Tag Archive: historical fiction

Books That Should Have Been Illustrated: Part 2

Guest blog by Scribbly Roo, a freelance Illustrator and Graphic Designer working from her home studio in Norfolk, UK, where she writes and illustrates her own graphic novels and children’s picture books.


With the release of the new illustrated versions of the Harry Potter series due to be launched only a few months from now, it seemed fitting that Ms Parfitt and I discuss what books we wish were illustrated. As an artist, myself, I often enjoy sketching scenes from the books I have read, and some publications are so full of rich imagery and imagination that it seems almost a crime that they do not contain a single illustration.

So here are the books that get my fingers itching to illustrate:

The Dark Towers Series by Stephen King

I had to list this first, as I just finished the final installment last week and am still adjusting to life without another Dark Tower book to read! Seven books make up the epic tale of Gunslinger Roland of Gilead and his quest to find the point where all worlds meet- The Dark Tower. During his journey, he remembers friends of old and meets new friends from other worlds, including our own. The tale stretches across so many different landscapes that beg to be painted. We walk by Roland’s side, watching him encounter creatures like flesh eating Lobstrosities and the evil half-baby half-spider Mordred. Oy is one of my favourite characters, and the one I could sketch for hours. He is a billy-bumbler, described as a cross between a badger, a racoon and a dog. With his “intelligent, gold-ringed eyes” and “surprisingly graceful neck” I can’t help but liken him to my border collie, Simm.



The series has a number of spin-off comics attached to it, thanks to Marvel and King working together, and there has been talk for around eight years now of producing several films and a television series based on the books, but personally I’m a stickler for the original text. If I could spend the next ten years illustrating The Dark Tower series and nothing else, I’d be a very happy bumbler.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

ChocolatSet in a fictional little town in France, ‘Chocolat’ begins as the town’s inhabitants are taking down carnival decorations that marked the beginning of Lent. A mysterious woman and her daughter move into the old bakery opposite the church, and anticipation grows as rumours of her opening a chocolate shop spread.
‘Chocolat’ is a beautiful book, full of delightfully real characters, quaint french settings and, of course, the magical art of the chocolatier. What better way to capture all this than with illustration? The descriptions of Vianne’s edible creations, flamboyant window displays and the sensuous aromas of melted chocolate and spices floating down the street would make fantastic images. Even some portraits or character studies dotted throughout the text would be interesting- accentuating the rivalry between Vianne’s unorthodox ways and the parish curé’s disapproval. I wonder if perhaps the addition of illustrations would bring this much-loved book to a willing younger audience too. Because who doesn’t love chocolate!?

Will and Tom by Matthew Plampin

I don’t often read books based on historical conjecture, but ‘Will and Tom’ captivated me within the first chapter and I had to continue. The story covers a week in 1797, West Yorkshire, when budding but rather introverted artist Will Turner (J.M.W. Turner, to us) is commissioned to sketch Harewood House. There, he unexpectedly comes face to face with his charismatic childhood friend and rival artist, Tom Girtin. In the next week, their complicated relationship in exacerbated by their aristocratic surrounding, of which Tom fits into seamlessly, while Will is constantly mocked and ridiculed.


Woven throughout all of the drama are passages describing the acts of putting pencil to paper, the colours Will imagines he would use to paint the night sky or a passing scene which captures his imagination. The artist in me desperately wants to see these sketches within the pages as I read. As a point of reference as well as a fictional aid to make the story more real. It is only a possibility that Turner and Girtin really met at Harewood House, though it is true they were taking similar tours of the north at that time, so their paths may well have crossed. What is interesting, however, is the art that is referred to. The sketches Will took of the house and the surrounding estate are very real. So why aren’t they printed with the text!? No doubt its something to do with complicated permissions and copyright procedures, but this book positively yearns for a few Turner sketches in the least, not to mention some images from Girtin’s “Eidometropolis”, his 18ft by 108ft 360 degrees panorama of London which he exhibited in 1802, only a few months before his early death.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

In a similar vein to ‘Will and Tom’, ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ is threaded with beautiful imagery of Clare’s art, from her therapeutic paper making, to the intriguing sculptures she creates. Niffenegger herself is an artist and paper maker. Her understanding of the processes really gives life to her descriptions. Perhaps, if she illustrated the book herself, she could release it as a deluxe edition.



Though, of course, this book is a complete work of fiction, the artwork described feels real. Interestingly, the far-fetched idea of a man plagued with a time-traveling-related genetic disorder is also made fantastically realistic. We watch from Clare’s perspective as she meets the love of her life when he appears out of thin air in the gardens of her family home when she is just a child. At this point, he is from the future. Later, she meets him in the present when their ages are the same. This is the first meeting for Henry, who is still yet to time travel into Clare’s past. Its confusing to explain, but fantastically easy to read and comprehend in the book. Throughout, Clare’s artwork is a metaphor for her relationship with Henry- she creates birds and wings and things that feel insubstantial or fleeting, as hard to capture as Henry’s illness. Niffenegger‘s vivid imagery paints each scene with all the clarity she uses to convey Clare’s artistic process. The whole book is like a grown-up fairytale. And what fairytale doesn’t suit illustration?

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Last but not least is the book that started this two-parter blog between myself and Georgina Parfitt. We were discussing the possibility of writing a review of the new television adaption of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ but the talk quickly moved to imagery and illustration. Arguably, I shouldn’t be mentioning this book, as it is already illustrated- a fact of which I was not aware until writing this blog, as I listened to the audiobook version and have never seen the physical publication. I’m thrilled to hear one of the books on my list is actually illustrated! And no book is more suited to it than this.



Clarke’s beast of a novel is set in 19th Century England, during the Napoleonic Wars. Magic, which once thrived in England, is returning in the arms of two magicians- the stuffy and reclusive Gilbert Norrell, and the imaginative and charismatic Jonathan Strange.

As with ‘The Dark Tower’ I think this kind of other-worldly magic cries out to be drawn. The realms of fairy, the castle of Lost Hope, the gentleman with the thistledown hair. Clarke’s writing is Dickens-like, each scene creating a wonderfully clear tableau in the mind of the reader. Her characters, of which there are many, are all fantastic individuals, each with their own secrets and motives. The gothic settings in Yorkshire almost feel as remote and mysterious as the fairy world Jonathan Strange discovers he can travel to through mirrors, and the Raven King would be a marvellous subject for a wood engraving, surrounded by thorns and celtic knots.

The artist lucky enough to have been given the task of illustrating Clarke’s novel is Portia Rosenberg. And she doesn’t disappoint. Rosenberg, who has also illustrated Alexandre Dumas’s ‘The Black Tulip’, has captured ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ in 28 wonderful yet understated drawings that have the quality of old fashioned woodcarvings or etchings akin to those plates in Dickens novels. Faced with so many details and descriptions, instead of being overwhelmed and trying to fit everything in, Rosenberg hasn’t fallen into that trap, instead leaving her illustrations  uncluttered, but with enough life in them to inspire the reader to create more complex images in their imaginations. The only thing I can fault is that 28 drawings is not nearly enough to capture all of the incredible imagery in the book! But maybe I’m just being greedy.

I could go on with this list of books that should be illustrated for at least another two parts. My note book page for this article is covered in titles that I’ve not yet mentioned! Other tales of magic like Patrick Rothfuss’s ‘Kingkiller Chronicles’, epic classics like ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas and the dystopian worlds of Suzanne Collins’s ‘The Hunger Games’ and James Dashner’s ‘The Maze Runner’. But I’ve share my opinion, and we here at Towerbabel want to know what yours is. What do you think about illustrated books? Which books do you think would be improved with some images? Tell us what you think on Twitter and here on the Forums page.

Next week I’ll be sharing with you some of my favourite illustrated books- and they’re not just for kids. See you then.

Focus on Thrillers: Two Kings of Suspense


For the next three weekend episodes of the Towerbabel blog (in the lead up to you-know-what), I’ll be focusing on…


How do you plot anticipation? How do you balance character development and mystery? How do you thrill the pants off your readers?

The pair of novels below both deal with suspense expertly, but they also reveal that there are very different approaches to be taken when writing thrilling fiction.


Revival, Stephen King

Stephen King is the master of the suspense novel. Over the last forty years, since his first hit Carrie, King has published and published, often multiple long novels in a year, churning out hit after hit. And his fans don’t get bored. Because even though they know what they’re getting with King’s stories – twists, extensive scene-setting, plotted moments of anticipation and pay-off so efficient that they’re almost formulaic – each novel is full of its own set of rules, fears, and threats that immerse the reader anew.

Let’s take a look at the opening of King’s new novel Revival to see how he does it.

The first page is dedicated to starting off the suspense-train. King begins by describing the cast of characters that populates our lives, just like in the movies, the main characters, lovers, family, and the extras, the crowds of passing faces that we hardly register. Then, the key to the whole novel appears. ”But sometimes,” King writes, “a person who fits none of these categories comes into your life.” We are introduced to the idea of the “change agent,” and for the narrator, this agent comes in the form of reverend Charles Jacobs. It is the fear and repulsion with which the narrator imbues this first page, before we meet Charles Jacobs, that fills the rest of this first chapter and the whole novel with paranoia and tension.

But its not just within the pages of the novel that Stephen King uses his skill with suspense. His publicity strategy, his business of writing, also pulls his readers along, making them desperate fans of his work, signed up to receive the next new book even before they know what it’s about. Revival is released in hardback in November but a sneaky excerpt courtesy of Scribner, linked above, has made its way across the web so that the figure of Charles Jacobs is already hanging around like an unanswered question.


Euphoria, Lily King

Lily King isn’t a writer famous for horror or suspense, but in this piece of historical fiction, she shows that you don’t have to be a fully paid-up member of the thriller genre to employ suspense effectively. Before the scene has been set, the atmosphere created, or the intellectual interest of the story initiated, King plants the seed of suspense and wins over the reader.

“As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.

‘Another dead baby,’ Fen said.”

King plants this seed not as a sensational piece of trickery but as the first crucial and symbolic detail of her story, introducing its heat, tension, and themes. Just as Stephen King keeps relentlessly on top of the suspense in his novels, Lily King follows the first seed with other teasers, never letting a page go by without putting some detail or other at work on the reader’s curiosity. The dead baby is followed almost immediately by the introduction of the main character’s feverish symptoms, for example.

Both Kings are making suspense work for them as they write their novels, but to entirely different final effects. It goes to show that whatever you’re writing, planting those disturbing, curious details at very regular intervals, especially at the start of your story, allows you to grab your reader’s full attention.

Next week I’ll be looking at another pair of suspenseful writers from different walks of literature. But till then, have a read of our post on The Art of Short Story Writing and a few more gems of advice from Stephen King.

Image: Todd Quackenbush

Focus on Historical Fiction: Mystery in The Miniaturist

erica marshall

Last week I saw how Ann Weisberger created and balanced the atmosphere in her historical novel The Promise, and this week, I take a look at another novel that has transformed a historical moment into a dark atmospheric tale. Just released in the US, and straight into the charts, this novel has a lot of hype to live up to and is drawing in some good, some mixed reviews so far.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist is set in 17th Century Holland. This is a rare historical treat, giving us a view of a time and place often missing in history class. Just as the front cover of the US edition shows the blue glow of a street scene, enticing like a snow globe, the picture of Holland in 1686 appears as if in the tender glow of some kind of Christmas display – only the most interesting, beautiful and quintessential details are picked out, and the rest exists in a sort of blur.

How to handle mystery like a master

We join the story as Nella, eighteen, arrives in Amsterdam, about to meet her new husband for only the second time (the first time was at their wedding a month before). Despite being alone in a foreign country, and having just married a complete stranger, an arrangement organized by her family, Nella approaches her new situation with courage and excitement, answering back to her somewhat stand-offish hosts, Johannes, her husband and his sister Marin. But when a gift arrives for Nella from her new husband, a miniature of her new home, an extravagant gift that staunch catholic Marin disapproves of, the household’s secrets become deeper and darker.

The jacket blurb describes the exquisite suspense that debut novelist Burton wields, and I think this is the major strong point of her prose; the careful drawing out of information and the placing of details ensures there’s always a question to be answered. This a real writing lesson to be learned from Burton I think. In the first chapter for example, as Nella enters Johannes’ house for the first time, a voice comes from the hall, and is followed by an outreaching hand, coming out of the darkness of the hallway. This voice and hand turns out to be attached to Marin, Johannes’ sister, though we long to meet the man himself. When night follows night and Nella still hasn’t been touched by her new husband, our longing increases as hers does. This is a wonderful show of how to engineer a plot so that it has maximum pull on the reader.

The novel has been criticized for not fleshing out its characters, the Guardian noticing that the characters seem more like figurines in the doll house than real, living, breathing people. Though I agree that the characters are moved around and manipulated to fit the story, and become most clear in their voices and clothes, rather than their motivations, I appreciate how the book is led by its setting and its mystery. Leading with the desires and sufferings of a protagonist isn’t the only way to write a novel, thankfully.

Take a look at our other posts in the Focus on Historical Fiction series, first with The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, then with The Promise by Ann Weisberger. And if it’s The Miniaturist’s sweet front cover that inspires you, you might enjoy our post on the book covers of graphic designer Nicolas Beaujouan

Focus on Historical Fiction: Atmosphere in The Promise

erica marshall


Last week, I talked about the detail and authenticity in Paula McClain’s historical romance The Paris Wife, how it allowed her to conjure the setting of Hemingway’s expatriate Paris, but also at times got in her way as she tried to develop the character of Hadley Richardson beyond her historical image. In today’s focus on historical fiction, I’m looking at a UK bestseller from last year, and also recently released in the US:

The Promise, by Ann Weisgarber.

The Promise is set in 1900 in Galveston, Texas, in the days before a huge storm wiped out many of the island’s buildings, history and population, as well as many, of course, who were killed in the aftermath of the storm, by the remaining disease and poverty.

The novel focuses on two women caught in the storm, not only the famous Galveston storm but their own tempestuous lives. Both women have become closely connected to one man, Oscar Williams. Catherine, who knew Oscar in school, is about to marry him, to save herself from shame in her home town because of an adulterous affair. The other woman, Nan Ogden, has been helping Oscar Williams and his household for years, and has harbored a secret and growing love for him.

Creating atmosphere

The storm interrupts the characters about half way through the novel, but until then, it is a distant threat. Instead, what conjures the atmosphere at first is the sweltering heat as Catherine realizes the bind she’s in and arranges to marry Oscar. As she travels to begin her new life with him and his son, the atmosphere grows to be stifling.

Galveston is hot and uncomfortable. Weisgarber plots in hot, pinching details, to increase the sense of weather and pressure pushing on the characters – the laces of corsets, stiff collars, every motion sweat-inducing. Weisgarber is wise to build this atmosphere as she does in the first few chapters, so that by the time the famous storm rolls in, we already feel drenched and exhausted from the heat.

Balancing atmosphere and historical detail

The concept of the book comes from Weisgarber’s research into Galveston and its storm, but the main plot focuses on the “love triangle” between Nan, Oscar, and Catherine. Told in Nan’s and Catherine’s voices alternately, the aging affection of Nan comes up against the blossoming affection of Catherine. Oscar, caught in the middle, unknowingly, and observed by both narrators, is the mysterious force that binds the perspectives.

In this way, Weisgarber tells the Galveston story obliquely before she tells it directly; the island is an important presence, but conjured simply, as if merely the setting in which these characters are living their lives. Historical details are placed inconspicuously, and come in the form of atmospheric details, the heat, the lay of the land, the dialects, and not in facts and dates.

One of the historical anecdotes that is most faithfully recorded is the story of the Galveston orphanage, run by nuns, which reappears throughout the novel for various reasons, and becomes tragically important in the final chapters when the storm hits. Because the author has foregrounded the tragedy, the realization of the historical event at the orphanage doesn’t feel inevitable or educational; it gives the emotional punch it would if it were a fictional event or a present event recorded in a newspaper.

The Promise

Overall, The Promise is a well written story that recreates history without the textbook focus of some historical novels; by concentrating on atmosphere and character, the island of Galveston, and its tragic storm, come into being and into focus gradually, naturally, so that each shock is felt very palpably by the reader.


If you liked this post, take a look at my writing prompt, inspired by the Texas summer heat, here.

Image source: Erica Marshall via Flickr


Focus on Historical Fiction: The Problem of Authenticity in The Paris Wife

erica marshall

For the next few episodes of our Friday blog, I’m going to be putting the spotlight on historical fiction, a fascinatingly diverse genre, and one that has had many individual successes this year.

Historical fiction brings a host of new problems and opportunities to the fiction writer and the historian; as creativity and authenticity rival for space, the historical novel appears to have a choice to make, a stance that it must embrace if it is to have an emotional impact on the reader.

As I look at three very different pieces of historical fiction over the next three Fridays, I’ll be trying to weigh up these difficulties and opportunities.

Up first is:


The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

The Paris Wife is told from the point of view of 28 year-old Hadley Richardson, whose mother has just died and who is about to meet Ernest Hemingway for the first time and begin an intense romance that will end in her heartbreak and her transformation into a figure of literary history.

The novel became a New York Times bestseller in 2012 and impressed many readers with its choice to add depth to the historical Hemingway image and to the image of Hadley Richardson, which for most of us had been extremely shallow before. By the end of the novel, Hemingway’s charms, demons and vanities have become apparent in the rich detail of McClain’s prose, and Hadley has become even more clear, but in the more intimate, biased sense that comes from a first person narrative.

What the novel does well:

The novel, as one would hope, dives into the heady atmosphere of Hemingway’s Europe in its first third, following Hadley as she meets the expatriate set of writers, artists and socialites who will become famous for their salons and critiques and their place in the modernist movement.

Within this scene, where egos and fashions lord over humbler things, McClain’s sensitive portrayal of Hadley fills in each chapter with more slow-moving emotional turmoil; the character’s paranoia and self-awareness is obvious and the threat of another woman tempting Ernest away is made real from the very first chapter. This is so well done that the reader is likely to get more caught up in Hadley’s feelings than the raucousness of Hemingway’s social circle, which is certainly an achievement.

What frustrated me:

But while The Paris Wife indulges the reader’s desire to be a fly on the wall of the modernist comings and goings of Hemingway’s set, we are never allowed to wander and buzz as that fly would, around Montparnasse, and so on, because we’re quite stuck in Hadley’s voice (the book’s main achievement is also its main drawback). It is a well-written perspective, full of moments of beauty and lovely human observations, but because the author has developed Hadley’s character with such self-awareness and sensitivity, the outside world is pulled and warped by her interior voice.

As I read, I often wondered how many of these interior moments were fueled by the writer’s own memories and insecurities, and where the research left off and the fiction began. Though I didn’t mistrust the author’s work, being aware of the balance between real and imagined didn’t help me enjoy the experience of the prose. There was such detail to Hadley’s interiority that it caused me to worry too often about where the writer was getting her information.

I think this is a common problem of historical novels; the reading experience is necessarily altered by the reality of the events depicted in the novel, the experience can be either jolted by the authenticity of the prose, in an exciting way, or it can be stifled, by the inevitability of the plot. The moments of greatest sympathy for Hadley were moments where she was engrossed in her feelings for Hemingway, but the greatest moments of the novel were the ones where she became more transparent and viewed her social environment with more curiosity than worry.


Next week, I’ll be looking at The Promise by Ann Weisberger, a historical novel about the storm that tragically hit Galveston, Texas in 1900.

And if you still need your Hemingway fix for the day, take a quick look at our pick of quotes from the big guy.

Image source: Erica Marshall via Flickr