Of writing, Star Wars and home-coming Crusader knights
Today I welcome yet another fellow writer to my blog. Char Newcomb is a Star Wars fan who writes excellent books set in medieval times – maybe not so much of a contradiction as one might think, seeing as swords play a major part in both these settings. Anyway, having recently read Char’s latest release For King and Country, I felt it appropriate to sit her down, serve her tea and cake, and throw her some questions. Plus, she has been kind enough to offer a giveaway – further details at the end of the post 🙂
First of all, congratulations on your new book. Me, I am always a bit ambivalent when I publish a book – there’s a great sense of pride and achievement, but there’s also a substantial amount of separation angst. Is it the same for you?
Thank you for inviting me to chat with you today, Anna. There is incredible satisfaction writing THE END, but a massive amount of angst when you release your ‘baby’ into the wide, wide world. It is hard enough to share with critique partners, beta and advanced readers, but now the novel is there for everyone to see. And then you have to do it all over again!
I touched upon your fascination with all things Star Wars in the brief intro above. Would you say this iconic Sci-Fi story has any bearing on the story you tell? Are there any common elements? And why the Star Wars thing to begin with?
Star Wars is based on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, put very simply, the adventures and transformation of a character. Battle Scars I & II don’t have all Campbell’s elements, but my stories are the adventures, trials and tribulations of a young knight who goes off to war and is changed by that experience.
I started writing Star Wars to escape the stresses of real life. I was a fan of the movies since A New Hope debuted in 1977 and in 1992 discovered a novel by Timothy Zahn that picked up the story 5 years after Episode VI. Heir to the Empire plunged me back into that galaxy far, far away. I was driven to add to the saga and penned my first short story. A Lucasfilm-licensed role-playing game magazine was looking for short fiction, so I submitted my story and it was accepted for publication!
Your books are set at the close of the 12th century, and while this is very long ago, we still know quite a lot about the principal players. Tell us a bit about your research, and specifically about how you’ve recreated the world of everyday lives.
My initial research started on the web where I found gold – fully digitized (and translated) contemporary chronicles of the events, politics, and people of the Third Crusade. The Annals of Roger de Hoveden offers the crusaders’ side of the story; and a number websites give background information, but few provide the detail necessary to immerse a reader in the past. But – speaking in my librarian voice – a good online resource includes citations and bibliographies, which led me to Saladin’s chroniclers. I read biographies, general histories, books on society and culture, on warfare in medieval times, and found more citations and bibliographies – it’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? Then there is more angst – have I missed some important aspect of the place and time? I plunged in with a deeper understanding of the life and times of Richard I, integrating my fictional characters into that world and hoping I have transported my readers to the past.
Is it the research that drives you or the story-telling?
It’s been a mix of both. My reading of de Hoveden’s Annals began purely out of an interest in learning more about The Third Crusade. It laid the groundwork and said ‘you have a story to tell.’ It became a matter of creating situations where Henry and Stephan could participate. For King and Country takes the knights back to England and introduces Henry’s family, and while there is the wider political context, Henry’s conflict really drives the story. I knew where I wanted each of the characters’ story arcs to go, and then confirmed that each would fit with the historical events through my research.
What inspired you to set your books in this particular period?
I had decided years ago that I was going to write a time-travel spy novel set during the American Revolution, which is an era I studied in more depth in college as a U.S. history major. A BBC television show on Robin Hood distracted me. It featured a couple of episodes with Richard the Lionheart in the Holy Land. I was hooked. Two books later, here we are…
Why did you decide to build something round the old legends of Robin Hood? Was it your original intent to have Robin be the main character? If yes, when did Henry and Stephan take over?
Robin would like to think he was supposed to be the focus of Battle Scars – he does have a bit of an ego – but he started off as William, a knight and friend of the main characters, a fairly minor role. The original short story that began it all was Henry and Stephan’s story. I told my critique group that William was a Robin Hood-like character, but I had no intention of integrating the Robin Hood legend. I think I was intimidated by the thought of it when so many other writers had written such brilliant takes on the tales. At that point, I wasn’t even planning to write a novel, let alone a Book II, but I re-named William and his life took shape in my mind and in many notes on the computer when, more than two years later, I decided to write the novel. A few chapters into Men of the Cross, I introduced two young thieves, who were merely there to push the plot along and show sides of Henry and Stephan that the reader hadn’t seen. My critique group loved the boys and said, “I hope we see more of them.” That’s when the idea of creating my own version of the Robin Hood legend took shape, and suddenly those two thieves had names: Allan and Little John.
Your books are original in that there is no damsel-in-distress vs saving-knight love story. Instead, we have a fiery blaze of passion and love between Henry and Stephan. Was this planned from the beginning?
Henry had no plans to fall in love with another man, but that had always been one of the main themes of Men of the Cross. Henry did not think of himself as ‘gay,’ if I can use the modern term. And Stephan, who readily admitted his preference for male sexual companionship, changes as much as Henry does as their relationship develops from close friendship to love. The Church’s stance provided plenty of conflict, especially for Henry, and that continues in For King and Country, when Henry worries that his family will see the depth of his relationship with Stephan.
Did you find it difficult to write the Henry and Stephan scenes? (And I must add I think you’ve done a fantastic job, delivering a sequence of scenes of such tenderness I can but applaud you.)
Thank you! I love Henry and Stephan, so writing their love scenes and pouring a range of emotions into them became easy, but that only came after I experimented – with the writing, that is – with various levels of heat. Readers with faint hearts don’t have to worry about anything too graphic – there might be a scene or two in Book II that hits a 3 out of 5.
Obviously, homosexual relationships are as old as the human race, and Henry’s and Stephan’s closest companions take it in stride that they are lovers. Do you think this is indicative of how people would have reacted back then?
I wish I could say yes, but the Church was hugely influential in the daily lives of people, and the Church condemned sodomy, which included homosexual behaviour as well as many other types of sexual activity (e.g., adultery, sex in anything but the missionary position, sex only on certain days of the month). Of course, humans being human, rules were broken, but a quick trip to the confessional – where priests had a list of penitentials for such sins – and your soul was safe from the fires of Hell. Considering Henry’s concern about keeping his love for Stephan hidden from everyone but his small circle of friends, perhaps some people accepted (or ignored) it. Obviously, no one could openly condone it. (Anna says: if you want to read more about this, Char and I have collaborated on a post regarding sex in the middle ages – or rather the attitudes towards it.)
In your book, Prince John is portrayed as the ultimate bad guy. Leaving aside the fact that all good stories need a villain, do you think this is a correct representation of John?
Interestingly, for a short time whilst Richard was on crusade, John had the support of many English barons in the struggle against Chancellor William Longchamp’s quest for power, but I fully believe John’s motives were to consolidate his own power. He showed his shifting loyalties when he abandoned his dying father Henry II to go to the winning side. Prior to that he led the disastrous campaign in Ireland, and during the period of For King and Country, he plots with Philip of France to usurp Richard’s throne. He and the French king were willing to pay the Holy Roman Emperor to keep Richard imprisoned! My plan is to end Book III of Battle Scars with John ascending the throne and I’m having a hard time imagining a happily-ever-after. The tales of John’s treachery and abuses leading up to Magna Carta certainly make him look the villain. He made bad decisions. He trusted the wrong people, if he trusted anyone at all. If Philip of France had not been John’s adversary and he’d not lost most of continental realm to the man, it would be interesting to speculate on the ‘what ifs’.
Likewise, King Richard is the recipient of a lot of hero-worship from your protagonists. Here and there, you include the mutterings from the common people, who have little reason to love their king and his taxes. What is your take on Richard?
Richard was a great warrior and military strategist. I think he knew the art of diplomacy and was adept at negotiation, including during his time in captivity. But he was not a great administrator. On the other hand, with the exception of Longchamp’s appointment, Richard generally chose able men to manage the business of the kingdom. Unfortunately, because of the crusade, his lengthy imprisonment, and the campaigns against the French, he spent all but a few months of his reign on the continent. He gets a bad rap for bankrupting the kingdom and not spending more time in England, but the Angevin empire was more than England and the troubles happened to be with the Plantagenet continental holdings. Kings of the medieval period didn’t sit in the castle waiting for news from the front lines. They led their troops, fought alongside them. Philip of France invaded Richard’s territory. What kind of king would not want to keep his Angevin empire intact?
I know you’re planning for a next book in the series. Have you already started writing it or are you still at the research phase? And can we hope to see plenty of Henry and Stephan in that book as well?
Henry and Stephan will remain major players in Swords of the King. I am in the very early stages of research at this point and only have a few plot points mapped out. I wish I could say I was further along, but real life tends to get in the way of the writing. I hope to begin writing by the end of summer, but unlike some people – eyes the interviewer & smiles – it will probably take me at least 9 months to finish the first draft. In other words, don’t look for Book III anytime soon!
Assuming Henry and Stephan would pop into your present day life for a visit, what would you offer them to eat? And what would they think of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker?
Lasagna – my Italian mom’s recipe – and some good red wine. I’m rather fond of Argentinian Malbecs myself.
Since I do spend many hours writing about Henry and Stephan at home, they are surrounded by Star Wars, and like my own kids, they think it’s pretty cool. Anyone who has never seen any of the seven films should always start with A New Hope, Episode IV, which is how I introduced the young knights to the Star Wars universe. They got past the strange aliens, the flying ships and robots, and the fact that Obi Wan looks like a priest in his long brown robe. Neither Henry nor Stephan were fond of the whinging Luke Skywalker, but as he showed his bravery and resourcefulness both knights were won over to the light side and became firm believers in Luke’s dedication to the Rebel Alliance. There was no question in their minds that Vader was evil and they were curious about his armor. But those lightsabers – most impressive!
Yes, I imagine having those at hand would have made it that much easier to win a medieval skirmish or two 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by, Char, and best of luck with your new book!
Now, I have already read For King and Country, and my review is as follows: WOW. Nah, just kidding, so here goes:
It’s well over a year since I read Ms Newcomb’s first book in her Battle Scars series, Men of the Cross. Set during the Third Crusade, this book introduced Henry de Grey and Stephan l’Aigle, two young men who find themselves in more ways than one while fighting the infidel in the Holy Land.
Now Henry and Stephan – together with the enigmatic Robin – have returned to England, only to find the enemy lives and breathes at home as well, in this case as the grasping Prince John, younger brother to the imprisoned King Richard – and determined to make England his own.
We all know the general story of Richard and his younger brother, we all know that England was ravaged by strife, with some men siding with John, others with their king. This is the complicated mess to which Henry and Stephan return, and soon enough it becomes apparent it will be very difficult to identify friend from foe – even within the immediate family.
Ms Newcomb has stepped outside the normal restrictions imposed on novels set in these times in that her Henry and Stephan are not only comrades in arms, they are lovers. In a sequence of beautiful scenes, she breathes careful life into their passion, moments of tenderness and love that make it abundantly clear theirs is not a short-term relationship, theirs is the love of a lifetime.
Unfortunately, Henry is the heir to estates and is expected to marry. Fortunately, the young bride, Elle, is no more interested in marrying Henry than he is in marrying her, which leads to a creative approach to things.
While Henry’s marital issues are a recurring theme throughout the book, the central plot is based round Prince John’s determination to fight his brother for England. In secret, he is arming and provisioning various castles – among them Nottingham – and this is where Sir Robin, loyal knight to King Richard, takes the lead, forming a band of men to create as much havoc as possible. Men such as Tuck and Little John, Allan and Will take on shape, becoming very different creatures than the outlaws we know from the old tales of Robin and his Merry men. And yes, there is a Marion too.
Beautifully written, chock-full of historical details imparted elegantly throughout, For King and Country is a compelling and wonderful read.
I think it goes without saying that I warmly recommend this book, and so it is with great pleasure I can inform you that Char is giving away a Kindle copy! To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment in which you share your take on King John. Good or bad?
If you want to buy your own copy – of course you do! – click here!