Wednesday 30 March 2022

Women's History Month special - female pirates

My pirate book Kintana and the Captain's Curse is about a young girl who helps her ex-pirate pa run a pet shop on Pirate Island, Nosy Boraha, a small island off the north east coast of Madagascar. 

Kintana craves a life at sea - so when she has the chance to join the crew of the Nine Sails a pirate ship - she is thrilled.

There is only one problem - the quartermaster thinks she is a boy, so Kintana must keep up the pretence or risk the wrath of the captain!

Madagascar was used as a hideaway for pirates

Women were often considered bad luck on ship, but there were real female pirates - the best known being Grace O'Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille), Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Grace O'Malley (1530 - 1603) is known as the Pirate Queen of Ireland. She was born at Belcare Castle, Westport and grew up on Clare Island, County Mayo. Her father was an Irish Chieftain and Grace's family earned their money from fishing, trading and taxing other fishermen. 

At age 11 she decided to go to sea.

 A statue of Grace O'Malley/Gráinne Ní Mháille

According to legend, her father refused to let her go, warning her long hair would catch in the ship's ropes. In response she cut off her hair, earning her the nickname Gráinne Mhaol - Bald Grace. 

Another story about Grace is that an hour after having her baby while at sea, her ship was attacked by pirates. Grace wrapped her newborn son in a blanket, and went on deck to rally her crew, leading to the capture of the pirate vessel.

Grace travelled as far as Spain and the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland on her piracy missions, often stealing cattle on her trips. Between attacks she retreated to her home on Clare Island - a three storey 'tower house' that still exists - Granuaile's Castle.

At age 56, Grace was captured and imprisoned by Lord Bingham, the English Governor who was appointed to rule over Irish territories. She lost much of her power and money as a result.

Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen, at an audience
with Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich Castle.

In 1593, Grace had an audience with Queen Elizabeth I, to petition for the release of her son who had been arrested by Bingham. The Queen granted her requests on condition that she end all rebellion against the crown. But she refused to return land to Grace that Bingham had stolen from her.

Grace is thought to have died in her early 70s around 1601-1603. She is buried in the abbey on Clare Island.

Anne Bonny (left) and Mary Read disguised themselves as men

Most of what is known about Anne Bonny and Mary Read comes from the book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, first published in 1724.


 Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny was born near Cork in Ireland. Her father was an attorney at law, her mother was his  family's maid! When news of the scandal broke, her father left his wife and went to Carolina in America with Mary and her mother where he became a successful merchant.

Anne was said to have a violent temper and Captain Johnson says she killed an English servant maid with a knife. Anne ran off with a young man 'who belonged to the sea and was not worth a groat.'

They took a ship to the Island of Providence. There Anne met the pirate John 'Calico Jack' Rackam nicknamed for the cotton clothing he wore.

Calico Jack

Anne had lost interest in her husband, and was very taken with the pirate so when he suggested they elope together and go to sea with him, in men's clothing, she agreed.

Together they attacked coastal traders and fishing boats until one day they attacked a sloop.

On board Anne met a Dutch sailor and she was very taken with him.

Calico Jack became very jealous and was set to kill them both when it was revealed that the sailor was in fact an Englishwoman in disguise. Her name was Mary Read.

Mary Read

Mary Read was born in England. The book tells the story of how her mother disguised Mary as a boy after the death of her brother to deceive her mother-in-law into providing a crown a week in maintenance.

At age 13, Mary was put to work as a footboy, then later gained a place on board a man-of-war, In Flanders she became a cadet with a foot regiment, before switching to a cavalry regiment.

Mary fell in love with a Fleming comrade and they were later married, but their happiness was shortlived as her husband died a short time later.

Dressing in male clothing, she joined a vessel bound for the West Indies - the ship was taken by English pirates who kept Mary with them.

Mary Read slays a fellow pirate in a duel.
Anne, Mary and Calico Jack were all captured in Jamaica in 1720 and put on trial for 'piracies, robberies and felonies.'
All three, along with eight other members of Jack's crew, were sentenced to be executed. Both women then 'pleaded their bellies,' - they were both pregnant.
Mary sadly died before her baby was born. No record of Anne's execution has ever been found - perhaps her wealthy father was able to secure her release.

Susan Brownrigg is the author of Kintana and the Captain's Curse, and the Gracie Fairshaw series. (Uclan Publishing)

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Wednesday 23 March 2022

Women's History Month special - Ada Lovelace - Guest blog post by I, Ada author Julia Gray

It wasn’t until a few years ago, researching important women in history, that I started to find out about Ada Lovelace. I was instantly intrigued, both by what Ada achieved in her short life - she is well-known now for her work with the inventor Charles Babbage - but also by who she was. Her father was the poet Lord Byron, who had famously been dubbed ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’; her mother was an heiress and talented mathematician called Annabella Milbanke. How could these people, in combination, have produced a child who would end up being so pivotal to the development of computer science? What kind of person was Ada really? To learn more about her, and to write the book that became I, Ada, felt like an irresistible prospect.

Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron on the tenth of December, 1815. She was twenty-six when she was commissioned to translate an essay about Babbage’s Analytical Engine from French into English. To this, Ada added copious notes of her own, further explaining the potential of the machine. She outlined its ability not only to make calculations but to utilise them for other calculations, speculating that in time the machine could be used to create things such as music. It was an extraordinary piece of work for a young mother of three, and all the more extraordinary for her inclusion of a table that is now recognised as being a machine-based algorithm - the first of its kind.

I, Ada by Julia Gray

As my book would be primarily for a young adult audience, I knew that the story I would write would take place earlier than that. I was excited by the challenge of trying to tell the story of Ada’s childhood and her teenage years in a way that could explore just how she might have come to do what she did later on.

I decided to structure the book as a sequence of flashbacks, written in the vivid present, detailing scenes from Ada’s life from age five onwards. I took inspiration for my overarching storyline from Margaret Carpenter’s portrait of Ada, which was painted when Ada was pregnant with her first child. I imagined that Ada, together with her husband, William, and her mother, had gone to see it at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Now aged twenty, Ada comes face to face with the finished portrait, and this sparks a question - who is she, and what sort of person does she really want to be? A wife and a mother, or something more? Going for a walk across Waterloo bridge, she catches sight of a rainbow (rainbows were a much-loved part of her childhood), and begins to reminisce about her life. I pictured a scene - Ada and her mother on a beach in Brighton, and some gossipy women staring and whispering about ‘Lord Byron’s daughter’. 


Author Julia Gray in front of Margaret Carpenter's portrait of Ada Lovelace 

But before I could write anything down, I had a lot of work to do. I read every biography of Ada - as well as quite a few about Annabella and Byron - that I could get my hands on, and I used the bibliographies in those books to fuel further reading lists. Gradually, I was able to construct a timeline of Ada’s life. It wasn’t easy - not every biography contained much detail about her childhood and teenage years, and quite often I came across omissions, or stories that conflicted. But after a few months I had a collection of scenes that I knew I wanted to include.

I had never written a book that occupied the space between fiction and non-fiction before; at first I felt constrained by the things that I didn’t know, but gradually I realised that by reading around each subject I could fill in the blanks. (I sometimes compared this to the way the scientists in Jurassic Park used frog DNA when attempting to sequence their dinosaurs…) Food, architecture, clothing, the history of teaching maths… I went down rabbit-hole after rabbit-hole in search of facts and usable details. After I reached a kind of rabbit-hole saturation point, I started writing.

My previous two books had been contemporary fiction and each time I had struggled with some element of them - either the plot, or the voices. Because I had a clear timeline in my head and a clear goal - to attempt to see the world through Ada’s eyes - I actually found the writing of I, Ada a little easier. But often I still had blanks that I needed to fill in.

Two experiences helped enormously when writing I, Ada. The first was visiting the Lovelace Byron archives at the Bodleian library in Oxford. Here there are boxes and boxes of meticulously organised papers: legal documents, letters, diaries, notebooks… When I first held a letter from Byron to Annabella in my hands, and examined the tiny, ornate writing, I felt a ripple of electricity so powerful that I can still remember it now. Just holding those artefacts made the whole thing seem incredibly real. I also unearthed valuable gems like an inventory of all the furniture in Kirkby Mallory, Ada’s childhood home - it even said which wines were in the cellar! My second helpful discovery was the British Newspaper Archive. Suddenly I could read contemporary articles about places and people in Ada’s life - vital primary sources - and was able to describe scenes like the balls she attended as a debutante, or the zoological gardens, in far more detail.

My lasting impression of Ada was of a young woman with a fierce desire to achieve something worthwhile; a woman whose imagination was boundless and whose determination was immense. Although plenty of obstacles stood in her way, from ill-health to an overbearing (though well-wishing) mother, Ada refused to let anything stop her from doing what she wanted to do. She died aged thirty-six without realising the importance of her work, but I am so glad that she is celebrated today - for example, in Women’s History Month - and given the credit she rightly deserves.


Julia Gray is a writer and singer-songwriter.

I, Ada was highly commended in the Young Quills Awards in the 14 years + / young adult category.


Thursday 17 March 2022

Breaking the Victorian Mould: A #WomensHistoryMonth special

One of the best things about writing historical fiction is the research – although I have to confess that I can get completely sidetracked and sometimes spend far too long researching things I know I am never going to use!

I am currently writing a novel set in mid-Victorian England and my research has brought home to me how astonishingly difficult it was for Victorian girls and women to achieve anything amid the huge obstacles which Victorian society put in their way.

All classes of Victorian men – working class, middle class and probably especially upper class - believed the old maxim ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Home’ and Victorian society did everything it could to keep them there.  It took a very strong-minded woman, with talent, luck and usually some male support to break out of the mould of being a sweet, subjugated, supporter of men.

The first challenge the Victorian girl faced was that of education.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, how much education you got didn’t just depend on how much money your parents had – it also depended on whether you were a boy or a girl. Among the poorer classes, most primary-age children were educated in one of the patchwork of voluntary schools up and down the country, which provided both boys and girls with a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic. 

Drawing © Kate Randall

After the age of 11, an intelligent boy from a poor background might have been able to continue to one of the boys’ grammar schools which had grown up around the country, but there were very few options for girls. In 1864 there were only 12 public secondary schools for girls in the whole of England and Wales.

But even if you were a girl from a wealthy background, you weren’t that much better off in terms of getting an education, especially compared to your brothers. In fact, you were very unlikely to have been to school at all. While boys were often sent to school at the age of 7, middle-class and upper-class girls were taught at home by their mothers. A small number might afford a governess, but this didn’t guarantee a better education as many of the governesses themselves were poorly educated.   

John Ruskin was a very influential Victorian writer, art critic and philosopher. 

John Ruskin

This is what he wrote in 1865 about the different ways in which men and women needed to be educated.

‘Women’s intellect is not for invention or creation…Her great function is Praise… Speaking broadly, a man ought to know any language or science he learns, thoroughly – while a woman ought to know the same language, or science, only so far as may enable her to sympathise in her husband’s pleasures, and in those of his best friends.

The vast majority of the middle and upper classes agreed with this – women should only be educated in order to support their husbands, and certainly not to learn things for themselves! So, girls were left at home to be taught by their mothers, and if you remember that their mothers wouldn’t have been to school either, you get an idea of the sort of education they were getting. They would have learnt to read and write, and learnt a little French and a few unconnected historical facts, but you could pretty much forget anything else.

And there was another obstacle for girls. Even if your mother happened to be well-educated herself, and good at teaching, it wasn’t considered acceptable for a girl to work hard at anything intellectual. Because men’s needs always came before a woman’s needs, a girl could only carry out her studies when she wasn’t needed to fetch or carry for her father, mend her brother’s shirts, or whatever it might be. Even practising the piano seriously had to be abandoned if it disturbed someone else’s studying. 

Florence Nightingale railed against this attitude in an unpublished essay she wrote on the subject: ‘How should we learn a language if we were to give it an hour a week?... [A lady] cannot leave the breakfast-table – or she must be fulfilling some little frivolous ‘duty’...If a man were to follow up his profession or occupation at odd times, how would be do it?...It is acknowledged by women themselves that they are inferior in every occupation to men. Is it wonderful? They do everything at ‘odd times’…’

Luckily, there were strong-minded, intelligent women who fought against this prevailing attitude. Some women defied convention and learned as much as they could from books and any male relation who was happy to teach them. Others were able to take advantage of the institutions which were gradually set up as the century progressed. (By the way, in 1868 a government commission admitted that men and women had the same mental capacity!) 

Florence Nightingale

As we all know, Florence Nightingale herself blazed the trail for the nursing profession, setting up the first nursing school at St Thomas’s Hospital in London in 1860, where crucially nurses would be trained. In 1848, Queen’s College in London was founded to educate governesses. Among its students were two women, Dorothea Beale and Frances Buss, who went on to become pioneers of girls’ education: Dorothea Beale became Principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Frances Buss was Headmistress of the North London Collegiate School. 

 Frances Buss 


In 1849, Bedford College for Women opened as the first higher education college for women in the country.  Educational reform gradually took place, alongside a changing view of the role of women, but it was a slow, slow process.

Before researching my current novel, I had sometimes looked at a list of so-called ‘Great Victorians’ and wondered why there weren’t more women on the list. I think I know now. Women had to overcome so many more obstacles than men before they could even start ‘achieving’ anything at all!

Catherine Randall’s debut novel The White Phoenix is set in London 1666, and features a strong girl breaking out of the mould society tries to force her into. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association Young Quills Award 2021.


Tuesday 8 March 2022

Girl Power during the Highland Clearances - a #WomensHistoryMonth Special

When I was at Edinburgh University in the nineties, I studied John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. It’s a remarkable piece of writing and as someone who had grown up on the continent, this aspect of history was news to me. It was my first encounter with the Highland Clearances, and I resolved to travel to Sutherland one day to find out more. At that point I was interested, but no more. Fast forward almost twenty years. It wasn’t until the windy summer of 2013 that I finally managed to make good that promise to myself – and by that stage I had acquired a husband, three children and a dog. I had struggled to find an accessible book about the Clearances for my two girls ahead of the holiday. I was feeling buoyant that summer – after what felt like hundreds of rejections, one of my manuscripts was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize. So, while in the ‘maybe-I-can-be-a-writer-after-all’ bubble, I stumbled upon the ruins of Ceannabeinne, outside Durness, above the world's most beautiful beach.
On the information panels connecting the walk through the ruins, it explained about the Durness riots (riots? In a place like this?) – and how a rebellion against the Clearances was started by the women and children of the village. Underestimating their resolve, the land manager had sent the eviction writ on a day that all the men and boys were away thatch-cutting – in the misguided expectation that the women would be a pushover and there would be no trouble. The villagers would simply be sent away to make room for the more profitable sheep. But somehow, records tell us, the women of Ceannabeinne managed to overwhelm the messenger and forced him to burn his own writ. This is even more remarkable when you know that simply touching the document would make it legally binding! I still wonder how they actually did it, but one thing was clear: here was an opportunity to focus on the female perspective of that part of history. What a story, and never written about in fiction. It was a rare gift – many details were in place, but there was all the room for speculation I needed, too. What if the catalyst for the rebellion was a kid? And the story just rolled in from there, like the waves on Ceannabeinne beach.
There were other books about that part of history, but written in the sixties and falling into easy, and perhaps lazy, gender stereotypes. Girl: Oh no, I am so scared! What are we going to do? (wrings hands) Boy: (rolls up sleeves) Well, let me just sort this out with my fisticuffs! You get the idea. I was hoping for something a bit more relatable, and here was the perfect story to try. However, the story is much, much wider than just the Highland Clearances. It’s about the haves and the have-nots, about the responsibility that comes with power, so often abused. And it’s about the individuals who choose to try to make a difference, as best as they know how. ‘Be a force for good,’ one of the characters tells Janet at the height of the crisis, ‘It’s all I can tell you in these times.’ That, to me, is quite a relevant thing in our times, too. Displacement, as Janet experiences, is all around us on a global scale. There is nothing parochial about this tale, which is why it really appealed to me to write about. On that first holiday, I collected everything I could about the incidents of 1841. The best part was that somebody had recently researched the history of the village, local historian Graham Bruce. Not only did I read everything he wrote about the subject, but I also cheekily approached him and asked if he’d read the first draft to check for historical accuracy – and the kind man did! I have still never met him in person. In 2014, I took a day to spend in Ceannabeinne itself. Walking and moving there and assigning houses to the various characters really helped. The Stathnaver Museum in Bettyhill filled in any remaining gaps in my knowledge – I finally felt able to write the book!
I wanted Janet to be feisty, and a real independent spirit, so that modern girls can see themselves reflected in her. In Janet’s society, women really didn’t count for much, and it definitely appealed to me that the women were the ones who defended the village from the first eviction writ’s delivery, overwhelming the Sheriff officer. Of course, this really happened as all the men were away. Janet is caring and loyal, but not afraid of conflict either – just like modern youngsters, she is at odds with teachers and peers at times. I like the idea that a young person can sometimes see what adults can’t. Janet’s impulsive nature has landed her in lots of trouble, but at this crisis point, Janet is exactly what the village needs. We can all make a difference.
‘Be a force for good’ is now what I sign into the book every time a youngster buys one. A good reminder to us all.

Thursday 3 March 2022

World Book Day special - How to find readers for your book by Barbara Henderson

That’s it! You are a published author, and you are holding your finished product in your hand!
Wait - how on earth will anyone know about it?
Some big publishers have a team and a budget for that sort of thing – but sadly, Blue Peter appearances and international publicity campaigns await only the lucky few. For the vast majority of authors, publicity is something they have to do themselves – and perhaps that is a good thing! You can play to your strengths and get creative! It need not cost anything either. Here are some examples of what promoting your book could involve.
Blog tour – who knew, but there are a whole lot of book enthusiasts who have their own websites – blogs – on which they review books. The usual arrangement is that they will be sent a free copy of the book by the publishers in exchange for an honest review. The organisation of these blog tours often falls onto the writer. Sometimes the author may also write interesting articles or related content for these blogs to create some online buzz – most book bloggers are very active on social media, and if they like your book, it can really help.

Press releases – This was news to me, but newspapers and magazines rarely cover new book releases unless they are sent a press release first. This means that the author writes an article about themselves and the book in the 3rd person, as if a newspaper journalist had written it. All the information needs to be correct - and if you also attach some high-quality images, you have a good chance of the press picking up on your story. It’s even better if you have a topical hook, like an anniversary of a historical event, or a connection to something that people are already talking about. You may have to tailor your press release to the publication you are targeting. TV and radio will also be interested in featuring you if there is a strong topical hook – think of it as a Venn diagram between your book and what people are already talking about. If there is overlap, you have a way in.

Book Trailer – Video content makes it 34% more likely that your audience will engage! Even a short film on YouTube advertising your book, much in the style of film trailers (with teasers and engaging images), can generate a lot of awareness, and of course it can be shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram too.

Social media – It is a great thing for an author to be active on social media but be wary of posting endless ‘buy my book’ style content. It will soon turn your audience off. Readers and potential buyers want to get a flavour of who you are and connect with you. Be real! Images of rapt audiences at your events or screenshots of good reviews (with a humble-ish caption) go down well and increase your profile. But be sure to show support for others and their work too.

Finally, don’t be shy – opportunities for publicity are everywhere. Pitch yourself as a writer in residence! Suggest a book event to your local library! Start a YouTube channel or podcast! Connect with book festivals and like-minded writers. Seek collaborations. Contact organisations which may have an interest in your book. Join groups and forums and ENGAGE, earning yourself a hearing for your own agenda.  Have a go – you won’t regret it!

Someone once advised me: Don’t worry about being pretty. Be memorable. Be kind.
Good advice. 
The Time Tunnellers are five authors who write historical novels for
children and young adults -
Susan Brownrigg, Barbara Henderson, Catherine Randall,
Ally Sherrick and Jeannie Waudby.
Every Thursday we share a new blog article on a different topic
and a youtube video with a writing challenge for young people and teachers.


The rise & rise of the Paralympics - by Robin Scott-Elliot

That the Paralympics rose out of such a dark place, from the ashes of the Second World War, wounded men and a fugitive from the Nazis, says ...