In praise of ABE Books

…and in praise of Antikvariat Faust, Geijersgatan 5, Göteborg.

Post from ABEBooks

Look what the post just delivered!

Here I am writing my historical novel, Elin’s Story about a Swedish woman and Sweden in the mid-1500s – and I’m living in Brussels. I’ve previously had a huge amount of assistance from the library of Gothenburg University, but moving here I thought I had brought with me all the information, copies and references I needed. I hadn’t. Suddenly realising I really needed some reference books, I also discovered… they’re not to be found in Belgium.


If I’m trying to borrow a book from a library that’s also a sign it’s out of print so I can’t buy it new, and most often it isn’t available in electronic form either. Buying books on line is easy enough, but buying second-hand books, especially ones not written in English and not available from an American supplier used to be really tough. But that was before ABE Books. What a fantastic resource. Yes, I’ve used them before, but not for a while and I’d forgotten how good they are. But here, now, let me go on the record and recommend them.

ABE allows me to search for the book I want by title, author, key word, ISBN, publisher, and a whole lot of other parameters. It does not confine itself to books in English or bookshops selling books in certain countries.

Through ABE I was able to find the main book I needed, but more than this, ABE also allows me to carry out another search limiting myself just to the books available from this one bookshop. So I was also able to buy a couple of others I needed from the same supplier, Antikvariat Faust, in Gothenburg. (After all if I’m going to buy on-line I’d prefer to support a local bookshop back home.)

I placed my order, had it confirmed and saw “Delivery time: 25-45 days”. That was a bummer – so I might get the book in time for Christmas?

Not a bit of it. They arrived – in two parcels as you see above – within a working week.

And here they are unwrapped…

Post from ABEBooks unwrapped

The book I was most keen to get a copy of was Karin Tegenborg Falkdalen’s Vasa döttrarna, the only decent modern study of the five daughters of Gustaf Vasa. (Well, actually the only study, full stop.) But I was also pleased to get the other two volumes – Alf Sundberg’s Svenska Krig, and Lars Eriksson’s Johan III.

Now I can go on.

Writing Elin’s Story

There has been a bit of a hiatus here At the Quill. I’ve been busy getting my travel blog up and running at Stops and Stories, but I am returning now as planned to publish occasional pieces here. And my first piece must be about Elin’s Story.

Elin’s Story is an account of the adventures of Elin Ulsdotter, sometimes called Helena Marchioness Northampton, sometimes called Helena Snakenborg, in the period from about 1563 to about 1578. This is a true story, though I’m writing it as an historical novel.

Elin was born in 1549 or 1550 – probably in January or February 1550 as an uncertainty about years of birth in the period is usually tied up with those months. She was born in Sweden, in all probability at her father’s estate of Fyllingarum in a Östergötland. In 1565, when she was about 15, she was taken to England in the train of Princess Cecilia Vasa, and left there as a maid at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. When she was 21 she married the Queen’s step uncle, William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, and on his death five months later returned to the Queen’s Court as the dowager Marchioness Northampton, a lady in waiting.

In 1576 she made a second, secret marriage to Thomas Gorges, one of the Queen’s Gentleman and very distant relative of Queen Elizabeth. The secret was uncovered and she was banished from Court accused of high treason. Her husband spent time in prison, possibly in the Tower of London, while she was placed under house arrest in his London home. However, this dark cloud passed, the couple were reinstated at court and Elin lived on into her 80s, outliving the Queen by a good 20 years. She and her second husband are entombed at Salisbury Cathedral.

I began writing Elin’s Story seven years ago, and it’s gone through a number of transformations along the way. This year I started outlining the first and second books (working titles The Long Way to London and London: Credit and Debit) and am now trying to apply the NaNoWriMo methodology to get a first draft written.

For readers who are unfamiliar with it, NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month) is an international “let’s all try to write a novel” exercise which takes place in November every year. The objective is to write a 50,000 word novel within the 30 days of November. Participants post information about their progress and pep one another and at the end of it, if they’ve completed their effort, they can get a certificate. I know some writers use it as a device to help them focus and get the first draft of a novel written. (Others go straight from writing for the NaNoWriMo to self publication with barely a pause between, with all the quality that implies.)

I am absolutely sure that November is the worst possible month for me to get involved, and so I’ve never even considered participating. However I do like the idea of trying to force myself to write daily and copiously simply in order to tell the story and get a beginning-to-end draft written. So, I decided that this September I would focus on Elin’s Story – and in particular on The Long Way to London – and see what I can achieve.

My target is to write 2000 words a day for Elin and my ambition is to write daily throughout September. Both these targets are necessarily flexible. I managed to fall ill soon after the beginning of September and let myself off writing for three days as I was running a temperature, which means it wasn’t until yesterday that I completed my first seven days of writing.

So far, my best day (Wednesday 9th) saw me write 2722 words, my worst day was yesterday (Thursday 10th) with only 735 words. My running total stands at 11,228 which means my daily average is 1600 words. Not so bad.

I’ve covered introducing my heroine, the death of her father and her relationship with her family especially her sister Gertrud. I’ve got an appointment for her to meet Princess Cecilia and encouraged her to say goodbye to her home. Elin’s sections of the story are told in the first person, but to give a variety of perspectives I’ve also introduced a secondary character, George North, an Englishman working for Princess Cecilia, whose story is told from a less intimate point of view. George is in Stockholm at the moment, waiting to meet King Erik XIV.

I’ll report more here later on, but if you’re interested in a day by day account of words written, you can always follow me on Facebook.


All the characters in a novel need to have names. Generally speaking they need to have names that readers will recognise as names and be able to pronounce. For minor characters it might be possible to get away with labels (the guard, the governor, the nurse) but for your main characters a real name is essential. As I’ve mentioned before, names are handles which allow readers – but also the writer – to get a grip on a character. They are also boxes that contain information about the character. Some of this information will derive from the name itself, but most you will add when you introduce the character and as you develop the story and give the character room to act. If you’ve done this successfully, when your character’s name comes up further on in the story your reader will associate a whole slew of information with the character which you won’t need to repeat. So choosing names for your characters – especially for your key characters – is important.

Sometimes names come very easily, sometimes it takes a long time to find them. Last week, my fellow Blogg52er Anna Hellqvist took up this issue and described how long it took her to find the name of one of her characters. I’ve had a similar problem.

In the first part of Elin’s Story I needed an extra point of view character who would be a bit older, more knowing and stand to one side of my heroine. This character offers an alternative perspective on events that otherwise come mediated through Elin. The character also provides a critical view of Elin herself. The character needs to be very close to Elin and this meant I had to make her female and put her into a very similar position, allowing her to share much of Elin’s experiences.

As I am writing an historical novel and my cast of characters includes “real” people, I already have a list of names I have to use. This is both an advantage and a bit of a straitjacket. The historical Elin travelled from Sweden to England in the company of Princess Cecilia and the names of almost all the company are in the historical record. Arriving in London the Princess and her women made an impression and are described – at least, their dresses are described – by eyewitnesses. The Princess had six women in her entourage. Elin was one, and four of the others are named, but it was the unnamed sixth that caught my eye. She would be my extra p.o.v. character.

But what to call her?

I already had an idea of her personality. I had decided she resembled the character of Becky Sharp in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Becky is a subsidiary character and not a particularly attractive one, but she is very astute, very sharp (and so we see Thackeray also choosing his characters’ names with care). Many people find Becky more memorable than Vanity Fair’s principal female character, Amelia. Obviously I don’t want to create a subsidiary character that is more engaging than Elin, but Elin will not be modelled on Amelia. However I do want some of Becky’s acidity.

My first thought was to call my character Rebecca, but a bit of research showed me that this name did not become common as a Christian name until the 1600s. My novel is set in the middle of the 1500s and this character had to have been born in the 1540s. My back story for her gives her an uncertain ancestry, but not a Jewish ancestry. Rebecca was simply not possible.

Popular Swedish women’s names of the period were Kristina, Anna, Margarita, Birgitta and their variants – indeed, among the Princess’s women I already had two Kristinas, one Anna and one Brita. I could have gone for something more exotic – I considered a Polish name or a Dutch name – but eventually I decided I needed a name that was plausible and did not draw attention to itself. I settled on Johanna.

Johanna has a similar biblical quality to Rebecca but is a possible Christian name in the period, perhaps especially in Germany. It wasn’t too far removed from Anna but far enough for there not to be a confusion. (I was already trying to find a way of distinguishing the two Kristinas and didn’t want to go out of my way to create a similar problem.) Johanna it was, and she has grown into her name very nicely.

Johanna is an orphan. She was a ward of the court of King Sigismund of Poland and placed by the King as a maid in the court of his sister Katarina. This is the Princess known to Swedish history as Katarina Jagellonica. In 1562 Katarina married Johan, Duke of Finland, and took her women with her to Åbo. Following Duke Johan’s arrest and imprisonment for treason against his brother King Erik XIV in 1563, Princess Katarina was interned with him and her entourage was forcibly reduced. Some were sent home to Poland, others were “redistributed”. Johanna was added to Princess Cecilia’s court.

A first name is not enough however. At this period in Sweden almost everybody, including aristocrats, identifies themselves with their given Christian name and their patronym – their father’s name. So my heroine is Elin Ulfsdotter, her father was Ulf Henriksson and her mother was Agnes Knutsdotter. Even the Princess Cecilia might be called Cecilia Gustavsdotter after her father King Gustav Eriksson.

Although Johanna’s father was a mercenary who fought for various German princes before taking service with King Sigismund in Poland, Johanna claims he was a descendant of the Norse Earls of Orkney. This means she can also reasonably follow Scandinavian practice. She calls herself Jarlsdotter.

It is an open question whether her father was actually called Jarl or was indeed descended from the Orkney Earls. Johanna tells different stories about him, some of which don’t seem to add up. When challenged she usually turns the question back on the questioner, but sometimes she admits that she was very young when her father died. She has no memory of her mother.

Even though 16th century Swedish aristocrats commonly use their first names and patronyms, they were still very conscious of their membership of certain families. Family relationships were the social networks of the age – a source of pride, assurance, influence and aid. Princess Cecilia was very proud of her family name, Vasa. When Ulf Henriksson died leaving his wife Agnes Knutsdotter to take care of six children under the age of 18 – and four of them girls – Agnes fell back on her family connections. She was a member of the Lillie family and Ulf a member of the Bååt. It was almost certainly through these connections that Agnes was able to place Elin as a maid at the court of Princess Cecilia.

Johanna has no family connections in Sweden, she cannot call on her family for help but must live by her wits. However, she must still have a family name to be proud of and use from time to time to underline her claim to be an aristocrat.

Having been thwarted in my original plan to link Johanna’s character to Becky Sharp with the same Christian name, I decided to explore the possibility of giving her a familial connection instead. I decided that Johanna’s family name would be some variant on sharp. One modern Swedish word for sharp is vass (it can also mean reed), in Icelandic and Faroese – the two languages closest to Norn, the dialect of Orkney – I find hvass, hvassi and vassur. I decided to make Johanna a member of the Vassi family. Vassi seems just about possible as a family name (though I’ve not been able to find it anywhere). It also seems a bit made up. I think it suits Johanna.

And so, I present to you Johanna Jarlsdotter Vassi!


The picture of Johanna on this page started life as the 1525/1526 portrait of Sibylle von Cleve als Braut by Lucas Cranach the elder reproduced from the copy on Wikimedia.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Bothwell in Brussels

James Hepburn 4th Earl of Bothwell. This miniature painted in 1566
James Hepburn 4th Earl of Boswell.
It’s funny how information leaps out at you when you have been sensitised to it. Although I must have read it more than once, I’ve only just realised that the Earl of Bothwell was in Brussels in August 1565. James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell and Hereditary Admiral of the Scottish Navy is a character I want to use in the fourth book of Elin’s Story, and I’ve been looking for a way to bring him into the novel at least tangentially earlier on so his reappearance won’t be too much of a surprise.

Bothwell, in the title of one of his biographies that I have in front of me, was The Queen’s Man – the Queen being Mary Queen of Scots, whose tragic story of utter incompetence is a foil to the story of her hyper-competent cousin Queen Elizabeth of England. Although Bothwell was nominally a Protestant and Mary a Catholic their mutual interest in a Scotland independent of England overrode religious differences and Bothwell seems to have tried to support the Queen as Scotland’s best hope.

That said, in truth navigating Bothwell’s motives is tricky not least because – as with Mary herself – his biographers tend to be highly partisan. He is the villain who murders Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley, gets away with it, and then forces Mary to marry him as her third husband after having kidnapped and raped her. Alternatively, he is her loyal man of action who rescues her from her loveless marriage and finally sweeps her off her feet.

Neither story ends well, of course. Mary loses Scotland, lives for years under house arrest in England and is eventually beheaded in 1587. Bothwell, fleeing Scotland by sea, washes up in Norway where his first wife (yes, really!) accuses him of adultery among other things and has him incarcerated. Moved to Copenhagen, he eventually dies in the dungeons of Dragshölm, probably insane, in 1578.

The fourth book of the Elin’s Story series is going to be partly a tale of spying and mistrust. It’s set in the middle of the 1570s and one feature of it will be a plot to spring the Earl from prison in Copenhagen in order to have him lead a Scottish army into England to liberate Mary. I want my heroine to have met the Earl beforehand. In August 1565 Elin was a 15-year-old maid in the service of Princess Cecilia Vasa who had just reached Emden in the north east corner of the Netherlands and was staying there as she waited for a formal invitation to visit England.

Fortunately, very little is known about the Earl of Bothwell’s movements in August, beyond the fact that he visited Brussels for a meeting and presumably took a boat from somewhere on the coast of the North Sea, because he made landfall in Scotland on the 17th September 1565. So, plenty of scope to bring him north to Emden.

Meanwhile, the Princess Cecilia and her “family” – as the party are called in the records – were enjoying the hospitality of the Lady of Emden, Katarina Vasa, married to Count Edzard II of East Friesland. That must have been awkward at times. Cecilia and Edzard’s brother Johan had had an affair in Vadstena soon after Katarina and Edzard married and Johan had been caught with his pants down. Literally. He was severely beaten and very possibly castrated by Cecilia’s brother Erik, now (in 1565) King of Sweden. (All this went down in Swedish history as Vadstenabullret – which I think is best translated as “the Vadstena Brouhaha”.)

Of course East Friesland was pretty solidly Protestant – in fact Calvinist – at this time, and unlikely to be an easy place for Bothwell to drum up support for his cause. Also Princess Cecilia was in 1565 still infatuated with Queen Elizabeth and all things English and so not likely to be interested in entertaining Bothwell’s ambitions. On the other hand Cecilia certainly had an eye for handsome men and Bothwell must have had a magnetic personality to go with his good looks. In less than a year, Cecilia had swung around to hatred of England and the English and later in life even converted to Catholicism for political reasons. Could Bothwell have planted a seed? Conviction could be fluid in the 1500s. (As indeed today.)

But I don’t have to take Bothwell all the way to Emden. The capital of the Spanish Netherlands – the political unit that included the modern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1565 – was Antwerp and I know that the Princess and her family, with Elin as one member, passed through Antwerp on their way to Calais at the end of August. They were five days Antwerp, so here is another place where their paths might have crossed with Bothwell’s.

All this research. What a lot of fun! But wouldn’t it be better to get on with the bloody story?

The original of the illustration, a miniature painting on a copper medallion, is held by the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. This jpeg is taken from the collection at the Google Art Project here.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

In the laundry

In the window of the washing machine
In the window of the washing machine
I’m sitting in the launderette waiting for the washing machine to finish its cycle and holding a book of poetry in my hand. I’ve just been reading some poems by John Donne and George Herbert. There’s a small mirror set in the wall above the mangle and it snags the corner of my eye. I have a sudden feeling of déjà vu. My 21-year-old student self looks out of the mirror at my 56-year-old self looking in.

Obviously, I wrote that paragraph in the present tense for dramatic effect. I’m actually remembering something that happened yesterday. That’s what we authors are like, untrustworthy, playing around with space and time, looking for a higher truth – a truth beyond truth – in fiction.

“We authors.” How it trips off the tongue; how it slips off the keyboard.

But to get back to my original point, 35 years on I find myself still reading 16th century poetry and still washing my clothes in a coin-operated laundry. Of course, this time around I had first to work out how to get change to buy the jetton – the token I need to operate the machine. The jetton dispenser refuses to accept my euro coins one after the other, spitting them back out at me with a derisive Francophone clatter in the little metal bowl at the bottom of the dispenser. (“I reject your proffered coins, English pig-dog! I blow my nose in your general direction, you son of a silly person.”) It’s not until I remember the old student trick of putting a little spit on the coins to make them “sticky” that it finally gives in and issues me a token.

Then I put the token in the wrong machine and have to start the whole process over again. This was an expensive wash.

Wasn’t it Marx who said that history repeats itself, the second time as farce?

I’m rather hoping that we will receive our new washing machine next week – and that the people who deliver it will actually be able to plumb it in for us – so I won’t have to spend much more time trying to wash clothes in what are, frankly, quite disgusting looking washing machines. The soap compartments at any rate look as if they have very advanced, even mature, mould cultures growing in them.

Why am I reading 16th century poetry? I’m glad you asked that!

It’s for Elin’s Story, my historical novel. I’ve decided to try and find one or more poem for each of my characters. The idea is that it will help me give another dimension or a greater depth to my characters if I can associate them with a poem (or poems) from the period. I’m looking for things which tell me what people might have thought about, what stories they might have been interested in, how they might have been aware of nature – perhaps even phrases they might use. Just as with modern pop songs an awful lot of the poetry is about love and sex, but in amongst all that there are also celebrations of the natural world, philosophical meditations, children’s rhymes and traders’ street cries, prayers, charms and spells.

One of the books I’m looking at (obviously not the one I took with me to the launderette) is the Penguin Book of Women Poets which includes poems from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries from different countries of the world in modern translation. There is a wonderful series of short, acerbic aphorisms written by a Greek Orthodox nun in Constantinople the generation before the city fell to the Turks. Her verse will add something to the character of Ingeborg, Elin’s aunt. There is also an angry poem by a Venetian woman (who also happens to be “an honest courtesan”) who has been jilted in love. Some of the things she threatens to do to her two-faced lover give me ideas for Johanna, one of the Princess Cecilia’s maids.

Anyhow, that’s what I’m doing with myself nowadays. Looking for some sort of order in my daily life. struggling with Francophone machinery and looking for character hints in old poems.

In the lauderette
And doing the washing – obviously!

For a larger version of the illustrations, go to this post on Ello.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Elin’s Story

The time has come I think, when I should say something about Elin’s Story, the novel I have been working on since 2008.

Elin adapted from a drawing in the collection of the British Library.

Late in 2007 I realised that my 50th birthday was looming over the horizon and that if I was going to do anything at all about my long-term dream of writing a work of fiction, I had better get started. I arranged to take a year off from the school where I was working and one quiet afternoon I assembled a list of all the book projects I had started or sketched over the previous 30-odd years. There were more than 20.

I realised I could either start a completely new project or pick one of the ideas in my list and see if I couldn’t take it through to a conclusion. After much hesitation I finally decided what I really wanted was to write an historical novel.

Elin’s Story is the working title and I haven’t yet come up with a better one, though I now have a concept of a series of volumes, the first one of which is called The Long Way to London. Elin’s is at bottom a remarkable, true story. I know that sounds like publicity blurb for half a hundred films and TV shows, but I think it’s justified.

My heroine, Elin Ulfsdotter, was born in Sweden, probably on the estate of her father just south of Söderköping. If you look in a modern road atlas the estate is called Fillingerum, but if you visit the area and look in older documents you’ll find the name Fyllingerum, and that’s the one I have chosen to use. She was born in 1549 or 1550 and in 1564 she took service as a maid of honour with Princess Cecilia, King Gustaf Vasa’s most troublesome daughter. The Princess was about 24, had recently married an impoverished German Margrave, and was tended by a small court that already included four maids of about her own age and a more mature Lady in Waiting.

Elin was 14 when she joined this court and within six months the Margrave, the Princess and all her attendants had left Sweden ostensibly on their way to visit the Margrave’s lands just south of Luxembourg. In fact they were on their way to England, to the court of Queen Elizabeth on whom Princess Cecilia had a kind of fan crush.

The long way to London took them by way of the Baltic, Finland, Poland, Prussia, the Netherlands and the English Channel. They arrived in September in 1565 making a bit of a sensation, and left again – all but one of them – the following April – literally (and I do mean literally) chased from the country by the Princess’s creditors. Left behind was the now 16-year-old Elin. She transferred her allegiance to Queen Elizabeth and in 1571, aged 21, married the Queen’s step-uncle William Parr, Marquess of Northampton. Their marriage lasted no more than five months. Her elderly bridegroom (he was more than old enough to be her father) expired and Helena, Marchioness Northampton – as she was now styled – moved back to court as a Lady in Waiting to the Queen.

Although most of my working life I have been teaching English, I trained as an historian. The period in which Elin’s Story is set is the third quarter of the 16th century, approximately 1550 to 1577. This is a period I studied, both at school and as a student at university, and as I’d taken an interest in it ever since, I thought I knew it. As I had already done some research, as I knew the outline of my story, I thought the writing would take about six months.


Getting on for six years later the novel is still not finished. What went wrong?

Well, in a sense nothing went wrong I just discovered there was much more to the story than I first realised. In another sense you could say that my sensibilities as an historian got in the way of my sensibilities as a writer. Not only was there more to the story that I first realised, there were also many questions about characters, settings and events that I could not allow myself to just invent answers to. Not until I had first made as sure as I could that nobody knew the actual answer to a question was I able to let myself dream up a plausible solution.

On top of this I discovered that, for me, writing was not an easy process. It used to be. I can remember as a child entertaining myself with invented stories, spoken aloud to an empty room. That spontaneity is not something I’ve lost exactly, but I have had to dig quite deep to find it. And of course there are the practical matters of plotting, description, dialogue, pacing, rhythm… I have become an artist of the first line, the first paragraph, the first page. Or at least, I have written very many first lines, paragraphs, pages only to toss them away again.

I’ve started writing Elin’s Story five times. I mean I have five times re-envisioned the novel and written 40, 50 or 60 pages before grinding to a halt. What stops me is often the fear that what I am writing is not good enough. Not sufficiently interesting.

I started writing a novel that begins in the present before slipping back 450 years in a complex timeshift.

I started writing a novel that starts with a long descriptive passage of dawn breaking over the River Thames one morning in 1576.

I started writing a novel of flashbacks that got so complex and involved even I lost track of where I was in the story.

I started writing an epistolary novel in cod Shakespearean English. Forsooth.

Elin adapted from a drawing in the collection of the British Library.

In my upbeat moments I tell myself that this is a learning process, that each of the versions of the story I’ve written brings me closer to the real story. Sometimes I believe it. In my less cheerful moments I berate myself for wasting my time. After each abandonment the story lies fallow, but something always comes along to wake it back to life. It’s often a conversation, and it often involves some poor individual who asks me about the story. And I launch into an account and my enthusiasm rekindles. Dammit, it is a good story!

The latest version has the story told partly through the eyes of Elin herself, partly through another character who also really existed. George North was the author of the first description in English of Sweden and one of Princess Cecilia’s English teachers. I haven’t hit the 50 page dead zone yet, but I have my fingers crossed – and because I live in Sweden my thumbs held too – that this time I will break the barrier and push on to the very end.

Watch this space!

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.