Sunday, 21 February 2016

Community and Communication, Then and Now

Recently, the Strictly Come Dancing star, Kristina Rihanoff, announced her pregnancy to the whole watching world in Celebrity Big Brother. Tasteless and tawdry? Or is that a Victorian attitude, prudish in this day and age of sharing everything on social media?

For there is a very real dichotomy in our modern world of communication: these days we are physically isolated; for many there are no bus links. Many of us don't know our neighbours, we keep ourselves to ourselves, guard our privacy. And yet we broadcast our business to the world across platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The darkest excesses of such behaviour, of hiding whilst communicating openly, are manifested in the dark art of trolling.

So, what was it like in the 'olden' days? Better? Different?
Never mind announcing pregnancies - there were other taboo subjects. Parliament recently openly debated the 'tampon tax', but my mother, now in her 80s, recalls that she and her mother had to give her father 'a parcel to burn' every month. Whilst he might have known that the brown paper bag contained used sanitary products, it would never have been mentioned. She was astounded to hear of such products being openly discussed in Westminster.

It's not just the topics under discussion which have changed, but the very nature, and speed, with which conversations could be conducted. 
In Jane Austen's time you could have a letter delivered the same day. But news? It came only in the form of the newspapers, and during times of war, it would take a long time for news to filter through from the front. So the 'news' that arrived quickly, in letters, would be very up close and personal: gossip, essentially.

So, is facebook the modern equivalent? Do we need it in this new world of isolation? For the gossip, the mundane, the things that keep us together as a community, rather than just the world news? Don't we still need a sense of identity as being part of the herd?

To the Anglo-Saxons, the companionship of the hearth-fellows, was the lifeblood of society. To be cast out from the warmth of the hearth, was to die spiritually. To be 'Nithing', was to lose all. Do we feel that isolation now in modern society? It has been said that social media feeds insecurities if we don't have validation, in the form of 'likes' and 'shares'. That feeling of not wanting to be excluded must be universal.

But let's return, for a moment, to handwritten letters. Thank you letters (or as we used to call them, bread & butter letters) have largely died out, but the act of thanking hasn't - and it's become easier with emails. 
Billets-doux, unless handed surreptitiously from desk to desk in the classroom, are harder to send with any speed, but is this any worse? The content is probably not far removed from messages sent long ago, the sentiment is the same, and it will be delivered instantly:

Albeit using pointy finger tips and not elegant fountain pens, actually there are probably more people writing than before. I'm currently using a platform for communication that has given voice to many people who want to scribble, rant, joke and generally communicate.

But ... "Communication has never been easier and yet it's never been so lacking in terms of quality - nobody can spell, and diction and enunciation no longer seem important." (The words of a member of my family, recently raging at the television.) It does seem that as we acquire more and more ways to communicate non-verbally, we lose essential skills. War and Peace and Happy Valley are two recent BBC dramas which were castigated because of the 'mumbling' of the actors. As a trained singer, I despair of the poor quality of diction displayed on The Voice and The X-Factor.

So have we sacrificed quality for speed? Or is modern communication just an updated version of how things used to be? Older persons might deplore 'text speak' but shorthand has long been recognised as a legitimate system for stenographers to write things down as quickly as possible.

Maybe it's a 'chicken and egg' situation. As more people use the internet, the less money will be invested in the postal services. As with all things, we lose what we don't use. And so email, text, and messenger replace the twice-daily mail delivery (oh, yes, younger readers, it really did come twice a day, even in my lifetime!)

Last week, the internet went down and suddenly I couldn't talk to anyone. The daily post doesn't arrive here until after 2pm, and most of my neighbours are out at work, or strangers, or both. When the modern world breaks, it does so spectacularly. So I did what any self-respecting Austen character would do. I read a book and waited for the news. (Hashtag Sky TV!)

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Gamekeeper Turned Poacher? The Interviewer Interviewed ...

I was recently interviewed by Fiona McVie, who spends her life interviewing authors. I decided to turn the tables on her:

Hi my name is Fiona; I am a mum and granny.
I was born in Germany and now live in Scotland UK 

Hi Fiona, and welcome to the blog. What first gave you the idea of interviewing other authors and why does it appeal to you so much?
I started with a forum for readers and writers, when someone asked if I ever thought about interviewing authors I thought about it and thought it was a great idea, as I know I wanted to know more about a authors than what is written in a book - I wanted to find out why they started writing, as well as a little about their life and silly things, like what foods, colours etc they like. Some of the answers I have got back have been quite funny.
After speaking to some readers, they have said they love what I am doing - and finding more about the authors. They have also said they enjoy finding new books/authors to read, so I find I am helping the author get their name out there, and the reader to find new works to read.

Has there ever been a time when an author responded in a way that you didn't feel appropriate, or gave you any x-rated answers? 
No not really. I had one author send the wrong photos to me and got that sorted right away.
I do interview authors of erotica, but so far their answers have been clean and when they send a bit of their work its been ok to post as they know that some of my readers might be under 18, so they are careful.

I know that, like me, you had an unsettled childhood. Can you tell us a bit more about your early life, and whether it had any effects on you, for good or bad?
Because my dad was in the army until I was 12 we moved about a lot - Germany, Singapore etc, so I went to a lot of schools which was not fun as you have to change friends etc.
I was glad when we settled in Scotland. I found it hard to make friends though, so I found a love for books and still love reading. Even when my children came along I read at night, and read stories to them, and I am lucky they like being read to.

You are very busy interviewing authors and giving them a platform to discuss their work. Do you write? And if so, what do you write?
I write poems mostly for family and close friends. I also found writing poems helped with my depression many years ago.

You give very generously of your time, interviewing other writers. What do you like to read? Any favourite genres? 
I am lucky - I don’t have a favourite genre. As long as the story is well written then I am happy with it. I must say I do like a good horror or a good romance.

What do you like to do when you are not reading, writing or blogging?
I love going on long walks with my dog Fly and taking photos.

I also enjoy cooking and baking ... 
Spending time with family and friends ... 
I also like knitting and sewing ...

But I do read a lot.

My blog is Authors/writers who would like to be interviewed by me can email me at 

Find me at facebook

Thank you Fiona, for casting light on what it means to you to be an author interviewer and for your generous offer to invite yet more authors to contact you.

Below are some of Fiona's poems ~ I'm delighted that she allowed me to share what are very personal works:

First kiss

Will it be tonight?
beneath the
smoky moonlight?
Will he?
Will I?
He smiles.
Oh my.

He leaves with a wink
and I wave goodbye.

Written in 1976



You are my hero, Dad
You're my secure foundation.
When I think of you, I'm filled with love
And fond appreciation.
You make me feel protected;
I'm sheltered by your care.
You're always my true friend; and Dad,
When I need you, you're always there.
You have a place of honor
Deep within my heart.
You've been my superhero, Dad,
Right from the very start.

Written in 1974


My little angel above

My little angel above
My heart sinks when I think
That God took you away from me
At 12 hours old

He must have something special for you
As it is just the good he takes
And I know your dad
Will look after you up there

I know you are looking down on me
On your angel cloud
But it does not stop me
Being heartbroken

Written in 1980

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Royal Women - Anne O'Brien Casts Light

Today I am delighted to welcome my guest, author Anne O'Brien
Having just published a book which features a woman who has to leave her children behind when she remarries, I had to begin my questions with this one:~
Your latest book is entitled The Queen's Choice. The tagline is 'her children or her crown': How much of a game of politics do you think women of this period had to play in order to survive?

In the marriage stakes, very few women of Joanna's social status had to make a choice of any kind.  A royal or noble woman would marry a man of power and influence to further a dynastic alliance with her family.  She would be affianced into that marriage by father or brother, as with Joanna's first marriage to the Duke of Brittany.  Not many women of royal blood, even within a second marriage, had the opportunity to choose a husband against all good political sense and family approval.
Because of that, I think that Joanna was a rare creature.  It was her choice to wed Henry, she pursed it with remarkable independence, and therefore she must accept the political consequences of family division and hearty disapproval.
Within a marriage, I am sure that many wives had to keep quiet about their personal inclinations when families were at war with each other, but for very few was there such a painful choice to make as there was in Joanna's case.
The book begins with a wedding, which is obviously pivotal - can you fill in the background to this event for us?
Richard II's first wife, Anne of Bohemia, had died of the plague.  Richard had no heir so a new wife was crucial.  His choice was Isabelle of Valois, the six year old eldest daughter of King Charles VI of France, although given her age, Richard was in no hurry to get an heir.  A French marriage was unpopular in England because of past enmities, but Richard was determined to show himself as a formidable monarch capable of making his own decisions. A large retinue accompanied him to France to meet the bride, including the Lancaster contingent.  Earl Henry was certainly there with his father John of Gaunt.

John, Duke of Brittany and his wife Joanna would have been important guests on the bridal side since Joanna was cousin of the French king.   Therefore we can be sure that Henry and Joanna would have met on this occasion in 1386 since there was already a ling-standing friendship between the Dukes of Lancaster and Brittany.  It may have been the first time - and from here the story develops.
What can you tell us about Henry IV: usurper, or misjudged by history and/or Shakespeare?

Henry was a complex character and had a complex reign.  Without doubt Richard was the rightful God-Anointed King of England.  Therefore Henry was certainly a usurper, taking a crown that was not his.  Banished for life and disinherited from the Lancaster lands of his father John of Gaunt, for a treason for which he appears to have been innocent, Henry returned on his father's death to right a wrong, deposed Richard and had him incarcerated in Pontefract Castle.  Henry reclaimed the Lancaster inheritance, but then was proclaimed King by a council of lords at Westminster.
Meanwhile Richard died, it was said from self-inflicted starvation, but without doubt Henry had a hand in his death.  So political murderer can be added to the list.  A living ex-monarch was too dangerous to be tolerated as Henry fast discovered when rebellions arose to the cry of 'King Richard is Alive.' 
So Henry has not been misjudged by history but it was a vicious and bloody time in which to live, and Henry was nothing if not pragmatic in his decisions.  He also suffered from guilt, as Shakespeare suggests, believing that his ill-health was God's judgement on him. 
In his favour, it has to be said that Henry left England in a sound state for his son Henry V to build on, keeping the state together through insurrection and the real threat of civil war.  Henry had better qualities for kingship than the ill-fated Richard who had driven many of his subjects into the arms of Henry when he returned to claim his lands and title.
You've written a great number of novels. Do you seek out your characters, or do they tend to find you?
Something of both, I think.  The forgotten women of medieval England must have a story behind them to make them suitable as a heroine of a novel. There must be drama, or tension, something to carry the plot forward. Or she must have a dynamic husband with whom she interacts.  Or perhaps a series of important historical events to live through.  She must be neither complacent nor simply a pawn in the political games.  She must be able to speak out and show some initiative.  Without these elements she becomes merely passive, which does not make exciting, dramatic writing.  
Philippa of Lancaster, sister of Elizabeth (The King's Sister) was too good to be true: an obedient daughter, a loyal wife, a caring mother to a large family. There is no tension in her life, so I had to abandon Philippa as a possibility. My characters must be royal or attached to the court, to allow me to develop the political events of the day. They need to have some involvement in the drama of history. But sometimes my characters choose me. They leap from the page when I am starting research, or even when I am researching someone else. Look at the last point here!
Your books feature a lot of strong and charismatic women. Do you have a favourite?
My favourite tends to be the one I am writing about at the time.  I have loved investigating the difficult marriage of Joanna of Navarre.  But the woman I have to admire most is Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III.  A woman of black reputation and uncomfortable ambitions, no contemporary had a good word to say for her, portraying her as a vicious, self-seeking woman who dominated a king who was sinking into dotage, taking advantage of him after the death of his wife.
I think there was much more to Alice than that. What a remarkable businesswoman she was. And to drag herself from her lowly beginning - we know so little about her, not even her own name since Perrers came from her first marriage - so that she became the most wealthy untitled woman in England. Some of her estates were gifts from the King, of course, but far more were gained by her own abilities to see and acquire a good bargain. I have to admire her. Somewhere she acquired an education and a solid working knowledge of the law. Even after her fall from power she continued to fight to keep hold of what was hers - for herself and for her daughters.
She made an admirable heroine, if an unconventional one.
What's next?
I am writing about Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent.  As cousin to King Edward III, Joan was living in the same court circles with so many of my characters and she was such a major player in the fourteenth century.  As well as being wife to Prince Edward (known by history as the Black Prince) and mother of King Richard II, Joan was notorious for the clandestine and bigamous marriages that ruined her reputation, earning her the derisory 'Whore of Kent' epithet.
She has been hovering on my radar for some years.  This time she insisted that I write about her.  I am not finding her to be an easy heroine, nor always a particularly likeable one, but she is a woman of strong character and determination.  The more I write about her, the more I can understand her motivation and so the more I admire her.

Thank you so much for telling us about your writing, Anne.
Go to Anne's website
Find Anne on Facebook
Get The Queen's Choice Here and at WHSmith and Waterstone's
Twitter: @anne_Obrien

Friday, 12 February 2016

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Books I shall be reading this Spring ...

I'm hoping to have some time to read - I've been busy getting my new novel ready for publication; not writing it, because I actually wrote it before "Queen" - but anyhow, it's going out into the big wide world now; I think it's ready!

So, now I'm going to 'kick' back and enjoy these books - a diverse list, I think you'll agree!

A Corpse in Cipher - Lizzy Drake

The Shepherd's Life - James Rebanks

Joan of Arc - Helen Castor

Lila - Marilynne Robinson

House of Shadows - Pamela Hartshorne

A Little Book of Language - David Crystal

The Mask Revealed - Julia Brannon

The Bowes Inheritance - Pam Lecky

While I was Waiting - Georgia Hill

Secret of the Song - Cathie Hartigan

The Pearl Locket - Kathleen McGurl

His American Heartsong - Regina Jeffers

Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen -

Samantha Wilcoxson

Timestorm - Steve Harrison

Shadow on the Crown - Patricia Bracewell

Wulfsuna - Elaine Moxon

Turn of the Tide and A House Divided - Margaret Skea

In Praise of the Bees - Kristin Gleeson

The King's Jew - Darius Stransky

Wolfsbane - Nicola Layouni

21 books - by the time I emerge, maybe it will have stopped raining!

And just before going 'to press' with this list, I learn that NJ Layouni has a third book out: 

I might not emerge until summer!!

(please leave a comment if you are ahead of me and have already read any of these books - I'd love to know what you think of them)

Saturday, 6 February 2016