Blatherings

A blog of sorts. Things that are of interest to people who are interested in that sort of thing.

Warning: may contain traces of ideas.


Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: A shocking case of deception

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable details known only to a few people.

Today: The British Empire learns of an astonishing case of deception in the Army.


IT WAS A STORY THAT ECHOED round the world and raised many unanswerable questions. How could a woman pass herself off as a man and live her entire life in disguise? And not only live but rise to a position of eminence in the exclusively male worlds of the Army and the medical profession? Those questions are only now being answered in detail; when the news first broke, they presented an insoluble mystery.

On Monday 14 August 1865, newspaper front pages in Britain and Ireland were taken up with Queen Victoria’s visit to Germany, an impending financial crisis (some things are with us always), a mysterious double murder at Ramsgate, and a devastating “Cattle Plague” which was baffling veterinary surgeons. However, across the Irish Sea in Dublin, Saunders’s News-Letter and Daily Advertiser carried another remarkable story, nestled in a corner of its front page, which nobody else was yet reporting.

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: The Thief of Europe comes to England

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable details known only to a few people.

Today: Napoleon Bonaparte on England’s shores – and an unusual witness.


BY JULY 1815, NAPOLEON BONAPARTE was a beaten man. The previous month, his renewed bid for power had come to a bloody end at Waterloo. Accompanied by his mistress and a small retinue of followers and advisers, the defeated Emperor fled Paris, heading for the coast.

He hoped to board a ship for America, where the government was sympathetic to his cause. However, the French ports were blockaded by the British Royal Navy. Escape was impossible, and in mid-July Napoleon offered his formal surrender to Captain Maitland, commander of the British man-of-war HMS Bellerophon

Napoleon aboard Northumberland

Napoleon in captivity, 1815 (sketched aboard HMS Northumberland en route to St Helena).

With Bonaparte and his retinue aboard (occupying the best cabins on the ship, to the disgruntlement of some of the officers who had to give up their berths), Captain Maitland set a course for England, and a few days later dropped anchor in Tor Bay, off the coast of Devon. A messenger was despatched to London to inform the government. The Times took great satisfaction at the news of Napoleon’s capture:

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: The British Empire's first successful caesarean delivery

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable details known only to a few people.

Today: Pioneering surgery by a woman in disguise!


THE NIGHT OF 25 JULY 1826 was cold and wet. In the small settlement of Wynberg, nine miles from Cape Town, Mrs Wilhelmina Munnik’s pregnancy was coming to a traumatic conclusion. The baby – for which Wilhemina and her husband Thomas had waited for ten years – refused to be born. The midwife had done all she could, and was forced to concede defeat. A doctor was needed.

Thomas Munnik ordered a servant to ride to Cape Town to fetch the very best surgeon available, a man known for his obstetric skill. Dr James Barry was a Staff Surgeon with the British Army garrison, as well as medical attendant to many of the Cape’s rich families and personal physician to the former Governor, Lord Charles Somerset. A fine medical practitioner, James Barry was known not only for his skill but also his eccentricity – particularly his appearance and manner. What was not well known about Dr Barry was that beneath his male attire he was a woman.

GWBA: When Vonnegut’s Rules Go Bad: pt 3

GOOD WRITING, BAD ADVICE: An occasional series from a professional on writing, being a writer and how to be better at both. The aim is to promote good writing and debunk bad advice. There’s a lot of bad advice out there, so this could be a long series.

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All right, this is the last part of this Kurt Vonnegut sub-series. Next time, I’ll move on to something else, I promise. But we can’t leave Vonnegut behind without looking at one of his oddest admonitions. In part 1 we tackled his two-function sentence rule and in part 2 we did sentence simplicity. Here we leave behind sentence structure and look at overall story structure. In part 1 I stressed the importance of structuring the order of words and ideas:

"Clive James once said that the fundamental criterion for good writing is to say things in the right order. And he was quite correct; it’s the one thing that all bad or underdeveloped writers (and as a consultant I see a lot of those) get wrong. And it’s the skill that all good writers have to strive hardest to learn. Putting words and sentences in the best sequence is so overlooked because it seems so obvious, so like a truism, that developing writers don’t consider it a thing at all. But word order and sentence order (and the succession of types of sentences) is equivalent to the succession of pitches, intervals, and chords in music."

This is the beginning of structure. Kurt Vonnegut had something quite contentious to say about structure. We’re back again to his “Creative Writing 101”, this time his Rule 8:

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This is a curious mixture of bad and good advice. The bad advice is obvious. It completely nullifies a swathe of stories – all crime fiction, virtually all horror, and in fact most fiction across the whole spectrum. All genres – all of them – depend on suspense: some entirely, some to a lesser but still vital degree. Suspense is what keeps us reading: even if it’s just suspense about whether Katie really will show up for her illicit date with Matt, or Rob will learn to love his estranged son, or whether the spring rains will fall and the farm will survive. Not all suspense is about who turned Mr Hooten’s head into a stovepipe and stole all his Van Goghs in chapter 1.

GWBA: When Vonnegut’s Rules Go Bad: pt 2

GOOD WRITING, BAD ADVICE: An occasional series from a professional on writing, being a writer and how to be better at both. The aim is to promote good writing and debunk bad advice. There’s a lot of bad advice out there, so this could be a long series.

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In the last post, I unpacked Kurt Vonnegut’s famous Rule 4 (“Every sentence must do one of two things –– reveal character or advance the action”) and found that it doesn’t work. Today I’m sticking with Vonnegut (he put a lot of advice out there, maybe more than any other writer). This time I'm looking at an item from one of his sets of writer’s commandments.

The context is a piece Vonnegut wrote for the magazine IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, titled “How to write with style”. As with his “Creative Writing 101”, it’s a list of eight rules. The one that catches my attention is:

3. Keep it simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. "To be or not to be?" asks Shakespeare's Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long...

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.

Warning: following that advice could seriously damage your prose.

GWBA: When Vonnegut’s Rules Go Bad: pt 1

GOOD WRITING, BAD ADVICE: An occasional series from a professional on writing, being a writer and how to be better at both. The aim is to promote good writing and debunk bad advice. There’s a lot of bad advice out there, so this could be a long series.

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There’s a lot of advice out there for writers. Do I intend to add to the enormous didactic dump-bin? You bet I do. As someone who earns a living from writing books and advising others on their works in progress, I’m a little disturbed by the quality of some of the advice that’s floating around out there, much of it coming from people who ought to know better. It’s hard enough to develop oneself as a writer, without wasting time being guided by bad rules and principles.

I’m beginning this occasional series with massive chutzpah, by taking on a literary colossus who has become a giant in the world of writing advice. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of giving out advice to budding writers. He published his opinions in the form of at least two lists of “rules” for good writing: his “Creative Writing 101” (which was part of the Introduction to his book of short stories Bagombo Snuff Box) and a more serious magazine article, “How to Write With Style”.

"A Genius Bar for Books": interview

So this week I did an interview for the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. It went like this...


“A Genius Bar for Books” – interview with Jeremy Dronfield, author, ghostwriter, book consultant

You’ve had an unusual career trajectory, going from fiction to non-fiction and ghostwriting. How did that come about?

Being a writer isn’t what it used to be. The joy of creation may be timeless, but the way we research, write and sell books is changing constantly. At the same time, being a writer in the other sense – existing, earning a living from the written word – is changing too. Advances are declining in size and getting harder to come by, we have to work harder (and spend more) to do our own promotion, and sales are weakening as austerity infects the economy. Year after year, writers’ incomes are falling. Even with a bestseller or two under your belt you can find yourself struggling to make a living; luxury money one year followed by bread-crusts the next. Each of us has to have a strategy for survival. For some, branching out is the answer.

I began as an academic archaeologist. In search of a liveable income and hoping to realise a dream, I took up writing fiction (doesn’t sound like such a logical path these days, does it?). With the prolonged downturn in the book business, I eventually had to branch into manuscript reading, which led to consultancy and ghostwriting. Unexpectedly, I found a way of making my life as a writer sustainable. Because, somewhat to my surprise, it turned out that I was as good at reading as I was at writing...



Continue reading the interview at the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency website.

A Very Dangerous Woman in America

Dangerous Woman.10

Today is North American publication day for A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia’s Most Seductive Spy, the new biography of spy, seductress and woman of amazing strength and character Baroness Moura Budberg, which I co-authored with Deborah McDonald.

To mark the occasion, I have two online pieces about the book. The first, co-written with Deborah, is at History News Network. The other is at Wonders & Marvels. As a bonus, W&M has two copies of the book to give away.

For news and info about the book, go to mourabudberg.com or the linked Facebook page.

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: How Lewis Carroll stole the Cheshire Cat

Wonders, curiosities and found facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable incidental details which rarely make it into the books. Here I bring them out of the margins and explore them in more depth.

Today: Cheshire Cats, with bonus British imperialism!


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“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

The Cheshire Cat is one of the most memorable characters in a book which is largely famous for its memorable characters. The Cat’s grin has become part of the language – to “grin like a Cheshire Cat” is a stock expression, with or without vanishing. But, as with the madness of hatters, Lewis Carroll didn’t actually invent the Cheshire Cat – at least, not all of it – though you wouldn’t guess that from the book, in which Alice has clearly never heard the expression:

“Please could you tell me,” said Alice, a little timidly, for she was not quite sure whether it was good manners for her to speak first, “why your cat grins like that?”

“It’s a Cheshire-Cat,” said the Duchess, “and that’s why.”

“I didn’t know that Cheshire-Cats always grinned; in fact, I didn’t know that cats could grin.”

“They all can,” said the Duchess; “and most of ’em do.”

NPG P7(26), Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832–1898) in June 1857 (source: Wikipedia)

In fact, “grinning like a Cheshire cat” had been around for at least eighty years when Carroll wrote this story in 1865, as a curiously obscure piece of slang which puzzled lexicographers even then. Where does it come from, and why? I stumbled across it while looking in an early 19th century slang dictionary for a reference to the early days of the Chelsea military hospital, where “to get Chelsea” appears alongside “Cheese toaster” (a sword) and “Cheshire-cat”. I decided to look further, and found a mystery.

Beyond the Call documentary trailer

This is very exciting. I’ve made my first full-length documentary on my book Beyond the Call. Featuring interviews with co-author Lee Trimble, archive audio and footage of his father, Robert (whose secret POW rescue mission is the subject of the book), as well as archive film and extracts from the audiobook, it will be released on YouTube soon.

Meanwhile, here is a teaser trailer.


© Jeremy Dronfield 2017