An interview with Linda Stratmann: Vice-Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association.

 

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Welcome Linda,

Your writing career did not begin with fiction, but with non-fiction study of historical crimes. Where did this interest in researching and writing about real crime begin?

It began with my mother! She was an avid reader and a lover of history, and she was fascinated by famous trials. We used to watch true crime programmes on television – we especially liked Edgar Lustgarten – and also discussed cases reported in the newspapers.

In all the cases that you have researched did one motive stand out above all others: greed, hate, love, necessity, premeditated or spontaneous revenge?

The foundation of so many murders is financial, but it is not necessarily always greed, sometimes it is desperation. People kill for insurance money, often to extricate themselves from debt. They kill to escape a relationship because of the costs and consequences of divorce. In the nineteenth century, which is the era I write about most often, poor families poisoned their children just to get the money from burial clubs.

It is not surprising that with such a vast amount of accrued knowledge on true crime that you turned to writing fiction. What was it that enticed you to set both your Frances Doughty and Mina Scarletti series within the Victorian period?

Many years ago I wrote about a Victorian case, the trial of Adelaide Bartlett in 1886 for the murder of her husband. The case was so complex that I realised I needed to understand the Victorians in order to discover the truth behind the lies and the euphemisms; I needed to know how they thought, and how they expressed themselves, and what they believed. The more I researched the more fascinated I became with every aspect of that period. It was natural to want to recreate that time in my fiction.

Both of these women have to overcome difficulties and work to make a life for themselves that is at odds with the expectations of their gender within the period. Were they influenced or based on real characters that you had researched?

Frances is not based on anyone, however Mina Scarletti, who suffers from scoliosis was inspired by two people. Eva, who had a very severe distortion of the spine, was the aunt of a friend of mine. I never got to know her well and she died when I was a child.
Annie Jane Fanny Maclean had a curvature of her spine and walked with a limp. In 1879 a scoundrel called Lewis James Paine romanced her and induced her to transfer her property to him. He then plied her with alcohol and withheld food until she died. A court found him guilty of manslaughter and he was imprisoned for life. Annie’s fate highlighted for me the vulnerability of a disabled young woman in the Victorian marriage market. I wanted a heroine who could overcome this and be strong and independent.

How far did you delve into the world of psychics to help Mina Scarletti unmask the Victorian fraudsters?

I have about a hundred books on the subject – so far! These are both contemporary accounts and modern studies. I have read numerous online journal articles and newspapers, both nineteenth century and more recent. I have also read books by Victorian conjurors and illusionists, and attended a Victorian séance workshop. When I describe a séance in my books I always have to know before I write it how the effects were produced.

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In the light of all your research would you agree that the truth is often stranger than fiction?

That is often the case, which is why I like to append historical notes at the end of my fiction books. I have just written one for the fourth Mina book because a reference I included was so odd that I felt I needed to reassure the reader I was not making it up.

Are you a detailed plotter when you start a new project?

I always know when I start who the villain is and how and why the crime was committed. I also write what I call the ‘back story’, the details of what has happened up to the point when my book begins. So I know the start and the finish, but what happens between those points has to be natural and organic, as my heroine needs to learn the facts and solve the mystery in a convincing way. That develops as I write.

In all the cases you have studied:-
Which real criminal did you most despise and why?

There are so many! When I wrote The Secret Poisoner I was especially appalled by Richard Overfield who cruelly and cold-bloodedly murdered his baby so he wouldn’t have to support it, by giving it sulphuric acid. He was hanged in 1824.

Was there a real criminal that you admired the cunning of even if not their actual acts?

In cases of fraud there are many clever people who misuse their considerable talents for criminal purposes. Harry Benson and Willam Kurr who I wrote about in Fraudsters and Charlatans were extremely able career criminals who overreached themselves through greed.

Was there anyone you empathised with, or at least understood their motive to commit murder?

Of course I don’t approve of murder, but I did feel sorry for Eric Brown. (Essex Murders) He had suffered constant abuse and cruelty from his father for many years and seen his mother being led a life of terror and misery. He dealt his father a fast and merciful death by planting an anti tank mine under the old man’s wheelchair.

Did you come across anyone who was condemned, yet would have been acquitted as innocent if they had been tried today?

I tend to find that most failures of justice go the other way – people who are almost certainly guilty being acquitted due to insufficient evidence to convince a jury. In the case of Holloway and Haggerty, however (Middlesex Murders) two men were hanged for a murder it is almost certain they did not commit, on the false evidence of a man who was trying to get his own sentence reduced.

What has been your proudest author moment?

The publication of The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis. Between forming the determination to write the biography and actually holding it in my hands was eleven years. The first eight were spent trying to find someone who believed in the project as much as I did!

How long ago were you diagnosed with hyperacusis and has it dramatically affected your daily routine?

Hyperacusis is a condition usually resulting from noise damage or physical accident, in which everyday noises, especially if high pitched are painful. The sound of laughter, squeaking brakes, babies crying, electronic beeps, clattering dishware, are all examples. I have had hyperacusis for over twenty years but it took several years to get a diagnosis because it was not well understood or known about. At the time I was working in an office and general office noises and daily travel were hard to tolerate. I can’t wear earplugs all the time as over-wearing makes my tinnitus worse. Since I retired from the day job I have worked from home and been more in control of my daily environment, so life is better. If I go out I carry hearing protection, but even with that, social gatherings are difficult and some locations, especially noisy restaurants, are impossible. I wrote about hyperacusis in one of my novels, The Children of Silence.

What do you do to relax away from the world of writing about crime?

I love cooking, and in the last few years have taken up baking sourdough bread. The scent of a crusty loaf baking in one’s oven is magical!

What is next for Linda Stratmann?

I am near to completion of the fourth Mina book, The Ghost of Hollow House, in which she is asked to investigate a haunting. I have also been commissioned to edit a new volume in the Notable British Trials series, which is a huge honour.

Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to do the interview and I wish you every success with your ongoing and future projects.

www.lindastratmann.com , Facebook and  Twitter 

Meet the inspirational team behind Sapere Books!

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In March 2016 I interviewed Amy Durant, a successful Publishing Director, as a guest on my blog; two years later I am delighted to welcome Amy back as a co-founder of a new and exciting enterprise, Sapere Books.

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Hi Amy,

Such a lot has happened in a comparatively short space of time. Not only have you started your own imprint, but have also been short-listed for major industry awards. How have these motivated you to build an even more dynamic career and when/how did the idea of ‘Sapere Books’ come into being?

I think all of three of us had been independently toying with the idea of setting up our own business, but none of us had the confidence to voice it publicly or ‘go it alone’. We all decided to move into freelance careers for different reasons after leaving our jobs in publishing, and one day – over a couple of drinks, of course! – we finally all blurted it out and realised this was something we could actually do! We all have strong skills in different areas and I think all of us are confident that we are much stronger in a partnership than we would have been on our own.

It is a lovely name, what was the inspiration behind it?

‘Sapere Aude’ was actually my school motto and roughly translated means ‘Dare to be Wise’, and ‘sapere’ on its own means ‘knowledge’, which we thought was quite appropriate for a publisher. It also links nicely to our owl logo. We wanted something a bit different that would get people talking, and it seems to have worked so far!

What do you think makes Sapere Books stand out from other publishers?

I think that – like many other small, independent publishers – we have the benefit of flexibility. We don’t have any external investors or anyone we have to report to, so we have the freedom to make all the decisions ourselves, which means we can experiment with things and change strategies at the drop of a hat. We have all worked with authors for a long time, and always felt in previous roles that authors got sidelined and somewhat neglected. Our focus is very much geared towards creating author brands and an author community, so everyone feels very much a part of the Sapere team.

What genre submissions are you seeking for Sapere Books?

At the moment we are publishing historical fiction (including crime, thriller, romance and saga); crime fiction; thrillers; romantic fiction; women’s fiction; popular history and historical biography. We are publishing both backlist, out-of-print books and brand new submissions, and we are particularly keen to hear from authors who have either already written more than one title, or plan to continue on a series from their submission.

You are one of three co-founders of Sapere Books, so I am delighted to welcome the other two:  Caoimhe O’Brien and Richard Simpson.

What are your special roles within the company?

AMY: I am the Editorial Director, so all submissions come through to me, and ultimately, I decide what we publish, although this is something we all discuss together, and I often send scripts to Richard and Caoimhe for second opinions. I work one-to-one with authors once the contracts are signed, shaping their novels and getting them ready for the final copyediting and proofreading stage. I’ll then discuss publishing schedules and marketing strategies with Caoimhe to make sure all the books are released at the optimum time and work with her marketing plans.

CAOIMHE: I am the Marketing Director and I am responsible for the marketing and promoting of our books, authors and the company in general.This involves working closely with our authors on author branding, creating websites for them and coordinating social media campaigns.We have a dedicated team of reviewers and bloggers who play a huge role in a successful book launch and dealing with these eager readers is a really fun part of my job. I also spend a lot of time boosting the online profile of the company with the aim of growing our newsletter and reaching more readers.

Caoimhe

RICHARD: I work as the Operations Director for Sapere Books, which basically means that I spend most of my time ensuring that the company’s balances are healthy and that Amy and Caoimhe have enough funds each month so that we can invest as much as possible in all of our books. We constantly reassess whether new methods and strategies that we are implementing are efficient and cost effective to ensure that we are the doing the most we can to help readers see and read our books. However, my time isn’t always spent looking over spreadsheets, as being a small company our roles frequently have to cross over meaning that I often spend some days of my week looking over manuscripts and researching new marketing strategies.

Richard

 

In my previous interview with Amy she explained that she grew up with a father who was a successful children’s author (Alan Durant) and therefore books had always featured in her life, fuelling her passion. Have you both had lifelong involvement with books and publishing?

CAOIMHE: I spent my childhood with my head in a book and did a degree and Masters in English at university but I didn’t consider publishing as a career choice until after my Masters. I wasn’t sure what career path to choose but when I thought about my constant interest in books throughout my life, it seemed like the only thing that made sense and I am very glad I made that decision.

RICHARD: : Although I spent the vast majority of my childhood with a nose in a book I certainly wasn’t surrounded by a bookish world. But although my parents weren’t avid readers they definitely fostered my love of history and encouraged me to read anything that I could lay my hands on. Perhaps their biggest influence on my life now was due to the fact that when I was a child they jointly began a small company, R & J Simpson Engineering, which builds and repairs historic racing cars. Seeing how a small company develops and works influenced me greatly when thinking about setting up Sapere Books with Caoimhe and Amy, and many of the lessons they learnt in the early years I’ve been very keen to implement into our company. 

What do each of you look for in a book as readers?

AMY: I read widely and across most genres, so what really grabs me when reading a manuscript is the strength of the characters and whether I am compelled to keep reading. We publish ‘popular’ genre fiction, so all our fiction titles have to be plot-driven and to fit within the confines of those genres (we don’t publish anything overly literary or experimental), and we often sign up authors who are either writing a series, or have a few books, so I need to finish a book with the desire to read more by that author. 

CAOIMHE: I mostly read contemporary and crime fiction with some historical fiction thrown in too. I look for plot and character driven novels. Readers enjoy lots of different genres and, as publishers, we must be able to look at a book objectively, not just as something we ourselves would want to read. But regardless of genre, the plot and characters must be strong enough to grab and hold the readers’ attention. 

RICHARD: Unlike Amy and Caoimhe I spend most of my time reading nonfiction, particularly histories and biographies. Firstly what I look for in these books is that it must have a compelling subject, secondly it must be grounded in solid historical research, and thirdly, which historians who focus solely upon the research sometimes forget, it must be well-written. I’ve got a huge range of interests though and will happily read books about almost any subject from ancient Mesopotamia through to the development of Meissen pottery and beyond.

 This is such an exciting venture and I am delighted to have signed up with Sapere Books.logo-1-circle_filled

 

Nicola Cornick, chair of The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA), an historian and award winning novelist, explains what the organisation offers both published and unpublished writers of romance.

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I am delighted to welcome back Nicola as chair of the RNA.

What can the organisation offer romance writers in 2018?

‘The RNA is the professional organisation that supports and promotes romantic fiction in the UK. Membership of the RNA offers authors the chance to strengthen their career through developing their craft at our workshops and conferences and to build a network with other authors who understand the challenges we face and can offer advice and support. We are also building strong links with the industry and our events give authors the chance to meet a wide range of agents, publishers, booksellers, librarians and other professionals.’

That seems to present a broad spectrum of activities and opportunities to support your members.

‘In addition, members receive Romance Matters, our quarterly journal covering all aspects of writing romantic fiction from the craft to industry issues, discounted tickets to all our events and the opportunity to join regional groups. So the benefits are both professional and social.’

Nicola stresses that although the emphasis is on the professional advice, events and networking a friendly and welcoming atmosphere is nurtured. So how does a writer become a member?

‘The RNA welcomes traditionally and independently published authors. Membership is in different bands: A full or independent Author Member is currently £50 (£57 for non EU based) and £60 for Associate Members (£67 for non EU based). All the details can be found online at or by contacting the membership secretary, Gill Stewart, on info@romanticnovelistsassociation.org.

The organisation also welcomes and encourages as yet unpublished writers into its ranks. The New Writers’ Scheme is unique as Nicola explains.

‘We’re very proud of the New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), which provides the opportunity for aspiring authors to submit a manuscript for critique by an experienced writer in the genre. Not only is it a great way for new writers to improve their craft, it also gives encouragement and support. As the RNA has close links with publishers and agents the NWS can provide a route for them to make those connections. Unsurprisingly it is hugely popular and each year a number of NWS members go on to achieve publishing contracts.’

The scheme is open to writers interested in submitting an unpublished romantic novel (or partial) and this year the membership fee cost was £135 (£145 for members outside the EU). This also allows unpublished authors to take part in all RNA activities as well as submitting a manuscript of a full-length novel for appraisal. More details are available by email to: NWS@romanticnovelistsassociation.org There is a cap on the number of submissions that can be accepted each year and acceptance into the scheme is therefore on a ‘first come first served’ basis. The entry slot for submissions closes at the end of August each year.

Today’s publishing environment seems to be becoming more challenging, but Nicola is very optimistic about the present market for the romance genre.

‘I think the romantic fiction genre is changing all the time to reflect both modern life and the changing publishing world. The genre is a broad one. You can find strong romantic elements in many different sorts of novels where people are writing about relationships, whether this is contemporary fiction or epic historicals or books for young adults. Our membership reflects all of these different threads. We also see the books reflecting the concerns of contemporary society, whether it is issues such as work life balance, infidelity or health. The recent return to popularity of Gothic romance perhaps reflects the idea that spooky stories resonate in uncertain times. And of course romantic fiction also continues to provide its readership with the wonderful feel-good stories that readers love.’

Looking forward, I asked Niocla if she thought that the scope for romantic fiction will narrow as lines in the market place are redefined, or do she saw it flourishing as it has done in the past?

‘I see a lot in the press about how the genre is being more and more tightly defined and categorised into sub-genres, but actually at the genre level, in the UK at least, I see it continuing to broaden out. There are romantic relationships represented in a whole range of novels from crime and sci fi to literary fiction. The RNA’s membership reflects that and our awards and events will continue to embrace that wider focus.’

How would Nicola like to see the organisation evolve under your tenure?

‘I’d like to see the RNA continue to provide great support for its membership whilst looking outward a bit more in our promotion of excellence within the genre. We would particularly like to build our relationships within the industry, with booksellers and librarians as well as with publishers and agents. We’d also like to put romantic fiction even more firmly on the map by reminding people what a very successful and dynamic genre it is in business terms.’

Nicola’s natural energy and enthusiasm for the genre shines through her vision, but can romance remain genre specific if there is a need or desire for a more open working relationship within the industry?

‘I think we can do both if we don’t constrain the genre too tightly. Our core role is to support our membership and as this is drawn from a broad range of romantic fiction this fits with the idea of needing a more open working relationship within the industry. With this in mind we are planning a series of joint events with the Crime Writers’ Association and the Historical Writers’ Association, amongst others, where we can explore the things we have in common and the support we give each other as writers more generally.’

 

Nicola Cornick is the author of dual-time gothic novels House of Shadows and The Phantom Tree (HQ) and also forty plus Regency romances. She is a former trustee of the Wantage Literary Festival and a historian and speaker specialising in public history.

 

King Ludd & trouble at the mills!

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The term ‘Luddite’ is widely used even today, but its origins are shrouded in both truth and myth.

Two names that are supposed to have been associated with it are Ned Ludd and King Llud. Whatever the truth, the term has stayed in common language. Today it is used to describe someone  who is averse to technical change, but its origins stemmed from men who thought they were fighting to save their livelihoods and their families from being destitute.

Since medieval times the wool trade had been of great importance to the working people of our nation. Traditionally women and their children spun the yarn and the menfolk were skilled loom weavers. Each piece of cloth was then taken to market to be sold in the Piece Halls. In the early nineteenth century new inventions took over this traditional family method of making and selling cloth.

With new cotton and wool mills growing in size and numbers, the workers that left their villages to work in them need not be so skilled. They could be taught a task and become part of the overall process.

The volume of cloth produced could therefore be increased. Uniformity and scale of production would be guaranteed by the use of these wider weaving machines. But the downside was that the employment was no longer a cottage industry, but required a central approach, breaking up communities and leaving men without the means to feed their families. With the price of food, particularly bread increasing, the men felt somehow their concerns needed to be heard.

The actions of a man allegedly called Edward Ludlam also knonw as ‘Ned Ludd’ in 1779 was given the label ‘Luddite’. He was accused of breaking two frames in anger. So when in Nottingham in 1811 groups of weavers gathered and planned attacks on targeted mills to destroy the machines that had taken away their livelihood, the term ‘Luddite’ was used again and stuck.

These attacks spread to Yorkshire and other counties and continued for a number of years. Groups banded in numbers of up to three figures, but surprisingly few were actually caught or hanged.  Some were transported, perhaps unjustly, as those who were accused of being part of a gathering or an attack would have little defence heard to save them. King Llud was used on letters of demand to add weight to their threats and demands.

In 1812 The Frame Breaking Act made the breaking of stocking-frames a capital felony, hence allowing the death penalty to be given to those caught. Rewards were offered, but the local people were the very families of the men who were trying to stop a revolution of machine replacing manual labour, soit was unlikely that many would provide information. It is also likely they would be in danger if they were discovered by the gang members. It was a battle they could never win,

The government and the mill owners did not listen to their pleas. Workers, including young children, were paid low, had no say over their conditions and were often exploited.This was exactly the situation Phoebe and Thomas escaped from in Phoebe’s Challenge. As mills developed not all owners were as harsh (they were by comparison to today’s working practices) but some introduced education, shorter hours for children and healthier diet and living conditions. This is where the idea for Laura’s Legacy came from.

Just click on the link to see how Phoebe rises to the challenge or how Laura’s Legacy survives!

Laura's Legacy

 

Phoebe’s Challenge

When life changes, a strong woman will survive… 

Phoebe's Challenge

Read the full story for only £1.99!

Chapter One

“Thomas Baxter, clear that floor!” Phoebe raised her head in horror as she heard the order bellow out of the miserable mouth of Mr Benjamin Bladderwell, the overseer of the cotton mill. She saw the fear on her young brother’s face. Thomas froze. He was nearly nine, half Phoebe’s age and, like her, slight of build. Phoebe watched his back slowly straighten. He was obviously trying hard to be brave.

Bladderwell pointed to the clutter under one of the looms, where dust and other fibres had collected. The overseer yelled above the cacophony of sounds between the machines. “Move yourself, boy. Now!”

Thomas did not move, but looked at Phoebe who sensed his fear. He was small but going under a moving machine was a job usually given to the younger children. Phoebe felt an unusual and strong emotion – hatred. Bladderwell relished every minute he could sustain his power over their lives. Phoebe had to be brave for Thomas’s sake. They had had to adjust to living amongst the cruelty of his regime keeping alive the hope that one day they could make a run for it and be free again. The time for that brave or foolish gesture, she sensed, was rapidly approaching.

“Move it, you lazy scum-bag!” Bladderwell took a stride towards Thomas. A young woman dropped her shuttle as Bladderwell stormed past; without pausing he clipped the back of her head. She let out a sharp cry, but did not hesitate in her duty of retrieving her tool and continuing the thread of the weft.

Phoebe and Thomas both loathed the shame and the abuse which had become part of their daily existence. This and the constant hunger inside their guts were why they knew that they had to escape, before they were too weak, or injured to run.

Immediately, Phoebe stopped her work, placing her basket of wound cotton bobbins on the floor and ran over to her brother’s side. Standing by him she spoke boldly, to protect the boy from a beating if not from the task he had been set. “I’ll do it, sir. I’m more agile than Thomas and quicker too!” She then inched in front of Thomas hoping he would snap out of his fear-filled trance before Bladderwell’s temper broke and he lashed out at them.

She tried to move him aside. Thomas’s panic had quite reached the point where his blood ran cold and his feet were rooted to the ground. She was able to gently push Thomas away, out of the direct eye line of the brute she was facing down. Bladderwell was staring back at her. Phoebe decided they would run for it that very night if they were at liberty to do so.

Bladderwell swung the back of his hand down towards her. He was hefty in build. She instinctively ducked to avoid the force of the contact, but Thomas did not move so quickly, and the blow landed across the boy’s cheek. Thomas fell back onto the damp floor, scraping his knee through the thin fabric of his clothes. Phoebe saw his head turn sharply toward his attacker, the trance broken, flashing a look of pure unmistakable hatred at Bladderwell.

The man’s face creased with a grin. Somehow they had to run, Phoebe thought, as fear filled her soul. With the rags they stood up in as their only possessions, they would have nothing to weigh them down. When they had been brought to the mill they had worn decent clothes on their backs, but they were exchanged for paupers’ rags within the first hour of their arrival, such was their welcome to this hell hole.

Winded, Thomas tried to stand upright again. He was fighting to recover, breathing in the cotton dust and damp humid air. The factory was kept hot and moist so that the threads did not break on the weaving and spinning machines. No one seemed to care what happened to the people who had to breathe within it. Phoebe believed somewhere there must be a mill that was run in a kinder manner, where people were treated with consideration and happily worked for a fair wage, but she had not heard of one.

The owner of this mill, James Bartholomew Atkins, grew richer by the minute, whilst his workers choked their way through another gruelling day’s labour. Phoebe could cry with the injustice of it all; meanwhile, her brother had been struck and she feared for what would happen next.

Phoebe gasped as Bladderwell cupped her chin in his hand, pulling her towards him.

“Listen, missy.” He moved his lips near to her ear. His rank breath made Phoebe want to heave. She tried to pull away. He tightened his grip, until she stopped resisting. “You can make life much easier for yourself and the sprat, down there. Don’t see how he’ll survive in here, not that one. He can’t control his temper in front of his betters. However, I’m not a bad man. I’ve a heart.  I’ll let the little rat off if you’ll come to the store house with me now and show Benjamin how sorry you is for his bad behaviour.”

He looked into her wide horrified eyes and grinned.

She glared back at him. Phoebe had grown up on a farm and knew how life began, she had seen how animals coupled and guessed it was much the same for people. Phoebe felt her stomach knot. Did he honestly think that for one moment she could let him touch her, or lift her skirts for him?

“You know what I want – you to do exactly that…” he whispered in her ear again, “… anything I want.”

Phoebe could not control her words, “Never! You’re evil!”

Thomas stood up as Bladderwell threw Phoebe to the ground. “Get down there where you both belong, and when you’ve ‘ad time to think, missy, you can crawls your way back to Mr Benjamin Bladderwell on your hands and knees! Then see if I’m as generous in me offer.”

Phoebe looked at the back of Bladderwell’s jacket as he turned to face the boy. One day soon, she thought, I’ll make you crawl. I’ll see you terrified and cornered!  She promised her revenge in her mind and, almost at once, as if the man sensed it, Benjamin turned on his heel and picked Thomas up by the scruff of his threadbare wool jacket.

“Ain’t you got work to do?” Bladderwell dropped him from the height of his extended arm onto the stone floor and simultaneously reached for his lash which he kept on a hook on the wall. It was a constant reminder to the children to obey their master.

Phoebe had to act fast. Her thoughts were filled with heated emotion as she cowered beneath the great moving monster trying to sweep the debris away. There was no room for her to move. She was not a child anymore. Her build was slight and her movements agile, but she was a young woman. She tried to wriggle slowly back out, whilst Bladderwell’s attention was fixed on Thomas. Where had the big brave bully been when they needed men to fight Napoleon? she wondered; hiding behind his horrid machines, no doubt.

Phoebe forced a picture of her father into her mind – a long ago memory, painful for her to rekindle, but necessary to give her the courage to do what she must do now. A good man like her father had died in the long wars with France, yet a brute like Benjamin Bladderwell still lived. Life, she had learnt, was just not fair.

Thomas’s eyes stared accusingly back at the substantial figure bending over him. Phoebe prayed they would be able to escape that very day – now, in fact, for if they didn’t they would be broken, in body if not in spirit by the time Bladderwell had had his way. But how? Their situation seemed impossible.

“I’m goin’ to strip the skin off your idle little back!” The lines on Bladderwell’s forehead deepened as he gritted his browning teeth and raised the lash high behind him ready to swipe down. Thomas had curled into the tightest small ball that he possibly could, trying to protect his head, especially his eyes.

Phoebe was incensed; she moved quickly without taking enough care.

“Agh!” The high shriek of Phoebe’s scream stopped Bladderwell as his head turned to face the cause of the noise, stopping the lash from falling back down onto Thomas.

“Phoebe!” Thomas shouted, and stood instantly, running over to where she was trapped. She could not help her tears escape as she cried out, but lay there motionless underneath the great machine. She could neither move forwards nor backwards so great the fear that had overtaken her.

There was an unspoken bond between the brother and sister. Thomas began to panic when he realised that there was blood on her hand.

“Get out of there, you stupid bitch…” Benjamin Bladderwell’s words were drowned out by the noise of the weaving machine, as its clatter grew louder and more irregular. Phoebe had somehow damaged the machine, as part of her sleeve had caught in its mechanism. Thomas grabbed hold of Phoebe’s ankles as he tried to ease her out. However, he lacked the strength to do it. The ground seemed to move under him as he was yanked back. Then Phoebe was unceremoniously dragged out also. She coughed as she fought for breath as her face was pulled through a cloud of fibrous dank dust. Once free, Phoebe rubbed her eyes so that she could see the gash in her arm that was as long as her little finger. She swallowed hard and held her wounded arm to her protectively.

“It will be all right, Phoebe. It’s not deep; you’ll see it will be fine.” Thomas was trying to reassure her whilst she straightened her dress after being unceremoniously released from her fate.

“Oh, Didy…” She could see the overseer’s face behind the boy and it both angered and terrified her. Phoebe and Thomas’s mother had always called Thomas Didy. It was short for Didymus, another name used in the Bible for Thomas. Phoebe thought it suited his spirit better.

Phoebe felt hatred well up inside her with the strength of feeling she could not have thought possible for her to bear before she had entered the life of hell that was the mill.

Nobody in the factory stopped working to help them. They were all too frightened of losing their precious positions. Work was hard to come by and although the pay was poor, it was better than none and the resulting humiliation and illness that followed being locked away in the workhouse. The adults would be grateful that it was not their child who had been hurt today. A woman glanced sympathetically at them, but did not turn away from her task for fear of punishment.

Thomas helped Phoebe to her feet. “She needs her wound tending… sir.” The last word had been added reluctantly. “That cut needs balm… and cloth to bind it up.”

Phoebe knew Bladderwell did not care; she had refused to pleasure him, he was more concerned about the damaged machine and work lost than her plight.

“Get back to your work, girl! You can tie a machine rag around it, to make sure that you do not drip your blood on the weave. Once done, then collect up those spindles. Now move!”

“No!” the lad’s voice shouted out.

Thomas had a hot head and a short temper when it came to injustice.

“There’s scraps of clean cloth there. If it’s clean it mends better, my ma said so!” he shouted.

“Didy, I’ll manage.” Phoebe, seeing the danger Thomas was already in, tried to act normally, but she was pale and frightened. Her voice had been low, almost like a whisper. It only served to embitter Thomas further; although nearly ten years younger than her, he liked to assume the role of her protector. They had been raised in a fine home, on a working farm – born free. It had been a new farm, one that had been enclosed and the crops rotated to use the land more effectively. Phoebe knew that Thomas liked modern thinking and ways. From his earliest words he had asked questions, ones his ma could not answer, which frustrated her, but like Phoebe it also delighted her as Thomas seemed quick of wit. He was not against machines, but hated their misuse and the greedy men who abused them.

When the lash was raised once more, Thomas reached out and grabbed one of the besoms propped against the wall; they were normally used by the younger children to sweep the floor at the end of the long day. He swung it wildly. The gesture seemed to exhilarate him, giving confidence. The lash came down wrapping around its handle, becoming enmeshed. Thomas pulled at the besom with all his body’s weight behind it, flicking it sharply and, using the moment of surprise in his favour, he managed to jerk it out of Bladderwell’s strong hand. He flipped it free, but Thomas could not control what happened next. All watched in disbelief as the lash flew one way and the broom the other. Phoebe had expected them to fall to the ground, she hoped that they would, but neither did. Bladderwell lurched at him, his balled fists now opened wide like two claws ready to grasp at their prey. Phoebe felt her throat tighten in a moment of panic, but the almighty sound of a machine crashing put a halt to Bladderwell’s intentions. His head spun around. Two women screamed, scared by the noise and clatter and crunching of wood as the besom’s handle splintered. Bladderwell almost fell to his knees as he watched the machine falter, before coming to a shuddering halt. Phoebe saw a glint of fear cross his face. He was answerable to the mill owner for the upkeep of the machines and their output. The whip landed on one of the other weaving machines, becoming tangled in the threads, bringing work there also to a grinding halt. Things had gone too far for them to stay a moment longer. They had to leave straight away – somehow, before they were caught and punished.

Benjamin Bladderwell’s face that had been bright red was now slowly turning purple. Thomas pushed Phoebe behind him and grabbed a scrap of fabric from the pile of off-cuts.

“Use this, Phoebe,” he said.

Thomas helped to secure it firmly and quickly around her arm.

“When I say run, run!” she ordered her brother who nodded – there was no other choice.

Phoebe started backing towards the large double doors at the end of the mill. Her arm hurt. She would rather have a cut arm than have had Bladderwell fumble her. He was evil and a bully and she was glad he would have to answer for the damage caused in the mill, but they would now be hunted as machine breakers.

They were near the doorway when Bladderwell ran like a mad man, storming towards Thomas. Words they had never heard before came rushing out of his mouth. Thomas waited till he was nearly upon them, then grabbed another broom handle and jabbed it hard at the overseer’s shin. Bladderwell dodged, slipped on the debris under his feet, but could not escape the blow that glanced off his jawbone. Thomas drew the broom back, looked the man straight in the eye and grinned fleetingly before taking his ultimate revenge. Phoebe realised his intent, but could not stop the boy. With an almighty thrust she could see that he took great pleasure in deliberately hurling the whole broom into the workings of the nearest loom.

“No!” The roar from Bladderwell’s mouth was nearly as loud as the commotion Thomas had caused. The apparatus came to a standstill. The workers ran to the side of the mill in trepidation. The sound of splintering wood and metal hitting metal echoed in Thomas and Phoebe’s ears as Benjamin and his men were busy trying to stop the carnage.

“Run! Now!” Phoebe shouted, “Didy, run for the gates and don’t stop!”

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Phoebe's Challenge

The Gothic beauty of York Minster

The beautiful medieval York Minster, with its great Gothic towers stands out as you approach the ancient city that has held an important place in British history for centuries.

This Christian place of worship is actually ‘The Cathedral and Metropolitan church of St Peter in York’ but it is loved and known both locally and afar as ‘The Minister’. It is no wonder that it has stood the test of time as it was started in 1220 but was not completed until 1472.

The term ‘Minster’ has come down through time from its original ‘monasterium’ through the Saxon spelling ‘mynster’ to its present day form. It was a place where missionaries sent by Pope Gregory sent priests to convert the pagan Saxons in the late C6.

Under the building its history is lovingly preserved as it houses the ancient centre of the ancient Roman fortress, The Basilica. The very first Christian church on the site has been traced back to the C7 with the Pope recognizing the first Archbishop of York in AD 732. It is, and has been a very important centre of Christianity representing the church in the north of the country.

It has survived an arson attack in 1829 and more recently in 1984 a lightning strike destroyed the roof in the south transept. Fortunately the nearby River Ouse provided a plentiful supply of water for the powerful jets to send it high enough to save the beautiful building’s stained glass windows some of which dates back 800 years.

This is more than a historical building is more than just an amazing piece of architecture. It is a time capsule to a very interesting past in a city of many layers. Today it is still a place of worship with a busy Diocese.

When Abigail walks through its doors she does so to throw her pursuers off her trail. In Regency times this building would appear as a monument of stunning proportions to a young woman who had not travelled far, even from a modest North Yorkshire manor house. York had many timber Tudor style buildings then which would have made it stand out even more.

If you pass through York, stay awhile and explore its interiors from the amazing C15 Great East Window, 15th century, which is claimed to be the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world to the amazing ceiling of the nave, the courtyard or the towers.

It is certainly worth staying a while and exploring its depth. If you go in February you can even meet The Vikings!

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Phoebe’s Challenge now £1.99!

Phoebe and her brother, Thomas, have to flee the evil regime of Benjamin Bladderwell when an accident results in them being labelled machine breakers. Hunted with nowhere to run, the mysterious Matthew saves their lives.He is a man of many guises who Phoebe instinctively trusts, but Thomas does not. Their future depends upon this stranger, unaware that he is also tied to their past.

Why not follow Pheobe and Love the Adventure!

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Check out my article about the world of a working mill in the early nineteenth century and you’ll see why Phoebe and Tom had to run.