I’ve just finished reading an amazing book. Books that I mention on this blog are all special, but this one is extra special and I’m shouting about it from every rooftop I can find.

Here’s my review:

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I was in Liverpool, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland – not now, but nearly two hundred years ago. Actually, I’ve only been to one of those places and what I saw in no way prepared me for what I read in this book. The descriptions are so vivid, the scenes so real that I felt I was there with the characters, through all their hopes and suffering.

I’ve never read a historical story that has held my attention as this one did. Most historical fiction has sections that are less interesting, that I have to struggle through to move on to more appealing parts. But this novel captivated me throughout.

I’ve read Jo Carroll’s travel memoirs, but never realised she was capable of this. I salute her and sincerely hope she’s planning more novels like this one.

Blurb

It’s 1848. And Sara, aged fourteen, must leave her family in the stinking potato fields of Ireland to seek a better life with her wealthy aunt in Liverpool. But her uncle has different ideas.

Will she find solace among the dockers? She finds love, but becomes embroiled in the unrest of the Irish men and women who live in squalor in the Liverpool slums. Yet her efforts to help them only enrage her uncle further.

Her escape takes her to the other side of the world. But there is no comfort in the dusty outback of Australia nor the gold fields of New Zealand. For she has left behind something more precious to her than life itself.

Letters from ElsewhereToday, you’re invited to meet Rachel Swift, who tops and tails The House at Zaronza by Vanessa Couchman, another great Crooked Cat read. Here is her letter to Maria Orsini, whom she never met but who had a great influence on the lives of Rachel’s family.

Dear Maria,

Rugged Corsican landscapeYou died long before I was born and I really wish I had had the chance to meet you.

I came to Corsica wanting to find out more about my ancestors. This was my first visit and, as soon as the plane touched down, I had a sense of coming home. Somehow, the rugged but magnificent landscape and the perched villages seemed familiar. And that scent of aromatic herbs from the mountain scrub they call the maquis was almost intoxicating.

My search led me to the beautiful village of Zaronza, where I stayed in the house you once lived in. I discovered that my grandmother, also called Maria, had lived there as well for a while, although you weren’t related. There is still much more to find out about my grandmother and my other relations and that quest will take me to other parts of Corsica and to the French mainland.

But I became intrigued by you, because of the framed love letters addressed to you that hung on the walls of the house. As I discovered later, you had hidden them in the attic and the present owners found them when they broke down a wall. You never married your schoolmaster, the author of the letters, because of something terrible that a person close to you did. And you spent your life regretting it.

Corsican villageWhat an extraordinary woman you were! From a sheltered upbringing in a quiet backwater, you left Corsica in 1917 to nurse at the Western Front, something that would have been unthinkable for a Corsican woman a generation earlier. But you were always deeply attached to the island and now I understand why. I feel something of that bond myself.

You had a huge influence on my grandmother, who also left Corsica in search of her dreams. One day, I will piece together the jigsaw of my family’s history. In many ways, although you are not my ancestor, you are a key part of that puzzle.

With love and thanks,

Rachel

About The House at Zaronza

Front cover final 2Set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front in World War I, The House at Zaronza is loosely inspired by a true story.  Maria Orsini, the daughter of a bourgeois family in a Corsican village, and the local schoolmaster carry on a secret romance. Maria’s parents have other plans for her future and she sees her dreams crumble. Her life is played out against the backdrop of Corsica, the ‘island of beauty’, and the turmoil of World War I. This is a story about love, betrayal, loss and reconciliation in a strict patriarchal society, whose values are challenged as the world changes.

You can find The House at Zaronza at AmazonBarnes & Noble and Kobo.

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About Vanessa Couchman

Vanessa CouchmanVanessa lives in France and is passionate about French and Corsican history and culture, the inspiration for her writing. The House at Zaronza is based on an intriguing true story that she came across when holidaying on the beguiling Mediterranean island of Corsica.

She is working on a sequel, set in World War II, and another novel set on Corsica during the 18th century.

Vanessa has been writing fiction since 2010. Her short stories have won, been placed and shortlisted in creative writing competitions and published in anthologies and online.

Vanessa has a degree in history from Oxford University and an MBA. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, ex-pat writing community Writers Abroad and the Parisot Writing Group.

Find Vanessa at:

A-Z Challenge 2015You want readers to know what life was like then. You want them to understand the character’s situation. But of course you don’t want to TELL them; you want to SHOW them.

One way of doing this is to have the characters question their place in society.

Questioning

A-ZChallenge2015So you’ve done your research, you’ve asked experts and still there are things you don’t know.

Why did Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) fall out with the Liddell family?
How did the cliff dwellers of Montezuma Castle manage their days?

You need to answer these questions, but no one knows the answers. What do you do? You make informed guesses based on the information you have been able to discover. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that, because this is fiction.

I asked Nancy Jardine, whom I interviewed here and who writes – amongst other genres – historical novels set in Celtic/Roman Britain, for one example of when she had to make an informed guess. This is her response:

I’ve had to do a fair bit of that in my Celtic Fervour Series, the reasons being that the only source materials for the times are Greek or Roman – and biased at that. The Celts left no written evidence at all – save what’s found on stone inscriptions. In Book 3 of the series, I have a large battle at a place named Beinn Na Ciche (Gaelic for a hill range that’s nine miles from my home). Bennachie, as it’s currently called on the map, is only one possible site earmarked by historians for a battle between Romans and Celts that the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about. The thing is that Tacitus may only have been attempting to make his father-in-law Agricola seem like a greater general than he really was. None of the other Scottish contender sites – for what was later named the Battle of Mons Graupius by early Victorians – have provided conclusive evidence. I made my ‘informed’ choice and decided that the topographical information given by Tacitus matched the landscape around Bennachie, but even more important for me was that in 2006 local archaeologists decided that the Romans had had some 30,000 soldiers in Durno – a marching camp opposite the fooothills of Bennachie. The number of soldiers (which is drawn from archaeological evidence and not written evidence) was sufficient for me to use the site in my novel. In fact most of what I’ve written as historical facts on Celtic life is drawn from purely archaeological sources and is therefore all interpretative.
Thank you for this, Nancy. It shows a lot about what a historical novelist has to do – research, decision-making and more – before starting to write.
Bennachie

Bennachie

Nancy also sent me this photo, which “was taken from near the Durno camp looking over to the hilltop named ‘The Mither Tap’ – the most distinctive part of Bennachie range.”

A-ZChallenge2015Never forget that what you have written is fiction. If people get too serious about how real the story is and suggest things might not have happened that way, remind them they didn’t happen in any way because the story is fictional. However much you tried to be true to history, the fact remains: it’s made up.

InappropriateFight

A-ZChallenge2015There is a limit to the amount of research an author can do for a novel. There will always be specialists who know more about the era and the place than you do.

So ask them. Find an expert who is willing to help by answering all your outstanding questions and hopefully providing information that you hadn’t even thought of asking about.

Presentation

A-ZChallenge2015How do you decide on the language to use in dialogue? Clearly modern expressions would be out of place. But the language of the time is also inappropriate because readers wouldn’t understand it, even if you researched it enough to be able to write it.

As with all these dilemmas, you have to find the right balance between these two approaches.

Historical Fiction - Dialogue