Category Archives: writing

Strongholds, Sea, Sand. And Swordmakers

Sarah opens up on the tortuous route of the author’s imagination…towards swordmakers


Every author needs it. Something that sparks the imagination and begins the tortuous route that leads to a full novel. It might take months, or even years, but we all have to start somewhere.

For every book.

This is the story of one such route to inspiration

It started with a castle. This castle to be exact. Dunstanburgh, standing proud on a windy, sea-battered promontory on the Northumberland coast.

Dunstanburgh Castle and rolling waves

Northumberland is thick with castles and one autumn, years ago, I went on a castle hunting holiday. I  had seen Alnwick, Bambrugh, Warkworth, several pele towers and one or two hill forts, but it was Dunstanburgh that caught my heart and my imagination.

Dunstanburgh Castle, sea and sand

We started from Embleton and walked the long, sandy beach with the white-crested breakers rolling in.

Sea, sand, scope for galloping hero

Imagine hero, booted and spurred, galloping…

It was cold as only the coast can be, but warm coats, sunshine and the enticing ruins ahead kept us going. I was already imagining my hero galloping across the sand.

John of Gaunt Attr. de Kock (1495-1552)

John of Gaunt
Attr. de Kock (1495-1552)




Having read the history, I knew the castle had been built by Thomas of Lancaster in the early 14th century on the site of an iron age fort. It was improved at the end of the century by John of Gaunt.

A route to inspiration for poets and painters…

The castle changed hands several times during the Wars of the Roses, but the sieges it had undergone left their mark and by the 16th century it was already a ruin. It was owned by the Grey family and became popular as a romantic ruin in the 18th century, painted by Thomas Girton and J.M.W. Turner.

It also inspired a poem by Matthew Lewis (author of the notorious gothic novel, The Monk), called Sir Guy the Seeker.ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle from the land side

Raised high on a mound that castle frowned
In ruined pagean-trie;
And where to the north did rocks jut forth,
In towers hung o’er the sea.

Proud they stood, and darkened the flood
For the cliffs were so rugged and steep,
Had a plummet been dropt from their summit, unstopped
That plummet had reached the deep.

Dunstanburgh Castle's sheer drop to the sea

The drop to the sea

Route to inspiration continues…

Gatehouse of Dunstanburgh CastleWe left the beach and cut inland around the base of the castle to enter by what was left of the gatehouse. Still pretty impressive, I think.

Now all this medieval majesty could have inspired me to write a novel of knights and maidens in distress, but my thoughts were turning more to my favoured period, the 18th century.

view from battlements of Dunstanburgh

I spy strangers approaching the gates!



As we walked around what is left of the castle, I could imagine a party of riders riding up to the approach, and guards watching from the battlements.

interior of Dunstanburgh

A little DIY and it would be as good as new!



In my mind I rebuilt the castle into a stronghold for my villain, making use of the existing stone building and of course adding wooden ones into the bailey for minions, etc.

Melinda Hammond sits in window of Dunstanburgh

I also found a window from which my embattled heroine might look out for her hero — not a knight in shining armour, but a Georgian gentleman complete with tricorne hat and a sword at his side!

But here my imagination stopped. I enjoyed wandering around the castle, mentally repairing walls, building stables, checking out the towers and generally setting the scene but the story was not yet written. In fact I had no idea what the actual story was going to be.silhouette of 18th century unknown hero

And I had no hero. Who was he, what was he?

That had to wait until my next visit.

The following spring, we visited a quiet, leafy little spot in County Durham. Shotley Bridge is a small village beside the River Derwent.

Shotley Bridge, home of 17th century swordmakers

Shotley Bridge


River DerwentIn the 17th century a group of swordmakers left Solingen in Germany, to avoid religious persecution, and settled there. The area had good quality ironstone and a wonderful source of water. (The Derwent provides very soft water, good for tempering steel.)

18th and 19th century swords

18th & 19th century swords

Very soon these swordmakers were making the highest quality swords, rivalling both Toledo and Damascus steel. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, their swords were much sought after.

This was the site of one of the earlier factories for steel making but unfortunately, after the industrial revolution they could not compete with Sheffield. The sword works closed in 1840.

Late 18th century cavalry sword (officer)

Late 18th century cavalry sword (officer)



The very last of the swordmakers of Shotley Bridge, Joseph Otley, died in 1896, aged 90.

Apparently the last of the Shotley Bridge steel companies was eventually taken over by the famous makers of Wilkinson Sword.

My hero…

He would be a  man from a sword-making family. He would be taking a consignment of swords to a stronghold in the north of England, a castle held by an opponent of the king (a nod back to the original builder of Dunstanburgh).

Tricorne hate on anonymous face

My hero…

Aaagh — what does he look like?

Well, he’s tall and good-looking (naturally) with very fair hair and blue eyes (the Shotley Bridge swordmakers had those German origins). I leave the rest to the reader’s imagination!

Successful writer has storySo — NOW I had my story!

Well… the bare bones of it. I had real life places for my setting, although I fictionalized them so I could add/remove or rebuild as required.

I threw in a goodly measure of romance (of course) and an added pinch of Jacobite rebellion. It was complete!

All apart from the actual sitting down and writing it, of course.

Snoopy the writer typing

Now, many hours of typing later, the story is written and published as The Bladesmith.

cover of The Bladesmith by Melinda Hammond

So that’s one story put to bed. Now searching for the next one….

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory seeks inspiration

Sarah (aka Melinda Hammond)

Electronic Benefit and Compulsive Micro-editing

boring micro-editing Confession time: I have a problem with compulsive micro-editing;  and I don’t normally believe in electronic benefits.

I am a quintessentially late adopter. Even when I have been pushed through the airtight seal into the orbiting 21st century, I’m not one who expects to find anything much good coming from the new technology at my command.

Mainly, of course, because it’s NOT at my command. It goes its own way. Sometimes it’s too fast for me and whizzes onto the next page, next program. And freezes. Or it’s too slow, so that I lose confidence and try to go back. And it freezes.

This is true of laptops, desktops, tablets, E-readers. The whole boiling. I hate ’em.


Except that they make my writing life just a little bit, well, easier.

Conviction Tiffler Addicted to Micro-editing

Micro-editing, the enemy of the finished bookYou see, I’m a conviction tiffler.

If, like Autocorrect, you don’t recognise the term, I borrowed it from a woman who was once my editor. What she actually said was — in a public restaurant, quite loudly —  “If you don’t stop tiffling with that sodding book, I shall come round with chloroform and forceps and remove it surgically.” Continue reading

Characters In the Shadows

Characters in Shadow - people at airport, in silhouette

As a story-teller, my process begins with a character. It is then my job to bring them out into the light of day.

Sometimes I know him or her well.

Sometimes I’ve just eavesdropped on a conversation or a thought. The whole person is still deep in shadows, waiting to reveal who he really is.Characters in the Shadows + napoleon

Stage Two is when I start to think about the What Ifs.

Sometimes this will be background and setting stuff –  like what if my hero stumbles across Napoleon? Or the Hadron collider? Or an international conspiracy?

But usually it’s more personal. Characters in novels are awkward sods.

What if my character insists on making a different choice from what I expect? Continue reading

Inspiration : writing ideas and the subconscious

Readers are fascinated by writers’ ideas. Where do you get them from? they ask.
Over and over again.gothic fantasy woman candle mist ideas

Sometimes we writers know. And sometimes — to be frank — we don’t.

How many of us have woken up in the morning with clear ideas about a new book and no inkling about how those ideas came to be? How many of us have more ideas jostling about in our brains than we can deal with?ideas light bulb

For most of us the difficulty isn’t finding the ideas, it’s turning them into a coherent story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Here’s a case in point.

Ideas? Silver shreds for starters…

It began quite a long time ago. And it was all the fault of my crit partner, Sophie Weston of this parish… Continue reading

In Praise of Dirty Drafts

This week I have been remembering the first draft of my first book. Well, the first book I actually completed.

First draft libraryI remember that it was written by hand, mostly while I was waiting for books to be retrieved from the stack in a very famous library.

The leather-bound tomes, the scholarly hush, the dust dancing in the sunbeams, the academics concentrating all  around me…. oh, I remember them as if I’ve only just walked in from that day with my book bag stuffed with notes and my head full of my characters.

First draft cafe napkinOr sometimes I wrote that first draft while I was waiting for an old friend in our favourite coffee shop.

When inspiration struck there, I sometimes scribbled the idea down on any old scrap of paper — including a cafe napkin once or twice.

By now, dear Reader, you will have realised two things: Continue reading

Stuck on your manuscript? Bring on the villain

Bring on a villain, like this one, when manuscript is stuckDelightful chap, isn’t he, our villain? I particularly admire those enormous teeth. And that improbable moustache.

I’ve blogged about villains before — including charismatic villains played by Alan Rickman (yes!) and Richard Armitage — but today’s blog isn’t about individual villains. It’s about what villains can bring to our manuscripts, especially when we’re stuck.

I was stuck on my current wip. It was moving at the rate of a glacier before we had climate change.
In other words, it was going nowhere very slowly.

Crit partners : support when stuck

Continue reading

Never stop learning : inspiring working authors

RNA conference reception with goody bags, coffee, bookstall

Goody bags for delegates, tea, coffee, bookstall
Just what arriving delegates need (possibly + wine later?)

Last week, the Libertà hive was buzzing round the annual conference of the
Romantic Novelists’ Association at
Leeds Trinity University. 

In Yorkshire.

God’s Own Country, I’m told.

And here was I thinking it was Scotland 😉

open courtyard for RNA conference delegates to relax in

Leeds Trinity’s courtyard where RNA delegates relaxed

It was a fantastic few days — as it always is — with dozens of inspiring workshops to choose from, old and new friends to meet, [many, many] glasses of wine to drink… Continue reading


World building fantasy mirrorAt a recent conference I discovered that Georgette Heyer has had a considerable influence on science fiction and fantasy authors.


Restrained, witty, convention-conscious Georgette and the Trekkies? Really? How? Above all, why?

Because of her world-building. Continue reading

Right word : wrong place? Pedantique-Ryter rants

stars with text Even Illustrious Organs can get words wrong

Even the most illustrious organs get word usage wrong some of the time

Torturous or Tortuous? Right word, wrong place?

Earlier this month, the Guardian included this quote in a piece on the Cambridge Analytica data enquiry:

Ravi Naik, a human rights lawyer with Irvine Thanvi Natas, the British solicitor who is leading the case, said the decision “totally vindicates David’s long battle to try and reclaim his data”. He added: “The company put him through such a torturous process over what should have been a very simple subject access request … “

question mark : which of a word pair to use?A torturous process? Is it really being suggested that Cambridge Analytica tortured David Carroll? Or was it a process full of twists and turns, excessively lengthy and complex?
In fact, a tortuous process?

Lots of writers confuse the two words, possibly because, in speech, it can be difficult to tell them apart. If the Guardian‘s quote was taken over the phone, it could be a mis-transcription. Or maybe it’s not wrong? Maybe the speaker did in fact mean that it was a process involving or causing torture?

Or perhaps — subversive thought — some of the increasingly common misuse of torturous arises because writers don’t know that two different words exist? Continue reading

Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

demon long distance writerFirst, I don’t know if the loneliness of the long distance Writer is any different from the horrors that come with any other profession. When we close our eyes at night, we are all alone with our demons, after all, from Accountant to Zoo Keeper.

long distance writer despairs


But I do wonder if there is something peculiar to the occupation of writing which attracts this shadow companion.

And then chains it to us, hip and thigh, when the going gets tough and the carpet disappears under discarded drafts.

So I thought I would share some thoughts on it. Just in case they may be useful to some writer who thinks he or she is alone in the cold and dark. Continue reading