Thursday, 4 November 2021

Remember, remember - by Ally Sherrick

The two main inspirations or story sparks for my first novel for young people, Black Powder, were a real life event – the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – and a place – Cowdray House on the edge of the historic market town of Midhurst in West Sussex.

The Gunpowder Plot – the reason why we light bonfires and set off fireworks every fifth of November – was the failed attempt by a band of desperate young Catholic men to assassinate the Protestant King James I and VI of Scotland, and many of the most important lords and bishops in the land as they met in Parliament.

Bonfire night revellers - copyright Elizabeth Doak

Cowdray, destroyed by fire in the late 18th century, is now a ruin. But when, on a visit several years ago, I discovered a certain Guy Fawkes had once been employed as a gentleman servant to the owner, the wealthy and influential, Anthony Maria-Browne, Lord Montague it proved too much for my writer’s imagination to resist!

Cowdray House ruins, West Sussex - author's own photo

It didn’t take long – asking the classic story question ‘What if’ – to come up with the outline for the story of a brave young Catholic boy, Tom Garnett who unwittingly gets caught up with the events culminating in the Plot.

Writing a story set in the past is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. As a general rule, the further back you travel in time, the less likely you are to have a complete – or as complete as you can hope for – picture of the events, the places and the people who lived then. Records, if they were made, might have been lost. And if they survive, they often only tell one side, or a fraction of the story. For a real-life jigsaw puzzler, such ‘missing pieces’ would be terribly frustrating, but for an historical novelist, they are story gold.

This is true for all my stories, but particularly for Black Powder.

Thanks to surviving documents of the day – including the intelligence gathered by the king’s spymaster and chief minister, Robert Cecil, the confessions of the plotters and official reports of their trials – we have quite a few jigsaw pieces to help us build a reasonably accurate account of the people and actions involved in the Gunpowder Plot. But it’s always important, when using such sources, to think about who is setting down the ‘facts’ and whether they can be trusted to tell it as it was or have maybe altered it in some way to suit their own ends.

Some of the pieces I discovered in the puzzle box when I started researching the true-life story of the Gunpowder Plot included:

· the identities, backgrounds and motives of the plotters and their leader, Robert Catesby (not Guy Fawkes, as so many people believe)

· their arrangements for hiring the cellar beneath the House of Lords, and stacking the 36 barrels of gunpowder inside it

· the plotters’ plans – if they had been successful in killing the king – to raise a rebellion in the country, to put the king’s young nine year-old daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, on the throne as a ‘puppet queen’, and to have all the anti-Catholic laws which provoked them to take their extreme action, reversed.

The Gunpowder Plotters

But these things are, in the main, drawn from official records of the time. They do not – and could not – give details of everything the plotters did or thought. For example, their conversations with each other, the things that made them laugh, or that made them sad or angry – aside of course from how badly treated they felt, because of the religious persecution they and their fellow Catholics had had to endure for so many years. And they don’t account for everyone they might have met and kept company with in the days leading up to the fateful events of the fifth of November 1605. This is where I could have fun with my imagination and start creating my own pieces of the jigsaw to fill in the gaps and tell a tale, linked to the story of the actual plot, but which was all my own. Some of the pieces I created include:
  • my hero, 12 year-old Tom Garnett, who accidentally betrays his father after he rescues a Catholic priest from the harbour and then has to try and right that wrong and save him from the hangman’s noose with the help of a mysterious stranger called the Falcon

  • Cressida Montague, daughter of Lord Montague and the rich and privileged cousin Tom never knew he had. They dislike each other intensely at first but eventually become good friends and allies

  • two fictional spies who Tom, his mouse, Jago and Cressida must outwit if they are to succeed in their mission to rescue Tom’s father before it’s too late.

Of course, when you’re writing any form of historical fiction, whether for children, or adults, it’s important to maintain a balance between presenting everything that’s known versus telling a good story. But as long as you respect the facts of any real-life events or circumstances which form the backdrop to your story wherever you can, and have done the research which suggests what might be plausible to help flesh out the bits you don’t know, then how you complete the rest of the puzzle is up to you.

Can you use a real-life historical person or event to spark a new story idea? Or perhaps a favourite place? Think of something that intrigues you and makes you want to ask the magic story question ‘What if?’ Keep on asking the question every time you come up with an answer and see where it might lead. Then do some research of your own to fill in the missing pieces.

Happy plot puzzling!

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017. She is published by Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

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