historical fiction books | historical romance books

Words with a Wordsmith Cathie Hartigan

By Jonathan Posner
September 22, 2023


Cathie Hartigan’s books (all available on your local Amazon):

What was the inspiration for your most recent book?

A letter. One of the best sources for a historical novelist, and what a long letter it was, too. It was from the composer, lutenist and Catholic, John Dowland – who I’m convinced was the nearest thing to a rock star in the Tudor period. It was to Sir Robert Cecil, privy councillor and later Secretary of State to Elizabeth I. Part of the letter was on display in Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, and I came across it on a visit there. It revealed John Dowland, hastily returning to London from Italy, pledging his loyalty and pleading that he was not involved in any Jesuit plots against the Queen.

It struck me that the villain in my debut novel Secret of the Song, the mad murderer and composer Prince Gesualdo, was in the Italian city of Ferrara at the same time as John Dowland. The two men would very likely have met, and I guessed it would have been quite an explosive meeting if that were the case.

John Dowland would not have travelled to Italy on his own, and luckily, into my imagination walked Will Totman, adopted brother to John and a maker of very fine lutes. In The Luthier’s Promise (Cathie’s upcoming third novel), Will promises John’s dying mother that he will keep John safe until his return. Easily said, not so easily done.

What period of history do you wish you knew more about?

I often think I’d like to know more about my locality. The city of Exeter has a lot of history and there is still much of the Roman wall to be seen. When it comes to writing, however, I’m drawn back to Italy, whether WWII or the Renaissance. Currently, I’m looking into what happened when Alphonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, died without heir. Ferrara is described by some as the cultural centre of Europe in the 16th century, particularly famous for music and musicians. When the Duke died, the Este court moved to Moderna and Ferrara became part of the Papal States. The Pope condemned the liberal and cultural lifestyle of the population and the city went into sharp decline. It would have been a miserable time for many, particularly the Jews, whose lives and livelihoods were quickly restricted.

What literary pilgrimages have you been on?

Not so much a pilgrimage, but I have made journeys to visit several homes of Charles Dickens.

In the village of Alphington, now a suburb of Exeter, there is a plaque set in the wall of Mile End cottage that reads: Here lived the parents of Charles Dickens 1812 – 1870.

I used to pass it on my daily commute and was always curious. A little research told me that it was to keep his parents out of trouble. Hopeless with money, it is well known that John Dickens spent time in a debtor’s prison. The charms of Exeter weren’t enough to quell his vice though, and he was soon forging his famous son’s autograph for his own gain. It is thought that Charles Dickens wrote the early chapters of Nicholas Nickleby in Mile End Cottage. Although I think that nowadays he’d be put off by the noise of the adjacent busy road!

The Dickens connection was the deciding factor for a short holiday in Broadstairs, on the Kent coast. It has a plaque to Dickens on almost every other house and a short stroll will reveal many of them. He did not, however, live in The Dickens House Museum that overlooks the sea. It is worth a trip though, as the house was lived in by Mary Pearson Strong, the inspiration for Betsy Trotwood in David Copperfield. In fact, I’m sure I heard someone outside shouting ‘Donkeys!’ when I was there. The museum is small but does contain letters and various artefacts that are definitely worth a look.

For UK readers of a certain age, you may share my delight in finding that in York St, Broadstairs there is a blue plaque celebrating Oliver Postgate and a mosaic featuring two of his puppet characters, the Clangers.

Charles Dickens travelled widely and lived in many houses, but his London home at 48 Doughty St. is the most comprehensive museum and a wonderful place to spend a few hours. It’s a tall, terraced townhouse and you really do get a sense of what it was like in the 1830’s. I was lucky because it wasn’t busy, and I was able to see everything at close quarters. I won’t deny it; I did get a thrill standing by his desk in the study!

Again, not really a pilgrimage, more of a day trip from here in Exeter UK, are Thomas Hardy’s cottage and Max Gate, the house he designed himself. These are well worth visiting. His journey from poverty to fortune is right there in the two dwellings. The cottage is in an idyllic, but quite remote spot. I was glad of the recently built visitor centre and cafe, a short walk away. Both places have lovely gardens and Max Gate contains lots of memorabilia but after I left there, his wife, Emma remained in my mind. She lived her last years in the very small attic in order to avoid both Hardy and his many visitors. Yes, his remorse after her death led to him writing his greatest poems, but they do little to shift the overwhelming atmosphere of sadness that remains in the house.

Do you have another artistic outlet?

Yes, I do. I trained as a music teacher, and music was my profession for many years. I’d always written stories and poems though, and after a few successes in competitions, I decided to take my writing more seriously. Once a musician, however, it’s impossible to stop being one, and I still sing and play. Music finds its way into most of my writing too. I can’t resist having my characters play instruments or, at the very least, sing. To my mind, it gives them a more rounded existence, but then, I would say that!

It was while singing in a small choir that I first came across the composer/murderer, Prince Gesualdo. There was a lot of shaking of heads and sucking in of breath when the music was handed out and I asked why. I discovered it’s a gripping story. He murdered both his wife and her lover, and this formed the basis of my first, truly dreadful, and thankfully unpublished manuscript. After my third manuscript – incrementally better, but not what you’d call good, I returned to the Gesualdo story and rewrote the whole thing as a dual time narrative. It worked out very well and became my debut novel, Secret of the Song.

If you could curate a museum exhibition, what would be the theme?

This may not be a crowd-pleaser, but I would be really interested in an exhibition about laundry through the ages. There have probably been many, and I doubt there’s a historical novelist on the planet that hasn’t at some point wondered how they managed with all those clothes. Silvia, the young wardrobe mistress in Secret of the Song, is very concerned with the preservation of valuable clothes and it’s well known that collars, cuffs and ruffs were detached for washing, but it was Will Totman, in my forthcoming novel, The Luthier’s Promise, who made me think of laundry. Orphaned at a very young age, he was brought up in a laundry. Always keen to visit the joinery nearby and scavenge for offcuts, he would set about whittling some small item. Mostly these were clothes pegs, or ‘clothes pins’ as they are called in the US.

At least, that’s what I thought he’d do. Except that according to Wikipedia no pegs can be found in any painting or print of the era. In fact, none can be seen until the early 19th century when the spring design was patented by Jérémie Victor Opdebec. There was a sentence about laundry being hung on lines or laid on shrubs or the grass. I thought, hmm; it seems to me that anyone who has washed a sheet, or a shirt, and hung it on a line only to see it blow away and land in a muddy puddle, will be wondering about fixing it to the line. I’ve no doubt Will Totman certainly did, so I’ve continued to let him whittle away.
I’m sure there are all manner of weird-looking contraptions for the washing, starching, drying and pressing of clothes through the ages.I would love to see them set out so it is possible to see the process through, from wet to dry, as well as from dirty to clean.

To be honest, I’m not sure my exhibition will be moneyspinner! But if anyone knows of a work of art prior to 1800 featuring washing hung up with pegs, I’d love to see it!

Cathie’s professional training was as a musician but about twenty years ago, after success in several short story competitions, she swapped keyboards in order to take her writing hobby more seriously. For many years, Cathie lectured in creative writing at Exeter College and her experience there resulted in a series of writing guides, including the Amazon best-selling The Creative Writing Student’s Handbook co-authored with Margaret James. Always keen to encourage new writers, in 2010 Cathie founded and later the Exeter Novel Prize, now an international competition in its eleventh year.

Cathie’s debut novel, Secret of the Song, reached No 35 overall in Kindle UK and was shortlisted for the Dorchester Literary Festival Prize in 2018. Notes from the Lost, based on a true story and set in WWII Italy, was shortlisted for the 2020 Selfies Awards and a finalist in the Page Turner Awards. A third novel will be published shortly. The Luthier’s Promise reflects her passion for music, the Italian Renaissance and filling in those intriguing gaps in history.



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Jonathan Posner

Written by Jonathan Posner

Jonathan writes action and adventure novels set in Tudor England, with fiesty female heroines. He has a trilogy that starts with a modern-day girl time-travelling back to the 16th century, as well as a spin-off series (one book so far, with the next due in 2023), and also a prequel.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    Oh My goodness, to walk in Dikens footsteps. Murder and Music. Laundry!!!! And so much more in this interview! TY Cathie and Jonathan for the fun and insights! Will be sharing =—->


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