Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

A little house in delft porcelain – a reminiscence

ljus i mörker 2In the not so distant past, All Hallows was the day when the graves of our dead were visited. Come evening, the graveyards would be alive with the flickering light of candles, a night of light in the otherwise so permanent dark of the dead. Headstones were eerily lit from below by the candles left in lieu of flowers, and should one be unwise enough to be out and about, chances were one would not only hear, but also see a ghost. As Sweden had at the time not succumbed to the somewhat cheerier version of All Hallows as represented by Halloween, there was rarely any reason to venture abroad, as chances were the night would be too cold and too wet. Ergo, I never saw a ghost – at least not on All Hallows.

All Hallows is a night of remembrance.  These days, many of us don’t even have graves to go to, as so many of our loved ones are cremated, their ashes spread over the sea or in designated groves. But still; the day as such evokes memories that rise like dancing fogs around us – or at least it does for me.

delft houses

Part of the collection

When I was a child, we lived in South America. My father was a constantly working manager, travelling with frequency back and forth to Europe. On many of those trips, he returned with a little blue delft house, a miniature genever bottle, that he’d been given by his airline of choice (and as I don’t want to advertise, I m leaving it to my savvy readers to work out just what airline that might have been). He gave me the houses, and to this day I have them, a decorative little collection that I am rather proud of.

When I was almost fifteen, my parents decided that my mother was to return to Sweden with me and my sister while my father was to remain in Venezuela until his present contract expired. How they arrived at this decision I don’t know, but in my opinion this was a stupid decision. Our family was torn apart, and in Sweden my mother moped and pined, longing for my father, while in Caracas my father sat in his lonely apartment , far away from his wife and his daughters. And as to the daughters, we were suddenly in the position of having to cope with an entirely new environment and a depressed parent.

Geskel_Salomon_1872._Göteborgs_konstmuseum_STF_1978For my mother, returning to Sweden was a dream come true. Except that it wasn’t. As so many returning former emigrants know, the homeland they’ve so carefully conserved in their memories has very little to do with the reality they have to confront, and instead of having come home, the returnees are trapped in limbo: they no longer belong whence they came, and they will never truly belong where they went. Since my mother moved abroad, things in Sweden had not stood still, and the society she now had to face was in many ways as unfamiliar as that of a foreign country – with the added anguish that the rose-tinted description of Sweden she’d been feeding us crash-landed within a week. For a teenager, Sweden was harsh. Either you conformed or you were totally cold-shouldered, and both my sister and I  stuck out like sore thumbs among our peers.

My parents loved each other. A lot. So much, in fact, that they were quite convinced living on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean would not have a detrimental effect on their relationship. But as the year passed, distance may have made the heart grow fonder, but inevitably two people who lived very different lives evolved in different directions. Besides, love isn’t always enough: there were all those years when my mother felt professionally frustrated by her life in South America – ergo her yearning for Sweden. Then there were all those years after we’ve moved back when my father was too afraid of what a move back home might mean professionally. A touch of bitterness crept in. So many wasted, lonely years – for both of them.

It took my father eighteen years to come home, years in which he, at most, saw us four times a year. Years in which my mother went into a frenzy upon each approaching visit from my father, because the house had to be just so, the fridge had to be filled with all his favourite foods, and his little family had to be glowing with joy when he arrived. For two weeks, all those unspoken recriminations were swept under the carpet and we played at happy families, at being people we no longer were. And then he left, and my mother was devastated, he was devastated, we were devastated, attempting to pick up the pieces of our ordinary lives – the lives that no longer included our father as he had been reduced to being a Visitor.

When he finally did come home, the consequences of living apart all those years clearly showed. He preferred to eat his main meal at noon, she wanted to eat dinner by candlelight. He had a pedantic approach to clutter – more or less everything was clutter – and she was irritated by him moving her stuff around. But there were times when he’d put on the record player and sweep her away in a dance or two, crooning along as Frankie Valli sang “Can’t take my eyes off of you”. And she laughed and swirled as they turned and dipped, two people moving to the same rhythm, the same underlying heartbeat – some moments of perfection, of togetherness. In those moments, their love was still there, visible to all of us.

These days, I’m the one who travels the world for business. It is me who spends endless hours on airplanes, who hurries from gate to gate, always in a rush, always on my way to somewhere else. Recently, I happened to fly with my father’s favourite airline. And when the hostess placed the little delft house in my hands, it was like being hurtled back in time, to those long gone days when my father would grin as he handed over his latest airline collectible. My eyes stung, and I was swept with a burning desire to see my father again, to hug him and tell him I love him. That, sadly, is impossible. My father is among those we commemorate with gasping candles, little beacons of light in the resting place of the dead.

dance-1962It happens at times that I think I see my father. He’s standing somewhat to the side, his hands clasped behind his back. And every time I do, I rush towards him, only to realise halfway there that the man presently perusing the ducks is a stranger. But every time I hear Frankie Vallie sing “you’re just too good to be true” I see him with my mother in his arms, elegantly turning them across the living room floor. He is smiling down at her, and she is clinging to him, eyes ablaze with pride and love. That’s how I will always remember him.

My latest delft house now stands among the others, one more little miniature in blue and white. I run a finger over the dark blue roofs and hope that somewhere way up high, my father sees me and smiles. Jag älskar dig, Pappa.

Why frogs?

Serpent-EveI don’t know about you, but personally, I have a lukewarm relationship with amphibians – well, reptiles in general. Too right, the men among you may mutter, thinking about Eve and the wily serpent. Not that I think my antipathy vis-a-vis snakes has anything to do with the events in Eden, but rarely do I meet a woman who professes liking snakes. Now and then, I have run into men that do…

Anyway; back to the amphibians. In the lake by our country house, there is a shallow miniature lagoon, bordered by tufts of reeds, a number of rocks and mud. Come April, this converts into a concert hall, with hundreds upon hundreds of bullfrogs croaking their amorous hearts out. The lady frogs apparently swoon and bat their eyelashes at all this noise, and some weeks later, the water is bedecked in jellied ribbons of frog eggs.

Yet some more weeks, and tadpoles as black as soot hover in clouds along the shoreline. Quite fascinating, those tadpoles. They sort of move in synchronisation, like a huge organised army moving from point A to B. First go the scouts, two or three intrepid tadpoles that separate from the mass and swim frantically for the next spot of shade. Moments later, all the other follow. The maneouvre is repeated over and over again, and I wonder if it is always the same three tadpoles that set off first. Sorry to admit I have no idea – I can’t tell them apart, and they’ve never introduced themselves.

By the time the tadpoles become frogs, their numbers have been drastically reduced. Mrs Heron is a frequent guest in our frog lagoon, and she doesn’t exactly have to work up a sweat to eat – all she needs to do is dip her bill.

frogsThe baby frogs are cute. A reddish brown, speckled with black, they’re almost invisible in the vegetation – until you come close enough to scare them, when they jump off in panic, leaving me just as panicked – sudden movements do that to me. The adult frogs are less cute. And let’s not start on the toads…

Frogs – and toads – have often been associated with magic. Witches were often assumed to have a tame toad or two to hop their bidding, a frog or a dead toad could be an important ingredient in a magic potion. In Sweden, a man who wanted to win a girl’s heart was recommended to kill a frog, flay it, dig around for a hook-shaped bone and sneak the bone into the girl’s clothes. A fail-safe method of gaining her eternal love, it seems. Interestingly enough, at the same time it was considered bad luck to kill a frog, as quite often a frog could be a bewitched human or a benign spirit watching over the humans. I guess the love-sick young man had a couple of hard choices to make: kill the frog to win her heart and potentially murder an unfortunate person transformed by evil magic into a frog, or not kill the frog and hope he could woo her through more normal methods, such as serenading her. Me, I’d much prefer a singing lover to a frog-killer…

childbirth

She could do with a Frog-saver!

The magic component in frogs – and reptiles –  were often associated with women. Should a person, for example, intercede and stop a snake from eating a frog (why, one wonders), that person would be gifted with the ability of relieving the pains of child labour. It makes me laugh.
“Hang on, hang on! Frog-saver coming through! Make way, people, I’ll take over here!” says the intrepid person who just saved a frog from being devoured by a snake. The midwives, the birthing woman’s sisters and mother, step aside, gaping in awe as the Frog-saver approaches.
“He saved a frog,” one of the girl hisses.
“Wow!” says the other, eyes fixed adoringly on Frog-saver, who just happens to be tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed and with the most delicious golden stubble covering his cheeks. Even the woman in the throes of birth pains can’t but smile at this glorious male apparition, thereby proving that he can, in fact, relieve the pains of childbirth.

All of the above is essentially a preamble to my question of the day: WHY does the princess have to kiss a frog to find her prince? Why not a cute kitten? A horse?

GmimmTheFrogPrinceIt seems to me we are face to face with a worrying gender discrimination issue here. After all, the fairy tale prince never has to pucker up his lips and press them gently to a slimy creature with warts. The fairy tale prince never has to show that level of trust in his beloved, is never portrayed as so naïve as to believe the frog when it croaks “I am actually a prince, sweetie. And if you’ll just kiss me, we will get to the HEA faster than you can bat your eyelashes.”

No, the fairy tale prince gets to kiss sleeping princesses – or potentially dead ones, as Snow White. But he can, with his own eyes, verify that the creature he is kissing is in fact a girl (and wouldn’t it be fun if sometimes the prince would kiss the girl and ‘poof’ she turned into a frog? Just sayin’…) Or he gets to play around with peas and mattresses to verify if the girl truly is a princess – and I’m thinking that whole story with the Princess and the Pea is code for something far lewder than a mere dried pea under like twenty mattresses.

John_Bauer_-_Princess_Tuvstarr_gazing_down_into_the_dark_waters_of_the_forest_tarn._-_Google_Art_Project

Where is my frog-prince?

The fairy tale princess, however, has no such luck. Not for her a romp in the linens as she searches the prince for telltale bruises after his night with the pea. Not for her to enter a castle where everyone is sunk in sleep and wander through it until she finds him, sprawled on his back, one arm over his head, the other resting on his impressively broad chest. Nope. Our princess must crouch down, pick up a yucky frog and smooch it.

In Swedish, we have a saying: “Man måste kyssa en fasligt massa grodor för att hitta en prins.” In English, this is “One must kiss very many frogs before one finds a prince.” Too right! So far, for all my puckering, I haven’t found one single prince – at least not while kissing frogs.

A lamentation over a wet and dreary October day

This time of the year, there are days when staggering out of bed in the morning is such an effort I am exhausted by the time I’ve made it to the bathroom sink. Those are the mornings when I blink at my reflected image and suppress an anguished “AAAAAGGHH”, because seriously, where did the person in the mirror come from?  Baggy eyes, pillowcase wrinkles on the left cheek (or it could be the right; after all, mirrors are tricky things…) and hair that has reinvented itself as a crow’s nest overnight.

Fortunately, there are things like hairbrushes and “skin clarifying complex creams”, and “day-glo foundations”, so after some minutes a somewhat more familiar face appears in the mirror. Not, I am sad to state, quite as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I once was, but give me a cup of tea, a couple of multi-vitamins and I am ready to face this day too, despite the fact that it’s raining cats and dogs. (And isn’t that the oddest of expressions? An American colleague of mine told me recently that the expression dates from the time when most of us lived in thatched houses. Cats – and dogs, one presumes – would seek refuge up in the thatch, but when it really poured, the thatch became slippery and the poor animals slid off to land like enlarged raindrops on the ground. Hmm. Not entirely sure I buy that. Comments, anyone?)

Once I am at work, there is no time to sit about and mope about the encroaching dark of autumn and the dismal weather. In fact, all the buzz and  activity replenishes my energy levels, which is sort of strange as reasonably expending energy pounding up and down stairs from one meeting to the other should leave you tired rather than dancing on your toes (And dancing on your toes, BTW, is difficult to do when one is sporting brand new bright red patent leather Doc Marten’s. These boots have a grounding effect, so to say, lending a certain gravitas to my stride as I rush from one task to the other).

By the time I leave work, it is dark. Yippee, welcome to life in the Northern Hemisphere, where the days grow increasingly shorter until daylight is a lighter shade of grey between nine in the morning and three in the afternoon, while the remaining eighteen hours are sunk in darkness. (This is why us northerners have a thing about candles) The short walk to the shop is a battle with the rising wind and the odd rain shower, resulting in my hair reverting to crow’s nest mode again. The short walk back home blows the hair the other way. I amuse myself by carrying my four carrier bags with my arms extended backwards and doing triceps pulls. Very effective. And tiring. My poor arms ache by the time I reach our building.

Of course, this is the day when Murphy’s law dictates that the lift is out of order. Duh. Seven flights of steps, and I am wondering why on earth I was stupid enough to do those triceps things because right now my arms are killing me. So are my feet, protesting loudly at the somewhat too snug fit of my beautiful bright red boots. so is my head, reminding me it is dead tired, thank you very much, and it sincerely hopes I have no intention of calling on more brain services tonight. My head and I have this little argument every day.
“God, I’m tired,” my brain groans. “I need inane TV and a foot-bath.”
“You don’t have any feet,” I respond.
“Your feet are my feet,” the brain says. Except that I don’t want a foot-bath – I want chocolate. So does the brain, conveniently forgetting the rational decision it took earlier today that as of now there would be no chocolates, no cookies, no unhealthy stuff. Which is why my brain and I end up without foot-bath and with chocolate (dark, of course; it is SO healthy for you), stretched on the sofa while I contemplate the darkness outside. Ugh. Two more months until the year turns, and I’m feeling like a half-dead slug. “Me too,” my brain mutters.

Things could have ended there, but this is where my creative side steps in like a saving angel – or a tyrant, but more about that side of things in a later post. One moment I am flat on my back wondering why on earth my ancestors didn’t emigrate to somewhere nice, warm and relatively light like the Bahamas, the other I am being pulled towards my bright red computer (I have a thing about red, which is why so many of my accessories, whether footwear, technical gadgets or scarves tend to be this colour).

Moments later, I am no longer in Sweden, living through a dreary, wet October day. I am in France, in the year of Our Lord 1326, and it is a mellow, warm day with roses shedding fragrant petals over a woman who sits sewing in the sun. I write and the sun warms my skin, I write some more and my nostrils dilate to capture the scent of sun-warm lavender and drying grass. From somewhere to my far right, comes the sound of children playing, and out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of two little girls, their kirtles bunched up as they clamber up a stately oak.

A horse neighs. Footsteps crunch over the garden path, and my sewing lady arrests her needle. Boots swish through the grass – one of the heels squeaks – and a shadow falls over the woman. She shades her eyes with her hand as she cranes her head back to study her visitor. A bumblebee buzzes, from a nearby tree a blackbird calls. I am no longer aware of approaching winter, of rain and cold. I am there, with the woman who now rises to her feet and extends her hand. Strong fingers grip hers. The sun in her eyes, the wind in her hair. Summer. Lovely, lovely summer…

It is still raining when I go to bed. It is still cold, still dark (not so strange, given the late hour) My jacket remains damp, tomorrow will be yet another long, dreary day – the weather forecast says so. And yet I fall asleep with the sound of a summer breeze through a stand of trees, and I am quite, quite sure that I am lying in a sunlit glade, the sweet scent of clover in bloom tickling my nostrils. Such is the power of imagination – thank God for the power of imagination!

 

 

 

 

Say What? Lots of Languages in Charlemagne’s Realm.

KimBookPhotoSmallerI have a thing about languages. So much, in fact, that I would warn you from ever initiating a conversation about the subject, as chances are you’ll be quite bleary-eyed by the time I finish my little lecture about the Indo european languages. Turns out, I am not alone in my fascination for languages, and today I welcome Kim Rendfeld to my blog to give you a little flavour of the polyglot court Charlemagne ruled over. Kim has recently published her second book, The Ashes of Heavens Pillar, and both of her novels are set in that somewhat hazy past we tend to fob off as the dark Ages. Somehow, I don’t believe Charlemagne would agree – or Kim, who on her excellent blog gives multiple examples of just how vibrant this era was – plus she brings it all to heaving life in her books! So, dear Kim, take it away!

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Charlemagne’s kingdom had no official language, and that was before he conquered foreign lands and expanded his empire.

When he assumed sole rule over Francia with his brother’s death in 771, the realm stretched from the Atlantic to east of the Rhine, from the North Sea to Pyrenees, Alps, and the Mediterranean. It encompassed today’s France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.

The languages were as diverse then as they are now, and dialects varied from region to region. Roman, which grew from Latin, was in the western part of the realm. The Germanic tongue, including the court language of Frankish, was spoken to the north. Well, generally speaking. There were some islands of Roman in Germanic regions.

Kim Meister_der_Franko-Sächsischen_Gruppe_001The unifying language was the Latin of the Church and official documents. However, few laypeople spoke that tongue and even a number of priests faked their way through it.

Confused? Try writing novels set in this era. The diversity of languages sets up two main challenges for an author:

  • Who understood whom?
  • How long would it take a character to learn a new language?

In the ninth century, speakers of Old English and Old Norse could understand each other – not every word but enough to get the gist and trade with each other. So it’s not too far a stretch for speakers of eighth-century Frankish and Saxon to communicate.

The answer to the second question is more complex. I am tempted to draw on my own attempt to learn French as a college student in the 1980s, but that goes only so far. I am literate, had professors, and paperback French-to-English dictionaries were cheap and plentiful. My protagonists, on the other hand, fall into the vast majority who can’t read. In fact, the Continental Saxons didn’t have a written language as we know it. But even if they could read, a bilingual glossary, like most books, was rare and expensive. So my characters’ learning process amounts to my best guess.

But wait, those knowledgeable about the Middle Ages ask, didn’t most of the populace stay in the same place all their lives? Why not just figure out what they spoke and not worry about it?

My characters don’t make it that easy for me. Alda, the heroine of The Cross and the Dragon, must learn Roman when she marries a guy from the western side of the realm and leaves her Rhineland home. In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, Leova and her children, who are Continental Saxon peasants, encounter a conqueror speaking Frankish and then must learn Roman when they wind up in Nevers.

I can no more avoid the role of diverse languages than I can religion and culture.

In this excerpt from The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, life for Leova and her children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn, is about to change for the worse, and unfortunately for them, language is not a barrier.

perf6.000x9.000.indd“These… slaves you wish to sell?” the rich man asked. Leova couldn’t understand his every word, and his accent was strange. It sounded like “Zees slaves you veesh to sell?”
“No!” Leova yelled. “I and my children are free! The treaty says the free remain free!”
“She is my property,” Ealdgyth sniffed, “and the treaty does not forbid me from selling my slaves or having my sons slit their throats.”
“No!” Leova shouted. “Ealdgyth is lying. She was married to my brother.”
The Frankish warrior looked from Leova to Ealdgyth.
“Almost convincing, isn’t she, Count Pinabel?” Ealdgyth said with hooded eyes. “She is lucky I’m selling her instead of killing her.”
“Wulfgar, Ludgar,” Leova pleaded, “how can you do this to your own blood? Leodwulf’s wrath will haunt all of you until the end of your days!”
Wulfgar and Ludgar glanced at each other, then their mother. Ealdgyth glared her sons into silence.
The rich man shrugged. “I give… two swine.”
“We’re not slaves,” Deorlaf called out, then grimaced at the grip of Ludgar’s fingers.
“They are difficult,” Pinabel said. “One swine, nothing more.”
“They are worth more than that,” Ealdgyth said indignantly. “Look at Leova. She has seen perhaps twenty-eight winters. A little past her prime, yes, but she’s pretty, still strong and healthy and skilled in the kitchen and with the needle.”
“But we’re Christians,” Sunwynn whimpered.
“One swine is generous,” Pinabel said to Ealdgyth. “Slaves… so quarrelsome are worth less.”
Ealdgyth spat on Leova. “Very well. One swine for these three.”
“My lord, we’ll pay you more to set us free,” Leova blurted. “Ealdgyth is my sister. I can prove it.”
“Sir, do you want these slaves or not?” Ealdgyth asked.
The rich Frank smirked, turned to one of his men, and gave orders in a strange tongue. “My man… fetch a swine,” he said.
“My lord,” Leova begged, “if you would just accompany us to the village, I can fetch four swine.” She tried to think of anyone who owed Derwine a favor and caught Deorlaf’s look of disgust.
Count Pinabel shrugged. “Why… care I about quarrels… Saxon scum?”

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press). To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Making it happen!

In my ongoing little odysseys into the world of publishing – and self-publishing in particular – I thought it would make sense to include a representative from one of those publishers who offer comprehensive publishing packages to aspiring authors. It is my belief that these publishers have a huge impact on how self-published book are perceived, by (hopefully) offering a quality look and feel to the finished product. The question, of course, is how much responsibility these publishers should take for the content…

SW logoI have invited Helen Hart from SilverWood Books to offer her opinions on these issues. I am sure she will offer quite some interesting opinions! So, dear Helen, welcome to Stolen Moments! I hope this brief visit with me hasn’t entirely crashed your busy diary, what with participation in conferences, open day events and what not – and just to ensure you sit down and relax for a while, how about a cup of tea? Or maybe one of my re-energising super smoothies with apple, raspberries, ginger, lime and mint?
Thank you for having me, Anna. And I’m delighted to accept a smoothie. Ginger and lime sounds refreshing and is sure to give me a boost!

Right; now that I’ve ensured you won’t die of thirst (I probably need to offer you a glass of water as well – tea and smoothies can be dehydrating), I’d like to start by asking you why you decided to start SilverWood Books.
A good question. I started SilverWood back in early 2007. A fellow writer had decided to make a foray into self-publishing. Sadly she used a company who let her down, and she suggested that I help her re-publish her book to a higher standard. I wasn’t keen at first as I thought, “I’m a writer, not a publisher”. But she persuaded me and actually I quickly found that I loved publishing even more than I loved writing. Making books and working with writers is much nicer than doing the writing myself. My writing friend and I did a good job together and produced a handsome book. Soon another writer asked me to work with her…and before long it snowballed and so SilverWood Books was born.

By now, you seem to have quite a thriving business up and running, but I’d suppose there were moments when you thought “Oh my God! What am I doing?” What motivated you to keep at it when things were really tough?
I’m very lucky because I genuinely love what I do. The company is growing and my small but specialist team of publishing assistants is a vital part of that. We’re committed to what we do, and to the authors we work with, and we also try to have fun each working day.

You are a successful author in your own right. Do you think this helps you in your role as a publisher? Is there a particular “writer’s POV” that you can apply at need?
Definitely. My writing career is one of the foundations on which SilverWood is built. Having worked as a professional writer for over a decade, I appreciate the writing process as well as the heart and soul that every writer pours into their work. The relationship between a writer and their publisher is an important one. It’s essential for a writer to feel that their publisher understands them and their aims for their book, and is there to offer support and nurturing throughout their career. That’s why, at SilverWood, we put so much emphasis on the relationships we build with our authors.

Self-publishing has taken off markedly in the last few years. Where do you see this development going in terms of sold books? At what point – if ever – will the majority of fiction sales be self-published rather than traditionally published?
I think we’re moving rapidly towards that. Some of our bestselling authors are outselling in a month what many, many trade published authors sell in a year. There’s been a radical shift in publishing within the past 18 months. It’s clear that self-publishing is no longer the poor cousin of trade publishing but a good first choice that allows the author flexibility and creativity. Not to mention control over their own work.

One of the more far-reaching consequences of self-publishing is that the traditional publishing business model comes under threat. With a lot of “cheap” books on the market – especially valid for e-books – prices are generally being pushed downwards, thereby reducing overall profitability on books. What will be the consequences of this, do you think? Will traditional publishing retreat to focus on “safe bets” only, whereby the newbie authors have no choice but to go for self-publishing?
I think that scenario is already upon us and has been for some time. However, I don’t think it’s that newbie authors have ‘no choice’. They have the ultimate choice – and the freedom to control their own books and professional platform.
Helen HartFrom a reader’s perspective, what benefits does the increase in self-publishing bring?
A vibrant library of books and greater choice. As you mentioned in the previous question, some areas of publishing have chosen to play safe and produce books that they know are going to succeed (because something similar succeeded the previous year…think ‘Fifty Shades’ and all the similar titles that flooded the market in the aftermath of that success). If writers have the choice and freedom to publish what they want, it allows them to experiment and be creative. Admittedly those experiments won’t always work, and there will be a considerable number of books of what might politely be termed ‘variable quality’. However it’s relatively easy for us as readers to sample books and check out the professionalism of editing, proofreading and presentation. Thus the risk of paying for a poor quality book is fairly low. Also, many ebook retailers will allow returns and refunds within a set period of time.
Likewise, from a reader’s perspective, what are the downsides with buying a self-published book?
If the reader is unwary or undiscerning then they might end up buying something that’s not that good. But then a lot of trade books aren’t that good, either. A ‘good’ book is down to personal taste. Look at how Rosamund Lupton’s ‘Sister’ divided readers with vehemently “I hated it” one star reviews alongside delighted “I loved it” five star reviews. You’d be forgiven for thinking people hadn’t read the same book. (For the record, I didn’t rate it very highly.)

What, in your opinion, is the single professional service a self-published author must never stint on, and why?

It would be hard to choose just one…may I have three? They’re all equally vital, in my opinion: copy-editing, professional typesetting (to ensure that your wonderful story is also readable in an enjoyable way rather than hard work for the reading eye), and cover design. Don’t stint on any of those things, and spend as much as you can afford on each.

How much do the popularity of the e-book and the growth of self-pub go hand in hand?
They’re inextricably linked nowadays, although I’d say that self-publishing was already thriving before e-books became popular. It’s interesting to see that statistics show that although e-books might outsell print books, it’s the author who offers both and gives their reader a choice who sells four times as many as the author who releases only in e-book format. A recent survey found that 70% of Americans prefer print books…and that apparently only 4% of the population regularly use an e-reading device. That’s quite sobering for anyone who’s decided to offer their book as ebook-only.

There are a number of self-publishing providers out there who offer excellent comprehensive services to aspiring authors. Do you think that over time these providers will become far more selective as to what they actually choose to publish under their imprint, i.e. will self-publishing providers – in the interest of quality & readability – turn away prospective customers because they don’t quite meet the required standards?
I can’t speak for others but that’s definitely what we’re doing at SilverWood. We have two criteria: books for family and friends (where we are less selective and simply work hard with the author to make their book the best it can be as a family legacy) and books for commercial sale (where we help authors apply the same rigorous pre-press processes as a trade publisher would). If we feel an author isn’t ready for publication and their work should undergo further development, then we’ll give them as much sensitive feedback and information as we can. Some authors are very professional. They go away and do the work, resubmitting an improved manuscript later. Sadly, others decide we’re wrong and some fall into the arms of what used to be called ‘the vanity press’ where they pay a lot of money to publish something that’s only likely to sell a few copies. That’s a shame and at SilverWood we always feel quite sad when that happens. However we’ve learned that we can’t help everyone – and actually with ‘freedom to publish’ comes the ultimate freedom, which is to publish anything you like whether it’s ‘good’ or not. What was that phrase…’Publish and be damned’? I guess it has a different meaning now!

There are many self-pub authors out there who scoff at the notion of assissted publishing, saying that such outfits mainly exist to make money off the weaker souls among the aspiring writers (which would, in that case, include me. Except that I’m not weak…). What would be your comments?
Sadly it’s ignorance, and also a sweeping generalisation. There are sharks out there, but there are also good companies like ours operating with integrity and bringing very high standards.

(I also asked Helen to expound on the pros and cons of assisted publishing and “pure” self-publishing, but the reply became so lengthy it requires a post of its own, so Helen will be back at a later date to give her view on this – and I think I’ll invite some fellow authors along to give their view as well. I can imagine you are all more or less jumping up and down at the thought of this future post, right?)


Let us assume someone sends you a manuscript to read. It’s a great read (okay, yes a couple of minor spelling mistakes) and the writer wants your advice whether to submit to an agent/publisher or go it on their own with you. What would you say?
I would not only encourage them to try a publisher or literary agent, I’d offer to put them in contact with some. That’s because there’s one thing that self-publishing can’t do (yet) and that’s to place a copy (or three, or four) of a self-published book into the majority of bookstores in the country. We’re working on it, and making good inroads into showing that SilverWood titles are every bit as well-produced as trade published books (hence our relationship with Foyles in Bristol). However it’s hard work to do that on a national scale, and it needs the kind of big budget that self-publishers don’t tend to have at their disposal (including the ability to finance returned stock). So for that reason, if a writer wants to see their book in the majority of bricks and mortar bookshops, then a trade deal still has the edge.

Finally, let us assume you’ve volunteered to go to Mars to found a colony there. Unfortunately, baggage limits are severely restricted, and you are only allowed three books (which begs the question WHY on earth you’ve volunteered – must be the pioneer in you, right?) Which three books would you take along on this very, very, very long journey – and why?
What an amazing and original question. And challenging too. Only three…? I can almost feel the pain of separation from my wonderful books… Oh okay then. Three. ‘The Magus’ by John Fowles because I find something different in it every time I read it. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ because I love everything by Defoe and the story would make me feel there’s hope even if I’m on Mars. And finally, ‘War and Peace’ because I started the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation a few years ago and didn’t get very far. Maybe being on Mars will give me time to read it – and finish it!
Ha! One needs plenty of time to finish “War and Peace”  and an amazing memory for names and patronyms! I’m with you on “The Magus” – an intellectual challenge that poses as a great read. Not that these books would serve to keep you occupied all the way to Mars, which begs the question, would you ever consider signing up as a Mars colonist?
Do you know, I don’t think I would. I’d miss home comforts, and family, too much!

Right; that sort of concludes things for today. Thank you so much for stopping by,Helen, it has been quite the pleasure to have you here with me! 

When they Begin the Beguine – of radical religion in the 13th century

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Beguines

In 1310, a little old lady was tied into place at the stake and the faggots at her feet were lit. Did she pray? Lock her eyes on the infinite blue of the June sky above? Whatever the case, Marguerite Porete went up in flames, as silent and obdurate in her moment of death as she’d been during the eighteen months she’d been a prisoner of the Inquisition. Her crime? She spread heretic teachings – she had even written a book about her beliefs, titled Les mirouer des simples ames anienties, or “The mirror of the simple souls”.

Interestingly enough, the book was written in vernacular. Even more interestingly, the book professes that man (and woman) can find their way to God by opening their hearts to the power of Divine Love and turning a deaf ear to Reason. I suppose this is a correct description of what faith is all about, but to voice opinions questioning the need of an intermediary in the shape of the Holy Church was a dangerous thing to do in the 13th century.

We know very little about Marguerite’s early life, beyond the fact that as she knew how to read and write, she must have had a privileged childhood. Actually, we know very little about Marguerite’s life full stop – not until she fell under the beady eye of the Inquisition does she become visible to us. Not, I am sad to say, all that unusual: after all, not only was Marguerite a relatively unimportant person in times when chronicles were mostly written about kings and queens, the odd saint and valiant knight, but she was also a woman.

Beguine_1489I came upon Marguerite by chance. I was reading up on the history of the Flemish counties back in the very early 14th century, when I ran into a lot of references to the Beguines. Vaguely, I recalled having read an article some years ago about the last of the Beguines having died, and as I remembered it, the woman in question seemed to be some sort of nun. But were the Beguines nuns?

The Beguines were most certainly not nuns. The Beguines were early forms of female collective living, with pious women of all ages and professions coming together to pray and study the divinity of God. Contemplating through the darker hours of the day, spending hours in prayer, the Beguines also held down day jobs – as midwives or healers or seamstresses or lacemakers or cooks – thereby earning their living. They offered schooling to the children of the poor, they ran sick-houses for the ill and elderly, and they lived in sisterhood, promising to live in celibacy while they remained with the Beguines.

Being a Beguine was not a life-long vocation. Women came and went, and one could argue the various Beguine communities acted as halfway houses for women who, for whatever reason, had lost their footing in life and needed to get back on track. Inspired by the ambition to live as per the Vita Apostolica, that is to say in accordance with the words and life of Christ, the Beguines filled a gap in a society where social welfare was entirely unknown. And they also encouraged their members to think for themselves when it came to matters of faith, relying on the heart to guide them in the right direction, the so called Love Mysticism.

Bartolomeo_Della_Gatta_-_Stigmata_of_St_Francis_-_WGA01336Major no-no as per the established church. Women should not ponder such questions – nor should they live in unsupervised communities. Initially, however, the church was mildly positive to the Beguines, seeing as these women had an ambition to do good. The Beguines were inspired by that mild saint St Francis of Assisi, and had they been allowed to join the Franciscan orders, maybe the Beguines would never had seen the light of day. But St Francis, for all his other qualities, had no time for women. While initially his order did welcome nuns, by 1218 he’d had enough, refusing outright to have anything more to do with women. “God had freed us from wives, and now the devil has given us sisters,” he is supposed to have said (and there went my esteem for St Francis down the drain…). To be fair, St Francis was merely a product of his times, in which it was an undisputable fact that women were weak vessels, much tempted by carnal sin, and even worse, women were temptresses, more than skilled in luring men to commit said carnal sins with them.

beguinaSo instead, the Beguines founded Béguinages, they taught and practised charity – and they invested a lot of time on discussing the nature of God and faith. One of their foremost thinkers was Marguerite Porete, even if she seems to have had a falling out with her former sisters at one point, seeing as she writes rather disparagingly about Beguines in her texts. After leaving the Béguinage, Marguerite spent her life on the roads.

Her book is an allegory, a discussion between Love, Reason and the Soul. Proximity to God, she claims, can only be found in loving him so absolutely one ceases to exist, absorbed into Him. Proximity to God is to experience the ultimate form of passion – God is often referred to as her Lover – and the language Marguerite uses to describe her feelings for God borders on the erotic. This in itself was a problem for the church, but even worse was that Marguerite adhered to the “quietist” beliefs, according to which neither priests nor bishops, church or pope, were necessary for a person to commune with God.

In 1306, the Church decided to teach this irritating lady a lesson. Her book was formally condemned as being heretic and the bishop of Cambrai threw the book to burn in a ceremony that took place at Valenciennes. Well, ceremony might be stretching it; after all, it was a book-burning, plain and simple. At the same time, it was announced that anyone who read this book or owned it would be excommunicated.

Marguerite had been forced to attend the book-burning, but she chose to ignore this warning and continued teaching the way to God as she saw it. Women were not allowed to preach – no matter what beliefs she professed – so already here Marguerite was thumbing her nose at the bishop and the church. When she also sent copies of her book to various people, the church had had enough. She was arrested and placed in the tender care of the Inquisition.

If the church had thought to intimidate her, it didn’t work. An impressive array of scholars were brought in to substantiate the church’s case against her – far more than could be considered necessary when facing one very lonely woman. No matter what questions she was asked (or how… I quake when considering just how persuasive her interrogators may have been) Marguerite remained obdurate, refusing to recant. Which is why she was led out to the stake that day in June of 1310. People wept at her execution – one frail woman, and a good woman at that, being burnt to death was a difficult thing to watch. Even more so when she died in silent dignity, despite the atrocious pain.

Ultimately, killing Marguerite did not help. Her words and beliefs were still available to whoever got hold of her book, and The Mirror of Simple Souls became a clandestine bestseller, a text to be discussed in the privacy of your home with people you trusted. Over time, this book was added to all the other subversive religious literature banned by the Church, and ultimately all these suppressed beliefs exploded in the Reformation. But when that happened, people no longer remembered Marguerite, and her book was supposed to have been written by a man – of course.

BegijnhofAmsterdamEurope

Begijnhof in Amsterdam: By Massimo Catarinella (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And what happened to all those Béguinages? Obviously the powerful Church couldn’t tolerate all these unorganised communities, chock-full of outspoken women. In 1311, Pope Clement V accused the Beguines of spreading heresy. Over the coming century, the previous flourishing communities were destroyed or absorbed into more conventional monastic orders. Not all, however: in the Low Countries popular opinion was very much for the Beguines, and while they disappeared almost everywhere else, in present day Belgium and the Netherlands they still lived on. The Amsterdam Béguinage even survived the Reformation, being allowed to remain staunchly Catholic – well, until the English Puritans fleeing from England needed somewhere to stay, when the poor Beguines were brutally evicted. And still they persevered…

The last Dutch Beguine died in 1971, and in 2013 the last Beguine anywhere, Marcella Pattyn, passed on to the afterlife, at the ripe old age of 92. By then, she had been very alone for quite some time.

Today, many of us find it difficult to comprehend what women found so attractive about the idea of being a beguine. Back then, this was a third alternative to the more standard fare of being a wife or a nun – and many women saw it as an opportunity to achieve some element of independence. Of course, for those more outspoken among the beguines, this life came at a risk – as exemplified by Marguerite, one of the more controversial Christian mystics, and one of the most vociferous proponents of the belief that the way to God went through prayer and love, not via the suffocating structures of the Holy Church.

Panta Rhei – everything changes

Sumerian_26th_c_AdabThings change. They always have, they always will. Take, for example, the written word. If we were to travel 5 000 years back in time, there was not much written word around. Yes, we had the hieroglyphs in Egypt, the cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia, but in general, the vast majority of the human race had no written words – nor did they perceive a need for it.

725px-Ägyptischer_Maler_um_1400_v._Chr._001Interesting that: at times, something has to become available before people realise they really need it. Take the mobile phone for example; there we were, happy as bunnies in clover in a world without mobiles or smartphones, and then one day it was there and collectively humanity expelled a loud “YES! We need it!” Of course, some of us retain a love-hate relationship to this electronic fetter of ours, but that is neither here nor there. Back to the written word!

The centuries rolled by. Someone decided we needed to record the word of God, and so the earlier chapters of the Old testament were jotted down – in writing, as it was difficult to memorise all that. In Mesopotamia, the epic of Gilgamesh was recorded, and both these examples show writing moving away from the dry recording of facts – many of the oldest clay tablets with cuneiform writing are essentially accounts – to the somewhat more imaginative. Fiction has been around for ages – about as long as humans have congregated around fires, I’d imagine – but written fiction was as yet not on the books, so to say. (If we’re going to be correct, books weren’t on the books either – not back then)

Hep! Yet another leap forward, and we land among the ancient Phoenicians. Savvy tradespeople, globetrotters and in general very innovative. Western writing as we know it started to take shape, but writing was still an art restricted to the few, as was reading.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Homer_and_his_Guide_(1874)

Homer

In Ancient Greece, however, writing and reading became hallmarks of the well-educated man. (Women were neither here nor there in the eyes of the Ancient Greek, even if I’d hazard quite a few Greek women knew how to read and write as well.) But what did they read? They read scrolls, laboriously copied versions of one story being transferred over to another scroll. Not, one would argue, the most efficient distribution channel. Still, rich men hired scribes to copy one work after the other, and the concept of a private library developed. The well-educated man not only knew how to read and write – he had a library of books from which to choose. And then, of course, with the Ancient Greek came Homer – father of European fiction (even if Mr Homer himself recited from memory).

The Ancient Romans were good at stealing with pride. They came to Greece, they coveted Greece – and they wholeheartedly bought into this reading and writing stuff. Somewhat miffed at not being mentioned in ancient stories such as the Iliad, the Romans quickly developed their own myths, and so the Aeneid by Virgil saw the day of light. Pure fiction, one could argue, tracing the descents of the Romans from Troy. Still written on scrolls – but, I suspect, a very frequently copied scroll, a bestseller of the times if you will!

Notice that there seems to be no copyright issues around. The author painstakingly wrote the original scroll, shared his writing with his friends by reading out loud, and if popular, his friends would beg to borrow his original and make copies. Everyone was happy: the author saw his work disseminated, his ideas discussed, his readers got another scroll to add to their library, and the scribe earned enough money to go out for a binge and a bath in the Roman night.

medieval_book-and-monk2For the following centuries, things remained the same. Literary work was produced and then it was copied. As the erudition of the Romans and Greek sank into the mists, the people who retained reading and writing skills were much sought after, and many of them became servants of the Holy Church.

Jean_Pucelle._Hours_of_Jeanne_d'Evreux._1325-28,_Metropolitan_Museum,_New-York

Jeanne d*Evreux Book of Hours

Monasteries produced breath-stealing works of art, embellished manuscripts with decorated letters, miniature drawings around the margins. Mostly on vellum, and sometimes as scrolls, but also, as the years went by,  in shapes resembling our modern day books, with pages one turned. Medieval breviaries still exist that cause book-lovers to salivate – badly. They still had to be copied though, thereby reducing the spread of the written word. This was considered a good thing by the Holy Church and other powers-that-were. There was no need for common people to read for themselves, much better that someone in authority interpreted things for them so as to ensure no misunderstandings.

At this point in time, writing was no longer about openly sharing your ideas and opinions. Intellectual discourse was encouraged within the frameworks of approved doctrine, but anything that stepped outside the boundaries was quickly condemned as heretic and destroyed. (Surprisingly, quite a few such subversive texts managed to survive) Of course, there was literature being produced that did not fall into the category of religious writing – writings such as the Roman de la Rose and all its spinoffs in which courtly love was presented to a starry-eyed audience, writings along the lines of the Chansons de Geste. But even these books complied with overall religious doctrine in that never is God – or His representatives on earth – questioned.

medieval-woman-writing-bigHumans are by nature curious. Over time, more and more people discovered the art of reading. But getting hold of books to read was difficult, and most of the writing was in Latin, a language the majority of people did not speak – they simply heard it in Church. But things were a-changing, as they say. Some people had the temerity of suggesting the Holy Writ be translated to the vernacular. Hang on; some people actually did the translating themselves, and contraband Bibles in the various languages of Europe slowly began to spread.

The Holy Church would as a matter of course destroy any such bibles, and it was difficult for the proponents of writing in vernacular to keep one step ahead. First of all, many of them were imprisoned – even executed. Secondly, all that copying took so much time. Enter Johannes Gutenberg. Now, it would be wrong to credit Mr Gutenberg with the invention of printing – that honour goes to the Chinese. However, it was Gutenberg who introduced moveable type printing in Europe, and we should all of us doff our caps and thank him for that. On his invention stands the present day literacy of Europe – as well as the havoc of the Reformation, the birth of the Enlightenment and the general development of modern society.

Gutenberg_bible_Old_Testament_Epistle_of_St_Jerome

Gutenberg Bible – GORGEOUS

Obviously, the first books printed were mostly Bibles. Gutenberg’s invention could mass produce up to 200 pages in an hour, and his efforts were applauded by the Church – as long as the printed words were in Latin. Gutenberg himself seems to have been no radical, but others quickly realised the opportunities – and threats – offered by his invention. Luther nailed his theses to the cathedral in Wittenberg? Some days later, they were available in printed form. A Bible in English? Some weeks later, hundreds of copies existed that could be smuggled to the wannabe readers.

And so, dear people, literacy exploded. People read, people discussed, people expressed their thoughts – in writing – and these thoughts could be printed as pamphlets, evoking more discussion, more debate, a hubbub of thoughts and opinions that contributed to the spread of Protestantism, of Humanism.

Gutenberg_detail

Detail, Gutenberg

Books, however, remained precious. While most households in Protestant Europe had a copy of the Catechism and the Bible, that was about it. Not only was this a question of frugality, it was also due to the lack of selection in printed matter – and the censorious approach adopted by all churches to frivolous reading matter.

The publishing industry consisted of the publisher, full stop. An author wanting to see his book in print paid for the service – vanity publishing was first off the ground, so to say, and remained the main source of new books over the coming centuries. At some point, publishers were made responsible for what they printed, and suddenly it was in the publisher’s interest to vet the work prior to setting it. From there it was a minor step to purchasing the work upfront from the author. Traditional publishing was born – well, without the agent.

As man freed himself from the intellectual shackles imposed by blind faith and obedience to the church, so literature began to flourish. Once again, books were about ideas, about philosophy and opinions. Men like Locke, like Voltaire, they all existed in a society that embraced the idea of Free Thought – like those ancients had done. And side by side with these intellectual endeavours, fiction was finding its printed voice.

I’m not going to bore you with a long list of landmark novels. Firstly, because the list would be subjective rather than objective, secondly because the list is very dependent on where you come from. Suffice it to say that by the twentieth century it was taken for granted in the western world that books could be about anything – well, almost. A certain prudery remained, as did a belief that books for women should protect these tender souls from the grimmer aspects of life. Ha! As if women don’t have to face the grimmer aspects of life on a daily basis anyway…

So, once upon a time, writing was done on clay tablets. Obviously, not the best medium to reach a mass market. Some years down, and the clay tablet had become papyrus or parchment, writing done with ink. People copied scrolls into new scrolls, and so multiple copies sprang into existence – maybe a couple of hundred, perhaps up to a thousand. Scrolls became books, beautifully illustrated manuscripts that were luxury items, intended for the selected few.

And then came Gutenberg, bringing with him the birth of the book as we know it, almost six hundred years ago. These days, the traditional book is being challenged by the rapid growth in e-books. The simplicity of e-book technology allows authors to side-step the cumbersome process of traditional publishing, thereby giving rise to self-published books. But as you can see, this is nothing new: through the ages, authors have for the most part done their own publishing, eager to share their visions and thoughts with a somewhat larger readership than Number One.

Hendrik_ter_Brugghen_-_Heraclitus

Heraclitus with an anachronistic globe, but still

Personally, I am of the opinion that people who write and read are people who think – no matter what they read. The more thinkers we have on this little planet of ours, the higher the chances are of us building a better future. Besides, it is generally futile to attempt to turn back the flow of time, which is why it makes better sense to embrace both the e-book and the upsurge in self-published authors. Will it have an impact on the book industry? It already has. Is that good or bad? Me, I think it is good – but I don’t know. What I do know is that change, dear people, is the only constant in our lives. Panta Rhei, as Heraclitus so wisely said well over two thousand years ago.  Panta Rhei – nothing stands still, everything changes. Thank heavens for that, because seriously, reading a clay tablet in bed? Don’t think so!

Hotting up my life

olivesI am a boring person. Hang on! What sort of self-depreciating nonsense is that? I am not boring, not at all. What I mean to say is that my life has certain tendencies towards the boring, conventional and predictable as it is. Not for me fast-paced adventures saving the Western civilisation from one or other threat, rarely do I have to deploy my (non-existent) martial arts skills to save my bacon. No exciting car-chases, no hand-sparring while balancing on the top of the Eiffel tower (most fortunate, as I suffer from vertigo) and never do I get to utter “shaken, not stirred” and flirt with someone while biting down on my martini olive. Okay, I suppose I could do the olive thing, but I’m not a big fan of martinis, and hubby would be anything but pleased should I bat my eyelashes at anyone but him.

By now, those amongst you that lead exceedingly exciting lives such as detailed between the lines above are shaking your heads. Clearly, the woman is off her rocker, you mutter, while massaging that very sore thigh that still carries the bruises you acquired while fighting of Bad Boy Bill the other night – all in the defence of HMS’s most sensitive secrets (and don’t we all wonder what they might be, hey?)

Gabriel_Metsu_-_Man_Writing_a_LetterI’m not off my rocker. I know my limitations, starting with less than perfect eyesight and a lack of physical speed which would make it difficult for me to keep up with Jason Bourne (sadly). And if I’m going to be quite honest, I like my well-organised life. And yet there are times when I wish… which is why I write.

My alter egos get to live all that excitement and adventure I yearn for. I have them chased over moors, leaping off thirty feet cliffs, using hands and feet to defend themselves against the bad guys, being arrested as witches, escaping certain death by swimming through the dank, slimy water of underground caves, fencing with dastardly noblemen, ducking poisoned daggers and in general doing a pretty good job of keeping themselves and their loved ones (relatively) safe. I’m too fond of my leading ladies to allow them to come to any permanent harm, but along the way they do acquire their share of bruises and scars.

“You don’t say,” Alex Graham mutters, throwing me a rather chilly look. “And not only your leading ladies, but your leading men as well. Look at him!” She glares at me, before pointing in the direction of her supine husband. I tiptoe across the room, avoiding the creaking board that always drives Matthew crazy. He prides himself on his carpentry skills, but this particular floorboard has him stumped.

In only his shirt and fast asleep, Matthew Graham looks vulnerable and tired. There are bruises everywhere, thin lines of blood decorate the worn linen of his shirt, and as to his foot… I gag.  Alex strokes his hair and murmurs something. For an instant, the corner of his mouth twitches. His hand gropes for hers and closes on it with such force his knuckles whiten. Alex kisses his temple and rests her cheek against his. Shit. I inhale, suppressing a wave of shame at what I’ve just put him through.

The relationship between Alex and her Matthew showcase just how much I am a sucker for love stories – the enduring kind, the ones where he/she will always stand by each other’s side. Fantasies, some of you may scoff. Assuredly not, I will counter, and this time based on my own life. An anything but boring aspect of my existence, I might add, because with every day my husband and I spend together, the feelings deepen further, strengthened by common experiences and memories, but also by the way we get each other, make each other laugh.

trollSo, we’ve ascertained I write to give myself (and hopefully my readers) the thrill of adventure and the heady rush of love. I also write because I need to get all those stories that populate my head out of there before my brain fries – a mental vent, so to say. Since I was a child, I’ve been gifted with an extraordinarily vivid imagination, which is why I have seen unicorns when most of the rest of the world’s population haven’t. What others see as the strands of fogs that adorn a dewy pasture in early September are to me transparent fairies, and that large rock just off the oak tree could easily be a crouching lion – or a troll, depending on how the light falls.

Adventure + imagination + love is a rather potent combination when writing a novel. Add to this my fascination with history – all sorts of history, even if I seem to have snowed in on certain centuries more than others – and it is rather obvious why I write historical fiction. Besides, if I go back far enough, I can write about people who still believed in unicorns and fairies, as yet not afflicted by the curse of rationalism that so effectively squashes imagination in this day and age.

As an aside: No wonder we no longer believe in miracles, no wonder many of us no longer have faith. We’ve been raised in a society where either it’s explainable or it doesn’t exist. And yet, strangely enough, miracles still do happen, don’t they? And while it may be explainable, I still find it a miracle that a bumblebee can fly, or that the swifts find their way back home to our barn every spring.

unicornIn conclusion, my life is not at all boring. It is filled with unicorns and medieval knights, it has reincarnated Trojan princesses, young Swedish queens, men of integrity and convictions, and a wonderful if stubborn kick-ass time traveller.
“Stubborn?” Alex says, wiping her hands on her apron. “Who are you calling stubborn?”
“She called you wonderful as well,” Matthew puts in, placing a restraining hand on his wife.
“Wonderful, hey?” Alex softens under his touch.
“Aye, that you are.” He draws her close enough to kiss the top of her head. “And stubborn. Very stubborn.”
It is a life where events of the past come alive in my head, complete with soundtrack and smells – from the very unpleasant stench of corpses rotting on a battlefield, to the drifting scent of lavender crushed in hot bathwater. It is a life where my characters sometimes suffer and weep, where they laugh through their tears and hold hands as they face whatever life throws in their way.

All in all, not a bad life. Actually, quite an excellent life, complete with my own hand-holding hero, the only man I ever bat my eyelashes at –  with or without that olive!

 

Hearing it from the writers

It has probably not escaped your notice that I’ve been doing a series pf posts about publishing, reading and writing. Today, I’m opening my doors wide to welcome Helen Hollick and Alison Morton, two very different ladies that have one characteristic in common: they are both equipped with enough driving force to create a gale. They also have in common that they write very good books – Alison’s latest book cost me all my fingernails, while Helen’s books about Jesamiah Acorn generally have me wishing the bloody man was real – and with me.

Right; with introductions out of the way, let’s jump straight into the interview. The ladies have expressed a predilection for tea, and Helen has made sure my homemade scones are accompanied by Devon cream. (Mmm. No need for you to sit on the side-lines and salivate as we dig in, so no further descriptions will be given)

Right; now that we’re all comfortably seated, I’d like to start by welcoming you to Stolen Moments and asking you to briefly introduce yourself as authors. What do you write, what do you plan to write?

AM INCEPTIO_front cover_300dpi_520x802AM: I write Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. It was marvelling at the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) when I was 11 that started me wondering what a Roman society would be like if run by women… I’m a feminist, too, more ‘lite’ than bra-burning (see here) , so I developed the writing technique of gender-mirroring. In an action scenario, you swap the typical roles of the men and women seen in other thriller stories. Interesting consequences… (Anna says: Too right!)
And the future? Now that Carina Mitela’s story in (dare I say award-winning?) INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO has mostly been told, it’s back to the 1960s. We find the redoubtable Aurelia Mitela as a young woman, lonely and unsure of her way in the world, but confronted by an enemy who not only wants to destroy her but her beloved Roma Nova. That’s the next three books taken care of!

Helen Large

Ms Helen Hollick

HH: I write two different Historical Fiction genres: my ‘serious’ historical fiction comprises an Arthurian Trilogy, set in the fifth century – the ‘what might have really happened’ story of King Arthur. In my trilogy there is no myth or magic, no knights in armour, no Lancecelot – no Merlin, just the story of a man who fought hard to gain his kingdom, and fought even harder to keep it; helped, and occasionally hindered, by the love of his life, Gwenhywfar. (The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner, Shadow of the King)
I have also written two Saxon novels, one about Emma of Normandy, who became Queen of England to two different Kings, and was mother to two more, (A Hollow Crown (UK title) / The Forever Queen (US title) and a story about the people and events that led to the most famous date in English History – 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. (Harold the King (UK title) / I Am the Chosen King (US title)
My other books are a pirate-based nautical adventure series – The Sea Witch Voyages. I wrote them for fun – hopefully readers enjoy them for the same reason! There are four published at the moment. Sea Witch; Pirate Code; Bring It Close and Ripples In The Sand. On The Account will be published soon. (Anna says: YAY!)
I also have an adventure series planned as a spin-off from my Arthurian Trilogy – The Madoc The Horseman Series. Not written yet though!

Helen, I know that you have made an active choice to re-publish your backlist through self-publishing – and to self-publish your new titles. What were your motivations behind this?

Harold Chosen KingHH: I was dropped simultaneously by my (ex) agent and publisher, William Heinemann because historical fiction had taken a bit of a downturn and the publishers did not want to re-print my backlist. I had the choice of giving up being a writer or obtaining my copyright back and going Indie. I chose the latter. While I was about it I decided to also bring out Sea Witch. I was repeatedly told (by agents and publishers) that Sea Witch was good but because there was a cross-over of genres – historical fiction and fantasy – they would be difficult to market, and besides, “pirates are not popular”. I still cannot understand this last statement – pirates have always been popular! I might add, I have no trouble marketing my books.

And are you still happy with your decision?

HH: Yes. Definitely. Although I do have the advantage of being traditionally published with my serious historical fiction in North America; I am what they call a “hybrid” author.

Alison, did you ever consider attempting to publish the traditional route? If yes, what made you decide to go for a self-publishing alternative?

AM bild

Ms Alison Morton

AM: I did indeed and was getting some full reads and ‘good’ rejections; “fresh, intelligent writing”, tight dialogue”, “good action sequences”, etc. Most concerns were about how to market “such innovative, high concept stories”. But both Helen Hart of SilverWood Books and my agent, Annette Crossland of A for Authors say they cannot understand why the Roma Nova stories weren’t snapped up by a mainstream publisher.
Anyway, I wanted my stories to reach readers – they are the ultimate arbiters, so I investigated self-publishing. I wanted my books to be have the higher possible production values, so I decided to go for assisted publishing.

What would you say are the main drawbacks for a self-published author?

AM: Ah, the terrible twins of visibility and discoverablilty; ultimately, not being in the bookshops, and bearing the cost of marketing.

HH: The only disadvantage of being Indie: I would very much like to have my books published in foreign languages in different countries, but it seems you need an agent for this. Also the current trend is for audio books, it would cost a hefty sum for me to produce all mine in this format. The marketing is also very hard work – I visit social media every day.  And I would like to point out that Helen expends a sizeable part of her time and energy on promoting other indie authors.

And the benefits?

HH: You are in charge of your own books. No agents or publishers insisting on changes – or awful covers. ( I speak from experience.)

AM: a) Freedom! A freedom that includes the freedom to fail, to make horrible mistakes, but also to choose and make decisions about your book. b) Flexibility and ability to set timing to suit you, and the high proportion of input into production, which is another way of saying control.

Which part of the book business do you find most challenging? Personally, I find the promotional aspect difficult, do you agree?

AM: The first draft! After the delights of research and thinking up the main plot structure, sitting down and giving physical form to the story running around your head is hard.

HH: I miss the input of a publishing editor when it comes to decisions: what should be left in or out of a novel, what cover to use? I always used to discuss the plot and way forward with a next novel with my agent and editor – now I am on my own. Decisions are sometimes hard when you are grubbing in the dark for good ideas. Promotion yes – I enjoy Facebook and Twitter but sometimes I feel it to be a bit of a burden (even though my internet friends are all lovely!)

AM: I don’t find promotion difficult – I’m an extrovert – it’s just a huge time-suck and you never know what works best. But I do know that if I stop promoting, sales go down. I favour soft promotion – blog writing, interviews, chatting, social media, but sometimes you do just have to go on Twitter and remind people about your book… And here I’m chuckling: to say Alison is an extrovert is a major, major understatement, wonderful woman that she is!

One of the comments made about self-published books is that the quality is deficient when compared to traditionally published books. What are your comments?

AM SUCCESSIO cover300dpi_520x800AM: I used to get that thrown in my face, but when I put my books in people’s hands, that changed. Now I get, ”Well, we know yours are excellent, but most are terrible.” And I can’t deny it. I’ve read some real shockers some starting with reams and reams of description and not getting to the action, some that are grammatically dreadful, some dripping with purple prose and some just not edited, neither structurally nor copy edited.

HH: Traditionally published books can also be bad. I do wonder, sometimes, how some managed to get published. Quality – in the writing style and in the production – can be poor in self-published books, I agree, but standards are getting higher now that writers are realising that the look of a book is also important.

How can one go about improving the quality of self-published books? What can you – well, we – as writers do?

HH: To be taken seriously as an author in the Indie world you have to make sure that your book is produced to a high quality level, that includes having it professionally edited and proof read, using a professional to design the cover, and ensuring the final product is of good standard – no comic sans font with text left-justified, for instance. Surely, after all that hard work of actually writing the thing you want to send it out into the world looking its best?
I am amazed at how many books do not come up to standard. It is so simple to check – compare your proof copy with a mainstream produced novel and ‘spot the difference’. Is the font clear and a reasonable size? Are the margins too wide, too narrow? Are they properly aligned? Are there any ‘widows’ or ‘orphans’ (a single word or sentence on a page, usually at the end of a chapter.) Do the last lines on the page align with the page opposite – did you use white paper instead of cream, which can make the pages ‘glare’ quite a bit thus making an uncomfortable reading experience. Did you use great swathes of italics (so very hard to read). Did you put the author and title on the spine and the front cover? (You would be surprised at how many authors don’t!) Are there any typos? Check and double check – and do not rely on a spellchecker to edit, words such as their/there hair/hare get missed!

AM: Well, my number one bugbear is editing. If an author isn’t willing to invest in themselves enough to commission a professional edit then I think they should ask themselves why they self-publishing. The other thing I feel strongly about is a need for a quality mark or standard across the whole self-publishing industry. Now this is quite going to be quite hard to get off the ground, but systems like the BRAG Medallion and Ascribe, a new one, and Awesome Indies are paving the way.

 I agree regarding BRAG and all that – and sometimes I wonder just how many traditionally published books would have made it through the BRAG process… not as many as some think, I believe!

There are a number of self-publishing providers out there who offer excellent comprehensive services to aspiring authors. Do you think that over time these providers will become far more selective as to what they actually choose to publish under their imprint, i.e. will self-publishing providers turn away prospective customers because they don’t quite meet the required standards? If yes, is this a development you applaud?

AM: That’s an easy one: yes, and yes. The good providers have a reputation to keep up and with the growing self-publishing market they need to be selective, for business reasons alone.

Helen JesamiahHH: It would be a wonderful ideal to aim at, but unfortunately is unlikely to happen especially with the larger companies. Small ‘personal’ companies wishing to make a respected name for themselves are already doing this, mainly because they have only a few staff members and a smallish client list. Therefore, they can turn away the non up-to-standard authors and concentrate on the better ones. Larger companies have more staff and are in a profit from business scenario – authors pay for what service they want, which may or may not include editing etc. I would hope that the better quality companies do reject the poorer quality submissions though.

Interesting: Alison seems to be of the opinion that it will help business to be selective, while Helen doesn’t believe the business constraints allow for such a development. I guess we will have to ask a publisher to comment…

Finally, let us assume the two of you end up on a deserted island – and aren’t you lucky to have each other under such dire circumstances? Anyway: the boat you were on sank, and together you could only salvage three books. Which three books would you agree on saving, and why?
Well, dear people, that didn’t work out AT ALL, as the two ladies ganged up on me and insisted they be allowed three books each. I, being a polite hostess, caved in…

AM: My nominations include Restless by William Boyd – Best spy book ever and with two strong female leads; The Prince by Machiavelli – for dealing with reality and keeping the brain exercised and Julian by Gore Vidal – The absorbing story of one of the most enigmatic Roman emperors and written by a master storyteller

HH: I would save a Rosemary Sutcliff – probably Mark of the Horse Lord or Frontier Wolf because Rosemary’s books are beautifully written and these two are my favourites. I wish I could write half as good as her!
Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons because this is the novel that led to me becoming a published author; I wrote to Sharon thanking her for writing it and added that I wanted to write books. She answered, “If you can write such an interesting four-page letter – I can’t wait to read the book.”
My third book would be The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. It is an inspiring fantasy novel and many of its scenes stay firmly with me. The story has been an enormous influence on my life and my writing.
I’d not worry too much about being stuck on a desert island, though, because I’m sure my Jesamiah Acorne would come and save us in Sea Witch!

Quite eclectic in their tastes, these ladies. Here be Dragons is definitely on my list as well, and I have obviously been remiss in not reading Julian. Oh dear; there went another book onto my TBR pile…

Thank you so much for stopping by ladies! It has been quite the pleasure to have you here with me – even if I am now totally out of scones and homemade blackberry jam!

If you want to know more about my guests, I recommend that you visit their websites and blogs:

Helen Hollick can be found at her website or her blog

Alison Morton has a combined website and blog,

 

Going with the flow – or the spark of life

Mårten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_Project

Tor’s hammer & lightning

Electricity has always been around. Lightning is a form of electricity – but our ancestors called it magic, and cowered in fear in their recently decorated caves as the skies burst apart with bolts of light. Or they blamed it on God. “Let there be light,” He thundered, and the sky lit up from within.

In the form of lightning, electricity was of little use, however impressive a display of celestial power it might be. Over the centuries, however, man began pondering just what it was that lit up the sky, and if all that power could be harnessed somehow. This is why Benjamin Franklin flew that famous kite of his, attempting to further understand the nature of natural electric flow. His conclusions led to further advancement in the understanding of electricity, but it remained relatively useless. Yes, Franklin proved there was electricity in the sky, yes, he could make it light up a spark or two. No, he couldn’t control it.

At the time, electricity was mainly used as a parlour trick. Some smart person or other had invented a simple generator with a crank – without really understanding the science behind it. You turned the crank, thereby charging a glass globe. Someone blew out the candles, the operator set his hand in contact with the glass globe, and lo and behold, the hand glowed blue!
“Oooo!” squealed the young ladies in the darkened room, excitedly clutching at each other – or throwing come-hither looks at the man doing the cranking.

 Signore Volta

Signore Volta

Based on Franklin’s research, others became interested in electricity. Two of these were Italians. Allow me to introduce in one corner Signore Alessandro Volta, and in the other Signore Luigi Galvani. These two gentlemen rarely saw eye to eye – in fact, they were in constant competition with one another. Volta was a professor at the University of Pavia, Galvani at Bologna. (I must admit to a predilection for Bologna, that red city that bustles with industry and has the best ravioli in the world, but that is neither here nor there)

Luigi_Galvani

Signore Galvani

Galvani was the proponent of “animal electricity” (or bioelectricity) as being something totally distinct from “electricity”. Volta was of the opinion that electricity was electricity, full stop. The two gentlemen went through a number of experiments (and frogs) to prove their points. Volta hectored, Galvani sneered and rebutted, and in general their audiences did not know what to think. Until Volta discovered the electrical cell.
“Discovered?” you may ask. Well, what Volta did was study animals that could produce “animal electricity” (such as a stingray, for example) and succeeded in isolating the cells that generated the burst of electricity. Being not only trained in physics but also in chemistry (this is the dude who discovered methane – based on the observations of that ever curious Benjamin Franklin), in 1800 Volta succeeded in replicating the structure of the cells he’d been studying and built the first “voltaic piles”. Taa-daa!!! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the first ever battery, a major breakthrough in the study of electricity. Suddenly, man could produce electrical power – albeit quite uncontrolled, but still.

These first time batteries were like giant layer cakes, with layers of copper, zink and paper drenched in acid. To produce measurable electricity, a number of voltaic piles were required, and one can imagine all that acid hissing and steaming, filling the room with fumes one should probably not inhale.

Obviously, this discovery sort of killed all Galvani’s future arguments. Besides, he was ailing and in deep mourning ever since his wife had died a decade or so previously. Fortunately for Galvani, he had someone to further the cause of bioelectricity, namely his nephew, the talented scientist and excellent showman, Giovanni Aldini.

Giovanni_Aldini

Aldini

Aldini didn’t waste time on arguing with Volta about the potentially different types of electricity. Instead, he set out to use those voltaic piles to do his own experimenting. I guess he started with frogs, upgraded to mice, perhaps a cat or two, but at some point this was not enough. Giovanni needed something more spectacular, and while visiting England in early 1803, an opportunity arose for a really juicy experiment – at the expense of one George Forster.

George was not one of life’s brighter or better specimens. The man had been found guilty of murdering his wife and daughter, and had been sentenced to hanging and dissection. Dissecting executed criminals was a fail-safe way of ensuring they did not rise again on Judgement Day. It was also a horrifying add-on to the execution, as it was not uncommon for the corpse to come very much alive during the dissection – this due to not having been properly dead to begin with. (Yuck!)

Aldini was utterly thrilled at the opportunity offered by George’s planned execution. Coin changed hands, and no sooner was George “hanged by the neck” until dead, but he was transferred over to Aldini’s care. The audience was riveted, gawking at the multiple “voltaic piles” Aldini had put in place, connected one to the other. The corpse was rolled in. Aldini sauntered over and connected poor dead George to the hissing piles. Aldini straightened up, smiled at his captive audience. (Did I mention all of this took place in Newgate?)
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, throwing his arms wide. (I must admit I have no idea what he said. I wasn’t there. But he strikes me as someone who would have milked this his finest moment) “Today, I will demonstrate the power of electricity. Look here,” he said, sweeping his hand over the inert George. “He is dead, yes? But now…” Aldini plunged a lever. “…he rises again!”

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)When the electricity coursed through George, his body began to twitch. His muscles contracted, one of his eyes opened, and some in the shocked audience thought they were witnessing a resurrection. The right hand clenched and unclenched, the legs began to move. Aldini switched things off, George reverted to inertia. But for those who’d just seen his body move, it seemed as if this electricity stuff could indeed offer the spark of life – a magical way of awakening those who had died.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

At the time of Aldini’s experiment, one Mary Godwin was only five years old. Fifteen years later, in 1818, this little girl published a book named Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. It was published anonymously,created quite the furore, and is today considered on of the classics of the horror genre.

Being a self-published author (surprise! many were back then), Mary re-published her book a couple of times, now under her married name, Mary Shelley. In the 1831 edition she also included a “why did I write this book” section which she called her waking dream. As per Mary, “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” Just like George did, when Aldini plunged that lever. So here you have it people, science and art, walking hand in hand to the mutual benefit of both!

 

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