Sunday, 20 December 2015

The 'Story Bug' and the 7th Century - Author Matthew Harffy Casts some Light ...

Today I'm delighted to welcome as my guest author Matthew Harffy

I asked him ~

Where did you first get the history ‘bug’?

I don’t know if I would say I ever got the history ‘bug’. I think I got the ‘story bug’. I love good stories, particularly those with epic battles and struggles against terrible odds. I think the heroic age of what is often referred to as the “Dark Ages” (or the more modern-sounding Early Medieval) in Britain provides a great canvas for such tales.
I enjoy learning about any period of history and when I visit a new country or area I always try to visit the important historical sites. I am blessed to have been born in Britain and lived in Spain for several years, both places steeped in masses of history.

What appeals to you particularly about the 7th c?

The early seventh century is a moment of great conflict and upheaval in Britain. Warlords battle for supremacy, with rulers of the different small kingdoms vying to become over-king of the whole island. Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who had come to Britain over the last century or two since the withdrawal of the Roman Empire, fought with the native Britons, as well as against each other. 
At the same time, Christianity was making its way back into the land, both from the south where Roman priests, such as Paulinus, came to convert the pagans, and from the north, where Irish priests came from the isle of Iona. Both of these flavours of Christianity competed for the hearts and minds of the population with the old gods; the spirits of the land and nature and the pantheon of Germanic gods including Woden (Odin) and Thunor (Thor).
This religious, political and military turmoil is the perfect backdrop against which to tell thrilling action-packed tales. 

Tell us about Beobrand – who is he?

Beobrand is the protagonist of the Bernicia Chronicles. In the first book, THE SERPENT SWORD, he is an inexperienced 17-year-old farmhand who has fled a dark past in the south of Britain and travelled to Northumbria in search of his one remaining kinsman, his brother. When he arrives, he finds his brother dead and he is quickly caught up in the war between the Angle King Edwin and the native Briton King Cadwallon. Beobrand is a natural fighter and grows into a formidable warrior. He needs to confront not only savage foes, but also his own weaknesses and past. THE SERPENT SWORD sees Beobrand coming of age, seeking vengeance for his brother’s death and becoming a warrior to be reckoned with.
In subsequent books, Beobrand continues to grow into his role of trusted thegn of the Northumbrian kings, finding himself embroiled in many adventures. I plan for each one to touch on a couple of real historical events and weave Beobrand’s tale in with them, with a few twists along the way.

The Serpent Sword is book 1 of the Bernicia Chronicles. Can you tell us about book 2?

Book 2 is THE CROSS AND THE CURSE. Beobrand proves his worth to the new king of Northumbria in battle and is rewarded with wealth and land. But he soon finds himself beset with enemies old and new. He even fears the power of a curse has him in its grip, as he begins to lose all he holds dear.
Surrounded by treachery and death, Beobrand confronts his foes with cold iron and bitter fury. On his quest for revenge and redemption, he grudgingly accepts the mantle of lord, leading his men into the darkest of nights and the bloodiest of battles.

Who are you when you are not writing?

When I am not writing, I am often thinking about writing! Or working on marketing and promoting the books. It takes a huge amount of effort to propel the work into the public eye and to not get lost amongst so many authors out there.
But if you class that as all part of “writing”, then when not doing that I spend time with my family. I live with my wife and two daughters, so there is always something going on.
I also have a full-time job in IT, which of course takes up a big chunk of my time. On top of all that, until very recently I was singing in a rock band. However, as the writing was taking over my free time, I took the difficult decision to give the music a break for a while and focus on the books. I love singing, and have pretty much been in a band all the time since I was at school, so I don’t think that will be it for music and me. But for now, I think the writing needs to take the driving seat.

Which comes first for you – research, or story? Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

Research. I read around what is known about the next few years in the period I am writing about and find a couple of juicy events that I think I could hang a story on. Then I try to work out how to link it all together to shed some light on what might have happened and to create a gripping plotline for the main characters. I am much more interested in the story being exciting and engrossing than following the known history accurately. That is not to say that my books are riddled with historical inaccuracies, readers have commented that the research shines through the writing, giving you a real insight into how things may have been. But my books are designed to entertain, not to replace a history lesson or non-fiction book. If I need to bend the known events or make something up to fit the story, I will. But I will always tell the readers about any such deviations from what we believe to be fact in the historical note at the end of the book.

What’s next – will there be a book 3?

Yes! In fact, as I type this in mid-October 2015, I have just completed the first draft of it. It is entitled BY BLOOD AND BLADE and traces Beobrand’s involvement in the coming of Bishop Aidan to Lindisfarne, the baptism of King Cynegils of Wessex and King Oswald’s marriage to his daughter, and the siege of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh). It is pretty action-packed and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the editing as soon as I have THE CROSS AND THE CURSE ready for publication.
After that, I have plenty more ideas for books in the Bernicia Chronicles, so if people keep buying them, I’ll keep writing them!

(Find out my thoughts on The Serpent Sword HERE)
Thank you Matthew for illuminating the 7th century for us

Find Matthew at his WEBSITE 

and pre-order the Cross and the Curse HERE

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Why Do We Write (Historical) Fiction?

The plot is already there, mapped out. There's a ready-made, well-established timeline. The main characters are there, and so, too, are all your minor characters; you don't even have to make up any names. So, is Historical Fiction the easy option? 
It would seem so, wouldn't it, from what I've just said? The difficulty is deciding what is history, and what is a story. If you are telling the life story of one particular person, where do you start? Where do you stop? How much do you bend the facts to fit your story? 
Inevitably there will be gaps in the history which the fiction writer will be at liberty to fill, but you can't just go making things up. You might also have some genuine, incontestable facts which readers just won't believe and will think you made them up anyway. And sometimes the real history just won't fit with the story you are trying to tell. Aaarrgghh! So why do we do it? I asked a few authors to tell me ~

Margaret Skea:"I enjoy the challenge of trying to transport myself and readers to a different time and place. Writing about events set in the past but which mirror modern issues allows me to tackle those issues in a way that is less emotionally draining. And as I’ve always loved historic houses and antiques it gives me the perfect excuse to visit lots of them!" Find Margaret HERE

Tom Williams: "I came across James Brooke on a trip to Borneo and he fascinated me. Later, I wanted to write a contemporary fiction about a good man who gains power and does terrible things. I realised I could use some events from Brooke's life rather than invent a character. Hence The White Rajah." (Find Tom HERE) 
So, it would seem that the attraction, along with wishing to take readers to a place in the past, is also that of not having to invent a character, but using a real one. But is it all pros and no cons? I am currently battling with the second draft of a fiction which is not historical and the timeline has to be a complete invention. It's testing my powers of imagination, I must admit! I'm having to think of appropriate names for characters, and decide how old they are. I can't rely on anything other than my own creativity for my story arc. But it's still a thrilling process and I am enjoying the writing just as much as I did when writing my historical novels and the characters are as real to me as figures from history.
Anna Belfrage: "I write so as to step into a bubble of my own creation, allowing me to drift freely over time and place. I write so as to further penetrate the complexity of human existence, all the way from birth to death – and sometimes even beyond the boundaries of physical existence. I write to give voice to the characters that start out like whispers in the foggy recesses in my mind, but swell into a symphony of thoughts and emotions, as real, at times, to me as are the people in my life. I write because I must, an obsessive love, an affliction. I write to be – and to share all of the above with others. (Find Anna HERE
My answer to the question is pretty straightforward. Even as a small child I loved history, but I was not a great reader, so all the fiction I read was historical; it was the only subject which interested me. When I got a bit older, I realised I wanted to write, and, more specifically, I wanted to give the same treatment to my favourite characters from history. Then I grew up properly and realised it wasn't quite as easy as just daydreaming - it takes, in some cases, years of research, and entails learning how to craft a novel. (See HERE for an insight into the challenges of research, courtesy of Holly Stacey.) But fundamentally, my aim is still the same. To marry my two loves, history and writing, and to bring characters from the past back to life. 
Perhaps the last word should go to Debbie Brown: "I love the creative feeling. I love editing until the words sound perfect. I want people to meet my imaginary friends." (Find Debbie HERE)
For an in-depth analysis of the art of writing Historical fiction, please visit Mary Tod's blog and read her interview with Johanna Skibsrud HERE
Also, for an excellent piece on how facts make historical fiction believable, visit Stephanie Hopkins' blog, Layered Pages, to read what Valerie Biel has to say HERE
There is a wonderful, almost mirror image, piece HERE, where historian Ian Mortimer talks about why historians should write fiction. Please do visit to see what he said.
And please do read my interviews with other Historical Fiction writers HERE
I'd love to know why you write, or read, historical fiction - please leave a comment below.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Author Mercedes Rochelle Casts Light on Research Then and Now

Today I'm delighted to hand the page over ~

by Mercedes Rochelle

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but research on my first novel began about 30 years ago, and even so it's hard for me to remember life before the internet. Due to a poor market concerning historical fiction, a bad experience with my agent and a very thin skin, I put my book on the closet shelf and forgot about it for 25 years. Well, I didn't quite forget about it; more realistically I'd say I lost heart and considered myself a failure. Life goes on and I started my own business. Who had time to write?

But wisdom sometimes comes with middle age, and when I turned 60 I decided to blow off the dust and try again. Was I in for a surprise! Without mentioning social media (the rude awakening), I was amazed to discover a whole new wealth of source material accessible without even having to leave the house. When I think of where I started, I'm amazed I got as far as I did, research-wise.

I was born and raised in St. Louis, and one big advantage I had was the accessibility to university libraries. I could go anywhere without being a student. I investigated the dark and dusty shelves in the history section, and found some amazing books. At random, mind you. It was hit and miss (mostly miss). I decided I needed to be closer to the center of the publishing universe and moved to New York City when I was 26. One of the first places I went was the Columbia University Library, pencil sharpened, with a roll of quarters in my pocket for the Xerox machine. I went through the turnstile and came to an abrupt halt. They wouldn't let me in! Only students were allowed; I couldn't believe it. I was kind of devastated.

Lucky for me, I discovered the New York Public Library. It sounded so unassuming, but I was quickly undeceived. Now HERE was an establishment worth settling down in. Any book I could think of, and more, were available as long as I was willing to wait the 20 minutes for someone to go fetch them for me. There was a long wait for copying, too, which someone else had to do. But I didn't care; I could finally do some serious work. Of course, I often only needed a paragraph or two in my book of choice, then off to the card catalog and another 20 minute wait. It's amazing how quickly I could go through a pile of books. I remember purchasing my first hand-held copier (with a 4" wide output on a strip of paper) that you placed against the page and pulled forward. The librarians were baffled, and it took a lot of begging to get permission to use it. For some reason they feared copyright infringement, even though they were all right with Xerox copies.

Then I discovered Edward A. Freeman's "History of the Norman Conquest of England" and I thought I had hit the jackpot. 
It was a revelation. Here was six volumes of definitive research. Once I moved to New Jersey and paid an annual fee to use the Princeton University Library, I found the second set of Freeman. It was a great relief and spared me many trips to NYC. I could prowl the bookshelves again on my own like the good old days. I think those were the happiest days of my adult life!
But there it was. I had to go to the library if I was to make any progress. I don't remember many used book catalogues from England. If I couldn't find a book locally, it wasn't to be had. Then I made my first visit to England. OK, I admit it, I felt like one of those early 19th century art collectors gobbling up great European paintings and bringing them to America. My long-suffering boyfriend and I searched every used bookstore we could find. We even had to drive 40 miles to the nearest American Express office to get a cash advance so I could purchase a "must have" set of Joseph Strutt costuming books with hand-colored plates. (Remember the phrase "Don't leave home without it"? It didn't apply in England in the late 80s). It was the AmEx office's first attempt at a cash advance and we almost didn't get the money. Then of course, 40 miles back to a very happy book seller. I think those three books cost me $700 at the time. I still have them.

Then we moved on to Hay-on-Wye and I was in hog heaven. I found my very own Edward A. Freeman 6-volume set, a red leather-bound set of Froissart, and a pile of other hardbound books too numerous to mention. This was before luggage had wheels. Oof, what a trip through the airport that was! I think we brought home the equivalent of a large child in book weight. I couldn't believe my good fortune. 

Nothing takes the place of holding those volumes in my hand and opening to my scruffy bookmarks, but now I can download those same books onto my hard drive and search the PDF files. Admittedly, PDF is faster and I will bounce over to Wikipedia when I need a quick answer. Still, I have a pile of books below my computer and I go to them first when I need do some serious research. I also have a pile of books on my Google Bookshelf, but I'm embarrassed to admit I forget what's there; ditto for many PDF books on my hard drive. Now that I have access to considerably more sources than ever before, I keep finding myself going back to the same three or four hardback favorites. I feel a little schizophrenic. 

But back to the research. I wanted to see the famous scenes of 11th century Scotland, especially where the battle of Dunsinane was fought. This presented a problem. At the time, there was no parking lot with a clearly defined path to the summit for visitors. Or if there was, I couldn't find it. We cleverly purchased a Geological Survey map of the area, only to discover that there was a Dunsinane Hill and a Dunsinnan Hill not ten miles from each other. Which one was it? Forget about finding Burnham Wood. So we duly drove to each location, though I wasn't entirely sure which hill among the many hills would bear signs of a castle. Or thousand year-old occupation. Or something. We didn't see any people if we had been brave enough to ask. Here's me feeling rather baffled:
One thing's for sure: I didn't find anything. Nor did this seem like a proper place to hold a battle... especially one by land and sea as I had read. It wasn't until this very year that I found corroboration; in "Bloodfeud" by Richard Fletcher, the author stated, "Its site is not known: Dunsinane, properly Dunsinnan, is a later improvisation." I moved on to Dunfermline (resting place of Robert the Bruce), allegedly founded by Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland. At least there I was gratified to see the remains of his famous tower... or at least, all three feet of them. 

It just confirmed to me that I should have seen something at Dunsinane. Later, I saw a plaque on an archway in Forteviot (Strathearn) where Malcolm was rumored to have built a palace. When I traveled over to Edinburgh Castle (also allegedly founded by Malcolm), all I saw was St. Margaret's chapel (the oldest building on site and supposedly built by him for his Anglo-Saxon wife). I asked the girl who was working at the castle for more information about the chapel, but she knew absolutely nothing. On the way back to London, I stopped by Stamford Bridge, hoping to glean some local history. All I found was a marker and a little pamphlet in the local market (mostly full of misinformation). I'm pretty sure that's changed by now, since they even do battle reenactments. 

Well, you get the idea. Researching travel destinations was pretty primitive in those days, so we got in our car and drove. I haven't been back to Scotland since that fascinating and frustrating trip, but I can guarantee that the next time around I will have mapped and marked every single place to within a square meter.

Harold Godwineson, the Last Anglo-Saxon King, owed everything to his father. Who was this Godwine, first Earl of Wessex and known as the Kingmaker? Was he an unscrupulous schemer, using King and Witan to gain power? Or was he the greatest of all Saxon Earls, protector of the English against the hated Normans? The answer depends on who you ask. This is the story of three cultures, Saxon, Dane, and Norman, and a self-made man's efforts to please four kings and promote his family.
Thank you very much, Mercedes. Read more about Godwine and my thoughts about the book HERE
You can find Mercedes on her WEBSITE and BLOG
Buy her books HERE

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

In which I discover that I have double standards ...

Australian jungle vine thicket - Wiki commons/Ethel Aardvark

I found myself watching I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here the other night. I was, probably in equal measure, appalled and interested.
My husband muttered something about the series originally being a social experiment. I don't think it is now. I think the whole thing is designed for maximum 'entertainment value'. One of the contestants wanted to get 'back to my own life, where I'm in control'. 
And I thought of one word : Manipulation. 
These people are being manipulated, told what to do, at the mercy of others who decide whether or not they eat that day. And I think this is what would get to me if I went out there - not the bugs, not the hunger, but the relinquishment of control, of being manipulated.
But are we all being manipulated by those in charge of TV?
I don’t want to see ordinary people on my telly - I want drama, comedy, fantasy, fiction, proper documentary telling me stuff I don’t already know. When I put the telly on, I want to be taken away from real life.
Just as we are being asked to do our own supermarket checkout, we are now being asked to make our own telly. If I wanted to hear what’s being said down the pub, I’d go down the pub. These people surely don’t have equity cards - I wonder what their payment rates are like. It’s cheap telly and we’re all falling for a massive con.
But then I find myself transfixed by Gogglebox and I understand why the TV companies put on so many programmes like this. We have been persuaded that we enjoy it. We have been manipulated. 
File:Punch and Judy Thornton Hough.jpg
Puppet & crowd manipulation Wiki commons/John Puddephatt
I know that many people love and enjoy using Apple products but sometimes, when I see the new versions of expensive items released so quickly after the latest model, I wonder whether these new updates haven't been deliberately withheld in a cynical ploy to make more money out of the consumer. Aren't we, again, being manipulated?
But, as I said, Apple users love their products. Most of my own family are Mac and i-phone users and they tell me their equipment is the best. So, is manipulation all right if we are acquiescent? 
Hmmm ...
Isn't that what authors do - manipulate their readers' emotions? Now, in this instance, my immediate answer would be: I do hope so! 
There it is. I'm culpable. Or I aspire to be. And I do hope my readers go as willingly into the pages of my book and, further, into the time I'm writing about, just as willingly as those celebrities go into the jungle.
The dictionary definition of manipulation is 'to manage or influence skilfully.' 

I'd like to be guilty of that, please!

Other ramblings and insightful interviewees