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Writing My Novel ‘A Secret Alchemy’, by Emma Darwin

It was 2007, and I was whizzing along the A64 in North Yorkshire because in the novel that wasn’t yet A Secret Alchemy one of my narrators whizzes along it. A small sign suddenly said TOWTON. I stamped on the brake and turned left, and the whole structure of the novel changed.

Modern-day Una Pryor drives the A64 because she’s researching another of my narrators, Antony Wydvil, uncle and guardian of the Princes in the Tower. He rode this way to his death in 1483, but I hadn’t realised till I got there that the road might take him into his own past: to 1461 and the Battle of Towton. It’s the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, and it was Antony’s first. Towton battlefield, I found, is high and open and eerily silent, and you can see how, when the two armies wheeled in the blinding snow on Palm Sunday, soldiers tumbled down the slope to drown in Cock Beck. It was said the water ran red for days.

So that became the shape of Antony’s story: one long midsummer day’s ride from the bleak, private Plantagenet stronghold of Sheriff Hutton to the squat yellow muscle of the great administrative centre of Pontefract – and from it I strung his whole life. For him it was a pilgrimage, and Elysabeth, his sister, also tells her story as a series of stops on her life’s journey through this glamorous and violent world.

Una too makes a pilgrimage; in looking for the Wydvils, she re-finds her own past and thus her future.  Una’s pilgrimage became mine through the land of late medieval politics. Battles were fought to hold or take the roads to London and Westminster:  at Barnet, Northampton, Tewkesbury and two at St Albans. Elysabeth was married to her first husband, Sir John Grey, to consolidate their fathers’ local power: the Greys lived at Groby, just up the A5 (Watling Street) from Elysabeth’s childhood home at Grafton. I’ve seen his childhood home. I’ve stood in the church at Ratby where they were married; I’ve peeked at the burnt-out shell of the manor house they probably lived in. Just down the A5, at Stony Stratford, Edward IV rode out secretly to woo the beautiful widow Elysabeth Grey, and twenty years later his brother Richard of Gloucester took control there of their son Edward V and sent Antony to his death.

Several scenes are set at Eltham Palace; the little, late-medieval pleasure palace just off the London-Dover road, handy for the Royal Dockyard – and the brothels – of Deptford. For dull reasons of chronology I had to set Una’s narrative a few years back, but in 1990 Eltham – the palace and the Art Deco country house it became – was being restored by English Heritage. So Una goes to see what’s being done to make it come alive… and the whole of A Secret Alchemy came to be about how restoring a historic house is like writing a historical novel, spinning together the past and the present.

***Write with Emma Darwin near Hobart, Australia with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in September 2014

Emma Darwin’s author website:

Emma Darwin’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))A Secret Alchemy     Shadow of the PastPrison Ship: Adventures of a Young SailorThe Detroit Electric SchemeWounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage Adventure

Writing Historical Novels


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