Saturday 5 November 2016

I spy with my little eye – gunpowder, treason and plot by Ally Sherrick

Today on the blog, Ally Sherrick, author of historical adventure Black Powder, talks about the secret world of spies and subterfuge at the time of the Gunpowder Plot and how this influenced her story.
I’m intrigued by the notion of people not being what they seem. It’s ripe ground for fiction writers and children’s authors in particular. Especially if you want to keep your readers guessing or alternatively, to give them that satisfying feeling of being on the inside track. Severus Snape in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, the strange winged man in the garage in David Almond’s Skellig or Tanya Landman’s heroine Charlotte/Charley in Buffalo Soldier are all great examples of characters with more to them than meets the eye. So I guess it’s not surprising that I ended up writing a tale with a fair sprinkling of dissemblers and pretenders myself.

The real-life story of the Gunpowder Plot, the inspiration for Black Powder, is peppered with people busy pretending to be someone else, all set against the historical backdrop of a time and place where you could be executed for your beliefs and when paranoia about Catholic ‘papist’ plots was running high. 

Guy Fawkes himself adopted a false name – the rather unimaginative ‘John Johnson’ – as he set about the business of laying a train of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords where the King and Parliament were due to meet on 5 November 1605. But there were others too, who were employed to go about their business incognito – the network of spies and informers in the pay of King James I’s chief minister and spymaster, Robert ‘the fox’ Cecil. 

These men or ‘intelligencers’, were hired by the wily Cecil to uncover plans for potential foreign invasions and to sniff out would-be traitors at home and abroad - all in the interests of preserving the security of the English state. Tricks of their trade included false identities and disguises, the use of codes to send encrypted messages and writing letters in invisible ink. The ‘ink’ in question was usually made from orange or onion juice, although one spy even tried the noise-wrinkling alternative of urine! They also employed the classic methods of entrapment such as sending false messages to flush their prey out and to get them to confess their wrongdoings.

It was largely thanks to the work of Robert Cecil and his spies – coupled with the plotters’ own lack of discretion - that the Gunpowder Plot came to the Government’s attention and was successfully foiled.

In my own story, there are at plenty of characters pretending to be one thing and turning out to be another. At least two of them are spies - I won’t name them, as it might spoil the fun. But, in the end, in the best tradition of children’s fiction, it is the hero and heroine of Black Powder, Tom Garnett and his cousin Cressida Montague, who really save the day!
For more information about Ally Sherrick and her new novel, Black Powder, visit or follow her on Twitter @ally_sherrick 

For more information about Chicken House visit and follow on twitter @chickenhsebooks

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