Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Historical 'Fantasy 24 Hours' - with Diana Wilder

A new series for the blog, in which a number of talented writers and historians are asked to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time.

I'm delighted that first up is author Diana Wilder. Go with her on a journey down the Nile...


Gather at my feet and listen, O Best Beloved, and I will tell you a tale of the moon and the stars, of the black earth and the red desert, of fish in the river and rivers in the sky, all in the sweet land that is Egypt.

Father Nile journeys north to the Great Green Ocean, passing through the hills and mountains of Nubia, crashing through the cataracts and whirling past the fortresses of Uronarti, of Buhen, of Kumneh and Semna.

Fish swim within his path, birds nest beside him, the crocodile hunt within his bounds and the hippopotami roar in the night. And man travels upon the breast of the Nile, bound north for the wide Green Ocean, or south toward the cataracts and the place of Father Nile's birth.
                                              ** ** **

I raised my head from the table and blinked at the notebook beneath me. I hadn’t meant to sleep so late, but it’s hard to stop with words flowing from my pen, mirroring the images in my mind. When scenes fall into place and I suddenly know the point of the story. In this case, the opening.

I sat up and stretched, then pushed back from the table. A torrent of sunlight spilled from the crack under the front door and poured down the hallway. It was strong light, from a closer sun. I set my hand on the latch and opened the door to a dawn that seemed to be set in a younger, somehow brighter world.  

I moved out into the sunlight of a garden. Roses and acacias perfumed the breeze; I could see blue water beyond a border of marsh-plants and tall stalks bearing feathery plumes. Papyrus? They could be nothing else with those triangular stems. 

I parted them and looked downriver toward the western shore. The morning sun gilded the white cluster of pyramids rising from the plateau. Giza – but new and barely touched by the years.

My Lady!

I heard the cry upstream from me. A ship was riding the river, moving north with the current. I could see the painted eyes of the ship gazing straight at me as a bank of oars emerged from the portholes, dipping and flashing in the water.

Horus of the West, I thought. I had invented her, every beam and sail, every member of her crew. I hurried to the river’s edge, lifting my head in the breeze that shifted the papyrus thickets and tossed the palm fronds overhead.

The ship was approaching quickly now, the oars dipping once more and then raising upright and holding as she drew abreast of me and glided in to the shore.

One of the men on the ship, holding a coil of papyrus rope, saw me. “My Lady!” he shouted.

“Throw me the rope!” I called. “I’ll tie her fast!”

He grinned and obeyed. I belayed it around the palm tree beside me. A gangplank slid to the ground.

I smiled up at the men and women leaning on the top strake of the ship, caught the dark gaze of an older man who wore a necklace of gold. “What is this, Nebamun?” I asked.

The High Priest of Ptah bowed to me. “An excursion to Giza,” he said. “You have described it often enough. It is time to experience it. We have music and good food: cumin-crusted fish, to be broiled when we dock and enjoyed in the shade of the monuments. Would it please you?”

I scanned the faces before me, lifted my head in the breeze that caught the scent of the river, the banks of flowers… The feathery heads of the papyrus thickets bobbed and dipped along the water.

A lady in a simple shift of striped linen bowed to me hand to breast, and straightened. I could see the bow and quiver of arrows at her back. Sitra, I thought. My woman archer

“Well?” asked Nebamun.

I am dreaming¸ I thought. I smiled at him and lifted my face to the wind. “An excursion to Giza,” I said. “With broiled fish, with fruits…and wine of Inet, perhaps?”

“Most certainly,” said Sitra.

“Let me get dressed!” I said. “Jeans and a jacket are much too hot! It won’t take a minute!” I turned and ran back to the house.

A dream, I thought, closing the door. But such a nice one! And then, I wonder if I will meet a Thirty Cubit Crocodile… He could answer some questions I have regarding the plot

One never knew with dreams.


Thank you, Diana, for getting the series off to such an evocative start!

Diana grew up all around the United States thanks to the U. S. Navy. She has always loved to weave stories for and about people, and her enjoyment of people-watching led to a love of history that is reflected in her writing.

You can find her on most days at some time or another watching people, playing with her dog, clerking at a cat show or trying to knit with greater or lesser degrees of success. She also does some graphic design work on the side for herself and others. 

Find Diana on her Website

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Interview - Lauren Gilbert

For this month's interview, I am delighted to welcome to the blog Regency author and prolific contributor to EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) Lauren Gilbert. Lauren has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a minor in Art History. An avid reader, she is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. She has presented several programs to JASNA chapters.

Welcome Lauren and thank you for joining me on the blog today. Can I begin by asking, why Regency? Can you put your finger on precisely what attracts you to this period?

I come from a family of readers.  My mother, grandmother and great-aunts all read voraciously, and were passionately addicted to English authors and  historical novels set in England , many in the Regency era.  My reading was never restricted and I read a lot of those books in addition to the regular fare.  I enjoyed the Regency era as portrayed in the novels.  Then I got into the history and was really hooked. The political upheaval and societal changes remind me greatly of our own time.  Somehow it seemed a natural for me.

You set your novel, Heyerwood, in England, rather than the US, where you live. Was there a particular reason for this? 

It was the novel I wanted to write, and England was only logical place for it.

"HEYERWOOD: A Novel is a romantic historical novel, set in the Georgian/Regency period in England. The story of a woman learning to cope with power and control at a time when women traditionally had little power at all, this book will appeal to readers of history, fans of historical novels, and admirers of Jane Austen alike."

How easy was it to research the novel, given that you live so far away from the setting? 

The research is the fun part.  The public library (especially inter-library loan) and the internet are wonderful things.  I have also amassed a certain number of source materials of my own.  I had already done a lot of reading just for personal pleasure.  I have also done a certain amount of research on the era for presentations for the Jane Austen Society of North America region to which I belong.  Wonderful blogs provided a great deal of information.  I was also able to locate e-mail addresses for libraries in areas for which I needed data.  It also helps that I have visited England a few times, and had the opportunity to see certain locales with my own eyes, pick up local brochures etc.  I would like the opportunity to make a serious research trip one day, for a non-fiction work for which I have some notes, but consider myself very fortunate to have access to such a wealth of information via the internet.

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?  

It’s hard to say.  I wanted to write a book that I would enjoy reading. The arranged marriage trope is always interesting. The character of Lady Russell in Jane Austen’s Persuasion also rather intrigued me - a secure widow who did not actively seek another husband and lived her life to suit herself.  I wondered what a young woman who had been compelled to make a marriage that did not turn out to be happy or even contented might have done if it ended and how she would have handled that freedom in that time.

"Due to the recent death of her husband [Catherine] could not go out into the garden without draping herself in black veils...'My house,' she thought fiercely, 'Mine!' Curled in a chair by the window, she brooded about the chain of events leading to her present circumstances, events in which she herself had had little or no input."

Would you ever write a book set in another period, and if so which one and why?  

I have notes for a mystery set in late 19th century Tampa.  I lived in Tampa for many years, and loved it there.  Many influences combine to give it a fascinating history.

Franklin St, Tampa, c. 1920-20 (image public domain via Wikipedia)

So, what is in the pipeline - are you working on anything at the moment?  

I am currently working on another Regency-era novel which I hope to have ready for release in 2017.

Thanks so much for joining me Lauren.

You can read some of Lauren's EHFA articles in Castles, Customs and Kings, Volume One and Volume Two
You can find her on her website
and you can buy Heyerwood HERE

Monday, 12 June 2017

Writing to Music - Edward Ruadh Butler

In the latest of the series about authors' connections with music, I'm delighted to hand the blog over to Edward Ruadh Butler to introduce us to Mogwai:~

"What elements go into the choice of music to which to listen while writing? I’ve heard how some authors select the sounds of rain and the waves to get them into the mood. Others crank up heavy metal to help them find a space where their writing will flow onto the page. Many more lose themselves in classical music. Why?

It is of course subjective but perhaps the answer comes in the first ten seconds of Mogwai’s debut album, Young Team:
“Because music is bigger than words and wider than pictures”
Even the Scottish lady who recites the words as the band begins to play their first song, Yes! I am a long way from home, doesn’t seem to believe it. But the band members do and over the course of eight Mogwai albums (more if you count their scores for film and TV), I have come to as well.

Mogwai - Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home (youtube)

It is the Post-Punk Scottish noise merchants who will be the subject of this piece as I try to describe why I listen almost exclusively to them as I write.

Mogwai live on stage 2007 via Wiki Commons licence

I was first introduced to Mogwai by a pal from school in the mid-2000s. Wylie convinced me to head up to the Queen’s University students’ union in Belfast to hear the band live in the famed Mandela Hall. I was a little bit reticent, listening at that time to bands like yourcodenameis:milo, Clutch, The Mars Volta, Fugazi, and Tool, very much different to the style and substance of Mogwai. Wylie described them as being like dance music, but slower – much, much slower – and without lyrics. It did not seem like my thing at all.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I can’t remember if they started or ended with Christmas Steps that night but I remember that you could’ve heard a pin drop in Mandela Hall at the beginning. By the crescendo of the song you could not have heard Slipknot if they had started up two feet away. I didn’t even go to the bar (which is very unlike me), but merely stood there with my brain shaking in my skull as a band in full denim and plaid shirts pumped out some of the loudest, most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. Immersed, entranced or beaten up by sound? Who knows, but I came out of there having had a very different experience from every other gig to which I’d been.

Mogwai started out in Glasgow in 1995 with the aim of creating “serious guitar music” and having some early success on the Indie circuit. Their first LP, Young Team, beautiful and brash in equal amount, soon appeared, but their real break-out album, Come On Die Young, was produced in 1999. In their own ‘words’:

Mogwai - Punk Rock: (youtube)

Rock Action in 2001 was a bit of a departure, but a welcome one, introducing an electronic vibe and more vocals to their almost wordless canon. A single, My Father, My King, wasn’t on this album but was released at the same time. Clocking in at a whopping 20 minutes, it remains the song I listen most often when writing battle scenes. I haven’t been to war but I would imagine that it is an all-out assault on the senses which develops and abates as does the song itself. In its quiet moments the song evokes the requisite feeling of apprehension as I find myself anticipating the storm of sound which I know is coming again. By its end I can almost see the broken earth, discarded arrows and ripped banners left by a medieval battle. I’m ready to write about war:

Mogwai - My Father, My King (youtube)

At the end of my next book, Lord of the Sea Castle, which will be published by Accent Press this month, there is a long fight sequence which pits a Norman force of 120 against a 3,000-strong Viking-Irish army from Waterford. This climactic battle, lifted almost in its entirety from actual history, took place over around six hours in 1170 and was, without giving the game away, one almighty encounter! It was also written with My Father, My King playing in my ears, its surging and plummeting soundtrack keeping the action moving (I hope!) from scene to scene.

2003 saw the release of Happy Songs for Happy People. It is distinctive due to its heavily synthesised and almost comprehensible vocals which act to draw you in, to make you listen more closely as if the Mogwai secret is just within your grasp, that if you strain your ears just a little bit harder you’ll derive the deeper meaning. I think Kids Will Be Skeletons is my favourite song off the album but perhaps Killing All the Flies is the best pointer to this album’s content:

Mogwai - Killing All The Flies (youtube)

“I think most people are not used to having no lyrics to focus on,” guitarist Stuart Braithwaite told one music journalist. “Lyrics are a real comfort to some people. I guess they like to sing along and when they can’t do that with us they can get a bit upset.”

And that statement about sums it up. Mogwai provide the backdrop and the listener can imprint what images they like upon it. Sometimes words cannot do justice to the feelings produced by music. But that is my game and I find myself attempting to do just that, to put lyrics to Mogwai’s sounds. Given that I write about the era of medieval romance when chivalric knights listened to and were motivated by stories put to song by troubadours and bards, I think that this is quite apt.

Detail from The Hawk is Howling album cover ('fair use' image)

Mr Beast (2006), The Hawk is Howling (2008), and Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2010) are albums that continued to show Mogwai excel while their most recent, Rave Tapes (2013), added an almost Celtic electronic feel to their repertoire.

However, as well as gigging and writing albums, the band have produced a number of soundtracks are the film and television industry. As you can imagine their music, cinematic in scale, fits perfectly with each director’s vision, but I love this scene from the 2006 film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

Zidane - A 21th Century Portrait - best scene (youtube)

With immersive and evocative sounds that Mogwai produce I can go under for four or five hours at a time without surfacing from writing. While almost overwhelming and often muted, it creates an atmosphere of edge, an anxious accompaniment to the words I’m trying to get down on paper. There are no boundaries. It is instrumentation that conjures images in my mind without intrusion and that is what makes it the perfect music for me to write novels."

Mogwai - Folk Death 95 (youtube)


Edward Ruadh Butler is a writer of historical fiction from Tyrone in Northern Ireland. His debut, Swordland, based around the little known events of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, was published by Accent Press in February 2015 and in paperback on April 2016. The second in the series, Lord of the Sea Castle, is available now at Amazon (US) and Amazon (UK).
Find out more at www.ruadhbutler.com.

He also contributed to a recent blog post where three authors argued - politely - about the 12th Century

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Regularis Concordia - the Rule Book for Anglo-Saxon Monks

In the tenth-century, three men worked hard to restore the monasteries to their former glory. All these men were subsequently venerated as saints: Dunstan, Oswald, and Æthelwold.

In particular, Æthelwold of Abingdon, later bishop of Winchester, was determined that the monks and nuns of England should follow the Rule of St Benedict.

Æthelwold was the author of the Monastic Agreement of the Monks and Nuns of the English Nation, or Regularis Concordia, a document with which I'm familiar because of the wording of its preface, and the fact that, in it, Æthelwold acknowledges the status of Queen Ælfthryth, wife of King Edgar, and a leading character in my book, Alvar the Kingmaker.

A page from Regularis Concordia

However, having finished my latest piece of research, for an upcoming publication for Pen & Sword Books, I thought I would study the content of this rule book in a little more detail, to find out what those tenth-century monks and nuns could expect of their daily routines.

Some of the rules are very specific: 

"[during Lent] Whenever the subdeacon wears a chasuble he shall take it off when reading the epistle, and put it on again as soon as he has finished. The deacon, too, before coming forward to read the gospel, shall take off his chasuble, fold it and then adjust it crosswise about his left shoulder, making the lower end thereof fast to the girdle of his alb."

"On those same days of Lent when the Mass is ended, the bell shall be rung for Vespers and there shall be a space for prayer. Then, in the interval while the bells are ringing, those ministers who wish to shall partake of the mixtum; those who do not wish to shall have permission to forego it."

Such detail is the stuff one imagines being drawn up by committee, and there are sections of the Rule where one can hear the provisos echoing down the centuries:

"The brethren, vested in albs, if this can be done and the weather permits, shall go to the church."
If wet, in the village hall?

Much of the Rule is taken up with such ritual - the order of service for every part of the day, and the canonical year, is laid out. "None shall be recited when the second bell has rung. After None, they shall say for the King, Queen and benefactors the psalms Qui regis Israel and De profundis...rising up from the meal, they shall give themselves to reading or to the psalms...Vespers shall be celebrated punctually..."

However, there are also rules which cater for the basic human needs: "Thus in winter, when storms are harsh and bitter, a suitable room shall be set aside for the brethren wherein, by the fireside, they may take refuge from the cold and bad weather."

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

There is a chapter dedicated to the care of the sick within the monastic community: "Let there be therefore in that house brethren...who shall furnish the sick brother with everything he wants; if indeed it is necessary, let the help of servants be employed under a careful brother." Later, it states that "If the sickness improves, the visiting shall be discontinued, but if not, it shall be kept up until the death of that brother." There are further instructions for the washing and laying out of the deceased's body. 

This rule book is so much more than a prescription for the litany. Every aspect of daily conduct is considered. Were they a silent order? It seems not:

"The auditorium is excepted from the rule of silence; indeed, it is called by that name chiefly because it is there that whatever is commanded by the master be heard; neither is it right that tales of gossip should go on there or anywhere else." 

Now, as a teacher and a parent, I know that rules aren't laid down for no good reason. It makes me smile to think that these monks must occasionally have been prone to tittle-tattle.

Safe-guarding is also evidently nothing new: "Not even on the excuse of some spiritual matter shall any monk presume to take with him a young boy alone for any private purpose but, as the Rule commands, let the children always remain under the care of their master. Nor shall the master himself be allowed to be in company with a boy without a third person as witness."

Much is said about confession, and those who are "conscious of the guilt of sin or of weakness of the flesh shall not hesitate, in their fervent practice of the exercises of the monastic state, to receive the Eucharist daily...let those who are invited to the Lord's Supper beware lest, stained with the filth of sin, they dare to draw nigh to it unconfessed  and unrepentant."

But it was not all prayer, confession and hard work:
"On Saturdays, the brethren shall wash their feet, for which purpose each shall have a suitable basin. Having washed their feet, those who need to shall wash their shoes also."

Then "the prior shall strike the little bell and all shall assemble with thanksgiving to draw their measure of drink."

Alas, this was only a precursor to more prayer and only then could they file into the refectory.

Reading this document, one gets a sense not only of the seriousness with which the Rule was supposed to be observed, but of the daily rituals and concerns of those who led the cloistered life. Hitherto, I had only known of the historic and political importance of this document, its place in the timeline of the great monastic reform of the tenth-century, its bold statement affirming the status of the King's wife, and its enjoining of her to become the "fearless guardian of the communities of nuns" and its role in placing Æthelwold of Abingdon in the history books as one of the leading lights of the reform movement.

Now I feel I know a little of those anonymous black-robed monks, who lived behind the monastery walls, who were free to "give themselves voluntarily to private prayer" but who must not "dare to enter and frequent the places set apart for nuns." 

When they were on a journey, they were not to "waste time in idle talk," but when receiving visitors they had to be "most zealous in providing every kind service in the guesthouse." Indeed, it was laid down that "wayfarers, shall on their departure be provided with a supply of victuals according to the means of the house."

I can see them now, bustling about their daily business. This little rule book meant much to the reformers, and to the monks. It's also been invaluable to me.

Older Anglo-Saxon blog posts:
Anglo-Saxon Names
Wulfric Spott: A Mercian Man of Means

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Review/Interview: While I was Waiting - Georgia Hill

After last month's foray into 'dual timeline', another book along similar lines. This month's featured novel is While I was Waiting.

Georgia Hill Georgia Hill writes rom-coms and historical fiction and is published by Harper Impulse, the digital-first imprint of Harper Collins. 

Her first novel, Pursued by Love has now been re-released as Pride and Perdita.

Georgia Hill

She lives in beautiful Devon with her two beloved spaniels, a husband (also beloved) and a ghost called Zoe. She loves the novels of Jane Austen, eats far too much Belgian chocolate and has a passion for Strictly Come Dancing.

Find her on Twitter @georgiawrites and at www.georgiahill.co.uk 

While I Was Waiting by [Hill, Georgia]

I've often read books set in and around WWI, but it's fair to say that this book is a contemporary romance first and foremost. The modern day settings are beautifully drawn:
The blossom fuzzed around the branches like so much pinky-white candy-floss. In contrast, in the next field, there was a decrepit building housing a tractor. The unploughed field was furrowed deep in red clay mud and, above, the sky had deepened to an azure blue, warm with promise.

Rachel's new life in Herefordshire seems a little too ideal, perhaps, but it is perfect for the reader to indulge in some escapism. It contrasts, however, with the events collated in journals and letters left behind by the previous owner of the house. Reading about this, the story of a young woman living in a house once occupied by a lady who was old when she died there, I was reminded of Mary Stewart's Thorneyhold, and hoped that the plot would differ. It does.

The voices coming from the diaries and letters are period-authentic, but what we find out about war is new. Horrific, yes, as one would expect, but told from a very different perspective. As a lover of history, I enjoy being provoked into looking at things differently, and Hetty's experiences as an Edwardian woman and WWI wife allowed me to do that. As they do for Rachel, the protagonist, who mourns for the young soldiers whose lives she is reading about, and who are 'snuffed out' just as she is getting to know them. 

Overall, I felt more captivated by the modern day scenes, but this is as it should be. We never lose sight that this is a book about how the past affects the present. It is not an historical novel. It is a romance, yes, but what I found really refreshing was the glimpses we were given of what happens after the 'happy ever after' - when the irritations of domestic life rub the gleam off the shimmer of lustful new love. These scenes were particularly truthfully written.

All the characters are well-written. There are no stock characters or stereo-types, with perhaps one exception. The two main characters, Rachel and Gabe, are deftly drawn, and while we see their beauty, we also see their flaws. 

The two worlds, past and present, are pulled together in a credible way, and I found the ending satisfying. A great book to curl up with on a Sunday afternoon.

[One tiny warning - at times, the language is what my mother would call 'fruity'.]

After I had read the book, I asked Georgia a few questions:

The present day scenes in Herefordshire are beautifully described. Do you know the area well?

GH: Hi Annie, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog. I’m delighted to be here. In answer to your first question, I lived, until very recently, in Herefordshire for nearly twenty years. Although not born and bred (I have very itchy feet and have lived all over the UK) I fell completely in love with my adopted county. It’s a border land and one which has a long and very rich history. It’s also stuffed full of myth and folklore. All good fodder for a writer. It’s stunningly beautiful and seems to have a wealth of eccentric characters. It’s fairly undiscovered although I have no idea why. It has great walking country, acres of loneliness, excellent food and exceptionally friendly people. I’ve moved to the coast now and miss it terribly (although I have to confess to love being by the sea). Thank you for liking the descriptive passages in While I Was Waiting. I really would recommend visiting the area (and no, I’m not taking a backhander from the Herefordshire Tourist Board!)

Are the episodes from Hetty’s life based on real events? Did you base the characters in her world on real people?

GH: Although I did a lot of research and used snippets and ideas from the many diaries and letters from the World War 1 period, Hetty and her world is completely imaginary. I’ve always been fascinated by the period 1900 to 1920 as people lived through such an era of cataclysmic change. Not just the war but with the coming of motorcars and airplanes, women’s suffrage (and voting rights for a wider group of men too). In the 21st century we sometimes wonder at the pace of change in our lives; it must have been quite extraordinary to live through the first twenty years of the 20th. My great-grandmother lived to her late 90s. She could remember Queen Victoria’s funeral, had brothers who fought in the war, drove one of the first cars in the town and was still running a business in the 1980s. If I had anyone in mind when I wrote the indomitable Hetty, it was her! 

And where did the idea originally come from?

GH: My family, in common with many, suffered a loss during World War 1. My great-grandfather died in battle in 1916. He was always talked about – by his surviving children and, in turn, my father. Dad was fascinated by the war. I used to look through one of his books – a collection of uncensored photographs. It was a book to which a young child probably shouldn’t have had access. It spared the onlooker nothing about what mechanised warfare on a grand scale does to the frail human body. My father’s interest in the war was passed on to me and was intensified by soaking up Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Flambards and Wilfred Owen as an intense adolescent! Then I happened upon the story of three brothers from a local country house (Berrington Hall, now owned by the National Trust) who died during the conflict. All these things, along with my own experiences of moving to the country, were eventually sieved through the imagination to create the book.

For those readers unfamiliar with your books, would you say that While I Was Waiting is typical?

GH: That’s a very good question and one which I’ve been asking myself! I’m a bit of a two-faced writer – in the nicest possible sense – or maybe that should be two-faceted? While I Was Waiting was a long time coming to fruition. In lots of ways it’s the book of my heart and I love it. In between writing it, I wrote rom-com novellas so it’s not typical of my writing. However, my rom-coms often have quite dark themes at their core and there’s a lot of humour in While I Was Waiting, so maybe my two genres have more in common than I think. I have more dual narrative time-slips planned, it’s simply finding the right home for them. The next one is set on the Jurassic Coast – where I’ve just moved to. We’re so lucky living in the UK. Wherever you go, you just have to scratch the surface of time to find amazing history, folk stories and ideas. I’ve just moved to an area famous for its Mary Anning and Jane Austen connections. I find our history a rich source of inspiration.