How “Historical” is Your Novel?

In a previous blog I asked “Tell me something I don’t know”. Glint of Light on Broken Glass is a historical novel – I hope people will learn things by reading it, but it is not a textbook. I have made stuff up. What? You might ask.

Let’s backtrack a few years when I started the novel. I already knew a fair amount about the First World War and also the history, geography and folklore of Guernsey. It was straightforward to write the story using just what I ‘knew’ (or had vaguely remembered). As I grew into the plot, I started researching specific areas to support the story. How I approached the language has already been covered in a previous blog, but I methodically collected phrases that would come in handy and some indeed inspired whole scenes. I walked the island looking for likely locations and checking half-remembered truths as to whether I could see Alderney for that point.

Old maps came in handy, as the island has changed a lot in the past century, with much building work. The Germans also altered the look and shape of the beaches with their anti-tank walls and bunkers. Old photographs were helpful too, although there were some annoying blank spots in the Castel where no-one had seen fit to photograph between 1900 and 1920.

I re-read the history of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry, and the war experience of the island as a whole. Glint is not a war story as such, I didn’t want to write an adventure story or anti-war polemic, but the military side had to be right; there are too many WW1 ‘experts’ out there watching for authors to blunder. Perhaps the best source of information was the Guernsey Evening Press, and its Weekly editions, which I read though from 1913 to 1919 with excursions to other memorable dates. Its adverts for band concerts, potions and theatre added the background texture. Reports of parades and church services allowed me to be precise at specific points in time. Storms, unseasonal gales and snowfall could find their correct place in the narrative.

RGLIAt times research proved inconvenient, meaning whole sections needed to be moved or subtly re-written. It was never ignored, although at times I decided not to probe too deeply if the story was working well. I was aware of some areas I barely looked into at all, then looked at the growing word count and decided that enough detail was enough. I could go on accumulating information about how people dressed, what they ate, what they planted in their gardens but beyond a point this all becomes words. Enough was enough.

Then I made stuff up. Almost all the characters came from the imagination, barring a couple of instances where I took liberties with actual historical personalities. All the dialogue is made up, as is all the interpersonal action. Even real historical events such as the unveiling of the Victor Hugo statue are simply a backdrop for George, Edith and Arte. Research I don’t need is omitted in a specific sense. The reader does not need to know the detail of the RGLI uniform of 1917, but it is embedded in my head. I see Artie in that uniform as clearly as George sees his mystery woman. The historical writer must avoid information-dumping; the research should not stick up from the page shouting “look at me, I’m a historical fact”. Even when Artie is lecturing George about Guernsey history he approximates the truth and skates over the facts he’s forgotten.  The reader needs to be a subconscious time-traveller, slipping into that distant period and into the mind-set of people who lived there. Much like the way a novel needs a ‘sense of place’, it also needs a sense of time.





Tell me something I don’t know

“Tell me something I don’t already know,” says Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’. I’m rather like that when choosing a novel. I used to like science fiction because it was not us/here/now, and dislike kitchen sink dramas for the same reason. I know what it’s like to struggle in a grim northern town, I don’t want to read about it.

 Sci-fi and fantasy is escapism and we don’t learn many facts from it, unless very hardcore. One of the appeals of Tolkien is that you can research his world, learn Quenya and the lists of kings but ultimately the whole thing is made up. Movies and TV drama have a difficult relationship with facts, given they need to telescope timelines and adapt the story to whatever budget/set/costumes are available. It is dangerous to come away from something even as well made as ‘I Claudius’ thinking you are secure in the information you have absorbed.

 Historical fiction is a great learning tool – or as a writer, it is a teaching tool. For this reason, the facts need to be right and as much of the background must also be populated with truth. If I trust Patrick O’Brian I will learn a great deal about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Thrillers work in a much more us/here/now world which has both advantages and disadvantages. Much prior knowledge of the world can be assumed (readers know what the CIA is and are familiar with the concept of televisions) but there is a parallel danger in that those well-educated readers will also have detailed knowledge of much else. There is still scope for learning, however. I learned a lot about the Sahara as a young man reading Desmond Bagley’s ‘Flyaway’. Getting the facts right helps the suspension of disbelief. We allow the characters to survive deadly scrapes and fall into plots with unlikely regularity in part because everything else around them is so real.

 I strained credulity very little in writing Glint of Light on Broken Glass. Our three young people inhabit a very real island in 1913 and are pulled along by the riptide of history. Yes there is a magic-realist element, but I hope I’m forgiven for it given that everything else is solid and grounded. I also hope that readers will learn something they don’t know – something to take away about Guernsey in days gone by and its critically threatened language.

 Writers can also make things up with such authority that they are taken as real. John Le Carre famously invented a whole vocabulary for MI6, ‘moles’ and so forth, in such a convincing way that we have come to believe it. When lecturing, I’m aware that I only need to know 5% more than my audience about the given subject to be the expert in the room. I applied this thinking to the Jeffrey Flint books, all of which touched on obscure areas of archaeology or history. However as a writer my audience is potentially the whole world, not 70 people on a rainy Tuesday evening. One reader will be an expert in Soviet rifles, third century Roman armour or actually live in that obscure Greek town where your story is set. So the writer must strain an extra muscle to shrink our own spheres of ignorance to the point we can gloss over the bits it is not necessary to know.

 With luck, the reader will come away from the novel thinking “I never knew that…”

Glint of Light on Broken Glass is now published in paperback and e-book





Guernsey Then and Now

Most of the locations I used for Glint of Light on Broken Glass still exist. The sun still sets over Cobo and can be enjoyed from the terrace at the Rockmount, but no longer from the Cobo Arms, which is long gone. A visitor to the Castel Church can see the statue-menhir I have called the Gràn’mère, the tomb of Admiral Saumarez and the fresco high on the walls. Archaeologists are increasingly interested in the Roman brick and tile that emerges from grave-digging and engineering work. There may actually be a ‘Castle’ in the Catel.  still stand beside.

St Matthew’s Cobo stands proud on the skyline above the west coast, which has changed considerably since 1913. German engineers and their slave workers dramatically altered  Vazon and Cobo during the Second World War by building an anti-tank wall, so the dunes of the sand-eeling party are gone. Their concrete bunkers and gun positions stud the landscape and have changed the profiles of the Napoleonic forts at Hommet and Grande Rocques. All over the island they remain as stark reminders of how war can affect such a tranquil place. La Grande Mare has been drained and turned into a golf course, although after heavy rain it can revert to the way nature intended.

The Castel has become quite built-up by ribbon development and small estates since the 1950’s. Most of its quarries have been filled in and many of the vineries (glasshouses) cleared away for houses. An unexpected consequence of losing all this industry is that the Parish may actually now be a prettier place than it was in 1913. The prominent rock of Le Guet was bare at that time, allowing the boys to play Boer War on its slopes, but its Napoleonic watch-house is now shrouded by Scots Pines.

abreveur The heritage of the parish remains evident in its granite houses, pretty rendered cottages and its abreuveurs (water troughs). Almost all its lanes have been given a tarmac surface, but many are still overhung by trees on both sides, joining to form an arch. All are lined by flowers in the spring; yellow first, then the colours. A secondary school has been built at Les Beaucamps, and the Militia huts demolished, but the granite drill hall remains.

St Peter Port has kept its character better than most towns over in England. ‘Town’ was spared heavy bombing during the war, and as a tourist town it needed to retain its rows of Victorian villas and traditional hotels. Planning controls kicked in rapidly enough in the 1980’s to prevent it turning into a nightmare of glass and concrete boxes, although these have popped up on former industrial land on the northern fringe. Around the Town Church and Arcade, the original tea-shops have gone but Creasey’s department store still sells hats. The Golden Lion has been rebuilt but still sells gin, and although the Markets have been converted to a shopping complex the arcade and internal street remain. The Guille-Allès Library where Edith learned to dream still stands opposite the Markets, but the “stuffed monkeys and stone axes” have moved to the new museum at Candie.

Memorials to the Boer War and Victor Hugo are well maintained, and there is now a memorial to those who fell in the World Wars at the top of Smith Street as well as in each parish. Candie Gardens’ band-stand houses Guernsey Museum’s café, but bands still play on its terrace in the summer. Ironically there are photographs of German military bands playing there during the Second World War. The gingko tree was thriving when I wrote the book, but the last winter storms finally did for it.

The Mail Boat has been replaced by ‘fast’ car ferries and the White Rock has been modified to accommodate them, but ships still leave from the place where SS Stella and SS Lydia departed. Castle Cornet now welcomes tourists rather than recruits, and it houses the RGLI Regimental Museum, telling the brief but gallant history of the island’s regiment. After the Great War, the French seaplane base was taken down and the Model Yacht Pond went back to its former use by boys of all ages.

Quarrying went into decline after the Great War and from over two hundred working quarries, just one remained in use by AD 2000. Tomato growing took off in a big way, employing a quarter of the workforce between the wars. It survived into the last quarter of the century but was gradually smothered in the face of subsidised rivals from the European Union; locals continue to buy the ‘Guernsey Tom’ from ‘hedge veg’ stalls. Dairy farming followed a similar course but the friendly Guernsey cow is still producing the world’s finest milk on the twenty surviving farms. Mrs Patterson had the right idea and tourism became a mainstay of the economy through the 20th century until tourists started to seek places that were hotter, cheaper and more exotic to fly to; we still welcome a quarter of a million a year. After the 1980’s, however, it was bank workers like Artie that made up the bedrock of the island’s prosperity.

laneArtie and George strolled past my gate on the way to sign up with the Militia at Les Beaucamps and half the events of the book take place within a mile of where I sat typing. That said, although there are several houses called La Vallée in Guernsey, none are the cottage/house complex featured in the story.

I have spent two decades living in the Castel, sat on the sand with a cider in hand and watched the sun sink towards America. The world inhabited by George, Artie and Edith may have lost its innocence, but Guernsey is still a beautiful island.


Glint of Light…

The novel is finished. ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’ is my first historical novel, although my editor reached the half-way point still expecting a body to turn up. It began life as an unpublished short story way back in 1990 called ‘A Ghost in my Eye’. During the First World War, a crippled boy drops his spectacles into a pool, chips them, and becomes convinced the glasses are haunted by a water spirit. Around 2001 I revised the story to set it in Guernsey, re-titling it ‘A Glint in the Eye’, mixing it into local folklore and changing its ending.

Glint CoverSometimes a plot is far too good to be wasted on a short story. Since publishing the short, the plot began to expand in my mind. George and his spectacles were the starting point, but what about his brother Artie? He was originally just a bit-player, but I began to build Artie’s story  considering how he would deal with having a crippled brother with a worrying obsession. He adds a solid and grounded core to the magic-realist elements of the plot. Artie’s story can of course go where George’s cannot. This is bolstered by adding the rest of the family: Marie, Jack and Henry. And what would happen if the family were to have a second child with George’s physical problems?

Then came Edith. Again she began as supporting character, the woman that troubles the lives of both young men. Yet Edith was too strong a personality to be shoved to the sidelines, she demands centre stage. Readers could indeed view this novel as Edith’s story as she gradually asserts her hold on us. Some of the draft titles effectively confirmed this. Quite late in the edit I firmed up the three-person viewpoint, eliminating scenes where none of the trio were there, following them closely through the trials that follow.

The rest of the cast followed naturally – Edith’s dissolute mother Ruth, the mysterious Mrs Patterson and the many friends, relations and colleagues that flow through the story. I already knew most of the period detail so it was a matter of fitting the tale of three young people to the established history of Guernsey from 1897 through into the 1920’s.I took a few liberties with actual historical persons such as ‘the last witch in Guernsey’ Mrs Lake and the Rector of the Castel, mentioning many others who never appear in person.

From a short story of 23 pages came a novel of close to 400. From the story of a lonely young man looking for a friend, emerges a much bigger tale of an island community at war facing a century of change.


Cover Shot

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a widely ignored cliché, as many book buyers do just that. In general the advice is (1) ensure the book looks like the kind of book it is supposed to be and (2) in the modern age make sure it works as a website thumbnail.

IMG_0072My publishers have over the years have for the most part consulted me on my covers, even if it was an ‘does this have your approval’ on a final choice. My first York pottery book was a heap of fun. We’d found several hundred pieces of unused glossy orange samian ware in a pile on the site, so I suggested we simply photograph a heap of pots.

I had three suggestions for the cover of Glint of Light on Broken Glass. The cover designer at Matador seized on one – an abandoned pair of spectacles on a beach. A stock photograph was found that adapted nicely as a cover, with a great use of fonts. But there was one problem; the glasses were clearly modern – 1960’s at the earliest. The glasses in question tumbled from George’s face in 1906 so would have been of the round, Edwardian style with wire frames.

It so happened that the Museum had a pair of replica Edwardian glasses in its ‘handling collection’ (objects that schoolchildren can touch without fear the object will be broken or lost forever). I was due to attend an overnight Archaeologists’ Christmas Party on Lihou Island, so took the glasses along.IMG_8413.JPG

IMG_8448It was mid afternoon, chilly, with the sun dodging in and out of cloud. I took 40 photographs of the glasses whilst there was still daylight. Guernsey sand is very yellow, so the gold-rimmed frames simply vanished against it. I left the beach and started to climb amongst the rocks. I photographed them sitting on rocks, trapped between rocks, lying in rock-pools, lying in little streamlets with water flowing over them.

When the sun came out, the water sparkled and so did the lenses. IMG_8465With some fiddling I could catch the bright clouds in one lens – the Glint in the Eye that George notices. No need for photoshopping or clever composure. Lihou’s rocks offered a variety of textures and colours, limpets and weed, shallow puddles, wet and dry patches.


IMG_8456After an hour I had enough shots – the sun was falling and it was time to return to the party. I sent a shortlisted selection to the designer and the final choice was to desaturate the colours. The image chosen has the glasses upside-down with the arms conspiring to form a heart. On cue the sun is reflecting in the right lens. Perfect.



Glint – Using Dialect and Guernsey French

There have been over 100 novels set on the island of Guernsey. Most of them miss one of the key features of the island – its language. They are written for the main part by off-islanders, from Britain or most famously from America. Any novel set before 1950 must however confront the question of what language are our characters speaking?

Writing in dialect can be challenging, and reading dialect can be tiresome. I’ve put aside books because I’ve grown bored of fighting my way around truncated words, missing vowels, quaint phrases and clunky phrasing that an author is using to represent dialect. So I was very conscious when writing ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’ of not packing it with dialect (or faux dialect).

The problem is this. Glint starts around 1910, at a time of great linguistic complexity in the island of Guernsey. Half the population at that time spoke a version of Norman French DAG covercalled Guernesiais. Although the island is a triangle barely 7 miles by 5, there were ‘western’ and ‘northern’ variations in pronunciation and even in choice of words. It was primarily a spoken language with no agreed grammar or spelling; although there is an authoritative Dictiounnaire Angllais-Guernesiais which I used as my guide.

Many, but not all, of these Guernesiais speakers also spoke English as that what was the schools taught after c.1906. Some, especially the older ones, also spoke ‘The Good French’, and the laws of the island were also in French. Townies in the east often forgot, or never learned, the island language as English was the language of trade. Out in the country there developed ‘Guernsey English’, a regional dialect with some speech patterns carried over from Norman.

So I have characters who speak Guernesiais more or less all the time, some who can only speak English and some who switch from one to the other even within the same conversation. The more educated have less of the ‘Guernsey English’ and in a couple of cases substitute Good French when trying to speak to the country folk. Confused?

I am writing in English, so had to represent this mish-mash of speech in English, much as if my characters were French, Germans or Ancient Greeks. The English speakers, including my female lead, are fine. I have a couple of diehard Guernesiais speakers, resisting the insidious drift to English, but I have to put their speech into English too (or only 200 people in the world would be able to read the book). To retain the flavour I have thrown in a couple of phrases where the context is clear, and a couple of dozen nouns. My two male leads speak both Guernesiais and ‘Guernsey English’, although one aims to ‘get ahead’ in life so he has started to drop the old ways. Life at a time of change is one of the underlying themes of the novel.

For the Guernsey English I had to avoid parody. I’m a Yorkshireman by birth and would never fill a Yorkshire novel with ‘Eeh bah gum!’ clichés. Instead I put just enough of the local speech patterns into the voices of the country folk to show they are not Eton-educated Englishfolk.

All this was beyond Microsoft’s grammar/spell-checker and joy to my editor! What I hope to achieve is the sense of a different time and place, one that is gone forever. The smatterings of Guernesiais in the book may also play its part in preventing the final extinction of the language.






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