Friday, January 15, 2016

A Journey to Lincolnshire: Time Traveling in the English Midlands

by Anne R. Allen

The second Camilla novel, SHERWOOD LTD, is something of love-letter to England'East Midlands and the county of Lincolnshire—one of the least touristy spots in the British Isles, but one rich in history and folklore.

It's a place I discovered by happy accident several years ago, when my novel FOOD OF LOVE was accepted by a UK publishing company that had recently moved from the bustling industrial city of Leeds to the little market town of Gainsborough, on the banks of the River Trent, which marks the border between Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.

As I wrote last week, my new publishers turned out to be an eccentric band of publishing outlaws who published mostly hard-core erotica—the opposite of my comic mysteries about Camilla, the Manners Doctor. But the company was eager to branch into mainstream fiction and the managing partners invited me to fly over to promote my book and share free digs in a vast 19th century factory complex they’d just bought. 

Fittingly, the factory had last been used as a ladies underwear factory and was called "The Shadowline Building." (I call it "The Maidenette Building" in my novel.)  Most of my California friends thought I was deeply bonkers, but I've never turned down a chance to travel, so I found a tenant for my little beach house, bought a plane ticket for England and jumped into the adventure.
Yes, there's a real Sherwood Forest.

I'd lived in England many years ago—working in London for eight months after college—but Lincolnshire is the opposite of the big, modern, multi-ethnic capital to the South. It’s the "green and pleasant land" of the storybooks I read in my youth—"the Shire" of Middle Earth. I immediately fell in love with the lush, pastoral landscape, the friendly people, and the history-steeped, time-travel atmosphere. 

There I was, in the land of Robin Hood—the home of "Lincoln Green."

The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest
 I even loved the food. Make all the jokes you want about English cuisine, but they make some of the best cheeses in the world, and in a town full of old-fashioned bakeries, small artisanal butcher shops and a twice-weekly farmer’s market, I ate very well. (Probably too well. Lincolnshire is not the best spot to be watching your weight. Especially when you add the wonderful micro-brewery ale.)

Gainsborough itself has a long and romantic history. It’s the town George Eliot called "St Oggs" when she wrote The Mill on the Floss—and the river that flowed by the warehouse windows was "the Floss" of her iconic novel.

Gainsborough was already ancient by the time George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans sought refuge there. In fact, it was well established by the time a Viking King named Sweyn Forkbeard, having defeated the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready, made it the capital of England in the ninth century.
Sweyn Forkbeard

That lasted about five weeks until he had a fatal fall from his horse and was succeeded by his son King Canute, of stopping-the-tide fame. (Which he also did in Gainsborough, pretending to stop the Trent’s great tidal bore, the Aegir.)   

In my novel, I call the town Swynsby-on-Trent, in honor of Mr. Forkbeard (literally “Sweyn’s home, since "by" was a Viking place-name suffix meaning “home.”)

I ended up living in Gainsborough on and off from 2002-2005, and in the end the publishing company went under rather tragically, with the mysterious disappearance of one of the owners (his body was never found—which of course I had to use in my novel.) But it was a fine adventure while it lasted, and I’ll always cherish the friendships I made there. 
One of the best preserved medieval manor houses in England
I'm not the only person to have fallen in love with Gainsborough in the 'oughties. According to the Guardian, Gainsborough real estate became some of the most expensive in England in 2007. Writing in August of 2008, Tom Dyckhoff said:

"Gainsborough marked the high water mark of house price madness before - cue thunderclap - the Crunch! Oh, happy days! Oh, halcyon days! Last year, Gainsborough's house prices leaped by a frankly barking 156%, the highest in the country. Inexplicable. I mean, it's a perfectly respectable place, with that appealing tinge of not-quite-in the-modern-world common to Lincolnshire. But come on, it's Lincolnshire, miles from anywhere."

And that's its appeal, exactly. It's the town that time forgot. It's in the middle of nowhere. A green and pleasant nowhere. Surrounded by fields of daffodils and forests carpeted in bluebells.

It's the England of storybooks. I was dying to set a novel in Gainsborough, but in order not to hurt any feelings (or incur any lawsuits) I decided to fictionalize the town and set an entirely made-up mystery there, featuring my always-polite amateur sleuth, Camilla.

I wasn’t able to incorporate all my favorite Lincolnshire haunts, however, or the story would have turned into a travelogue. (In fact, my editor made me eliminate several of my more tour-guidey digressions.)

Downtown Gainsborough on market day.
I did include a glimpse of the open market in the central square, where traveling peddlers still display everything from fresh produce to meat pies and ribbons and pots and pans, just as they did in Robin Hood’s day—only a few blocks from the very modern Tesco supermarket.

I also have several scenes set in one of Gainsborough’s picturesque pubs, many of which began as coaching inns in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Where Plantagenet meets the ghost of  Richard III
Unfortunately, I had to eliminate a scene set in Gainsborough’s greatest landmark—the "Old Hall"—one of England’s best-preserved medieval manor houses. The beautiful building, built on the ruins of Sweyn Forkbeard’s castle, was a place visited by the likes of Richard III and Henry VIII (who met his last wife, Katherine Parr, there.) It also sheltered the Separatist "Pilgrim Fathers" as they made their escape to the Netherlands and then to the New World on the Mayflower

So when I revisited Lincolnshire in Camilla mystery #5 SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM, I took Camilla's best friend Plantagenet to "Swynsby-on-Trent" where he meets what appears to be the ghost of Richard III in the tower of the Old Hall. When Plant is accused of the murder of a mysterious historical re-enactor, unfortunately, Richard III seems to be the only witness.

Someday I'd like to take all my characters to the historic city of Lincoln—only fifteen miles from Gainsborough—which houses one of Europe’s greatest Gothic cathedrals, as well as an 11th century castle that is the home of one of the original copies of the Magna Carta.
Lincoln Cathedral, build in 1072

Lincoln Cathedral, built in 1072, rivals Chartres in its soaring Gothic magnificence. It is actually taller than Chartres, and was the tallest building in the world for 249 years (1300–1549.) The cathedral was used as a stand-in for Westminster Abbey in the 2005 film of The DaVinci Code.

Across the square from the cathedral is Lincoln Castle, built by William the Conqueror in 1068, and one of the country’s best-preserved castles. William built his castle on the ruins of the fortress originally built by the Roman armies who occupied Britain from 43 AD through the fourth century.

Many houses in the old part of Lincoln are built on top of the old Roman forum. I was lucky enough to be invited to visit a woman whose townhouse had the base of a huge marble column in the basement. Walking up the stairs was like walking through time, from the ancient forum to the medieval kitchen, to an 18th century dining room to a Victorian parlor and up to a modern couple of bedrooms that looked out on the whole city.

That house screamed to be used in a novel, but I haven't worked it into one of my plots yet. 

Lincoln Castle, built in 1068
I have health problems that make travel tough for me these days, but I've always fantasized going back to Lincolnshire. 

So far, I have only been able to do it in fiction. 

But someday I'd love to get back for a little more of their delectable poacher cheese, plum bread and Lincolnshire’s famous sausages.

And if you'd like to do some armchair traveling, pick up a copy of Sherwood, Ltd or So Much for Buckingham. 

What about you, readers? Have you ever visited the English Midlands? Have you seen Lincoln Cathedral or Sherwood Forest? What is your favorite part of the UK for time-traveling? Or do you prefer to do your travel via armchair? 

SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2

Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to kill her. When Camilla is invited to publish a book of her columns with UK publisher Peter Sherwood, she lands in a gritty criminal world—far from the Merrie Olde England she envisions. The staff are ex-cons and the erotica is kinky. Hungry and penniless, she camps in a Wendy House built from pallets of porn while battling an epic flood, a mendacious American Renfaire wench, and the mysterious killer who may be Peter himself.

Sherwood, only $2.99 or the equivalent in ebook from all the AmazonsiTunesGooglePlayScribdInkteraKoboNook, and Smashwords. It's also available in paper from Amazon and Barnes and Noble
Sample Reviews:

"A wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills" David Keith on Smashwords

"Smartly written and nearly impossible to put down, I found myself counting the hours until I could leave work and get back to reading! Well done!" T.L. Ingham on Smashwords

"An intriguing and fast paced novel that demands you read on to the next page and beyond. The characters are well constructed and believable and I enjoyed the difference between the USA and UK people. The plight of our heroine is complex and well -managed and in the beginning I was striving for her to find some genuine help and support. The flip over to the UK added more spice! Highly recommended."—David L. Atkinson, author of The 51st State

SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM: Camilla mystery #5

This comic novel—which takes its title from the most famous Shakespearean quote that Shakespeare
never wrote—explores how easy it is to perpetrate a character assassination whether by a great playwright or a gang of online trolls.

It's a laugh-out-loud mashup of romantic comedy, crime fiction, and satire: Dorothy Parker meets Dorothy L. Sayers. Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall--a.k.a. "The Manners Doctor"--is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but she always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Usually she has more than a little help from her gay best friend, Plantagenet Smith. In this hilarious episode she makes the mistake of responding to an online review of one of her etiquette guides and sets off a chain of disasters that lands poor Plant in the Swynsby nick, and nearly gets her murdered.  

Sample reviews:

"Delicious wit, wonderful eccentric characters, and a beguiling plot. Camilla Randall is a delight!"...Melodie Campbell, "Canada's Queen of Comedy."

"Both a comedic romance and a crime suspense thriller, it presents the 'Perils of Pauline' adventures of a modern author, Camilla, whose mad-cap follies are hugely entertaining. But the novel has a serious undertone of social comment. Even the craziest of its zanies have their counterparts in the real world and the author faithfully depicts their grim, and often deadly, sub-cultures behind a veneer of knockabout wit. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys romance, and crime suspense, with a lethally satiric edge." Dr. John Yeoman.

"Anne Allen's ability to weave throughout her stories a current social commentary easily and throughout the story amazes me. She does this without jeopardizing her plot or her characters' development."...
blogger Sherrey Meyer

So Much for Buckingham is about $3.99 at all the Amazons,
KoboSmashwords, iTunesInkterraGoogle Play, and Scribd.
(And it's about to come out in paper very soon. I'm proofing galleys now.)


  1. Love your new blog, Anne. Congrats. It looks fantastic. Hugs, P and B.

    1. Paul and Bob--Thanks a bunch. It's mostly just for fun. I hope my readers will stop by to get deals and find out more about Camilla and her friends.

  2. I didn't know you started this blog, Anne, just learned from its existence! I mean from your main blog. This is brilliant! You're giving your readers all the stuff around book-writing - I've done a little bit of that in my main blog using the "pages" they make available, but this is far better. You can update with stuff as it happens, draw attention to this or that book with an incisive travelogue-like post like this one (love the pictures!) In short, I couldn't congratulate more, this is simply spot on and very well executed! I'm sure it will add to your sales, because the difficulty with online publishing is to keep the "long tail" alive! Hey, I think I might follow your example...If you don't mind! I've got real difficulties with my long tail and this could help solve it.

    1. Claude--Thanks much for your encouraging words. To tell you the truth, I partly started it because the new blog is so high tech, I have to rely on the webmaster to do much of it. I get all of the complaints, but have no power to fix things. It was getting frustrating.

      So I started this little blog to be quiet and fun and "just for me" (and my readers.) This is actually the kind of blog I recommend new writers start. Nobody needs one more blog about writing and the publishing industry.

      I'd love it if you wrote about your life in Italy. I went to the Overseas School of Rome for my Jr. Year in high school and then spent a year abroad at the American Academy in Rome in college. I'll probably never get back to Rome in person, but I love to do "armchair traveling" with blogs. Do let me know when you start your new blog!