Author Spotlight: Stephanie Churchill

SChurchill head shot

Stephanie Churchill and I kept bumping into each other online. You know how it is, authors pausing at the virtual water cooler to share and like posts. As soon as I realized that Stephanie was working in historical fantasy, and with a fantasy component that did not include dragons or magic, I was completely intrigued.

Stephanie recently released her second book, The King’s Daughter, to rave reviews. I recently read the first book in the series and her debut novel, The Scribe’s Daughter. The novel ticks all the boxes for me. Her heroine Kassia is plucky and a natural survivor. Throw in an adventure with high stakes and romantic interest, and I was naturally hooked from beginning to end.

I invited Stephanie to chat about her work and to give us more insight into the world of historical fantasy. Welcome Stephanie!


The Scribe’s Daughter has a real historical feel to it from the way people live, work and move around the page. What was your inspiration for this world? Was there a city/country that you had in mind as you were creating it and was it grounded in a specific historical period?

Stephanie: Well, I am a reader of historical fiction probably more than any other genre.  Because of this, my imagination is steeped in the feel of historical fiction, and the history I have picked up along the way definitely seeps into everything I write.  It seemed a natural “mood” when I started.  The Scribe’s Daughter had a somewhat unintentional origin however, so that set up the geographical influences for the book in a way that might not have otherwise occurred.

The very first scene I wrote for Scribe’s was inspired by the animated Disney film Aladdin, specifically the scene in which Aladdin has just stolen an apple and sings the song “One Jump.”  So as I began to create Kassia, in the scene where she runs away from a city guardsman, I envisioned an environment set somewhere in the Mediterranean.  Kassia’s city Corium quickly took on the feel of a city like Rome or Constantinople, though certainly with Western influences.

My favorite period of history is early medieval, but more often than not I found myself straying into Tudor times for my inspiration simply because I find the fashion much more attractive and the political culture more sophisticated.  So I would say my inspiration for the time period was definitely more general than specific.  One advantage to writing fantasy over strict historical fiction is that I can stay true to historical facts if I want to while having the freedom to stray in order to fit the needs of the story or the characters or mood (I didn’t feel like inserting an institution like the medieval church into my culture, for instance).  My writing mentor, who writes early medieval historical fiction, often comments how jealous she is of my freedom to be creative in this way!  I remind her that at least she has a road map for her plot and characters since she has the historical record to follow.  My characters, on the other hand, would have their futures left flapping in the wind if I didn’t hanker down and get creative on their behalf!

Beyond time period and setting, there are certainly figures from history who inspired aspects of my characters: Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, Edward IV, and Elizabeth of York to name a few.


Why did you choose to use a historical era and setting? How did that choice enhance your storytelling?

Stephanie: That’s an easy one!  My first love is historical fiction.  I read a lot of it, and I’ve learned a lot of history because of it.  In fact, my friend and mentor, the woman who started me down the road of writing and who had previously been my literary rock star hero, has a lot of influence on how I write from a style and “voice” perspective because of my rabid consumption of all her novels.  Through my association with her, I’ve learned a lot about how authors go about writing historical fiction.

She is first a historian and then an author.  History comes first for her.  Before she begins writing, she does extensive research on every detail of her novels.  Because of her success as a novelist and the esteem that readers hold for her dedication to research, the bar has been set ridiculously high for any writing I would choose to do in the same genre.  People often ask me why I didn’t just write historical fiction rather than the hybrid I came up with, and the honest answer is that the bar is just too high.  I don’t feel prepared to achieve the level of dedication to historical research that I feel I would need to do in order to do the history justice.  I know many authors do it, and she isn’t the only one dedicated to research.  I just know my own life and commitments, and I don’t have the time or the inclination to do it justice.  On the flip side, I don’t read a lot of traditional fantasy either, so I am equally uncomfortable delving into the world of swords and sorcery.  There are “rules” for that genre as well, and I don’t know them.  My comfort and familiarity is firmly grounded in historical novels.

There is another element that also plays into my choice.  There is a subtle difference in the purposes between historical fiction and the fiction I created.  Historical fiction puts flesh onto the facts of history, and it’s for this reason people often read historical fiction.  They want to learn history, want to discover what life used to be like, to connect with a past they never knew, etc.  The history is an essential element alongside the story.

My purpose in writing is different.  I come at my writing from a purely creative place where the theme of the book is central, the journey of the characters paramount.  With this established, I craft settings and plots to fit the theme, describe the development in an engaging and evocative manner.  There isn’t a place, and therefore no need for, any history.  Along with that, I don’t really have an interest in being harnessed by the constraints of a particular era or geographical location to accomplish this.  And as I’ve said, this crafting takes on echoes of historical fiction since that is my place of personal comfort, and the genre that sets my imagination ablaze.  To the extent I can, I do throw in a fair bit of historical accuracy in terms of cultural elements, but this is only to make readers comfortable with a familiar reality.  Most of my readers read historical fiction, and I want them to feel at home.

This familiarity is the enhancement, I think.  One of the toughest things for me about reading traditional fantasy is learning the new rules for the world into which I’ve just delved.  What is the culture, what are the laws, what laws of science are different, and how do I navigate this place?  I wanted my readers to feel at home immediately.  But I also have the omniscience and omnipotence as the writer to eliminate aspects of true historical fiction I didn’t want to include, thus another benefit (dare I say luxury?) of writing something blurring the lines with fantasy rather than strictly historical fiction.


The story is labeled as historical fantasy because the world is entirely made up, even though there is nothing magical about it. In that I’m reminded of Mary Stewart’s Merlin series which was also labeled as historical fantasy because Merlin was a legend and not because there was real magic. What are your thoughts on the need to include magic in historical fantasy?

Stephanie: Coming up with a genre label for my books was, to be quite honest, the most difficult thing for me to do – more so even than the writing, editing, or any of the polishing.  When I first sat down to write my book, I paid no attention to genre.  I just wrote the story that was bursting inside, waiting to be told.  It was only after I’d written it, when I set about to publish it, that the realities of genre became a real and present difficulty.  I searched and searched for books similar to mine, but to no avail.  I just couldn’t find anything out there.  Certainly, there were elements of other books to be found, but nothing I could point to and say, “My book is just like this!”

The question for me was more of a WHY include magic rather than why not.  If an element is included in a book, I would expect it to enhance the book.  When writing my story, I had no use for magic, so to throw it in would have been a disservice to my plot and characters.  It would have been thrown in simply as a device to somehow legitimize a chosen genre, not because it served a purpose.  Just because something is done by the majority of authors (using magic in fantasy) doesn’t mean it has to be gospel truth for every book of that category.  I have been asked this question many times by people questioning my genre hybrid, and I laughingly respond with, “Don’t tell me what to do.”  I don’t mean that flippantly by any means!  There is a smile on my face when I say it.  It’s just the Kassia in me coming out, I guess.


At the beginning of each part, you include a quote from J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Can you elaborate on why you chose to quote Tolkien? What influence did Tolkien have on your work?

Stephanie: Do you want the real answer or an answer that sounds more profound and intelligent?  I’ll just give you both.  To put it simply, I love Tolkien.  He and C.S. Lewis were the two authors to shape my interpretation of what fantasy should be, long before the days of video game systems and The Legend of Zelda or Dungeons and Dragons began to alter the rules of and expectations for fantasy.  The quotes I used were partly a nod to the formation Tolkien provided for me, as well as a nod to his stories at their deepest level – characters who overcome the odds, experience transformation, becoming a stronger, better version of themselves in the process.  Each of the quotes I chose at the beginning of each section represents a stage that Kassia is about to enter in her transformation as a character.


I understand in your newly released sequel, The King’s Daughter, you take a character from The Scribe’s Daughter and tell that story. Did you intend to write a series when you were writing the first book and what can we look forward to in the future?

Stephanie: I hadn’t even intended to write a whole book when I first started The Scribe’s Daughter!  I had another fully drafted manuscript ready to begin the laborious task of editing, but I wasn’t in love with the voice of the prose.  Just for fun, I wondered what it would be like to write in first person, so I wrote the scene I described earlier, the street chase.  Kassia took form on the page as a very engaging young woman with a wickedly sharp tongue and I couldn’t stop writing her!  I was nearly half way through the first draft of the manuscript when the light bulb turned on in my head – Kassia’s sister Irisa had her own story to tell, and being a unique individual, also had a different perspective to share.  This was the birth of the second novel, The King’s Daughter.

As for what is ahead for me, more of these characters have whispered in my ear like Kassia did at the beginning.  Kassia and Irisa’s mother told me that she wants to tell her story, and initially thought I’d write her story next.  I got a significant amount of planning done for her book, but then the main characters from The King’s Daughter began to make a terrible racket, demanding more time on center stage.  When they explained the events unfolding in Prille after I left, I couldn’t ignore them.  So I am a couple of chapters into a third book about Irisa and Kassia.  I think that for now, their mother’s story will have to wait.

Stephanie Churchill grew up in the American Midwest, and after school moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a paralegal, moving to the Minneapolis metro area when she married.  She says, ‘One day while on my lunch break from work, I visited a nearby bookstore and happened upon a book by author Sharon Kay Penman.  I’d never heard of her before, but the book looked interesting, so I bought it.  Immediately I become a rabid fan of her work. I discovered that Ms. Penman had fan club and that she happened to interact there frequently.  As a result of a casual comment she made about how writers generally don’t get detailed feedback from readers, I wrote her an embarrassingly long review of her latest book, Lionheart.  As a result of that review, she asked me what would become the most life-changing question: “Have you ever thought about writing?”  And The Scribe’s Daughter was born.’

Connect with Stephanie through Twitter (@WriterChurchill), Instagram (@shurchillauthor), Facebook, and through her Website.  Stephanie’s books are available through Amazon in Kindle and paperback. For The Scribe’s Daughter, click HERE, and for The King’s Daughter, click HERE.





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A Village

Continuing Sharon Overend’s conversation on the benefit of writing groups, as featured in CBC Radio One, the road may be bumpy (at times) but it will lead to your village.

Sharon Overend

Every once in awhile, I think I should, must, no other option available, quit writing. It isn’t that I don’t want to write, it’s that I think I can’t write well enough, basically that I suck. On my really dark days, I worry I’m like one of those contestants on a reality talent show who thinks they’re the next Adele only to be told they’re delusional and shouldn’t leave their day job

Recently, I had one of those days after having submitted my latest work-in-progress to my critique group. When word came down—go back, it’s not good enough—no hyperbole, I was DEVASTATED, CRUSHED, a snivelling, whimpering puddle of pathetic doggy dodo.

Never before have I worked so hard to come up with—what I believed I was hearing—such a shitty piece of writing. How could this be? How could I have gotten it so wrong? I’ve quit my day job to…

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Highwaymen of the 17th century



I do have an obsession for highwaymen, especially the 17th century variety. It’s possibly because the most famous of this collection were closely associated with the English Civil War and had fought for the king. Many soldiers returned from the war to impoverished conditions and some turned to highway robbery. Others continued to war against the enemy on the highway instead of a battlefield; and still others just took advantage of the upheaval to make a ‘living’.

Let me introduce to you three of my favourite 17th century highwaymen.

NPG D29229; James Hind published by John Scott

NPG D29229; James Hind published by John Scott (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Without a doubt, Captain James Hind tops my list. Also known as the Royalist highwayman, Captain Hind earned quite a name for himself around the time of the English Civil War for his cunning and all around cheekiness against the Roundheads. He had fought on the side of the King against Parliament and eventually was hanged drawn and quartered for it. His adventures were the popular fodder for chapbooks and pamphlets during his day (and even years later). Many of the stories cast him as a Robin Hood figure. Though the majority of the stories cover the time before the war, he is best known for his exploits following the execution of King Charles I.

Captain Hind escaped the small village of Chipping Norton and a dull life of as a butcher’s apprentice for the excitement and adventure of London. After spending freely the little coin he  had on women and drink, he ended up falling into a group of highwaymen known as the Bishop Allen gang, because their leader often disguised himself as a high-ranking clergyman to dull the suspicions of his mark.

Hind was a master of disguise and used his wits to separate his victims from their money instead of brute force or violence. He was known as a courteous fellow who enjoyed a good jest. The English Guzman, printed in 1650, was an extensive collection of his early exploits and organized as episodic chapters in the young highwayman’s life. Here’s one where he dabbles in a bit of horse trading.

Following a series of lucrative adventures, Hind found himself flush with coin, fine clothes and a respectable mount. While dining at an inn, Hind’s horse attracted the interest of one of his dinner companions, a man who knew nothing of Hind’s true profession. This man offered to trade his own horse (a gelding) plus £20 in exchange for Hind’s finer horse. Hind accepted the trade.

The next morning, Hind offered to ride with his new friend, and out of courtesy, see him on his way. As they journeyed through Enfield-Chase, Hind found fault with how the man handled his new horse’s reins, saying, “he is tender mouthed, and you will put him quite out of his pace.”

Hind convinced the man to dismount so he could show him how to pace his former horse correctly. You know where this is going, don’t you? The man alighted and the two switched horses. Now Hind was back on his former horse paced him a little way and told his companion, “Sir, you shall see his true pace the next time you see me,” and then galloped away. At first, the man thought this was a joke, then realized he had just been held up without once having had a shot fired at him.

A cautionary tale—never horse trade with a highwayman.

What happened to Hind? The civil war broke out and he and his companions (what remained of  the Bishop Allen Gang) joined the King’s army against Parliament. King Charles I ultimately lost and lost his head on a scaffold outside Whitehall’s Banqueting House on January 30, 1649.

Shortly after that, Hind left England for The Hague and after staying there a few days, sailed for Ireland with the “King’s effects” (the future King Charles II). He fought there before joining Charles II in Scotland just before Charles tried to win his crown from Parliament.

The last battle of the civil war was fought at Worcester and Oliver Cromwell soundly defeated the King’s forces. Charles escaped, as did Hind. There was plenty of speculation in the streets of London that Hind helped Charles in his escape. Hind was eventually captured, tried, and convicted, not as a highwayman, but as a political prisoner. He remained a staunch Royalist to the very end. If you’re interested in a more detailed account of his life, check out my post on The Royalist Highwayman.


Magazine “Fun”, 7 September 1881, p.102  [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Another famous 17th century highwayman who sets the standard for sex-appeal and has cast the mold for the dashing, charismatic thief, is the Frenchman Claude Duval. Unlike Captain Hind, Duval came into prominence during the Restoration of King Charles II, nine years after the English Civil War. It’s a curious thing that Charles II is so often associated with highwaymen. He was known as the Merry Monarch for his decadent court (and multiple mistresses). Charles had a fine sense of humour, and I’m sure these clever thieves would have amused him.

Claude Duval had been a footman in the service of an English aristocrat, the Duke of Richmond. The duke had been associated with Charles II’s exiled court during the years when Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector of England.

When the King was restored in 1660, the King and his gentlemen returned back to England to live the high life. It’s not uncommon for highwaymen to first earn a respectable living in a gentleman’s household, serving as footmen as Duval did. Their manners were polished up, and they quickly earned a reputation for wit and stylish manners.

One of the best known Duval stories, and which probably contributed to his raffish reputation, was when he stopped a coach and found a gentleman travelling with his very beautiful wife. Duval, not being immune to the fair sex, began flirting with the woman. Duval offered to allow the husband to keep some of the coin he was about to steal from him if the man’s wife agreed to dance the “courante” with him. To the horror and outrage of her husband, the lady stepped out of the coach and danced with a highwayman. I can imagine the argument they had on their way home.

After Duval was executed (truly, most highwaymen dido end that way), the following memorial was written about him:

Instagram- Traitor's Knot-10

A highwayman might have quick wits and a good shot, but he’s nothing without his horse. William Nevison was a gentleman rogue and called Swift Nick by Charles II. Yes, that same king. By now you’re thinking that Charles should have been the Highwayman’s Monarch instead of the Merry Monarch. Like Captain Hind, Nevison saw military action, only in Nevison’s case it had been in France for the Duke of York (Charles II’s brother James) in 1658.  When Nevison returned to England, he found himself a soldier at loose odds and applied himself to highway robbery. Similar to Hind, Nevison used his wits over brute force to win his coin.


Courtesy of the British Library

One day, Nevison robbed a coach along Gad’s Hill, and he must have worried that he’d have been blamed for this. Perhaps they recognized him or his victim was someone of importance? Anyway, Nevison spurred his horse and headed north for the sole purpose of establishing an alibi. According to the legend of Swift Nick, he covered 200 miles in one day! By sundown, he arrived in York and joined the town’s Lord Mayor in a game of bowls. When the authorities came to arrest Nevison, he claimed that it was impossible for him to have been in Kent, much less robbing someone, given that he was with the Lord Mayor of York later that same day. The distance made it impossible, he claimed. His defence worked. He was acquitted, though eventually justice caught up to him.

Those are just a few of my favourite stories. The common thread that runs through these highwaymen tales, is that wit wins the day.


If you’re interested in stories of high adventure and clever highwaymen, check out my novel Traitor’s Knot, the story of love and conflicted loyalties set during the English Civil War.

“A gripping tale of courage, love, and enduring commitment, a story that is well-imagined and executed with grace and mastery.” ~ Readers’ Favorite

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Author Spotlight: Anna Belfrage

annna_belfrage-2015Continuing my conversation with the contributors of the Historical Novel Society’s anthology, Distant Echoes, I’ve invited author Anna Belfrage to chat about her short story, “The Sharing of a Husband“.

Anna has somehow managed to tap into the magic elixir of being a literary powerhouse. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Graham Saga (8 books and counting), the King’s Greatest Enemy series, has been involved in four anthologies, and maintains a regular blog.

Her short story, “The Sharing of a Husband”, portrays a woman in Utah who is forced to accept the introduction of polygamy by church decree and how that changes her relationship with her husband.

Welcome Anna and thank you for returning to my blog!


I’m always amazed at the breadth and width of your historical knowledge. From Spain to Scotland and now to America. What made you want to tell this story of a woman grappling with the early days of the Mormon church?

Anna: I am fascinated by the history of the Mormon Church, sprung from a mixture of religious and utopian fervour. As I’ve had the pleasure of spending a lot of time in Salt Lake City, I have quite a few Mormon friends, and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing various aspects of their faith, my faith, all faiths. The story of Ellie was inspired by a biography, the story of one Robert Taylor who is considered one of the founding members of the church and who, due to the requirements of his church, took a second and a third wife even if he always reserved the lion’s share of his affection for his first wife. It was evident while reading the biography that plural marriages caused a lot of strain, not only on the wives, but also on the man. I think my Ellie is an attempt at trying to understand just what it would feel like to be the first wife, somehow set aside when a new wife arrives.

Q-2Hillary Mantel once said that historical novelists often falsely empower female characters. What are your thoughts on your main character, Ellie, as she contemplates a difficult and unpalatable choice?

Anna: Ellie doesn’t really have a choice. She has children to look out for, and her family is very far away. So Ellie’s dilemma is really not what to do but rather how to cope. Eventually, she gives in and adapts. What else can she do?

Q-2Historical Fiction often draws parallels between the present and the past. Is this true of your story, and if so, how?

Anna: I think we still live in a world where some women are have few rights and no liberty and must simply accept their lot in life. Plural marriage still exists in some cultures, and I bet it is always hard to be displaced by someone younger and prettier in your husband’s bed.

Q-2As a novelist, what are some of the challenges of writing a short story?

Anna: The need for brevity. Every word has to count. So it’s kill, kill, kill your adverbs and excessive adjectives.

Q-2 Which comes first–character or plot and why?

Anna: In this case, the plot came first—because I’d been thinking so much about that biography I’d just read. Usually, I’d say it’s the character (who is generally doing something either very stupid or dangerous when we first meet up).

Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Edmund of Woodstock appears quite frequently. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, was published in April 2017.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she’s probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!


About Distant Echoes


Gripping and thought-provoking stories of people, places and times past by writers from the Historical Novel Society.

A new anthology of nineteen award-winning and acclaimed historical fiction short stories.

Distant Echoes brings you vivid voices from the past. This haunting anthology explores love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, these stories will stay with you long after the last page.

This selection of winning and shortlisted stories from recent Historical Novel Society writing awards includes “The House of Wild Beasts” by Anne Aylor (winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award 2014), “Salt” by Lorna Fergusson (winner of the HNSLondon14 Short Story Award) and “Fire on the Water” by Vanessa Lafaye (winner of the HNSOxford16 Short Story Award).

If you enjoyed this interview and wish to hear about another contributors to Distant Echoes and their inspiration, check out my author spotlights:

Also check out Anna’s thoughts of mixing romance with historical fiction in the Love and History series (click here).

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The benefits of a critique group


Recently, friend and fellow author, Sharon Overend, was invited on CBC Radio One to talk about the CBC’s short story contest and her current writing group. Sharon is one of the best short story writers I know. Her stories grab you at the opening and will not let go until the very end. Her short fiction has won awards, made it into literary journals and has even been nominated for the prestigious Journey Prize. But instead of focusing on the CBC annual contest, their conversation turned to the value of a writing group.

Writing groups can take different forms. They range from casual gatherings where there may be writing on the spot to more structured critique groups where a writer can get immediate feedback on their work. Sharon was discussing the inspiration that may be found through a writing group, and one thing she said particularly caught my ear:

“Sometimes the creative collective is enough to spur you on.” 

When I listened to Sharon’s interview about the power of a writing group, it reinforced for me what a gift it is to surround yourself with that support.

It got me thinking of my own experience. I’ve been with the same critique group for the past six years, and I consider that the decision to join was the best one I made for improving my craft.

The group is called Writing Is Hard Work. Though it perfectly captures a writing truth, it is not the catchiest of names, we all admit, but it does state what we do. If one was looking for a perfunctory pat on the back every time they strung together a grammatically correct sentence, this isn’t the group for them. No, our goal was to hone in on the weakness of the piece being examined to help the author strengthen their story.


“Reynolds-Garrick between tragedy and comedy” by Joshua Reynolds – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

And the discussion has never been boring. Some of our members have developed into budding thespians who dramatize exactly why a scene doesn’t work. Trust me, those performances stay with you. Over time, we could hear each other’s voices in our heads when we were heading down the same rabbit hole that didn’t work the first time. Sure, we’d offer praise when praise was due, and sometimes we did have to remind ourselves to focus on what was working with as much relish as what wasn’t working so as to help the author replicate their success.

Even though the feedback was direct and at times brutal, amazingly enough, I never left those evenings feeling discouraged. Instead, I’d feel revitalized and encouraged by their support, determined to rethink my story. They challenged me to dig deeper, and we all learned from each other’s mistakes. They also kept me writing.

The key, I believe, is the difference between constructive and detrimental feedback. The former has your improvement at heart, while the latter (intentionally or not) cripples your ability to continue writing.

Here are some thoughts on what makes for a constructive critique group:

  • They will give you space to explore what is wrong with your piece. Of course they will make suggestions for improvement, but there is an explicit understanding that you are the author and only you will know how to fix it. A healthy group will encourage discussions to explore what isn’t working. Think of Neil Gaiman’s advice: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” I keep this in mind all the time, and Neil is always right.
  • Holds your piece to the fire, not your feet. Writers are more likely to accept criticism and be open to suggestions when they’re delivered non-confrontationally and with respect. No good will ever be come of nailing the other writer to the wall or belittling them. Instead, they’ll simply shut down. There is a fine between being direct and crushing.
  • Considers the skill level of the writer. Some writers are at different stages in their development and when delivering feedback, it best to tailor your feedback to what the other writer can reasonably work on. It really doesn’t help to inundate a new writer with everything that they need to fix at once. Perhaps they have to work on the most pressing items, and when they have mastered that, drill down further on how to add those extra layers.
  • Inspires trust. At times, it’s hard to be honest with another writer, worrying that you will crush them. It’s easier to say that the piece was an enjoyable read but this won’t help that author improve. A thorough critique will attempt to drill down and examine the work from different angles. The group exists to help everyone improve, and the circle won’t work if there is no trust between members. If you don’t feel the group has your best interests at heart or they aren’t truly rooting for you, then there is no trust, and you should find a new group. It works both ways. Be honest and respectful.

Not every critique group works. Even ours didn’t work for many authors who decided to take a break and never made it back to us. You have to go where you feel encouraged, not discouraged. Also, it’s best to find a group where the members are mostly at the same level as you are and who like to read your genre.

And to leave you with what inspired me, here is the link to Sharon Overend’s interview on CBC Radio One. I hope this inspires you too!


Featured banner image attribution:
(c) Can Stock Photo / bradcalkins

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Author Spotlight: Richard Buxton

Richard Buxton

I first “bumped” into historical fiction author Richard Buxton on the blog tour circuit. His novel, Whirligig, came out around the time as mine and, coincidentally, both novels dealt with civil war, though his tackled the American Civil War. I found it ironic that we were both interested in the war across the pond instead of the one closest to home. In my case, it would be my neighbour’s war, but still close enough.

When the Historical Novel Society (HNS) anthology, Distant Echoes, came out, I recognized Richard’s name amongst the contributors, and I was keen to finally read his work. I found his short story “Disunion” moving and heartbreaking, and it lingered with me long after I finished reading the last word.

I’ve invited Richard today to talk about “Disunion” and the inspiration behind his piece. Welcome Richard!

Q-2Tell us about some of the research that went into writing “Disunion”.

Richard: My approach for birthing short stories is to visit somewhere I’m interested in, preferably alone, mooch around for a day or two and see what stories emerge. Usually this means combining several places that fascinate me. Disunion was born of three days spent variously in the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville and in the Cades Cove section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I had serendipitously sat in a train seat opposite the museum president, Joe Emert, on a previous trip. We got talking and when I returned to Tennessee the following year, Joe not only showed me around Cades Cove but also set me up a tour of the museum with the Director Cherel Henderson. Cherel, in turn, looked out a stack of letters and books from their archive that she thought would interest me. So essentially, my research was based on the generosity of strangers who have now become friends.


Your story, “Disunion”, is about a family who refuses to take sides in the American Civil War. Most writers already have a side they would favour (or at least want to explore). What made you decide on this approach?

Richard: Essentially to illustrate how impossible it became for those who didn’t want to choose sides. They suffered just the same. The character of Zach is based on Alfred Greene of Hancock County. Greene hid in the hills just as Zach did to avoid having to fight. When he returned one night to visit his wife and child, he was killed by three neighbours, members of the Jones family. Greene’s bullet-ridden shirt is on display at the museum in Knoxville. The killing contributed to (or initiated, depending on which folklore you believe) a bloody feud that ran between the families for decades after the war.

Q-2You’ve also chosen to tell this story in the second person, present tense. I have to say I did not notice either the first time I read it – the narrative swept me away. Why did you choose this structure?

Richard: On the trolley of books and original letters looked out for me by Cherel Henderson at the East Tennessee Museum was a book called ‘A Very Violent Rebel’, the civil war diary of Ellen Renshaw House. Ellen was an ardent Confederate supporting the South and her diary is anything but neutral, but what a strong voice! Confederates and Unionists were both persecuted in Eastern Tennessee depending on which side held sway. Ellen’s voice stayed with me, but my narrator has a husband so I felt it would be much more poignant if she was addressing him. And present tense just seems to work better to instil tension. With past tense it’s all over and therefore safe, with present tense it’s still happening and the readers’ heartrate lifts a beat.

Q-2Historical Fiction often draws parallels between the present and the past. Is this true of your story, and if so, how?

Richard: So this is the nub of the story and of my experience in Tennessee. The day I spent in the archives of the Museum of Eastern Tennessee was the 23rd of June 2016. Full of new facts and full of Ellen House’s voice I returned to my motel in Gatlinburg and watched the Brexit result come in. Tennessee left the Union by a democratic vote though in Eastern Tennessee the majority wanted to stay. All that trouble and strife, all that disunion, ushered in by democracy and here was that prospect again in my own country. I was already well schooled in the Civil War, in the cost when political structures break down: in the case of the American Civil War, approaching three-quarters of a million lives. Disunion is rarely without a heavy cost no matter what the cause. The parallels were just screaming at me and the next day, Joe took me around Cades Cove, a community in the hills that would have been thriving before the war and would have had nothing to do with its outbreak far away. The cove’s churches and schools and graveyards are preserved but the community was pushed out when the Smoky National Park came into being. It’s a great place to imagine the past. When I returned to England in the aftermath of the Brexit vote there was that same discord, that same pressure to choose sides that was in Eastern Tennessee so long ago. It wasn’t so much a story that I invented, more one that was flung at my feet.

Q-2You are an English author who writes about the American Civil War. Why not the English Civil War? What is it about the American Civil War conflict that speaks to you?

Richard: Moving to the English Civil War would certainly save on airfares. I suspect that there is something exotic about a foreign land that we just don’t see in our own. Also there is something about the proximity. The American Civil War finished 150 years ago and is still in ‘handmedown’ range, word of mouth stories passed over just a few generations. It has great relevance for the 20th century and for now. Also, aside from a couple of battlefield visits, I am not well schooled on the English Civil War, a fact I hope to put right by reading your own novel.

I often ask myself what speaks to me about the American Civil War. I don’t know that I’ve ever provided myself with a satisfactory answer. I went to America as a student, an impressionable time. I always love to go back. When I started to read about the war in my late twenties I was amazed at the sheer scale, the long marches across the states, the larger than life characters. That war is many things but it’s rife with ambition, the same ambition and desire and bravery that drove Americans into the west, no matter the cost to themselves or to the Native Americans. I began to see that without understanding the war you can’t really understand the America of today. Most of my short stories relate to the war but are usually set afterwards, right up to the present, and try in one way or another to follow the echoes of that conflict. From the same three days, I conceived another story set in the war’s aftermath and that tries to illustrate how long it took for people to re-establish their lives after the war. For me ‘Distant Echoes’ could have been a title for my own collection, which is provisionally called ‘In the Shadow of the Mountain.’

Richard Buxton grew up in Wales but has lived in Sussex for the last thirty years. He is a 2015 graduate of the Creative Writing Masters programme at Chichester University. He studied in America during his twenties and tries to return there as often as he can for research and inspiration. His writing successes include winning the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story award.

His US Civil War novel, Whirligig, was longlisted for the 2015 HNS award, and since self-publication this spring has been shortlisted for the Rubery International Book Award. He is busy working on the next novel in the trilogy, The Copper Road. He would welcome publication interest in his novels or in his short story collection, In the Shadow of the Mountain, which was recently a finalist in the Sunshot Prose Award.

Connect with Richard through his website (, Twitter (@richardbuxton65) and Facebook.



Whirligig is available for purchase through Amazon (click here), and Battle Town is also available through Amazon (click here).

“Disunion” is published in Distant Echoes by Corazon books and is available as an eBook through Amazon (click here).

About Distant Echoes

Gripping and thought-provoking stories of people, places and times past by writers from the Historical Novel Society.

A new anthology of nineteen award-winning and acclaimed historical fiction short stories.

Distant Echoes brings you vivid voices from the past. This haunting anthology explores love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, these stories will stay with you long after the last page.

This selection of winning and shortlisted stories from recent Historical Novel Society writing awards includes “The House of Wild Beasts” by Anne Aylor (winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award 2014), “Salt” by Lorna Fergusson (winner of the HNSLondon14 Short Story Award) and “Fire on the Water” by Vanessa Lafaye (winner of the HNSOxford16 Short Story Award).

If you enjoyed this interview and wish to hear about another contributor to Distant Echoes and their inspiration, check out my author spotlights:

Media Attribution: 

Banner (Image of Cades Cove, East Tennessee): Dallas Epperson [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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Guest Post by Tony Morgan: What if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded?

Today, I welcome Tony Morgan, another 17th century enthusiast. Tony writes historical speculative fiction set during the early Stuart era, specifically around the time of the Gunpowder Plot.

Tony’s first book, Remember, Remember the 6th of November, was a reimagining of the 5th of November Gunpowder plot. If you are interested in learning more about his debut novel, check out this guest post, titled “The Gunpowder Plot” (click here).  Tony’s follow up novel, 1617, recently came out and picks up twelve years later.

Join me in welcoming Tony Morgan who discusses how the history of England might have changed had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded.


This guest blog explores what may have happened if the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 had been successful. Many believe England would have slipped into a deadly civil war between Protestant and Catholic factions. After all, this is exactly what happened across much of the rest of Europe in the 17th Century.

If the attack on the opening of Parliament had been successful, Protestant King James I and his sons, Princes Henry and Charles, would have been killed, along with many other leading establishment figures of the day.

But what would have become of the plotters led by Robert Catesby? Most (excluding Guy Fawkes) had left London by November 4th, with a dual plan of action. Firstly, they intended to start a popular Catholic uprising in the Midlands, rippling into other areas with strong Catholic sympathies such as Wales and the North. Perhaps, they hoped, they’d even get military support from Spain, despite the recently signed peace treaty. The second aspect of Catesby’s strategy was to kidnap the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth, the elder of King James Stuart’s daughters, convert her to her mother’s religion of Catholicism and eventually place her on the throne of a new Catholic England.

However, irrespective of what was going on in London, things didn’t go to plan for Catesby and his fellow conspirators. They were now hunted men. There was to be no uprising and Princess Elizabeth remained at liberty. The plotters were pursued by militia, cornered, most killed and the few others captured. Fawkes was tortured in the Tower of London and eventually confessed.

King James lived on. Supported by his Secretary of State and spymaster general Robert Cecil, he renewed the clampdown on Catholic dissidents and the “recusants” who refused to attend compulsory Church of England services. A Catholic minority survived but England became increasingly a Protestant dominated nation.

What may have happened if Parliament and the King had been destroyed? Catesby and the other conspirators would still have been killed. No doubt there would have been reprisals on both sides but did the vast majority brought low by plague and poor harvests have the stomach for a civil war? Hopefully not. Perhaps the country would have sought a different path.

Eventually Princess Elizabeth would have become Queen. In this parallel time-line she wouldn’t have married Frederick of Palatine and become the “Winter” Queen of Bohemia for less than a year. She would have been the Queen of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Most likely she’d have retained her Protestant religion but her advisors may have recognised the importance of unity in avoiding civil war and/or seeing off potential invasion from Spain or France. In these circumstances Queen Elizabeth II could have introduced a policy of religious tolerance, where the Church of England remained Protestant but people were free to worship in the church of their choice.

The country could have become a shining beacon against the dark clouds of religion-fuelled war which were descending over the rest of Europe. There would have been dissenters. There always are. Puritan Protestant and Jesuit Catholic extremists, agents from enemy nations such as Spain or France, all would have wished to undermine such a stance, unseat and potentially assassinate the young queen.

In addition, Elizabeth would have needed to put right wrongs in her own kingdom across the water in Ireland where her father’s policies of “plantation” had given Protestant settlers too much power over the indigenous Catholic population. An envoy would be needed who could start the peace process to bring about the beginning of an end to the ongoing troubles there.

The history surrounding the Gunpowder Plot was the setting for my debut novel “Remember, Remember the 6th of November”.

The discussion above is the historical backdrop to my second book “1617”. In this story Queen Elizabeth selects Sir Everard Digby to be her peace envoy but he’s a man with a secret past she must never discover.

Digby travels to Ireland and faces shipwreck, attack from both sides and unwanted attentions from a Puritan assassin, whilst in London a plot is hatched against the Queen by an unholy alliance of Puritans and Jesuits. Both groups are manipulated by a deadly French female spymistress, Linda Blanchet, who has her own reasons for wanting Digby dead. With all this happening can Queen Elizabeth and religious tolerance survive?

I hope many readers enjoy finding out about the times of the 17th Century, the places and most of all the people as much as I did writing about them.

About 1617

Final Book Cover 1617

What might have happened if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded…

Queen Elizabeth has transformed England into a centre for religious tolerance but conflict is brewing across Europe and there are continued troubles in Ireland. A peace envoy is needed. Sir Everard Digby appears the perfect choice but he’s a man with a secret past which the Queen must never discover…

Where to find Tony Morgan’s books

1617 is available in Kindle through Amazon here.

Remember, Remember the 6th of November is available in Kindle and Paperback through Amazon here.

Tony Morgan is a Welsh author living in North Yorkshire in the UK, near to the birth place of Guy Fawkes. His books have been described as a perfect read for lovers of the works of C.J. Sansom and S. J. Parris and anyone interested in how historic events have shaped our own times.

Connect with Tony through his website ( and Twitter (@MorgantheBook)



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