ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “authors”

Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite?

Chatterton 1856 by Henry Wallis 1830-1916There is this rather romanticised (and antiquated) idea that great art is created by young (mostly) male wannabees who laugh cruel fate in the face while they continue with their creative endeavours, no matter chillblains and empty stomachs, ice-cold draughts and ragged clothes. Our literary hero hoards his candle stumps so as to light his nightly progress with his roman à clef,  but no sooner does dawn tinge the night skies pink but he blows out the little flame, preferring to strain his eyesight to wasting any more of his artificial light source.

Such young men write about PAIN. They write about anguish and despair, about setting off to brave the world alone. Their world is harsh, their female protagonists are generally peripheral, and all that introverted focus results in a rather heavy read – which is why said writer is languishing in a garret to begin with. Now, not all garret-bound writers have written unreadable books. In Sweden, we have our own most brilliant if somewhat depressive and misogynist August Strindberg, who rose from humble beginnings to become a writer of quite some well-deserved renown (and doubtful repute, what with all his women). Great art has undoubtedly arisen from strained circumstances, but is it a necessity to suffer to write/compose/paint masterpieces? No, I would say – rather emphatically. What is required to create masterpieces is talent, perseverance and inspiration.

Irises-Vincent_van_GoghCreating masterpieces does not always result in monetary compensation. Take Van Gogh, for example. Did he ever enjoy the monetary fruits of his labour? Nope. His painting of irises may be one of the more highly valued works of arts in the world, but dear old Vincent spent his latter years in mental confusion (hence the ear business, one assumes) and does not seem to have reaped much material reward, despite increasing recognition of his genius towards the latter years of his (short) life.

Also, there’s the interesting little fact that masterpieces are generally defined by a selected few – an intellectual elite, if you will – and may therefore not necessarily reflect the tastes of the broad masses – and if you want to become rich through your creative efforts, then you had better appeal to the masses. To be brief, one can conclude that while writing masterpieces does not exclude material success, neither does it guarantee the writer will be rolling in money. If you write to earn your living, there may therefore be a need of a certain level of… umm… well, what can we call it? “Prostitution”? (Oh dear; hearts go all a-flutter, don’t they?)

aston_martin_db9-pic-12758Writers who are looking for high level income should choose genre carefully. Crime is a safe bet. Silent male hunk (think Reacher) driven by an inner moral compass but uninterested in cluttering up his life with emotional baggage as he goes about saving the world always seems to sell – mostly to men, who probably nourish a dream of living the simple life and being heroes at least once in their lives. Another safe bet is romance – but here the sub-genres are a veritable tangle to work your way through, and some are more successful than others, so do the research before deciding on whether your male protagonists will prance about in silk hose and breeches, a painted mouche on their cheek and a powdered wig atop their head, or slouch about looking delightful in an Aston Martin DB9 and cashmere (Aaaaaaahhhh, yes…)

The alternative to prostitution – a.k.a. writing what you think the market may want –  is to write what you feel passionate about and to hell with remuneration. In my experience, this leads to much better writing. Much. Okay, so there may only be a minority of people around who want to read about the Sherpa who got on the wrong bus and ended up in Zanzibar (and boy, was that a happy Sherpa: not a freezing mountain in sight to climb, just beautiful pristine beaches and a nice warm climate) but that minority will – hopefully – become your fans. Which is why, of course, I write about love and history, and time travelling and love and the 17th century and love and medieval rebellions and love and religious controversy and … Did I mention love?

Gabriel_Metsu_-_Man_Writing_a_LetterThese days, writing is no longer done on paper with ink that leaves ugly blots, those manuscripts pages then rushed off to be typeset. No, dear people, these days writing is done on computers.Yes, yes; some of us draft – or even write – using pen and paper, but ultimately authors these days will keyboard their characters, their plot and setting, into a precious .docx file that exists in multiple back-ups. (WHAT? You have no back-ups????? Well, you clearly like living on the edge, don’t you?) And once the file is on the computer, it is quite easy to publish it without having to do the agent/publishing house thing – you can do it all on your own. (Luckily, as otherwise those people who really, really want to read about the Sherpa and Zanzibar would never get the opportunity as the target reader group is ridiculously small)

The classic business model regarding books for the latest decades has included the author, the agent and the publisher. Any profit made would be shared by the three interested parties, and so long as the publishing companies controlled what was being published, things worked out pretty well. After all, until recently, if you wanted to read a book you needed to buy the physical printed product, and as long as the publishing houses ensured the market wasn’t flooded by too many books in the same genre, readers would browse what was available and buy, thereby guaranteeing higher sales per title, ergo nice, steady profits. Enter the age of digital publishing. Enter the age of Amazon. (I feel a sudden urge to sing here: “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars…” Chorus: “This is the dawning of the age of Aaaamazon, the age of Aaaaamazon, Aaaamazon“)

behemotYes, Amazon is a behemoth that is causing rampant death among many smaller and larger booksellers. Yes, Amazon has reinvented the book industry. Yes, Amazon drives e-book sales. Yes, Amazon has created space (he-he) for unpublished authors to go for it. Yes, Amazon is doing all this for profit. No, Amazon won’t go away – and neither will Smashwords or Kobo or all other similar on-line retailers. Or e-books. Why? Because for the reader, Amazon offers a cheap and accessible service, with the added benefit of e-books being far more environmentally friendly than the printed book.

As a consequence, the traditional business model within the book publishing world is under pressure. This leads to publishing houses having to become more restrictive regarding what they publish. Guaranteed sales need to be relatively high for the company to recoup on its investments. Sales of 10 000 copies will generate approximately 20 – 30 thousand pounds in gross profit, but this is before any promotional costs, any salaries to the people involved in the production as such (you know; editors, jacket designer, proof-readers – plus the overheads, such as the cleaners and the managers and the accountants and the sales reps and…) The book sells 5 000, and the gross taking is roughly 10 – 12 thousand pounds, which doesn’t leave much of a profit – if any –  once all expenses incurred have been deducted. It’s a tough world, the book business – almost as tough as life was back then, in that freezing garret room, where the only source of light and heat was a fluttering candle.

When the basic tenets of an industry change, this creates opportunities for new players. Enter the quality-minded, professional small publishing companies that cater to all those authors who no longer have a chance in hell of getting a contract with one of the traditional publishing companies – not because their book is bad, but because they’re not celebrities, or well-known authors that have an established fan base, or have a book that hits a trending sweet-spot. Or are immensely talented.

So, the enthusiastic as yet unknown author wants to publish, the small publishing house offers a package for self-publication and you have a marriage made in heaven. (A word of warning: double check the publishing house before going with them. You want someone who is serious about what they do)  End result of this matrimony = a book, a lovely, lovely book that has the writer smiling like an idiot while he/she strokes the cover (been there, done that). But is it a quality product? Aha! Key question, ladies and gentlemen, best replied by “Judge not a book by its cover“, because no matter how pretty the cover, it’s the content that matters, right?

for-your-eyes-only-stampIf you write for your own pleasure, you don’t need to worry about edits and formatting, about odd POV shifts, about excessive usage of adverbs. You’re doing if For Your Eyes Only, and so it can be just as unfinished as you let it be. But. Major, major but. You put it out there as a book you expect people to buy, well then you owe all those people a certain basic quality. Formatting is nice, for example. Correct spelling helps ( “You now it’s true!” she said. Err… ). Consistent use of verb tense, of names, of dates – all of this is a minimum. I recently read a book where the protagonist is eighteen on one page, twenty-six three chapters later when two years have passed, and in actual fact he must be sixteen as we are told he is ten years younger than another twenty-six-year-old. Very confusing, let me tell you –  and far from a quality product.

This, I believe, is the rub in the entire self-publishing debate. Too many books are published at a deplorable standard, and IMO it is the company facilitating the publication services that somehow must take a stance here. All books do not appeal to all readers – and that’s okay. Personally, I’d hate reading a book about a Sherpa that ended up in Zanzibar (I think; maybe if Stephen Fry wrote it I might reconsider). But as long as the book lives up to a basic standard, I won’t feel shortchanged if I buy it and then simply don’t like it.  So, dear wannabe writers, do yourself – and your future readers – a favour. Hire an editor. Please. Pretty, pretty please? And as to all those publishing houses that cater to the self-publishing industry (including dear, huge Amazon), how about making editing a prerequisite, huh?

paris-charity-in-a-garret-grangerIf we float back in time to that chilly garret (in Paris, of course it’s in Paris, and Rodolfo is holding Mimi’s cold hand while singing his heart out to her, and…oops, sorry, slipped away there) with our industrious author, we will find the floor around his chair littered with pages, pages where words have been scratched out – whole sentences even. Mr long-suffering author is in the editing phase, and because he is dirt poor and convinced he is the best writer since Molière, he scoffs when his timid muse suggests he let someone else take a look at his finished opus. Grammar, he says in a patronising tone, is for lesser writers than he. He is an artiste, a creator of masterpieces, not for him the ridiculous rules of syntax and spelling. No wonder he’s still stuck in that garret of his, cursing the world for not seeing the beauty of his text.

In conclusion, dear people, writers don’t need garrets. But they do need editors – and readers. And books, they need publishing houses that take the craft of writing seriously – so seriously, in fact, that they won’t set their name to a book (self-published or otherwise) unless it meets a certain standard. Like an ISO 9001 approval, but for books. Can’t be that difficult to put in place, can it? Hello? Mr Bezoz? Did you hear that?

Oh, and if someone feels like developing my Sherpa/ Zanzibar story, I do have a rough outline lying about (you call, Mr Fry, and I’ll come running).

 

 

 

Of God, love and other relevant matters

writerI have spent the weekend at a writers’ conference, more specifically the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s annual do. And no, the RNA Conference wasn’t all pink and fluffy – romantic novelists do have the odd streaks of darkness in them – but it was very warm and welcoming.

Some writers live under the misapprehension that they’re in cutthroat competition with all other writers – i.e. it’s a “my book or your book” world. Hogwash, IMO. Writers don’t compete with other authors – there’s not one single author out there who can singlehandedly keep a reader in books. Well, unless said reader reads at most one book a year. No, writers benefit far more from being generous to their fellow writers than from viewing them as nasty competitors. Promoting and encouraging an author who writes books similar to yours may well have encourage an interest in the entire genre and thereby benefit your own book. Plus, being generous feels nice.

The RNA collective is nice. The RNA chairperson, Nicola Cornick advocates generosity, reminding all of us in her short Gala Dinner speech that once upon a time we were all newbies and in need of support. Well-known RNA authors are happy to share tips and advice with wanna-be’s. Whether you’re published or not doesn’t really matter when 250-odd writers get together for a weekend of book talk. No, what matters is the shared passion (most apt, considering we’re talking romance authors) for the written word and for storytelling in general. And for wine. And for late-night conversations.

I shared accommodation with four ladies who go by the name the Paisley Piranhas and the somewhat less intimidating Henriette Gyland. The four Piranha ladies – Claire, Gill, Kate and Pia – were more paisley than teeth, so there were no bloody intermezzos when we talked over late night tea/wine/other stuff. Instead, we ended up talking about God, well, rather faith in general, this due to the surprise visit of Eva Balgaire who entranced the lot of us when she shared the premises of her WIP. My lips, of course, are sealed, but central to the story was God – or maybe that should be religion – and how our relationship to God – or religion – shaped human life, especially in the past.

RNA 1920px-Sandro_Botticelli_-_La_nascita_di_Venere_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedI think we ended up concluding that us humans need something to guide us and give us hope. And for those with no faith, maybe believing in love can be an alternative? Yes, we all agreed (once again, rather unsurprisingly as all of us believe in the power of love) should God be absent, Venus is a good replacement.

Other than dissecting existential issues, the conference offered ample opportunity to learn more about social media. Thing is, social media is something of an ever-growing behemoth. No sooner has the not-so-techie author mastered Facebook, but everyone is talking about twitter. And once the writer is getting nice and comfy in the world of 140 characters, Facebook is back as the it-thing, with Instagram in its wake. It’s hashtags and platforms and clickable links and graphic identity and “interesting content” and interacting with your reader, and…Exhausting, to put it mildly.  After a couple of sessions at the conference, I came out with a long to-do list (thank you Anita Chapman, my fantastic social media consultant) but also with some very solid ideas as to what I need to prioritise. Now I just need to find the time…

Writers don’t really want to hang about on social media. We want to write! We want to create characters whose journey grips the reader and drags them along, and Fiona Harper gave an excellent talk on how to do this, starting with defining the Goal, Motivation and Conflict of the character and ending with short questionnaire regarding the main character.

“Questionnaire?” Alex Lind, the reluctant time traveller lead of The Graham Saga leans over my shoulder. “My inner goal?” She nudges me. “Well, we both know what it is, don’t we? That you make sure I stay here in the 17th century with my Matthew.”
“Your goal, honey,” I tell her sweetly. “Maybe my plot ideas fall in the category of conflict, i.e. obstacles you need to overcome to get what you want.”
“Huh.” No matter that she doesn’t exist, Alex pinches me hard. “And maybe your motivation for ensuring I get what I want is that otherwise I will go on a strike. Permanently. Fade from your head and never, ever return.”
I obviously need to talk some more to Fiona to see how she suggests one handles rebellious and vociferous characters who tell you to shove conflict somewhere where the sun doesn’t shine…

Valentine dicksee-romeo-and-juliet-on-the-balcony

Lovely escapism

For me, the high point was all the spontaneous discussions about everything from head-hopping (pet peeve of mine: if you’re head-hopping you’re a lazy writer) to how to handle cliff hangers and how best to kill of your characters. (Yes: romance writers do kill off their creations. I did tell you we have dark streaks in us) We talked about who really reads YA, if book trailers really sell and how many men read romance. Consensus was MANY men love a good romance – but they prefer it if it isn’t labelled romance. Truth be told, us lady writers sometimes suspect that the truly romantic creatures on Earth are men, not women. We don’t always have time for the pink and fluffy stuff in our busy lives – juggling children, homes, work, ageing parents & whatnot is quite as lot of work – which is why, of course, we so love escaping into the frothy petticoats of a good romance. But just so you know, we don’t mind a bit of blood and gore to go with it!

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P.S. A major, major thanks to Jan Jones for pulling off an excellent conference. This may have been my first, but it will definitely not be my last, RNA Conference!

The adventures of that perennial herbalist, Mr Nicholas Culpeper

NC d7107f99f9f5f33b5c78b6be93e2de61Some people are born with a major interest in flowers. Take my eldest son, who at the tender age of fourteen months methodically chomped his way through every single one of my hundred odd tulips, leaving half chewed petals in his wake. Or take Nicholas Culpeper, whose interest in flora was somewhat more scientific. I don’t think he ever ate a tulip – but that may have been more out of parsimony than disinclination, as tulips were rare (and expensive) plants during Nicholas’ lifetime.

My son no longer remembers what tulips tasted like, and seeing as these plants – or at least their bulbs – are mildly poisonous, he was never given an opportunity to repeat his gastronomical excursions. Culpeper tells us nothing of the tulip in his writings. I guess we can conclude that Culpeper wasn’t all that interested in flowers that were “merely” beautiful .

Not many authors can boast at having their book in constant publication for more than 350 years. Obviously, this is to some extent due to the fact that very few authors live long enough to experience such a long print run, but leaving witticisms aside, Nicholas Culpeper is one of the few authors around whose book has been in constant demand since it was first published, back in 1652.

NC English_PhysitianSo what was so great about his book? Did he reveal the secrets of alchemy? Was he perhaps an early George R.R. Martin, riveting people to their seats by a complex and convoluted tale involving dragons, feuding kings and resilient damsels? Nope – although Nicholas’ own life contained enough adventure to fill a book or two, what with the times he lived in. But what Nicholas experienced in life resulted in an entirely different kind of book; Nicholas published a herbal, The English Physitian, a DIY manual to keeping hale and hearty in a time when what medicines were to be found came from plants.

If we start at the beginning  – always a good idea, IMO – Nicholas was born in 1616, the posthumous son of Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, lord of Ockley manor in Surrey. The manor slipped through baby Nicholas’ fingers, and instead he was raised by his maternal grandfather, yet another reverend. By the time he was ten, little Nicholas had a good grounding in Greek and Latin, was familiar with both astrology and medical tracts and was well on his way to becoming a master herbalist. One must assume this passion for plants came from his grandfather, and I have this image of two figures, one stout and leaning on a cane, the other agile and all legs and arms, standing side by side as they inspect a stand of digitalis.

At the age of sixteen, Nicholas was sent to Cambridge to study divinities. He wasn’t all that interested – he wanted to study medicine – and as a consequence he never graduated. Besides, Nicholas had other plans. Since childhood, he had held a special fondness for Judith Rivers, a well-to-do heiress, and the two young lovers were committed to a life together. Judith’s parents disapproved. Nicholas was not a catch, and their precious Judith could do better. I imagine Judith wept. She trailed her mother like a whipped puppy and begged her parents to reconsider – she loved Nicholas, would love no other. Mr and Mrs Rivers remained unmoved. Judith was meant for other, richer, men.

Well, we all know what teenaged fools do for love, right? Faced with her parents’ continued opposition, Judith and Nicholas devised a plan. After all, theirs was not a puppy love, theirs was the real thing, and a life without each other was not to be contemplated. They decided to elope to Holland (Gretna Green had not come into the vogue yet) and stay there until the furore died down. As an aside, parental consent was not required for marriage in the 17th century, but to wed without Mama’s and Papa’s approval was to risk end up being disinherited. I suppose Judith was hoping that old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” would apply to her parents as well.

Whatever the case, Judith and Nicholas were not destined for a happily ever after. On her way to her rendezvous with Nicholas, Judith’s carriage was struck by lightning and she died. With one bolt of thunder, Nicholas’ hopes of a rosy future were obliterated – even more so when his grandfather decided to disinherit him, shocked to his core by Nicholas’ duplicitous behaviour. (Obviously, the old reverend had little experience of being young and madly in love…)

Nicholas was now in dire straits. There was no money to pay for his education, there was no bride, no welcoming home. After rousing himself from grief-induced depression, Nicholas apprenticed himself to an apothecary in London. He taught his employer Latin, his employer taught Nicholas everything he knew about plants.

NC downloadIn 1635, Nicholas took over his former master’s apothecary shop on Threadneedle Street. Due to his extensive reading and an inquisitive mind, Culpeper’s education was as extensive as that of a physician – but it was an informal education, and as such of very little value professionally. To his medical interests, Culpeper added astrology, blending these two disciplines into a holistic approach to healing. The Royal College of Physicians were not pleased with this interloper. Nicholas Culpeper retaliated by describing the physicians as “bloodsuckers, true vampires” – not the basis for a long-lasting loving relationship.

In 1640, several years after the sad affair with Judith, Nicholas married Alice Field. His new wife had recently inherited a considerable fortune after her merchant father, and using her money the couple established themselves in Spitalfields, far enough from London proper to allow Nicholas to continue with his healing endeavours despite not being an accredited member of the Royal College of Physicians. In Spitalfields, Nicholas opened the doors of his practise to everyone who needed his help. (How fortunate his wife was rich)

NC Digitalis_purpurea_Koehler_drawingMost of Nicholas cures were based on herbs. Some were true advancements in medical science, as when he documents the use of foxgloves to treat heart conditions (definitely works. The dosage, however, is somewhat tricky, and if too high will kill your patient). Some sound decidedly strange, such as boiling your bedstraw in oil to make an aphrodisiac.

Otherwise, he shares that willow can be used to stem the bleeding of wounds, roses can alleviate the discomfort of menses , raspberries and strawberries are excellent ways of ridding your teeth of “tartarous concretions” (plaque?). The seeds of nettles can be used against the bites of rabid dogs (I think not), meadowsweet is recommended against fevers (works, as meadowsweet contains high doses of salicylic acid)and fleabane helps with bites from venomous beasts. Hmm. My general conclusion after browsing through Nicholas’ suggested cures is to take them with a pinch of salt – and to make sure I have a herbal with me to ensure I’m picking the right plant!

NC zodiac manOur innovative healer did more than just list plants. He combined his herbal lore with his other passion, astrology, and borrowed heavily from Galen’s humoral philosophy, which is why in his herbal the plants are sorted by planets. Some belong to Venus, others to Mars and yet others to Saturn or Jupiter. To all this he added his own personal opinions – like when he dismisses black currants as having a “stinking and somewhat loathing savour”, thereby dismissing a plant we know to contain very high levels of vitamin C as well as a number of anti-inflammatory agents.

After some years of contented calm in Spitalfields, things were to change yet again for our intrepid healer. By now, the ravages of the Civil War were upon the people of England. Culpeper was a radical republican and wanted to do his thing for the cause. Besides, there was the matter of a slanderous accusation for witchcraft, plus an increasingly more infected relationship with both the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. These august bodies disliked Culpeper’s translations of medical texts from Latin to English, making hitherto restricted knowledge available to the broader masses. It sort of undermined their business concept…

Nicholas kissed his wife goodbye, may have stooped over a cradle to coo at one of the many children his wife was to give him – puny little things that all but one died young – and rode off to fight for Parliament. The recruiting officer was less than flattering regarding Nicholas’ physique, but more than impressed when he heard Culpeper’s credentials, and instead of fighting, Nicholas was put to work as a field surgeon.

He attended the wounded at the battle of Edgehill, joined in the initial fighting at the battle of Newbury but was quickly called upon to use his medical skills instead. Culpeper was operating on an injured soldier when a stray musket ball wounded him severely in the chest, effectively ending his military ambitions.

Back in London, Nicholas returned to treating the poor. His own health was deteriorating rapidly, through a combination of too much work, his unhealed injury and tuberculosis. It didn’t help that his children kept on dying, causing both Nicholas and his wife more than their share of grief. On top of this, Nicholas took up a one man crusade against the “closed shop” policies of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. This “closed shop” policy was effectively a monopoly, based on the fact that so many of the guidelines to making medicines and treating diseases were only in Latin and only available to a few.

Nicholas made it his purpose in life to crush this monopoly. He translated one text after the other, he wrote treatises on diseases, on midwifery, on the properties of plants. He translated Galen into English, he devoted time to his destitute patients, and in all this he also managed to produce his masterpiece, The English Physitian – a giant handbook on what herbs to use for what diseases.

NC In_Effigiam_Nicholai_Culpeper_Equitis_by_Richard_GaywoodBy now, Nicholas knew he was dying. He was burning his candle both ends as life gasped and fluttered within him, driven by a need to write down as much as possible to help his fellowman. And he was clearly very productive, because when he finally did die, in January of 1654, his wife wrote that her husband had left her “79 books of his own making or translating in my hands.”

Nicholas Culpeper was an idealist. He was a man who combined compassion and passion into a constant endeavour to help the sick and ailing. He considered it a human right to have access to medical care – a precursor of the future welfare state – and like Don Quijote he was not afraid to take on an army of windmills while fighting for what he thought was right. In difference to Don Quijote, Culpeper fought using pen and ink rather than lance. And the fact that his book is still there, is still being read, is a testament to his success.

NC IMG_1227The English Physitian quickly became very popular. Housewives all over wanted a copy, and when people set off for the wild unknown of the New World, many of them carried with them a precious copy of Culpeper’s book, hoping to find cures for whatever ills might afflict them in their new homeland within the covers. I think Nicholas would have been pleased. I also think he would have liked my tulips – no matter that they have very few medicinal uses.

Ælfgyva, The Mystery Lady of The Bayeux Tapestry

For many years the presence of a lady known as Ælfgyva on the Bayeux Tapestry has baffled historians. No one knows who she is or why she is depicted on the tapestry. Today’s guest, Paula Lofting, spends most of her free time researching the 11th century (and writing great books set in the period). She has her own theories as to who the mystery lady was. I suggest you sit back and enjoy the ride as Paula guides you through this rather convoluted story!

PL Becca Marshall

courtesy Becca Marshall

There was a plethora of women called Ælfgyva/Ælfgifu amongst the women of 11th century England. King Cnut’s first consort and the mother of his sons, Harald and Swein, was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. Her father, Ælfhelm, had been executed and her brothers blinded during Aethelred’s reign, so her hatred of the ‘unready’ king must have made it easy for Cnut to win her, and her relatives, over.

Cnut wasn’t content to have one woman. No, he had to have two. Greedy chap, I hear you say. Well, it was fashionable to have an official wife and a handfasted wife. For the sake of continuity, Cnut decided to hook up with King Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, who’d been forced to change her name on marriage to Æthelred and be known as, – yes, you’ve got it – Ælfgifu. Emma, however, seems to have preferred her own name, and to avoid confusion as we go on, I’ll refer to her as Emma, no matter what her Anglo-Saxon name was.

The Ælfgifu on the Bayeux Tapestry appears in one scene where it says, Here Ælfgyva and a cleric. In the scene, the priest, or monk, is touching her face, signifying a collaboration with her. But it isn’t the priest that draws the eye: it’s the two naked men at the bottom. Question is, who is this Ælfgifu?  

PL BT nr 1

Our lady of the day being touched by a priest

Having made studies of the various primary and secondary sources, I believe that the woman on the Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton, as J Bard McNulty (1980) first identified her. Why do I believe this? Because Ælfgifu of Northampton became the subject of a scandal when she was accused of presenting Cnut with two sons that were neither his nor hers. One was rumoured to be the son of a workman and a serving maid and the other, the son of a priest and the same serving maid – or maybe Ælfgifu herself.

In the Tapestry scene featuring Ælfgifu the pictures at the bottom depict a naked workman with a monkish style haircut, his genitals exposed as he works with a hammer and wood. In the next scene, the naked man mirrors the stance of the cleric who is touching her face. The scene comes just after a scene depicting Harold and William meeting, and maybe it is there to illustrate what the two men talked about, namely an old scandal involving a royal consort and a priest. Whatever the case, it is the only scene of its kind in the tapestry.

Whether there is any truth to the scandal, around 1030 Cnut sent Ælfgifu with their son Swein to Norway to govern on Cnut’s behalf. This may have been to keep her out of Emma’s way. No doubt the two women would have been directly at odds with each other. After all, Emma agreed to marry Cnut on the surety that her children with him would take precedence over Ælfgifu’s in the succession.

Ælfgifu’s heavy-handed taxation did not endear her to the Norwegians. She and Swein were ousted after some years. Nothing more was heard about her after 1040 and it is thought that she had died in Denmark after her son Swein.

Not everyone agrees with the above interpretation. Historian Eric Freeman states that he believes, owing to a 14th century legend, that Emma of Normandy is the woman being portrayed disgracefully on the Tapestry. I am unsure as to how and why a 11th century scandal may have only emerged in the 14thcentury, but whatever the case, it goes thus:

Edward, the king, believing that his mother had entered into sexual relations with a Bishop Ælfwine, (or a Bishop Stigand) sent her into a monastery and had the bishop locked up. Shown in a heroic light, Emma offered to prove the Bishop’s innocence by ordeal by hot iron, but Robert, the Bishop of London, threw more coal on the fire by announcing a list of her sins which included conspiring to murder her son, Alfred, and defaming her other son, Edward himself. Emma was ordered to undergo the ordeal and survived, the tale transforming into some sort of miraculous legend, with Edward begging forgiveness and mercy of her and restoring all that he had taken and more. There is no contemporary evidence for this strange story, beyond illustrating the strained relationship between Emma and her son.

Emma had always had a reasonably good relationship and reputation with the English whilst she was wed to Cnut. In Normandy, however, her reputation was sullied by her second marriage. After all, she put aside her sons from her marriage to Æthelred (a marriage arranged by her brother, the duke of Normandy) and abandoned them in Normandy, dissolving any Norman ambition of future successions to the English crown.

Then Cnut died. Emma’s reputation and power did not suffer overmuch—at least not while her son by Cnut, Harthacnut, was king. But when her son by Æthelred, Edward, succeeded to the throne, things changed. Unsurprisingly, Edward’s view of her was coloured by her abandonment of him in his adolescent years for a man who essentially caused the downfall of his father. Edward removed all Emma’s wealth and assets and basically told her to stop prying in England’s affairs and lead a quiet life in Winchester. Emma seems to have done so, right up until she died in 1052. No indications of a passionate affair with a bishop, no detailed account of an ordeal by hot iron, just an older abandoned woman living out what remained of her life.

There is another reason to discount Emma as the scandalous Ælfgifu on the Tapestry: her great-nephew William of Normandy. His claim on the English crown was tenuous at best and depended entirely on his kinship—via Emma—with King Edward. Therefore, with Emma being integral to William’s claim to the crown, it would hardly seem a good idea to represent her on the Tapestry in this way. William was already a bastard; he needed all the ‘decency’ in his backstory he could get.

William had no relationship with Ælfgifu of Northampton. She was not a person whom he would have greatly regarded, so the embroiderers would not have worried too much about stitching her and her clerical (potential) lover onto the tapestry.  Due to the lack of info stitched onto the tapestry regarding the scene, it seems this was a well-known scandal of the day. In other words, it was anecdotal to the time and it fits far better than the story of Emma.

In conclusion, I have no doubt that the mystery lady on the Bayeaux Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton—but that does not mean we should necessarily assume she was involved in a scandal. After all, gossip back then was probably as vicious as it can be now!

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Thank you for that, Paula! Now, as I stated already at the beginning, Paula’s love of the 11th century isn’t restricted to researching the period – she also writes. So far, she has published two books about Wulfhere of Horstede and his complicated life in which marital issues, war and an infected blood-feud figure prominently.  I have recently read the second book in her series, The Wolf Banner, and this is my review:

PL WBThere are a couple of things that are very apparent when reading Ms Lofting’s The Wolf Banner: the author knows her history inside out and the author loves her chosen period. This results in a vibrant historical setting, little details of everyday life blending together to create quite the time travelling experience. While reading Ms Lofting’s book I am transported to the 11th century, walking side by side with her characters.

Further to the setting, Ms Lofting adds a well-developed plot and an interesting cast of characters. Not all of these characters are likeable – notably Wulfhere’s wife Ealdgytha is very difficult for me to warm towards, no matter that the woman has her fair share of woes – but then that is how it is in real life as well. The protagonist is Wulfhere, thane of Horstede and sworn to serve King Edward the Confessor. Other than doing his duty by his lord Wulfhere has a somewhat infected situation at home and a bitter feud with his nearest neighbour to handle. Plus there are all his children, from his eldest daughter Freyda to Tovi, the son who is treated like an enervating afterthought by both his parents.

Ms Lofting does an excellent job with Tovi who very quickly grows into the character I care the most about. Some scenes involving this young boy and his parents are quite heart-breaking, and I can only hope we will see more of Tovi as the story progresses.

The personal lives of Wulhere and his family are interwoven with the political events of the times. King Edward, Harold Godwinson, the Welsh king Gryffud ap Llywellyn, the ever-present Danes – they all affect the narrative, culminating in vivid—I would even say excellent—battle scenes with Wulfhere in the thick of things.

The Wolf Banner is a sequel to Sons of the Wolf and to fully enjoy it I recommend the reader starts at the beginning. Likewise, The Wolf Banner does not conclude all the stories begun in it. For that we must await the next instalments of the saga.

At times, I feel the novel would have benefited from some abbreviation—this is a very long book and some pruning would, in my opinion, have enhanced the narrative. But this is a minor quibble: all in all The Wolf Banner is a gripping read, offering quite the insight into pre-Conquest England.

About the Author:

PL PaulaWriting has always been a lifelong ambition for Paula. A prolific reader, she loved to spend weekends buried in a book. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, inspired an interest in history and a longing to write historical fiction. However, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold due to life events.

Her début novel, Sons of the Wolf eventually materialised, followed by the sequel, The Wolf Banner. These are stories set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England. She is now working on Book 3 in the series, Wolf’s Bane.

History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing.

Twitter – @paulalofting

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Paula-Lofting-Author-Page-436306319727806/

Paula’s books can be found on Amazon!

 

The road less travelled

Today, I’ve invited Cryssa Bazos to drop by for a visit. Cryssa has recently released her first book (CONGRATULATIONS!!!) and you can find more information about Traitor’s Knot at the end of this post, including my thoughts. Traitor’s Knot is set in 17th century England, which makes me a very happy camper seeing as I love that particular era. So does Cryssa, and her knowledge of the period is quite impressive – as can be seen in the following post!

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The award for best true-story adventure of a monarch goes to Charles II of England for the six weeks that evaded his enemies following the Battle of Worcester.

CB Battle_of_WorcesterThe final battle of the English Civil War unfolded at Worcester on September 3, 1651. Oliver Cromwell’s forces outnumbered the King’s Scottish army 2 to 1. By late afternoon, the King’s forces had been captured, killed or were in retreat.

Charles was one of the lucky ones to escape the city. He headed north and got as far as Shropshire before needing to find a place to rest. An officer in his party led them to White Ladies, a farmhouse owned by the Gifford family. But the Giffards weren’t in residence, and instead their servants, the Penderells, were on hand to attend the weary king.

Charles’s situation was desperate and his options limited. He could either head back to London to find a ship bound for France or make his way to Scotland. Charles rejected the latter idea and waffled on the former, but remained firm that wherever he would go, he’d do it alone. After his companions rode off, he finally resolved to cross into Wales.
With the Penderells help, Charles disguised himself as a commoner. They cut his hair, darkened his skin with a rubbing of walnut and exchanged his royal clothes for a coarse noggin shirt, a green suit and leather doublet. Then at dark, Charles and one of the Penderells, Richard, set out on foot to reach the closest ferry crossing into Wales.

CB Boscobel_House

Boscobel House, By Oosoom at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

Around midnight, they stumbled upon a belligerent miller who chased them off like thieves in the night. They searched along the Severn for another crossing, but dragoons watched every route. Admitting defeat, Charles and Richard returned, this time to Boscobel House, a hunting lodge also owned by the Giffards.

The patrols were now scouring the area, and the lodge would be the next place for them to search. While Charles hid in an oak tree, dragoons passed right underneath him and not once did they look up. To this day, a descendent of the original Boscobel tree is known as the Royal Oak.

Next the Penderells spirited Charles away to Moseley Old Hall in Wolverhampton, the home of Sir Thomas Whitgreave, a former Royalist officer. It was there that Charles ran into one of his fugitive companions, Lord Wilmot.

The King's Room at Moseley Old Hall, Staffordshire.

The King’s bedroom, Moseley Old Hall;
Photo courtesy of Moseley Old Hall

Thomas settled Charles into a guest chamber with the additional amenity of a priest’s hole. The following afternoon, a company of soldiers rode up to the manor to arrest Thomas, not for harbouring Charles (they hadn’t a clue), but for breaking parole. Rumours had reached them that Thomas had broken his parole and fought with the King at Worcester (he didn’t). While Charles crouched in the priest’s hole, the dragoons questioned Thomas for hours. In the end, they left without once searching the manor.

Thomas wasted no time to arrange for the next safe house in case the dragoons should return. Charles travelled to Bentley Hall, the home of Colonel John Lane. The Colonel had recently secured a travel pass for his sister Jane and a servant to travel to Bristol where she was to visit a close friend. Originally, the travel pass was meant for Wilmot, but the King’s need was greater. The next morning, they dressed Charles in a grey coat with matching breeches and gave him the role of servant in charge of Jane’s horse, while Wilmot rode ahead on his own.

CB King_Charles_II_and_Jane_Lane_riding_to_Bristol_by_Isaac_FullerThe party had no trouble until they reached the village of Wootten Wawen, near Stratford and found five hundred dragoons blocking their way. Charles hesitated. He didn’t want them to see him turning away for that would stir their suspicions. There was nothing to do but go forward. Bold as brass, the most wanted man in England rode straight for his enemies. As the party approached, the dragoons inexplicably saddled up and pulled out.

When Charles’s party finally reached Bristol, they found their hosts with a house-full of guests. The butler was the only one who took notice of Jane’s ‘servant’. He didn’t immediately recognize Charles, but when he overheard talk about Worcester, he finally recognized Charles. Instead of giving him away, the man pledged to help him find a ship.

None could be found, and the party couldn’t risk staying longer in Bristol. The butler arranged for their next safe house—Trent House in Somerset, the home of Colonel Wyndham. At this point, Charles and Jane parted. Years later during the Restoration, he bestowed upon her a sum of £1000 with which to buy a jewel, this being the price of the reward for his capture.

While Charles hid at Trent House, Colonel Wyndham continued the search for a ship and found a willing master, Captain Limbry. Charles and his party arrived at Charmouth to wait for Limbry, but the captain never arrived. The man’s wife had become suspicious of his venture and locked her husband in the water closet.

Charles’s party arrived in Bridport and found the port town clogged with Parliamentarian troops. Instead of slinking away, he rode up to the Old George Inn, manoeuvred a stable yard full of dragoons, cutting a path straight through them. However, his luck soured when he reached the stables.

The ostler knew his face, but he had not yet placed him. Charles, being an astute observer of human nature, took the offensive. He questioned the ostler about where he had lived and soon had him convinced they were old friends. But before the ostler could rethink their acquaintance, Charles and his party slipped out of town.

Over the next couple of weeks, they went from one Royalist house to another until they learned of a small barque for hire near Brighton. They arranged to meet the master, a Captain Tattersell, in a private room of an inn. Tattersell recognized Charles immediately. Years ago, when Charles had been briefly in command of his father’s fleet in the Channel, he had seized Tattersell’s ship. But Charles had released the vessel, and now that he needed help, Tattersell remembered that kindness and agreed to help.

Charles wasn’t taking any chances. Ships were hard to come by, and captains willing to accept the risk even more rare. To keep Tattersell close, Charles plied him with drinks for the rest of the night.

On October 15th, the slightly hung-over party set out for Shoreham. They reached the Surprise without incident, and after weeks of hiding, Charles and Wilmot finally sailed for France.

Before we mark this as “The End”, there is an alternative story that was circulating in the days and months following the battle. As Cromwell beat the countryside looking for the King, rumours were spreading through London that a highwayman had helped Charles escape. Parliament was so convinced that the rumours were true, when they captured a Royalist highwayman named Captain Hind they tried and executed him for High Treason.

In my novel, Traitor’s Knot, I’ve chosen the road less travelled and explored the alternative version of Charles’s escape.

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CB Traitors_Knot_4Thank you, Cryssa, for that. Quite the exciting story , isn’t it? In Traitor’s Knot, Cryssa’s highwayman James Hart is very much involved in getting Charles to safety, and things are further complicated by the fact that James has an implacable enemy in a certain Puritan named Ezekiel Hammond. Plus, of course, there’s James’ wife who is very much at the mercy of said Hammond. All in all, Traitor’s Knot is a great read, breathing life into both the well-developed characters and the tumultuous events of the time. Warmly recommended!

Traitor’s Knot is available through Amazon.

CB fullsizeoutput_d9Cryssa Bazos is an awardwinning historical fiction writer and 17th century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, is published by Endeavour Press and placed 3rd in 2016 Romance for the Ages (Ancient/Medieval/Renaissance). For more stories, visit her blog cryssabazos.com. Follow Cryssa on FB or Twitter

 

 

When history and legend collide – or what happens when you’re stuck in the Dark Ages

May pic 3Today, I have the honour of inviting Mary Anne Yarde to my blog, hoping she will share some insight into the background of her intriguing series The Du Lac Chronicles. Part fantasy, part history, this series transports you to a time when Britain bowed under the weight of the Saxon invadors – always, IMO, an intriguing period! So let us hear what Mary Anne has to say about this distant, somewhat murky time.

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Have you ever tried to put a jigsaw together in the dark? No? Me neither. But researching The Dark Ages is a little bit like doing a jigsaw without any light. It is complicated.

The British populace finally expelled the Roman occupiers in the year AD 409. But without the might of The Roman Army, Britain found itself under attack by the Scots, Picts, Angles and the Saxons. She turned to Emperor Honorius for help. Instead of troops, Emperor Honorius sent a letter. In it, he told the people of Britain to “… look to their own defences…” Britain was alone. She would get no further help from the Empire.

What happened next was to change the course of British History forever. Britain split back into smaller kingdoms, each ruled by a powerful warlord. There was no unity, only division. How could they possibly stand up to the foreign invaders when they couldn’t stop fighting each other?

may 800px-Arth_tapestry2They needed someone to unite them. And that someone was none other than a man called Arthur. You may have heard of him?

It was Arthur that kept the Saxons away. It was Arthur who united the kingdoms. It was Arthur that brought about peace. Fact! Well, sort of.

The Dark Ages, as you can see, is the time of myths and legends. And the most famous tale of all was about King Arthur and his Knights. Over time, the story of Arthur was expanded upon. They gave him a castle, a court. He became a Christian King, and so it went on. Each tale more elaborate than the last, until Arthur became a superhero on par with Ironman! Of course, when he died, the Saxons took advantage of this power vacuum. They invaded and made Britain their home. Where was the ‘Once And Future King’ while this was going on? Perhaps someone forgot to wake him up!

may The_Death_of_King_Arthur_by_John_Garrick

Death of Arthur – Garrick

Researching the life and time of King Arthur is like searching for a ghost. There is nothing substantial, just theories and stories. But you would think that there would be something more tangible about the Saxon invaders, right?

Not so. The Dark Ages is a little short on historical documents. The chroniclers had left with the Roman Army. So all we have to go on is the damning sermon of Gildas, and the works of Bede and Nennius. It isn’t until Alfred the Great’s time when ink was finally put to parchment. This document became known as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

MAY pic 1There is one Saxon invader that I am particularly fascinated with, and that is Cerdic of Wessex. There is a rumour that Cerdic’s troops met Arthur’s at Bardon Hill — Arthur won that day. But when Cerdic learnt of Arthur’s death he gathered his troops once more. Cerdic landed in Hampshire at the end of the fifth Century. He launched a campaign that led them across the South-East of Britain and as far as the Isle of Wight. It was during this campaign that Cerdic…
“…killed a certain British King named Natanleod and five thousand men with him.”  – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Some say that Natanleod was Arthur, while others doubt his existence at all. It is said that Cerdic became the first West-Saxon King of Britain in AD 519. Bear in mind that The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was written over 300 years after Cedric’s death. It is hardly a primary source and should be treated with, maybe not suspicion, but certainly scepticism.

A lot happened between the end of the Roman occupation and the writing of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It was the bards that kept the history alive during this time. Yes, they may have changed the history a little to make for a more exciting tale, but they can be forgiven because they had to make their money somehow. So you can see the problem the chroniclers had. The Dark Ages and folklore go hand in hand. It is almost impossible to separate them. They are weaved together so tightly that to try to unpick the truth from the fiction would damage the tapestry. Ruin it. So the chroniclers could only work with what they had and what they had was folklore.

In my series, The Du Lac Chronicles, I have tried to weave together folklore and history, paying equal respect to both. It is a challenge but then so is The Dark Ages and that is why I love it!

MAY pic 2Book Blurb

War is coming to Saxon Briton.

As one kingdom after another falls to the savage might of the High King, Cerdic of Wessex, only one family dares to stand up to him — The Du Lacs.

Budic and Alden Du Lac are barely speaking to each other, and Merton is a mercenary, fighting for the highest bidder. If Wessex hears of the brothers’ discord, then all is lost.

Fate brings Merton du Lac back to the ancestral lands of his forefathers, and he finds his country on the brink of civil war. But there is worse to come, for his father’s old enemy has infiltrated the court of Benwick. Now, more than ever, the Du Lac must come together to save the kingdom and themselves.

Can old rivalries and resentments be overcome in time to stop a war?

Amazon US

Amazon UK

About the author: 

Mary Anne Yarde is the Award Winning author of the International Best Selling Series — The Du Lac Chronicles. Set a generation after the fall of King Arthur, The Du Lac Chronicles takes you on a journey through Dark Age Briton and Brittany, where you will meet new friends and terrifying foes. Based on legends and historical fact, The Du Lac Chronicles is a series not to be missed.

You can find out more about Mary Anne and her books on her Website . Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook .

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

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