Category Archives: writing

The Romantic Novel of the Year Awards 2024

Celebrations for the RNA Awards 2024

This week, the Romantic Novelists’ Association announced their shortlists for the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards 2024

…which means I can now share the news that The Night She Met the Duke is a finalist in the Historical Romantic Novel category. Woohoo!

And it’s not just me: there are any number of familiar names amongst the finalists, this year, including Louise Allen and Kate Hardy   I am in illustrious company!

Wow. Just…wow

There I was, minding my own business one evening when my phone pinged. It was an email from the Romantic Novelists’ Association, informing me that I am a finalist in the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards 2024: Historical Romantic Novel category.

For those who might not know…

Sarah Mallory Historical Romantic Novel finalist, RNA Awards 2024

The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) administers the Romantic Novel of the Year awards and their website says this:

“The RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year Awards are presented annually, recognising and celebrating the very best in romantic fiction.”

Let me just say that again:

woman in bed uncorks exploding champagnerecognising and celebrating the very best in romantic fiction… What romantic novelist would not want to be included in that? Woohoo!

I confess, I was surprised. I had submitted a book last year and since Christmas I had forgotten all about it. Which is the best thing to do, really – one cannot sit there biting one’s nails.

Then it sank in.  My book – my baby – had been read, and liked, by other people. Strangers. Suddenly I wasn’t feeling like this about my work

Writer in despair

Authors spend their lives…

…making up stories and putting them out there, hoping readers will like them. You have put in all the hard work: lived, loved, laughed and suffered with your characters.

Now the story is out in the big wide world. On its own.Sarah Mallory, looking shocked

Then you find out that someone likes your book. Not only that. They think it’s good enough to go on a shortlist, a finalist for an award.

Suddenly I feel like this…

Historical Romance

The Night She Met the Duke by Sarah Mallory, Finalist for RNA Awrds 2024

Finalist for the Awards 2024

To quote from the RNA’s own website, the Historical Romantic Novel category is “for stories set in the past (pre-1980) where romance forms a substantive and crucial part of the story.” Well, there is no denying my book is full of romance, but it has its share of history, too.

Although Pru and Garrick, my main characters, are fictitious, the background to their story is based on events that were happening in London in the summer of 1814.

For a start, there was the visit of the Allied sovereigns to England in June, to celebrate the defeat of France and Napoleon’s abdication. Then there was the centenary of the Hanoverian Monarchy. And as if that wasn’t enough, Princess Charlotte was going to marry the Prince of Orange!

Well, none of that could be allowed to pass unremarked, could it? The Prince Regent decided on a party. A big one.

And nobody does parties like the Prince Regent

Regency, party

Cruikshank. Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room 1818

Prinny needed glamour; he needed glitz. With no luxurious royal residences such as Versailles or the Hermitage for his guests to enjoy, the best he could do was to evict his brothers from Cumberland House and give the place a makeover.

The great and the good of Europe arrived in Dover at the beginning of June. Just like today, people turned out to line the roads, waiting to see all these royal dignitaries as they made their way into London.

Phillips, Thomas; The Allied Sovereigns at Petworth, 24 June 1814

The crowds cheered for Blücher, hero of Waterloo. They fell in love with Tsar Alexander, regal and handsome.

There were military reviews, illuminations, balls, balloon ascensions, banquets,  soirees, a visit to Woolwich Arsenal, a trip to the races at Ascot, honours to be bestowed on Blücher at Oxford and Cambridge.

It wasn’t all plain sailing

The public loved all this, but Prinny wasn’t quite so happy. For a start, the Tsar didn’t like the accommodation in Cumberland House and decided to stay with his sister, the Duchess of Oldenburg, at the Pulteney Hotel. Not only that, but the Duchess was against Princess Charlotte’s marriage to the Prince of Orange and persuaded Charlotte to call it off. Entente Cordiale it wasn’t.

The sovereigns left England by the end of June, but the Prince Regent didn’t stop there.

Jubilee Fair 1814

Jubilee Fair 1814

On 21st July 1814, he hosted a lavish fete and ball in the grounds of Carlton House. Then a Jubilee Fair was organised to celebrate both the centenary of the Hanoverian monarchy and the 16th anniversary of the Battle of the Nile. It celebrated The Treaty of Paris as well, which was supposed to herald the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Such a busy summer!

Yes, there was a wealth of material to choose from. However my characters have their own story and I needed to concentrate on their romance.

Tsar Alexander by Gerard

Tsar Alexander, by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the parties I used for Pru and Garrick was the White’s Club Ball, at Burlington House on 20th June. Over two thousand people sat down to supper and the triumph of the evening was that Tsar Alexander joined in the dancing. Then, in July, they attended the Carlton House Fete, another lavish affair. If you want to know more about these sumptuous events, there are brilliant descriptions on the Regency Dances website.

There were so many events that summer that it was impossible to include them all, although I will just mention one more. The Jubilee Fair provides the backdrop for some of the most exciting scenes in the story, involving villainous abductors and heroic rescues. However, there just wasn’t space to mention everything that was going on. Which brings me to a serious point:

How much history is too much?

blue question marksA big question!

When I was a new author with a passion for the historical romantic novel, I became aware of the dreaded information dump — putting in too many facts to the detriment of the narrative.  I am writing romance, and much as I love the history, it is the tapestry into which I weave my characters’ stories.

I shall leave it there

The RNA’s judges think The Night She Met the Duke good enough to be a finalist in their awards 2024 and I am very happy about that. I know these things are subjective. We don’t all like the same thing, thankfully. My own reading tastes can change depending on the mood I am in. For now, it is enough that someone liked it.

Sarah

Sarah Mallory research

Operation Mincemeat

This week I went to see the musical Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre in London. It was glorious and I laughed, cried and generally had a whale of a time. This was a delight – and a great relief.

To be honest, by the time the day came round, I was torn about going at all.

For one thing, my now plated right wrist, though exercised/massaged five times a day, sometimes hurts enough to make me yelp, especially if someone bumps into it. The prospect of a crowded  theatre raised my anxiety levels.

hooded mystery manFor another – well, my customary theatre companion had rejected the idea of seeing Operation Mincemeat with conviction abhorrence. Its subject, he said, had been too important to turn into a comedy musical.

I disagreed with the idea that anything could be too important for comedy. But – well, I admit; he worried me.

MINCEMEAT, NÉ TROJAN HORSE

The plot was to send a dead body, to all appearances a British courier, into the orbit of German intelligence with false information on Allied plans. This was to occur in neutral Spain where, under Fascist General Franco, German spies were tolerated and even sometimes supported. The corpse was to carry secret papers  to mislead the German high Command as to the entry point for the intended Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe.

The outline of the idea came from a list initially proffered by Ian Fleming, then a junior Naval Intelligence Officer. It was a long list and he admitted that this one was particularly unpleasant. He called it the Trojan Horse, because the information would be welcomed by German Intelligence.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT – THE SOURCE

Spies

J. C. Masterman, Chairman of the Twenty Committee,

This is a story that I seem to have known all my life. I can remember a friend of my parents talking about it (albeit with what I now know to be somewhat scrambled detail). At the time, I was too young to be in the room and they had forgotten I was there.

Operation Mincemeat itself was a secret British plan to convince the Abwehr that the 1943 summer military military objective, the start of the campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi rule, would NOT start in the obvious place i.e. by invading Sicily.

This mission was a run by the Twenty Committee. (In itself, this was a jolly latinate joke by the public-school educated white male hierarchy, since it effectively meant the Double Cross –  XX – Committee.) The committee which produced a raft of counter intelligence measures throughout the war, including double agents.

THOSE DAMN WRITERS

Masterman eventually published his account of the Twenty Committee in 1973, with clearance from the UK Government and a foreword by Norman Holmes Pearson. Pearson had been Head of the American Office of Strategic Services in London during the war. He was instrumental in setting up the CIA after it.

Operation Mincemeat itself was developed and managed by Committee member Lieutenant Commander RNVR Ewen Montagu.  He was a peace time barrister and, post war, eventually a judge.

Montagu was  the first to go into print, with his book The Man Who Never Was, first published in 1953. And even that publication has the smack of undercover operations about it.

1940s man looking at the sky on the cover of the DVD of The Man How Never WasBasically, former Minister of Information (1940-43), Duff Cooper, by then Ambassador to France, published a spy novel called Operation Heartbreak in 1950. It was clearly based on the essentials of the Mincemeat mission. (In my view, that was pretty low on pretty much every count. And this was the man who had the gall to impugn PG Wodehouse’s patriotism. I spit me of him!)

The Intelligence Services decided the best thing to do to counter the rumours and speculation instigated by this book was to get Montagu to write an authorised account. The details were then carefully filtered.  The general intention seems to have been to make the mission look like a one-off jeu d’esprit, maybe even imply it was run by mavericks.

Montagu allegedly turned his book out over a weekend. It sold 2 million copies and inspired the 1956 movie of the same name, with a screenplay by Nigel Balchin.

MINCEMEAT THE MUSICAL

Newstad Abbey, seat of Lord Byron

By Andy JakemanCC BY-SA 2.0, Link

I loved it from the first moment with its joyous spoof School Song of an opening chorus “Born to Lead” introducing the well-born, posh-schooled chaps who run MI5. “Fortune favours bravery and a fortune’s what I’ve got.”

The plot is basically the shenanigans involved in dumping duplicitous information into the hands of German spies in Spain, but floating in a dead body of a supposed courier with top secret papers in a briefcase chained to his wrist. Some of it was as farcical in real life as it is on the stage. But the musical doesn’t run away from the real risks and anxieties involved..

Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's loverThe character of Ewen Montagu is the smooth, cool, charming born OIC who effortlessly jumps queues, pinches ideas, and makes everyone believe in him while he does it. Even I believed in him, dammit. I certainly believed in the officer class, blinkers, squabbles, buck passing and all.

And the inspired gender-blind casting reinforces both the surreal fiction of the show and the individuality of each character.

What I thought was extraordinary, though, was the sudden moments of deep feeling – the love letter that a senior secretary writes for the imaginary courier to carry with him; the sailors setting off in their submarine to launch the body with his crucial misinformation into the sea off Spain.

Call me soppy, if you like, but I teared up over their sea shanty Sail-on, Boys.

If it’s down, it’s down together.
If it’s up, it’s up as one.
So sail on, boys, through stormy weather
Soon the journey will be done.

21ST CENTURY RESEARCH INTO OPERATION MINCEMEAT

raincloudsI’ve taken a special interest in the The Man Who Never Was, because I’m writing a series of novels set over the course of World War 2. The bit that I remembered from my childhood is the reckless racing driver who took the body north. (My parents’ friend, at least as I remember it, reversed the journey as if the body was being brought south, but she got the non-London end right – Scotland. Holy Loch to be precise.) The documentary based on Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat (2010) explains exactly how hair-raising that ride was for Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, his second in command. The chauffeur was the fastest racing driver in Britain!

Several studies have concentrated on precise details left out by Montagu and Masterman, which in turn notably inspired a truly excellent BBC documentary and yet another fictional movie starring Colin Firth as Montagu. Both are called Operation Mincemeat.

inner reader, mystery womanThe documentary includes an interview with Jean Leslie, the girl whose photograph was placed in the supposed courier’s breast pocket.

She was only 19 at the time and remembers that Ewen Montagu got more and more involved with the character he was creating for “Major William Martin”, even to the point of almost falling in love with “Pam”, the imaginary girlfriend.

Maybe with hindsight, she seems less involved herself. But she said that Montagu’s obsession became sufficiently worrying that his wife, already evacuated with their children to across the Atlantic, came hot-footing it back to bring him to his senses.

glorious beach in north-west Scotland

But most striking of all, to me, is Lieutenant Bill Jewell, the Captain of the submarine HMS Seraph, speaking in 2003.

His voiceover recalls dawn, April 30th 1943. A fishing fleet passed over the submarine as they prepared to surface.

When the fishing boats had passed, they surfaced. They opened the canister, checked that the body had his papers still on him. Then the captain “said what I could remember of the funeral service over him”.

And they sent him off towards the coast of Spain.

WHAT A MUSICAL CAN DO!

The programme is clear about how weird it was for the company “to want to make a comedy musical out of an obscure World War II intelligence mission, centring largely around a homeless corpse.”

But, of course, the original mission was not obscure.

Nor, though the corpse gets very proper respect and attention from the musical, as it does in the documentary and MacIntyre’s book, is it about the vagrant who played the key role in the deception.

This is a story about fiction. About collaborative fiction.

The whole department was involved in providing the “wallet litter”, the detritus of bills and bus ticket and letters about overdrafts . That detritus was to convince the German interrogators that this courier was real. In the words of one of its best songs, they combined their experience and their feelings in this project about Making a Man. 

Almost the most extraordinary element of the whole enterprise is that the audience, in the shape of Operation Mincemeat’s superfans, stood up and contributed too.

footprints on sandy beachA major contributor to the script of the musical is Hester Legatt. She was the senior secretary in MI5 who wrote the love letter from Imaginary Pam to her lover Imaginary Bill Martin. Her words are quoted in the show. They are very moving.

But unlike Montagu and Fleming and members of the Twenty Committee, she had left no footprint on history.

The #FindingHester project set out to rectify that.

Volunteers researched sources in the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum and elsewhere. By last December they had uncovered her story. She died in 1995. But they found her family. They even invited her great nephew to the unveiling of a plaque in her honour at the Fortune Theatre. So the musical has, not changed, but made history.

It is, truly, inspiring. (And a damn good evening out, too.)

Sophie Weston Author

Sophie

Gender-neutral pronouns : Pedantique-Ryter not ranting

Useful, or confusing, or old hat?

3 doors representing options

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Many people now make clear what pronouns they prefer, including gender-neutral ones. How often have you seen “she/her” or “he/him” or “they/them” after an email signature? (Perhaps some are even suggesting “it/it” though I have not noticed any of those.)

The reasons for choosing one option over another are purely for the person concerned and need not be disclosed to anyone else. Nor should anyone else have a say in the person’s choice.
Not even grammar pedants.

So, for once, this is not a rant. More of an exploration.

Regular use of gender-neutral pronouns feels recent. But is it? Continue reading

Dear Editor Please Note : Sophie Weston reprise

Dear Readers: Sophie is still not up to typing a whole blog so we’re taking this opportunity of republishing her case-study-cum-love-letter to Dear Editor from back in 2016. (The blog was mentioned in Joanna’s cautionary tales blog last week). Even if you’ve read it before, it’s well worth rereading. And for any editors out there, we’d say it’s a must. But, being authors, we would say that, wouldn’t we?
hand writing a letter to editor with a goose feather

Dear Editor . . .

Whoever you are, wherever you are, Dear Editor, this blog is for you. You’ll find it’s somewhere between a  human resources case study and a love letter.

I’ve been writing most of my life. I’ve moved from “Not a semi colon goes” (end of conversation, book never published) to “Whatever you say” (utter misery, nearly stopped writing) and am now definitely at “Looking forward to discussion”.  I hope the following may help other authors and their Dear Editor avoid some of my pratfalls — or at any rate, get up afterwards a damn sight faster.

Relationship in the mist

Whether you’re a difficult author or a pussycat, the author-editor relationship is always edgy, groping its way through the mist. You can’t get away from it. There are just too many dark alleys and water’s edges. You think you’re striding along a good straight path of mutual understanding and — KERPLOP!

Both of you have to live with this.
And pull each other out of the water when necessary. Continue reading

Cautionary tales of indie authors and editors

“Your editor is your first, best reader.” So said Sophie Weston in a Libertà post on editing and editors that bears rereading. And it reminded me of a few recent instances related to indie authors and whether or not they employ a professional editor.

I’m not proposing to preach at you in this blog. (Sighs of relief all round?) I’m just going to set out a few cautionary tales and let you reach your own conclusions. Continue reading

Escapist romance : must it always be set in Italy or Greece?

woman overlooking seaToday (Friday) I finished reading a romantic novel featuring a heroine who finds love over a summer in Italy. Classic escapist romance. It’s not a genre I read much—more on that later—but this one was from an author I admire and I hadn’t read any of her books for a while.

So it was timely. And I enjoyed the story very much.

There are, as you probably know, loads of books in this genre. But my reading got me thinking and asking questions.

Why are they so popular?
And why are they mostly set in Italy or Greece?
Aren’t there other places for a heroine to find love? Continue reading

Clothes and character : does fashion matter?

Blogging Inspiration and Regency clothes

AI generated picture of three cats dressed in historical costume.

AI generated image by GrumpyBeere at Pixabay

Joanna recently blogged about blogging, and where we could find inspiration. All very helpful but I envy the fact that, as an historical novelist, she has photographs to share from costume exhibits at the museums she has visited.

Lovely dresses, shoes, uniforms as well as what her characters wore beneath them. So much fascinating detail to write about.

Regency fashion is such an important part of the pleasure in reading books set in an era when clothes and character are inextricably linked.

As someone who has always written contemporary novels – and with a very low personal fashion threshold – I tend to find dressing my characters a bit of a challenge. Continue reading

Divided by a common language? Britspeak vs USspeak

divided by a common language, half and half apple“Divided by a common language” was, I thought, something that Churchill (more from him below) said in relation to the UK and the USA. Checking, I found I was wrong. It was George Bernard Shaw, echoing Oscar Wilde. Never mind who said it. This week, I’ve been finding out how right it is.

It happened like this…

I had submitted a contemporary urban fantasy novel to a New York publisher. The editor came back asking for the full MS. (Cheering in Maitland Manor, natch.) But this publisher specifically asked that all submissions be in US spelling. That made me think.

question markWhat if the US editor doesn’t understand my Brit language? After all, my MS had pavements and lifts instead of sidewalks and elevators. I decided I’d go through the MS and change all the offending words and phrases from British English (BrE) to American (AmE). Wouldn’t take long, I thought.

Er, no. Continue reading

Bristol research: Cricket, Cary Grant, Banksy…and Dracula?

It’s not often Cricket, Cary Grant and Dracula come up in the same conversation. Oh, and Banksy. But they do here, following my Bristol research trip.

Why Bristol research?

Bristol research curved terrace

Why not? It’s my home town so a research trip really appealed! It’s the city where I spent the first decades of my life. I am currently writing a book, set in the Regency, with scenes around the docks and in what was then South Gloucestershire, now just outside the city centre…

But more about the book at a later date

For today’s blog, I want to share with you my delight in a Bristol research trip where I discovered an area of the city that I only knew by name. Montpelier. Continue reading

When IT Goes Wrong

Hiding face looking at computer screen when IT goes wrong

Image by mrkaushikkashish from Pixabay

The biggest news in the UK at the moment is all about when IT goes wrong. Well, really it’s about the appalling injustice, destruction and simple chaos that can follow when IT goes wrong and the management who commissioned it are still believers.

And that, of course, brings us very quickly to the people who use the IT in question. And who might have been responsible.

It’s a big issue and, oddly enough, one that I started to grapple with umpty-um years ago in my first single-title novel. Not that I realised that was it was any sort of issue at the time. I just had a story and some characters and a cracking setting on an imaginary Caribbean island.

When IT Goes Wrong Spontaneously

As anyone who has sat at their desk and watched the rolling beach ball of doom spin can attest, IT can go wrong at any time.

Sometimes it’s the user’s responsibility. Fat finger syndrome is common to just about everyone on the planet.

For instance, I can’t count the times I’ve pressed two keys simultaneously. The unfortunate machine freezes.

I sort of sympathise. The poor thing can’t say, “Oh come ON. Make your mind up.” Though perhaps one day it will, come to think of it. Continue reading