Tag Archives: research

Cakes, Crooks and Fallen Women. Controlling Characters?

So. It is Almost Out (just like one of Heyer’s hopeful young ladies of the Regency). The Highborn Housekeeper. My book about a noblewoman turned cook. A kind of Regency Nigella.
And funnily enough, my heroine resembles her, too. In my head.

Picture by Brian Minkoff-London Pixels

Controlling Fallen Women?The Ton's Most Notorious Rake by Sarah Mallory

A few years ago I wrote about the fallen women of Compton Parva. (That was my working title. It was published by Harlequin/Mills & Boon as The Ton’s Most Notorious Rake.)

One of the “fallen women” was Nancy, the big-hearted, big-bosomed earl’s daughter who was the mother hen of the group, looking after everyone.

Controlling Nancy? She was far too large a personality to be confined to a bit part in one book.
I fought it, I truly did, but no. She would NOT lie down.

She persuaded me to let her have a role in Beauty and the Brooding Lord, where she masquerades as the widow of a rich tradesman to help bring down a villain…

Gillray's Lyoness, controlling her impossible?

Beauty and the Brooding Lord by Sarah Mallory

possibly NOT quite like Gillray’s “Lyoness!” (shown right)

A BIG mistake.

Having taken an inch, Nancy wanted a mile!

Or, in this case, her own book.


controlling characters? author at computer in despairControlling characters — a trial for authors

What is it with the characters we create?

Mary Shelley knew a thing or two, when she wrote Frankenstein. He puts together a creature that he cannot control.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. 1922 Cornhill Publishing Company

And so it is with authors everywhere. Even after we are long gone. Just think of all the fandom sequels that have been written, featuring Jane Austen’s characters. They will just not give in.

woodpecker on tree trunk

We authors think we dream up the character, but do we, really?

Perhaps they are already there, waiting for us to let them into our consciousness, and then they stay there, banging on the inside of our skulls like a woodpecker…

…until we let them fulfil their potential.

And are they grateful for all our hard work?

The English Housekeeper, by Elizabeth Raffald, 1769Controlling Cooks and Crooks?

Take Nancy, for instance. She is a jolly good cook.

But who was it spent hours poring over 18th cookbooks, reading Elizabeth Raffald’s “The English Housekeeper”, published first in 1769 and containing such gems as how to dress and make a sauce for a cod’s head, how to souse pigs ears and feet?
Even how to fricassee ox palates, should you have a couple you don’t know what to do with.

Not Nancy, but yours truly. Hmmph.

Maria Felice Tibaldi. Dinner at the House of the Pharisee

Maria Felice Tibaldi. Dinner at the House of the Pharisee

Not that these delicacies ended up in the book. Keeping the modern reader in mind, Nancy prepared much simpler dishes such as pork ragout, brisket and stewed mushrooms.  And, channelling a certain “Mr K”, she does make exceedingly good Bath cakes (a type of breakfast roll, served fresh and warm from the oven. FYI)

Then there is her soulmate, Lord Gabriel Ravenshaw. Nancy’s equal in birth — not that she would have worried about that — and intelligence — much more important to our Nancy! Amongst his many skills he is an expert lockpicker.

Lockpicking Tools, courtesy of Chris Mitchell

Lockpicking Tools, courtesy of Chris Mitchell

Now that’s all very well for Gabriel, but as the author, I feel I need to know something about it.

Cary GrantSo it’s off to the internet, trolling through websites for information on eighteenth century locks and ways to pick them. (I sometimes think,  if MI5 really are screening everyone’s online searches, then authors must be constantly popping up as prime suspects for any number of varied and nefarious crimes.)

Not that Gabriel is a criminal, you understand. Oh no. He is on the right side of the law, but he needs to know these things. He is a Good Guy.

Like Cary Grant. Trust me.

Out of control heroine?

The Wicked Baron, by Sarah Mallory

Still one of my favourite covers!

In an even earlier book, The Wicked Baron, there is Carlotta, the heroine.

Carlotta is the  daughter of an Italian artist. She’s capable of taking over from her father to paint the ceiling frescos of the hero’s grand mansion (as you do).


For someone who barely knows her Rubens from a Rubik’s Cube and who thought Raphael was a ninja turtle, this was a vast learning curve!

[Do I really need to explain?]

Raphael the artist

Ninja Turtles








Suddenly, I was studying fresco technique, (virtually) grinding pigments and mixing colours. And learning about Italian snails (don’t ask). Not to mention experimenting with a ballet shoe to see if it really was possible to drink champagne from a lady’s satin slipper (messy).

That last piece of research was on behalf of my hero, you understand.
Not my idea at all.

Not the author’s fault…honest

So please, dear Reader, when you next wonder why a book takes an unexpected direction, don’t blame the author. It’s the characters. Sometimes they just get away…

La Dolce Vita, Mastroianni and Ekberg

Me: “No. No! Move away. You are not meant for one another!”

Author Sarah Mallory Honestly, it’s like herding cats!

Yours, in frustration,


The Highborn Housekeeper is published on 27th June and available to preorder now.

Perfecting the Practice of Procrastination

Procrastination? Oh look, there’s a squirrel!

a cute squirrel is an excuse for procrastination

Hi, Sarah here. If you think writing is easy, think again!

Yes, an author might have a burst of creativity, ideas may come thick and fast, but translating those scenes in one’s head into a publishable book can be tortuous. Sometimes anything seems a better option than actually putting words on the page.

Recently, Liz Fielding and I sat down to discuss the problem of procrastination. Then we were distracted!

So — yesterday we finally sat down to discuss it!

Procrastination is the thief of time

Liz:  Ah, the P word, Sarah. What can I say?  When the words are slow to come, there is always the lure of Pinterest… 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

Reader, I married them (while researching the rake)

statue of a rake?As anyone researching the Regency period knows, the rake — the real Regency rake — was dangerous, unscrupulous and sometimes even a vicious womaniser.

I am very sorry, dear reader, if I have shattered your illusions.

Many of us like the fantasy of “taming” a bad boy, but most of us know in our hearts that it is nigh on impossible. Not quite impossible, of course. There are exceptions to the rule, but these are probably as rare in real life as the number of real live dukes in existence (which may be material for another story, another time).

silhouette of man's head in question markquestion mark being broken by handThere is always something to research for a new book. Often it seems obvious — military history for instance, when one sets a book around the Battle of Waterloo; or costume details for the period.

We have to invent a history for each of our characters. It may not feature in the actual book, but it is very necessary. As my latest book has proved. Continue reading

Discoverability and Reviews, from the Reader’s POV

reviews reading with catReaders don’t talk much about discoverability or even reviews, I find. Writers, of course, worry about them all the time.

I’m both. But I read more books than I write.

Heck, I read more words than I write and I’ve been motoring at 3,000 words a day for a while now. That’s gross, you understand. In every sense of the word, probably, though I’d prefer you to interpret it as the opposite of net.

Reviews and Recommendations

As a reader, I like recommendations. Not reviews so much. Well not big ticket reviews in the Grown Up media, anyway. I slightly mistrust them. There’s always the feeling that the reviewer is writing with one eye on the book and the other on his own credibility with fellow critics. Continue reading

A Sideways Look at Regency Life — All At Sea!

figure contemplating slightly stormy sea

When we read fiction set in the Regency period, we often come across references to sea journeys but, usually, they’re over pretty quickly. On one page, we’re at Dover or Harwich or Falmouth. A paragraph or two later, we’ve arrived at our destination and the story continues. (Not in all fiction, of course. Who could forget Mary Challoner’s horrendous cross-Channel trip in Heyer’s Devil’s Cub? Still, at least Vidal proffered a basin at the vital moment.)

Nowadays, our ships have GPS and radar and even engines! 😉 So this modern figure, staring out over a slightly stormy sea, has little to fear from going on board. But what was it really like, making a sea voyage on one of the Regency’s relatively tiny and fragile sailing craft?

Let’s take an imaginary sea journey…

Continue reading

Elizabethan York without Dung? Pamela Hartshorne guests

Sadly, today is the last of our series on research. But we’re finishing with a bang!
In delectable medieval York.


Today, we welcome Pamela Hartshorne, a York specialist. Her credentials are beyond doubt — she has a PhD in medieval studies — but she manages to wear her research very lightly. She has written dozens of books for Mills & Boon, a publisher that definitely doesn’t want dry background material to get in the way of the love story between hero and heroine.

Every time someone asked whether she’d use her research in a book, her answer was always no.
Until, one day …

One day, no finally became yes. Pamela turned to writing historical novels set in her beloved York, where she’d done her academic research. Was she taking a risk? Could she make the jump from Mills & Boon romance  to mainstream timeslip? Here’s her story . . .

Research may be useful … or not


John Speed’s late 16th century map of York


By the time I sat down to write a historical novel, I was feeling pretty confident. I’d already written over 50 books for Mills & Boon, so I figured I knew something about storytelling. Continue reading

Gritty Saga Research: Jean Fullerton guests

jean-fullerton-author-picTwo weeks ago, we had Katie Fforde digging in the dirt — with and without Ray Mears! — in order to write about life in the here-and-now. This week, we welcome Jean Fullerton who writes award-winning historical sagas about the not-so-very-long-ago.

It can seem worlds away from where we are now, even though some readers will have lived through the periods of Jean’s stories and experienced exactly the kind of gritty reality she describes. And if you enjoy Call the Midwife, you’ll love Jean Fullerton’s books.

Read on to find out more about the lengths an author goes to in order to get it right

Jean Fullerton, East London Author

Fullerton research 20th century nursing guide

District nurse Jean wasn’t quite like this!


I was born in East London where my family have lived since the 1820s.

I’ve written ten novels set in East London (published by Orion) and am just putting the finishing touches to my eleventh. This one is set during the Second World War, and also in East London. I’m now a full-time writer but I was a District Nurse in East London for over 25 years. These days, I live with my hero just outside London. Continue reading

Sugar tongs at dawn? Elizabeth Rolls guests

It’s useful, when researching, to be able to consult people who were there. But go back more than a century or so — to the Regency in Britain, for example — and there are no living witnesses to consult. Elizabeth Rolls authorRegency novelists — like today’s guest, Elizabeth Rolls — have to rely on other sources.

You may imagine that “other sources” means dusty history books and written materials. But there’s much more than that.

And getting to grips with the non-written stuff can present the odd challenge if the author in question lives 12,000 miles away, in Australia.

As Elizabeth Rolls does…

Elizabeth Rolls loves her research

To research or not to research?

For me, research is a must. I’ve had a book kick off in my mind over a snippet about the crossroads burial of suicides in the early 19th century. The past is very much a foreign country, but add 12 000 miles into the equation and you have a real challenge. Continue reading

Katie Fforde & Research: Guest Blog

katie-fforde-author-picKatie Fforde is a true country girl at heart, living in the Cotswold countryside with her family. And she’s a huge bestseller, as well as being President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

Katie believes falling in love is the best thing in the world, and she wants all her characters to experience it, and her readers to share their stories.

We readers love those stories for their warm-hearted characters, their gentle comedy and their guaranteed happy endings.

Katie sets her stories in the here and now. So she doesn’t need to do research, right?

Wrong. Katie Fforde does research too, some of it the hard way. Ray Mears survival training, anyone?

Read on for Katie Fforde’s very individual take on doing research.

Katie Fforde does Research? Yes, really

Many years ago a friend who wrote historical fiction heard me mention doing some research. She said, “But you write contemporary, you don’t need to do research.”

How wrong she was!

Starting with potting

Continue reading