ANNA BELFRAGE

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The Smiling Villain – Ms Morton shares her thoughts re bad guys

It is always a distinct pleasure to welcome Alison Morton to my blog. Not only is she an author I enjoy & admire, she also delivers insightful posts which I enjoy reading – and I hope you, dear peeps, do as well. Today, Alison has written a little something about that very necessary ingredient in most books: the bad guy (or gal).

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AM White WitchDamnèd, smiling villain

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.

(Hamlet, Wm.Shakespeare)

“And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs”

Young Octavius, in Julius Caesar, Wm.Shakespeare)

Ah yes, Shakespeare’s smiling villains. Well, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us. It also points to how we should portray the ‘bad guy’ in stories.

Undiluted villains like Fu Manchu, the White Witch, Dracula, Cruella de Vil, Mrs Danvers, Ernst Blofeld, are straightforwardly nasty, with a single goal of eliminating the ‘good guy’. We see only one aspect of them and apart from the ways in which they inflict pain on our heroines/heroes we find them a tad ridiculous and potentially boring. Proper villains are multi-layered, often with mixed motivations that sometimes they themselves don’t understand.

AM Apollodorous

Apollodorus, as AM sees him

In the Roma Nova thrillers I’ve written psychopaths (Renschman in INCEPTIO), sociopaths (Pertinax in PERFIDITAS , Caius Tellus in AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO) and vengeful children (Nicola in SUCCESSIO). And then there are characters who hover in between such as pragmatic criminal Apollodorus in INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS whom we can’t decide is good or bad.

Some characters are weak and fall into bad company like Superbus in PERFIDITAS, some become temporary ‘bad guys’ (no spoilers here!), some are forced into ‘bad guy’ behaviour due to circumstances, some are merely opportunistic. And these grey areas are the most interesting…

How to write a plausible and interesting villain
All characters need a solid back-story, so it’s a good idea to sketch out when your villain became one, why and in what circumstances. Was it a single incident, a simmering discontent, envy, mistreatment or being a spoilt child? Did he or she fall into bad company or were they abandoned as a child or on the death of one or both parents?  Such events don’t always lead down the dark path, but they may nudge them that way.

A criminal mastermind who seems all-knowing and all-seeing with almost telepathic powers is not credible. Neither is a bumbler or a TSTL (Too stupid to live) fool. But villains should be intelligent or at least crafty. Our heroines (and heroes) need foes worthy of them, ones that will test their mettle.

Are villains ‘born bad’? We all differ in temperament and character. Some of us are laid back, others ambitious, some warm-hearted, others unemotional, some caring and holistic, others full of desire to dominate. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is extremely useful for making up multi-layered profiles for all your characters. It’s a psychometric test system popular in business and government since the Second World War to indicate psychological preferences about how people perceive the world and make decisions. A gold mine for writers!

Villains’ dialogue should not lapse into stereotypes  or melodrama – they are people like other characters in the story and should speak normally, although irony, sarcasm and anger can be present when appropriate.

[From INSURRECTIO: After she is captured, Aurelia is taken before Caius who has usurped power in Roma Nova]

I was completely alone. With my nemesis. He went back to staring through the window.

‘I can’t decide what to do with you,’ he said. ‘You will undoubtedly try everything to oppose me under some delusion of duty, so it would be prudent to remove you permanently. And you caused me to rot in a Prussian jail for twelve years. I shall never forgive you for that.’

‘You murdered a Prussian citizen and permanently disabled another. You ran a silver smuggling organisation that threatened Roma Nova’s security. You got off lightly.’

He shrugged.

‘And let’s not forget your two attempts to kill me.’

‘You were being irritating, Aurelia, and I dislike that.’

‘Irritating!’ I raised my hands to vent my frustration but the steel grip of the handcuffs constrained them. ‘I was a Praetorian officer tasked to hunt you down. I’d hardly class that as irritating.’

‘“Was”. That’s the correct word.’ He turned and looked straight at me. ‘You’re finished. I’ve cancelled your commission along with that of every other female officer. You’re no longer a minister, nor a senator, nor head of your family. You have become an irrelevance in the new Roma Nova.’

I stared at him. Irrelevant? He couldn’t take away my identity like that.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t destroy the structure of such an old country just like that.’

He strode over to me. I took a step back, but he was too fast. He grabbed me by the throat, pressed his thumb and fingers hard, and squeezed. I could hardly breathe. He pressed harder. My head swam and my vision blurred.

‘Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.’ Then he dropped his hand and released me. I bent over coughing. Gods, his grip had been strong. I thought I was going to choke to death.
‘You have two options – adapt or go under. There is no release for you, Aurelia. You will be guarded and tracked, and if you attempt escape, I’ll execute one of your friends like Calavia. Maybe I’ll do that anyway, if only to motivate you.’

‘Only cowards let their friends take the punishment for them. Just call in the swordsman and I’ll kneel in the sand.’

‘Certainly not. You’re far too valuable a political asset. And you do have a certain amusement value.’ He smirked at me. ‘Perhaps I’ll keep you as jester, my own tame doomsayer. You’d look quite fetching in scarlet.’

I couldn’t speak. The humiliation of what he suggested – how dare he?

He laughed. ‘You should see your face, Aurelia. You always were quick to rise.’ Then his mouth straightened into a crisp line. ‘This is not a game. The old ways are finished, as is everybody associated with them.’ 

Handsome mature man.

Caius as per AM

Another technique is to put yourself into the villain’s place, to get into their mind-set. They are the strong one on the right path if they are like Caius or Pertinax, or are perfectly justified in what they do to make their way in the world if they are Apollodorus. They often care for, or at least reward, their subordinates and cannot see why others don’t see things as they do. And for an additional twist, the ‘bad guy’ may well demonstrate many of the qualities of the ‘good guy’ and share some values.

[From INSURRECTIO: Same scene as above, Aurelia speaks first]

‘I’d rather end my days in Truscium than lift one of my little fingers to help you.’

‘Always so dramatic. Phobius would throw you in there without hesitating after he’d had you and given his men a turn. Would you prefer that?’ Just for a second, something in his eyes united us as patricians, revolted at the thought of Phobius touching either of us.
‘Quite,’ he said.

In a series, the characters can overlap the books: Apollodorus, so prominent in INCEPTIO, returns in PERFIDITAS; Caius Tellus is the antagonist in all three of the latest books. The return of a bad guy must be carefully engineered. If the heroine is so competent, how come the bad guy keeps escaping? Eventually, a recurring villain has to disappear, but a writer can really enjoy themselves doing that and wring high emotion out of it for the reader.

And the grey areas?
AM stressedSometimes the heroine/hero has to show transgressive or even criminal tendencies and act on them. Does this make them a villain? Sometimes an upright character’s personality changes then they suffer a mental breakdown and they act unlawfully. Does that make them a villain? And occasionally ‘bad guys’ sacrifice themselves, ostensibly to save themselves from justice, but covertly for an entirely different reason. Putting one type of character into the opposite situation natural to them creates very interesting conflicts…

Finally, remote villains
A villain doesn’t have to be present in person or even still alive. In INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, the first three Roma Nova thrillers, the mere memory of Caius touches the characters who had interacted with him in the second prequel trilogy. Aurelia, Conrad and Silvia recount terrifying snippets from their contact decades ago with Caius to Carina in the present and thus to the reader.

In RETALIO, the Aurelia doesn’t encounter Caius in person until Chapter 19 and then only for moments. He doesn’t recognise her as she’s in disguise. And it’s many chapters later that they meet openly. However, he has attacked her and her colleagues physically, emotionally, mentally, legally, financially and politically. His reach is long and frightening.

[From RETALIO: Aurelia is in exile in Vienna with her lover and companion of fifteen years, Miklós] 

‘The exiles are hurt and frightened. I must help them. We can’t leave Caius to rampage and destroy everything.’

‘But if what Quintus writes is true, he’ll extradite or snatch you.’

‘I have you, and now Sándor to protect me physically and once I’m fit again, I won’t be such an easy target. I just need to put myself beyond Caius legally.’ I shuddered at the prospect of being dragged back to Caius and handed over to his sadistic assistant for ‘punishment’. And it would all be perfectly legal, from the New Austrian police arrest to deportation, handover like a package at the Roma Novan border and into the cells of the Transulium prison to await Caius’s pleasure. My heart pounded at the terrifying thought of facing Caius’s vengeance.

I hope I’ve given you some practical techniques for writing credible and three-dimensional villains. But whether viewed as a writer or reader, the most disturbing villains are, of course, the ones you find reflecting your own beliefs, fears and values, whether on the side of the angels or the devils.

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Thank you for that, Alison. And as always, I LOVE your dialogue. I also love the entire Roma Nova concept, so those of you who have as yet not discovered this excellent series (all six of them, although I would recommend staring with Aurelia and read that trilogy first) have quite an adventure before them.

AM RETALIO_800x520RETALIO blurb

Early 1980s Vienna. Recovering from a near fatal shooting, Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and former foreign minister of Roma Nova, chafes at her enforced exile. She barely escaped from her nemesis, the charming and amoral Caius Tellus who grabbed power in Roma Nova, the only part of the Roman Empire to survive into the twentieth century.

Aurelia’s duty and passion fire her determination to take back her homeland and liberate its people. But Caius’s manipulations have isolated her from her fellow exiles, leaving her ostracised, powerless and vulnerable. But without their trust and support Aurelia knows she will never see Roma Nova again.

BUY LINK

From my review of Retalio: “As always, Ms Morton delivers a fast-paced adventure, very much driven by the excellent dialogue. The descriptions are vivid, the plot is compelling, and the main characters are easy to relate to, even if few of us would have the fortitude and courage of these Roma Novan ladies.”

Alison Morton bio 

AM Alison MortonAlison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

The first five books have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices.  AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April 2017.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing. Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

Researching the Tudors – either there’s too much, or too little!

Today I’ve invited Tony Riches to visit, specifically to share some insight into all the research he’s had to do while writing his series about the early Tudors, Owen, Jasper and Henry. Turns out Tony has had his moments of frustration!

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TR The Tudor Trilogy books2The original idea for writing the Tudor Trilogy came to me when I began looking into the life of Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married a queen, and was surprised to find there were no books offering a full picture of his adventures. I soon found out why, as it is so hard to track down reliable information about his life. There are no images of him and even his name is written by scribes as ‘Owen Tidder’ or ‘Owain Tetyr’ and was probably Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwror).

I began to collect fascinating details of the lives of Owen’s sons, Edmund and Jasper and realised that if I planned it as a trilogy, Henry Tudor would be born in the first book, come of age in the second and become King of England in the final book.

The research for the first book, OWEN, consisted mostly of reading about the well documented life of his wife, Queen Catherine of Valois. Although I had to piece together the details of Owen’s life by cross-checking different sources and ‘fill in the gaps’ from other records of the period.

Owen’s first son Edmund died from wounds or a form of bubonic plague while in prison in November 1456, barely two months before Margaret Beaufort gave birth to Henry in Pembroke Castle. I visited the scene of Edmund’s death at Carmarthen Castle and found only the gatehouse remains, as the castle was largely demolished to build a Victorian Prison.

TR Edmund Tudor's tomb

Edmund’s tomb

Fortunately, Edmund’s tomb was rescued from Carmarthen Priory during the dissolution, so I was able to visit it at St David’s Cathedral, although even there it wasn’t safe. Stripped of its finery by Oliver Cromwell’s army in the seventeenth century, the tomb was restored in 1873 with an engraved brass representing Edmund Tudor by Thomas Waller.

It was left to Edmund’s younger brother to continue the story of the Tudors in the second book of the trilogy, JASPER. Now my research became easier, as he was based at Pembroke Castle (in the town where I was born) and owned a house in Tenby, close to where I now live.

TR Tenby tunnel

Tenby tunnel

Supporters of King Edward IV forced Jasper and the young Henry Tudor to flee for their lives. The secret tunnel they used to reach the harbour still exists, so I was able to see it for myself and walk in their footsteps deep under the streets of Tenby.

I’ve sailed from Tenby harbour many times, including at night, so have a good understanding of how they might have felt as they slipped away to Brittany. Rather than follow their course around Land’s End I chose to sail on the car ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo in Brittany, where I began to retrace the Tudor’s time in exile.

TR Chateau de suscinio

Chateau de Suscinio

I’ve read that little happened during those fourteen years but of course Brittany was where Henry would come of age and begin to plan his return. Starting at the impressive palace of Duke Francis of Brittany in Vannes, I followed the Tudors to the Château de Suscinio on the coast. I was amazed to find it has been restored to look much as it might have when Jasper and Henry were there, and the surrounding countryside and coastline is largely unchanged.

TR Château de Josselin

Chateau de Josselin

Duke Francis of Brittany, began to worry when Yorkist agents began plotting to capture the Tudors, so he moved them to different fortresses further inland. I stayed by the river within sight of the magnificent Château de Josselin, were Jasper was effectively held prisoner. Although the inside has been updated over the years, the tower where Jasper lived survives and I was even able to identify Tudor period houses in the medieval town which he would have seen from his window.

TR LargoetTR

Tony at Largoët

Henry’s château was harder to find but worth the effort. The Forteresse de Largoët is deep in the forest outside of the town of Elven. His custodian, Marshall of Brittany, Jean IV, Lord of Rieux and Rochefort, had two sons of similar age to Henry and it is thought they continued their education together. Proof I was at the right place was in the useful leaflet in English which confirmed that: ‘On the second floor of the Dungeon Tower and to the left is found a small vaulted room where the Count of Richemont was imprisoned for 18 months (1474-1475).’ 

Entering the Dungeon Tower through a dark corridor, I regretted not bringing a torch, as the high stairway is lit only by the small window openings. Interestingly, the lower level is octagonal, with the second hexagonal and the rest square. Cautiously feeling my way up the staircase I was walking in the footsteps of the young Henry Tudor, who would also have steadied himself by placing his hand against the cold stone walls, nearly five and a half centuries before

When I returned to Wales I made the journey to remote Mill Bay, where Henry and Jasper landed with their small invasion fleet. A bronze plaque records the event and it was easy to imagine how they might have felt as they began the long march to confront King Richard at Bosworth. On the anniversary of the battle I walked across Bosworth field and watched hundreds of re-enactors recreate the battle, complete with cavalry and cannon fire.

TR Bosworth3

Reenactment of Bosworth

The challenge I faced for the final book of the trilogy, HENRY, was too much information. Henry left a wealth of detailed records, often initialling every line in his ledgers, which still survive. At the same time, I had to deal with the contradictions, myths and legends that cloud interpretation of the facts. I decided the only way was to immerse myself in Henry’s world and explore events as they might have appeared from his point of view. I stood in the small room in Pembroke Castle where Henry Tudor is thought to have been born, (within sight of where I was born) and began three years of intensive research about this enigmatic king.

I bought every book I could find about Henry and his times, and also studied the lives of those around him, including his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and his queen, Elizabeth of York. As I reached the end I decided to visit Henry’s Tomb in Westminster Abbey. There is something quite surreal about making your way through Westminster Abbey to the Lady Chapel at the far end. There are many amazing distractions, as you pass the tombs of earlier kings and Henry’s granddaughter Elizabeth I in a side chapel. Henry’s tomb dominates the centre of the Lady Chapel and is surrounded by a high bronze grille. His effigy is raised too high to see, so I climbed a convenient step and peered through the holes in the grille. There lay Henry with his wife, Elizabeth of York, their gilded hands clasped in prayer.

I am pleased to say that after all these years researching the lives of the early Tudors, all three books of the trilogy have become international best sellers. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers around the world who have been on this journey with me. Although this is the end of the Tudor trilogy, I am now researching the life of Henry’s daughter Mary and her adventurous husband Charles Brandon, so the story of the Tudors is far from over.

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Thank you, Tony for that. And I for one am happy to hear you’ll be writing more books – especially about someone as fascinating as the wayward Mary and her Charles!

Tony Riches AuthorFor those of you as yet unacquainted with Tony Riches, he is a full time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives by the sea in Pembrokeshire, West Wales with his wife and enjoys sea and river kayaking in his spare time. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and website www.tonyriches.com and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.  The Tudor Trilogy is available on Amazon UK  Amazon US and Amazon AU

 

A celebratory post

It is out. My eleventh baby, Under the Approaching Dark, sees the light of the day today, and I’ve decided to celebrate my accomplishments. After all, if I don’t celebrate, why should anyone else?

Under the Approaching Dark_eb-pb-tr 160412

Eleven books since 2012. Okay, okay: I haven’t written eleven books in five years – I had quite a few of them done prior to taking those steadying breaths required prior to embarking on the path of publication, but still. Eleven. And guess what? Seeing your book in print doesn’t get old.

Yes, I have become more critical. I pick up the book, I inspect the spine, the paper, I turn it this way and that looking for flaws. This time round, I didn’t find any. Mind you, I know I will find some. There’ll be that irritating typo both me and my editor have missed. Or a slightly misaligned quotation mark. But for now, I hold up my book and inhale. A rather heady scent of ink and paper—somewhat addictive even for someone as fond of e-books as I am.

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As an ambitious author, I can’t rest on my laurels. I need to write more. And more. There’s a trilogy to finish editing, a sequel to The Graham Saga that just needs the last two chapters, the next book in The King’s Greatest Enemy to revise. Plus all the other stuff that clutters up my brain, all those stories that just have to be told. Not necessarily so as to enrich the human race, but more so that I don’t go slightly crazy keeping it all inside of my poor, buzzing brain.

Tea William Henry Margetson Afternoon-TeaBut today, I’m not doing any of that. Today, I’m going to bask in a sensation of accomplishment. Maybe I’ll even celebrate with a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake. Or maybe I’ll just jot down those lines that have been plaguing me for days now:

Simon knew the moment he shoved the door open that he’d made a mistake. He hesitated, not quite knowing what to make of what he saw. Behind him, he could still hear the muted sounds of the tourists making their way around the large Cathedral, most of them in unbuttoned warm winter jackets. Before him, fields dipped and swayed in a summer breeze, a lingering sunset gilding the stone walls closest.
“What is it?” Amanda asked, shoving at him. 
“Let’s go back,” he said, trying to pull the door closed. 
“Why? What do you see?” As impatient as ever, she shoved again, and this time he stumbled over the threshold. Acute pain enveloped him, causing him to fall to his knees while clutching his head.
“Simon?” Her voice sounded surprisingly faint. “Are you ok?” She made as if to go to him, he tried to tell her not to, but it was too late. She collapsed beside him. “What…” she gasped, before doubling over.
The door started to swing shut. Simon tried to get to his feet. The door. He had to keep it open. The door. Damn it, the door! 

With a soft sigh, the door closed. The ground beneath them shook, the pain was gone. 
“What happened?” Amanda asked, getting to her feet. Her eyes widened as she took in the lush greenery. “Simon?” Her voice quavered. “How…”

Well, dear readers, there went my tea and cake. So if you’ll excuse me, I have a new story to write. No rest for the weary, right?

En garde – with pens aloft!

IMG_0057I guess no one has missed out on the fact that it is March. Catkins, snowdrops and crocuses, the odd shy daffodil and afternoons that grow increasingly lighter herald the advent of spring. March is also the month many of us dedicate to highlighting women – whether it be historical people or present-day heroines.

Some weeks ago, Helen Hollick, Alison Morton and I were chatting about this and that (well, we were actually discussing what our fictional heroines would do if our equally fictional heroes were unfaithful. Became quite heated…) from which we segued into a discussion that resulted in Helen writing the post below. Seeing as we’re relatively creative (What can I say? Most writers are) we decided to publish Helen’s post simultaneously on our three blogs AND couple it with a giveaway – in honour of our fictional ladies! Which is why I hereby take a step back and ask you to welcome Helen – preferably with a round of applause 🙂

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Author Anna Belfrage, during a recent conversation mentioned a thought about the real heroines behind the fictional heroines. I wondered if heroes should also be included, but March is Women’s History month, so let’s stick to the ladies here. (We can spotlight the men another time to balance the books.)

In this instance, Anna was referring to the writer as the heroine – the author, the person tapping away at a keyboard or scribbling with a pen on paper (remember those?)

writer ec13c36cd139a922b728e78c2dd84892The fictional heroine usually goes through hell and back in a story, or at least some sort of trauma or disaster or romantic upheaval, or complication or… well, you get the picture. But what about the writer who is creating that character, that scene, that story? Is it a case of sitting down at a desk from 9-5 Monday to Friday, tapping out a few thousand words a day, Other Half supplying a cup of tea/coffee/wine/gin on the hour every hour? Those several thousand words flowing freely, the plot flashing along, scene after scene with no wavering? Novel finished, a dutiful re-write, check for the occasional missed blooper, then off to the editor for a quick once-over?

Oh I wish!

The only bit of the above that is mildly true for me personally is the tea/coffee appearing a couple of times a day in between countless re-runs of Westerns on the TV which my husband watches with avid fascination, apparently completely unaware that he watched the same John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart et al movie the day before. And the day before that.

Meanwhile, I struggle during the dark, miserable days of winter. Even the effort to get out of bed some dank, dark, damp mornings is hard work for those of us who suffer from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affected Disorder – basically a desire to hibernate during winter.) To be creative, to find the words to write when I can’t even remember the cat’s name (I am not joking!) is hard work.

Then there is the research, particularly for historical fiction writers who need to know the facts of a period or event before they can even start writing chapter one. All genres need a certain amount of research, even fantasy and science fiction – possibly even more so, because to make the unbelievable believable the facts have to be correct, otherwise all the believability goes out the window.

For writers, meeting our new characters – male or female – is not always a walk in the park, although for me, I did meet my pirate hero, Jesamiah Acorne, on a drizzly-day Dorset beach. Long story cut short: I was walking on the beach thinking up ideas for Sea Witch. Looked up and saw a vision of Jesamiah. Might have been my imagination, might have been a spirit from the past – no matter, I saw him. In full pirate regalia. And immediately fell in love.

Alison MortonNov16_sm

Alison Morton

Alison says hers have been swishing around in her head for decades ever since she trod on a Roman mosaic floor at age eleven!

As for Anna, she blames it all on her husband. It was all because of his family history, which involved fleeing Scotland in 1624 due to religious persecution. She started reading up on the 17th century and fell in love. One day, Matthew Graham stepped out of her murky imagination and demanded she tell his story, which she has done, over several books.

Our characters get under our skin, into our hearts, minds, lives and very being. When it is time to finish the book, or a series – oh, the heartache of saying goodbye and letting them go! To create believable characters, to bring them alive, to make them look, feel, behave, sound real, to do real (even if they are impossibly over-the-top real) things takes dedication, skill, determination and courage.

Yes. Courage.

Writing can be a hard taskmaster. We slog away in our studies, corner of a room, spare-bedroom or wherever trying to get a paragraph – a sentence – right. We edit, re-edit and edit again and again. We spend hours writing a scene, then delete it because it isn’t good enough. I have deleted entire chapters. We wake up with our characters, walk, live, play, think of, go to bed with them (no not that sort of ‘go to bed’!) They are there with us 24/7 because if these fictional people are real to us, then they will become as real to our readers. In theory.

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Helen Hollick

I am not being sexist here, but I do think women writers have a tougher time of it than do the men. Admitted I am talking in general here, but many women writers already have a full-time 24/7 job of bringing up children and organising the family, at least this was so thirty years ago when I gave up the ‘hobby’ of scribbling my ideas and got on with attempting to do it properly with the end goal of being published in mind. Usually (OK not always) it is the woman who gets the kids off to school, does the housework, the shopping, the laundry, goes to her own job, collects the kids from school, cooks the dinner, gets the kids to bed… We grab coffee breaks or the bliss of a quiet hour in the evening to get that next paragraph written. I’m not saying that the blokes in between work and chores also have to snatch those golden moments where they can sit and write, but I’d wager that many an established male writer wanders off to his study in the morning, saunters out at lunchtime, strolls back to his desk to emerge around six-ish to watch TV. Lunch, dinner, clean shirts and tidy house happening via the Magic House Fairy.

At least, now, women writers can create our stories under our own name. How many of our great female writers from the past had to invent a male pseudonym to be heard and published? I think the term ‘heroine’ definitely applies to these brave and determined ladies of the past.

So why do we do it? Why do we spend hours doing this darn silly job of writing fiction? It’s not for the money that’s for sure. Very few writers outside the top listers make enough to equal a suitable annual wage. So why?

Ever heard the answer to a question put to Sir Edmund Hilary when he had successfully climbed Everest in 1953? “Why did you want to climb it?”
His answer? “Because it’s there.”

Well, for us, for fiction authors, we write the words because they are not there…

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democracy-1280px-eugene_delacroix_-_la_liberte_guidant_le_peupleThank you, Helen! For some reason, the above has me thinking of this picture… (I know, a bit over the top)

As promised above, this post comes with a giveaway. I will be giving away one copy of whatever book the winner chooses, whether it be from my time-slip series The Graham Saga or from The King’s Greatest Enemy, my series set in the midst of the medieval mayhem that characterised the 1320s in England. All you have to do is leave a comment below, telling us who your favourite historical woman is 🙂 The winner will be presented on Friday next this week, so you have until then to enter.

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And, don’t forget: Helen Hollick and Alison Morton are also doing giveaways, so pop over to their blogs to join in!

BoxA6-final_smFind Alison’s books here! And for those already familiar with Alison’s writing, keep an eye out for the next book in her Roma Nova series. Retalio will be out end of April. For those as yet unfamiliar with this excellent alt hist series featuring a modern day remnant of the Roman Empire, Roma Nova, and its people, what on earth are you waiting for?

All-Books-2017-768x595Find Helen’s books here! And no, Helen doesn’t only write about fictional pirates (although Jesamiah Acorne is intriguing enough to inspire like twenty books, IMO). Other than her historical fiction, she also writes non-fiction, and has recently released Pirates: truth and tales – an excellent intro to those real-life villains who made the high seas so unsafe during the early 18th century.

UPDATE! The happy winner is Richard Tearle!

A misunderstood misogynist? Meet John Knox!

I have a fascination with the Reformation. While we tend to simplify and see it as a spur of the moment thing caused by the sale of indulgences, the Holy Church has always had its fair share of people who have questioned its interpretation of scripture and its general approach to things. Such debates could be very vigorous. In some cases, they led to changes. In some cases, the person questioning ended up dead.

I any case, all this internal criticism came to a head in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, and this time the division was too deep to be healed. Ergo the Reformation, which was not, as some think, one Protestant faction versus the Holy Church. Nope: it was many, many Protestant factions versus the Holy Church. One such faction were the Calvinists, and today I have invited Marie Macpherson to tell us some more about John Knox, Calvinist reformer of Scotland.

knox-marie-macphersonMarie was born in Musselburgh, has a degree in Russian and English and wrote her PhD thesis about Russian writer Lermontov. The rich history of East Lothian – especially the Reformation period – provided the inspiration for her first fictional work, based on the early life of the Scottish reformer, John Knox. Having read both the first and now the second of Marie’s books, I’d say what she doesn’t know about John Knox is probably not worth knowing, and so, with no further ado, allow me to turn you over into her capable hands!

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John Knox and the “Monstrous Regiment”

The question I’m often asked is why would I, a woman, choose to write about John Knox? Some may idolise the founding father of the Scottish Reformation as a saint – not something the iconoclast would approve of – but for many Knox is the fire-breathing, pulpit-thumping tyrant who penned that vitriolic anti-feminine tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

To be fair, this was not an attack on all women but aimed at the ‘unnatural’ rule or regime of Mary Tudor in England, with sideswipes at Regent Marie de Guise in Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots in France. Neither was Knox a rogue male chauvinist in trumpeting the view that women were inferior beings: most men of the time agreed with him using scripture to justify their argument, though none were as vociferous as the fiery Scot. He not only wanted to depose the ‘three Marys’ but, if necessary, execute the tyrants. This was tantamount to treason.

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John Knox. Photo Kim Traynor, licensed under Creative Commons

But did Knox hate women? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In contrast to his abject hate and loathing of Catholic queens, Knox loved female company and formed several close relationships with women throughout his life. The twice-married father of five children was also quite the ladies’ man. The celibate Roman Catholic priest in the first half of his life made up for lost time in the second half. According to one source, “Whenever he made a journey he took around with him a certain number of women whom he used to satisfy his lusts.” Or, as someone at one of my talks remarked, “I never knew Knox was such a babe magnet.’ Needless to say, all this sheds a completely different light on Knox and contradicts his reputation as a rampant misogynist.

His relationship with his mother-in-law, Mrs Bowes, is particularly fascinating. Freed from the galleys in 1559, Knox was a pariah in Scotland but welcomed in England. Appointed minister in Berwick-upon-Tweed, he met Elizabeth Bowes, wife of the warden of Norham Castle. This middle-aged matron and mother of 15 children had been a devout Roman Catholic until the religious rug was pulled from under her. Inspired by his sermons, she developed a ‘crush’ on the charismatic Scots preacher. A religious hypochondriac, continually tortured by the devil with doubts about whether or not she was one of the elect, she poured out her heart to her substitute priest/confessor.

When she confessed to being guilty of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Knox must have been horrified – until realising she had no idea what they were. After explaining that these consisted of pride, riotous excess, idleness that provoked filthy lusts, resulting in all abomination and unnatural filthiness, he asked, ‘In which of these, Mother, are ye guilty?’ Unfortunately her response is not recorded.

Nevertheless, their intimacy has led to prurient speculation. The notorious cupboard incident at Alnwick where Knox confessed, “In very deed I thought nae creature had been temptit as I was,” has been wheeled out as evidence of adultery. But this vision of Knox lurking behind the linen cupboard to snatch a furtive embrace with his ‘belovit mother’ has been dismissed as fantasy. To quash rumours, Knox wrote a letter to the faithful explaining that the cause of his familiarity with Mrs Bowes was neither flesh nor blood but entirely of the spirit. More likely, Mrs Bowes was a maternal figure, the soft feminine presence Knox craved in a male dominated life. Though he endured her outpourings with the patience of a saint, she drove him to distraction at times with her “fasherie and nuisance”. She sounds like the mother-in-law from hell – and a novelist’s dream.

At the age of 33 he married Mrs Bowes’s 16 year-old-daughter, causing accusations of cradle snatching to be flung at him. However, in an age when women frequently died in childbirth, it was quite common for an older man to take a young wife. More shocking was Mrs Bowes’s decision to abandon her husband and family and follow her daughter and son-in-law to Geneva. Nevertheless, Marjory proved to be the perfect wife for Knox, not only his dear bedfellow but his helpmeet and secretary. Calvin certainly approved, calling her “the most delightful of wives” and “a rare find”. In Geneva, she gave birth to two sons and her premature death in 1560 left Knox in “no small heaviness”.

Invited to London in 1552 as one of King Edward VI’s court preachers, Knox lodged with the Lockes, a family of wealthy London mercers. He forged an intense relationship with Henry Locke’s young wife Anna, an intelligent, educated woman who wrote poetry and translated Calvin’s writings.

Whether or Anna was, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, the love of Knox’s life, she certainly became a life-long confidante and correspondent and his letters give some insight into the private man. In stark contrast to the image of the bully and brute, they reveal his sensitive ‘feminine’ side’. Exiled in Geneva, he expressed thirst and langour for her presence: “Sometimes I sobbed fearing what should become of you”, he wrote, fearing for her life during Mary Tudor’s persecution. So much so that he invited Anna and her children to Geneva where their ménage-à-quatre dashed any hopes Knox may have had of living a quiet scholarly life. Did these domestic troubles drive the hen-pecked Knox to distraction and fuel the flames for his infamous tract?

knox-firstblastPublished anonymously in 1557, Knox’s First Blast was not only misjudged. Drawing howls of horror from all sides – including John Calvin – it was grossly mistimed. Despite his famous gift of prophecy, he failed to foresee Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558 or the accession of yet another queen – albeit a Protestant one.

Though Knox tried to mince his words, the young Queen Elizabeth I was not at all amused and refused his request for safe passage through England. When Knox finally arrived in 1559, Scotland was in the brunt of civil war and he took up the fight against the Regent, Mary of Guise. Her death in June 1560 heralded the triumph of Protestantism in Scotland.

In December 1560, Knox and Mary Stewart both suffered personal tragedies: the unexpected death of his wife, Marjory, and her husband, King François. Despite these common losses, the elderly widower and the young widow could not be more different and clashed in a series of famous meetings. The staunch Protestant believed the people had the right to depose an ungodly ruler while the devout Roman Catholic queen believed in the divine right of a monarch to rule. Thus she was furious when Knox dared to challenge her marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.

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“Must he nag so?”

Neither was she pleased when, after being widowed for three years, 50-year-old Knox took another 17 year-old bride. Mary “stormeth wonderfully”, not only because he’d wed her distant cousin, Margaret Stewart, without royal consent but because it brought Knox into the family. Catholic commentators even accused him of having used the black arts to secure the match.

Whatever his secret, Knox managed to sire three daughters within six years. As well as fulfilling her role as bedfellow, Margaret acted as Knox’s secretary and PA. But the fact that, after his death, the merry widow wed Andrew Ker of Fawdonside who had held a pistol to Mary Stewart’s pregnant belly during David Riccio’s murder, suggests a more spirited character than Marjory.

knox-louise_rayner_john_knoxs_house_edinburghDespite his success in establishing the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, Knox became increasingly embittered in his final years as he realised that religion was not a priority for many of the lords reneging to the queen’s side. In November 1572, Knox died in his bed rather than atop a burning pyre, as he’d always feared, in James Mossman’s house, now known as John Knox House, on High Street. A plaque in the car park outside St Giles Cathedral marks where he was buried – perhaps next to his beloved, tragic Marjory.

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I rather like the idea of Mary, Queen of Scots, “storming wonderfully” 🙂 Thank you, Marie for this interesting post, and should you want to know more about Marie and her books, I recommend you visit her Amazon page. You can also connect on FB or Twitter.

As to her book, I recently read The second blast of the trumpet, and here is my review:

knox-2bott-book-covervWriting a book about John Knox comes with its own particular challenges—principally that of creating some sympathy for a man mostly remembered as a harsh and uncompromising reformer of the church. Fortunately, Ms Macpherson manages to do just that, presenting us with a complex character who is self-righteous and weak in turns, thereby inspiring the odd bout of tenderness

The book covers the period 1549 to 1559. It continues the story begun in Ms Macpherson’s first book, The First Blast of the Trumpet, and for the sake of clarity—and enjoyment—I recommend reading them in order.

Had this book been only about John Knox’s efforts to promote his religious doctrine, it could quickly have become boring. Luckily, there is an unfolding romance within, with Knox being struck with Cupid’s arrow the first time he claps eyes on little Marjory Bowes. Not that Marjory reciprocates his feelings – not initially – but over the years she develops a special fondness for this bearded and passionate man. As does Marjory’s mother. Ms Macpherson handles the resulting tensions with aplomb and a certain tongue-in-cheek, resulting in a very colourful Mrs Bowes.

Ms Macpherson is an accomplished writer. The prose is fluid, the historical details elegantly inserted, the descriptions vivid. All in all, this is an engaging read, my only quibble being the rather abrupt ending. I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Knox Saga!

The good, the bad and the ugly – a smorgasbord of pirates

hh-pirates-whole-series-2016Today, I’ve invited Helen Hollick to join me here on Stolen Moments. Helen is the author of many, many books, among which her books about Emma of Normandy and Harold II of England deserve a special mention. As do her wonderful books about the dashing pirate Jesamiah Acorne and his adventures in the early 18th century. I must admit to being somewhat addicted to the Seawitch series – and Jesamiah. Now, in difference to real pirates, Jesamiah is a “good” pirate. So far, he hasn’t tortured, raped, terrorised or otherwise intimidated his fellow men. Thank heavens for that!

hh-2-helen-mediumObviously, to write books about an imaginary pirate requires that you do your research. It is therefore not exactly surprising that Helen knows A LOT about pirates. So much, in fact, that she has now written a non-fiction book, Pirates: Truth and Tales, about these maritime bandits – most of them anything but good!

So, I now turn you over to Helen and her post about some not-so-nice men.

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Were there any good pirates? They might be a tad difficult to find, unless you go back as far as Ancient Greece when a pirate was respected and admired as a warrior figure; the word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran: to attack.

There’s no denying that pirates were thieves, murderers and rapists – the terrorists of their time, although during the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth century they were tolerated, even encouraged, by various Kings, Queens and Governments of England because they plundered the ships of countries which were enemies. Spain mostly.

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Favourite hunting grounds of the pirates

The handful of years between 1700-1722 was the Golden Age for these scurvy knaves of the sea. They might be dashing heroes in the eyes of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp fans, but were darn nuisances to the Spanish and merchant traders. Funny how piracy, under the guise of legal privateering, was acceptable when it involved English ships with mostly English crews plundering Spanish treasure for the benefit of King and Country, but as soon as their deeds started hitting the pockets of merchants back home in England, the pirates had to go.

To be fair, trade between England and the American Colonies, pre 1700, was only on the cusp of exploding into Big Profit Territory – ergo uninteresting to those of piratical inclinations. Land such as Florida and the Carolinas had nothing to offer. Virginia beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains was unknown territory. The few plantations along the coast, Chesapeake Bay, easy-access rivers and on the islands of the Caribbean and Bahamas, yielded some profit, but not much.

To earn income from land, labour was needed. This was supplied by indentured servants – on the surface mostly (but not all) willing men and women who traded several years of their lives in return for the promise of land or payment; in reality, slaves, because the majority never received any reward except cruelty, poverty, and all too often, death.

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A Buccaneer (Howard Pyle)

Then, the wars with Spain, more or less, ended and for landowners and merchants, tobacco crops became a high source of income, along with sugar and cotton. Vessels carrying these products were just what a pirate wanted. These crops were highly lucrative but required cheap labour to tend them. Forget those poor indentured fools who succumbed to illness and heatstroke. They were replaced by black African slaves. And captured slave ships, for many a pirate, were wonderful because the cargo brought in a lot of money, and once the captured ship itself was cleaned and scrubbed – inside and out – it made a good pirate vessel, for slavers were usually designed for speed. The quicker the Atlantic crossing, the less likely the ‘livestock’ would die in transit.

The most famous ‘bad’ pirate, Blackbeard, had, for a short while, a splendid flagship which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. He had ‘acquired’ her in November 1717 while she was being used as a French Slaver. We don’t know what happened to her cargo, but we do know the ship’s fate. Blackbeard ran her aground in 1718 off the coast of North Carolina, where her wreck was found many decades later in 1996.

Stede Bonnet was known as the ‘Gentleman Pirate’, so was he perhaps the ‘good one’? I personally am curious whether his name was Bonnet as in a lady’s hat, or Bonnay with a French-sounding twist to it? We will never know, except Bonnet (as in hat) doesn’t sound very piratical does it? Nor was he successful as a pirate. After messing things up several times, he was eventually captured and hanged. He had only turned to piracy to escape his nagging wife. Divorce, I feel, would have been an easier option.

Several notorious pirates fitted the category of ‘ugly’ – as in temperament rather than looks. (Although I would wager they were not especially handsome!)

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More Howard Pyle – pirates fighting

Among the worst was Edward ‘Ned’ Lowe. Born in London in 1690, he was a known thief. His younger brother was hanged for burglary, and Lowe himself fled to the Caribbean in 1710, probably to avoid a similar fate. He met a girl, married, had a child, the wife dying in childbirth. He tried to hold down a legitimate job, but losing his temper he killed a man, commandeered a ship and turned to piracy. He seems to have respected marriage and women, though, for when capturing ships and forcing men to join his crew, he never insisted that married men should join him. A ‘good’ man after all? Ha! Read on.

Lowe captured more than one hundred vessels and became feared for his cruelty and liking for torture. His favoured method of discovering where valuable cargo was stashed, or punishing someone who crossed him, or who had a face he didn’t like, was to place a slow-match (a rope fuse) between the fingers of bound hands and set light to the rope, which would burn slowly, roasting the flesh to the bone. Another favourite was to suspend his victims by the ankles from a yardarm and drop them to the deck, repeating the process until they died.

As an early form of bungee-jumping, this particular style is not to be recommended.

Then Lowe captured a Portuguese ship, the Nostra Seigniora de Victoria. She was carrying 11,000 gold Portuguese moidores, worth at the time around £15,000 (you can add at least one more zero to that today,) but rather than the treasure falling into pirate hands the ship’s captain heaved it all into the sea. In fury Lowe cut off the man’s lips and boiled them in water, then forced the unfortunate victim to eat them. Lowe then murdered him along with the rest of the crew. He was also said to have burned a Frenchman alive. Definitely not a nice man.

In 1723 he sailed to the coast of Guinea where he met up with a previous partner. The partnership lasted two days, Lowe was abandoned by his friend and most of his crew – they’d had enough of his ugly nastiness. He sailed off due south and was never heard of again.

I doubt many shed tears over his loss!

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Ugh! That Lowe character seems like someone best avoided at all costs. Thank you, Helen, for sharing his story with us. Too bad he sort of sailed off and disappeared – although I’ve heard there is an alternative version of his fate, whereby he was captured by the French and hanged. Good riddance, I say.

hh-piratesAs to Pirates: Truth and Tales, it has already received some great reviews. Like this one:

In this informative and comprehensive book, the author takes the idea of pirates and piracy. Interspersed throughout is the author’s impressive knowledge of historical detail and it is obvious that a great deal of research has gone into bringing this piratical guide to life. Skilfully blending historical facts with literary fiction, sometimes, the book reads as lightly as a novel, at other times, we come sharply back to reality with daring tales of mischance and menace, of lives ruined by too much grog and too many loose women, and which ended, all too often, dangled at the end of a hangman’s rope. Throughout the book, the author’s real life buccaneers nestle comfortably alongside their more colourful literary counterparts. I especially enjoyed seeing the author’s own pirate creation, Jesamiah Acorne, from The Sea Witch Voyages, come to vibrant life in his own much deserved chapter. However you like your pirates, be they real or imaginary, there is no doubt that Pirates: Truth and Tales, is a great dip in and out of kind of book and whichever page the book falls open at, you are guaranteed to find a fascinating snippet into the life and times of these colourful, and it must be said, decidedly, dangerous characters. (Jaffa Reads Too)

Should you want to know more about Helen and her books, I recommend you stop by her website or her blog, or on twitter, or on FB. See? Helen’s all over the place!

 

Me and them – a beleaguered writer and her characters

It is strange with characters: once you’ve created them, they never go away. Not even when you’re no longer writing about them, but have moved over to other invented loves. They lurk in your head, mostly as silent shadows of themselves, now and then substantially more vociferous.

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Apparently, not the last…

“Just because you’re done with us, doesn’t mean we’re done with you,” Alex Graham tells me, graciously accepting a cup of tea. (Now and then, we have these intense tea sessions in my head: all my characters and me. Like a major reunion…)
“Really? I’d never have guessed,” I reply. For the last few weeks, Alex and her 17th century hubby have been very active in my brain. So actiove, in fact, that I’ve written another 110 000 words about them. And here was I, thinking To Catch a Falling Star was the last in The Graham Saga.
“What do you expect?” Matthew asks, looking up from where he’s mending a rake. “We still have plenty of life left to us, and surely you must sympathise with our need to find out what happens to our bairns, our friends?”
I do. Heck, I want to find out too. It’s just that at present, I am mostly with Adam and Kit and the struggles they’re facing in 14th century England. Or with Jason and Helle, as we speak facing off with their own personal nemesis.
“Yes, please get on with that, would you?” Jason says, an accusing expression in his bloodied face. “You can’t leave us here, dangling between life and death for much longer.”
“Sorry.” I hand him a big cup of tea – and a huge slice of chocolate cake which he promptly passes to Helle. Jason doesn’t do sweet stuff. He’s into broccoli and chicken and other healthy stuff. “You’re making me sound very boring,” he says, those amber eyes of his giving me an accusing look.

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Coming 2017…

So maybe I should add that he’s very, very old, remembers most of his 50 odd lives, and has the most amazing mahogany coloured hair. Plus he’s been looking for Helle in each and every one of those lives with like zero success rate except for the life when he found her floating dead in Paris—and this one.
“A very persevering man.” Helle drags her blonde curls off her face, revealing that she too is looking the worse for wear. “Look, could you please just finish this scene before I catch my death of a cold and die?” Oh, right: she’s soaked. And if I were her, I’d be more worried about drowning.
“She can’t swim?” Kit asks, eyeing Helle over the rim of her mug. My 14th century leading lady stays close to her man, the green of her kirtle complementing her blue eyes. And her red hair, except that she isn’t showing us any hair, neatly veiled as behoves a modest wife.
“Modest?” Adam chuckles. “Haven’t you heard what she did to save me from certain death?”
Err, yes, I have. I wrote it, remember? Central scene in In the Shadow of the Storm… “Ah, aye, so you did.” He looks a bit confused. “But tell me, is it you that writes in which direction things will go, or is it we who direct you what to write?”
“I can swim,” Helle pipes up before I can reply to Adam’s question. “But I’m no fan of deep water.”
“And yet there is no need to swim in the shallows,” Kit replies. She nibbles daintily at her chocolate cake. “What is this?”
“Something as yet not discovered back in your time,” Alex tells her. “Just making a name for itself in our time.”
“Our time?” Helle leans forward. “I thought you were from my time.”
“I was.” Alex smiles at Matthew and squeezes his hand. “But now his time is my time.” She fixes me with one of those death-ray looks she uses to quell her many children. “You could have chosen a time with more modern comforts.”
“Sorry.” I jerk my thumb at Matthew. “He was in the 17th century. That’s where he belongs, rooted to his time in a way you’re not.”
“Aye,” Matthew says. “I prefer not being dragged through time.” He nods at Adam. “What do you think?”

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The next Adam & Kit book, coming in April

“Plenty of challenges in my time,” Adam replies. “I do not need to further complicate things.” He looks away.
“Will Mortimer win, do you think?” Matthew asks.
“You know, don’t you?” Adam asks.
“Aye, I do.”
“So why ask?” Adam demands, getting to his feet. “Is it to taunt me, for not knowing what to do when the lord I love as a father usurps the powers of the young king I serve and love just as much?”
Matthew clears his throat. “No, of course not.” He grasps Adam’s arm and pulls him into a rough embrace. “You’re a good man, de Guirande. Your conscience will guide you.”
“Amen to that.” Kit sets a hand to Adam’s shoulder. “And I’ll be there.”
“Nothing you can do, sweeting,” Adam tells her. He sighs. “Nothing either of us can do.” He turns my way. “How will it end?”
“Sorry. Can’t tell you.” I make a zipping gesture over my mouth.
“Bloody enervating writers,” Alex mutters, joining her husband and Adam and Kit. “Think they can decide our lives just as it pleases them.”

In the case of Roger Mortimer, I am restricted by historical facts—as I am, if to a lesser extent, when telling Matthew’s and Adam’s story. But I don’t say that out loud. Besides, when it comes to my invented characters, I rarely feel entirely in control. To answer Adam’s question, generally things turn out with me on control. Until they take a firm hold of their fates—even if it plays havoc with my initial plotline. Just as their continued presence threatens to play havoc with my sanity.

“Tsss!” Alex gives me a light shove. “Admit it, you love having us here.”
I do. Of course, I do. Without them, my head would be very empty. Sort like a huge black coffin without a corpse in it.
“You just have to accept it,” Helle says, handing me the last of the chocolate cake. “We may only exist in your head, but we’re the immortal ones here. Long after you’re gone to dust, we’ll still be around, sitting on a bookshelf or a Kindle somewhere.”

Well, that put me in my place, didn’t it? Me, the mere mortal, has spawned invented characters that potentially will outlive me. For some reason, that makes me smile before going in search of the Advil. Seriously, must they talk so much? And at the same time?

Making it good in tough times – meet Aethelflaed

headshotcroppedToday I am very proud to host Annie Whitehead here on Stolen Moments. Annie has a thing about Anglo-Saxon England – most understandable, IMO – and so far, she has published two books set in this period. I have read the first book, To be a Queen, and so enjoyed it I just had to have Annie drop by & visit. The second one, Alvar the Kingmaker, already resides on my Kindle. Anyway: you want to know more about Annie, I suggest you drop by her blog or her website. And just like that, I turn you over to Annie. Enjoy!

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It’s fair to say that life in Anglo-Saxon England was tough. Whether you were a noble, or a slave (yes, they kept slaves) there were certain hazards which could not be avoided: wounds festering, tooth enamel being worn away by chewing bread made from roughly-ground flour, Viking raids, infestations of worms, and other nasties such as ergot, a fungus which attached itself to cereal crops and was toxic to humans who subsequently ate it.

So, in general, it’s probably also fair to say that women were no better off than men, although maybe they didn’t accumulate so many war wounds. But they could wield power, and influence, and some of them rose to great prominence in what was, essentially, a warrior society.

Certain ladies come immediately to mind: Emma of Normandy – queen, wife of kings, mother of kings, and possibly the first spin doctor. And with her great work of propaganda, she allowed us a glimpse of the status of another woman, her rival, Aelfgifu of Northampton.

The Encomium Emmae Reginae, commissioned by Emma to bolster her reputation and the claims to the throne of her son Harthacnut, seeks to destroy his rival Harald’s claims by denying that he was King Cnut’s son. But it goes further, also denying that Harald is even the son of Aelfgifu of Northampton. Clearly his position as the son of a great Northampton lady is important.

Another royal lady was also called Aelfgifu. Her brief time as consort was remembered for a scandal, when she was found in bed with her husband the king, and her mother, but despite this she was able to amass such riches during her lifetime that in her will she bequeathed, among other treasures, a necklace worth 120 mancuses, two armlets, each also worth 120 mancuses, and grants elsewhere of 100 mancuses and 200 mancuses. A mancus was either a gold coin, or a weight in gold of around 4.25 g, equivalent to a month’s wages for a skilled worker in medieval Europe. This lady was clearly very rich, not only in material goods, but in estates too – many of her bequests were grants of land.

annie-aethelflaed_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_abingdon_abbeyPerhaps the epitome though, of successful Anglo-Saxon women, was Aelthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. Granted, her position as daughter of the king gave her a certain amount of guaranteed wealth and status. But the same can be said for many ‘princesses’ (not a term that was used in this era). She was extraordinary, even by the standards of the day, and she is remembered in some annals as a queen, even though the title was never hers by right. She certainly knew how to be one however.

Her story begins like so many, with an arranged marriage of political convenience. She was married off to the Lord Ethelred of Mercia, Alfred’s only ally against the invading Vikings. (It speaks volumes to me that Alfred ‘the Great’ needed to secure his ally in this way – and I’m passionate in my belief that Mercia played a very large part in Alfred’s successes. I digress, though.)

It’s always been assumed that Aethelflaed grew up elsewhere than at her father’s court, and a prime candidate for her childhood home would have been Mercia. At the time of her birth, Mercia was ruled by King Burgred, who was married to Alfred’s sister. Alfred’s wife was a Mercian noblewoman, so there were strong family ties between the two kingdoms.

However, as a bride, returning to the midlands, Aethelflaed would not necessarily have been welcomed. Indeed, there is a (later, medieval) tale that she was attacked on her way to Mercia, by Mercians who were not in favour of alliance between the two countries.

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Edward the Elder

The war against the Vikings fared better once Alfred and Ethelred were working in partnership, and went better still when Alfred’s son, Aethelflaed’s younger brother, Edward, reached an age where he too could fight. Edward, later known as Edward the Elder, was an admirable warrior and strategist. Bear that point in mind…

At some point, around the year 902, Ethelred of Mercia was struck with some kind of debilitating illness. It would have been easy, and perfectly natural, for Edward (who had at this point succeeded his father to the throne) simply to annex Mercia and rule it himself. But he didn’t. Even after Ethelred’s death, apart from putting a couple of strongholds, London and Oxford, under his direct control, he allowed his sister to remain in charge of Mercia. Yes, a fit, able, strong young king allowed his sister, a woman, to rule.

Maybe the Mercians, fiercely independant, would have put up too much resistance. But just think – they didn’t rise up against her, she who was not really ‘one of them’. They didn’t rebel against Edward, and they didn’t put up a candidate of their own. They, like Edward, were happy to be led by a woman. One can only wonder what her personal qualities must have been, to inspire such loyalty.

annie-aethelflaed_-_ms_royal_14_b_viDid she actually fight? I’m not sure. But she was definitely present at the siege of Derby, where she lost thegns ‘who were dear to her’ and we can infer that it was she who oversaw the successful defence of Chester in 907, because we know that by this time her husband was incapacitated. In 917, an abbot of whom she was fond was murdered by the Welsh, and she led an army into Brycheiniog, attacking the fort on Llangorse Lake and taking many hostages. Clearly, this was not a lady to be crossed.

Even when she died, she was in the middle of negotiations with a deputation from the north, who had asked for her help against a fresh wave of invaders.

I think her achievements rank her alongside the likes of Boudicca, of Joan of Arc, of, well – there aren’t that many others, are there?

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Aethelflaed – courtesy Richard Tearle

And yet history barely remembers her. I think it’s largely because the main primary source for this period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was commissioned by Alfred the Great, and was written by monks of Wessex, who naturally had a bias towards the West Saxons. But she is remembered in the old capital of Mercia, Tamworth, where in 1918 they erected a statue of her. I hope she would be pleased!

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My review

annie-queenI must admit that while I find Anglo-Saxon England fascinating it is also a bit of an unchartered territory for me, and while I had heard Aethelflaed mentioned, I did not know much about her prior to reading this book. Now, of course, I know much more, starting with the fact that our protagonist grew up in an environment of fear – her father, Alfred the Great experienced his fair share of setbacks, and when he did, his immediate family lived in fear of their lives, something that in many ways marked Aethelflaed for life.

Ms Whitehead presents a serious child who grows into a serious young woman, then a serious wife. A woman for whom duty comes first, no matter what her heart’s desires may be. A lady who has every intention of doing what she can to never again experience fear, which effectively means halting and defeating the Vikings. Aethelflaed is an engaging character, and by the time she is old enough to be torn between her duty to marry as her father wishes and her own desires, I, as a reader, have developed a personal relationship with little Teasel which makes her anguish my anguish. Except, of course, that I, as the reader, have the privilege of glimpsing into the mind of Ethelred, Aethelflaed’s husband, and realise Alfred has chosen wisely – both for political and personal reasons.

Strong characters are the pillars on which this novel is built, firmly rooted in a historical and geographic context that is beautifully presented. It is apparent Ms Whitehead knows her period inside out, with period details inserted seamlessly into the narrative. It is equally apparent she loves her protagonist – which is maybe why I love her too!

 

 

When it snows, it snows – meet Christoph Fischer and his hidden body

christoph-14958177_10153777270967132_571098312_oHi Christoph, and welcome back to Stolen Moments! Last time you were here, it was to do a guest post related to your book In Search of a Revolution. Today, you are here because I’ve recently read your book “The Body in the Snow”. These are two very different books – one is set against the grim history of war in Finland in the 1940s, the other is a cosy mystery. What are your thoughts about writing in two such different genres?
It may be a little self-defeating to switch genres and make my loyal readers wait longer for a new historical novel, but I enjoy writing in different genres. I need it so that everything stays fresh and original. If I wrote the same genre back to back I fear the outcome might become formulaic and repetitive.

Is the writing process different when writing a historical versus a contemporary?
You have to do a lot more research for a historical novel, more ground and preparation work, although it is essential for all books to check your facts. On the other hand, I don’t plot too much in advance and keep the emphasis on the characters, who often challenge me by changing their minds, so, for me, the process itself remains similarly dynamic and flexible.

christoph-14962826_10153777270952132_988519440_nAnd speaking of the writing process, you are an extremely productive author – how long does it take you to write a book?
The impression of my productivity stems from the fact that I wrote seven novels before I published the first one, so I’m off to a head start compared to others.
From the first word to being published, so far the minimum time needed has been seven months. I can write a first draft within about three weeks, with several re-writes then needed before I feel confident to send it off to beta-readers. Including their feedback more re-writes follow, then two back and forth with my editor, then formatting and a last edit. I started “Ludwika” in May 2015 and published it in December the same year.
In contrast, my next novel, “African August” was written in 2010 and has been re-written, dismissed, brought back to life and re-edited several times. It’s an adventure story and doesn’t quite fit into my portfolio, but I believe in the story, so it will be published as part of a charity box set – hopefully by the end of the year, which makes it almost 6 years from first word to being published.

I must say I was quite surprised when I read the blurb for The Body in the Snow. How long have you known you wanted to write a whodunit?
I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction when I was young, from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie. When I met my partner, who is a complete fan of mysteries, I was introduced to the Martin Beck series and was (initially) forced to watch “Midsummer Murders” and “Death in Paradise”. My partner is annoyingly brilliant at spotting who did it and that got me into the mind-set of the writer rather than consumer of whodunits. In 2012 I had the idea for the setting and I’ve been working on the book ever since, with changing confidence that I could pull it off.

gabriel-metsu-writingI imagine that when writing a mystery, plotting becomes crucial. Would you agree?
Plotting is more important in a mystery, that is true, but I’m not a great plotter during the first draft. I had four or five ideas of who should have done it and started writing the novel with all possibilities open until the story demanded that I closed one avenue off after the other, until I was left with the last two. I went back to re-write the book, ironing out the now inconsistent parts of the story and around the 90% mark decided on the culprit. I went back to the beginning again and finished.
Writing while not knowing for sure whodunit, helped to keep the mystery for me and avoid a “writing-by-numbers”. If I didn’t know, then it would be more difficult for readers to figure it out, I reckoned. In any case, writing cosy mysteries allows for more colourful characters and more emphasis on their backgrounds.

Your main character is Bebe Bollinger, a self-centred, vain, has-been diva who desperately wants to make a come-back. It could have been very tragic, but instead Bebe is a vibrant (if at times enervating) woman with no intention of giving up on life. Is she purely a figment of your imagination, or have you been inspired by people you know?
Some mannerisms and characteristics are stolen from real life people or celebrities, but these individuals then all didn’t fit the specific idea that evolved in my head. Having worked for an airline and the British Film Institute, I’ve come across enough Diva behaviour to write a village hall full of such characters.

I must admit to laughing out loud at the notion of re-igniting your career by partnering with dear Engelbert in the Eurovision contest. Seriously, what did you think of “Love will set you free”? (As a Swede, I am tempted to holler “Euphoria” instead)
I thought the song was sweet, although not a hit, probably disadvantaged by the positioning at the start of the competition. It’s more an album filler than a chart topper and would never win the “Melodiefestivalen” the way “Euphoria” did.
But I’m admittedly never one to pick the winner. I had “Euphoria” nowhere near my Top Ten that year, whereas I regarded “Hero”, “Popular” and “La Voix” as top contenders…

I happen to know you’re one of those nice people who openly admit to being a Eurovision fan. So which are your top three favourite Eurovision songs?
Amongst the massive amount of music classics that the contest produced I have to go with “Waterloo”, “A little Peace” and “Save Your Kisses for Me”. (Anna: And I just have to add that Ein Bisschen Frieden is a big favourite of mine. )
However, as I’m always one for the underdog, of the non-winning songs I would like to mention songs that I in fact listen to far more often: “Karleken Ar” by Jill Johnson, “Sata Salamaa” by Vicky (Virve) Rosti and “Amsterdam” by Maggie MacNeal.

Back to your book: The Body in the Snow has three strong female characters living as uncomfortable neighbours in a little hamlet – and a somewhat hen-pecked man, Ian. How do you feel about him?
I think he is the classic decent Welsh bloke who aims to do the right thing, has a big, community-driven heart and unfortunately is married to a difficult woman. I have a lot of sympathy for him and his predicament. In an environment of three head-strong women he finds it difficult to create an atmosphere of harmony and peace which is all he really wants.

Will Bebe Bollinger be back in a future book?
Definitely. I have a lot of ideas, just not enough time to produce the next title as quickly as I would like. Bebe has a career to chase, maybe Eurovision 2013, maybe as singer on a cruise ship, maybe solving another mystery in her hamlet in Wales?
Other than Bebe, what are you working on at present?
I’m organising a series of local Book Fairs and Literary Festivals at the moment, so I’m glad I wrote the forthcoming “African August” before all of this started. It’s an adventure story about a lawyer who quits society to seek adventure and cheap living in Africa, without quite knowing what he let himself in for. It is based on some experiences I had when travelling the continent as cabin crew and the naïve ideas I had when first setting foot into the jungle.
I’m also about to finish the sequel to my psychological thriller “The Healer”, working title “The Sanctuary on Cayman Brac”. Arpan, the healer, now lives in the Caribbean, where the story is set. Some unfinished business and lose ends from the first book are set to disturb his peace. The book also features some characters from my other thriller, “The Gamblers” to give them a sort of sequel as well.

Thank you for stopping by, Christoph, and good luck with all your projects. Personally, I feel somewhat exhausted just reading about all this so I will now curl up in my sofa with a  cup of tea. And for those curious to hear what I thought about The Body in the Snow, read on!

About the book:

Fading celebrity Bebe Bollinger is on the wrong side of fifty and dreaming of a return to the limelight. When a TV show offers the chance of a comeback, Bebe grabs it with both hands – not even a lazy agent, her embarrassing daughter, irritating neighbours or a catastrophic snowfall will derail her moment of glory. But when a body is found in her sleepy Welsh hamlet, scandal threatens.

My thoughts
Snow is a bummer. At least, that is something Bebe Bollinger and her neighbours Dora, Ian & Christine agree on. That’s pretty much the only thing they agree on, seeing as Bebe considers Dora somewhat vulgar and Christine an OCD maniac who is a royal pain in the nether parts. Ian, however, she likes – plus it is handy to be on good terms with the single man in the remote Welsh hamlet in which they all live.

Why Bebe Bollinger, famous ex-artist who desperately wants to revive her career, is living out in the back of beyond is a bit unclear. Maybe it is easier to be not-so-famous when living in a place where no one cares if you’re famous. After all, Christine mostly cares about parking and will go to great lengths to ensure her undisciplined neighbours don’t park on the road. And Dora is an odd fish (as per Bebe) who seems to genuinely enjoy living close to nature and is far more interested in birds than in Bebe.

And there, dear peeps, you have the central cast in Christoph Fischer’s latest book, The Body in the Snow. Further colourful additions include Bebe’s VERY loud and demanding daughter, said daughter’s boyfriend, and the future murder victim. While not wanting to give too much away, let’s just say that the obvious reasons for offing the victim turn out to be not so obvious, and suddenly Bebe herself is involved in the murder investigation centred round the corpse found in the snow.

Bebe is a vibrant person whose main interest in life is herself – and her flagging career. Not exactly the most introspective of people, she is blind to her own pushiness and endearingly vulnerable beneath her diva façade. Burdened with the daughter from hell, an ineffectual agent and the insight that she is getting old, Bebe is determined not to give up on life or her ambition to yet again become a household name. The author has done a great job in creating a character who is potentially dislikeable and still making her likeable – precisely because she is so human, warts and all.

The mystery as such trundles along, but is rather secondary, IMO, to the story surrounding Bebe. As a classic crime story, The Body in the Snow could have done with some more pace. As a cosy read on a rainy Sunday afternoon, this is a book that makes you feel just that: cosy. And as to Bebe – well, I for one hope to have the pleasure of her company in future books. After all, ladies like her don’t grow on trees, neither in the real world nor in the fictional one!

And, obviously, by now you’ll be jumping up and down in your eagerness to buy The Body in the Snow – which you can do by following this link.

About the author
Christoph Fischer was born in Germany, near the Austrian border, as the son of a Sudeten-German father and a Bavarian mother. Not a full local in the eyes and ears of his peers, he developed an ambiguous sense of belonging and moved to Hamburg in pursuit of his studies and to lead a life of literary indulgence. In 1993 he moved to the UK and now lives in Llandeilo in West Wales. He and his partner have several Labradoodles to complete their family.

For more info about Christoph and his many books – both historical and contemporary – drop by on his various “social media” homes.
Website: http://www.christophfischerbooks.com/
Blog: http://writerchristophfischer.wordpress.com/
Amazon: http://ow.ly/BtveY
Twitter: https://twitter.com/CFFBooks
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/WriterChristophFischer?ref=hl

Digging up the Tudor roots

Okay, I’m going to come clean: I am NOT a major Tudor fan. I’ve had it up to here (waves hand around eye level) with novels featuring Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Likewise with Elizabeth I – undoubtedly an intriguing lady – maybe not so much with Mary Tudor. Which is why I surprised myself when I bought a book about Owen Tudor – but hey, all I knew about this particular Tudor was that he’d seduced Henry V’s widow  and that this happened like 100 years before Henry VIII’s heyday. Turns out I enjoyed the book, which is why I’ve invited the author, Tony Riches, to pop by.

TR Owen and Jasper BooksWelcome to my blog, Tony! By now, I have read quite a few of your books, and I recently enjoyed (yes, to my surprise – see above) both Owen and Jasper, the first two books in your Tudor trilogy. Why this fascination with the early Tudors?

Hi Anna – and thank you for inviting me to your blog. I was born within sight of Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry Tudor, so was naturally intrigued by how Henry became King of England. Surprised to find there were no books about Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married the widow of King Henry V, I began researching his life and discovered the fascinating story of how the Tudor dynasty began. I soon had more than enough material for a book and decided to write the trilogy, with Henry being born in the first book, coming of age in the second and becoming king in the third.

In Owen, you present Catherine of Valois as being prone to depression, if not full-blown mental instability. Tell us a bit about this – did your research lead you to conclude she was somewhat frail, or is this a case of “filling in the blanks”?

Although there is no direct evidence of Catherine’s ‘instability’ it’s recorded that her father, Charles VI of France, suffered from delusions, such as the belief he was made of glass. He began violently attacking his servants and had to be locked up for his own safety. Catherine’s son Henry VI also suffered from ’lapses’ and is reported as falling into some form of depressive catatonic state. Importantly, both her father and her son sometimes failed to recognise their own family and, as the link between them, Queen Catherine must have feared for her own mental health. She became a recluse at Bermondsey Abbey after Owen was arrested and her sons taken from her, so it was easy to imagine how this might have caused tension in her relationship with Owen Tudor.

In Jasper, Henry VI is already showing clear signs of retiring mentally from the world, leaving his forceful wife to cope on her own. Do you think there were ever discussions among the Lancastrians to depose him?

Yes – he was definitely unfit to rule, so if it had not been for the protection of Queen Margaret of Anjou I’m sure he would have been ‘retired’ through ill health much earlier. It’s fascinating to wonder how history might have changed if he’d not remained on the throne…

There has been speculation regarding the paternity of Prince Edward, Henry VI’s son. What is your take on it?

The only person who knows for certain is Queen Margaret, although providing the king with a male heir transformed her status in the country. By all accounts she was an attractive and lonely young woman, so given her husband’s mental and physical state at the time the temptation to take matters into her own hands must have been overwhelming.  (Ha! A true diplomat, Mr Riches…)

You paint a very engaging picture of Jasper Tudor – a man loyal to a fault, both to his brother and his nephew. Was this your starting point when you decided to write about him?

I wanted to show Jasper as a man with plenty of weaknesses. He always seemed to run from battles to save himself, he wasn’t a great military tactician, often failed to listen to good advice and didn’t settle down and marry until he was fifty-five.  At the same time, Jasper was an easy man to like, as he always put others first. There is no question of his loyalty to Henry Tudor or his diplomatic skills, qualities which were vital for the future of the Tudor dynasty.

 

In Jasper, the Welsh are talked into supporting Henry Tudor because he’s Welsh and rides under the Welsh dragon. Were there benefits to the Welsh during Henry VII’s reign?

The Welsh had been subjugated, second-class citizens for centuries, not allowed to own land or even carry a sword, so it must have been compelling to believe Henry was their prophesised saviour, ‘Y Mab Darogan’, the ‘son of destiny’. There is scant evidence that Henry VII ever returned to Wales once he was king, however, although he generously rewarded those who supported him at Bosworth.

As a writer, I found it interesting to note that Owen is written in first person, present tense, while Jasper is third person, past tense. Why have you used two such different approaches?

I started writing Owen in the third person, then read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and was impressed by the sense of immediacy she achieves. I enjoyed the challenge of re-writing Owen in the first person and present tense – but Jasper was always third person in book one and I decided to continue this. I understand some readers struggle to get in to first person, present tense, although the feedback and reviews (and international sales) suggest it wasn’t an issue.

Your trilogy is to be concluded with a third book (obviously) named Henry. It seems to me the world of historical fiction readers is very polarised when it comes to Henry Tudor – what is your take on this enigmatic man?

I respected Richard III’s courage at the end of my book Jasper – and now I’m keen to present a fresh perspective on the man Henry was. He inherited a bankrupt throne and left it richer than it had ever been. He oversaw the longest period of peace for centuries, uniting families and establishing a new style of monarchy. (I’m attending the Bosworth anniversary re-enactment next month, however, and am sure the ‘Ricardians’ will take some convincing!)

What I found very interesting in Jasper was how distant you depicted the relationship between Margaret Beaufort and her son, Henry. Not so strange, really, seeing as he was raised by others than her, but somewhat at odds with the notion that she was the “power behind the throne” once he became king. What are your thoughts on Margaret and her relationship with Henry?

Margaret Beaufort was a fascinating woman, and I relied on numerous sources but was particularly impressed by Elizabeth Norton’s Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty. The price of Henry’s long exile was that his mother would have been a complete stranger, as for many years they couldn’t exchange letters, yet she never stopped working for his return and became his most trusted advisor once he was king.

Finally, when will we be able to read Henry?

I am now working on the first draft and plan to launch Henry, Book Three of The Tudor Trilogy by Easter next year.

Thank you so much for dropping by, Tony – and for giving me a new perspective on the Tudors!

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TR Tony Riches 2016Tony Riches lives with his wife in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and his WordPress website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

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