An Interview with Richard Lee

I am delighted to welcome the chairman of The Historical Novel Society, Richard Lee, as this month’s guest. Richard founded the organisation in 1997 and it is now an international success.

RichardLeeSmallWhen you decided to found an organisation devoted to historical fiction, did you ever envisage it growing into such an amazing international body?

No! I did not know how it would be possible to be international, so I only envisaged a UK membership – though always celebrating international authors. We actually had US members sign up from the very beginning, which caused headaches about currency transactions and postage costs. This made us ‘ready’ for when internet links began to take off – and now we are much more international than British.

What have been the major developments/changes that you have seen in historical fiction since the HNS was founded?

In commercial historical fiction many things have changed. The ‘discovery’ of the significance of women’s lives has transformed the way that, for example, royalty and celebrity is written about. The success of ‘Sharpe’ and ‘Gladiator’ created a genre of military and epic historical fiction. We have also been blessed by literary authors pushing the boundaries in various ways – Michel Faber reconceiving the Victorian authorial viewpoint, many authors revisiting Colonial and World War narratives, Hilary Mantel turning accepted views of Tudor power and honour on their head.

How has historical fiction been influenced by the major changes within publishing in the last decade?

I am no expert here. Traditional publishing still knows how to publish the big books. The Miniaturist and Elizabeth is Missing we both debuts that had multiple agents interested, sold well into many territories, won prizes and became bestsellers. The main change I perceive is that there is much more opportunity for niche historicals to go it alone, often to the author’s benefit.

The HNS conferences have been hugely successful and enjoyable to attend. Could you share a few of your personal favourite highlights?

The things I remember from conferences are usually surprises from authors I admire – Louis de Bernieres, for example, saying that he wrote each chapter of Captain Corelli as a short story, and didn’t decide the running order till the end. Or Conn Iggulden emphasising just how powerful true coincidences are in history. Highlights are more likely downtime with fellow organisers or friends – meeting members off-stage and finding out more about them. It is great when it is all ‘done’!

What period of history do you have a particular interest in and why?

Early 20th C, Late Victorian, High Victorian, Regency, Georgian, Early Medieval, Saxon/Viking, Roman, Ancient Greek… But really anything!

Do you prefer reading or writing historical fiction?

Reading. I haven’t written consistently for a long while, though it remains an ambition.

How would you like to see the HNS develop in the future?

I always see the society as being about what members want – any enthusiasms that members have are for me to try to facilitate and nurture. This for a long time focussed on our magazines and reviews, which actively involve around 100 of us. Conferences are another big active area – this year over 400 will gather in Denver, and we had an inaugural conference in Sydney, Australia. The big ‘new’ areas of involvement are chapters based in different regions (mostly entirely independent) and connections through social media. Our awards are also popular (230 entries for the latest new novel prize), and we are looking into ways that the society can offer help and training to authors. Whether mainstream published or indie, all authors need help with marketing and promotion these days, we can all help each other.

What is next for Richard?

My first child was born a couple of years after I founded the society, two others followed, and the oldest is now 15. They are the real project and joy, but I still have a wish to write. I think I finally have a good idea!

More from the HNS


New book launch!

To Love, Honour and Obey

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To Love Honour And Obey


Six years ago, Willoughby Rossington’s father was murdered while searching for the kingpin of a smuggling and spy ring. Taken under the wing of his uncle, who is running a counter-intelligence operation against Napoleon’s spies, Willoughby is assigned to take up his father’s last mission—and, hopefully, in the process find who killed his father and bring them to justice.

He encounters a young woman, Beth, who works at the local inn. Her spark and resilience against her master’s attempts to break her will strike a chord in him and he, albeit reluctantly, takes her with him when he leaves town.

As they begin to talk, he finds out that her master is more involved in the ring that could have been thought. She overheard things and knows things about the seedy side of villages that could be helpful to him and his mission.

Though Beth hasn’t had the opportunity for education, she’s smart and quite cunning while still maintaining a child-like wonder. Even as Willoughby makes plans to set her up with a family in order to protect her from the perils of his mission, he finds himself a bit melancholy at the thought of losing her company.

Beth is having none of it. She knows she can be of help to Willoughby and isn’t going to be left behind now that she’s found someone nice. Part on purpose, partly because of fate, their two lives become intertwined as they race against the villains that plot to destroy them both.

Will they uncover the truth behind the smuggling ring and find who is responsible for Willoughby’s father’s death?


Majestic Moors

The North Yorkshire Moors are beautiful at this time of year. The heather is just coming into flower as a carpet of purple spread across the land. Bird lovers can see or hear red grouse, curlew and golden plover.

Meanwhile hikers and dog walkers can enjoy the open expanses as they follow the old paths trodden by the monks of old. However, as sheep roam freely over these vast areas of rare moorland, they must be kept on their leads so that both can live in harmony and mutual respect of farmer and walker.

I refer to Monks’ Trods in many of my stories such as To Love, Honour and ObeyBetrayal of Innocence. After the Norman Conquest the growth of monasteries meant that pathways across country were created to transport goods freely and to keep the monasteries and abbeys in touch. The region has many well preserved ruins: Rievaulx, Fountains, Whitby Abbeys as well as Guisborough and Mount Grace Priory to name a few. These pathways could also be used to take fish directly inland across moor to the dales, which made them excellent routes to be used by locals for the distribution of contraband in the heyday of smuggling in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Many have since become overgrown. But these flagstone paths still exist in some places. The Quaker’s Causeway, where my photos were taken, runs from Guisborough (the setting of my fictitious market town of Gorebeck) to Commondale. Part of these medieval trods can still be used in this wild and beautiful landscape.


Rhubarb is a very versatile vegetable, which is often used in desserts. It has a very strong acidic taste and cannot be eaten raw, but when steamed or boiled with sugar to taste it can provide the basis for a lovely crumble, pie or mousse.

This versatile plant was always a feature in my father’s garden when I was a child. Like blackberries and gooseberries, rhubarb grows easily in Yorkshire soil. The leaf is poisonous because of oxalic acid and should never be eaten. However, the root was highly prized and of higher value to the Chinese as a medicine for curing intestinal and liver problems than other well known spices and opiates. In 1777, an apothecary in Banbury, Oxfordshire produced roots at home to develop as a drug for many other ailments. This led to the discovery of how to force an early crop.

We now have what is known as ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’ around Leeds that supplied London’s Spitalfields and Covent Garden markets in the nineteenth century. Forced rhubarb is paler than the later crop, which is sweeter as it is grown outdoors.

When I want some I select the mature stalks that are ready to break off at the base of the plant. I then cut off the leaves and the base of the stalks, wash and cut into inch long chunks ready for the pan. I crush root ginger into the mix with sugar to taste. This is all that is needed to cook the rhubarb through. Always cover and simmer gently on a low heat for about 10 minutes until the lumps still hold their shape, but are soft to the fork.

Rhubarb crumble or pie is delicious, but if you want a lighter alternative, then a sprinkling of organic muesli on top, served with custard, Greek yoghurt or light cream goes down a treat.


More recipes:

An Interview with Margaret James and Cathie Hartigan

I am delighted to welcome two successful writers and tutors of creative writing to my blog this month, Margaret James and Cathie Hartigan.

Margaret has been a shining light to me and many unpublished authors as she was the New Writers’ Scheme Organiser for the Romantic Novelists’ Association when I first became published. Cathie is a prolific writer, lecturer and founder of CreativeWritingMatters.


Hello, Valerie –thank you for inviting us to chat with you! It’s lovely to be here.

You are both successful writers so my first question must be where did your own writing journeys begin?

Margaret: I started writing short stories while my children were still babies and eventually I began selling them to women’s magazines.

Cathie: I was a hobby writer until about ten years ago, but after a foundation course with the Open College of Arts, I began having success in short story competitions. Since then I have taken my hobby much more seriously.

CreativeWritingMatters is the inspirational name of the business you founded along with Sophie Duffy. I love the logo. Could you tell us about CreativeWritingMatters and how it came into being?

Cathie: CreativeWritingMatters came into being when I left teaching in mainstream education. The flexibility of being freelance meant we could offer workshops and short courses on all aspects of writing. The competitions came later following the success of a flash competition that we ran for our students.

The name came about because of a conversation I had, during which I became rather too vehement about the importance of creative writing. ‘Creative writing matters,’ I heard myself shriek. Our logo features Sophie’s cat, Henry, the star of her story in our Cat Walks ebook. He’s perky and forward-looking, just like the three of us!

You have jointly written an excellent handbook and a workbook on aspects of creative writing so obviously have a great working relationship, but how do you set about working on a non-fiction joint project as opposed to your independent fiction?

Margaret: I first met Cathie when she joined my local writing group, Exeter Writers. I loved her short stories and she was kind enough to say she liked my own writing, too. We collaborated on producing an anthology of members’ work and found we got on very well. We both teach creative writing (Cathie teaches face-to-face while I teach online) and, after we’d finished editing and producing the anthology, we decided to write a guidebook for our students.

When we wrote The Creative Writing Student’s Handbook, we wrote alternate chapters and then we swapped files and edited these chapters. It all seemed to work well! But when we wrote The Short Story Writer’s Workbook, Cathie wrote the whole of the first draft and then I did a heavy edit, making the second draft twice as long as the first. This approach worked very well, too. We find our non-fiction writing styles are very similar. A few months down the line, we often can’t remember who wrote what.

Will there be more in this series?

We enjoy working together so we intend to produce a handbook for novelists and we have other projects in the pipeline, too. We hope to produce some more anthologies featuring either our own work or that of other people.

You are both very experienced tutors so I would like to ask:-

Margaret, what three tips would you give to an aspiring unpublished novel writer?

  1. Plan your story and know roughly how you want it to end. But don’t be too rigid in your planning. Be prepared for the story to change and grow while you write.
  2. Your reader should want to spend time with your characters. So don’t write about people you don’t actually like or don’t find very interesting yourself. Your characters ought to be your friends.
  3. A novel is a big project. So whenever you get tired or disenchanted – which you almost certainly will – take some time out to reflect and to think about how and where you want this story to go.

Cathie, what three tips would you give to an aspiring unpublished writer of short stories?

  1. Use vivid and specific details that tell a lot, rather than generalisations. If a character puts up an umbrella, we don’t need to be told it’s raining.
  2. How much time you have to set up your story depends on the number of words that have been stipulated by the competition or magazine. Your story needs to develop and reach its resolution without a sudden rush at the end. Once finished, check the balance of set up, development and resolution, then be prepared to cut ruthlessly at the beginning.
  3. Use dialogue and gesture to reveal character rather than word-hungry narrative.

The Exeter Novel Prize is going from strength to strength, what inspired this, and how do you see it evolving?

Margaret: The Exeter Novel Prize came into being because it filled a gap in the world of novel-writing competitions. It’s open to previously published and also self-published novelists. There is more information here:

Will there be a CreativeWritingMatters short story competition in 2016? If so, what advice would you give to entrants?

CreativeWritingMatters runs lots of competitions for both short and longer fiction, so here is some general advice.

  • Read the rules.
  • Abide by the rules.
  • Start your story as something interesting happens.
  • Round off your story with a satisfying ending.
Read Making the Grade by Cathie Hartigan

Read Cathie Hartigan’s story, Making the Grade!

What is next for Cathie and Margaret, jointly or independently?

Margaret: I’m about to start the second draft of a novel and to plan a new non-fiction project that has nothing to do with writing.

Cathie: My debut novel, Secret of the Song will be out later this year and there will also be another collection of stories by the three of us at CreativeWritingMatters. Right now, the characters in my next novel are twitching for me to get on with it.

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience and advice with my readers.

Thank you for inviting us! It’s been great to talk to you.

The Baker’s Apprentice

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Molly Mason dreams of escaping from the control of Mrs Cresswell, her step-mother, by becoming an apprentice to her friend who owns the local bakery. This ill thought-out plan is stopped when Juniper Cresswell’s fiancé, war hero Lt. Cherry, returns accompanied with a soldier who had been presumed dead. The soldier brings with him suspicions of murder, mystery and the key to Molly’s heart.

An Interview with Michael Fowler

This month’s guest is a man who has spent his life dealing with crime and now enjoys creating his own – crime writer and artist, Michael Fowler.

Welcome to my blog, Michael.

Your police career involved a lot of undercover work. Did you sometimes feel that you were in an acting job, however one that had a realistic edge?

Acting is a very good phrase, because it was just that, especially when I was in the Drug Squad. I underwent undercover training by experienced undercover officers. The script they gave me involved learning the ‘language of the street’ together with acting ability on how to buy drugs and set up ‘deals’. My props were a changed appearance – I grew my hair long, wore an earring and changed my dress style. My stage was wherever the drug fraternity hung out. The more time I spent with them the more polished my acting ability improved.

That period of policing was up there as my best, despite being nerve-jangling at times.

When did you discover the desire to become an author?

I never had a desire to be an author. I always wanted to be an artist. My policing and writing career have come by default. I’ll expand on my writing career in a later question.

Were you always drawn to crime?

I’ve been an avid reader since the age of eight. In my early teens I started reading adult books of the Science Fiction and Horror genre. An uncle, who was also well read, introduced me to crime. I initially read cosy crime written by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Dashiel Hammet, and then I discovered the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain and I was hooked on police procedurals.

Your first published works were about Mexborough. Have you always had an interest in social history?

The publication of my childhood and teenage nostalgic accounts of growing up in Mexborough came by good fortune. In the late 1980’s I discovered writing groups and began composing stories. My childhood adventures in the 1960’s, within a mining community, were the first things I wrote about. The writing groups were run by the WEA and one of my tutors suggested I approach a local publisher who published this type of work. In 1994 I met the editor at Wharnecliffe Press (Pen & Sword books), pitched my accounts and walked out with my first writing contract. They published three of my books, but I never thought it would progress beyond that because policing and two growing sons took up my life at that time.

Could you tell us about your artwork and what is your favourite medium to use as an artist?

As I have already alluded to painting was my first love. My earliest artistic recollection was sitting at the table drawing with my mum, and all through schooling I pursued art as my passion. My last art teacher introduced me to oil paints and I never looked back. At the age of 16 I passed an interview to attend art college only to return home to be told by my father that he couldn’t afford to support me and so I joined the police cadets. I did paint regularly, all through my policing career – it was a great stress reliever, and I also sold my work. When I retired in 2006, I did so to paint. I rented a studio and painted daily. My work was accepted at major exhibitions at The Mall Galleries, London, and I exhibited with a number of prestigious art galleries. In 2009 I was awarded Professional Artist of the Year. Then came the fall-out from the bank crash. Three of the galleries I painted for closed down and people stopped buying artwork. I knew I had to do something other than paint every day and so I returned to writing and going back to writing groups. I focussed on writing police procedurals and in 2011 I got a publishing contract for my first crime novel. Now I’m hooked on writing. I still paint occasionally, and I tutor an art group once a work, to keep my hand in.

What has been the most important lesson you have learnt as a writer?

That like a good wine you improve over time. I am now on book number seven and I can see a vast improvement from my first book, especially the grammar. A lot of that is thanks to the publishing editor’s skills. I have learned such a lot from the edited proofs that have come back to me prior to publication.

Where did inspiration for DS Hunter Kerr and DS Scarlett Macey come from: reality or fiction?

Hunter Kerr is 95% me and 5% my alter ego, even some of the events he is involved in are based on jobs I have worked on.

Scarlett Macey is a creation. I wanted to test myself developing her and it’s been a very interesting and enjoyable experience. She gets her first outing this September in ‘Scream, You Die‘ and I’m hoping she’s well received.

What next for Michael Fowler?

My first crime novel was released three years ago. Since then I’ve added another four Hunter Kerr books and I’m amazed at how my readership has grown. It’s been a wonderful experience that I want to build on. My policing career developed my discipline and drive and it would be fair to say that I am striving to be a widely recognised crime author.

More from Michael