Sunday, 24 July 2016

Short Stories and Dual Timelines - with author Kathleen McGurl

Today I'm delighted to welcome as my guest, author Kathleen McGurl:~

I began by asking her:
You've had phenomenal success with your short stories. Can you tell us how that all began?

- I wouldn't quite call it phenonenal but I did sell a few dozen to women's magazines in the UK and Australia, back in the day. When I began writing I experimented with all kinds of writing before settling on women's mag stories. It helped that I was going to a regular writing class run by Della Galton, the Queen of womag! I remember my first sale - to Woman's Weekly. It was so exciting. I bought a handbag with the proceeds.

Short story-writing is a very exact and exacting discipline. You're the author of How-to-write books. What prompted you to do this - were lots of people asking you for advice?
- I had a blog, called Womagwriter, which focused on writing short stories for women's mags (the blog is still going but is now run by Patsy Collins). It had become quite popular and through it I'd developed a non-fiction 'voice'. I had an urge to self-publish something just for the experience, but didn't want to just do a short story anthology. I'd sold quite a few ghost stories, and while reading the magazine Writers' Forum one day I suddenly had the idea to put them together and write a book about how to write ghost stories, using my own as examples. This book, Ghost Stories and How to Write Them, did pretty well so I followed it up with another of the same format, Short Stories and How to Write Them, and then a little book on time management for writers called Give Up Ironing.

I'd like to ask you about your novels: firstly, what made you decide to write full-length novels?
- I'd always wanted to write novels, and to me the short stories were a stepping stone towards them. I'd done some genealogical research and decided to write a novel about one set of ancestors, just to prove to myself I had the staying power to write a full length novel. Part of this book eventually became my novella Mr Cavell's Diamond which I self published, before finding my publisher Carina UK with my next novel The Emerald Comb.

And secondly, what is it that appeals about the dual timeline? How do you find the stories, and then how do you go about researching the historical strands of the books?

- Dual timeline novels have always been my favourite genre to read, so it made sense to have a go at writing them! My first in this format, The Emerald Comb, is about a woman who's obsessed with genealogy, and who digs up rather more than she bargains for when she moves into a house once owned by her ancestors. I love intertwining the historical and present day timelines, and allowing my contemporary characters to gradually uncover the secrets of the past.
The story ideas come from anywhere and everywhere - I love it when an item from the past turns up unexpectedly and triggers a strand of research into it. When Richard III's skeleton was found under that car park in Leicester I was tingling all over - if only I'd come up with that idea before it actually happened!
I tend to set novels in eras I know a little about - mostly the Victorian era which I love. If I need to do some heavy research, as I've had to for my work in progress, I'll buy a decent book or two about the topic to get me started, and use the internet for back up and to check small details.

Can you tell us a little about your latest release, The Daughters of Red Hill Hall?
- Yes, I'd love to! It's a tale of friendship and jealousy. Gemma works at a small town museum, and comes across a pair of duelling pistols with a note attached saying they were the pistols used in the infamous shooting at Red Hill Hall, which involved two sisters, Rebecca and Sarah. As Gemma researches the story her own life begins to mirror that of Rebecca's, and her closest friend Nat becomes dangerously jealous of her...

Are you working on anything at the moment? And if yes, can you tell us anything about it?
- Yes, I always have a novel on the go! My work in progress is mostly set in Ireland, with the historical story covering the horrendous famine of the 1840s. Researching this has been upsetting at times - it was a truly terrible tragedy. I am working hard to provide an uplifting ending to my book despite its backdrop of misery. 

Thanks so much for hosting me here on your blog, I really appreciate it!

Thank you, Kath, for taking the time to pop over for a chat.


Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Changing History - 1066 and Not All That

Earlier this year, I was contacted by author Helen Hollick and asked if I would like to be part of an exciting new project in which I would get the chance to re-write history. Well, I must have thought about it for all of ten seconds before saying Yes!

1066. We all know what happened - Edward the Confessor died, and Harold became king. Look at him up there, sitting on his nice comfy throne ...

But of course, that was January. By October, things weren't going quite so well for him:

Is that Harold, with an arrow in his eye? Well, that's a debate for another time. Fact is, he didn't come out of the battle unscathed. And this fella became king.

End of story. Except that Helen and co-author Joanna Courtney decided that perhaps things could have gone differently, if only...

What if Harold had won that day at Hastings? But, even more intriguingly, what if the other battles that year had gone differently, or perhaps had never happened at all? What about the other contenders for the throne?

1066 Turned Upside Down is a collection of short stories, by nine authors, all taking one of these 'What ifs' and re-imagining history.

I don't write as much about the 11th century as I do about the 10th. But I do write an awful lot about the Mercians. And it just so happens that a Mercian family was very much involved in the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to take up with a new cast of Mercian characters, and, unfettered from historical facts, take them where I chose to lead them.

My story, A Matter of Trust, is not a complete flight of fancy though. It is grounded in fact, and I think it's a very plausible scenario. Over on my website, there is an article outlining the background to the story, and introducing the main characters in it. Pop over to the link HERE

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Over-looked 13th Century - Darius Stransky Casts Light ...

Today I am delighted to welcome author Darius Stransky onto the blog for some Sunday Chat.

I began by asking Darius:~
The King's Jew is an intriguing title and one which also speaks eloquently for its subject matter. Where did the idea come from? (By which I mean to have a Jew as the central character).
Answer – Hmm, that title “The King’s Jew” therein lays a tale. It happened like this … I love history and one of my favourite characters from the past happens to be Edward the First (1239 to 1307). Edward ruled England from 1272 to his death in 1307.

He was also known as ‘Longshanks’ because he was over six feet tall and went down in history as “A Great and Terrible King”. BUT – and here’s the rub as Shakespeare would say – there are not many Hist Fic books about Edward (also known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’). 
Yet I wanted to write something different, to approach Edward from a different angle and perspective and what better way to achieve this than to tell Edward’s story through the eyes of one of his closest friends, Cristian Gilleson? 
Are you following this dear reader? 
To continue – Most people are aware that King Edward ordered that every Jew in England must leave the country in 1290 (officially no Jews lived in England again until the 1600’s!) 
Now then, what if I told you that King Edward’s best pal, Lord Cristian Gilleson, was actually, under the laws of Moses, born a Jew? Can you imagine the ramifications of such a revelation? Many people in thirteenth century England had their suspicions – none more so than the Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare – but even in those days you had to prove things in law and though people tried to split Edward and Cristian their friendship lasted a lifetime (they were actually born on the same day in the same year!)
To sum up – Cristian Gilleson is known as ‘The King’s Jew’ by his enemies because of the rumours that abounded at the time and the fact that he always had a good word for the Jews of England. 
And just as a historical note – did you know that the medieval Jews of England belonged to the King? He actually ‘owned’ them! At one time King Henry the Third (Edward’s father) sold them to his brother!!

I didn't know that! You obviously have a deep interest in all things Medieval but why particularly the 13th century - what is it that attracts you?
Ahh, the 13th century. I am attracted to this time because not many people write about it. To my mind the Tudors have been done to death. The wars of the Roses are still being re-enacted on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire (only kidding you Yorkists!) and the good old 1200’s were a time when the world was on the cusp of an early renaissance / enlightenment. 
Ancient texts were being re-discovered and translated from Arabic and Greek to the vernacular. Weaponry was undergoing a transformation. New ways of looking at and administering the law were taking place. Towns were being laid out to new patterns. There was a wave of optimism throughout the Western World that hadn’t been seen for a generation. 
Remember, this is only 200 years after the Norman Conquest and so much had changed in our little sceptred Isle since William and his henchmen took over. OK so we had two civil wars in England at the time – the second Baron’s War is covered in Book One – but the tenets and precepts of Magna Carta were being built upon and the times – as Bob Dylan would say – were a changing.

Talking of times a changing, you had a 'previous life' writing freelance articles. At what point did the 13th century and the story of Cristian invade your life? And what were the circumstances?
Ah the good old days!!! When as a Freelancer you could charge £100 minimum for a mere 1,000 words. The pen really was mightier than the sword in those days.
Just to mention here that if I’d been paid the same for the first book in The King’s Jew trilogy (120,000 words) I would have received £12,000. Where did it all go wrong? 
To continue – it happened like this … I was reading an article about the Jews of England and Edward’s expulsion in 1290. This got me to thinking about medieval Jewry. I’d known about Edward’s life and times so decided to immerse myself in his story. Then I had the idea of amalgamating those two threads (Edward and the medieval Jews).
But the real clincher was when a representative of Trinity Mirror Group - who I did a lot of Freelance work for - phoned me to ask if I’d consider taking a 50% cut in remuneration! I asked if that meant they wanted a 50% cut in the word count and they said ‘no, the column length remains the same’. So I asked if he was taking a 50% pay cut and he said ‘no, because I’m staff.’ So I told him where to secrete his proposed economies of scale and decided to write novels. And that your honour is the case for the defence!

So, how new was this new direction? How much did you already know about the period and where did your research take you?
Let’s just concentrate on the research question here. I learned so much new information that I could write another three books on thirteenth century England and not mention Edward the first or his court once! Some writers say research is the best part of the job but to me it’s the hardest. 
Oh it’s easy to follow a trail of new knowledge for as long as it takes BUT the clever part is knowing when to stop and what is relevant. So much of what a writer will glean from research is totally irrelevant! It has to be distilled to the Nth degree and when you’ve done that – do it again!
What I have done though is ensure that 90% of the characters you come across in the books are real people. They lived and breathed at the time and place detailed in the novels. Look ‘em up folks, Google them. They are real! Just like me and you! Start now – Gilbert de Clare – He’s the man who hates Cristian Gilleson – and the feeling is mutual! - go on I dare you!

Book Two will be released soon. Tell us about it?
Book Two should have been out as we speak but due to circumstances beyond my control it’s been delayed. It will definitely be released on Thursday, October 27th this year – so you have time to buy and read Book One folks! 

Book one took us from the birth of Edward and Cristian in 1239 up to the Battle of Evesham in 1264. Book Two picks up where book one ends and takes us up to the year 1290 and the expulsion of the Jews. 
Both books open on Friday, October 27th 1307 when the funeral of Edward the First is taking place and 2016 is exactly 709 years after the event!
The new King (Edward the Second) and his ally Piers Gaveston is intent on bringing Cristian Gilleson down. Cristian is still in Westminster Abbey hoping to live long enough to see the tomb of his friend sealed – you can go see that famous tomb in the Confessor’s Chapel of the Abbey. 
You will meet old friends in this second book though some of them will not be around at the final chapter. Fresh characters are revealed as new loves and old feuds are perpetuated. 
The plight of the medieval English Jew sometimes brings a tear to my eye but let me tell you something – there were more than a few Christians out there who did their best to ameliorate their suffering. I’m not re-writing history here, I’m just telling you like it was. 

At what point did you know that this was going to be a series and how, if at all, has it affected the writing process?
I knew at the outset it was going to be a trilogy as one novel could never do the timescale or subject matter justice. Each book can, however, be read as a stand-alone piece. The writing process is the same as it ever was – tell a story and carry your readers along with you. Sounds so simple doesn’t it? 
Thought for the day – “If it was that simple everybody would be doing it!”

Are there any more characters nagging at you to tell their stories, or have you any unfinished business with Cristian?
Hmmm … The third and final book in the series is due for publication in February 2017 and guess what? Yes, you got it – I have two endings written.  And in those two endings there are four further options. SO in answer to your question - Cristian hasn’t finished with me just yet! 
In conclusion can I just say a big thanks to Cristian of Longhurst for letting me tell his story? 
Thanks, Cristian.
And thank you, Darius, for talking to me today about your writing.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Once Upon a Time - And Other inspiring Stories

My little blog is one year old today. I wasn't sure how to mark this 'bloggiversary' and then I started to think about what inspired me to begin writing in the first place:

I belong to a fantastic online reading group where the discussions recently have focused on old favourites. It got me thinking that in fact, although I was an historian before I became a novelist, it was fiction which inspired my love of history. I'd like to share a few of these special books.
First, and still in my possession, the Ladybird Story of clothes and Costume. Who could resist these wonderful illustrations?  (Look at the 'Late Victorian' lady above.) I remember I could almost feel the sumptuous fabrics and I wanted to be the ladies in those paintings. To get an idea of how old I was at the time, here's a picture of some 'notes' that I made:

We moved around a lot when I was a child, so it's easy for me to remember where I was when I read certain books. And it was in the Netherlands that I discovered Jean Plaidy, and in particular, Castile for Isabella.

I vividly remember how much I enjoyed reading about this strong woman, who ruled in her own right and was determined to marry the man of her dreams. Intoxicating stuff for a pre-teen with her head in the clouds! (and themes which were echoed years later in To Be A QueenHowever, it also put a few pieces of the history jigsaw together for me, because I knew from an early age the historical geography of Spain, and the family connection with Katherine of Aragon. I read the sequel, too:

Around this time, there were costume dramas aplenty - and as well as Glenda Jackson's remarkable portrayal of Elizabeth I, there was also Henry VIII and his Six Wives, starring Keith Michell.

This, as I recall, belongs not to me, but to my elder sister. As did Royal Flush by Margaret Irwin, which left me far better informed about the sister of Charles II's life at Versailles than the recent TV series called Versailles!

Two books which definitely belonged to me came via the school book club. I wasn't allowed to order very often, but these two books remained special to me, for not only did I learn about the Fire of London (above) and the French Revolution, (below) but they began a long-standing relationship with the author's books, such that only recently I bought the entire box-set of the Follyfoot DVDs, having loved the books and the TV series so much when I was younger.

These books were aimed very much at children, and hitherto I had been reading 'grown-up' novels, but these books featured characters of my own age, and that was something of a novelty for me. Monica Dickens was the grandaughter of Charles Dickens, but I'm afraid that whilst she encouraged my love of history, and inspired me to read her other books, she did not persuade me to read her grandfather's books!

In 1974 we left the Netherlands, and in the summer of the same year took a rain-drenched family camping holiday in Scotland. On our way north we stopped at what must have been a filling station and I was allowed to buy a book. Marjorie Bowen's The Glen O' Weeping tells the tale of the Glencoe Massacre.

Where better to read this book than in my little tent, camping out in the highlands? The inside cover shows my boarding school identification number, (we all had a number, followed by the school initials, and all our lockers etc had the same number on them) which proves that I took this book with me to read again when I started secondary school that autumn.  

I didn't read very much once I set off to navigate the choppy waters of the Teenager Ocean, but I returned to historical fiction around the time of sixth form. Now I learned all about Cornish tin mining... 

and earned my mother's disapproval when I read the scandalous life of she who was Forever Amber

1981 was my 'A' level year, and was also the year that brought Jeremy Irons and Evelyn Waugh into my life. Granted, Waugh was not actually writing historical fiction, given that he had lived through such times, but it whetted my appetite. 

More war stories followed, with Jennifer Johnson's How Many Miles to Babylon, KM Peyton's Flambards series, and this, which I found tucked away in a little book shop in the town where I was working:

The job and I fairly swiftly parted company as I realised that I did, after all, want to continue my academic studies. So off I went, but not, as I'd supposed when still in the 6th form, to study for a degree in English, but in History.

These days, I read all manner of books, but historical fiction remains a passion. In those lonely days after graduation and relocation to a new part of the country, I discovered Sharon Penman and Helen Hollick. Whilst still a student, I'd set my heart on writing the story of Queen Emma. Years later, when I'd had my family and had a bit of time to start writing, I discovered that Helen had beaten me to it, and what a fantastic read it was:

Little did I imagine that several years down the line my name would appear alongside hers on a book cover! (1066 Turned Upside Down will be published on 1st August and is available for pre-order.)

Sharon Penman's books also inspired me when it came time to plan our first family holiday. With three young children, and my parents, we booked in to a Guest House in North Wales. I name-checked all the places in the area which I recognised from her Welsh Trilogy,

but the place we were staying, Clynnog Fawr, kept ringing different bells. And then I recalled that Aelfhere of Mercia had been at that very location in AD978. I re-avowed my intent one day to write his story and in February, that vow was fulfilled with the publication of Alvar the Kingmaker.

With this trawl through my reading moments, I'm not looking to draw any profound conclusions. Historical fiction is, always, fiction, but it does help one make sense of timelines, add colour to what can be dry and dusty history lessons, and yes, these stories most definitely inspire. Not only that, but they become good friends. I've had a smile on my face today as I've pulled these old friends out of cupboards and off shelves for their photo shoot.

I'd love to know about other people's childhood favourites. Which book first got you interested in history? Or inspired you to pick up a pen, keyboard, tablet...

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Devilish Music and Short Stories - Cathie Hartigan Casts Light ...

I'm delighted that my sunday interviewee is Cathie Hartigan

I began by asking her:
I'm very interested to learn about the story behind Secret of the Song - when did you first come across the works of Gesualdo - did you hear the music first and then discover the stories about him? 

It all happened at once, Annie. About ten years ago, I sang in a small choir, and one evening the choirmaster suggested we tried a piece by Gesualdo. The mere mention of the name generated much shuffling and grumbling from other members of the choir. I was surprised by this, as we were used to singing all sorts of songs from across both the world, both contemporary and going back many centuries. Our first attempt was ragged. Were these the correct notes? It sounded so discordant! We had another go, but it wasn’t much better. What did we expect? It was the music of a madman. My ears pricked up at this. Those that knew offered further comment. He got away with murder. Those Renaissance aristocrats…tut tut! Music, madness, murder? I was hooked.

How much research did you need to do - did you visit the locations mentioned in the book?

The research was delicious. It ticked all my favourite boxes. Museums for a start. Exeter’s wonderful RAMM figures quite a lot in the contemporary thread and I know it very well, as I am an Exeter resident. The V&A in London had a marvellous exhibition several years ago entitled At Home in Renaissance Italy. I learnt a great deal there, and similarly when there was an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery of Elizabethan clothes. 
As for the locations, I have been to Italy a few times, but Naples only for a couple of days, and that was a long time ago. It remains clear in my mind though, especially the menace of the narrow streets. With a little help from Google Streetview, it could have been yesterday and I doubt much as changed in four hundred years.

Can you tell us a little bit about Creative Writing Matters? What is your involvement with it and what are its aims?

CreativeWritingMatters came about as a result of my leaving mainstream education, where I was teaching creative writing, and going freelance. I wanted to provide a more flexible space for the encouragement of writing. It seemed to me that there was a world of difference between what was going on in class and the reality of the publishing industry. I discovered this though my membership of the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers’ Scheme.  In the early days, I hosted workshops by published authors as well as running courses and competitions. The other two members of the CreativeWritingMatters team, Sophie Duffy and Margaret James, I met at my local writing group, Exeter Writers. Margaret and I have since published two writing guides: The Creative Writing Student’s Handbook and The Short Story Writer’s Workbook.

And leading on from that, can you explain about the Exeter Prize and how it can help aspiring authors?All three of us are teachers as well as authors, and we have furthered our own careers through competition success. Hence our commitment to helping other writers and providing literary competitions as steps on the road. We believe that any listing is a real boost to the confidence of a writer. A number of wins or listings shows commitment and a persistent high standard. Properly preparing your work for submission is another step towards professionalism.
The Exeter Novel Prize is now in its fourth year. It is and international competition for unpublished or independently published novels from writers who have not secured an agent. We are pleased and proud that Broo Doherty from DHH Literary Agency is our final judge. The publishing success of our winners and many of those listed is very heartening.

You've won awards for your short stories. Did you find any different challenges when it came to writing a novel?

Yes! There are many different challenges. Secret of the Song isn’t my first novel, although no one is every going to see my previous efforts. In those, I learned how to cope with the sheer scale of a novel. With a short story I find it is quite easy to keep its entirety in my head - I’m beginning here and going there, it’s about so-and-so and this is the problem/issue. A novel has a lot more of everything - even though at the end it can often be squeezed back down into a central question. Secret of the Song is a time-slip with a dual narrative and alternating chapters. It’s a structure that required sufficient interest in both stories for the reader to want to keep finding out what happened in the other one, but with enough connecting material so they didn’t come across as completely unrelated. For someone like me, who isn’t a very good planner, it was quite a challenge.

And speaking of novels, do you have any more in the pipeline?

Yes, I do. It’s early days for the one I’m writing, but I can tell you that WWII will figure rather than the Renaissance and there will be two threads. I’m hoping to go back to the Renaissance in the novel after that. Italy seems to keep knocking on my head and there will be musicians in both too, but none quite so mad as Gesualdo.

Thank you so much for talking to me today, Cathie.
Buy Secret of the Song
Buy The Creative Writing Student's Handbook
Buy The Short Story Writer's Workbook

Creative Writing Matters