Alexandra Walsh was a journalist for over 25 years, writing and editing for many national newspapers and magazines. She also worked in television as an associate producer and director, with a brief stint in radio. For a number of years, she wrote television and film scripts, before combining her love of history and fiction to write The Marquess House Trilogy, a series of a dual timeline conspiracy thrillers: The Catherine Howard Conspiracy (published in March 2019 by Sapere Books); The Elizabeth Tudor Conspiracy (June 2019) and The Arbella Stuart Conspiracy (May 2020). All three have been multiple Amazon bestsellers.
Congratulations on The Arbella Stuart Conspiracy being published! Tell us a bit about your novels.
Thank you! The Arbella Stuart Conspiracy is the final book in the Marquess House Trilogy. They are split-timeline mystery thrillers and follow Dr Perdita Rivers and her twin sister Piper Davidson, as they uncover a secret hidden in history and the potential havoc its revelation could wreak.
Book one begins with Perdita and Piper inheriting Marquess House, the estate of the girls’ estranged grandmother, the eminent historian Mary Fitzroy. Mary had removed herself from the girls’ lives after the death of their mother, Mary’s only child. However, Perdita had always secretly hoped they would one day be reunited with Mary. She decides to move into Marquess House to try to understand why her grandmother had abandoned them in life, but embraced them in death. To her surprise, Mary has left her a series of clues to help her uncover the truth.
Perdita is joined in her quest by Kit Mackensie, the son of Mary’s old friend Alistair, who administers the estate. As Perdita and Kit unravel Mary’s trail, they begin to uncover a new and provable version of history – which is when they discover their lives are in danger.
While the conspiracy theories through the three books are entirely fictional, the history on which these are based draws on as much fact as possible and has taken over ten years to research. The historical sections are told through the voices of the women of the period and portray not only the well-known eponymous historical figures, but also the women who surrounded and supported them, giving a new twist on the usual portrayal of women in the historical fiction genre.
What’s the thread that draws the books in your trilogy together?
The thread is a secret hidden in history which, if revealed, would rewrite everything that is known about the past. In Book One: The Catherine Howard Conspiracy, Perdita, Piper and Kit are told this secret can be proved by reuniting three missing pieces of jewellery: two ruby rings and a silver locket. Finding these three items becomes the driving force of their search and, as they trace them through time, a whole new version of history begins to emerge.
Where did the idea for the Marquess House Trilogy come from?
It flickered into my mind one evening, when I was watching a TV drama about the gunpowder plot. A thought came to me – which I can’t reveal here because it’s a huge spoiler for the series – and a whole idea began to flow. So I opened my laptop and began to type. Thee thousand words later I had the idea.
However, then I had to see if it was historically viable. Over the next few months I did some basic research, and every thread that was needed for this plot to work fitted neatly with real historical events and their dates. It was quite uncanny.
The Catherine Howard Conspiracy splits between present day and the court of Henry VIII during his marriages to first Anne of Cleves and then Catherine Howard.
Book two, The Elizabeth Tudor Conspiracy, continues the present-day story from the end of book one, while the historical section moves on to the reign of Elizabeth I and the period leading up to the Babington Plot and Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution.
The latest, The Arbella Stuart Conspiracy, again has the present-day pick-up from the end of book two, this time the historical section moves to the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and into the reign of James I of England.
How important is it to you to stick to the known historical record in your books?
Making the history viable and realistic was extremely important. It’s very easy to lose yourself in flights of fancy when you’re writing but, for this series to work and not become a work of fantasy, I needed to root it firmly in as much fact as possible. I love stories with the premise ‘What if?’, giving alternate versions of past events and how life might have been. But for them to be believable and compelling to a reader, they must have a solid background of believable history.
A strong theme running through your work is friendship and support between women. How significant is that to you?
Very significant, both now and through history. One main frustration that developed during my research was the way in which women are presented in their own biographies. They are usually written about in isolation. While references are made to male family members, lovers and/or husbands, their day-to-day friendships with other women are largely ignored.
In all three books, the main historical protagonist is a known historical figure. About 99 per cent of the books I read rarely referred to their female companions – although Tracy Borman’s brilliant Elizabeth’s Women is an exception – yet if you scratch the surface, you discover there were groups of supportive women around all the key female players in history.
I’m very lucky to have some wonderful female friends and to have worked in offices with a predominance of talented and incredible women. It is the rare woman who sees other women as a threat and tries to use this as a way to promote themselves. Yes, they are about and yes, I’ve encountered a few but the majority of women I know and have worked with are supportive, collaborative, considerate and compassionate.
This same dynamic is likely to have existed throughout history. Take Catherine Howard, for example. She is generally referred to as the abandoned orphan brought up by her step-grandmother, yet she was one of ten siblings, most of whom were at court with her. She also had an abundance of step- and half-siblings, more of whom were sisters than brothers, who can easily be placed in historical records at the Tudor court with her; yet these friendships and relationships are entirely glossed over.
While researching your novels did you, like your protagonist Perdita, make any surprising discoveries?
Haha, yes, I did! In the author’s notes at the back of each book, I’ve written about how researching my own family tree gave me a huge amount of inspiration, as well as information. The most startling things I discovered were an ancestress in common with Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn, who were cousins, (WOOHOO!!), a link to the Arden family through Mary Arden, who was William Shakespeare’s mother; a connection to the Paston family who were an important and influential family and who feature in book two; and also a link to one of the Gunpowder Plotters. I was astounded.
Why did you choose to use dual timelines for your stories?
It was not something I had intended. My first draft was set entirely in the present day but the more I wrote, the more it was turning into a history lecture, rather than a novel. It was important for readers to know the real version of events, as well as the version I’d created, so it became easier for me to write my ‘new’ version as the historical sections, while I had my present-day characters explain the perceived version so they could highlight the differences I had created.
What advice would you give to someone writing their first book?
The most important thing is to believe in yourself and also to trust your instincts for your story and your characters – you know them better than anyone else.
On a more practical structural basis, the thing that works for me is to have my ending in mind before I begin writing. I am not a meticulous planner, because things always change while you’re writing, but even the roughest idea of a conclusion gives me something towards which to head, which helps to build the framework of the story.
I also write character biographies for my main characters including middle names, birthdays, where they went to school, pets… all the tiny details of life. If I know them, I find it is easier to write about them.
A bit of fun – if you could time travel for one day, what time and place would you go to? And what object would you bring back?
This one has really made me think. The historical person I most admire is Queen Elizabeth I, so my one-day time travel would take me back to the day she was told she was queen – and I’d bring back an acorn from the oak tree under which she was supposed to be sitting, when she received the news.
And what are you working on now?
A new dual timeline, stand-alone novel, but this time the split is present day and the late Victorian era.
The audiobook version is out on Thursday, 30 July.
Photo of Alexandra Walsh: supplied by the interviewee
Lady Arbella Stuart, aged 13: via Wikimedia
Portrait of a lady, said to be Catherine Howard, by Hans Holbein the Younger: via Wikimedia
Arbella Stuart by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger: via Wikimedia