Photo tour of London’s East End on an anti-fascist anniversary

Today marks the 75th anniversary of an extraordinary event in London’s history: the Battle of Cable Street.

On 4 October 1936, the British Union of Fascists planned a march down Cable Street in Shadwell, an impoverished part of London’s East End. The area has been home to refugees and migrants for hundreds of years. In the 1930s, many Jewish families who had fled Europe had settled in the area.

Hundreds of thousands of anti-fascists turned up and created roadblocks, determined not to let the fascists march through their neighborhoods. The police clashed with the anti-fascists until a street battle broke out.

That day, Londoners stood up for some of the poorest and most persecuted people of their time. They risked their lives to show that hatred and racism would not be tolerated.

There’s now a beautiful mural commemorating the event.

Battle of Cable Street mural

Battle of Cable Street mural
I love the look of shock on Hitler's face, and the stoicism of the RAF pilot

London’s East End is still a beautifully diverse mix of cultures that have left their stamp on the area’s history. I’ve lived here for over six years, and since I’m leaving the country soon I’m feeling nostalgic.

Historical romance readers will be familiar with my part of London. It’s portrayed as the area where criminals and doxies lived. Where heroes went for a pint in seedy public houses before being coshed on the head and press-ganged onto ships.

But to me it’s always been the city’s most diverse and welcoming area, with an incredible array of markets:

Petticoat Lane
Petticoat Lane, changed to Middlesex Street by the uptight Victorians
Spitalfields
Spitalfields, where French and Irish weavers and dyers worked in the 17th-19th centuries

And a flourishing Sunday flower market on Columbia Road (listen to them hock the flowers to the punters)

They’re obviously irresistible.
Kat with flowers

Brick Lane is lined with curry restaurants and fabric shops for all your sari needs.

Sari fabric

And even though my part of London, Wapping, features as the sleaziest part of historic London in many novels, I prefer to think of it as the area where Britain’s sense of charity was born.

Wapping charity building
Wapping charity building

What place are you familiar with that you wish featured more accurately in fiction?

One day in a time machine

Credit: dlee/sxc.hu
Credit: dlee/sxc.hu

Research – love it or hate it, it’s vital for any well-written story. If, like my critique partner Suzanne Johnson, you write urban fantasy and paranormal romance, you might find your bookshelf filled with fun titles like The Complete Guide to the Undead. I’m jealous; my shelves are filled with war diaries.

As a contemporary romance writer, I get to research by asking real people about what their lives and jobs are like. Since I’m working on a series about women who work for a humanitarian organization, and I work for such an organization myself, I’m surrounded by friendly experts.

But there are times when I think of ideas for historicals and, if I’m honest, the thought of spending months upon months sifting through old newspaper articles and history books feels a little overwhelming. Writing a novel set in a completely different world would be so much easier if we had time machines and could talk to the people who actually lived there.

So, this week my gift to you is one day in a time machine.

Continue reading “One day in a time machine”

A birthday weekend fit for a romance novelist

My birthday is tomorrow. I know, it doesn’t give you much time to shop for me. But don’t worry – my husband’s already given me the best gift ever, so you don’t need to get me anything.

Almost every year since we’ve been together, my husband has taken me away for my birthday weekend. Each time he’s made the location a surprise. This year, I had a couple of clues: we were going for one night and driving, so it had to be somewhere near London.

On Saturday morning, we got in the car and that’s when he revealed our destination: Rye in East Sussex. You might not have heard of it before. It’s a very small town just inland from the south coast. Henry James lived there for several years. My husband said he chose it because it looked like it would appeal to an American (in other words, it’s got really, really old stuff) and to a romance novelist.

He was right on both counts.

Continue reading “A birthday weekend fit for a romance novelist”

Traveling through novels

View over Jodhpur from the fort
View over Jodhpur from the fort

First off, I’m really sorry for the two-week silence on the blog. One of my colleagues went to Pakistan for a month to help get relief supplies to people displaced by the floods, and I took on a lot of her normal work, so I haven’t had much time to do anything else. (Fortunately she’s returned safely and brought me a beautiful pashmina as a thank-you. This should be made organizational policy.)

Since I’ve been working so much, my imagination has been doing a lot of traveling. Fortunately, my body will be able to follow my imagination soon. My husband and I are planning a trip to Japan, and when we booked our tickets one of my first thoughts was that I need to read some novels set there.

I’m a big fan of learning about a country’s history by reading novels. Last year, before going to Delhi and Rajasthan, I read a couple of romance novels set in 19th century India. Meredith Duran’s The Duke of Shadows intrigued me so much that I spent hours researching what was true and what was artistic license. When I was in India walking around museum exhibitions describing the 1857 uprising against the British (which forms the backdrop of the novel), I was better able to picture the types of weapons used, the clothing the combatants wore, and the terror the people involved would have felt.

Of course, novels are novels, not non-fiction. So while they do a fantastic job of bringing historical events to life, you also need to be aware that their authors often use history as a jumping off point for their story.

Udaipur City Palace
Udaipur City Palace

For example, in The Duke of Shadows a pivotal scene is set at Sapnagar Fort, a fictional place based on three different locations: Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Amber Fort in Jaipur, and the City Palace in Udaipur. I was fortunate enough to visit all three, and arriving with a small sense of the history surrounding this part of India made me all the more eager to learn more while I was there.

Do novels form part of your trip preparations? Or have you ever been so inspired by a novel’s setting that you decided to go there? Can you recommend any fantastic novels set in Japan?

Photos by me

Getting it on in historic homes

The National Trust – which protects special properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and Mills & Boon have teamed up to publish a series of romance novels set in NT properties.

The Guardian has a great article about the partnership, including references to some real-life trysts that caused scandals.

My favorite quote is from John Stachiewicz, publisher at the National Trust: “Our visitors love a good story about the romance of the houses and the history of the families [and] these houses have seen a lot of action.”

I bet they have. I’ve toured several of them, and, while I didn’t get lucky, I can totally understand how they’d help create special memories for the people who lived in them.