Author Spotlight: Lorna Fergusson

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Voice is one of those secret sauces that make a story special. The characters leap from the page and speak directly into your ear. They grip you by the throat and won’t allow you to turn away.

Lorna Fergusson’s short story “Salt”, has such a presence. This is the story of Ina, one of the herring girls, who makes her living in Yarmouth gutting fish. She and her sister are far from their home in Scotland during WWI. It’s a compelling story with a strong sense of character and setting.

“Salt” is the winner of the 2014 HNS London Short Story Award and has been featured in the HNS anthology, Distant Echoes.

I’ve asked Lorna to speak about her story and the inspiration behind it.

Welcome Lorna!

Q-2What was the inspiration behind “Salt”?

Lorna: The inspiration for the story came from my Scottish grandmother, who worked as a ‘herring girl’ in the early part of the 20th century. I remember her telling me she was in Great Yarmouth when World War 1 broke out and that she saw the troops leaving by train, with everyone thinking, as the cliché has it, that the war wouldn’t last long. That has always stuck with me: that she was a witness to history. She also told me about the hard living conditions – the gutting of herring, the women following as the men fished the herring shoals down the coast of Britain. I wondered what it had felt like, at a time when people didn’t travel much and certainly never went on package holidays, to be a young Scottish girl in an English seaport.

My only regret is that I didn’t ask her more! But when you’re very young you’re deaf to so many of the things older people say to you.

herring girl 2


The voices of the characters are so strong, I could hear them clearly. What was your approach to making them authentic without slowing down the reader with dialect?

Lorna: As I come from the north east of Scotland, making the dialect authentic was absolutely no trouble at all! This dialect is commonly known as ‘Doric’ and it is a joy to write in it, although normally I don’t because the problem with writing in any dialect – and with writing in the language of the past, too – is that if you are entirely accurate, your modern readership may not understand what is being said. You have to strike a balance between that language being a barrier and it being something which individualises, flavours and colours the piece. With “Salt”, I originally incorporated quite a lot, because I was hearing those women in my head so clearly. I then pared it right back, but felt I had overdone it and something had been lost, so I put some back in. The dialect’s power relies on the sounds, so some words are variants of familiar ones – for example, ‘a’richt’ for ‘all right’, ‘oot’ for ‘out’ – and others are words whose meaning comes across through the context: ‘glaikit’ means ‘stupid’, and readers will probably get that from its sounds and the way the speaker utters it. I hope it was all clear, anyway!


“Salt” is a leitmotif in your story. What does it represent?

Lorna: Well, it has a practical, obvious meaning in that it is a preservative. It also stands for the sea and the dangers the fishermen face when they go out to catch the herring. It stands for the harshness of their lives but also a kind of cleanness and directness. It’s bracing, wounding and cleansing. It also stands for sorrow and the comfort of tears.


Does setting influence your writing, and if so how?

Lorna: Setting influences absolutely everything I write! It often provides the trigger for the story itself. My novel The Chase is set in the Dordogne region of France and grew from our familiarity with its history and atmosphere over the number of years my husband and I had a holiday home there. My previous HNS story finalist, “Reputation”, came from memories of walking the cliffs at Étretat in Normandy. I write about places I love, like France and Oxford and Cornwall and Scotland. I’ve been working for a number of years on a novel set in 19th century Spain and Canada. Landscape, atmosphere and the layers of human experience location is imbued with all speak to me and give me ideas. I love to create a sense of the spirit of a place through description and imagery. Place is a kind of character in itself.


Tell us about the research that went into writing “Salt”?

Lorna: As I mentioned, I already had the story-trigger from my grandmother, so I did some more research about the herring industry of the time, about the way the women gutted and packed the fish. Photographs were really helpful. I had visited Great Yarmouth years ago, but researched what its layout was like back then and where the gutting yards were and where the herring ‘quines’ would have lodged. Research is always fascinating and distracting because you could follow threads to so many different possible stories. I had to be disciplined and focus only on this particular tale. That it was destined to be a competition entry and had a deadline helped me avoid going down too many rabbit holes!

Thank you Lorna for sharing with us your inspiration behind “Salt”.

Lorna Fergusson is a novelist, editor and writing coach: she runs Fictionfire Literary Consultancy and teaches on various Oxford University writing programmes. Her work has won an Ian St James Award, been longlisted for the Fish Prize and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and Pan Macmillan’s Write Now children’s novel prize. She has republished The Chase, originally published by Bloomsbury, and contributed to Studying Creative Writing for the Creative Writing Studies imprint. “Reputation”, a 2012 HNS Short Story finalist, appears in The Beggar at the Gate. She is working on a new collection of stories and a historical novel, the opening of which won Words with Jam Magazine’s First Page Competition.

Connect with Lorna through Twitter (@LornaFergusson) and Facebook: Lorna Fergusson Author and Fictionfire Inspiration for Writers

Check out her websites at,, and (a writer’s take on the business of books and the writing life)

The Chase is published by Fictionfire Press and is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Kobo.  Her short story “Reputation” appearing in The Beggar at the Gate and Other Stories, is published by the HNS and is available from Amazon US, and Amazon UK.

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 other author spotlights:


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NaNoWriMo from the other side


The first time that I completed NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month) I did it backwards. I did in fact write the required 50,000 words that month, but by backwards, I mean that I wrote the last part of the novel, which became Traitor’s Knot. The prevailing goal (or at least the approach that NaNo diehards subscribed to) is that you have to start a new novel, not finish it. That year was a frantic race to the finish line and it felt good to get there!

The next year, I decided to try it properly–start a new novel. I had some scenes kicking around in my head, and I had completed some initial research. November 1st rolled around…ready…set…nada. There was hair pulling, teeth grinding, and lots of procrastination activities (check out this blog post). I did push through and logged in a win, but I didn’t feel that the exercise helped me write a viable story. What happened?

My writing process.

For that first attempt at NaNo, I already had an established work in progress. I had spent months years (let’s not quibble here) of mulling on the story. In other words, by the time NaNo rolled along, I had already pushed a very heavy boulder up a steep hill. There I was looking at the valley below, with a very clear idea of where this puppy had to go. When the starting gun fired, all I needed to do was nudge that boulder just a smidgeon and off it went. It worked absolutely brilliantly. I credit NaNo with infusing a palatable energy in the last part of the book as my frantic tapping away at the keyboard rubbed off on the scenes I was writing. These characters were not allowed to dilly-dally. They had to act and act fast.

But starting a new novel (for me) requires thought and mulling and getting to know my characters by letting them kick around in my head. You just don’t have the luxury of doing this during NaNo. Your Muse has turned into an unrelenting sergeant barking orders in boot camp. The scenes that churn out may have some unexpected gems but there is a lot of sifting through rough stones to get to them.

This year, I am once again in the second half of a work in progress (the second in my series) and the boulder is poised on that ridge. I may not have as much of a clear site to what lies at the bottom as I did for Traitor’s Knot, but I know that the frantic energy that you can only get during NaNo will infuse the scenes I write and mirror my characters’ desperation to get to the end of their story. I know that I’ll have more gems than stones to sift through in the end, and that makes my Muse very happy.

Happy NaNo everyone, no matter which side of your novel you happen to be working on!

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Fall in love with Historical Fiction 

Today is the day! 

Passages to the Past is hosting a FB historical fiction party starting at 3pm EST today! There’s an amazing line-up of historical fiction authors waiting to chat about books and history…did I mention there will be giveaways?

Do pop in and join the conversation! I’ll be officially on at 7:45pm. I’ll be giving away an eBook copy of Traitor’s Knot and a photobooklet I created with pictures and words inspired by the story. 

Here’s the link to the FB site – Fall in Love with Historical Fiction

Hope to “see” you then! 

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Author Spotlight: Elizabeth St. John

Elizabeth St John

I first met Elizabeth St. John after one of the sessions at the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver.  We were waiting to meet the speaker, the lovely Jenny Quinlan (aka Jenny Q) of Historical Editorial, when we struck up a conversation about what we were writing. You should realize that when you’re at a historical fiction conference, you can skip the genre question and go straight to, ‘What period are you writing in?”. We both answered 17th century England, and this pretty much sealed it for us.

Elizabeth is blessed with a closet-full of famous relatives from which she can draw sources for her fiction, and she wraps them into a compelling story. Her debut novel (the one she had been working on when we met) is The Lady of the Tower, the story of Lady Lucy Apsley (nee St. John). The novel which takes us through the early part of Lucy’s life and her marriage to Sir Allen Apsley, governor of the Tower, with all the ups and downs of a politically charged royal court. There is an earlier interview her on the blog about this book (click here) which I would encourage you to read.

Today, I’ve invited Elizabeth back to discuss the sequel, By Love Divided. I absolutely adored this book, and not just because it took place during the English Civil War. In By Love Divided, we are reintroduced to Lucy Apsley and her two children, Allen Apsley Jr, and Lucy Apsley Hutchinson, the famous 17th century writer. The family is torn apart by the civil war when the siblings choose opposing sides. It’s heartbreaking, and yet, Elizabeth does not leave us without hope.

Without further ado, welcome Elizabeth!

Thank you for such interesting questions, Cryssa!

Q-2It must be inspiring to have such illustrious ancestors to base your novels on. What was the most challenging aspect of choosing to write about your ancestors?

Elizabeth: It is very inspiring to have such a rich and well-documented family history to draw on for my novels. Growing up in England where the weather promotes reading and the countryside is full of castles and ancient churches, I spent much of my childhood buried in books, family papers and walking around ruins. My parents loved history and passed that gene on to me. Our favorite days were spent “St.John-hunting” where we would follow some thread in a family tree and end up in a forgotten churchyard or country house, face-to-face with an ancestor. When I came to write The Lady of the Tower, I felt I knew the characters intimately, because of my deep acquaintance with them, and that so many of their portraits are preserved at their country home of Lydiard House.


Lucy Apsley Hutchinson

However, reading about the past is not the same as writing about it, and for me, the most challenging part of capturing my ancestors on paper was to ensure that I stayed as true to their characters as I could. I did this by reading as many extant document as possible – even fragments of a letter, or the inventory accompanying a will can give so many clues into a person’s life. And then, looking at the actions across their lives can sometimes inform their character. In researching Allen Apsley, Lucy St.John’s son in By Love Divided, I came across a record that he frequently came drunk into Parliament (he was an MP during the Restoration). That started a whole train of thought that perhaps he was suffering from PTSD as a result of his action in the Civil War, and so I then sought to find evidence that might support that.

Q-2 Tell us about your research. Did you have access to records that were not available to the general public?

Elizabeth: I’m very fortunate since my family kept some personal documents, and an extensive family tree preserved on great pieces of Antiquarian sized paper which had been handed down by generations. Those inspired me to want to write only relying on primary sources, and so I then visited museums and libraries where records might be stored. By Love Divided draws on Lucy Apsley Hutchinson’s Memoirs, which are archived at Nottingham Castle. When I first encountered them 20 years ago, they were hidden in a battered file cabinet in the castle offices, and by asking and poking around I was thrilled to see them first hand. So although pretty much all my records are accessible to the general public, it can take a lot of detective work to find them.



By Love Divided follows the fortunes of Lucy Apsley’s grown children, her daughter Lucy (Luce) Hutchinson, the famous Parliamentarian diarist, and her son, Allen Apsley, a Royalist officer. If you were in England in the 1640’s would you have chosen King, Parliament, or neither, and why.

Elizabeth: When I was at school, the Civil War was taught in very black and white terms, and pretty much in favor of the Royalists. So, who didn’t want to be a dashing cavalier, all long curls and gorgeous clothes, defending the monarchy and preserving our way of life. Besides, the only portrait of Oliver Cromwell showed him “warts and all” and he just wasn’t attractive. And, the fact that our family was closely related to Cromwell didn’t make me particularly popular in the playground.

Coming into By Love Divided, I was really determined to be independent, and try to throw off all pre-conceived biases, and that made for an extremely interesting journey. Firstly, the ambiguity of the war as it unfolded struck home. A credible historical fiction writer has to “write in the now”; our characters don’t know what lies ahead, although we (often tragically) do. In the 1630s and ‘40s so many people were making decisions based on very limited knowledge, hear-say and confusing information. And, they really didn’t think that their actions would lead to armed conflict. Loyalties were fluid – often more to their Land Lords than to any particular cause. And, as in any war, the masses just wanted to get on with their daily lives.

As I read Lucy’s memoirs, and the speeches made in Parliament, and the king’s proclamations, I really began to have a deeper understanding of Parliament’s position. Another ancestor, Solicitor General Oliver St.John, made some good points. He was leader of the “Middle Group” in parliament – less radical Independents that still believed negotiation was a way forward. But I think it was a single incident recounted in Lucy’s memoirs that made me think I would probably be a Parliamentarian; and it occurred when Lucy and her husband John Hutchinson were attempting to prevent the king from requisitioning Nottingham’s ammunition for his own cause. I made this a defining moment in By Love Divided, so I will be interested to see if any readers feel the same way.

Q-2 What were some of the challenges and rewards of writing a sequel?

Elizabeth: Well, firstly, I didn’t realize I was going to write a sequel until I reached the end of The Lady of the Tower, and discovered that I could not leave Lucy’s world. My readers wanted to know more, and so By Love Divided was born.

Frankly, the biggest challenge was probably a technical one, since By Love Divided covers a much broader landscape than the first book. Deciding the point of view, mapping out which characters would have prominence, and weaving in enough of The Lady of the Tower to satisfy those readers but still make By Love Divided readable as a stand-alone – these were all huge challenges at the beginning. And the rewards? Absolutely getting to know Lucy, Luce, John, Allen, Edward, Frances – and even Barbara – and living in their world. I miss them, now I’m not with them every day.


Edward St.John Memorial at St. Mary’s Church at Lydiard – picture by Elizabeth St. John


I understand that as part of your research, you visited Edge Hill. How did that inspire you?

Elizabeth: I had never written about war, and as I came closer to the Civil War in my writing, I began the difficult business of really trying to understand the visceral emotions of fighting, in a time when it was so close to hand and bloody.

I read books such as All Quiet on the Western Front, and talked to war veterans of all ages. I interviewed Sealed Knot members, who have such an authentic understanding of the sounds of battle. And I decided that if was going to bring my readers into war, I should do so from different perspectives.

I chose key battles that Allen and Edward fought in – Edge Hill, Cropredy Bridge, Newbury II, and visited those sites. The atmosphere is still so weighed with the past, even in today’s world. And I chose to visit very early in the mornings, before traffic and other visitors disturbed the air. So, standing on the windy escarpment at Edge Hill and seeing the whole valley spread below, I could see the Parliamentary army in full formation, the smoke from their campfires, the distant sound of men preparing for battle. And walking through the marshy ground to the defensive earth works surrounding Donnington Castle, I could think about the struggle the troops had to defend and access the castle. It was a somber experience, and I hope I was able to bring this home to my readers.


Edge Hill- picture by Elizabeth St. John

Q-2 What’s your next project?

Elizabeth: Well, in By Love Divided we left our family at the end of the first Civil War, hoping for a peaceful negotiation and a resumption of normal life. We all know it didn’t work out that way. And both Allen Apsley and John Hutchinson played a key role in the world-changing events that followed. I guess it’s time for a third in the Lydiard Chronicles! I hope to complete most of my research by the early spring of 2018, and return to their world to follow their fortunes through the next twenty years.


Gatehouse at Tawstock Court, Barnstaple

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Elizabeth! There is so much that makes me want to jump in and continue the conversation. I particularly love your advice, “write in the now”, which is probably the single best tip for writing historical fiction.

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story…

By Love Divided, Elizabeth’s sequel to her debut best-seller, The Lady of the Tower, continues the family saga and follows the fortunes of the St.John family during the English Civil War.

Connect with Elizabeth through her Website (, Twitter (@ElizStJohn), and Facebook.

Her novels are available through Amazon. For Amazon US (click here), and for Amazon UK (click here).

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Gravestones in Dorset

I find tombstones fascinating. I’m not really sure why. It may be because they are the last visual marker of a person’s life, and I’m curious as to what they reveal. It’s the old tombstones that I’m drawn to the most, the ones covered in lichen and eaten by wind and rain. Whatever was engraved upon them is usually very nearly erased, and I love the mystery of it.

I fully realized this interest after looking back on the pictures I took of my last trip to England. A large proportion of pictures centred around churches, cathedrals, and graveyards.

And in honour of All Souls’ Day, I thought I share with you my favourites, and they happen to be in Dorset.


In Winterbourne Steepleton, Dorset, you’ll find St. Michael’s church. A church has stood here since the 11th century, and its cornerstones are Pre-Conquest. Over the centuries, that little church has been rebuilt and expanded. Seven different periods are represented here.

I came upon St. Michael’s and explored its graveyard on a grey misty morning, which is perfect if you want to get the full experience of a Dorset graveyard.

This crypt captured my attention because of the skull and crossbones. I wondered who was buried there and especially why that symbol was included. The crypt was quite substantial (there was only one other like it), and it must have been made for someone of wealth. I have to wonder how he must have achieved this wealth. Smuggling? Piracy?


Below, is a charming Tudor rose carving on a headstone. I may have my roses mixed up because the area occupied by the church was once owned by Edmund Mortimer (1285 AD) and eventually passed through to King Edward IV of the House of York. There are York roses included in the stained glass inside, but somehow this one on the gravestone makes me think Elizabethan. It’s not as worn out as one might expect if it stood there an extra couple of centuries.


This old gravestone appeared to be one of the oldest in the graveyard, judging by the condition of the stone. I loved the Celtic cross design in the centre.


Leaving Winterbourne Steepleton, we arrive at St. Nicholas in Abbotsbury. This church was built in the 14th century. It overlooks the site of Abbotsbury medieval abbey, of which very little remains except an old wall and a tithe barn.


In the churchyard, there are more examples of old Celtic crosses.


What captured my interest was this design, which appeared on a number of tombstones in the yard. It’s a Christogram depicting the IHS initials that is short for Christ in Greek: IHΣΟΥΣ.

There were so many of them here at St. Nicholas that I wondered why they were so popular here. I didn’t see this pattern in any of the other churchyards I wandered through.


St. Nicholas had more modern monuments, including a lovely statue of an angel. I suspect that a young maid was probably buried there.


I hope you’ve enjoyed my traipse through a couple of Dorset churchyards. I visited a number of churches and cathedrals throughout my trip and admired the plaques and monuments inside. Although they were all beautiful works of art, it’s really these grave markers, exposed to the elements yet still standing, which made the biggest impression on me. Long may they stand.

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Author Spotlight: Anne Aylor

AAWithSaints.CROP copy

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a few of the contributors to the Historical Novel Society’s anthology, Distant Echoes. Today, I welcome author Anne Aylor, who contributed two stories to the anthology, “The Man With No Hands” and “The House of Wild Beasts”. The latter won the HNS Short Story Award in 2014, and it’s this story that I’ve asked her to discuss as it made an impression on me.

“The House of Wild Beasts” takes place during the Spanish Civil War. An American reporter, Martha, visits the Madrid zoo, La Casa de Fieras, to write a newspaper article about the war. By reporting the conditions in the zoo, she hopes to make people back home understand why the Spanish Republic deserved their support.

It is the task of an author to show their readers a unique perspective, and Anne Aylor has done so with this story. She has examined the depravity of war and the breakdown of society using a zoo as the setting. I was keen to learn more about her inspiration and how she came to write her award winning story, “The House of Wild Beasts”.

Welcome, Anne!


What was the impetus in using a zoo as a setting to comment on the depredations of war?

Anne: I experienced the tail-end of a European war in 1994 when I visited the former Yugoslavia. The fact-finding mission I made on behalf of a British charity had a huge impact on me. After qualifying as an acupuncturist in 1997, I returned to work in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, to try to help those who had been traumatised by war. Patients who had lived on the east side of the city had endured a terrible siege, first under bombardment from the Serbs, then the Croats. Living in basements for 18 months and having little to eat other than rice and lentils, the Bosniaks sucked stones to try to stave off hunger.

When I started researching “The House of Wild Beasts”, I remembered the haunting photographs of Bosnian men in internment camps. They were inmates in a human zoo, unable to feed or defend themselves, wholly at the mercy of their keepers. And the foreign “peacekeepers” who did nothing to protect them.

Q-2What inspired you to write “The House of Wild Beasts”?

Anne:  Years ago, I read an article by David Blundy, the British journalist killed by sniper fire while covering the war in El Salvador. One powerful image in his report about the zoo remained with me. A mountain goat had died and the staff had not dug a hole large enough for its huge body. Its rotting head and horns were sticking out of the dirt. In his article, Blundy hardly referred to the war that was ripping El Salvador apart, but it was implicit in his dispatch about the zoo.

I was reminded of that goat during the war in Bosnia when I heard about the only surviving animal in the Sarajevo Zoo. During the siege, people risked their lives to take bread and grass to a terrified, starving bear until it, too, finally died.


Was “The House of Wild Beasts” based on a true story?

Anne: I came across information that men had been thrown alive to the lions and tigers during the Spanish Civil War. I tried to imagine why this had happened and who might have done it. Accounts of savagery were reported on both sides, but the fascists encouraged gang rape, torture, mutilation and murder. On the Republican side, it was not government policy. When it did happen, it occurred mainly at the beginning of the war and was most often carried out by criminals pretending to be anarchists. Loyalist thugs carried out summary executions and appropriated property without authorisation from the Republican government.


How did you undertake your research?

Anne: My research began with finding a suitable face for one of the two main characters. Peters Sellers used to say that he could never get under the skin of a character until he figured out what kind of shoes they wore. I cannot write about a character until I know what they look like. On an earlier trip to Spain, I had discovered a village where all the residents had been painted and their portraits attached to the buildings in which they lived. And so it was in Salamanca that I discovered the face of my male protagonist. His expression of sadness and dignity was exactly what I needed to be able to imagine the director of the Madrid Zoo.

I had written several drafts of the story before I went to Madrid to see the location of the old zoo for myself. Until 1972, it was situated in the centre of the city, in Retiro Park, and was known as La Casa de Fieras, or “the house of wild beasts”. Prior to my trip, I had found a photograph that showed the small cages where lions were forced to live. I realised that it would not have been easy, or practical, to kill people in such a narrow space.


La Casa de Fieras

In my research on other zoos, I had read that blockbuster bombs dropped on Berlin destroyed the cages of leopards and panthers who wandered, dazed and hungry, through the streets. For the purpose of my story, it had to be impossible for the big cats to escape.

When I went to Madrid, I saw the deep pit where the monkeys had lived. I realised that I needed to ‘move’ them to the lions’ cages and vice versa. If I did that, the big cats couldn’t escape, despite constant bombing raids. As I stood on the monkey pit’s low wall with its chest-high railing, I realised, with horror, that here it would have been perfectly possible for men to be pushed over the top.


Monkey Pit


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

Anne: A zoo is a microcosm of the world. Human conflict brings about terrible suffering that extends far beyond our own species. When I wrote “The House of Wild Beasts”, I was not just writing about Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, but also about later conflicts in which animals were starved, killed by shrapnel or incinerated by bombs: Dresden, Baghdad, Gaza, Mosul, Damascus. A militiaman who’d risked his life to feed the last bear in Sarajevo told a reporter in 1992, ‘People made this war, but the animals had nothing to do with it. They’re only victims. People have people to look after them, to comfort them, but animals in cages have only us.’

We, too, are animals, in more senses than one.

Thank you Anne for sharing the inspiration behind “House of Wild Beasts” and providing us an insight into your extensive research.

As an added bonus, here is a YouTube video of Anne’s research trip to the zoo. This is a great way to feel even more connected to the story!

Born in New Mexico, Anne Aylor is an award-winning writer and teacher who has taught over 130 creative writing courses in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, France and the US. She is the author of two novels, No Angel Hotel (publishers: HarperCollins and BareBone Books) and The Double Happiness Company (BareBone Books).

She has had short stories published by the Arts Council of Great Britain and The Literary Review. An excerpt from her first novel was a winner in the BBC Radio 3 Short Story Competition. Her work has been shortlisted for the Bridport and Fish Short Story Prizes. In 2014 she won the Historical Novel Society Short Story competition for “The House of Wild Beasts”. This story and “The Man with No Hands” are chapters adapted from her novel-in-progress set during the Spanish Civil War, The Witness from Salamanca.


Connect with Anne through her website (, Twitter (@anne_aylor), and Facebook. 



No Angel Hotel is available for purchase through Amazon (click here), as well as The Double Happiness Company (click here).

“The House of Wild Beasts” and “The Man With No Hands” are published in Distant Echoes by Corazon Books and is available 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 other author spotlights:

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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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