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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Family History into Historical Fiction: Karen Charlton

Tomorrow, December eighth, is the debut of Karen Charlton's Catching the Eagle, a regency mystery and adventure made all the more thrilling because it's based on a true story. 

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows. When £1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley. Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice. But William is struggling with demons of his own. Desperate to break free from the tangled web of family ties which bind him to their small community, he is alarmed to find that he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife. Set beneath the impenetrable gaze of a stray golden eagle whose fate seems to mirror that of Jamie's, Catching the Eagle, the first novel in the Regency Reivers Series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

Today I'm thrilled to have Karen Charlton with me to talk about her new book. As some of you know, I spent a year in Leeds, England, so today it's a couple of Yorkshire lasses sharing a cuppa. Karen Charlton was born in Sheffield and grew up in Leeds. She completed an English degree at Hull University. After a few years of roaming between various jobs in Harrogate, Ripon and Scarborough she finally settled in Teesside. She completed a post graduate teaching certificate at Durham University. Since then, she has combined a teaching job at Grangefield Secondary School in Stockton, with her writing and raising her own pair of "little villains."

JK: What drew you to the Regency era? 

KC: Quite simply, I didn’t: it chose me. Catching the Eagle is based on the true story of my husband’s ancestor, Jamie (James) Charlton, who managed to get himself convicted for Northumberland’s biggest robbery back in 1809. On Easter Monday of that year, over £1,157 of rent money collected from the estate was stolen from the steward’s office at Kirkley Hall in Ponteland, England. The thief had left no visible trace of himself and the furious owner of Kirkley Hall sought help from Detective Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London. However, when Jamie was eventually arrested and charged with the crime, the main evidence against him came from a fellow prisoner in Morpeth gaol, William Taylerson. This treacherous cad claimed that Jamie had confessed to him that he had "done it" while they shared a cell together. Taylerson (who had previously been sentenced to hang) was granted a pardon the week before the trial and freed.

JK: How did this saga come to light?

KC: We stumbled across this fascinating tale while researching our family history.  When we shook our family tree – a convict fell out.  Not only that, but Jamie was a convict with a very dodgy conviction.  There was a public outcry after he was found guilty and a subscription was set up to help him and his family. It did not take me long to realize that the perfect plot for a historical novel had just landed in my lap.

JK: Did you have to do much work to fill in the gaps?

KC: Genealogical research – which had previously been a hobby - now became a quest. We took several trips down to The National Archives in London and found the transcripts and statements from the original court case notes. We also discovered that the robbery and subsequent court case had been well reported in the local newspaper of the time:  The Newcastle Courant. Every copy of this newspaper was available to read in Gateshead Library in its original form. The Ponteland Local History Society was also able to provide me a very informative pamphlet written about the robbery in 1890.

JK: Did all this fact-finding change your perception of the era?

KC: I had always wanted to write historical novels and I particularly loved the Regency era.  There is something very attractive about this time period with its white muslin dresses, highwaymen, dashing scarlet uniforms and an intriguing whiff of decadence and scandal. However, Catching the Eagle turned out to be a very different kind of Regency novel. My main characters are the ordinary, everyday folks of rural England. They are the agricultural laborers, tailors and toll gate keepers of the working class and probably have more in common with Catherine Cookson’s characters than Georgette Heyer’s or Jane Austen’s.

JK: After you finished your research, did the novel come along quickly? 

KC: It was not easy and I found it a mammoth undertaking. Catching the Eagle covers events from April 1809 until June 1811. It contains over seventy characters and involved recreating the lost world of rural Northern England. 

JK: How did you keep it all straight?

KC: Fortunately, I had a wealth of original documents which gave me tantalizing glimpses about how the characters lived their lives. From the court case notes, I discovered what agricultural laborers actually did for a living, how much they were paid, and what they did in their spare time. I learnt about the brandy they drank in the taverns, what they talked about amongst themselves while they were there and the gambling and dice games they enjoyed in the public houses. I discovered the extent of the debts they ran up during the hardship of a bad winter and the kind of shops they had. I know how much they were prepared to pay for a new cow, or a new coat, and how much reward they were prepared to offer if one of their highly-prized sheep dogs went missing. All of this detail I have tried to include in Catching the Eagle because I believe that it is detail like this which brings the period and the setting to life for the reader. I always want a novel to take me somewhere different, somewhere I have not traveled before either geographically, socially or historically.

JK: Did you find it difficult to create convincing historical dialogue?

KC: Much of the dialogue in the novel is also lifted directly out of the archives – those conversations really happened; those words were actually spoken. This is especially true of the three chapters set in the court room and many of the scenes set in local taverns. Jamie’s drunkenness and foolishness in the Seven Stars public house in Ponteland on the night after the robbery was reported by several witnesses in the court case notes. Everything he said that night was reported verbatim – and is recreated in Chapter Two in the novel. All the statements given by the witnesses at both trials are recreated virtually word for word in later parts of the book.

JK: Do you think you'll continue writing novels? 

KC: It has taken me years to realize my ambition and become a published novelist. Catching the Eagle was a labor of love which took five years to research and another twenty-six months to write and revise. Fortunately, our research uncovered enough material for two more novels and Catching the Eagle is the first in The Regency Reivers Series.  

JK: Thank you for being here today. Do you have a message for my readers?

KC: If I have one piece of advice for would-be novelists it is this: don’t give up – hold onto your dream.

Catching the Eagle is available from Knox Robinson Publishing and from booksellers everywhere December 8.