Friday, 16 December 2016

The Jacobite Chronicles - Review, Interview, and More ...

I'm delighted to welcome author Julia Brannan back to the blog to announce the release of the fourth book in the Jacobite Chronicles. But first, a round-up of the story so far:

The Mask of Duplicity
Beth’s hopes of a quiet life are dashed when her brother Richard, dissatisfied with his meagre inheritance and desperate for promotion, decides to force her into a marriage for his military gain. And he will stop at nothing to get his way. A chance encounter with a gang of Jacobites led by the Highlander Alex McGregor, seems to be a dangerous but brief interlude in her life, but will have consequences she cannot foresee. Beth is thrown into the glittering social whirl of Georgian high society and struggles to conform. The effeminate but witty socialite Sir Anthony Peters offers to ease her passage into society but she finds herself plunged into a world where nothing is as it seems and everyone hides behind a mask... 

The Mask Revealed
Britain moves ever closer to the 1745 rebellion and the impending attempt to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. With no other options available to her, Beth marries, but the ink on the marriage contract is hardly dry when she makes a shocking discovery. Will she opt for the safe but dreary life her husband wishes her to lead, or will she fight for a life of passion, adventure and excitement, knowing that in doing so, she risks not only her own life, but the lives of those she loves?

The Gathering Storm
The year is 1744, and Prince Charles Edward Stuart is stranded in France, his hopes temporarily frustrated, as the planned French invasion to restore his father to the British throne has had to be abandoned. The prince, frustrated beyond endurance, makes an impulsive decision that will change  the lives of the MacGregor family. Alex MacGregor is in Scotland, introducing his new wife to her new clan. In London, events take an unexpected turn, as a good deed by Beth has repercussions that she could never have envisaged, proving that the past is not easily forgiven or forgotten...

I've read all three of these books, and I have to say that I am eagerly awaiting Episode Four. Beth is an intelligent heroine; high-spirited, but not 'feisty' - her character is more nuanced. If I tell you that it's difficult to review the Jacobite Chronicles without peppering the page with spoilers, then you will get some idea of how intricately plotted these books are. In Sir Anthony, Julia has created a marvellous character who could have easily become a caricature, but doesn't. We are allowed to see inside his world, to see the face behind the clown's make-up, and it endears us to him. In Alex MacGregor, too, Julia gives us a man who has everything to fight for, and much to lose, and yet is so much more than a cardboard cut-out heroic figure. As readers we are permitted to know his thoughts, and this adds context and texture which fleshes out the story and makes us feel that we are not witnessing, but actually going along with him on his journey. Julia has the ability to whisk her readers from scene to scene, country to country, and not leave us feeling breathless. There is an immediacy which allows us to feel that we are not watching, but in the room with these very real people. 

I put some questions to Julia:~

What was the inspiration for the series?

I was inspired to write the series when researching my family history. I came to a dead end with my Gordon ancestors, who appear to have moved to Ireland for a time and then back to Scotland in the 1830s. I found this a little odd, as the part of Ireland they came from was very poor, so they certainly didn’t emigrate for economic reasons. I started to research the period in an attempt to discover why, and then became obsessed with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, and the period in general. I’d never realised how fascinating the 18th Century was until then! I initially wrote out a flimsy plot for one short novel, and the series developed from there.

You obviously spend a great deal of time with these characters; do you listen to particular music tracks when you are writing? Or is there any music which is particularly associated with the period in which the books are set?
I don’t listen to music at all when I’m actually at the computer writing. I find it distracting at that time. But when I’m in the research process I immerse myself in the period as much as I can, and so listen to a lot of baroque music; composers such as Handel ( a great favourite of the Hanoverian king) Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Bach, etc when I’m writing about the aristocracy. I listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos several times, because this is the music that Beth is listening to in Chapter 12 of The Mask Revealed when Lord Winter drives her to distraction! If you want to listen to it, here’s a pretty good rendition on YouTube

When preparing to write about the Highlanders, I listen to Scottish folk music of the time, or Celtic folk music in general. Most of the songs I mention, including the ones that the MacGregors listen to and sing along with are real songs of the time (yes, including ‘Piss on the Grass’).

A particularly lovely album of songs about the ’45, is Glenfinnan, Songs of the ’45 by Capercaillie. This is absolutely gorgeous, and includes what has to be one of the most heartrending songs I’ve ever heard, Mo Run Geal Og (My fair young love), which was written by a woman whose husband was killed at Culloden. I can’t find an online version of it by Capercaillie, but here’s an instrumental

As for inspiration in general, an album I listen to regularly is actually by an extremely talented friend of mine, Rob Carroll, and is titled The Celtic Mirror. I particularly love his version of Christy Moore’s, The Fishermen Coneely.

Have you pinpointed a moment in your characters' futures when you, and we the readers, will leave them - in other words, do you know at which point you will end the story?
I have. I’ve always known how the series ends, but I’m now starting to think my readers won’t be happy if I leave my characters at that point in their lives, so I may continue the story past my original ending point. I’ll see how things unfold, and what my readers want.

Tell us about the upcoming instalment?
The Storm Breaks deals with the actual ’45 as it’s called, from the time when Prince Charles Stuart landed in Scotland to the end of the rebellion itself. Books Five and Six will deal with the aftermath of the uprising. I can’t really say any more without giving away the plot!

Thanks Julia - I can't wait to read the Storm Breaks.
Find Julia via the links below, and please come back to the blog in the New Year, when I will be posting more review/interviews, and inviting fellow authors to share their musical inspirations.

Find Julia On Amazon
On Twitter
And Pinterest

The Storm Breaks will be released on 6th January, but is available for pre-order HERE (in the UK) or HERE (in the US)

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Marriages of Margaret Beaufort - Judith Arnopp Casts Light

I'm delighted to welcome Judith Arnopp back to the blog, and to hear what she has to say about Margaret Beaufort, who is the subject of Judith's new trilogy and perhaps an often misunderstood woman. 

Over to you, Judith:~

Margaret Beaufort’s life was not one of romance, and her main passion seems to have been for her only child, Henry Tudor. She is remembered for the battle to help her son become king of England, for her piety, and for her charitable work. For Margaret, marriage was a matter of politics, security and a stable position in a wildly insecure world.

Margaret’s son became the first Tudor king, Henry VII, yet his early life was spent in obscurity, much of it in exile overseas, separated from his mother, his family and his lands and property. Henry was born at Pembroke Castle when the recently widowed Margaret was just thirteen years old. Her situation immediately makes our modern-day hackles rise and, although childhood marriage was the norm, it was unusual, even in in the 15th century for a marriage to be consummated so young. [1]
Edmund Tudor

It is believed that Henry’s birth caused such physical damage to Margaret that it was impossible for her to conceive another child. No further pregnancies are recorded, but this did not deter her from marrying twice more.  Her youthful marriage to Edmund Tudor is made more remarkable by the fact that this was not Margaret’s first experience of the married state. At six-years-old a marriage was arrange with the eight-year-old, John de la Pole; the eldest son of the Duke of Suffolk, a union that was quickly annulled when the duke fell into disfavour with the king. As a mark of favour toward Margaret, she was subsequently betrothed to the king’s brother, Edmund Tudor.

Both historians and fiction authors often assume Margaret’s marriage to Edmund Tudor was unhappy, yet there is no evidence for this. Although there was a disparity in age, and he took her straight from the nursery at her mother’s home at Bletsoe castle to the wilds of Wales, she never spoke ill of Edmund. Much later in life, despite remarrying, she made her wishes clear that she should be buried with Edmund at Carmarthen; a wish that was ignored. She was, instead, interred at Westminster Abbey close to Henry VII, while Edmund lies at St David’s, his body moved from Carmarthen during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Edmund died at Carmarthen in 1456, either from the plague or wounds received in battle, or possibly a mixture of both. Margaret was left a vulnerable widow, six months pregnant and far away from the court of her cousin, King Henry VI. She turned for protection to her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor, who took her to his fortress at Pembroke to await the birth. Shortly after she was churched, seeking security as the country descended into civil war, Jasper assisted her in forming an alliance with Henry Stafford, a younger son of the Duke of Buckingham.

Henry Stafford was Margaret’s senior by twenty years but they appear to have been happy, making their home at Woking and, despite the distance and the inconveniences of 15th century travel, travelling several times a year to visit her son at Pembroke where he remained under the care of his uncle, Jasper Tudor.

Stafford suffered from a chronic ailment known as St Anthony’s Fire, which subjected the sufferer to sore skin and recurrent attacks of fever. However, when the wars broke out in earnest, he was not ill enough to escape playing his part. When Edward IV came to power, Stafford sought the favour of the new king, and Margaret fretted about the fate of her son, now the ward of Edmund Tudor’s old enemy, William Herbert at Raglan Castle in Wales. 

File:Unknown woman, formerly known as Lady Margaret Beaufort from NPG.jpg
Unknown Woman formerly known as Margaret Beaufort

With the fall of the house of Lancaster, Stafford and Margaret sought the favour of Edward IV, possibly in the hope of regaining custody of young Henry. Stafford attended Edward at court until the Earl of Warwick, disillusioned with his slipping influence over the young king, turned his coat and allied himself with Margaret of Anjou. 

This uncomfortable alliance culminated in success and during Henry VI’s brief readeption, Margaret and Stafford attended his court along with Jasper and Henry who followed the Lancastrian king home. The Staffords enjoyed a short holiday with Henry at Woking but it was a short-lived respite, and Edward returned with an invasion fleet a short time later. This time, when Jasper and young Henry fled overseas Margaret was unaware that fourteen years would pass before she would see her son again.

Margaret had placed all her hopes on Henry VI’s reinstatement, and his defeat must have been made worse when Stafford suddenly changed allegiance. He switched sides and rode out alongside Edward IV to the battle of Barnet where he was wounded, never to recover from the injuries he sustained. 

While King Edward rode to victory at Tewkesbury, Margaret was once again left widowed, and vulnerable. The Battle of Tewkesbury saw an end to Lancaster’s hopes; Henry VI’s heir, Prince Edward, was killed, and the old king put to death soon after. Margaret’s son now moved a few steps closer to becoming heir to the Lancastrian claim but few were left to support him. He was an exile and she, widowed once again, was powerless.

Margaret wasted little time in looking about for another husband. This time she selected Thomas Stanley, a wealthy landowner, and an ambitious man with the knack of keeping out of trouble.

It is difficult to assess the relationship between Margaret and Thomas; as his services to the king increased, the couple were often at court where Margaret served the queen, Elizabeth Woodville. Margaret’s ambition to have Henry restored to his lands and titles never waned and she worked quietly to secure his pardon; a dream that was all set to reach fruition when the king died suddenly in April 1483.

The subsequent announcement that the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous and their offspring bastards, launched one of the most debated period of events in English history. Until then, it seems Margaret had resigned herself to York’s rule and was loyal to the king. It is unlikely that she harboured any real hope of securing the crown for her own son. 

For a while, she served Richard III loyally, carrying the queen’s train at the coronation and serving her at the banquet afterwards. But, once rumours began to circulate of the princes’ disappearance from the Tower, and dissent for the new king grew, her ambition seems to have been stirred.
Henry Tudor

She probably kept Stanley in ignorance when she began to plot with Elizabeth Woodville against the king, but when her part in Buckingham’s rebellion was revealed, she escaped the scaffold by a whisker. With puzzling leniency, Richard III placed Margaret under house arrest, in the custody of her husband. This severed Margaret’s contact with the outside world, and with no other choice than to involve Stanley in the intrigue.

Her marriage to Stanley was a business arrangement from the start, and the pair were probably never romantically close.  But her enforced house arrest made him her only hope and somehow, she persuaded Stanley to throw in his lot and support her son in his desperate bid for the throne. It is clear that someone acted as go-between, for we know letters and money passed between Margaret and Henry. Stanley seems the obvious candidate. When the time came, Henry and Jasper were well-funded enough to raise an army and ships to sail for the Welsh coast in August 1485.

Richard III’s suspicions of Stanley’s disloyalty prompted him to hold his son, George, as hostage to Thomas Stanley’s support but, as had been his habit throughout the wars of the roses, Stanley did not commit himself to either side; it was his brother, William, who saved the day by rushing in at the last to defeat the Plantagenet king.

Legend says it was Thomas Stanley who plucked the coronet of England from a thorn bush and placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, an act surely designed to place him in the good graces of the new king and, of course, the king’s mother. 

Shortly after Henry’s accession, an unprecedented act was passed in Parliament which effectively gave Margaret the power to act as a widow, freed from male constraint. Stanley died in 1504, four years before Margaret but this time she had no need of male protection. Her union with Stanley seems to have been one of respect and affection, although physical relations, if there were any at all, were dispensed with when Stanley agreed to Margaret taking a vow of chastity.

Although the couple lived separately for much of the time, there is no suggestion of animosity. Margaret provided chambers for Stanley in her many houses, and the pair visited each other regularly. After the struggles of her early life, Margaret entered a time of peace. Secure in her exalted position, she dedicated her remaining years to charitable works, advising her son on matters of state, and overseeing the raising of her grandchildren. 

She was an independent woman, and when she died, two months after Henry VII, on the twenty-ninth day of June, 1509, she was in charge of her own affairs, her own destiny, and no longer in need of a husband to protect her, or champion her cause. 

With the Tudor dynasty securely on the throne, she died content, secure in the knowledge that she was leaving England in the charge of her grandson, King Henry VIII.  It is as well she never lived to witness what was to follow.

[1] Discussed in deeper detail HERE


The Beaufort Woman is available for pre-order HERE

Monday, 28 November 2016

Blog Round-up of 2016

It's been a busy year for the blog, and for me...

In February Alvar the Kingmaker was released, and I'm pleased and thrilled to say that it's received nothing but four and five star reviews, and has been awarded an IndieBRAG Gold medallion.

In March I was asked to contribute a story for the wonderful project, 1066 Turned Upside Down, the brainchild of Joanna Courtney and Helen Hollick, which involved 9 authors telling 11 stories re-imagining the events of 1066. I'm proud to say that it hist the Amazon #1 spot as well as being chosen as an Editor's choice and long-listed for Indie Book of the Year 2017 by the HNS (Historical Novel Society). As part of the promotion for the project, I interviewed all those involved in the venture, and you can see the whole collection HERE.

Elsewhere on the blog, I was delighted to welcome many interviewees and received some wonderful guest posts.

I already have some great guests ready to talk about their writing processes, the music that inspires them, and some good-natured 'arguments' from authors who all write in the same period.

Thank you to all those who have appeared on the blog this year, and thank you thank you thank you to all those who've popped by to read the posts. I'm very grateful.

I have also set up a new blog, where you can find all my 'travel' articles, from my visits to various places in Historic Britain

I shall also be working hard with two exciting new projects, one which will involve the mining of some rare gems, and one which calls for me to hop into bed... more details soon!

Happy Christmas to all, and a peaceful New Year, and I hope you'll join me in 2017 for lots more discussion about writing, history, and writing history.

But before then, please look out for an exciting new blog hop, orchestrated by the redoubtable Helen Hollick, more news about our gem-mining project, a guest post from Judith Arnopp and a feature/review/interview with Julia Brannan, which will introduce some new themes for 2017... 

Thursday, 17 November 2016

On Switching Genres - Author Prue Batten Casts Light

I know an author, Prue Batten, who has succeeded in switching genres. I wanted to know more... Prue and I chatted, I asked for some excerpts, I asked questions, and she gave me answers:~

Prue begins: I’ve been writing in many forms since Grade Three, but let’s assume my desire to ‘become’ a writer was the beginning of the journey. It began with a YA fantasy. It was a trilogy and became the book (series) that one has to write but which will never be published and sits at the back of the office cupboard. It’s the one where one begins to learn the craft – one’s unofficial degree in creative writing. And like many things it is all to do with timing. The children had left home, I had the time and the desire. I was a lover of myth and legend and had actually begun this story many years earlier, telling parts of it to my daughter (a teenager at the time).

I love the art of world-building, of creating a world beyond the veil, beyond the seventh wave (legendary entrances to the Other world). There is perhaps licence for creative largesse which is often frowned upon in other types of fiction…

Gio’s glib line of fortunes and Fahsi had set Finnian’s course. Where else would a thief take his goods to sell for a fortune? Somewhere in the souks, at some stall or other, he would find what he sought. His gondola rocked as the water tumbled against the sides and Finnian was drawn from his self-indulgence to glance upward.
The canal city’s brilliance had faded. A cracking, dry breeze scraped past his face as he watched the stuccoed buildings with their quatrefoils, studded doors and regiments of mooring poles dissolving like wet paint sliding off a canvas. Cliffs the colour of watermelon manifested and sharp-beaked kites and black vultures wheeled, shrieking like banshees in the moaning Symmer wind. He had passed from one place to another as easily as walking through the Venichese mirrors and the discovery thrilled him and he heaved a long sigh. Far from Isolde.His gondola had metamorphosed into a scrappy blue craft with an upturned bow and painted eyes that glared to ward off evil. The opaque ochre river along which he floated rose and fell over rocky outcrops. Swollen with Symmer rains, it slid over boulders lining a precipitous gorge until Finnian was swirled into a bend where his boat scraped and thudded onto a long wall of ghats that edged the current. In the blink of an eye, in the passing of a boat over water, he had left Veniche and entered the Raj at Fahsi. Mothers and grandmothers lifted great slabs of wet clothes and slapped them against the wide steps that made up the ghats; grandfathers bent their stiff backs to wash their faces and necks. Children laughed and splashed in air that held the promise of heat and thirst despite the shadow cast by the pink, monolithic walls of a citadel. (A Thousand Glass Flowers.)

Annie: I felt quite immersed in this fictional world, but I remember that there came a shift in emphasis in your career?
Prue continues: It was a kind of unconscious, serendipitous shift. I was looking for something to write on my blog – just a fun piece that would entertain my followers. At the time, Robin Hood, the BBC series, was on TV and myself and many other women had rather fallen for Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Guy of Gisborne. But! He was such a cad and his life so clichéd, that I decided to take him from the old trope and re-write his life as far from the Robin Hood legend as I could get. My Guy became a spy and a merchant, moving through the courts of Europe and creating a team of men and women to work with him. And so each week, I’d add a little more to the blog. But then I found I began to research far more exhaustive detail of the twelfth century than was required for a blog story, and by degrees the medieval era and Guy’s life took me over. I had studied the Middle Ages at university and was fortunate to study under the most wonderful lecturer. He knew how to subtly germinate seeds of interest for the future.
So I decided to remove what I had written from the blog, re-craft it and turn it into the first book in a trilogy. And that, as they say, was that.

We moved at pace. Not running, but with forward purpose, acknowledging no one. Indeed, no one seemed to cast a glance at Aaron of Antioch which I thought was fortuitous. But then I would expect nothing less of Gisborne – that he would have us met by those who were unknown amongst the crowd, those who would not attract any particular attention, for there were plenty like Aaron of Antioch in this maelstrom of men. The worst that could occur would be to have to engage with anyone right now. Better that we made an anonymous landing at our new home. Time enough to take stock later.
To be sure, I would have liked to look about, to search the faces in the crowd, to look for peppery hair and bog-tinted eyes. Or even for a broad-shouldered man with black hair and eyes the colour of a pers-tinted gown. But I kept my sight on the way ahead, weaving back and forth, in and out, leaving the noise behind, edging into the cobbled squares and alleys of Genoa town. Above us the sky was grey and heavily underlined with cloud.
‘Could rain,’ said Aaron in a curious accent that spoke of Outremer and the desert. ‘Maybe we might have a thunderstorm. It has been quite humid the last day or so.’
He turned into an alley that snaked and bent as it climbed. The buildings were only two stories high, most made of timber, but some were pulled down and being rebuilt in stone.
‘Our street,’ he said. ‘Via Dolorosa. Named after your Christ’s way in Jerusalem. At the far end you can see through to Genoa’s cathedral in the distance. The city podesta and the bishops of your church see fit to build a structure of grace.’
Our street. The Way of Grief. Did Gisborne know the Via Dolorosa was called that in Jerusalem?
Of course he did. And it would not have mattered to him at all, even if it seemed somewhat symbolic to me. His prime consideration was our safety and as Aaron’s steps slowed, my gaze went to the wall at our side. Solid cut squares of a tall stone barricade.
‘Roman,’ said Aaron. ‘Built when Liguria was a friend to the empire.’ He patted the blocks. ‘They are impregnable.’ He pulled a key from a purse at his waist, slipping it into a heavy studded gate. After the cacophony of the wharves, the alley was quiet and I could hear the lock tumble as the key was turned. With a grinding of iron on stone, he pushed the gate open and allowed me to walk through, re-locking the gate as he stepped behind me.
After the grim shadows of the Via Dolorosa, the interior forecourt in which we stood was open and light. The house stood another floor above us, a colonnaded cloister running along the three sides at ground level, the gate wall providing the fourth. I knew that behind our chambers, other buildings would bolster us and that the dwelling seemed secure and I thought Gisborne had done well to locate this place in the middle of the Crusaders’ shipping lanes and where none might find us. (Gisborne: Book of Knights)

Annie: Was there something that you felt you needed to do that you couldn't do without switching genre? Or was there simply a story that needed telling and couldn't be done any other way?
Prue: I have four fantasy books as part of The Chronicles of Eirie, and trust me, they sing to me every day. Like a siren calling the seaman on the wild ocean, so they call me back to the fantasy genre.
But there was no way I could tell Guy’s story by staying within fantasy. Whilst Guy’s roots traditionally come from legend, I saw no reason for my Guy to remain attached to that. Besides, my own fantasy had traditionally involved the mythical world of Others, and by consequence, magick. There was no room for that in Guy’s reality. The only similarity for me between both genres, is that the first two of my fantasy chronicles have been set in an ever-so-slightly medieval European environment. That too, is a traditional fantasy trope. However, my books diverge a little, because the last two in the chronicles move from a pseudo-European environment to a pseudo-Middle Eastern/Indian environment and then a pseudo-Asian environment in Book Four of the quartet. My fantasy world is a rippled version of our own but darker – as I said, what we might find through that seventh wave or through the Ymp trees…

Then she began, for the stripping at least must be finished by the time the Master woke. Her work-roughened hands itched and burned as she grasped the bone-handled knife, wincing as blisters burst. Bringing pressure to bear, she slid the blade through the paper, slicing friable, infinitely narrow strips. She took a handful of water from the bowl that had been left outside her door during the night, battered fingers cracking the hoar across the surface as she began to sprinkle scoop after scoop.
Each droplet sparkled, flashing as it fell to sink into the paper fibre and she wanted to slow the motion so she could examine the reflection held in the tiny liquid sphere. Her heart wished for some scrying power so she could see family, her home. But her head knew all that would be reflected would be a bare paper-screened room, mats on the floor, her quilt rolled on top of her sleeping mat and a lantern flickering as the last of the oil burned away.
She took up the strips, rolling and massaging. Anyone looking into the room would think they had chanced upon a noodle-maker except that the room lacked the comfort of a kitchen fire or the smell of star-anise, or ginger and garlic. Reddened fingers lifted the fibrous bundle and she stood shaking and gyrating so the strips separated and fell apart, hanging like an oyster-coloured veil. (The Shifu Cloth)

Prue says: But for the moment, history claims my attention and I now have a historical fiction trilogy called The Gisborne Saga and the first two books of The Triptych Chronicle which will obviously be a trilogy as the series name implies.

Outremer stank.
Despite the vast blank stretches of baked and powdered earth, and night skies that rivalled a king’s crown. Or green swards and banks and folds of trees that defied the imagination in the searing heat. Or skies bluer than pavonalilis, or pers or paonace. And despite horses that were finely chiselled, with curving ears and small scooped heads, and which could gallop in the heat forever and never falter. Or the fact that Lord Jesus had trod these pathways with Peter and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
None of this signified because Outremer stank.
It clung to Guillaume’s clothes – the sweat and urine. And then even more odious was the smell of shit and vomit from weak men, those who had caught the sickness of warfare when water is tainted and men become crazed.
But most abhorrent was the smell of rotting flesh – the smell of death upon the living. A sweet smell that cloyed and offended and made one gag and then puke until one’s insides had nothing left to give. Every time Guillaume stripped his hose and chemise, he would check every scratch to make sure Death hadn’t hooked a fingernail into him. He learned the value of cleaning a wound and binding it with a strip of fresh cloth, to provide a barrier between the wound, the stink and the flies – those fast, annoying, sticky beasts they called cincelles. (Guillaume)

Prue: After this trilogy is finished I suspect I will return to the fantasy world of Eirie. It’s such an exotic world, filled with shadow and light and I love the characters I met when I wrote it. I need to return there – just for a little while.

Annie: I'd like to know more about the short stories - not so much a shift in genre, but certainly a different technique? 
Prue: In my case, I’m writing really short stories, as they are ostensibly for miniature books and because of size and binding constraints, one has to get that story ‘done and dusted’ succinctly. I am very fortunate in having an occasional collaborative relationship with Bopress Miniature Books in the USA and I have written both fantasy and historical fiction for the press. The challenges are simply that I can’t afford to dally with the plot. If nothing else, writing for miniature books teaches one to ‘de-fluff’ when writing – to get to the point swiftly but with subtlety. It’s a challenge!

Annie: I understand the leaps from genre, and from novel to story, but - children's fiction??
Prue: Again, simple serendipity. It arose from my collaboration with Bopress. I was asked if I could write a little story about a wombat. My husband and I farm and we are fortunate to have a pair of wild wombats on the property, so the inspiration was under my nose! The miniature book was cleverly illustrated and bound by Bopress, including a tiny map of Nugget’s journey and it sold very well to collectors across the globe. Not long after its release, I came across Dave Slaney’s illustrations in SJA Turney’s Crocodile Legion. I approached Dave with the idea of illustrating Nugget in a naïve, jolly style for parent-child reading and he happily agreed. The collaboration has only just been released as an e-book and is due for release in print for the Christmas market. It’s been a massive learning curve – watching someone put pictures to one’s words and then going to schools and talking about the project. Hugely removed from my adult fiction but perhaps another string to one’s bow!

He loved sitting at the door at night, gazing up into the darkness and wondering at the diamond sparkle of the stars and the ivory disc of the moon and he would marvel at the reflections on the farm dam, content as he listened to the frog chorus singing the night away. If he ignored the stupid antics of the wallabies, kookaburras and cockatoos, it was a good life really… (Nugget…)

Annie: So what would you say to other authors considering the switch?
Prue: I’m not sure there any specific pitfalls. One just has to love what one is writing about. The research for both hist.fict and fantasy is intrinsic. When writing fantasy, learning about the legends of the British Isles, of Europe, of parts of the Middle East and Asia is wonderful. I already had a lifelong love of myth and legend and so it expanded exponentially. Then learning about specific aspects of life in the various cultures and translating that to my imaginary world was like gilding the lily.
But as a writer of hist.fict as well, I will say that no stone remains unturned as one writes within that genre.
In my mind, the writing of any book, be it for children or adults and in any genre, requires a love for the story, for one’s characters, but above and beyond anything else – for the art-form. The ‘genre’ side of things matters little to me when I am in writing mode.
To be honest, in my case variety is the spice of life, and I think in its own way, it stops me becoming stale which is a real threat to any writer.
I am always open to adventure and to trying different things within the art-form – just like an artist may try oils, acrylics, impasto, watercolour, encaustic, charcoal, pastel, pencil and so on.
With creative writing, whether it works or not is up to the reader to ascertain, but in the end, all I want to do is tell a story that entertains first and foremost, and if each of the stories within the genres do that, then I am exceptionally happy. Both my fantasies and my hist.ficts have been nominated for awards and indeed, have been placed, so I think writing across genres is working for me. Long may it remain so!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Literary Legends and the Pains of Publishing - Scott Davis Howard Casts Light

I'm delighted to welcome writer and teacher Scott Davis Howard on to the blog for some Sunday chat.

I began by asking:You're a teacher of English Literature and, obviously, knew about the Arthurian legends and the literary tradition. But how and when did the idea for the book Three Days and Two Nights take shape? 

King Scott - teaching!
The truth is that this is one of my older story ideas. Once upon a time, when I was freshly married and didn’t yet have children to occupy my thoughts, I was a bank teller in Missoula Montana—a job that I found to be less than stimulating. It was steady work with an adequate paycheck and excellent coworkers, but I got to the point where I felt that I was just this tiny cog in an enormous capitalist machine, spitting out money—not very fulfilling, and ultimately the reason that I applied to grad school in literature. In addition to that, when I moved out to Montana, I left all of my friends behind, including my gaming group, for which I was the creative mind. So, I was under-stimulated, especially working alone in the drive-through window, and I often would amuse myself by imagining a fantasy story-arc, which eventually became Three Days and Two Knights. I still have the notebook in which I wrote the initial ideas (and—historical footnote—T.S. Eliot was a banker, so I felt like I was in good company). Of course, I then went into grad school and then became a teacher, so the notebook languished on the shelf, an unrealized dream, for seven years before I began to write in earnest.

Was historical context important to you, or was the myth and legend surrounding Arthur and his knights more crucial in getting the setting right for your story?

Gosh, that’s a tough question. I’m going to go with, yes. Here’s an excerpt from my preface that attempts to explain my position on this tricky issue:

“For those unfamiliar with Arthurian romance,the tales of King Arthur are legendary and reputed to have taken place in the waning days of Roman rule in Britannia, roughly around the year 500 CE. However, they were recorded primarily in the 14th and 15th centuries, a time of chivalry, full plate armor, and medieval feudalism. Because of this, they have always taken place in an anachronistic paradox, occurring simultaneously in the 5th and 14th centuries—by this I mean that the knights are equipped as and behave as ideal chivalrous vassals of about the year 1350, but the physical setting is assumed to be long, long in the past, about the year 500. It would be analogous to retelling the story of William the Conqueror using actors equipped with modern military technology and openly referencing any historical event between 1066 and today whenever it was pertinent to the theme or plot. I have exerted every effort to maintain this paradox that is foundational to the genre.”

So, in the novel I tried to be as faithful to the legends as possible—I’ve read them all (if it is indeed possible to have read them all) and have followed them fairly closely (even when two or more of them are explicitly contradictory in plot or theme). However, I also tried to be faithful to the historical time period in which the stories were written, rather than the actual historical period in which they claim to be set.

A final footnote on this—medieval storytellers (and often even historians) weren’t at all scrupulous about accuracy. A great example of this is Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” which is set in ancient Greece with well-known characters such as Theseus and Hippolyta. Yet, despite its setting, all of the characters (“Duke” Theseus included) behave and are armed as chivalrous knights and vassals. I’ve unapologetically followed Chaucer’s medieval model, and as such, I feel that my story is more, rather than less, accurate.

Is this the first piece you have written?

It’s the first novel that I’ve published, yes. Obviously, I’ve done a fair amount of academic writing. I also went through a period when I fancied myself to be a poet… let’s not talk about that. Three Days and Two Knights is only two months old, and I’m pretty happy with the response. I’ve had nine reviews on Amazon, and 100% of them are five-star, so I’m taking that as a good indication of the quality of the narrative. I’m just hoping that it catches on and finds a wider readership. 

You say you wrote it standing up with a small child strapped to you, and yet that was possibly the easiest part of the process - how long did it take to get published?

Yeah, believe it or not, that’s not hyperbole. I wrote it in my kitchen with my youngest child in the carrier (he did his best sleeping that way). I had my wife’s old college laptop plugged in on the stove (it had zero 
battery life) and I was rocking back and forth to the radio. I finished the draft in 2012, spent a whole school-year carefully editing, and then began looking for an agent.
A facsimile page of Y Gododdin, one of the most
famous early Welsh texts featuring Arthur (c. 1275)

Everyone always hears that famous Harry Potter story about how J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before she found a home for her book. Well, for most writers it’s at least that bad, me included. First, I looked for an agent. It’s basically like fishing. I set the hook and dropped it in about 20 ponds. I got some bites—requests for chapters and phone calls, etc., but the book just wasn’t mainstream enough (too literary to be general interest, but too general interest to be literary) to hook an agent. I then started working on medium and small market presses, and by the summer of 2015, I’d landed a deal with the Piedmont Journal of Poetry and Fiction. That’s a three-year period between writing and getting published that was full of constant editing and frequent rejection. It took a unique combination of faith, thick-skin, and mulish determination to power through that and arrive at publication.

I might also mention that, when I’m honest with myself, the hardest part of finding a publisher was visiting a bookstore and seeing shelves upon shelves of drivel that somehow managed to get published by mainstream presses (I realize that I sound conceited here, but I swear that my drivel is better than most). I think a lot of aspiring authors feel that way. I’d glance at the backs of books and ask myself what I didn’t do. How did a book about a teenage centaur’s relationship problems in a surprisingly posh nomadic-steppe high school hit the presses (disclaimer, I made that example up—if such a book exists, it merely proves my point) while Three Days and Two Knights did not? It was a rhetorical question, but, generally, the answer was that I didn’t follow an accepted pre-made formula. I’m coining a new phrase for books of that type, stock-fiction. Like chicken-stock, they’re canned, cheap, simple, and they line the majority of shelves. That’s not what I write.

Do you have any plans in the pipeline for another book?

My publisher is already hinting that he wants a sequel. I’ve got some ideas on that front, but nothing solid yet. I’ve also got a plan for a mid-grade fantasy series set in a world with geography mirroring the western United States and including an empire resembling Victorian England. Finally, I am tinkering with a children’s book (written in ballad stanza) about a housecat who fights a war with the children’s toys at night (this last is an adapted version of a favorite bedtime story that is still in high-demand in my house). 

There are many theories concerning the true identity of Arthur. Do you subscribe to any of them?

I like the idea of Arthur being a Romano-British general leading the unified Bretons against Hengest’s Saxon invasion. It fits nicely with the popular notion of chivalry and with the (thankfully) outdated romantic notion of the crusades, giving the image of Christian horse-riding warriors fighting against a horde of grim, axe-wielding, pagan foot soldiers. I doubt that such a romantic vision was ever a reality, though (and certainly doubt that there were any clear-cut good or bad guys in that struggle). That said, I’m quite sure that Arthur is as real as Beowulf, Sigmund, Roland, or any of those heroic-age figures. He probably did exist, but he was so romanticized during the centuries in which the Germanic people who shared his story became literate, that when his oral-tradition epic was split into ballads and lays and then finally recorded, it was impossible to separate the fact from the fiction. The beauty of being a teacher of literature (instead of history), though, is that my appreciation of the value of Arthur to Western culture is not remotely dependent verifiable fact.

Again, because I cannot help but footnote my points, I ask you to imagine the stories that might be told of Richard I, Henry V, William Wallace, Robert Bruce, or Owain Glyndwr if there were no original source documents form their lifetimes, history hadn’t been around to record (in writing) their deeds, and everything had been left up to a succession of improvising and idea-stealing bards, who have less respect for the truth than they do for a good story or rhyme, and who desire to entertain rather than inform (heck, consider the accuracy of movies or plays written about them during the past century, a time when history is respected)?   

That's an excellent point! Thanks so much for talking to me today, Scott. [Scott wrote a guest article for this blog recently. Read it HERE]

And find him on:~
Piedmont Novels

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Sunday chat - Author Kim Rendfeld Casts Light...

I'm delighted to welcome author Kim Rendfeld to the blog today.

Kim is the author of books set in early medieval Continental Europe, but I began by asking her:
You've had a few career changes over the years, but all connected with writing. How does journalism compare with writing novels? Do you need to employ any of the same techniques in both disciplines?
The styles for journalism and novels are very different. Journalism is objective and emotionally distant, and the writer never, ever fabricates anything to fill in a gap in knowledge. In fiction, the story is from a definite point of view and emotionally intimate. A novelist is expected to make things up when the facts aren’t known.
With either forms of writing, I like to keep my language simple and focus on the storytelling rather than proving how clever I am.
Another commonality is in the research. Whether I was interviewing a person for a news article or am reading a book by someone long dead, I have similar questions: What’s their motive in telling me this? Are they reliable? Everyone has an agenda, regardless of the time period.

That's a very good point - we should always be on the lookout for bias.

Your background was in English, rather than history. How did you go about researching the background for your novels, and what in particular drew you to the world of Charlemagne?
I read a legend about Rolandsbogan in a guide book while vacationing in Germany, and the story wouldn’t let me rest until I’d written it, never mind I knew very little about the Middle Ages and even less about Charlemagne. Once I started the research, I was hooked. Charlemagne had a complicated personal life, and that had national and international consequences. With wars and religious conversions, this era provides a lot of fodder for a writer.

Charlemagne at dinner: detail from the "Talbot Shrewsbury Book"
Held and digitised by the British Library.

A lot of my research comes from scholars who’ve read the medieval Latin and studied this time period. Google Books is my friend. I frequently turn to Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara). My library also includes Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel; Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers; and P.D. King’s Charlemagne: Translated Sources. For The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I also used The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, edited by Dennis Howard Green and Frank Siegmund.
When I try to figure out the landscape and travel times, I often turn to Google Maps and Google Earth. The problem is that these tools show what sites look like now, and I need to know what they were like 1,200 years ago, before forests were cleared, swamped were drained, major rivers shifted, and settlements sunk into the sea.

I have exactly the same problem!

Francia, early 8th Century

I know that you write a lot of blog articles - how do you manage to find a balance so that you can make time for your novel-writing too?
You’ve just touched on my daily struggle: Do I work on my novel or a blog post? Sometimes, deadlines dictate the decision.
I don’t watch much TV. My stepdaughter is grown, and I am fortunate to have a supportive husband, who does most of the cooking and the errands.

What drew you to incorporate the fairy-tale aspect into your writing - was this more difficult, or did the time period in which the stories are set lend itself to this approach?
Common beliefs of this time period lend themselves to the folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm, which hooked me as a teenager. Even though the Church prohibited sorcery, early medieval Christians would still use magic for protection or healing, and they feared otherworldly creatures like kobolds. Many of the folk tales provide a reason for the unexplainable. Why is the baby suddenly not thriving? Was the unbaptized infant replaced with a changeling? 
Every generation grows up with stories, and some version of these tales must have existed in the 8th century.
The folk tales were also helpful as I tried to simulate the pagan Continental Saxons’ religion, which the Church, with Charlemagne’s support, tried to obliterate. 

The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar has just been re-released. It's set in the same time-frame as The Cross and the Dragon; are there any points of cross-over between the two stories?
Some of the characters in The Cross and the Dragon appear in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, but each novel has its own set of heroes, heroines, and villains, and each stands alone. Many of the historical events are the same, but when they’re seen from different points of view—one Christian aristocrats, the other pagan peasants—the result is markedly different stories.
I was originally going to follow Cross and Dragon with the adventures of two nuns who played supporting roles in my debut, but they never did get a chance to star. A family of Saxons decided to hijack my plot and compel me to write about commoners who become enslaved war captives instead.
Thanks, Annie, for this opportunity.

Perhaps those nuns will get their turn in the spotlight in the future!
Thanks for talking to me today Kim.

Find Kim:
Twitter: @kimrendfeld

Buy:The Cross and the Dragon
Barnes & Noble

The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar
Barnes & Noble

Read Kim's guest post for this blog HERE

(Charlemagne image and map both in the public domain via Wikipedia)