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Guest author Jane Cable talks digs and Romans

When I first saw Jane’s book Endless Skies, it rang a bell with the Time Team fan in me. So pleased she agreed to come and chat about it.

THE LURE OF ARCHAEOLOGY FOR A HISTORY GEEK

It was the setting for Endless Skies that made the main character, Rachel, an archaeologist, and the setting came first. Winteringham on Humberside is where one branch of Ermine Street ended, but why is a matter of conjecture. Were the Romans really trying to cross this vast river? Although, of course, it would have looked very different in their day.

First stop then, reports of local digs in Scunthorpe Library. Old Winteringham had been well excavated, a little distance from where the village is now, and based on antiquarian reports of remnants of an ancient harbour. But also of interest was a later dig that unearthed an Iron Age settlement. Had the Romans traded with this place pre-invasion? Did they know the port was here?

So many research rabbit holes to dive into. Rachel became a Roman expert, working alone under those bleak winter skies. But the story wasn’t working, the past too distant, its echoes too difficult to hear.

The eureka moment came when I visited the former airbase at nearby Hemswell. In the early morning quiet I could almost hear the footsteps of the Polish airmen from the Second World War running down the stairs. As Rachel does in the book. But she goes on to find a tablecloth and a worn leather flying jacket with a mysterious past. I found my story.

So Rachel ends up digging the site where a Wellington bomber crashed, but I wanted to get my hands dirty too. Spotting an opportunity on Facebook I became a Dig Ventures volunteer, happily soaked to the skin, scraping away on the fringes of Bodmin Moor, looking for different coloured dirt. It was one of the best research experiences of my life.

DigVentures St Neots

Endless Skies:

After yet another disastrous affair Rachel Ward has been forced to take a temporary job in Lincolnshire. While excavating an airfield echoes of the past – and her past – catch up with her. Could a love story from World War Two hold the lesson she needs?

Find out more about Jane Cable and her writing at www.janecable.com

endless skies cover

Charlie’s latest newsletter

Is it too late to wish everyone a happy new year? Even if it is, I’m doing it.

News

Portsmouth Bookfest is back next month with events virtual and in-person. I’ve got a couple lined up, the first of which is both free to attend and online so those of you not in the local area can join in. Fancy a light-hearted discussion of US cosy mysteries vs UK ones? While tickets for this are free, you still need to book, here. “An American author at the court of Queen Agatha.”
Cosy crime is immensely popular. It’s the gentler, more light-hearted side of crime fiction, in which the murders are not graphic and tend to happen ‘off page’. The sleuth is usually an amateur who often falls into investigating by chance; there’s a strong sense of community and usually an attractive setting. What more can a reader want? Authenticity, for a start.
This panel consists of two British and two American authors and will involve a lively discussion of cosy crime as seen from – and set in – both sides of the Atlantic. We’ll consider questions such as how an author ensures they produce a setting that isn’t stereotypical yet is entirely believable.

Then, in March, there’s the wonderful MysteryFest, which has a cracking line-up of guests, including a keynote speaker who’ll be talking about wildlife crime. The main speaker last time taught me more about police interviewing than any amount of research up until then – and also has me shouting at the telly every time they get it wrong!

Tickets for mysteryfest are an absolute bargain at £12 full, £8 concessions.

On the writing front, I’m delighted to announce something brand new and different for 2023. I’m currently editing The Deadliest Fall, which is a romantic mystery set in 1947 but not featuring any of my usual sleuths. It has two one time lovers, two suspicious deaths, a bit of amateur sleuthing, a dog with a mind of its own—and a cracking cover that I’ll share with you as soon as I’m allowed.

If you missed my free story – Christmas in January – amongst all the fun and business of season, you can find it here. The story’s a follow up to Don’t Kiss The Vicar, inspired by a reader asking me, “What happened next?” If you haven’t met Dan, the shy and handsome vicar, you can find the start of his love story here.

Vicar Dan Miller is firmly in the closet in his new parish. Could the inhabitants of a sedate Hampshire village ever accept a gay priest? Trickier than that, how can he hide his attraction for one of his flock, Steve Dexter?
Encouraged by his ex-partner to seize the day, Dan determines to tell Steve how he feels, only to discover that Steve’s been getting poison pen letters and suspicion falls on his fellow parishioners. When compassion leads to passion, they have to conceal their budding relationship, but the arrival of more letters sends Dan scuttling back into the closet.
Can they run the letter writer to ground? More importantly, can they patch up their romance and will Steve ever get to kiss the vicar again?  

Charlie

Good will to all men

This was written about ten years ago and gets an outing every Advent. I’m indebted to two people, without whom this story couldn’t have happened. Christopher had the original idea and Alex Broughton (who did Jonty’s sonnets for All Lessons Learned) did the theological ‘beta’.

Good will to all men

It was cold. It was always chilly out on the hills, even with the fire to keep the wild animals at bay and warm us poor shepherds’ feet. Joshua always had the knack of finding enough fuel to keep up a decent blaze. We didn’t always ask too closely about where it came from.
Tending the flocks; it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. People want the wool and the milk and the meat, even if they don’t want much to do with the men who help produce them. Bloody fingers a child called me the other day—of course his parents didn’t do anything but snigger behind their hands. Unclean, that’s what we are.
It’s not just the weather that’s cold to us.
“Come home, Micah.” At least Joshua’s voice was always warm.
“What?”
“Come home from wherever your thoughts took you.” He smiled at me, although I couldn’t really see much of the smile by the fire’s glow. I felt it in the air, though. I always know when Joshua’s happy.
“I was just down in the village. I’d rather be here.” I smiled back; he’d know what my words were meant to tell him.
There were five of us looking after the flock, all grown men. Even Reuben’s a grown man, although his mind got stuck in boyhood. Still, he works as hard as any of us, even if he has some funny ideas at times.
“See those three stars?” he said, that cold night up on the hills. “When they come together like that it means there’s going to be a king born. To Judah.”
He overhears things and repeats them, like a child might who’s learning to speak and doesn’t really know what it’s saying. Joshua just gave him a hug and said he hoped he was right.
“Maybe if a king comes he’ll get rid of the Romans.” Aaron spat on the ground, as he always does when he mentions the “heathen, invading scum”.
“Maybe this king will get rid of the law,” Joshua murmured to me.
“Aye. Please God,” I murmured back. My dad always used to say that God wanted mercy, not sacrifice, but when I’d heard the law read I wasn’t so sure. It always seemed skewed against us. The beasts that prey on our lambs don’t observe the Sabbath, so what chance have we got of doing the same?
And there’s one law in particular that sets us apart, me and Joshua, even from the rest of the shepherds with the blood on their hands. The law says we’re unclean on another count, too.
“I’d pledge myself to any king who…” Joshua never got to finish his sentence.
It was the noise we heard first, like a great wind or a flock of huge birds passing overhead. We all looked up—maybe it was geese or something?
“Dear God,” Joshua said. I couldn’t have said anything if my life depended on it; even Aaron was lost for words.
I’d never seen anything like it—a host of the things, bright shining as a hundred stars, with wings like flame.
“What the hell is it?” Joshua’s voice trembled at my side.
“They’re angels.” Reuben alone answered the question.
“Angels?”
“Of course!” He looked at us as if we were the daft ones. I’ve seen it before with Reuben; for all that he’s simple, there are times he knows a lot more than any of us. Maybe God favours him with special knowledge because He really loves him. I wasn’t going to argue, anyway.
So these were angels? I once asked my mother what they were like and she said I had to imagine a man with huge wings, as white as a dove’s. I remember asking her if I had to imagine a handsome man—I wonder if she knew then where my heart would eventually lie—and she said an angel would be even more beautiful than Solomon in his prime.
Like my Joshua, I suppose. He’s got a rugged face, but he’s as beautiful as the lilies of the field. He’s strong, although if you saw him with the lambs, he’s as tender as a mother. It’s him and Reuben—Reuben with his slender, maid’s hands—who take care of the lambing while the rest of us keep up an extra special watch for wild beasts.
So when I’ve thought of angels, which isn’t often, I’ve thought of my Joshua. But as God’s my witness, when I saw those things in the sky, they were nothing like him; I’ve never been so scared, although Reuben was elated.
“Listen to them!” He shouted, bouncing on his toes. “Good will. Peace to all men.”
I listened hard and I think he was right about what they said, although their voices were more like a sounding trumpet than some sort of heavenly choir. I did hear something about a king, though. Maybe Reuben and his special stars had been right all along.
“What are they saying about Bethlehem?” Aaron’s voice was raised, trying to get himself heard over the trumpeting.
“We have to go there,” Reuben replied. “There’s a baby in a stable and He’s…” the angels were suddenly silent and only a lingering glow remained to show where they’d been, like the fire lives on in your eyes when you’ve turned from it. “And He’s the new king,” Reuben finished off, with a nod, as if this was all as everyday as the birth of a lamb.
Aaron looked as though he was going to argue, but then he just shrugged. “We’d better go, then.”
I looked at Joshua; his eyes were bright and it seemed like he was watching something far off. “Will we all go?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay out in the open on my own.
“You stay with the flocks, Reuben,” Nahum clapped him on the shoulder. “He won’t be afraid of them,” he mouthed to us.
We knew that them meant the angels. And he had a point, because Reuben was still looking up at the sky, happy as a child, as though he’d been given the greatest gift in the world.
“No,” my Joshua said, in that way he sometimes speaks which makes everyone listen to him. “Reuben deserves to come and see this king as much as any of us. If he’s not allowed to go then none of us should.”
I thought Nahum was going to square up to him—they sometimes fail to see eye to eye—but it looked like nobody had any fight left in them anymore. He just thought for a while, as we all stood around wondering what to do, then said, “You’re right. That message could have been sent just for Reuben, couldn’t it?”
In the end Nahum offered to stay, and he kept his brother Aaron with him. But it clearly wasn’t the wild animals coming back they were concerned about.
So we went to Bethlehem, the three of us, with a lamb to give the baby’s mother. Joshua had it over his shoulders and he sang as we went down the mountain. I think I loved him more then than I’ve ever done. Just as much as my brother Simeon loves his Miriam, although I’ve never been able to tell anyone about it.
Not that I get much of a chance to even tell Joshua what I feel; there’s the flock and the other shepherds around most of the time. But we can be close when we’re round the fire and if the night’s so bitter we’re all huddling for warmth, nobody seems to mind that Joshua always huddles next to me.
Reuben found the stable, like he was drawn there. The baby was in the manger, swaddled up against that bitter night; at least the warmth of the animals helped keep Him warm. His poor mother, just a wee slip of a girl, looked all in. The father—I guess he was a mason or something, from the state of his hands—looked both delighted and puzzled, like all new fathers do.
Joshua gave them the lamb—the poor father looked even more puzzled at that—and then Reuben asked to see the king who’d been born. I wondered how the girl would react, but she just showed us the babe, as though everything made sense to her. He was a lovely little lad, with a fine pair of lungs on Him, as we found when the ass started to bray and woke Him. I just watched and pondered it all in my heart.
On the way back up the mountain, Reuben was the one singing, trying to produce some human version of what the angels had sung. Joshua was quiet; he slipped his arm through mine but he didn’t seem to want to talk. There was a strange contentment in the air, not least between us.
“They chose a good name for the child,” Joshua said, at last.
“They did. Do you really think He was a king?” I whispered back at him. “In a manger? Why isn’t He in a palace?”
“Ask Reuben,” my Joshua answered. “Maybe he’ll know.”
“I will,” I said, pulling Joshua closer as we walked. “But not now. For the moment I’ll just believe in miracles.”

A seasonal freebie

This is a little something I wrote for a secret Santa thingy last Christmas. Slightly updated for 2022.

Pressure of work. Nicholas could have written the manual on it.
This is what it must have been like being on blockade duty in the time of Nelson. Long periods of boredom interspersed with intense activity, although Nicholas’s work pattern was more predictable than the sailors’ would have been and he didn’t have the stress of waiting for signs of the French leaving port.
Lucia was more equable about things. “It’s the family business, dear. You’ve known what it would be like to take over the reins since you were little.”
She was right. Lucia was usually right, despite having only married into the operation. She’d been a Godsend, though—planning, organising, finding ways to spread the workload more evenly rather than focussed on certain key dates. Good at keeping the workforce happy, too, which was never easy, given how many they employed.
Sometimes Nicholas felt…not quite frustrated, more like dissatisfied, even though he had been aware of what was expected of him from the moment he was old enough to understand.
“Someday all this will be yours,” his father had said one morning, sweeping his hand to take in the factories, the dispatch areas, the central administrative core and the other parts which kept the business running. Nicholas had only been nine, blown away by the scale of what was involved in getting the job done, realising for the first time that his dad would grow old, retire from the board—that was the family tradition—move to the dower house and leave his eldest son in charge. Later he’d realised there’d be pressure on him to produce an heir, as his forefathers had done. None of it was a problem: he’d been born to it, like royalty. The heir to the throne waiting to step into the monarch’s shoes when he abdicated.
Still, Nicholas couldn’t help feeling the business would run perfectly well without him, that he was nothing more than a figurehead, albeit a much loved and appreciated one.
“Lucia,” he said one evening in November, over a post-dinner glass of wine, “don’t you ever feel that we should simply go on a cruise for the whole of December and leave everyone to it? The work would still get done.”
Lucia smiled. “I’m sure that’s so but people would notice.”
“They’d think I was slacking?”
“Not exactly. What I meant is that they’d miss your presence. The boss never goes AWOL at this time of year, even if his main role is to jolly everyone else along and make those keynote personal appearances.” She paused. “Do you really mean you’d like to get away? Is it becoming too much?”
“Not so much too much as not enough, somehow. It was all a great challenge at first, what with coping with the increase in demand—we’d been running on fumes for too long—and updating the systems.”
“One of the first things I remember after meeting you was that argument you had with your grandfather about computers. He didn’t even approve of Pac-man.” Lucia laid her hand gently on his arm. “I think that’s when I fell in love with you. I admired your vision and determination to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t the easiest. If the business would continue to operate without you being in the building, that’s because of the work you’ve done through the years.”
“I suppose you’re right. As always.” There was no rancour in the remark: they formed a good team.
“You’ve never been at risk of having a Gerald Ratner type moment, either. Imagine your uncle having been in charge.” Lucia chuckled but it was nothing to laugh about. Bill had a serious case of foot in mouth and could quite easily have made an, “Our products are crap,” kind of remark without realising what the consequences might be.
“Very true. I should count my blessings. There’s always the shutdown for January and time in the Caribbean to look forward to. And Christine coming back from Cambridge.”
The other light of Nicholas’s life, the daughter they’d had after years of trying. Not the first: that child, he or she, hadn’t survived the first few months of pregnancy and after that they’d given up hope. To the extent of warning Nicholas’s sister that at some point her young son might have to be appraised of the notion that he’d be the one in charge of the family firm eventually. Then Christine had come along, beautiful and precious and bright as the dog star.
She’d be home from Newnham and her beloved Natural Sciences soon, to experience her first Christmas as an adult. Some of her friends said the magic had worn off for them but not for her. Stockings, games, the traditions unique to them, the family gatherings and the proper celebration of the twelve days of Christmas—they’d always made the most of the period up to twelfth night, given how busy advent was. Like several businesses, they kept their company celebration for January, just before the shutdown, when life wasn’t quite as manic. 
“I’m glad uni breaks up relatively early. She can pitch in.” Nicholas raised his hand to forestall any comment. “No, I’m not going to slave-drive her. She can have a few days off before I even drop a hint.”
“Knowing Christine she’ll be wanting to lend a hand straight away. She knows she has to learn the ropes. Irrespective of what your father might think.” Lucia accompanied the remark with a smile although they both knew that what she referred to was a serious matter.
The firm had never been run by a female and Nicholas’s dad had made his feelings known on the point when it had become clear that Christine was going to be an only child. He’d had a touch too much to drink and the old in vino veritas had taken hold. He’d asked what the company was going to do, how they’d ever deal with such an unprecedented situation, given the weight of expectation from both employees and customers. Nicholas wasn’t unsympathetic to what his father had said—it was a big issue, breaking with a tradition that had a much bigger implication than the boardroom.
It had been Nicholas’s grandfather, also present at the discussion and much more sober than his son, who’d fought Christine’s corner most effectively. Hadn’t it been obvious from when she was a toddler, he’d pointed out, that she was a born organiser, showing a damn sight more intelligence and common sense than any of them had at the same age?
“Breath of fresh air, she’ll be, Nick. I hope I’m around to see it.” Whether the remark had been addressed to Nicholas or his dad—all the firstborn sons in the family were lumbered with that name—it didn’t matter. They’d both taken it to heart.
The old man was still around, thriving in his dotage, although it would be unlikely he’d get his wish to see Christine at the reins, unless Nicholas took early retirement. Although…
“Lucia. What do you think about a job share?”
“Me? Whose job exactly would I be sharing?” Lucia’s expression left Nicholas in no doubt that was the kind of thing she wouldn’t be touching with a barge pole.
“Not you. Me and Christine. Not until she’s finished her studies, of course, although I’d like to float it past her before that.” In case she pulls the same sort of face at the notion as you’ve just done.
“I think that’s a brilliant idea. It would be good for you, as well, to put together a career development plan for her. I can help with that if you want.” HR was one of Lucia’s many areas of expertise. “Although it would need to be your thing, not mine. And Christine’s. Ownership rather than imposition.”
Nicholas grinned at her using the slogan. It was part of the management style she’d brought to the company from outside. Even his reactionary father had come to appreciate the way she’d helped modernise the business and re-motivate a workforce for whom the magic had started to be lost.
Lost magic. Perhaps that was partly his problem, too. He needed to reawaken the sense of wonder and perhaps working with Christine, seeing things through her eyes, would be the way to do it. “Do you think she’d like to come out on the big delivery run? I can’t imagine it would be a teenager’s idea of a fun Christmas Eve.”
“Ask her. If I were a betting woman, I’d have fifty on her saying yes. And maybe another fifty on her having been waiting for you to make the suggestion.” Lucia snuggled closer on the large sofa. “She’s her own woman but she’s still her father’s child. Father Christmas’s chip off the old ice block.”
“I can’t help worry, though. What will the children think if they wake and catch a glimpse of her doing the stocking run?”
“They’ll think it’s great, especially the girls. Female monarchs, female Prime Ministers, female Nobel Prize winners. The female footballers who brought the game home. Perhaps the world’s more ready for Mother Christmas than you give it credit for.”

Charlie’s Christmas newsletter

I’m starting by wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and a truly blessed 2023. May it bring you the joy you deserve.

Giveaways all round

I hope you’re following RJ’s advent calendar event where there are loads of prizes to be won. As they say, you have to be in it to win it. 

RJ Scott Advent graphic 2022

Everyone wins at Alex Jane’s advent calendar, because there are free stories every day, including…tah dah!…

Christmas in January is a follow up to Don’t Kiss the Vicar, looking at what happened next for Dan and Steve. I hope you enjoy it!

Happy reading and see you in 2023.
 
Charlie

Rainbow Advent Calendar – Christmas in January

unnamed

Such fun when the calendar door opens and out I pop! If you’ve not come across the Rainbow Ad Cal (which is the brainchild of the wonderful Alex Jane), then drop into the Facebook group or go to the masterlist, where you can find the links for all the posts so far – and to come. 

It’s, of course, entirely possible that I muck this up, because at this time of year my poor old noddle is totally absorbed with a particular charity project. So rather than mention on of my books here, I’d like to give a shout out to Christmas Complete, which will be yet again providing gifts and toys to over 2000 children and teenagers. These include refugee families, those fleeing domestic abuse, etc. It’s a great cause and great fun to support.

And now for my offering…which is a follow-up to Don’t Kiss the Vicar.

Christmas in January

October. Sunday morning bells ringing, calling the faithful to the eight o’clock service at St Thomas’s church. 

The parishioners attending so early in the day were generally past retirement age, although whether that was because this was the only service of the week that used the old prayer book or because older people got up early and needed something to occupy their time, the Reverend Dan Miller couldn’t tell. He was simply pleased to see the usual crowd of regulars arriving while he got on with his routine of arranging what needed to be arranged.  He noticed that every member of the congregation was coming through the door layered in coats and hats against the cold wind outside. The heating had cut in but the church hadn’t fully warmed up yet—the ten o’clock congregation would be warm as toast—so those coats might well stay on for the whole service.

October? Today felt more like the depths of winter.

They were in the seemingly endless part of the church calendar that counted the Sundays after Trinity, although soon it would be the countdown to Advent, then that season itself, before Christmas, the new year and—at last—his holiday.

His and Steve Dexter’s holiday, he should say. Everybody had been told that they were going together because of a shared interested in walking and historical sites. The Roman remains at Caerleon and Caerwent, Henry V’s birthplace at Monmouth, the more modern sites associated with industrial heritage: the kind of places that many people found boring compared to the prospect of a beach in Spain but which both Dan and Steve liked.

While that was all true, the reality would be slightly different. The thought of a fortnight away from the parish, two weeks of not wearing his dog collar and most importantly being able to share a house—and bed—with Steve, brought on a lascivious grin, totally unsuited to the occasion. Dan caught sight of it in the little vestry mirror and immediately wiped it off his gob. They weren’t supposed to be flaunting the fact the pair of them were an item, even though several of the parishioners had worked it out and didn’t seem to give two hoots.

Continue reading here…

Another free story…

This was last year’s giveaway: Christmas is a good time for ghost stories and Secrets comes with the bonus of a sea serpent!

1804
Aboard the frigate Hecuba, two bells in the last dog watch.
Only a fool would barge into Stephen Hopkins’s great cabin unannounced, especially when he was in conference with his first lieutenant. When Midshipman Rogerson burst through the door, he consequently got the reception he deserved.
“Are we beating to quarters?” The captain demanded, dark eyes glowering
below a mass of dark hair.
“No, sir.” Rogerson was a sensible lad of fifteen, two years now at sea and
utterly absorbed with serving king and country, so why he’d taken such leave of his senses as to come in unannounced was an utter mystery.
“Then, Mr. Rogerson, you are forgetting yourself. What is the meaning of
this?” The lantern shadows on the captain’s face gave it an unnaturally solemn
appearance. Barely more than ten years older than the midshipman but with all those years’ experience in his pocket, Hopkins seated at his own table in his own well-furnished cabin was a formidable man.
“It’s a monster, sir. Two points off the larboard beam and very close. Mr
Douglas said you were to be notified immediately, sir.” Rogerson was usually a
bundle of nerves when in the presence of his superior officers but on this occasion he was strangely animated.
Read more…

Another winter themed freebie

A Man Lay Dead in Winter is the first mystery I ever turned my hand to, which is presented warts and all, with its proto Jonty and Orlando. You can find it with some other random mysteries here.

Don’t forget RJ’s advent calendar with its chances to win goodies and The Rainbow Advent Calendar with new stories every day. Lovely to see my old mucker Jay Mountney pop up yesterday!

Creative layout frame made of Christmas tree branches, pine cone

Charlie’s newsflash – it’s advent!

Just a reminder about two things and notification of another.

Advent calendars go live today. You’ll find this one at RJ’s site: I can’t say when I’ll pop up, but there are prizes on offer every day. Lots of fab authors.

RJ Scott Advent graphic 2022

Then there’s one full of stories, which will be linked courtesy of Alex Jane. Again, I can’t say when my tale will appear until the day of the event. Again, loads of cracking authors taking part.

 And last, but by no means least, I’ll be reminding people via my blog of the numerous free stories, Christmas themed and otherwise, that I have lurking about. Today, I’m flagging up one of my earliest freebies, My True Love Sent to Me, for which I still have a special affection. Jonty and Orlando getting grumpy with each other and then making up again – that’s something I do like.

Happy reading!

Charlie