This is what I've been doing over the past few weeks. No, I'm not the stylish woman bellringing - but the man to the right, watching. My next novel features both embroidery and bellringing in 1930s Winchester.


There are 16 bells up in the Winchester Cathedral belfry. (Most cathedrals have 12, 14 at most. ) I have been up in the tower to watch these big boys being rung (though most refer to bells as "she"):

 wc bells

 Bellringing is complicated and kind of crazy, and I love it.

They've been ringing bells at Winchester for centuries, as demonstrated by this 15th-century graffiti in the ringing chamber:

bellringer carvingBellringers used to be given special coats like what this chap is wearing.
He also appears to have wings!


Up near the bells are a couple more chaps, 19th century this time, though confusingly, one of them wears a ruffled collar that was fashionable in the 17th century:


2018 02 28 15.12.15


Finally, some graffiti from the main part of the Cathedral - on the north wall of the Presbytery, for anyone who visits:


bellringer graffiti

It reads: "Harey Coppar was svorne bellryngar in the yer of our Lorde 1545"


I love this stuff. This is why I write historical novels: to find and interpret the marks from the past, the literal and figurative graffiti.





Sometimes I need to be quiet. I have spent a lot of the past two years talking about books, writing, myself, blah blah blah. It's time to give you and me a rest from me. It's like the old system of crop rotation where farmers left a field fallow every few years to give it a change to recover, and - apparently - for earthworms to grow.

So I won't be doing any public events or mainstream media in 2018 (unless something truly spectacular comes along). I will still be on social media, though  (, and on this website.

There are many other wonderful writers out there with things to say as well as words that should be read. If you want a suggestion, try the novel Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. Wow. It taught me a different way to tell a story, and here I thought this old dog already knew all the tricks...

 Right, I'm off to grow some worms and write a new novel. Happy New Year!


I am lucky sometimes to get asked to do unusual events. Earlier this month I had the honour of curating an evening at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where Girl with a Pearl Earring hangs. One Thursday a month the museum opens late, with special events supporting a theme chosen by the guest curator. I decided on "Selfies" and based the programming around the question of whether and how we control the image we present to the public. I picked 5 paintings from the collection to study in depth, and led a tour, recorded an audio tour, and basically ran around and had a blast. These photos by Billie Jo Krul give you a flavour of the evening:

Last month I published my novel New Boy, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello, and did things a little differently. Here’s what changed:

  • Normally I write historical novels. New Boy is set at a school in Washington DC in 1974, and so is more nostalgic than historic.
  • Normally I make up the characters and plot. Here Shakespeare handed them to me.
  • Normally I write with adult readers in mind. This time I thought of everybody, figuring young people might respond to the story too.

It can be hard for readers to respond to change. You read a writer, you think you know them, then POW, they send a book out into the world that is completely different. It’s the same with artists, actors, musicians. We want what we've come to expect from them, except just a tiny bit varied so it doesn’t seem like they’re repeating themselves.

I’m having a new experience this month. My latest novel, New Boy, is not an historical novel – unless you think 1974 is history. To me it feels like yesterday, since I lived through it. Indeed, I was 11 in 1974, same age as the characters in the book. I had lots of fun being nostalgic about Partridge Family lunchboxes and Big Buddy bubblegum while I was writing the book. (For a little hit of that nostalgia, have a look here.)

Now, during the promotion, I’m getting asked a lot about my childhood, going to an integrated school in Washington DC, playground politics, and the casual racism of the 1970s. It has made me realize how much writing books set in the distant past has sheltered me from all of that personal scrutiny. For instance, I have never been asked if I resemble the maid Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Quaker Honor Bright in The Last Runaway. Readers don’t assume I have had the experiences those characters have, since they took place in 17th-century Holland and 19th-century Ohio. Actually, though, I think there is indirectly quite a lot of me in both of them, camouflaged behind a historical setting.