Saturday, 22 October 2011

What You Wish For

“North & South was like chocolate to her; her comfort food in literary form, a safe haven she could dip into whenever she needed a respite from her troubles or even just a distraction for a while.”

Carrie Preston is desperately trying to stand up to her pushy family and failing badly. When her favourite aunt dies she retreats into her favourite book, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, only to find herself suddenly stuck in that story and seriously messing with her favourite romance of all time!

When Carrie's kooky aunt bequeaths her a pair of amethyst earrings in her will and says that they will grant her her hearts desire, she has no idea that she will end up in the middle of the 19th century, slap bang in the middle of her favourite book. With nothing but the clothes on her back and her rucksack, she is taken in by the Hale family and soon finds herself living in the dirty, smoky industrial town of Milton.

The only bright spot on the horizon is that she gets to meet the romantic hero of the story, John Thornton but it's not long before he starts setting his sights on her rather than Margaret Hale! Far from living her dream, she is appalled to realise that she is about to destroy the greatest romance since Elizabeth Bennett met Mr Darcy!


Right, well that's the blurb out of the way.

What You Wish For (from here on out known as WYWF to save my poor joints from early onset arthritis) began life as a little bit of wish fulfilment that I thought would never see the light of day. You see I loved North and South so much that I wanted to know what it would be like to live in that world, with those characters.

This isn't a new phenomenon of course, every time I read or watch Pride and Prejudice, see Downton Abbey or any one of a hundred period drama's I love, I wonder what living in those times would be like.

This time was different though, this time the idea continued to plague me until I was forced to start thinking up scenarios and eventually I just bit the bullet and began writing it.

Still, my only intention in writing it was to enjoy myself, it was never intended to be a 'proper novel' as such. I began releasing it online and to my immense surprise, I'd obviously hit a nerve in other people because the story was literally inundated with hits and I began to think, 'maybe there is a proper book in this'.

I finished posting it and it's success continued, at one point ending up in the top 5 of the historical fiction category, and that's when I realised that this story needed to be told.

No, it won't change your life, but it is clearly something that strikes a chord with lovers of historical fiction. I even had readers who had never heard of North and South before tell me how much they enjoyed it.

And so 3 months of edits and rewrites later, this is the finished product.

Is Carrie a Mary-Sue? Possibly in the strictest sense that she is an author insert, a manifestation of my desire to see what life would be like back then, but she actually bears very little resemblance to me. I soon realised that were I to end up in the 1800s, I'd probably throw a hissy fit and end up in a mental asylum. I simply don't have what it takes to live in such a backwards time. I would constantly be fighting, arguing, losing my temper, acting out and getting locked up for being most unladylike (and while that would certainly be an interesting story, it was far from the romantic ending I wanted for WYWF).

Unlike me, Carrie is used to towing the line and so, although she chaffes against the restrictions placed upon her, she doesn't cross the line as I surely would. She needed to be used to doing her duty, sucking it up and getting on with things.

She also needed to be upper class (where as I am strictly upper middle class) and have a way of getting some money in those times. I don't want to give anything away, but suffice to say that I own nothing even close to the same value that Carrie does.

She does share a some of my childhood hobbies and those that aren't mine could be found among my school friends. Maybe it's not 'normal' to be proficient at the piano, horse riding and marital arts but in my class at school, it was common to have some mixture of those kinds of hobbies and others. In my class of just 16 girls we had 3 pass their grade 8 music exam! (not to mention many others who were musical but hadn't got that far). There were annual skiing holidays and lessons arranged by the school as well as other foreign holidays. Various pupils from the school were mentioned probably a three or four times per term in local papers (we knew because the school would always make a fuss about it) and there was even one girl in my class who was accepted into the Rambert ballet school! She was also one of the three who passed her grade 8 singing exam and she did ride horses until it made her thigh muscles to big and she had to choose between Ballet and riding.

Talk about a bunch of over achievers!

Yes, you've guessed it; I'm afraid my dyslexia meant that at age 7 I got shipped off to private school since I was failing so badly in state school. Most girls there had an assortment of extra curricular activities that would make your wallet bleed, or at the very least give your bank manager serious heart palpitations! It's a different world and what passes for normal there would be considered privileged by most people (and for the record, my school wasn't even one of the top ones, it wasn't even among the best in my town!)

Some might think that being so accomplished means that Carrie is a Mary Sue but despite her advantages I have tried to give her faults and deficits, just we all have. She is stubborn, defensive, shy and known to put her foot in it. She has a temper and she is prone at times to wallow rather than be proactive.

So basically, she's human, which is what I want all my heroines to be. She doesn't have Frankie's drinking problem or Mel's fortress around her heart, but while hopefully likeable and relatable, she is not perfect, far from it.

So, for those of you still awake after that, and possibly interested in sharing Carrie's adventure, here's where to buy WYWF.

Kindle UK

Kindle US

Other Ebook Formats

(print version coming soon, there have been some problems with the artwork that have delayed it)

Monday, 10 October 2011


My guest post over at Maria's Fly High Blog! Check it out and leave your own questions for Mr Thornton!

FLY HIGH!: AN INTERVIEW WITH MR THORNTON BY CATHERINE WINCHES...: Catherine Winchester met Mr John Thornton for this interview soon after his marriage to Miss Margaret Hale. Catherine Winchester : Mr Thorn...

Friday, 7 October 2011

How does a card carrying history hater write two historical novels?

When I was a kid, I hated history. No, that's not quite right; I loathed it, I despised it.

So how come here I am, 20 years since my last history lesson, having just written two historical novels? (Northern Light and one still in the editing stage).

That's quite a transformation!

The problem I had with history was that my lessons focused on names, dates and places. As a dyslexic, these things are my idea of hell. It took me over two years to learn my mobile phone number. I have a brother called Paul, an uncle called Paul and an ex-boyfriend called Paul. When I met my last boyfriend for the second time, do you think I could remember that his name was Paul?

In short, history lessons were my own personal hell and aged 14 I was quite happy to give the subject up without a backwards glance. Tarred with the same brush, I also avoided historical TV dramas, documentaries and novels.

How did this change? Well I was living in Spain at the time, I had no English TV, no computer at home and I'd run out of books to read and so in desperation, I picked up a historical romance by Audrey Howard. I was enthralled and read it in one sitting. Gradually I came to the realisation that history wasn't about names, dates and places, or at least not only about that; it was also about experiences and that was what I found so interesting, reading about what day to day life was like for people back then.

Since then I have read many historical novels, some by modern authors like Howard, some classics like Elizabeth Gaskell and just about everything Jane Austin has written. Some were better than others, of course.

Sometimes when I had read about or seen something that interested me, I'd educate myself further on that subject. Yes, you read that right, I voluntarily learned about history! After watching the adaptation of North and South, for example, I looked up the Great Exhibition and from there went on to learn about the Crystal Palace. It's all fascinating stuff, providing a glimpse into a world that is both beautiful and barbaric.

Of course, when I embarked on Northern Light, I had a lot more than just light reading to do. I had Gaskells original novel to draw from, of course, but there were many things missing from that book that today's readers (not to mention me) would expect from a modern book.

For example, the details about Mr Thornton's Mill were sketchy to say the least; and let's be fair here, what middle class woman in the 1850's would know about cotton mills? So I looked into the machinery, the individual jobs and the process of turning cotton bolls into thread and fabric. The wages were also glossed over in North and South, so I looked into not only cotton mill wages but wages for lawyers, doctors, clergymen, clerks etc, so that I could have an understanding of what exactly was a fair wage for manual labour was and how that compared with the various social classes.

Not all of that information made it into the book of course. Did you know, for example, that there are 14 different species of cotton plant? No, but then while mildly interesting in an abstract sense, it's not exactly going to keep you turning the page!

Then of course, came the tricky part of my research, the minefield that is Victorian etiquette! Not only are there a thousand and one do's and don'ts, the Victorian era spanned 64 years, during which time some standards changed drastically.

For example, many people will tell you that Victorian widows spent the rest of their lives wearing black and it was considered unseemly for a woman to remarry. Which is true... after 1861 when Prince Albert died. Following the example of their Queen, who mourned for her husband for the rest of her reign and practically withdrew from public life, it became very unseemly for a lady to remarry.

Prior to 1961 though, mourning periods were dictated more by the rules of the Georgian era when it was normal for a woman to be in mourning for around one year. At six months she could enter half mourning, when she could wear lilac shades; then at a year she was free to return to her regular wardrobe if she wanted to, free from censure.

With North and South and Northern Light being set in the 1850's it was clearly the latter rules that I had to follow when dealing with mourning, even though most people would attribute the first set of rules to the Victorian era.

As as if the strict rules of etiquette weren't enough to make my head spin, I then had to enter an even more sensitive area, Victorian morals. If you believe everything you read there were no public displays of affection and married couples sleept in separate rooms. In fact, the Victorians seem like such a puritanical and prudish bunch that quite honestly, it's amazing that anyone ever reproduced!

It's probably worth mentioning here that Victorian morality stemmed from Queen Victoria herself. When the monarchy was finally restored after the civil wars, especially in the Georgian era, they were noted for their hedonism and debauchery. It is thought likely that Victoria's strict moral code was a reaction to what she saw in her youth and that as Queen, her moral code filtered down to and was adopted by the rest of society.

But of course, one must always remember that with things like etiquette books, they were generally written by upper middle class women who were generally not very worldly and tend to say how things should be (or how they would like them to be) not necessarily how things actually were. Which is not to say that men and women were constantly all over each other with public displays of affection, but there are enough tales of unwed mothers and shotgun weddings to belie this outwardly prudish appearance.

Not to mention a very interesting array of artefacts from this time which prove that while frowned upon and certainly not easily available, contraception was around. Examples include condoms (usually made form animal intestines and secured with a ribbon at the base) sea sponges soaked in vinegar, quinine or olive oil which were thought to act as spermicide, vaginal douches and even diaphragms (usually called rubber pessaries). Then of course there was the withdrawal method and the rhythm method (although that could be very ineffective, depending on which school of thought you followed on when a woman was most fertile).

In Northern Light I mention birth control in a very round about way but out of respect for Victorian sensibilities, I'll leave my readers decide which method John and Margaret used!

The difference in birth rates between the working classes and upper classes makes it clear that contraception was usually something only available to either the wealthy or the educated, though probably a combination of both factors.

However, despite the above, it must also be remembered that some words that are perfectly normal today were positively obscene in the 1800's. Pregnant, for example, a perfectly harmless adjective today, was not a word one would ever speak back then! I confess, I missed that one and it was something picked up upon by my editor. I still find it hard to believe pregnant was ever considered obscene, but alas she is right and I was wrong. The word still appears in my narrative since I am writing for a modern day readership and to be frank, there are only so many euphemisms for pregnancy and I was getting slightly tired of calling it 'with child'! However in keeping with the time period, none of the characters utter the word.

As you've probably gathered by now, I have become something of a history nut! These days I find it fascinating, all the nuances and differences, though I confess that my favourite period in history is probably from the industrial age onwards.

I suppose if there's one lesson I wanted anyone to take away from this blog, it's that history is not what your school made it seem. History isn't about facts, history is about people. People pressing for change, people inventing new things, people falling in love, people dying, people cheating and people struggling to survive in a harsh world.

I've been asked in the past, would I ever want to go back in time and my answer has always been very definitive. Yes... but ONLY if I was wealthy!

Where to buy
Kindle version @
Kindle version @
All other Ebook formats