Sunday, 28 August 2016

1066 Turned Upside Down - Sunday chat with Joanna Courtney

Today I'm delighted to welcome another 1066 Turned Upside Down author, Joanna Courtney, to the blog for some Sunday chat.

Welcome Joanna. Can I begin by asking: Where did the original idea for 1066 TUD come from?

Mea Culpa! It originated when I was part of the literary tent at the Battle of Hastings re-enactment last year with Helen Hollick and Glynn Holloway and we were talking ‘what ifs’. For writers of this period the turning points of 1066 are a very addictive topic. We’re a bit like new mothers with their birthing stories – endlessly fascinated by it (except that hopefully 1066 is a bit more engaging than giving birth). We all have parts of that huge year that we are particularly fascinated by and have our own theories on - and also that we cannot help wishing we could change. It seemed to me that a collection of alternative history stories would be the perfect way to address that.
I love writing historical fiction and really enjoy the tension between the set-in-stone facts and the wriggle-room for interpretation by me, but sometimes it can also be frustrating. I’ve recently been editing a contemporary novel and being able to just change things as I see fit has been an exhilarating freedom. Alternative history is a chance to let the fiction really take flight over the history and I’ve loved writing it (see my blog on ‘Ferrari fiction’ *.)

Without giving too much away, can you set the scene(s) for your 1066 TUD stories?

As one of the two originators of the project I’ve been lucky enough to write two stories for the collection. The first is about Harald Hardrada, who is the hero of my novel The Constant Queen, out in paperback this September and who I loved researching. He has a reputation as a ferocious warrior that was well-deserved but he was far from an old-style rape-and-pillage Viking. As a Christian, a long-standing King of Norway and a man of the world (with early years spent amongst the cultural riches of medieval Kiev and Byzantium), he was a hugely respected leader. His threat to England was undoubtedly stronger than William’s and, as part of a long-running set of Viking invasions in the north, would have been greatly feared at that time. I think the single biggest piece of heroism in 1066 was King Harold’s almost miraculous defeat of Hardrada and it could so easily have gone another way. Having also found out about Hardrada’s wife, the intriguing and hugely well-connected Elizaveta of Kiev, I am fascinated by what an England ruled by she and Harald would have looked like so it was a joy to start to explore that in my first story.

My second story was a gift to a writer of this period and I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to get to write it – the Battle of Hastings as if Harold had won. As a writer of history largely from the female point of view I don’t tend to dwell on the battle scenes but clearly I researched Hastings in some detail and this momentous, day-long battle could so very easily have gone the other way at various points. Playing with the ‘might have beens’ was a real luxury and I hope all those who boo William at the re-enactment and who still feel – based largely on what happened in the years after 1066 – that William was the baddie of the 1066 story, can enjoy this little teaser of a different way history could have gone.

Can you tell us a little about your Queens of Conquest series?

1066 is a huge date in English history, perhaps the biggest of them all – a year when great leaders fought for our throne, dragging the whole country into their bitter battles and wasting countless lives.  Three men claimed the crown that year – Harold of Wessex, Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy - and there were three big battles – Fulford, Stamford Bridge and finally Hastings. There were also three potential queens, but who even knows their names?  I felt it was time that changed and my Queens of the Conquest trilogy seeks to bring these women back into the heart of the striking stories of that great year.

Edyth of Mercia, heroine of The Chosen Queen, married Harold of Wessex in 1065 and when he ascended the throne of England on the death of King Edward, she became our queen.  Edyth was the sister of Edwin, Earl of Mercia and of Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Their family held the north and Harold, a southern earl, needed this alliance to keep the country united against the inevitable invaders from foreign shores. Edyth was also a powerful woman in her own right, having reigned as Queen of Wales (the only woman ever to have done so) for nine years, despite still only being 25 in 1066. In The Chosen Queen, I tell how her marriage to Harold, a man she had admired, even loved, from childhood, was tainted by her friendship with his handfast wife of 20 years and how she had to put personal choices aside to stand strong for her country.

Elizaveta of Kiev, heroine of The Constant Queen, was almost twice the age of her English rival, Edyth, in 1066 and had been married to Harald Hardrada, the great Viking King of Norway, for more than twenty years. It had not, however, been an entirely peaceable match. They’d first met in 1030 when Harald, aged only 15, had fled the defeat of his brother, King Olaf, by Cnut and ended up in the service of Elizaveta’s father, Grand Prince Yaroslav. For years Harald lived by his sword throughout Russia and Byzantium and Elizaveta kept the keys to his caskets and, it would seem, to his heart, but it took him some years to finally win her hand.  In The Constant Queen I tell of how her fire and adventuring spirit kept Hardrada’s passion burning, both for herself and for conquest, and how together they sought to win the throne of England – and very nearly succeeded.

Matilda of Flanders , heroine of The Conqueror’s Queen (out in 2017), was brought up in the court of her father, the hugely influential and forward-thinking Count Baldwin. Highly educated, polished, and cultured, she was not, it seems, best pleased to be offered in marriage to William ‘the Bastard’. In William, however, she quickly came to recognise a man as tenacious, daring and ambitious as herself and theirs was a match held in high regard across Europe. In The Conqueror’s Queen I tell how she battled to find romantic passion with William, a man of steel almost all the way to his core, and what standing as his wife, his consort, and mother of his children cost her, even as she finally ascended the throne of England at his side.

Edyth, Elizaveta and Matilda are the forgotten queens of 1066 and I really hope that in my Queens of the Conquest trilogy readers enjoy uncovering their stories.

You write historical fiction, but using real-life characters and chronicled events. How difficult was it for you to 'twist' history for the 1066 project?

Not difficult at all. In fact, I’d like to do it again! Writing in this period, I have got used to there being big gaps in the factual history so I often have to think up convincing links between those events we do know about to create a coherent narrative. Thinking of how things could have gone another way is a very small leap and one I thoroughly enjoyed. On the whole in this collection we have stuck closely to the actual events of 1066 and how they might have changed but I can already see a possible sequel of stories set in the centuries after 1066 as if things had gone another way. History is wonderful, intriguing, dramatic and exciting as it stands and I love exploring it in my fiction but every so often, it’s certainly great fun to think about all the possible pasts we missed out on.

Is there another event in history that you wish had had a different outcome, another '"What if"?

I’d love to know how the last century might have gone if someone had seen fit to assassinate Adolf Hitler. How much of Nazi-ism was sheer weight of his (warped) personality and passion and how much a product of the terrible times Germany suffered after the first world war? Would someone else have filled his shoes or would it all have died away and the second world war never have happened. It’s not a period I know enough about to truly explore but books like Robert Harris’ amazing ‘Fatherland’ and, more recently, Kate Atkinson’s fascinating ‘Life after Life’ are wonderful reads and I think it’s a rich area for imaginative re-interpretation!

*Ferrari Fiction
The Chosen Queen
The Constant Queen
Find Joanna on her Website

Thank you so much for being my guest today, Joanna.

1066 Turned Upside Down is available HERE

1066 Turned Upside Down Blog Page

Sunday, 21 August 2016

1066 Turned Upside Down - Sunday chat with Annie Whitehead

Well here's an odd thing - If I am to interview the authors of 1066 Turned Upside Down in the order in which their stories appear in the book, then I must now interview myself!

How did I get involved with the project?
I was contacted by Helen Hollick - of whom I've been a fan for a very long time - and asked if I would write a story for the project. I must have hesitated for about, ooh, two seconds before I said yes!

Without giving too much away, can I set the scene for my story?
My story concerns the northern earls and the Battle of Fulford, just outside York. It was here that the English were defeated by the forces of Harald Hardrada of Norway and Tostig Godwinson, brother of King Harold. This defeat meant that Harold had to ride north to the Battle of Stamford Bridge and thus had to endure a long but swift march down south again to meet William of Normandy. What if the northern earls had won at Fulford, and Stamford Bridge never happened? This was the premise for my story but, actually, those northern earls were mainly Mercians. I love my Mercians, so I decided to think a bit more about their likely attitude not only to battle, but to Harold himself...

Did it go 'against the grain' to change history?
Usually I am at great pains to depict history as it happened. Occasionally I change something minor, if it helps the narrative to flow more easily, but I make this clear in my notes. The job of the historical novelist is, in my view, to present the facts but to fill in the gaps - plausibly - and to put flesh on the characters' bones, to try to give them a back story, to present possible reasons why they, as humans, behaved the way they did. With 'A Matter of Trust' (my story in 1066 Turned Upside Down), I tried to stick to this principle and to give logical reasons for the behaviour of my characters. Once I had got past the blatant twisting of the history, I found it quite natural to then tell the tale using the personalities of the people involved.

What draws me particularly to the stories of Mercia?
History belongs to the victors, to a large extent. The ancient kingdom of Mercia was eventually swallowed up by Wessex. The King of Wessex, Alfred the great, commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of our main primary sources for this period. Thus the history of Mercia was somewhat sidelined, which is a shame, because Mercia produced some wonderfully charismatic characters: Offa (he who built the dyke) Aethelflaed (Lady of the Mercians, subject of  To Be A Queen), 
Lady Godiva, and even evil old Eadric Streona, who vacillated so much during the time of King Canute that he must have made himself utterly dizzy!

Some, less well known, simply deserved to have their stories told, in my opinion: King Edgar, who managed uniquely in those times to rule peacefully, and his right-hand-man Aelfhere (Alvar), whose reputation suffered because not only was he an earl of Mercia, but he also took on the Church establishment, and at this time, the Chronicles weren't just written by Wessex, they were written by Wessex monks. 

What really attracted me though was the anomalies - Aethelflaed was a woman leader, Ethelred was a man who wasn't a king, but fought like one anyway to save his country, Edgar was a king of peace in a very turbulent age, Alvar went up against the Church, Aelfthryth fought like a lioness for her youngest child, but had left two children behind. Why? What was the story there? 

Is there another event in history that I wish had had a different outcome, another "What if"?
There is one episode in history which I really wish hadn't happened. Not because it would have changed the course of history, but simply because it was unnecessary: Anne Boleyn's death. As it turned out, her daughter came to rule England anyway, so in terms of history, this brutal act achieved little, other than to set a precedent for Henry's dealings with Catherine Howard.

If I could write another 'What if', though, it would probably be the history of Wales. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, (Llewelyn the Last) was killed during campaign against Edward I and his daughter was sent to Sempringham Priory in England where she spent the rest of her days as a nun. Llywelyn's brother, and named successor, is reputed to be the first victim of hanging, drawing and quartering. I have a strong dislike for Edward I, and I would relish a re-telling of history which preserved the Royal House of Gwynedd.

Thanks for talking to me today Annie.
It was my pleasure Annie!

Sunday, 14 August 2016

1066 Turned Upside Down: Sunday chat with Helen Hollick

For the next few weeks, I shall be chatting to the authors of the new e-book 1066 Turned Upside Down, a project which I am immensely proud and honoured to be part of. First up in the Sunday Chatroom is author Helen Hollick:

Hello Helen, and thanks for joining me today. Where did the idea for 1066 TUD come from?
It was Joanna Courtney’s idea. She mentioned writing a few ‘what if’ stories about 1066 and I jumped at the idea!

Without giving too much away, can you set the scene(s) for your stories?
I have two: the first is set in January; what if Harold Godwinson had not been offered, or had not accepted, the Crown after Edward the Confessor’s death? And my second story is a long-held passionate belief of mine: what if William’s fleet had been destroyed mid-Channel by the English schyp-fyrd (navy). I firmly believe this did happen – although not in the way this particular story ends up. Both stories are taken from my novel Harold the King (UK title – called I Am The Chosen King in the US) but I enjoyed giving them a different twist.

You've written an Arthurian Trilogy (semi-legendary), books about Emma and Harold (real characters) and Jesamiah Acorne (fictional). Which, if any, do you prefer to write about? Which is the most challenging to tackle as a writer? 
I prefer my Sea Witch Voyages because the series is meant to be light-hearted fun – they certainly are fun to write, I just hope my readers gain as much pleasure from reading them as I do from writing them. They are not meant to be taken seriously – they are tongue-in-cheek sailor’s yarns.

Don’t get me wrong, I do a lot of research for the background historical facts, and for the nautical elements, but I also include fantasy along with the adventure. The thing is, no one would believe the made-up bits if the real bits were not realistically written. 
I’ve a soft spot for the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy because they were my first novels, Emma (A Hollow Crown UK title / The Forever Queen US title) is a favourite because I feel I paved the way for bringing this most intriguing Saxon Queen to light (I was the first, I think, to write a novel about her, now everyone’s doing her proud!) And Harold, well I reckon the other major character in that novel was the greatest challenge. Duke William. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I detest the man, so I found it really hard to write his scenes.
I have no idea why I hate him so much, although being British with a long genealogy of British ancestors I would hazard a guess that someone in past was directly affected by the Norman Conquest, even maybe by the Battle itself.

Please can you tell us about your latest release?
My latest is the fifth Sea Witch Voyage, On The Account, another swashbuckling adventure for Jesamiah Acorne and his crew – along with the eBook 1066 Turned Upside Down, that is. Two books released in two months! Goodness I have been busy!

Is there another event in history that you wish had had a different outcome, another "What if"?
I would have liked Boudicca to have won her battle against the Romans. She tried so hard, and so deserved to win – yes she inflicted a lot of damage, killed a lot of innocent people in most unpleasant ways, but then, her daughters had been raped, she had been flogged and she had been the victim of foreign invaders who had all the arrogance and greed. What would Britain have been like if the Romans had been turned out? 
Although I guess they would merely have come back again at a later date.

Thanks so much for dropping by to talk to me today, Helen.

Twitter: @HelenHollick

1066 Turned Upside Down is available HERE

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Past is a Foreign Country ...

... they do things differently there.

Or do they?

The opening line to LP Hartley's The Go-Between is so famous that people often quote it without knowing where it came from originally.

I'm going to take his meaning and mess with it. Because I've been thinking recently about how authors of historical fiction grab me with their first lines, or pages, and suck me in to that place called the past, without describing anything fantastically unfamiliar.

This isn't a tutorial, a 'how to write great historical fiction' (particularly as I wouldn't presume to suggest that I'm well placed to give such a lesson in the first place!) No, this is just me putting together some of the phrases or descriptive passages that I've read recently which have made me think "Oh yes, I like this."

This, from Prue Batten's Tobias:

"The fist pummelled into Tomas’ jaw, his head jerking sideways, his teeth splitting his bottom lip.

‘Son of an arse for a mother!’ the little man shouted. ‘Boiled arse of an excuse for a drunkard!’ He ran between his opponent’s legs, turning swiftly, balling his hands to punch up at the soft parts before the thug could turn around. As the fellow made to turn, he stumbled, fell and hit his head hard on the edge of a protruding paving stone.

‘Tomas, leave it!’ Tobias called in German as he grabbed his brother’s fist. Around them jeers and calls goaded the small man. ‘Leave it, I said.’ Toby grasped his brother’s arms, pushing him ahead, kicking his backside and shouting ‘Move it, get going and fast if you value what’s left of your face.’

Surprisingly Tomas ran as the attention transferred to the unconscious drinker, Tomas laughing and whooping all the way down the street until the two pulled into a Venetian alley of shadows, far from the ruckus."

So, why did I like this so much? It makes up the opening lines of the book, and actually, apart from the mention of Venice, we could be anywhere, anytime. And yet, it plops the reader right into the heart of the action, the heart of the story. We've read the blurb, so now we plunge right in to the world of Tobias (Toby) and his brother. We are off and running - right alongside Toby and Tomas.

A few paragraphs later, we have this:

"As he spoke, William of Gisborne could be heard in the courtyard, calling the two pups. A tick-tack of racing claws sounded on the stone cobbles as they raced after William..." 

Well, I simply loved the 'tick-tack' of the racing claws. It was so evocative, so unusual and yet so apt. And again, it dragged me into that world, where I could hear and see everything in the scene. 

Tobias (The Triptych Chronicle Book 1) by [Batten, Prue]

Sometimes, a book grabs me because it shows me what I don't expect. This, from Louise Turner's Fire and Sword - a battle scene that was refreshing in its approach. As the main character, John Sempill, rides into battle, the author gives us this:

"No way out. Nowhere to go but forwards, through the enemy lines ahead. Holy Mary, Mother of God, protect me. Holy Mary, Mother of God. . . The words circled around and around in his head. Terror brought a foul taste to his mouth. Was that really his own voice, yelling out in wordless frantic terror as the collision approached? Just audible over the sound of his own ragged breathing, and the pounding of the blood in his veins." Visceral, in a literary and literal sense.

Choreographing fight or battle scenes is difficult. A whacks B, C charges at D, E knocks F off his horse. Done well, these scenes provide a real sense of what warfare is/was like. What was arresting about this passage was that I was placed right inside John's head, and was informed, (or maybe reminded, because I must have known, surely?) that battlefields are terrible and terrifying places. 

Fire and Sword by [Turner, Louise]

Staying in Scotland, I was drawn to a sentence (in Margaret Skea's Turn of the Tide) which, although actually light on description, told me so much about Munro, about his wife whom we've not met at this point, and gave me a clear picture of what the man is wearing:

"Despite his wife's best efforts, [he] wore his clothing almost to extinction: his leather jerkin polished to a shine around the buttons and his boots heavily scarred along their length."

I don't know exactly what his leather jerkin looked like, how it was styled, nor do I know the precise shape of his boots. But not only did I still get a vivid sense of his attire, I knew that his wife wished he would present himself better, but that he thought such things unimportant. An economy of words, but a wealth of information.

Characters in action, characters' thoughts, and their clothing. Nothing here, specifically, that proves the truth of Hartley's words. Fighting, fear, and making do with old clothes - these are things not limited to any one period of history and yet each one put me right at the heart of the period in which its book was set.

And the description of scenery can add to the feeling of being in the past, even when the landscape has barely changed in the intervening years. 

In Malcolm Archibald's Shadow of the Wolf, Fergus' journey through Scotland - yes, Scotland again! - is punctuated with descriptions of the Scottish landscape which must surely have survived to be visited today, and yet add to the atmosphere of the setting of the novel:

"Hugh's widow lived in a small croft about half a mile from Dunkeld, not far from the River Braan and near a waterfall that crashed over a smooth lip to splinter in a hundred million particles of seething water far below. All around, trees dipped their heads in submission."

(Malcolm tells me that the place described above is now known as the Hermitage.)

Yes, the past is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. But sometimes the historical novelist needs to paint a world where details are familiar, in order fully to immerse the reader in that foreign country. We believe in the history because we believe in the people - we can see them, feel for them, we get a sense of the world in which they are walking.  Please do take a look at the books mentioned here.

Fire and Sword
Turn of the Tide
Shadow of the Wolf

Over the next few weeks, I shall be talking to the authors - myself included! - who collaborated on the new book 1066 Turned Upside Down. This involved looking at the past in yet another way...

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Digging for Gold: Historical Research and Story Gaps

Today I am delighted to hand over the blog to author Catherine Hokin:~

Digging for Gold: Historical Research and Story Gaps

"Writing historical fiction can be a strange endeavour particularly if, like me, your novels are woven round real people. Readers frequently come to your work with considerable knowledge of the period, passionate opinions about the people (woe betide anyone in the current climate who paints Anne Boleyn as a black-hearted witch) and a pretty clear idea of how it all ends. I was once advised to imagine my audience as a room full of Sherlock Holmes clones who all have a starred first in the subject I’m writing about – it was good if terrifying advice!

No matter what period you write about (and my chosen area is medieval) research is king. A reader has to feel, taste and smell your timeframe and they have to be able to trust that you have done your job thoroughly or they will walk away. Your credentials have to be made clear in the details but there must be a balance in how research is used: if your reader needs a PhD to work out what you’re on about, you’ve overdone it; if they can’t tell whether your soldier is slugging it out with a sword at Towton or dodging machine gun fire at the Somme, you need to have a think about your ingredients mix. It’s historical fiction but the key word is fiction: we are story-tellers not professors. 

So we writers head to research to underpin our novels but we also head there with shovels at the ready to mine it for gold. The art of historical fiction is accepting the limits the genre imposes and then wriggling through the facts to find the wow. In other words, you cannot change the end but you can look deep into the sources and find the ‘I can see what they did but why on earth would they do it…’ moment. That’s where the stories lie. Very often both primary and secondary accounts of a time or a specific event will give you the deed but not the reason. 

Or they will give you the reason wrapped in a thick coating of propaganda: ‘history is written by the victors’ is a truism not a cliché. The job of a writer is to look at what was done and then dig into the character’s head and work out what the triggers were for the murder or the betrayal or the so-carefully planned late-arrival at the battle. Social conventions and attitudes change and they need to be respected – no medieval queen mistook herself for a suffragette – but people’s motivations remain fairly constant and there’s usually sex, jealousy, money, hatred, love or sex somewhere in the mix. Shakespeare got a lot of history wrong but he got people very right.

When I was researching my first novel Blood and Roses about Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses, I knew I was dealing with a women who had suffered badly at the hands of propaganda. The Shakespearean She-Wolf portrayal was what he was paid for, it was clearly a long way from the truth. So I had a character with plenty of dimensions to explore, including her relationship with her husband (complex and politically frightening) and her son (a deep bond not an incestuous one), but I knew that was not enough to turn a plot on. So I went digging and a little fact started nagging.

At a crucial point in the ongoing conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster (Margaret’s side), at a moment when victory looked to be in Margaret’s hands, her army was refused entry to the city of London and her campaign fell apart. She should have been admitted, she expected to be, but she was refused. Not by the Mayor, not by the House of York but by Jacquetta Woodville, her one time friend and ally. All the sources record it but no one explains why. So I started to wonder: why would a strong female friendship collapse to the point where it ended in devastating, calculated betrayal? I had my story…

My second novel, which I have just completed, went through the same process. This time my story centres on Katherine Swynford and her long-standing affair with the twice-married John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III. There are lots of interesting things about Katherine’s life, not least that she was the poet Chaucer’s sister-in-law, but one of the most fascinating is that she is incredibly absent from the period’s chronicles. 

Now you might be rolling your eyes and thinking: that’s because she was a woman and didn’t hold any office or importance, doh. (There’s always a doh). Fair comment but it doesn’t wash. Katherine lived in a time when propaganda was beginning  to emerge as a strong political tool, when royal mistresses were not well-treated by the chroniclers and when John of Gaunt was widely-reviled as the cause of everything from plague to poverty. Change the angle of your gaze and her absence starts to look rather strange or, perhaps, rather deliberate. I got my spade out; I have a story.

Perhaps one day one of the awards given for historical fiction will be in the shape of a little golden shovel. I hope so, it would be fitting and there are a lot of writers out there who know exactly how to wield it. While I wait for those who know about such things to tell me whether book two has cracked the right seam, I’m working away on book three. I’m deep in the twelfth century, I’ve spotted something and there’s a Disney soundtrack on a loop in my head: “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go…” 

Thank you so much, Catherine!

Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This sparked an interest in hidden female voices resulting in her debut novel, Blood and Roses which brings a feminist perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses.  Catherine also writes short stories - she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine - and regularly blogs as Heroine Chic

Buy Blood and Roses
Find Catherine on FacebookTwitter, on her Blog and at her Website