Monday, December 18, 2023

Beautiful Ghost

Good morning, dear readers! I have one more wonderful guest post for you this year. If you haven't already, make sure you sign up for my newsletter (should be right above this post) to get the latest updates and subscriber exclusive content starting January 1. It will be here before we know it!

My guest today is Milana Marsenich, who has written a moving story about women's lives after World War I. Just when they thought they had faced the worst, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 hit their Montana town. If you loved Luminous, check out Beautiful Ghost!

Welcome, Milana!

~ Samantha


Beautiful Ghost an Excerpt

Guest Post by Milana Marsenich

“Come back to the bakery with me and you can see for yourself. Annie doesn’t even know I exist when you are around. You can stay with us. You’ll be safe there.” Kaly heard herself echoing a sentiment Beth had once professed to Kaly. “Come stay at Miss Lottie’s,” her friend had said. “You’ll be safe there.” 

This was different. Kaly looked at the ground. “Besides, we talked about it. You can’t work the line now.” Beth had agreed. The syphilis would infect others, eventually killing them. “Maybe Tara would put you to work.”

Kaly worked hard in the bakery. At first, she’d waited tables, but soon learned to cook good wholesome food. She cleaned tables and swamped the place at night, shopped, and stocked supplies. Still, she would not be able to make ends meet without Tara’s help and Tommy sending home his army money. 

Beth shook her head. “You know I can’t live on that kind of money. I’ve got a scheme brewing and as soon as it’s ready, you’ll be the first to know.” 

Kaly couldn’t help but feel that she had betrayed and abandoned her friend. So many didn’t have the means to retire that profession. Old prostitutes often died cold and sick on the streets, or at one of the hog ranches for old whores. Those with syphilis did even worse. 

She couldn’t stand to think of that fate for Beth. Beautiful, bold, vivacious Beth. Kaly missed their camaraderie. Beth had been her best friend since she was fourteen. If Kaly had her way, she’d never give her up. But Beth had distanced herself from Kaly since she’d moved in with Tara McClane, and there seemed to be nothing Kaly could do about it. 

Read more of Beautiful Ghost by Milana Marsenich

During the fall of 1918, the influenza pandemic crosses the nation and reaches the mining town of Butte, Montana. 

Marika Jovich, who wants to go to school to become a physician, works menial tasks for Dr. Fletcher. She feels useless as she tries to save friends and neighbors from the ravages of the flu. In the midst of the pandemic, she watches the town shut down, young and old perish, and her medical dreams all but evaporate.

Kaly Monroe used to be a half-good woman of the night. She left that life to raise her daughter, Annie, and live and work with her long-lost mother, Tara McClane. Kaly waits for her husband, Tommy, to return from the war. Word from the east is that soldiers are dying of influenza and she prays that Tommy is not one of them.

When an out-of-town woman named Amelia suddenly dies in Dr. Fletcher's office, both women try to learn more about the mysterious woman and the circumstances regarding her death. Is she another casualty of the pandemic, or the victim of manmade foul play? Who is this stranger, and is her demise a portent of the fate that awaits the residents of Butte?

Praise for Beautiful Ghost:
“Marsenich doesn't just describe the place and times, she conjures it up like time travel.” 
~ Amazon Review by Ellen Leahy Howell

Connect with Milana Marsenich

Award winning author, Milana Marsenich lives in Northwest Montana near Flathead Lake at the base of the beautiful Mission Mountains. She enjoys quick access to the mountains and has spent many hours hiking the wilderness trails with friends and dogs. For the past 20 years she has worked as a mental health therapist in a variety of settings. As a natural listener and a therapist, she has witnessed amazing generosity and courage in others. She first witnessed this in her hometown of Butte, Montana, a mining town with a rich history and the setting for Copper Sky, her first novel. 

Copper Sky was chosen as a Spur Award finalist for Best Western Historical Novel in 2018. Her second novel, The Swan Keeper, was a Willa Award finalist in 2019. Her short story, Wild Dogs, won the Laura Award for short fiction in 2020. 

She has an M.Ed. in Mental Health Counseling from Montana State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. She has previously published in Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, The Polishing Stone, The Moronic Ox, BookGlow, and Feminist Studies

She has three published novels, Copper Sky, The Swan Keeper, and Beautiful Ghost, and one popular history book, Idaho Madams. Her upcoming novel, Shed Girl: A Juliet French Novel, will be released January 2024. Her popular history book, Mary MacLane: Butte’s Wild Woman and her Wooden Heart, will be out sometime in 2025. 

Connect with Milana on her Website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Book BubAmazon Author Page, or Goodreads.  

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Historic Places: Montpelier

It's been a while since I've made an entry to my Historic Places blog series, so I've been going through my photos and travel journals to decide what to share next. When I saw that my last entry was Mount Vernon, I decided we should take a virtual trip to James Madison's Montpelier.

The Great Little Madison, Father of the Constitution, fourth president of the United States, grew up at Montpelier, though not in the grand house that stands there today. James Madison was born 16 March 1751, before the mansion was built and his family lived in a cottage that once stood approximately half-mile south. The central portion of the mansion was built during James's childhood and was added onto throughout the proceeding decades.

The home belonged to his parents, and James was often away through the early years of the country's history. When he returned to Montpelier after his presidency in 1817, the mansion was divided into separate households, complete with their own entry doors, one for James's mother and the other for James and his wife, Dolley. The house is presented today as it was during the 1820s. The space is designed for conversation and study, just as one might expect of a home owned by James and Dolley Madison.

My favorite room of the home is the study, where visitors can imagine James passionately working on his plans for a new Constitution. A window provides a view of the front lawn, giving James notice of visitors or simply a place to allow his gaze to wander while his mind was at work. And his books! Letters written during James's lifetime reference a study so full of books and piles of papers that one can scarcely walk between them, and some of that collection remains today.

James died at Montpelier on 28 June 1836, declining physicians' offers to attempt to prolong his life until July 4th. Three US presidents had coincidentally passed away on the 4th of July, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1826, and James Monroe in 1831. James Madison was content to allow God to choose his time, and he is buried on the grounds at Montpelier.

Dolley Madison was forced to sell Montpelier in 1844. The plantation did not earn enough profit to support itself, and her son, Payne, was constantly draining her of cash. Dolley died in Washington DC in 1849, and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Her remains were later reinterred at Montpelier. The monument directly behind James's is hers.

Montpelier might not have the big budget of Mount Vernon, but it has been carefully restored and has a lot to offer visitors, including a fantastic guided tour, walking paths, gardens, and informative exhibits. They also have a nice little gift shop, where I may or may not have spent too much on books. Have you visited?

(All photos taken by Samantha Wilcoxson.)

Learn more about Dolley Madison in my Women of the American Revolution!  It is available at Pen & SwordAmazonBook DepositoryBarnes & Noble, or your favorite book retailer. 

Also available now at Audible and!

You can also find more articles here.

Join me on your preferred social media for daily fun facts, on this day in history posts, and lots of pictures!




Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Women of the Old West

One of the things I love about studying history is learning about women who did more than they ever thought they could under astonishing circumstances. American history is full of examples of this, from the Revolution and growing pains of a new nation, through civil war and western expansion. In the 1800s, it took a lot of courage and grit to move away from the settled east coast. My guest today gives us a glimpse of that world and an introduction to her book, The Redemption of Mattie Silks.

Welcome, Kimberly Burns!

~ Samantha


Women of the Old West

Guest Post by Kimberly Burns

Women of the Old West were pioneers and trailblazers, but not just in the sense that they gave up their homes and trekked into the wilderness. They also blazed trails in business, were pioneers of medicine and groundbreakers in politics.

Remember the old US Army advertising campaign: "We do more before 9AM than most people do all day"? My great-grandmother could have given any soldier a run for their money. With a baby on her hip and five more little ones trailing behind, she packed her valuables into a wagon and walked from North Carolina to Colorado. She spent the rest of her life on a homestead in the Colorado foothills, keeping the house and raising three more babies while also completing a man’s day’s work out on the range. She may have accomplished more before any given sunrise than I do in a good year. Sadly, stories of her and other remarkable but unknown heroines are being lost in the fog of history. 

There were few acceptable careers for women in the 1800s, and certainly none that created wealth. Most working women struggled on subsistence earnings as laundresses, cooks, maids, or teachers. But in the West, where survival often depended on everyone pulling their weight, women could not afford to be shrinking violets. Their husbands and communities needed all hands to pitch in. The move west wrenched women from the customs, conventions, standards, and traditions with which they had been raised. They had to develop new codes of acceptable behavior, dress, and mores. In my novel The Mrs. Tabor, a local madam explains that a woman alone can act with the highest decorum and in the end, she will politely starve to death. The madam warns, “The law of survival always trumps the rules of etiquette.”

The need for labor gave Western women opportunities to create careers that their sisters in the East did not have. Women were often good with livestock, and ran cattle ranches, bred horses, or drove pack mules. It is estimated that 15% of homesteaders were single women. In an era when women could not sign a legal contract or open a bank account, female entrepreneurs owned restaurants, stores, and hotels in frontier towns. 

In the mining boomtowns, most men preferred prospecting to planning infrastructure. This opened the door for the few women there to participate in government and improve the living conditions for their families and communities. In fact, many Old West towns lacked a school and church until the females organized the funding and building of these cultural institutions. White men may have explored the West, but white women settled it.

Western women also participated in politics decades before the constitution was amended to allow voting for all, regardless of sex. Wyoming Territory passed a women’s voting act in 1869, and the gals got right to work. Within a year the territory had female jury members, a bailiff and a justice of the peace. Other states and territories west of the Mississippi soon followed suit and women were voting in Colorado by 1893 and in Utah by 1896. 

In a region where males greatly outnumbered females, some lonely men were of the opinion that woman’s suffrage might attract quality marriage candidates. Daring and hardy adventuresses would be drawn to a new life in the Wild West if they had a hand in shaping it. Delicate flowers accustomed to a steady life of comfort need not apply. 

When their Eastern sisters were marching for the right to vote in matching white dresses, Western women were campaigning to be elected to public office themselves. All-lady town councils were elected in Oskaloosa, Kansas (1888) and Kanab, Utah (1912). In 1920, the same year that the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, Jackson, Wyoming elected an all-female mayor and city council. One of their descendants wrote, “There was a practical approach to it. [They said] we need this and we’ll do it ourselves.” Dubbed the Petticoat Rulers, they extended electric service, installed street lights, grated streets, created a town cemetery, collected taxes, and appointed a (female) town treasurer, marshal, and health officer. 

Medical schools were graduating a handful of token female doctors in the late 1800s. Many of those found acceptance in the rough western territories. Perhaps citizens felt a lady doctor was better than no doctor at all. The television show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman was loosely based on the life of Doc Susie who served small mountain towns in the Colorado Rockies from 1893 until 1956. Imagine the patients she must have treated in a region filled with wild animals and wilder men. Her story and that of a few other early medical professionals are noted in state historical society collections, but most are unknown in the wider world.

Some women found work on the wrong side of the law. Pearl Hart robbed stagecoaches. Belle Star led a gang of cattle rustlers. Sing Choy, also known as China Mary, controlled the opium dens and Chinese prostitution in old Tombstone. The main character of my latest book, Mattie Silks, used her sharp business acumen to run one of Denver’s most successful brothels for over forty years.

Regardless of where they found employment, the women of the Old West displayed an incredible work ethic and courage enough to fill a library with adventure stories. But there is another, less glamorous trait they seemed to possess — pragmatism. If there was work to be done, they simply got to it. I don’t think many of the women who settled the wild frontier took any time to reflect on accomplishments or bask in any congratulatory accolades. There were few philosophical debates about equality of ability or opportunity. They were too busy, living by the motto, “Get ’er done!”

The Redemption of Mattie Silks

In 1892, running one of the West’s fanciest brothels is a rough game. In a town filled with brazen criminals, corrupt police, zealous politicians, and morality committees, Madam Mattie Silks makes her fortune catering to Colorado’s gold and silver millionaires.

Notorious crime boss “Soapy” Smith is at the top of the Denver underworld. There are no rules for Smith’s gang. They solve problems with bribes and bullets. When Mattie’s husband stumbles into Soapy’s dealings, she struggles to protect him.

Gold is discovered in the Yukon and Mattie seizes the opportunity for adventure and profit. But Skagway, Alaska, is even more lawless than Denver. Mattie must use all her business sense and street smarts to safeguard those she cares about. Will it be enough? Or will Lady Justice again turn a blind eye?

Based on a true story, The Redemption of Mattie Silks is an action-packed tale of a woman succeeding in a man’s world even when the cards are stacked against her.

“The research on the era shines through, as do the grit and spirit of the characters. …A colorful and enthralling journey.” 
~ K.T. Blakemore, award-winning author of The Good Time Girls series

Connect with Kimberly Burns

Kimberly Burns grew up in Colorado hearing stories about the colorful characters of the Old West. She has degrees from the University of Colorado and the University of Hartford. Kimberly is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Western Writers of America, and Women Writing the West. She lives with her husband and black Lab in Leesburg, Virginia.

Her debut novel The Mrs. Tabor won numerous awards including the Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award for Best New Novel, a gold medal for Best Regional Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards, a National Indie Excellence Award, and a silver medal from the Colorado Independent Publishers Association EVVY Awards.

Kimberly and her unruly heroines make for an entertaining book talk. She is available to discuss her novels with book groups in person or online. Email her at

Connect with Kimberly through her website, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon Author Page, Goodreads

Saturday, December 9, 2023

What I'm Reading: The Wharton Plot

Last month, I posted the first book review on my blog and decided to make it a habit. This month, I would like to introduce you to The Wharton Plot, a novel by Mariah Fredericks.

My dear readers might know that I adore Edith Wharton. In fact, when tasked with writing a ghost story, the first thing I did was reread my favorites by Wharton, including Afterward. With the goal of creating a story in a similar style, I wrote Among the Lost set in 1927 Northern Michigan.

The Lindburgh Nanny was my introduction to the writing of Mariah Fredericks, and you can read what I thought about it here. Clearly, I enjoyed it enough to jump at the chance to read an early copy of her newest novel. When I received an email from Minotaur Books asking if I’d like to read The Wharton Plot, I said, “Solving a mystery with Edith Wharton? Yes, please!”

Historical facts not treated as spoilers.

Edith Wharton

Since dear Mrs Wharton did not actually have anything to do with investigating the murder of writer David Graham Phillips, this novel is purely fiction, but it was fun to spend time with one of my favorite classic authors in Gilded Age New York. Historically, the murder required no investigation, because the killer was known straight away. If you don’t know who it was or what happened, I won’t give it away here. Fredericks creates a gap in time between the murder and the discovery of the killer in order to take Mrs Wharton on an adventure.

I’m normally a purist when it comes to historical fiction, but Fredericks adjustments to the facts in this case don’t change much at the core of the story and enable the reader to get a good look at the senseless tragedy through Edith Wharton’s eyes.

When Edith wonders that Phillips was gunned down in broad daylight in the middle of the street, her friend makes some derogatory comments about guns, which I thought might have been an anachronistic attitude. However, when I did a bit of research after finishing the book, I learned that this case did actually spur one of America's early gun control laws. It's always nice to learn something when reading historical fiction!

Just how does a middle-aged author end up obsessed with solving the murder of a fellow author whom she just met and didn’t like? “She was aware that she would rather spend the afternoon with the corpse of a man she detested rather than her living, breathing husband.” The failing relationship of the Whartons and women’s limited options in life – even if you’re a woman with Edith Wharton’s resources – are secondary themes in this book and are well done. I could go on about challenges that women still face in this day of being able and expected to do it all, but I have a book review to write.

David Graham Phillips

Edith is initially not impressed by the victim's sister's theory that he was killed by someone trying to halt the publication of his latest novel. "This was why radicals were so irritating. To persuade themselves of their importance, they insisted the entire world was involved in a vast intrigue to thwart them." She investigates a few theories of her own, and through her actions the reader gets a glimpse at The Four Hundred and their shallow interactions and maneuverings. As Edith looks at them with fresh eyes in her search for a killer, she realizes how much they get away with due to their deep pockets. Could one of them have wanted Phillips dead?

He wrote the sort of stories that made people angry, exposing political payoffs and scandalous social lives. Edith is warned to stop digging, which only makes her more eager to discover the elusive truth. "Do not write this. What words could be more provocative to a writer? What clearer sign that there was a story here to write?"

Edith isn't sure who killed Phillips, but she is sure that it has something to do with his writing. Even when one dismissed suspect claims it's a crazy theory because no one cares about books. "The calm assertion that books did not matter was such heresy to her that she had no idea how to refute it." I couldn't agree more, Edith.

Of course, Mrs Wharton does find her killer in a dramatic ending, but that is all I will say about that, so that you can enjoy The Wharton Plot yourself when it is released in January 2024!

Curious about what else I'm reading? Join me on Goodreads or see what other books I have reviewed here on my blog.

Monday, December 4, 2023

How to Dress Like a Tudor

I am excited to feature author Judith Arnopp today! I have been friends with Judith for several years and am excited about her latest book, How to Dress Like a Tudor. She has joined me here on the blog before, once with a popular article about Margaret Beaufort and more recently with a look at Henry VIII. If you love all things Tudor, you will love this one too!

Welcome, Judith!

~ Samantha


How to Dress Like a Tudor

Guest Post by Judith Arnopp

Have you ever hankered to dress like a Tudor lord or lady, or perhaps you prefer the status of goodwife, or costermonger, or even a bawd? 

For beginner historical reenactors, the path to authenticity can be bewildering and sometimes intimidating. Judith Arnopp uses her own experience, both as a historian and a medieval/Tudor lady, to make your own journey a little easier.

The author traces the transition of fashion from the relatively subtle styles popular at the court of Henry VII, through the carefully constructed royal grandeur of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I to the pinnacle of majesty and splendid iconography of Elizabeth I. 

In contrast to the magnificence of court come the ordinary folk who, subject to sumptuary laws and regulations, wore garments of a simpler cut and cloth – a strata of society that formed the back bone of Tudor England.

This brief history of 16th century fashion examines clothing for both rich and poor, adult and child, and offers tips and tricks on how to begin to sew your first historically inspired garment, this book is aimed at helping the beginner learn How to Dress like a Tudor.

Get your copy of How to Dress Like a Tudor!

Connect with Judith

Judith writes historical fiction set during the late medieval and Tudor period. Her usual focus is on the women who lived close to the monarch, women like Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth of York and Mary Tudor but more recently has been writing from the perspective of Henry VIII himself. Her books are on Kindle, Audible and Paperback.

She also writes non-fiction, her work featuring in many anthologies and online magazines. Her latest non-fiction, How to Dress like a Tudor published by Pen & Sword Books is available now. 

Judith is a founder member of a reenactment group The Fyne Company of Cambria, and began making Tudor costumes for herself, her husband, John, and other members of the group. It was this that inspired How to Dress like a Tudor and she hopes to write more non-fiction Tudor history in the future.

Friday, November 24, 2023

The Middle Generation

I'm doing something a little bit different for this stop on the Coffee Pot Book Club tour for The Middle Generation. Normally, I would welcome author M.B. Zucker to the blog, as when he visited before. However, this time, I couldn't resist the opportunity to read his newly released novel and share my review with my dear readers. So, welcome to my blog's first book review! 

As some of you know, I have great admiration for John Quincy Adams, the protagonist of The Middle Generation. I was captivated from the first page when I realized that Zucker had not only written about the great JQA, he had done so in first person from John Quincy's point of view!

How exciting!

And how intimidating! I have toyed with the idea of writing a novel about Dolley Madison, but I hesitate when I think about being tasked with writing dialog for the Great Little Madison. How could I sufficiently enter that amazing mind? So, I was enthralled to see how this author had done so with one of the most accomplished statesmen of the nineteenth century.

The book opens with Adams in a cabinet meeting where he is the smartest person in the room. He is always the smartest person in the room, and like most men who find themselves in this position, he knows it. I laughed to myself at his observations of Treasury Secretary Crawford (whose presidential candidacy I'm sad to admit James A Hamilton supported). It was a great start that sets the stage for the intellectual story interspersed with Adams snark that this novel promised to be.

We also see the more personal side of JQA, and how he holds his family to the same high standards to which he holds himself. This habit, inherited from his own parents, is damaging to relationships and many of the Adams clan that turn to alcoholism to escape it, but John Quincy, like his father before him, demands perfection.

When John Adams informs his son that he "must" achieve the presidency - and hold it for two terms, JQA feels the pressure even as an adult at that time serving as Secretary of State.

"It was now an issue of life and death. Failure would destroy me and my family. A disgrace for generations. Through history. My name synonymous with shame."

This just before Abigail rings in with her own dig at them both, "Yes! We shall have a two-term President in this family."

And you thought you came from a dysfunctional family!

This novel is introspective. It serves to give access to the reflections of John Quincy Adams to those who will never read his volumes of diaries. Having read some of the entries that have pertained to my own research, I believe Zucker has retained the character of JQA in the thoughts and dialog he has written for him. And there's lots of dialog. As is appropriate for a novel about JQA, more time is spent in conversation than in action, and those discussions take place with all of the biggest names of the day: Monroe, Calhoun, Clay, and a variety of foreign diplomats.

The reader gains an appreciation for the work of Secretaries of State that often gets little attention or respect. JQA worked tirelessly to gain the US status as a strong, independent nation, and he had a vision for his Presidency that would have benefitted Americans if they hadn't been so obsessed with the authoritarian brute they elected to replace him instead. Adams was, like many great men before him, too far ahead of his time.

This novel ends before he fully realizes that, with his inauguration and hopes still intact. Maybe Zucker will write more about JQA. I'd love to follow him through his presidency and the defense of the Amistad captives - those years where he fully recaptured any virtue he might have feared lost through his partnership with Clay.

I wish Americans were more interested in these formative years of the early 19th century. If you are, I recommend picking up this book.

The Middle Generation: A Novel of John Quincy Adams and the Monroe Doctrine
by M.B. Zucker

The classical era of American history began with the Revolution and ended with emancipation. Between these bookends lies the absorbing yet overshadowed epic of a new nation spearheading liberty’s cause in a world skeptical of freedom arriving at all, much less in slaver’s garb. M. B. Zucker takes readers back to that adolescent country in the care of an enigmatic guide, John Quincy Adams, heir to one president by blood and another, Washington, by ideology. Adams is the missing link between the founders and Abraham Lincoln, and is nigh unanimously regarded as America’s foremost Secretary of State. Through Adams’ eyes, readers will experience one of history’s greatest and most forgotten crises: his showdown with Europe over South American independence, the conflict which prefigured the Monroe Doctrine. 

With his signature dialogue and his close study of Adams’ 51 volume diary, M. B. Zucker’s The Middle Generation is a political thriller and character piece that surpasses his achievement in The Eisenhower Chronicles and ascends to the cinematic heights of the historical epics of David Lean and Steven Spielberg. It is an unforgettable portrait and a leap forward for one of our rising historical fiction novelists. 

Get your copy at Amazon, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble.
If you're in the DC area, check out your local B&N for copies!

Connect with M.B. Zucker

M. B. Zucker has been interested in storytelling for as long as he can remember. He discovered his love of history at fifteen and studied Dwight Eisenhower for over ten years. Mr. Zucker earned his B.A. at Occidental College and his J.D. at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He lives in Virginia with his wife.

Connect with him through his website or on TwitterFacebook, InstagramLinkedInAmazon Author Page, and Goodreads

If you enjoyed this review, please join me on Goodreads! While I don't review 100 books each year as I once did, I do share what I'm reading & some reviews on those books that I feel most strongly about. I'd love to know what you're reading too!

London Tales

If you've read my Women of the American Revolution, you might remember Dolley Madison's escape from Washington DC before British soldiers captured and burned the city. This was the biggest news in the US in 1814, but what was happening in London? Author Tim Walker joins me today with an excerpt from his London Tales.

Welcome, Tim!

~ Samantha

Holly's Dream, An Excerpt

Guest Post by Tim Walker

In the winter of 1813-14 the River Thames froze over for the last time, allowing an ice fair to attract revellers onto the frozen river. At her father’s suggestion, 14-year-old Holly attempts to erase a recurring nightmare of a face under the ice by telling the story of the unfortunate victim, Mabel…

The moon disappears behind the clouds, but the street is lit by gas lanterns on high poles. I’ve rarely walked around after midnight, so I find these new gas lamps to be the most wondrous things, and I glance up at the flickering flames. We head east, past Westminster Abbey, following the line of the river. Night watchmen hunch over their brazier, warming their hands. One turns to stare at us as we hurry past, but says nothing. After a while, I turn at the sound of horse hooves on the cobbles, and gasp at the sight of Master Albright’s footman on his Hanson carriage, swishing his whip over the horse’s rump.

“Quick, this way!” I hiss, in a loud whisper, grabbing Mabel’s hand and running down a narrow passageway between two warehouses towards the river.

We run along the embankment and onto Old London Bridge, its leaning houses lit up by gaslight. There are lights from the windows, as some foolhardy folk still stubbornly dwell in the structures condemned for demolition. To cheer us up, I start singing in puffs of cloudy breath:

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

Mabel smiles and sings the next bit, as we swing our arms:

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady.

“It’ll take much more than wood and clay to fix this bridge,” I say, stopping to look back. The bridge approach is shrouded in darkness, and all is still.

I lead Mabel between houses to the railings to catch our breath and I look down on the river. The edges are still solid ice with people on. Ice flows to my left are like an army of snow dwarves bobbing down the dark central channel. I study the pinpoints of light where coals glow red in braziers as groups huddle around, warming their hands or toasting bits of meat on skewers. I’m transfixed in that moment and feel myself frozen to the spot. A squeeze on my hand brings me to my senses.

“They should be careful,” Mabel says in cloudy puffs, “that ice will be thinning.” There is fear in her eyes at a returning memory, and I hug her.
A girl screams, and a shudder runs through me, but it’s only a redcoat soldier, grabbing a girl who struggles playfully. She breaks away from his grasp and shuffles across the ice in shoes wrapped in rags, glancing back, hoping he will follow. He does and grabs her arm by the steps that go to the embankment walk. 

The Authors Note:
Between 1609 and 1814, the surface of the river Thames froze over twenty-four times. Londoners marked some of these occasions with Frost Fairs, erecting market stalls, playing games and cooking meat on the icy surface of the river. Holly’s Dream is set in 1814, the year of the last frost fair, during the reign of ‘mad’ King George III. It was the year before the Battle of Waterloo, where the Duke of Wellington and his allies finally put an end to Napoleon’s dream of a European empire ruled by France and cemented Britain’s rise as a major military power.

The story centres on the abduction or purchase of poor children to work under strict supervision in return for board and lodgings, a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Children would be trained to make household goods or be forced to work at a range of jobs from house maids to chimney sweeps. The most unfortunate would have been the victims of sexual abuse or forced into prostitution.

London Tales

This collection of eleven tales offers dramatic pinpricks in the rich tapestry of London’s timeline, a city with two thousand years of history. They are glimpses of imagined lives at key moments, starting with a prologue in verse from the point of view of a native Briton tribeswoman absorbing the shock of Roman invasion. The first story is a tense historical adventure set in Roman Londinium in 60 CE from the perspective of terrified legionaries and townsfolk facing the vengeful Iceni queen, Boudica, whose army burnt the fledgling city to the ground.

Further historical dramas take place in 1381 during the Peasant’s Revolt, the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the last ice fair on the frozen Thames in 1814. These are followed by a romance set during the Blitz in 1941, then the swinging Sixties and wide-flared seventies are remembered in the life story of fictional policeman, Brian Smith. Moving on, an East End family get a fright from copycat killings that are a throwback to the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders.

There’s a series of contemporary stories that reference recent events, including the London terrorist bombings of 2005, a literary pub crawl and a daring prison break, building to the imagined death throes of London in a chilling, dystopian vision. These stories are loosely inspired by the author’s personal experiences and reflections on his time living and working in London in the 1980’s and 90’s. Adaptability, resilience, conformity and resolve are recurring themes.

London Tales evokes the city’s rich history and the qualities that were needed by Londoners at various times to survive and prosper – from the base and brutal, devious and inspired, to the refined and civilized. 

Available from Amazon in e-book, paperback, Kindle Unlimited and audiobook formats, London Tales is a companion volume to Thames Valley Tales.

Book cover designed by Sean McClean, shows elements from stories.

Connect with the author

Tim Walker is an independent author living near Windsor in the UK. Although born in Hong Kong in the sixties, he grew up in Liverpool where he began his working life as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper. After attaining a degree in Communication Studies he moved to London where he worked in the newspaper publishing industry for ten years before relocating to Zambia where, following a period of voluntary work with VSO, he set up his own marketing and publishing business. He returned to the UK in 2009.

His creative writing journey began in earnest in 2013, as a therapeutic activity whilst recovering from cancer treatment. He began writing an historical fiction series, A Light in the Dark Ages, in 2014, inspired by a visit to the part-excavated site of former Roman town Calleva Atrebatum at Silchester in Hampshire. The series connects the end of Roman Britain to elements of the Arthurian legend and is inspired by historical source material, presenting an imagined historical fiction of Britain in the fifth and early sixth centuries.

The last book in the series, Arthur, Rex Brittonum, was published in June 2020. This is a re-imagining of the story of King Arthur and follows on from 2019’s Arthur Dux Bellorum. Both titles are Coffee Pot Book Club recommended reads. The series starts with Abandoned (second edition, 2018); followed by Ambrosius: Last of the Romans (2017); and book three, Uther’s Destiny (2018). Series book covers are designed by Canadian graphic artist, Cathy Walker.

Tim has also written two books of short stories, Thames Valley Tales (second edition 2023), London Tales (2023); a book of verse, Perverse (2020); a dystopian thriller, Devil Gate Dawn (2016); and three children’s books, co-authored with his daughter, Cathy – The Adventures of Charly Holmes (2017), Charly & the Superheroes (2018) and Charly in Space (2020).

Tim took early retirement on medical grounds and now divides his time between writing and helping out at a Berkshire-based charity, Men’s Matters.

Find out more about the author at his website, Goodreads Author Page, Amazon Author Page,

Sunday, November 19, 2023

City of Chaos

Good morning, dear readers! If you haven't read Masterworks yet, here's more inspiration to pick up your 99c copy. Author Tempest Wright joins me today with some of the history behind her story, A Good and Proper Lunacy. Welcome, Tempest!

~ Samantha


City of Chaos

Guest Post by Tempest Wright

“Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ”—Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!”

This was the slogan of the French Revolution. 

But the Rebellion of 1832, while sometimes mistaken for that revolution, was nearly 43 years after the original started. That being said, it worked perfectly within the time of Hughes Merle, the artist I tried to bring to life in A Good and Proper Lunacy. Once I began my research, I was a little surprised at just how much chaos there was in Paris after that first and pivotal revolution. So let me introduce you to the City of Chaos.

A Tale of Kings

Once the floodgates of the first revolution opened, there was no stopping it. Parisians within the span of fifty years, watched their monarchy fall; the resulting republic give way to the Reign of Terror; the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonapart and then the attempted restoration of a Bourbon monarchy. Keep in mind they were at war for almost 20 years while these changes took place.

The Bourbon Restoration included the nearest relatives of the guillotined King and Queen, waiting for the chance to be the new monarch. The second of them was Charles X. 

His preference for the ultra-royalists in his government earned him no popularity and when it seemed clear that the government under him did not care for their “constitutional monarch”, Charles tried to silence opposition through restricting the press and pushing the country back to its Catholic faith. When these did not succeed in demanding respect, Charles sought to dissolve the elected chamber and restore himself as the all-powerful monarch of France. 

You may imagine how this was received. 

In 1830, the July Revolution took place, making Charles X flee, and abdicate on the condition that his grandson be the next ruler. But the government cared little for his opinion. Thus, the next King, still of Bourbon descent, Louis- Phillipe, paraded through a hostile crowd towards Hotel de Ville, where he won the support of Republican Lafayette. As Lafayette was something of a symbolic leader of the revolution, his support for Louis was accepted by the people, and Louis-Phillipe became the next King of France. 

The Revolution of 1832

Two years had passed and some of the revolutionaries had soured on Louis -Phillipe and their “Citizen King”. The Republicans thought it a failure; they had risked their lives in 1830 to create a Republic, not to put another King on the Throne. The middle class and bourgeoisie however, were victorious in finding a King that would allow them to retain their power of influence- most of the voting or suffrage was done by these men. 

Thus a new rebellion was spawned; one that Victor Hugo immortalized, and one in which we find Hughes Merle, Gabriel, and Dr. Abbot struggling through the barricades of revolutionary Paris, each with their own ends. 

The City of Slums and Barricades

Few people today would ever think of Paris as a slum. 

But in 1832, Paris, slums were common. While some of the streets in the city, such as the Rue Saint-Honore, were wider and the houses within them catered to the middle and upper class, many of the poorer neighborhoods had retained what Victor Hugo quoted as, “their medieval charm”. Streets were narrow and winding through parts of the city, sometimes housing as many as ten people from the same family in one room

These streets – narrow and cramped – were ideal for barricades. Rebellions and revolutions erupted multiple times during the Bourbon Restoration and barricades were an integral part of these rebellions. They provided shelter and protection from which to fire whatever weapons against the King’s army, and slowed down its progress. But in 1832, Louis Phillip’s cannons saw that the rebellion was quenched – and quickly. 

City of Sons and Rebels

In many of the sources I’ve found, including The Insurgent Barricade by Mark Traugott and the artist biographies I could find on Hughes Merle, there is little support for Louis Phillipe’s way of defending his government. It was brutal, but there shouldn’t be much surprise either.

Those with power in “The Citizen King’s” reign had seen first-hand what a republic could do. Louis Phillipe and Francois Guizot, his advisor credited for the army’s harsh retaliation, had been in exile from their home, and even saw some of their father’s pay the ultimate price at the hands of the First Republic. 

While not condoning King Charles X entitled right of Kings, Louise Phillipe’s government didn’t want a repeat of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. 

But as Louis fed the hands that gained him power, the poor suffered, and the income gap widened. Cholera spread in the summer of 1832, killing thousands and propagating theories that we might as well call, “conspiracy theories” that the King used it to off his opposition. Such theories, we know now to be ludicrous. Republican activists gave rise to the people’s fears, and propped up revolutions and rebellions that fed others in later years. Revolution had literally become a way of life. 

City of Light

The city of Paris as we know it today, was reformed in the 1870’s. Since then, it has become known as the City of Light, and garnered tourists with its wide streets, shops and cafes, that make us think of a Paris so different from the one Hughes Merle knew. 

But it’s there. Buried in history, maybe, but not that deep. And that is how within the lifetime of one artist, a City of Chaos transformed into the City of Light.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Masterworks: Legacy


Good morning, dear readers! If you haven't already heard, I have a short story included in the latest Historical Writers Forum anthology, and it features James A Hamilton. I'm still buried in research to complete my biography of James due out in early 2025, but you can read this short story, along with ten others, for only 99c on Kindle.

The theme of this anthology is works of art, and each story is based upon a painting, sculpture, musical instrument, or some other artistic inspiration. One clever story is told from the point of view of a painting that has been observing visitors since Elizabethan times. Mine is based upon the Robert Ball Hughes sculpture of Alexander Hamilton that was destroyed in the Great Fire of New York, less than a year after its installation in 1835.

Can you imagine growing up as the son of such a famous, brilliant, controversial man? One who was forever remembered in his prime, since he never lived beyond it? James A Hamilton lived to be ninety, and during the Civil War he was in his seventies, with a long and interesting life to reflect upon. His mother had instilled in him a deep need to honor his father's legacy. Did he think he had sufficiently done so?

He had failed to save the marble statue during the Great Fire, though he had been part of the tireless team that managed to halt the advance of the flames. However, in many other, more important ways, James would have made his father proud, perhaps especially in how he spoke in favor of abolition of slavery during the Civil War.

Read my James A Hamilton story, Legacy, in Masterworks, the latest anthology from Historical Writers Forum! Only 99c on Kindle, FREE with Kindle Unlimited, and available in paperback.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Many One Sings of the Grass: The Historical, Legendary, and Religious Roots of Robin Hood

I'm pleased to welcome author Avellina Balestri to the blog today! She shares that there is much more to the character of Robin Hood than most of us realize. Join us to dig deeper into this familiar legend!

~ Samantha


Many One Sings of the Grass: The Historical, Legendary, and Religious Roots of Robin Hood

Guest Post by Avellina Balestri

“There’s many one sings of the grass, the grass, and many one sings of the corn, but those that sing of good Robin Hood know little where he was born.” – Traditional ballad

When writing my novel Saplings of Sherwood, the first book in a planned Robin Hood retelling series, The Telling of the Beads, I did so with the keen awareness that I was simply adding another thread to an already impressive tapestry. The legend of Robin Hood seems destined to never outgrow its own relevance, even as it resists being pinpointed with any historical certainty. It has been adapted to the needs of every era and medium of storytelling, and its popularity shows no signs of waning. 

The tales draw inspiration from the exploits of medieval English outlaws who came to be regarded as folk heroes for defying oppressive hunting restrictions and lightening the purses of travelers from privileged classes. They dwelt in the vast forests of Sherwood and Barnesdale and sometimes forged mutually beneficial alliances with those on the margins of society. Other historical sources include the feats of Saxon and Welsh rebels who took a stand in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and supporters of Simon de Montfort, who challenged the authority of the crown in order to establish a regular parliament. Their daring resulted in them being banished, and branded with the epithet “wolf’s heads.” 

Beyond history, the enigmatic Green Man of myth prefigures Robin Hood in his style of executing primal justice and challenging passers-by to test their mettle. We find here the archetype of the trickster and mischief-maker who, like the wily Reynard the Fox of medieval fables, leads us on a wild goose chase, only to turn on his heel and pursue us instead. He is the essence of all things that grow and wither in their allotted time, proclaiming that “no man dies before his day,” and when he appears with the antlers of a stag and blows his hunting horn, the souls of the deceased are gathered together and swept into the Wild Hunt, which takes them across the veil to the Otherworld. 

This unique combination of cultural facets, through which each passing generation has shone new light, serves as a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. It is a song that never sleeps, for it strikes a universal chord within our consciousness that makes us merry even amidst travail. In this way, there is truth to the saying that Robin Hood dwells in all the forests of the world. He is an everyman who straddles classes and embodies natural law, enforcing an order carved deeper than any man-made construct, something eternal, even divine. He is the thin line between chaos and concord, the Lord of Misrule and the Prince of Thieves, who reflects the image of our complex yearnings for wholeness in a corruptible universe. 

In addition to the character’s universality, he also possesses a particularity of place. He is a personification of the soul of England, shining bright with the memory of the ancient Anglo-Saxons and their unique expression of liberty. He springs up from the fertile ground of poaching culture, defending the rights of Englishmen to share in the bounty of the land. In his kingdom of merry Sherwood, all serfs are made free and all displaced find a home. The greenwood is the heart of England, and we are invited into it with all hospitality, but must expect our status to be leveled. Robin Hood is a king for the common man, and rules by the consent of those who love him. 

Yet there are boundaries which he remains within, and therein lies his greatest power. He does not give himself over to the seduction of the wilderness, but holds himself to a code that often surpasses that of the establishment. He cannot cast out the conquering Normans, but must learn to live with, and even learn from, them. Like the Magna Carta, he exists to curb tyranny, but he would happily shed his blood as a loyal subject of his rightful King, acknowledging an authority above his own. He is not simply a wish-fulfilling fantasy, for he mingles with our reality, walking a tightrope between rebellion and restraint. In this, he is the incarnation of that quiet revolution defining the history of his country, that gleam within the diamond set in the silver sea. 

My first introduction to the legend came at age six when I fell in love with the charming and clever fox from the Disney animated feature. While it was expected that parental figures might meet an untimely end for the sake of a main character’s coming-of-age arc, Robin was a roguish hero who I still feared might come to harm for putting his life on the line, time and time again, on behalf of the most vulnerable in his society. This showed another side of love that went beyond the instinctive sacrifice of a parent for their child and was offered freely to strangers. 

“I only wish I could do more,” Robin tells the mother rabbit in one of my favorite scenes, as he hands her a bag of coins. “And keep your chin up. Someday there’ll be happiness again in Nottingham. You’ll see.” 

“Oh, Robin Hood,” she murmurs, tears filling her eyes, “you risk so much to keep our hopes alive. Bless you. Bless you.” 

This, to me, is the heart of the film and the character – the reason why he became real to me when I was young and feels no less real to me now. It is why I could not go romping in the fields and woods surrounding my house without picking up sticks to brandish or bend into bows. It is why I could not put pencil to paper without scribbling new adventures in Sherwood, in words and drawings. It is why I became a lover of Britain, her colorful history and heritage, and the endearing and indomitable spirit of her people. It is what ultimately led me to roam the courtyard of Nottingham Castle where the famous Robin Hood statue and plaques are to be found, soaking in the timeless drizzle of English rain. 

And yet I never ceased to be haunted by the thought that he could be killed. Collections of the tales often end with the melancholy scene of Robin shooting his last arrow as he bleeds to death, having been betrayed at his weakest moment of illness and old age. I have come to see transcendence at play here, not unlike that present in the Arthurian Cycles when the Kingdom of Camelot crumbles, and the mortally wounded King Arthur is borne across the sea to nurse his grievous wounds. With few words of consolation offered, we are yet given cause to hope that should everything in this world come undone, there is a deeper reality that endures, and for which we should strive. Time is a part of eternity, and we are all bound up in the fathomless mystery of dying and rising. 

Delving into such classic literature from Christendom, one can see the Gospel of Jesus Christ undergirding it. Many of Robin Hood’s adventures take the form of parables where the last are made first, and the first last. Outcasts feast at table while hypocrites are dispossessed. He may rob and ridicule unscrupulous bishops and abbots, but he is still, at heart, a true son of the Church, who will not plunder even candlesticks consecrated to the purpose of divine worship. He is remembered as one who shows “mercy on the erring and pity to the weak” and cites “the dear Christ” as the reason he spares his enemies with his last breath. 

In the original ballads, Mary, the Mother of Christ, is said to be the only woman in Robin’s life. Although an earthly lover eventually made her way into the legendarium, the name Maid Marian is ripe with implications. Throughout his career, Robin is shown refusing to be disturbed while “telling his beads” for himself and his men, and risks capture to attend Mass for feasts of the Virgin, known as “lady days.” He also maintains a strict code of behavior in the company of women, as if the Blessed Mother herself were crossing his path. He is no knight, yet his sense of chivalry puts to shame many who wear the belt and chain. “I never hurt fair maid in all my time,” he states in the ballad chronicling his death, “nor at my end shall it be.” 

Like Robin’s connection to the Green Man, Mary’s prominence in the legends is believed by some to be a nod to the Lady of the Land, to whom pagan chiefs would offer their fealty in exchange for a prosperous reign. However, there is no reason to suppose that Robin worships Mary as a goddess, as has been suggested in certain recent retellings. As a Catholic Englishman in the country known as “Our Lady’s Dowry,” he venerates her as the grace-filled mother of his Savior, who spoke prophecy of God’s deliverance to the oppressed peoples of the world in her Magnificat: “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” 

For years now, I have hungered for a novelization of the story that manages to capture the spiritual ethos of the setting without reducing it to a tangle of superstition and legalism. Unfortunately, most modern versions, on paper and screen alike, either strip the religious references or distort them through a secular lens. As a practicing Catholic myself, I hope that my series manages to portray a living faith that weds the piety of the age to the paradox of the situation. Indeed, it is the irony of Robin’s position as the leader of a robber band who still shows greater virtue than many executors of the law and clerics of the Church that makes his story so unfailingly poignant. 

In many ways, I am a literary traditionalist, and hit all the major beats of the source material. However, I used creative license to fill in the spaces and establish characters before they become defined by their narrative roles. While I did not subvert the placing of heroes and villains, I did add layers of nuance to both ends of the spectrum. I also shed light on the individual experiences of peasants, townsmen, outlaws, guards, and other sectors of society that all too often receive short shrift in favor of following the major players. 

Regarding style, I walked a careful line between romanticism and realism. Robin’s medieval world brims with both the banality of evil and the beauty of grace, as does our own, and I believe the interplay of these two realities is the essence of stories worth telling. I have a deep distaste for pointless shock factor, and I did my best to approach even the most intense subjects in as tasteful and empathetic a manner as possible, while still retaining the raw emotional impact. The intended audience is mid-teens and up, though I suggest that sensitive readers who are disturbed by the darker elements of the medieval period proceed with caution. 

Since the accumulated legendarium was compiled over so many centuries, placing Robin during the reigns of various monarchs, it was impossible to maintain strict historical accuracy and still capture the evolving nature of the story. I settled on the most popular version that situates Robin’s outlaw career during the age of Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade, but you will find references to past eras and foreshadowing of future ones. My method takes inspiration from G.K. Chesterton, who wrote in the preface to The Ballad of the White Horse that the purpose of myth is to “telescope history.” 

My personal advice to all those who wish to be historical fiction writers is to cultivate a healthy respect for the time and place you will be representing. Do not sink into presenting and patronize our predecessors, but try to see the world as they might have seen it. While there are various differences, there are also many similarities grounded in the universality of human experience. Dehumanizing our past and other-izing our ancestors is unfair both to them and to us. 

This is especially true of stories set during or inspired by the much-maligned Middle Ages. Too often it is reduced to mud, blood, and manic depression instead of portraying not only negative aspects of medieval life but also the truly vibrant cultures that flourished during the period. It was a world far from colorless stagnation and humorless fanaticism. Indeed, perhaps taking enjoyment in the merriment of history found in age-old stories and songs is part of redeeming our own sometimes skewed image of the past. 

With no further ado, I would like to quote the introduction of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood: “I lift the curtain that hangs between here and no-man’s land. Will you come with me, sweet reader? I thank you. Give me your hand.” 


Avellina Balestri is an author and editor based in the historic borderlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Her stories, poems, and essays have been featured in over thirty print and online publications. She has published two books: Saplings of Sherwood, the first book in a Robin Hood retelling series, and Pendragon's Shield, a collection of poetry. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Fellowship & Fairydust, a magazine inspiring faith & creativity and exploring the arts through a spiritual lens. Under its auspices, she hosted a literary conference at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, England, commemorating the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien. She also has the honor of representing the state of Maryland at The Sons of the American Revolution National Orations Contest in Greenville, South Carolina. For more information about the author and how to purchase her published works, visit her Amazon author page, website, or Fellowship & Fairydust.