New Story

I’ve just added a new story, “To Be Green,” to my Wrandom Writings–you’ll find that section on my menu. It’s a sort of an interesting view  of love and death. Check it out!

Unlike dreary old February, which dragged on forever, March has galloped, and now April is just around the corner. Funny how time perceptions shift, isn’t it?  Happy Springtime!

Westward Expansion Can Be Bumpy

BookCoverPreview front onlyThe basic structure of my book Promise, which will come out next year (2020) follows four families in America from the 1700s into the Twentieth Century. From their arrival in colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia these families expanded southward and then west, along with the nation’s growth.

Their stories are of covered wagons, rattlesnakes, wars and peace, circuit riding ministers, cotton plantations, outlaws, prospectors, log cabins, slavery, raids and battles, social activism, one-room schools, the Sierras, horses, oxen, scalpings, plagues, the Transcontinental Railroad, turkeys, osteopathy and home remedies, floods and blizzards and many adventures of life pushing across the beautiful wilderness of the United States.

These were just average people living their lives in the time of expansion and facing the problems and opportunities that came with a new nation’s growth. They were descendants of the Davies family—whose adventures are in my books, A Perfect Plan and Rule!—and the Atkinson family—descended from the Powells and Praters of A Good Place, the Still family of North Carolina, which included the founder of osteopathy, and the Yeargins of Cherokee County, Alabama.

Promise is the final volume of Helena’s Stories. It’s a big project with lot of research and will bring to life times, places, and events we learned of in school, movies, and books (and TV!). As in the other books of the series, Promise will be end-noted, as accurate to time and place as possible, and offer supportive historical information in notes at the books’ end.

The bits ‘n pieces of nifty information that arise in the research but don’t make it per se into the book are the triggers for my quarterly newsletter, Thoughts on History. I send it out via email and also have linked the issues to this site (see the Menu above). So, this project has become a whole, big package of history on a personal level.

Though I’m still not halfway through my first draft of Promise, the other day, going over what I had so far, I realized that much of the story that develops over the about 150 years takes place in wagons or other vehicles. It just happened that way, but it sure feels American to be on wheels.

I hope you’ll join me through the newsletter or my (much too infrequent) blogs as my book makes the journey westward. The vehicle might be bumpy, but the scenery’s terrific and the folks are, well, real genuine folks.

If you’d like to be sent the newsletter or have questions, email me at

A Good Place Is in Place!

Studies of a Dog Adrian van de Velde (2)

I’m so excited! I’ve finally finished my book A Good Place after a year of research and writing and then months of telling people I was “almost done.” In one form or another, A Good Place has been up on my computer almost every day of the past eighteen months and each time I sat at my desk I found that I couldn’t stay away from it.

I guess you’d call the book a saga. It’s based on a documented tiny piece of history: that in 1622 Thomas Prater, who was eighteen years old, came to Jamestown as an indentured servant. His contract was sold to a man named John Powell, a newly established planter in the area now called Hampton Roads. Prater came from an old and apparently well-off Catholic English family. Catholicism, though, was not tolerated in the Virginia colony.  So, why would the son of a well-off family leave England, travel for fourteen months, endure five years of enforced servitude and face the many risks of living in a colony where he must hide his faith?

The book has many colorful characters. Besides Thomas Prater, we get to know a war-weary veteran of battles against Spain in the Netherlands and his young wife–the very conventional daughter of an English baker–as well as his daughter, who was raised for most of her life at the edge of a wilderness. We also get to know Thomas’s fellow-servants:  a Puritan forced against this will into indentured service in the wrong colony, a terrified eight-year-old Welsh orphan, and a Mannahoac Indian slave who can’t remember who he was before he taken from his family as a small child. The book includes a love story, a quest, adventures, and “on the ground” views of life in England, the Virginia colonies,  and among the native tribes of  Virginia.

This has been a wonderful book to research and write. It even has a family of mastiffs in it — my first book with dogs, but definitely not my last.

A Good Place is Volume III of Helena’s Stories: books based on true family stories that personalize documented historic events. Volume I is A Perfect PlanVolume II is Rule!, and Volume IV will be Promise, which should be out by 2020. The menu in my blog’s heading will take you more information about Helena’s Stories and the projects those stories started, as well as to my newsletter, Thoughts on History.

Dog sketches by Adriaen van de Velde, undated (ca 1665). Sourced from                     https//

Nursery Rhymes and History

babablacksheep    Writing reasonably good historical narrative requires doing a lot of research. These days, information is so readily available on the internet that research can be wider as well as deeper without time and resources lost traveling to physical libraries around the country or the world. This is a great boost, and also takes me to interesting topics I might not think to pursue otherwise.

A good example: nursery rhymes. We all know them, we grow up with them and we recite them to our kids. But… what do they mean? The site

contains some wonderful articles about the origin of English nursery rhymes.  Below is a clip: their write up about a favorite.

“Baa Baa Black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

Not surprisingly this rhyme is all about sheep, and the importance of sheep to the English economy. Until the late 16th century the final lines of the rhyme read “And none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” It was changed to the current version in order to cheer it up and make it into a song more suitable for children.

In medieval England, the wool trade was big business. There was enormous demand for it, mainly to produce cloth and everyone who had land, from peasants to major landowners, raised sheep. The great English landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep, with some flocks totalling over 8,000 animals, all tended by dozens of full-time shepherds.

After returning from the crusades in 1272, Edward I imposed new taxes on the wool trade in order to pay for his military ventures. It is believed that this wool tax forms the background to the rhyme. One-third of the price of each bag, or sack sold, was for the king (the master); one-third to the monasteries, or church (the dame); and none to the poor shepherd (the little boy who cries down the lane) who had tirelessly tended and protected the flock.”

This text, and that wonderful old-fashioned graphic, were excerpted from

It’s an informative, fun resource – very much worth visiting!

Well, yes, but…

In August, I sent my first story for Promise to my wonderful beta readers. It’s about Thomas Prater, an indentured servant who went to the Jamestown settlement in 1622. I had been messing with the story all spring and summer, adding auxiliary characters and researching like mad. I wasn’t very comfortable with the result, though and needed an outside perspective.

My beta readers, bless their hearts, separately came back with the same message: this is the start of a book, a good book. It’s not a story… these characters need to play out their drama or no-one’s going to be happy.

I had sort of thought that, too, but I tend to fall in love with my characters and didn’t want to overestimate them.  I am so grateful to the fine, patient, hard-thinking folks who offer me this good feedback.

So, here I was writing one book – Promise – a set of stories similar to Rule! but set in America.  Suddenly, I veered off into another direction. Now, my story will be its own book, which will be called  –  at least, for now – A Good Place.  For inspiration, I found an image that matches the story: this 1663 painting called River Landscape in the Late Afternoon by Adriaen Van de Velde.

Afternoon River Landscape better resA Good Place will explore how and why a younger son from a well-established (but  Catholic, in an uneasy time) family ends up as an indentured servant in the notoriously dangerous Virginia colony.  Thomas Prater arrived from England only a few months after devastating Powhatan raids had killed about 25% of the existing settlers. It’s a real story, with lots of content: getting by in a remote colony; religious strain caused by real or perceived threat to the new (about 50 years old) Church of England; religious intermarriage (yep!); slavery and enforced labor; privileged class vs working class; and tribal conflicts between the Powhatans and Monacans; the displacement of native tribes by European settlers. All this is set against a wild, natural background of the James River and the deeply forested wilderness that covered Virginia and, frankly, terrified many of the English.

I have among the characters a teenaged girl, her father – a seasoned veteran of the English wars against Spain, a displaced Puritan who was indentured against his will, a Monacan Indian slave who wants to go home but doesn’t even know where that is any longer, an eight-year-old Welsh orphan who had been sold into indenture and on and on.  Oh, and it has dogs – wonderful mastiffs. I’m up to my ears in research and having a great time writing this book.

Then, when A Good Place is done, I’ll go back to Promise – I promise.


Cover Image for the book Promise

I have found the image for the upcoming book, Promise. The book is set in America and tracks the country’s growth through family stories. The New England painter Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902) brought vistas of the American west to all the country and to Europe as well. The golden tones of this painting as well as the subject matter seemed to fit the promise America represented to immigrants as far back as the 1600s and still represents today. It also shows the toil required to settle here. Most of us (science tells us all of us, if we look back far enough) are descended from immigrants.

from Wikimedia Commons
Emigrants Crossing the Plains by Albert Bierstadt, 1869

People I Keep Thinking About

I have just finished Rule! and launched it, with hopes for a happy voyage on the cold, gigantic ocean of self-published books. There, it will probably bob quietly, and will certainly never win a battle nor carry home a prize cargo. Fortunately, it’s probably not going to sink either, and the people who happen to find it will, I hope, be glad that they did.

Writing is a fine obsessive process for me. So, though I’m moving on to my next book, Promise, now, I have thoughts lingering about the characters of Rule! and A Perfect Plan. They are still very vivid in my mind, and I need to tuck them away and stop revisiting them for a while so I can start new stories. Here are my feelings about these characters.

Charlemagne (in Rule!, “The Decision”):  Building an empire is hard. Converting the people you’ve conquered is even harder. What a complex, overburdened man Charles I, King of the Franks must have been. An enlightened man in the Ninth Century, a truly unenlightened time, he believed in education, even for the women of his court. Though he was not raised to be literate, he took on the task of learning to read under Father Alcuin’s tutelage. Father Alcuin (Alcuin of York), was another fascinating historical figure who has a role in this story. Charlemagne must have had such high hopes for his rule and his people, and we know he dealt with grave decisions and no doubt with great disappointments. I especially liked his younger sister, Gisela (Gisela, Abbess of Chelles), and want to believe she really did offer her brother some much-needed support as he contended with conflicting military and religious demands. From her known history, it’s clear she would have been capable of that.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (in Rule!, “Eleanor at Fontevraud”): Eleanor was a remarkable and powerful woman who indeed lived “enough life for ten old women” in an era that was unkind to almost everyone, and notably to women. When she “retired” to the remarkable convent of Fontevraud, she went directly from stomping the battlements of Mirabeau Castle directing troops against her own grandson to a cloistered and contemplative life. How did her few final years go? We don’t know, but I hope she was able to make peace with her life. I dreamt and wept my way through writing the last pages of this story.

Before I wrote “The Malcontents,” I didn’t know much about the Walpole family except that they figured in our family tree a long way back. I still don’t know as much as I could – that notable family has a long, rich history. But, I tracked back the names I knew and looked them up, and in Burke’s Genealogical History of the Landed Gentry, there it was – Sir Henry de Walpole was seized by order of King John I and imprisoned for treason. What a stir that would have made at Walpole Manor, and how much his son, John de Walpole, would have had to suddenly do and understand. And, of course, that goes logically to their involvement with the Barons’ WarRunnymede, and Magna Carta, which should never, I now understand, be called the Magna Carta. (Rule!, “The Malcontents”)

The story of Marion Boyd, the first mistress of King James IV of Scotland is historically so dramatic that “Good Mistress” almost told itself. The involvement of her uncle, the colorful Archibald “Bell the Cat” Douglas, the incredibly dramatic events of that time, and the contrast between life at court and at a country home provide an accurate backdrop for Marion’s very moving true story. I came to love the characters and sturdy, beautiful Scotland of the late 14- and early 1500s. (Rule!, “Good Mistress”)

George Walker was an Anglican minister in Ulster, Ireland who at sixty-nine years of age became the mayor of a city under siege, a position which took him into several battles. I struggled with “Londonderry” because Walker was not very personal in his writing, which fits the style of the time. He also was not in Londonderry when the famous incident of the closing gates took place. So, just as I did in “Eleanor at Fontrevaud,” I created characters  — in this case, the apprentice Thomas Hallinen and his master, Monsieur Bayard — to give the story “eyes.” The history of the siege is accurate, though, from the wonderful story of the Londonderry apprentices taking over the city gates through the final breaching of the river barrier eight months later. This was a fascinating story to research, and the results of that research, unsurprisingly, support George Walker saying “People do terrible things to each other in the name of God.” (Rule!, “Londonderry”)

I wrote “New Land” to introduce the Davies line, to look at the difficulty of acquiring English land in the early 1800’s, and to re-visit Kitty (Catherine Nelson Matcham) and George Matcham of A Perfect Plan, who remain my absolute all-time favorite characters.  It also sets the direction of some of the Matcham family’s settling in Australia and Tasmania, demystifies the role of a “half-pay” lieutenant — that staple of Regency romance books — and introduces some nice new people. (Rule!, “New Land”)

“St. Helena” develops a puzzling, intriguing story that has bounced around our family history for a long time. It is said that Helena Adelaide Anderson (who married Horatio Nelson Davies) was named for St. Helena Island, where she was born after her family was shipwrecked there. I went looking through shipwreck records of 1820 – 1830 (which are abundant, but not complete by any means) to support the story. For months, I focused on routes around Africa, because that was the route from the East to Britain that was the most familiar. I found nothing useful, though were many shipwrecks. Then, one semi-enlightened day, I looked up a general overview of “clipper ships,” as that’s the type of ship we’d always heard about in this story. Lo and behold, such ships didn’t become common until later in the 19th Century. This took me to the heavier East Indiaman freighters that had preceded them, sort of the 18-wheelers of the early 1800s. And, this directed me westward to find the route. It’s interesting that one would head east from China  – “the East” – to get to “the West.” That’s what we get for living on a spherical planet! I found that East Indiamen regularly — and at considerable risk — rounded Cape Horn and passed through the Straits of Magellan at the bottom of South America on the “China” run to and from England. One of them, The Repulse, sort of fell off the record around 1829, and St. Helena Island was one of the (very!) few landfalls in the vast South Atlantic it could have neared after passing through the Straits. Suddenly, the old family story made some sense, and, bonus! I was able to write about a very interesting place, St. Helena Island, one of the most remote of the British colonies. It may illuminate this perspective of the Island to consider that for Napolean Bonaparte’s final exile by Britain, he was firmly tucked away on St. Helena, which is where he died. (Rule!, “St. Helena”)

“Lucknow” was the story I dreaded writing the most, even when it was only a concept. The Siege of Lucknow was terrible. Its horror grew out of the awful problems in Indian/British relations that accumulated during the long British involvement in India. These problems precipitated the violent 1857 rebellion of Indian soldiers (sepoys) against British rule. In his journal, Robert Patrick Anderson, the older brother of Helena Adelaide Anderson, wrote eloquently about the siege. It took place, literally, on his doorstep. Patrick’s house became an outpost under his command. I didn’t know how to approach Lucknow in a measured way but finally decided to present it through Patrick’s later effort at recovery, which gave me the chance to focus on his personality and on both sides’ grievances and also to stand away a bit from the combination of tedium, anger, fear, and horror that characterized daily life during that siege. I like Patrick — he was a witty and an interesting, deeply committed man, both as family man and soldier. I am grateful for the expert help I received for this story from friends and family, about PTSD and also about Indian attitudes toward the British occupation, the Raj. (Rule!, “Lucknow”)

The final story, “We Are the Raj,” is a chance to take a better look at Helena Adelaide Anderson Davies, “Addie,” and also at Major General Horatio Nelson Davies, as well as Robert Patrick Anderson. Frankly, when I first looked at the data I had about Addie I thought, “Holy cow! What a battleaxe!” But I’ve had to reconsider her as I put this book together. Addie was a very strong woman who believed in and adhered to the demanding standards set for Victorian matrons. These were exacerbated by the rather complicated and strangely restricted life British military wives lived in Asia in the 19th Century. As Addie says in the story: “…the officers’ wives had always to be poised, no matter what. We always had to look as if we were in control.” Addie had her share of pain and then some, and weathered it well, whatever it cost her. This story takes a peek at the incredible strain that sometimes lived behind that very substantial facade. It also wraps up the British Empire aspects of the book. We’ll see a little more of Addie in Promise. (Rule!, “We Are the Raj”)

‘Seduced and Abandoned’ – from A Perfect Plan

… and I want to say something about Anne (who her family called Nancy) Nelson from A Perfect Plan. When I was writing this, my first book, I put out feelers, segments about the Nelson family, at an authors’ site. I was seeking feedback from other writers. I wasn’t surprised when a well-meaning writer said “Nancy’s story is ‘seduced and abandoned.’ So what? It’s old stuff – it’s not interesting.” I appreciated the feedback, but the comment stuck in my mind and I started reading through my sources from that point of view.

First of all, it is quite likely that Nancy was seduced and abandoned in London when she was an apprentice there. We know that she cut her apprenticeship short and came back home. We also know that she died when she was twenty-three, in Bath, and was buried there. That’s about all we hear about her. Researchers have ignored or been dismissive of her. The most telling, perhaps, is her future great niece, Mary Eyre Matcham’s, thundering silence regarding Anne in her affectionate 1911 book The Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe. Mary was writing from a Victorian cultural perspective. So, it seems likely that there was a scandal around Nancy.

In A Perfect Plan, I chose to represent Nancy as greatly weakened by her experience in London. It was not unusual during the 1700s for couples to already be parents or expectant parents at the time they married, however having a fatherless baby was a different matter — one that penalized the girl. I became irritated by the “So what?” attitude researchers show toward Nancy. “Seduced and abandoned” may be a cliché, but certainly has life-changing repercussions for the incipient mother, her family, and of course, often for the child.

Our hero Catherine Nelson (“Kitty”) was about thirteen years old when Nancy returned from London, and we know that for several years while their brothers were away at school or starting careers, Kitty and her sisters made up a quiet little household with their father.  I see no question that Nancy’s experience would have colored Kitty’s views of life and love. I also, frankly, wanted her to have her place in the sun as a well-loved (this is documented through their father’s and brother’s letters) member of her family.

OK – I’ve said what I needed to about my people in Rule! and A Perfect Plan. Thanks for reading. Now, it’s on to writing Promise, which will tell some of the American family stories. Today, I start writing about Thomas Prater, who arrived at “Elizabeth Cities” (now Hampton, Virginia) in 1622. His descendant Martha Angelina Prather married James Harvey Atkinson. And… away we go!

Happy almost-summer!