The Greatest Compliment You Can Pay an Historical Writer

Posted on 30th October, 2020

In my previous blog, I celebrated two novels, A Mother’s Secret and The Italian House, which are notable for their wonderful sense of place. In these stories, the authors, respectively Jan Baynham and Teresa Crane, created their settings so evocatively that they produced books of the type that make readers say, “It made me feel I was there.”


This week and in another blog in November, I’m writing about novels that have a particular depth and interest thanks to the attention paid to the historical detail. Part of the authors’ skill in this is the way each of them has woven the details into the narrative with a deft touch. Their historical details are never popped in just for the sake of it, but always to enrich the story.


The first book is A Borrowed Past by Juliette Lawson, a clever and increasingly intriguing family mystery set in the Victorian era. A strong narrative is combined with believable dialogue and a lively mixture of characters, not all of whom are what they seem. Add to this the many tiny details of life at the time and the result is an engrossing read.

The story opens in 1875 in a seaside village in England’s north east, where young William dreams of becoming an artist – a vocation he knows his father will never permit him to follow. William’s life is turned upside down when he stumbles across a dark family secret that changes the way he views his family, the world around him and even himself.


A Borrowed Past seemed to start out as a what you might call a straightforward historical novel, with an appealing young hero, a well-produced setting and the promise of a rattling good plot, but gradually that dark secret William found at the beginning becomes more important until you find yourself in the middle of a full-blown mystery, with layer upon layer of secrets, deceptions, assumptions and hidden agendas being revealed one by one as William struggles to find the truth at the heart of what happened years ago.


As Juliette Lawson says, “People are essentially the same in every era, trying to do what's right, looking out for their families and finding the best way through any challenges that they have to face. My aim is to bring the past to life through my stories, revealing that it's the situations my characters are in which bring out their true spirit.”


A Borrowed Past is an enjoyable and engrossing read for various reasons. I could have put it into a blog about mystery stories, but the reason I’m writing about it here is the quality of its historical setting. It is clear from the start that Juliette has done her homework and not only that, she has loved every moment of the research. How can I tell? Because the historical details that augent the story are dropped into the narrative in such a natural way, that’s how. Juliette’s love for the past informs every single page.


She says, “I became fascinated by genealogy and local history long before I began to write fiction. I love to imagine my local area in earlier times: ordinary people living out their lives in a different social context. The research I did for a parish history, predominantly Victorian, was the inspiration for my fiction. It revealed a seaside village community of rich and poor, of all classes, occupations from labourers to professionals, all bound together by fellowship, faith and humanity.”


As one reviewer of A Borrowed Past put it, the historical setting is “as much a heart and soul of the story as the characters.” And what greater compliment could you pay an historical writer than that?


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Juliette Lawson’s links:


A Borrowed Past at Amazon


Juliette’s page on Twitter @juliette_author


Her website 



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