Refraction: Combining Contemporary and Historical Fiction

Today on our blog we have a guest post from Jennifer Harris with a fascinating insight into the writing process behind her novel, The Devil Comes To Bonn. And we’re delighted that the book was written on our Novel Creator Course, a year-long online course with support and mentoring, plus the option for a lower cost un-mentored version too.

Straddling past and present via backstory is a standard novel writing tool, but some novels continue the past-present dichotomy throughout, therefore, requiring readers to jump between stories. Well known examples are Restless(2006) by William Boyd and Sarah’s Key (2008) by Tatiana de Rosnay. 

I thought frequently about these novels while writing The Devil Comes to Bonn (2023). I do not know how Boyd would articulate his technical aim in writing Restless, but mine was refraction. I wanted readers to read the contemporary story in The Devil Comes to Bonn as refracted or angled through the historical story.

My 2015 story of Stella, a woman who is bullied at a conference in Germany, was planned to be angled through the experiences of Hildegard, a woman who in 1941 finds herself pushed into the position of chambermaid to Hitler in one of his favourite hotels. By contrast, in Restless, the daughter discovers the historic story of her mother and thus must cope with the unravelling of the life she thought that she lived. In the other example, Sarah’s Key, the present resolves and heals the past as the contemporary story focuses on discovering what happened long ago. The two timelines of these novels have clear narrative links.

At first sight, the 2015 and 1941 stories in The Devil Comes to Bonn have little in common, but the differing responses by the women protagonists to life challenges are the links. In my novel, the women characters have different reactions to what has happened to them and make different life choices. There is no resolution. The refractive angling continues beyond the end of the novel. One woman seems honourable and the other not — or at best confused rather than dishonourable — but at the end who has taken more life leaps? Who has remade herself? 

Refraction in writing distorts and angles and thus creates new ways of seeing, sliding us sometimes subtly between stories, and sometimes brashly. Writing with refraction as my chief tool, meant that neither of the stories in The Devil Comes to Bonn could be told in a straightforward manner; they interrupt each other constantly, sometimes only a page separates them. The aim of the sudden halt of one story and jolting re-starting of the other creates a space for readers to ponder beyond the compulsion of the narrative drive of ‘what next?’  Refraction is a technique of rupture which propels readers into thought; the theoretical aim is for readers to use each story to reflect on the other.  This is not to say, however, that as a writer I want readers to be emotionally detached — far from it.  I want readers to feel strong emotional attachment to relatable characters. 

In Restless, Boyd brought the two timelines together via the plot as the main characters, mother and daughter, confront the antagonist. In The Devil Comes to Bonn, the two storylines come together differently: first via having the two protagonists talk to each other, and secondly by having them overlap in places. They meet repeatedly in the contemporary 2015 story on the shore of the River Rhine. Then they overlap in one room in Hitler’s hotel — but seventy-four years apart. 

I wanted the slightly secondary 1941 story to be as compelling as the modern story without overly reducing the presence on the page of the main protagonist, Stella. That was an on-going challenge. The two women protagonists have well-meaning, loving husbands who overstep loving relationships into the coercive. I use the historical-contemporary refraction to illuminate the long history of moral ambiguity that women often find themselves in — apparently loved and coerced. How should they respond?

My novel also contains references to other historical periods: ancient Roman settlement on the Rhine, and Japanese enslavement of Koreans during World War II. It was a risky leap to use these apparently extraneous historical times as plot points because of the possibility of diluting the central stories. I enjoyed the challenge of keeping readers close to the main protagonist, Stella, while she had life altering emotional responses to historical periods beyond either of the two timelines. With the main character being an historian, it was not unreasonable that she might think beyond the contemporary everyday. 

No-one has yet said to me that it is outside the scope of the intensity of a novel to invoke several other eras. I look forward to more responses.

About Jennifer Harris:

I write literary fiction inspired by the historic environment—not historical fiction, but fiction set in the contemporary era that responds to the past, remembered either publicly in monuments and memorials, or in subtle, private ways. My PhD is in Cultural Heritage theory and I have lectured in and researched cultural heritage and museums for many years. I have run a small museum, and worked as a journalist in Australia and London. I am from Western Australia and have lived also in France and the UK. In 2020 I relocated to Seattle in the spectacular Pacific Northwest of the USA. I enjoy water colour painting, hiking, skiing, dogs – and, of course, visiting heritage sites and museums. Website:

Guest post: Jonathan Pinnock – Arc of a Writer

Hello! For today’s guest post, we welcome Jonathan Pinnock, to talk about his third novel, ‘A Question of Trust’. Jonathan also provides some great insights into world-building, the story arc and writing a series.

Arc of a Writer – How to Create a Series

Be careful what you wish for. I wrote my second novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE, on the Creative Writing MA course at Bath Spa University. Towards the end of it, I began to realise that I wanted to continue writing about this bunch of characters who had emerged over the last year, so I changed the ending to make it clear that there was more to come.

So it was that, after a few hiccups, I ended up signing a contract with Farrago Books, who had been set up specifically to publish series of humorous novels. This was massively exciting for me, as I’d always wanted my own series. I think it was mainly the matching covers that I was after more than anything else.

But like I said, be careful what you wish for, because the contract that I had just signed effectively stated that I had around six months to write the sequel. It’s also worth bearing in mind at this point that I had absolutely no idea what the sequel was going to be about. All I had was a vague idea that at the beginning of the book, the main protagonist Tom’s girlfriend, Dorothy – who he’d finally got together with at the end of the first book – was going to disappear in suspicious circumstances, leading him to wonder who he could trust.

Fortunately, I’d just read a book about the strange, mad world of crypto-currency, and it struck me that this was a rich field to explore, if only I could find the right angle. Then I realised that the whole supposed point of Bitcoin and all the rest was to set up a banking system that no longer relied on trust, and suddenly I had a theme, and indeed a title: A QUESTION OF TRUST. I was beginning to get a feel for where it might be heading. But how was it going to fit into the series?

When you’re writing a series of related books, your main challenge is how you treat your readers. Do you insist on them reading the whole lot from Book One, or do you let them join at any point – always hoping that they’ll go back to the beginning, of course? I decided to make A QUESTION OF TRUST as standalone as possible, but I also wanted to reward readers of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE by giving them a sense of continuity and development. If there’s some kind of series story arc, however tenuous, it gives a sense of ownership which – I hope – engenders loyalty. This meant that I had to include the occasional quick recap of the events of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE for new joiners, although I don’t think they’re particularly intrusive, and to be honest, they probably serve as helpful reminders to the regulars.

As an example of what I mean by continuity and development, I saw a couple of opportunities to work on a couple of favourite minor characters from the first book. First of all, there was Ali, a feisty, sweary software developer who’d previously stolen every scene she was in. I really wanted to do more with her, and the absence of Dorothy gave me an opening, especially if I contrived to have her thrown together in a confined space with Tom, who she really, really hates. At the same time, I also thought it would be fun to get her into a relationship, just to watch her trying to play at being a nice person, so I made that happen as well.

The other character from the first book who became very useful was Tom’s hopeless ex-hippy father, who I realised would be exactly the kind of person who’d fall for crypto and get ripped off. This gave me the perfect route into the main storyline, although things inevitably turn out to be a whole load more complicated.

I also spotted an opportunity to do a bit of world-building. Now that’s something that people tend to associate with fantasy novels, but it applies to any type of novel or series of novels. (As an example, one of the best examples of world-building I’ve ever come across is in Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Noir comic detective novels.) One of the features in the world of THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE was a group of internet conspiracy theorists called the Vavasorologists, who were obsessed with the lives and strange deaths of the Vavasor twins, the Archie and Pye of the title. In A QUESTION OF TRUST, we actually meet some of them at a Vavasorologist convention, with all the weirdness that entails.

So writing a series of books presents new challenges but also offers unexpected opportunities. On the one hand, you have to deal with the constraints of the story arc, but on the other hand, you have a collection of ready-made stuff you can use to build on and move forward. I’m now engrossed in writing the third book in the series, THE CURSE OF THE VAVASORS and of course I’ve got material from two previous books to work with now. Writing a series is so much fun.


Thanks, Jonathan! Interesting to see how ideas develop and expand beyond a single novel and which story threads get pursued.

About the author: Jonathan is the author of several books, including the novel MRS DARCY VERSUS THE ALIENS (Proxima, 2011), the short story collections DOT DASH (Salt, 2012) and DIP FLASH (Cultured Llama, 2018), the poetry collection LOVE AND LOSS AND OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF (Silhouette, 2017), but for the time being he’d most like to be known as the man behind Farrago Books’ Mathematical Mystery series of comic thrillers: THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE (2018), A QUESTION OF TRUST (2019) and THE CURSE OF THE VAVASORS (TBA). His website contains loads of interesting and unexpected stuff and can be found at

Guest post: Stephanie Percival – Where DO you get your ideas from?

Hello, and a big welcome to Stephanie Percival, for today’s guest post! With the launch of Stephanie’s third novel, ‘the matter,’ she provides some insights and tackles the BIG question. Over to Stephanie…

Where DO you get your ideas from?
An author’s guide to creating novel ideas.

The title of this blog post is a question a friend asked me after I’d published a short story on my web page. That story was inspired by a TV documentary which I wanted to respond to.

More recently I’ve had to consider the question again.

When I got a date and place for the launch of my latest novel, ‘the matter,’ I was delighted and excited. It seemed a long time since the start of the process. In fact I had taken the first chapter to a writing retreat in early 2015 and after positive feedback worked hard to complete it.

The novel centres on 11 year-old Simeon Isherwood, who has a genetic disorder. This makes him unable to communicate. His scientist parents have the opportunity to let Simeon undergo genetic replacement therapy. After making the difficult decision to go ahead, the results are not quite as expected.

As I started the process of how to introduce ‘the matter’ at the launch I realised it was going to take a bit of thought.

I have published two other novels, ‘The Memory of Wood,’ and ‘The Kim’s Game.’ However, ‘the matter,’ developed in a different way.

For those first two novels, the starting point had been a definitive moment when ‘the story’ emerged.

For ‘The Memory of Wood’ I‘d been having a drink in the bar of a hotel and heard about the legend of the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots descending the staircase. The book’s theme centres on this tale.

The trigger for ‘The Kim’s Game’ was meeting a person who’d had a leg amputation. Thinking about the character took me on a path of ‘What else has this man lost?’ The answer: a relationship, his mother, his home…and these losses reminded me of the memory game I had played as a child, which we called ‘Kim’s Game.’

Rather than a single occurrence or character ‘the matter’ evolved gradually. Because though the story centres round Simeon and his parents, there is another character, a mysterious ‘entity.’ As I considered how it sneaked in, I had a memory of visiting a science exhibition back in 1973. On a screen was a visual display of an atom: the nucleus central and electrons moving around it, a bit like moons orbiting a planet. This was a time before the World Wide Web, mobile phones and even calculators. I was just starting my secondary education and it was a real eye opener.

The thing that still amazes me was the amount of space between those subatomic particles. And I think that must still underpin my world view. There is a lot of current research into dark matter but it remains a mystery. In fact, scientists can only account for 5% of matter in the universe, the other 95% is dark matter and dark energy.

The other strand of the story is Simeon’s operation. This theme for the book developed after I met an eight year old girl with a terrible genetic disorder. Again I asked the question, “What if…she could have an operation that would cure her?” and then “What if…that operation changed her, so though considered a success by the medical world, she was unhappy at becoming a different individual?”

The “What if..?” question is one that most of us will arrive at when developing a new idea for our writing. But some subjects though triggered by a recent topic or occurrence may actually go much further back to a previous event, a character that made an impression on us, or a strange tale that piques an interest.

Wherever they start, I sense they have something to do with the space between the atoms somewhere in the depths of the neural circuits in the brain. And just as I get dizzy from thinking about Infinity, this is also another topic that gives my brain ache…just where do those words come from? So I can’t fully answer my friend’s question but I hope ‘the matter’ is thought provoking and pertinent to the world today. The publisher, Cinnamon Press says it…‘is a unique and headspinning speculation.’

P.S. If you are concerned that ‘the matter’ is some kind of pseudo-science book, please be reassured…in fact it begins in the jungle of ‘I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here!’ (Don’t let that put you off either.)


Thanks, Stephanie! Ideas can materialise all at once or nurtured over time, but best founded in real life experience. For more about her writing and blog, check out her website, here.
About the author: Stephanie always intended to write a novel, but it wasn’t until 2004 when she was shortlisted for the BBC End of Story competition, that she believed it might be possible. That was the motivation to develop a novel, ‘The Memory of Wood,’ and self-publish it in 2011.

Her work has been shortlisted and won several competitions and her second novel ‘The Kim’s Game’ was published by Cinnamon Press in 2017. A novella titled, ‘the matter’ is to be launched in April 2019.

Stephanie is a member of the Creative Writers @ Museum, in Northampton, near where she lives with her husband. When not writing, Stephanie works part-time for her local NHS service as a podiatrist.

Guest post: Mark Brownless – The Hand of an Angel

Today it is our delight to welcome Mark Brownless to our page as part of his blog blitz for ‘The Hand of an Angel’.  This “shattering medical thriller with a heart-stopping climax” is his first novel and we’re keen to find out all about it.


Hi Amanda! Thanks very much for having me along to talk about my book, The Hand of an Angel.

Hi Mark, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. Can you tell us what inspired you to explore the concept of killing yourself temporarily to try and find out if there is an afterlife?

In the 80s, as a nerdy teenager, I was always fascinated by unexplained phenomena, things like alien abduction, Bigfoot and near-death experience. So, when I started writing I had the idea of someone looking back after a near-death experience, and how that might shape their view of the world from now on. But the subtext is all about reality. What did they see? Was it real, or a construct created by their oxygen-starved brain? These are common themes throughout the book.

In one of the first creative writing classes I ever went to the teacher said that there is always some element of autobiography in the first novels we write. Do you think this is true of yours and if so, which elements of your life can be found in this novel? I’m presuming you haven’t tried to see if there is an afterlife!

No, quite right! The story mentions that seeing the afterlife, whatever it might be, is a one-way trip, so I haven’t been there as yet!

My mother-in-law was glad that the children of my main characters, Tom and Sarah, were both boys, otherwise she would’ve felt that they were too similar to my wife and I. Tom and Sarah aren’t us, however, but they don’t feel like characters I created, either. They feel like real people to me – I like a quote from Stephen King that says that he doesn’t create characters, he just tells a story about people that already exist – and that’s how I think of my characters.

When did you first start writing fiction?

Very recently. About three years ago I read a post-Fleming James Bond novel which I hated with a passion, because it wasn’t anything like Bond. I suppose I could’ve written a complaint letter, but I sat down and wrote four chapters of a ‘proper’ Bond story. My wife and I were away for the weekend at the time, so it was a little tense when I spent the whole weekend writing rather than spending time with her! Immediately after that I just started writing a conversation between two characters that became a pivotal moment in The Hand of an Angel.

Who are your favourite authors and why?

I guess my favourite author is Stephen King. I grew up with his books – Carrie, The Shining, and more meaningfully for me perhaps, The Stand and It. I also need to mention the late James Herbert, and even Guy N Smith, the latter who wrote Night of the Crabs, which led me to the former’s The Rats and The Fog and then Stephen King. I love Bernard Cornwall’s historical fiction and this has influenced Locksley, my Robin Hood short story series. Now I read so much diverse stuff that it’s hard to pick a favourite, but recently I’ve loved CJ Tudor’s The Chalk Man and Stu Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

What is the book you wish you’d written and why?

That’s hugely difficult because I’ve read so many great books. I guess if you wanted to create a legacy for yourself, as well as being successful and recognised you would want to be influential. So in genre fiction terms, you can’t get any more influential than The Lord of the Rings – there’s so little fantasy that isn’t influenced by it in some way that to have been the imagination that created those worlds and the possibility for others, is extraordinary.

Are you working on your next novel now? If so can you tell us anything about it yet?

I’m working on the second instalment of my Robin Hood short story series, each episode is being released on a monthly basis and should be available for pre-order by the time you read this. As for a full length novel, as you alluded to earlier, I’ve allowed my childhood to influence me and I’m writing a horror story set in a quiet fictional village. Once again I’ll be looking at people’s perception of reality – this time with their memories of childhood – coupled with another unexplained phenomenon in the form of spontaneous human combustion. It’s called The Shadowman and I hope it will be available by the end of the year.

Thanks Mark for talking with us today!


‘The Hand of an Angel’ is available now for £6.99 on Amazon

You can also find our more about Mark and his writing on his website


Mark Brownless lives and works in Carmarthen, West Wales. He has been putting ideas on paper for some years now but only when the idea for THE HAND OF AN ANGEL came to him in the autumn of 2015 did he know he might be able to write a book. Mark likes to write about ordinary people being placed in extraordinary circumstances, is fascinated by unexplained phenomena, and enjoys merging thriller, science fiction and horror.

Mark is also fascinated by myths and legends such as those of Robin Hood and King Arthur. This has culminated in the release of his short story series, Locksley, a Robin Hood story, which will have new volumes added each month.