind’s eye are those of the men and boys themselves so hideously consumed by the collieries: both through their work and in their death. And so Poor horse is, on the Geordie tongue, soon Poor usand the sense of injustice cuts keenly through the room. The faces of the men crushed around the circle are red and covered in either tears or sweat, Harry cannot tell. He has never felt anything the like of it, and finds himself overwhelmed. He struggles to breathe: his body and soul held fast amongst the ranks of his neighbours which heave and buckle around him. He is dizzy and thinks he might black out.  And then, reaching a crescendo, the ranter collapses into the crowd who take up his stamping and the roar and the place erupts into chaos. Then the fiddlers start up a whirling jig and soon the wild dancing spills out into the lane and the waiting night beyond: almost enough to rouse the dead.

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Carole Green is a first time novelist. In her spare time she teaches English and sculls on the river Tyne. She also has a Masters in English.

This piece is part of an unpublished longer work on the life and times of Harry Clasper, an early professional rower and well-known Tyneside oarsman. He is one of the great Victorian sporting legends of Northern England. Clasper’s funeral was reportedly attended by a crowd of upwards 100 000 mourners. This extract is a brief description of his mining background and gives some context to his later development as a professional sportsman. Although fictionalised, the incident described is based on recorded fact – Robert Clasper is listed amongst the casualties of the Bensham disaster.

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His Excellency

By H.G. Warrender

General Washington pushed away his pen for the fourth time that night and leaned back in his mahogany chair. Though there was much work to be done here, what with the inspections remaining to be conducted on West Point and the upcoming campaign to plan, his mind was still on the matter that had come up earlier that day.

Benedict Arnold, a traitor.

They had discovered it earlier that day, arriving at the turncoat’s home as invited to discover he was not there. Shortly after, in a pile of dispatches handed him by his aide, General Washington found a message that spoke of the capture of a John Anderson, British major in disguise. This major had papers on his person that revealed Arnold’s intent to betray the fort at West Point to their enemies. Arnold, who spoke so eloquently of the American cause, had turned his back on it.

All the speeches the man had given about his loyalty to his country were true. They were just about a different country than General Washington and his army had thought.

A thought struck the general’s mind, and he gripped the pen in his hand tightly. He himself had given Arnold this command which he so desired, and all the troops accompanying it. After Arnold’s brilliant performances on the field, and professed loyalty, it had seemed a sound idea – though he had partially agreed to get Arnold off his back, as the other general was always pestering him and begging for the post. But had the knave’s plot succeeded, Washington himself would have been entirely to blame. It was only by the stroke of greatest fortune that they had avoided such an end.

General Washington felt his shoulders sag slightly, and he leaned his elbows onto the desk. There was little he would like more than to have Arnold in his power, to string the man up as he deserved. A coward’s death would suit him… as it would likely end up suiting that major who had been caught earlier. He leaned his forehead onto his palms and closed his eyes against the work that lay ahead for him. Grappling with the betrayal of General Arnold, trying to discern what he knew and what he had likely revealed to his new patrons, and figuring out what it was they were to do with the major  – it was all work that required time and deliberation. But the latter could not be had without the former, and there was very little of that.

A loud creak sounded out, signifying that the front door had just been opened, and General Washington sighed. That would be his aides returning – Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry, who had ridden after Arnold once the betrayal was discovered. He doubted they had caught up, but he might as well go down.

The house – Arnold’s house – was too large and too silent. Earlier that day it had been filled with the hysterical Mrs. Arnold’s screams, but she had long since cried herself to sleep, and the rest of the household were nowhere to be seen. Washington closed the door and made his way down the hall towards the stairs. He halted suddenly as he realized that someone had already beaten him to questioning his aides. Straining his ears, he leaned forward to make out what was being said. One of the voices clearly belonged to Hamilton; the other, to his friend – and Washington’s favorite of his young officers – the Marquis de Lafayette. They conversed in rapid French, and in tones too low for much other than the language to be discernible, though a sense of urgency was . Washington descended to the first step of the staircase, and, hearing him, the voices fell silent.

He walked down the stairs and over to the door, where Hamilton and Lafayette were standing near each other. McHenry hovered behind removing his coat.

“Gentlemen,” Washington said, turning from one aide to the next as he spoke. “I assume your mission was unsuccessful?”

“Unfortunately, yes, Your Excellency,” said McHenry. “We found that Arnold has already departed on the Vulture.”

“The British warship,” Hamilton added bitterly. “The damned rascal has already joined the company of-”

“That will do, Colonel Hamilton,” said Washington coolly. He turned towards McHenry. “Thank you for making the trip, James. The other aides have left some supper for you. You may eat it and then go to your bed – not you, Alexander,” he said as the other man turned to go as well. “I should like to speak to you in my office for a moment. Marquis, if you would be so kind as to accompany us?”

“Of course, mon General.” Lafayette cast a glance at Hamilton and then fell in step as Washington led the way.

The general beckoned Hamilton over to his desk once they were inside; Lafayette, after shutting the door, swept over to them.

“This is the letter which revealed Arnold’s treachery,” said Washington, sliding a sheet of paper over to Hamilton. “It spoke of the capture of a ‘John Anderson’ and the contents of a note found upon his person. I have not sorted through all the dispatches you gave me, though I have read the one several times over.” He fixed his eyes on Hamilton, and the man lifted his gaze from the sheet of paper to meet the general’s. “I must now ask you if there is any other message from Arnold of which you are aware.”

“In fact there is.” Hamilton reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded sheet of paper. “While Arnold has left no message for his intimates that we can discover, he did leave one for you.”

“Mon dieu, Alexander,” Lafayette murmured. “You could not have given him that first thing?”

“I wished to present it when the General could read it in peace,” Hamilton replied, though he did not look at the Marquis as he spoke; instead, those violet-blue eyes remained trained on Washington. “As I did not know what his… what your – reaction would be, Your Excellency.”

General Washington barely paid these remarks any mind. Instead, he turned the page over in his hands, studying his name across the front. How strange, to know t had been penned by a man he once considered an ally and friend, who had now betrayed all that was right and fair in their cause. For a moment, he was tempted to throw the letter into the fire, and let whatever it contained – explanations, or pleas on behalf of the lovely Mrs. Arnold, or perhaps even an apology – be lost to the flickering flames. But instead, he set it down on his desk and stood up straighter.

“Thank you, Colonel Hamilton.” He looked between the two young men. “I hardly need say that there is much work ahead of us… all of us. I will rely on both of you to help me sort through this mess.”

“Yes, Your Excellency,” said both men together.

“I have decided to turn the command of West Point over to Nathaniel Greene. I believe he will assemble a court martial to try this British major, and Lafayette, I expect you will be placed upon the committee.”

“What does that mean?” asked Lafayette.

“That you will play a part in determining his fate – whether he is to be executed or not. Hamilton, I would like you to attend and take notes for me. I shall not be able to do it myself.”

“Yes, sir. Sir…?”

“Yes, Colonel Hamilton?”

Hamilton glanced back at Lafayette, who gave him a slight nod that Washington assumed was meant to be reassuring. “We were both wondering if you had any news… about Colonel Laurens.”

“If there will be a prisoner exchange for him,” Lafayette added.

“At the moment, no such measure is being discussed,” said Washington. Both of their faces fell, and he felt a twinge of pity. Throughout the few years they had known each other, in spite of – indeed, perhaps because of – the war’s hardships, Hamilton and Lafayette had become unusually close to each other and to one of his other aides, Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens. Currently the third member of their trio was a prisoner of war in South Carolina. This news had been hard for them to grapple with, and every day since they received it, Washington heard concern for their missing friend spoken by one or the other. Washington considered all three young men as sons, and besides that, Laurens was both a good aide and a good soldier. He wanted his return to take place as quickly as possible.

“Rest assured that I desire Colonel Laurens back every bit as much as you do,” he said gently. “At present, though, this business with Arnold must be our chief concern.”

“Yes, General Washington,” said Lafayette quietly.

“Is there anything else?” asked Hamilton.

“No, not tonight. I shall have need of you both tomorrow, though. For now…” He gestured to the door. “Good night, gentlemen.”

“Good night, sir.”

“Bonne nuit, mon general,” said Lafayette. He slipped his hand into Hamilton’s and led him away.

The door closed behind them, and Washington turned his attention to Arnold’s note. He picked it up, unfolded it, and read by the light of the candle:

“Sir,

The heart which is conscious of its own rectitude, cannot attempt to paliate a step, which the world may censure as wrong. I have ever acted from a principle of love to my country. Since the commencement of the present unhappy contest between Great Britain and the Colonies, the same principle of love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world: who very seldom judge right of any man’s actions.”

Washington closed the paper and set it aside.

He had all night to read through this man’s excuses, to oblige the self-pitying remarks of a traitor and a scoundrel by letting his eyes take them in. He did not, however, have the patience that would enable him to do so. Nor the self-control.

Instead, he turned back to the letter he had been drafting before Hamilton and McHenry came through the door. The words of Arnold – now safe among the men he had betrayed this country for – could wait.

For now, Washington had work to do.

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H.G. Warrender is a self-published author with a passion for the American Revolution. When not writing short stories or working on one of her books, she can be found reading biographies on her back porch. You can find some more of her work on her blog theeccentricauthor.wordpress.com.

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In the Vale

By Nyri A. Bakkalian

Gettysburg, 2 July 1863

Even with the sun down at long last, it was still terribly, disgustingly hot.

The men were beyond tired, all of them: tired as hell. Exhausted and hungry and bloodied and reeling after the long hard slog through that Pennsylvanian hell on earth. Now the day’s battle had receded to either side’s artillery providing an undertone of distant thunder peppered by the sporadic pop-pop-thwack of pickets. The weary men sat to rest in the vale, amid the ghastly forms of fallen friend and foe among the growing shadows that crisscrossed the mighty blood-stained rocks. Battle-scarred trees, that’d been another source of so much shrapnel and debris that day, towered overhead.

Captain Walter Goodale Morrill sat near his resting men, utterly exhausted, carbine set down beside him on the dirt as he listlessly looked on. He keenly envied the ones who could sleep despite it all. Given everything he’d seen, Morrill wasn’t sure he’d have been able to get there. After all, to say the day was absolute murder would’ve been a severe understatement. Would Morrill ever find the words to express what he and the regiment had seen and endured? Would he ever be able to properly comprehend what he’d done, in all of its grim detail?

He could still see the scene, hanging invisibly but close around him in the little vale, like the battlefield haze. Detached to protect the flank, when the shooting grew hot, they’d risen from the stone wall in time to see the rest of the regiment of Mainers careen down the rock-strewn hill, a tidal wave crashing down on the men in gray, a mighty, mingled roar piercing the battle’s deafening thunder.

Morrill’s little company, amply armed, unexpectedly reinforced by the professional soldiers of a passing regular Army sharpshooter company, quickly chose to act. They fired and hollered like mad, even as they charged into the rebels’ flank. In a moment, they’d rejoined their regiment in its breathless, swift charge, into the bloody maelstrom. They were so close to the enemy, even amidst the enemy’s retreat, that at times it felt like they’d strayed too far into the gray lines, but the momentum was theirs. The rebels were running as fast as they could, out of the dense forest and across the sweltering fields of Adams County, with the pride of New England close behind them.

The exhausted captain rubbed at his eyes. Distantly, scattered sharpshooter fire continued in the lengthening evening shadows. It simply boggled the mind. How could he ever hope to do justice to this, and to tell this story?

Morrill started at the sound of snapping twigs and crunching gravel, fingers instinctively closing around his waiting carbine. A little knot of men approached him out of the growing darkness. Then they were close enough that he could make out their faces, and when he saw the stand of banners that followed them, the tension suddenly dropped off.

“Colonel Chamberlain, sir,” Morrill greeted the mustachioed officer who led them. He rose to his feet with a perfunctory salute. Thank God, he thought in silent relief. Good to see friendly faces. Close behind Chamberlain followed the color guard, bullet-torn, flame-scorched banners rising out of the shadows. Morrill could just barely make out the words beneath the eagle on the blue regimental standard: 20th REGIMENT MAINE VOLUNTEERS.

“Captain Morrill,” the professor-turned-colonel greeted him, “Been quite a day.” The men loved him. He’d come in as green as anyone, but had quickly proven himself more than capable of leadership and more than worthy of their trust. After all, he’d stood right with them through that terrible battle, just like all the other battles that’d come before.

“Ayuh, ayuh,” Morrill replied briskly in the Mainer affirmative, “that it has, sir, and a long day too. But I’d say we’re in mighty fine shape considering.”

Chamberlain turned and pointed up the big hill that sloped skyward to Morrill’s right. “It’s been a long day, but you know we’ve still got work to do. The enemy pickets, probably still men of Hood’s division, still aren’t that far. Orders from Colonel Rice are that we’re to secure that summit there.”

Morrill wiped the sweat from his eyes and glanced over his shoulder, through the treeline and up the steady, rock-strewn slope.

“Securing the summit,” he echoed distantly. “Yes, sir.”

Their gaze met through the murky twilight. Morrill saw a moment of fatigue in Chamberlain’s eyes. The man was good at hiding it, but there were moments like this one when Morrill could see through the carefully cultivated mask of command the man so prized. When, the captain wondered, had the colonel last slept?

But that glimmer was only a moment, for just as quickly, the steel was back in his voice.

“Those are our orders, so I’m heading up there. Any of your men who can follow should do so.”

Morrill saluted. “Sir.”

He hurried to rejoin his men, back where they still rested at the end of the vale. When Morrill was close enough to see them clearly in the ever-gathering darkness, he saw that those who’d been within earshot of his conversation with Colonel Chamberlain were wearily rising. Others, catching their meaning, were following them. The ones with ready ammunition had already begun reloading rifles and pistols. Others were picking over the detritus of the day’s slaughter, hunting for any stray rounds they could salvage from the abandoned cartridge boxes of the dead.

For a moment, the captain found he envied those who had fallen, who kept his men company in silent, final vigil. After all, the dead’s own part in this ghastly work was done, and they had no worries about orders and ammunition and provisions and enemy pickets. Would his turn to join them come next?

No. There was no time for such ghastly reflections. Morrill shook his head, sighed, and took a knee beside the company and set to reloading his carbine.

Yes, morose reflection could wait. For now, there was work to do.

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Nyri A. Bakkalian, Ph.D. is a queer Armenian-American and adopted Pittsburgher. A military historian by training, she’s an artist and writer whose work has appeared on InatriMetropolis JapanGutsy Broads, and Queer PGH. She has a soft spot for local history and unknown stories, preferably uncovered during road trips. When not hunting for unknown history, Nyri can most often be found sketching while enjoying a good cup of Turkish coffee. Check out her blog at sparrowdreams.com, and come say hello on Twitter at @riversidewings.

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Writing Historical Fiction Part 4

Use the Internet

The Internet can be a great tool for research. You can check out the online catalogs of public and university libraries, find information from museums, and you can look up the online collections of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute as well as other research-friendly places in the comfort of your home in your jammies with your cat on your knee (or maybe that’s just me).

The Internet is great for finding interesting snippets of information. When I was completing the research for When It Rained at Hembry Castle, set in Victorian England in 1870, I stumbled onto a site that explains the Victorian language of flowers. Even the way a Victorian woman held her fan could send a message to a nearby gentleman. Because of this new-found knowledge I was able to flesh out aspects of the story in a way I wasn’t anticipating.

The Internet is truly wonderful, though, when you’re in the middle of writing a scene and realize you’re missing some important fact in your notes. Surf the web and in a matter of minutes you can find what you need. For example, when I was writing Her Dear & Loving Husband I had the unique task of writing scenes set on a college campus that at that point I had never visited. For you Loving Husband Trilogy fans, you know I’m referring to Salem State College (now University, thank you very much). I did finally visit the campus while writing Her Loving Husband’s Curse, but while writing Book One in the series I needed to know where one college building was in relation to another and how far someone might have to walk to get from one place to the other. In a matter of minutes I printed up a map of the campus, and I was able to write my scene in a realistic way. I was thrilled when I visited Salem and found everything where I expected it to be. While that part of the story isn’t particularly historical (it’s a present-day college in the present-day town of Salem), I believe my point still stands since I also used the Internet when I researched the Salem Witch Trials for the same novel.

When using the Internet, however, writers of historical fiction need to be aware that there will be gaps in the research. Internet articles are often on the short side and they may lack the thorough details you’d find in books and journals. And since anyone can put anything on the World Wide Web (hence the fact you’re subjected to reading this now), you need to be sure the information you’re using comes from a reliable source. Wiki is a cute name, but the mistakes in some of the information contained on some wiki sites aren’t so cute. I like to check and double check my information across several different sites. Hey, they can’t all have the same wrong information, can they? I’ve certainly found a lot of accurate information on the web, and there’s no reason to assume all sites are fraudulent, especially not when the information is from a university or a well-respected researcher. Just be aware of where the information is coming from.

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Donna Russo Morin

Portrait of ConspiracyDonna Russo Morin is a talented author of historical fiction, and she’s been a friend of The Copperfield Review’s for several years. Here’s my latest interview with Donna where she fills us in about her newest project, the historical novel Portrait of a Conspiracy.

Meredith Allard: I know you’ve been busy writing new historical novels since our last interview. Tell us about your most recently published historical novel.

Donna Russo Morin: PORTRAIT OF A CONSPIRACY (May 2016) is the first book in a trilogy, Da Vinci’s Disciples, about a secret society of women artists, under the tutelage of the great Leonardo da Vinci, who must navigate the treacherous life of 15th century Florence while trying to bring their artistry to the world.

In the first book, two families–the Medicis and the Pazzis–are changed forever when a rivalry becomes a feud, a feud leads to murder, and murder provokes a deadly vendetta. Giuliano de’Medici is murdered by the Pazzi family, and his brother Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico, launches a path of vengeance through Florence, leaving a trail of death and devastation in his wake. Meanwhile, a secret society of women artists discovers one of their own is missing—and with her, a crucial painting. With the help of Leonardo da Vinci, the women set out on a desperate search for their sister as they begin their own conspiracy, one that could save them, or get them all killed. Battling their own wars—abusive husbands, love affairs, and the pressures and pettiness of rank—the women will ultimately discover there is no greater strength than that of women united.

M.A.: What inspired you to write the novel? What is it about the historical era that caught your fancy?

D.R.M.: It really was a convergence of events and ideas. I was finishing work on my 2012 release, The King’s Agent, which features a true to life Indiana Jones of 15th century Italy that included one of his actual dear friends, Michelangelo. I found myself longing to write more about art and artists. Additionally, in the interim, I found out that my last name (of my birth, Russo) originated in Florence some time in the 10th century.

At the same time, I was going through one of the most personally traumatic periods of my life. If not for a group of truly dedicated, loyal, and supportive women, I’m not sure if I would have had the strength to continue. It gave me a clarity of vision into the power of women united. Female relationships can be so much more intimate than those of men. But they can also be hard on each other. This book, the whole trilogy in truth, is nothing if not an homage to that power and the complexities of female relationships. The two thoughts connected and Da Vinci’s Disciples were born

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know about your newest novel?

D.R.M.: Portrait of a Conspiracy is a study of female relationships and their ambition, the explosive and artistic Renaissance, a mystery, a thriller, and at times, a violent depiction of life in 15th century Florence, but it is also one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written. Ultimately, the trilogy will lead us to one of the earliest, greatest, and acknowledged women artists of the time; it’s where the story was always meant to go. And, I’m so pleased to report, that as of this writing, the book has surpassed the top 50 ranking of Italian Historical Fiction on Amazon.

M.A.: As many of Copperfield’s readers know, writing historical fiction can be more time consuming and sometimes more difficult than writing in other genres. What prompts you to continue writing historical fiction?

D.R.M.: Besides the fact that I am a card-carrying history geek, it really is a combination of my love of conducting research as well as the fact that my ‘voice,’ my writer’s voice, is a bit formal, very suited to historical periods. I’m not sure it would flow as well with something completely modern. Though I am of the ‘never say never’ mindset, so who knows what the future may bring.

M.A.: Where can readers connect with you online?

D.R.M.: Hah! Just about everywhere. On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Donna.Russo.Morin and https://www.facebook.com/DaVincisDisciples/. On Twitter: @DonnaRussoMorin. On Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2729597.Donna_Russo_Morin. At my blog: donnarussomorin.blogspot.com. And, of course, my website: donnarussomorin.com, where people can read excerpts from all my books.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Jennifer Falkner

By Meredith Allard

Jennifer Falkner is the creator and editor of the online literary journal Circa, which is devoted to historical fiction, which happens to be my favorite genre (for those of you who haven’t already guessed that about me). What makes Circa unique is the fact that Jennifer is from Canada, and she loves to publish stories about Canadian history. You can visit Jennifer online at her website.

I had known of Circa since it’s one of the few journals devoted to historical fiction (the other, of course, being some little journal called Copperfield something or other…). Copperfield has published a few pieces of Jennifer’s short historical fiction, so I knew she was a great writer as well as a great lover of historical fiction. Jennifer was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about historical fiction and Circa. Here are her responses. If you write short historical fiction, take note!

Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

Jennifer Falkner: Writing stories is something I’ve just always done. I remember being nine or ten years old and writing westerns. I was going through a Louis L’Amour phase, I guess. But I only got serious about doing it well and for an audience besides myself after I turned thirty. I don’t always write historical fiction. If anything, I’d say half of what I write is contemporary. But the past has a fascination that I cannot ignore for long.

M.A.: What is your writing process like? When and where do you find time to write?

J.F.: Whenever I can. Sometimes that’s first thing in the morning before the rest of house is awake, sometimes squeezed in over lunch. Most often though I barricade myself in the study for three or four hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

M.A.: How would you describe your writing to potential readers?

J.F.: Improving, slowly.

M.A.: How did you come to start Circa, your online literary journal for historical fiction? Why did you choose to focus on historical fiction?

J.F.: There were so few venues dedicated solely to historical short stories when I started Circa a few years ago. There was The Copperfield Review, of course, and Alt HistVintage Script, and Snapshots of History. Now, sadly, the latter two are no longer publishing. And none of them was in Canada. So it was partly out of self-interest; I wanted to read more historical fiction, especially stories to do with the Canadian past. And once I landed on the name, I couldn’t not do it.

M.A.: What would you like to tell those who love historical fiction and readers of Copperfieldabout Circa? How can they submit their historical fiction? How do you decide which pieces you’ll publish?

J.F.: To me, history is never bland. It’s lively, preposterous, funny, sad, bizarre, everything. I want Circa to reflect all of that.

With each issue, I feel Circa is getting stronger and more diverse. Pieces have to be well-written, obviously. The writer has to have done her work, researching, drafting, editing. I try to choose pieces from as many different periods as possible. This can be tricky because I receive a lot of submissions set during either the American Civil War or World War Two. And many submissions are not stories, but vignettes, a day in the life, which can be well done, but often read more like a history lesson. I want to be interested in the characters, I want to see them challenged and changed over the course of the story. And I love to be surprised.

Writers interested in submitting should check out Circa’s Submission page for instructions on how to submit.

M.A.: Which are your favorite historical novels? That’s often a tough call, I know.

J.F.: Oh, too many to list! But I’ll have a go. These are the books I read over and over. Orlandoby Virginia Woolf; The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning; Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne; anything by Hilary Mantel, of course, but especially her book The Giant, O’Brien, which will break your heart, it’s written so beautifully; The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. And I’m a sucker for whodunits set in Ancient Rome, especially the Falco series by Lindsay Davis and the Ruso series by Ruth Downie.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

J.F.: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, George Eliot, Fay Weldon, especially her Letters to Alice On First Reading Jane Austen – a must-read for any aspiring novelist and any Jane Austen fans, Jeanette Winterson, Elizabeth Gaskell. And probably a dozen others.

Hmm, I just noticed how many women are in my list.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?

J.F.: Read, read, read. Read in, around, and over the period in which your story is set. Then pick out the one or two details that make the period unique and bring it to life. The reader doesn’t want a history lesson.

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?

J.F.: The next issue of Circa was released on October 15 and it’s bursting with great stories!

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

The Ambitious Madame BonaparteWritten by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Published by Amika Press

Review by Tracey Skeine

5 quills

 

I love novels about strong women characters who have the courage to be themselves despite what everyone else tells them. I also love reading historical novels about times or events I’m not familiar with. With her first novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, author Ruth Hull Chatlien delivers on each of those points.

Betsy Patterson wants to rise above her station, and she is ambitious indeed. Her severe father is a merchant in Baltimore, and that life isn’t enough for Betsy. These are the years of the early 19th century, and women were supposed to get married and have children and otherwise get out of the way of the menfolk. But Betsy has other intentions, and she is determined enough to see those intentions through, even when they cloud her judgement. She is not impressed by the young country, the young men, or the fashions of America.

When Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, comes to town, Betsy seizes the opportunity and marries him. But big brother Napoleon isn’t playing, and Betsy, now Madame Bonaparte, isn’t accepted into society.

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte has all the historical details I love in historical novels, the kind of details that make you feel like you’re there in the early 19th century alongside Betsy. Betsy is a strong woman at a time when it wasn’t acceptable to be a strong woman, and she has to fight many battles to follow her dreams. It was an engrossing story about something I didn’t know about (Napoleon’s brother marrying an American), and it held my attention the whole time. I’d recommend it for people who love strong women characters in historical fiction. And also for readers who are interested in historical fiction about Napoleon, the War of 1812, and early 19th century America.

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Tracey Skeine received her B.A. degree in English Literature in June 2012. She is still working on her first novel set in Caesar’s Rome.

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Bellman and Black

Written by Diane Setterfield

Published by Simon and Schuster

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

Review by Meredith Allard

4quills

 

I should begin by saying that I haven’t read author Diane Setterfield’s New York Times bestselling novel The Thirteenth Tale so I had no expectations about reading Bellman & Black based on the success of her previous novel. Bellman & Black is a book about death, the whole death, and nothing but death, so help you God. It starts with the death of a rook, which a young William Bellman kills to show off in front of his friends. Let’s just say rooks hold grudges.

Many others die in the story too. William’s family dies. Those around William die. William grows into an intense man who works, works, works, and has time or care for little else. After his wife’s death, with his only remaining child close to death, William cuts a deal with a mysterious “man” he calls Black. Afterwards, William feels compelled to create an emporium for mourning—a Wal-Mart for Funeral Necessities, you might call it. Known as Bellman and Black, the mourning emporium becomes successful (since we’re all going to die after all). William thinks he has cut a deal to preserve his daughter’s life. In the end, William learns that it wasn’t a deal for his daughter’s life after all.

I love Diane Setterfield’s exquisite writing style. She has a fluidity and dexterity with the language that I feel is missing from many present day authors. She is both straightforward and poetic, and it’s from the sheer power of her writing alone that I give the book four stars. The character of William Bellman, on which the success or failure of this novel depends, begins in an interesting way but grows stagnant somewhere along the line. He watches people die and throws himself into his work, work, work with minimal emotion, which leaves minimal emotion for the reader to connect to. I kept waiting for something to happen in the story that didn’t depend on someone’s death, but when death is the theme of the novel such waiting is useless. The “ghost” in this story is Black, who isn’t a man after all. Like I said, rooks hold grudges. In the world Setterfield creates in Bellman & Black, I wonder how murderers of people would be haunted throughout their lives if this is how William is haunted after his childhood mistake? I’m not advocating killing birds by any stretch. I love God’s creatures great and small. I’m simply saying that in the scheme of things, I wonder how much of a crime the young William Bellman committed.

And yet, I finished the book, which must say something for the power of Setterman’s prose. I kept reading, pulled steadily through by Setterman, hoping for a change in William Bellman, hoping he would finally learn to connect with his daughter, hoping he would finally have the courage to live, though none of those things came to pass.  I realized I had to take the story as it was instead of what I wanted it to be, and as it was I loved Setterman’s writing.

If you’re looking for a story with a distinct plot and characters you feel emotion for and connect to, Bellman & Black may not be the story for you. If you want to read a beautifully written, lyrical, haunting novel and you’re interested in simply going along for the ride wherever the story takes you, then you may enjoy Bellman & Black. I am taken enough with Setterman’s prose that I will go back and read her previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore to research my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, my husband and I visited the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and the Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my particular interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so running unexpectedly across her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than a shadowy historical figure who existed only in the yellowed pages of old letters and biographies.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun(Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article, the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome Bonaparte gave Betsy that particular item after they married.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp wit, I feel certain that she would have had something saucy to say about that.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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Using Information Lag in Historical Fiction

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

My forthcoming historical novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, is based on the true story of Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte, the American beauty who married Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, while he was visiting the United States in 1803. As I was planning the plot, one of the things I had to deal with was something I call information lag. In our current age of instantaneous communication, it can be hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Betsy’s hometown of Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometime amused themselves during long journeys by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

Sometimes I had documentary evidence in the form of letters and news articles that told just exactly how long it took for specific pieces of news from Europe to reach the United States and vice versa. At other times, I had to dig around to find out what typical travel times might have been. Another complicating factor was that stormy weather made sailing the Atlantic in winter very difficult. Mail from overseas tended to slow down in the rough-sailing months.

As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel. Once Jerome and Betsy realized they wanted to marry, they had to decide whether to seek the blessing of the Bonapartes before they proceeded. At the time, Napoleon had not yet become emperor, but he was the First Consul, the chief executive of France, and he believed he had the right to direct his sibling’s lives. Betsy’s father wanted the marriage delayed while they waited for Jerome’s aide to travel to France to find out Napoleon’s reaction—or at least, gain the blessing of Jerome’s mother. Jerome vehemently opposed the idea.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure the information lag was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for it because it added considerable tension to the plot. The delay in learning the Bonaparte reaction to the marriage, the months it took to learn the astonishing news that Napoleon had become emperor, and the lag in communication between the lovers once Jerome returned to naval service—all these played a significant role in my characters’ ability to make good decisions and chart the course of their lives. If Betsy and Jerome had better means of communication, their lives might have turned out quite differently than they did. But then again, if that had been the case, I probably wouldn’t have written my novel.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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