ANNA BELFRAGE

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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

What if? A speculative exercise

What if Henry_II_of_France.

Henri II – died of a lance in his eye. But what if…

One of the more enjoyable pastimes a history buff can indulge in, is the “what if” game. What if Francisco Pizarro had been murdered by the Incas? What if Henri II of France had not had his eye penetrated by a lance? What if Julius Caesar had survived the plot to kill him? Or if Judas had said “nope, not interested,” and turned his back on those thirty silver pieces? What if Troy hadn’t fallen, laughing their heads off at the idiotic Greeks who thought they were stupid enough to pull that wooden horse through their gates? Or, to open the door on one of the more heated debates within the historic community, what if Richard III had won at Bosworth?

This year, one of the more recurring what if’s will relate to the year 1066. If Harold had won, if William had hit the dust, then what?

Obviously, none of us know. But many of us enjoy to speculate, becoming more and more animated as the waves of discussion rise and crash around us. The only thing we do know is that if events in the past had not happened, things would have been different. Not necessarily worse. Not necessarily better. Just different.

What if 51Vntz2MXOLOne of my favourite “what if” books is Making History by Stephen Fry. In this book, a certain young man travels back in time to ensure Adolf Hitler is never born. How? He poisons the water source that serves Hitler’s parent’s home, and wham, just like that, little Adolf never sees the light of the day. Our hero congratulates himself: he has rewritten history to the better. But has he? Without revealing too much of the plot, let’s just say that no, he hasn’t. Hitler rose to power as a consequence of the political winds blowing at the time. He managed to hit the right time, the right place to spout his racist, ultra-nationalistic nonsense. Had Hitler not been around, someone else would have filled the gap, and what if this person was smarter than dear old Adolf? Same agenda, same ultimate goal, but totally different tactics. Maybe very successful tactics…

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William, as per a medieval depiction

Fortunately, we will never know just what such a person could have accomplished, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the historical people who’ve left such a huge imprint on history have done so due to having been there at a certain point in time. Yes, obviously certain qualities are required – in William the Conqueror’s case, it helped that he was determined and ruthless, that he lived with the conviction (or pretended to) that the English crown was his by right. He must also have been very capable and innovative. I know the people in the Harold camp don’t like to hear this, because in history, Harold is the tragic hero who died on the battlefield after having had the terribly bad luck of first having to fend off Harald Hardrada and treacherous brother Tostig, then turn right around to rush down and fight William.

Except, of course, that the successful among us rarely blame bad luck for anything. They rely on meticulous planning, on a careful assessment of the situation, and a capacity to act quickly and forcefully. Maybe Harold should have handled Tostig differently. Maybe he was inept at building the alliances required to hold both Hardrada and William at bay. Because seriously, a king cannot rely on luck, can he?

It is my personal opinion that William has been somewhat unjustly treated by those of us who love our history. Not that he necessarily was a person I’d invite for tea and cake, but the man is quite often represented as evil incarnate, caring nothing for the people he subjugated. Yes, he committed various heinous deeds, but it seems to me that what we cannot forgive him for – ever – is that he won over our golden-haired hero, the affable, easy-going, handsome, upright Harold. Where William is depicted as dour and cold, little given to casual endearments or jollification, Harold comes across as the life and soul of the party, a man as loved by men as by women. Except that he wasn’t, was he? Not all Anglo-Saxon nobles felt Harold Godwinson was the best thing since sliced bread.

EHFA Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_deathHad William lost the battle of Hastings, he’d have been no more than a footnote in history. England would have developed down a different path, a path without Henry II, Thomas Becket, Edward III, without Simon de Montfort and Henry III’s magnificent Westminster Abbey. No War of the Roses, no Henry VIII (no major loss, IMO). Would English as we speak it have existed? Would Shakespeare’s works ever have seen the light of the day? We will never know. After all, William did win, and all we can do is speculate. But when we do, we should keep in mind that there is no guarantee that a future forged by Harold Godwinson would have been better. It would just have been different. Very different.

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1066-TUD-OutNowI have the honour of being one participant in a collaborative effort dedicated to highlighting the potential “what if’s” in the momentous year 1066. Our book, 1066 Turned Upside Down, has just hit the “etailers” and offers nine different perspectives on William, Harold and all the rest. We have played at being nornes, snipping fate’s threads and retying them as we see fit 🙂 Have we had fun? Oh, yes! And all of this for less than £2 – seriously that’s not even one family-sized muffins at Starbucks and comes with the benefit of zero calories.

The authors are:

Helen Hollick, author of multiple historical and pirate novels, including Harold the King
Joanna Courtney, author of the Queens of the Conquest series
Anna Belfrage, Historical Novel Society Indie Award Winner 2015, author of the Graham Saga
Richard Dee, fantasy author of Ribbonworld 
G K Holloway, author of 1066: What Fates Impose
Carol McGrath, author of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy
Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova thrillers
Eliza Redgold, author of Naked, a novel of Lady Godiva
Annie Whitehead, who writes about Mercia and Saxon England
with an impressive foreword by writer and actor, C.C. Humphreys

The fabulous cover art is by Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics

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!

*****************************

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.

Sunny days and summer reads – a new book & a giveaway!

The other day, I published my tenth book. I’m starting to feel like one of those ladies back in medieval times who popped out a baby a year and probably worried how on earth she was to feed and clothe them, let alone love them all. Except, of course, that one always loves one’s babies, right?

9789198324518Days of Sun and Glory is the second in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy. Once again, I get to muck about in the delightfully complicated political environment of 14th century England, rubbing shoulders with Edward II and Despenser (although I keep my distance from dear Hugh – don’t like him much) and, of course, Roger Mortimer. Him I like – or rather, I see him through the eyes of my protagonist, Adam de Guirande, who loves Roger, has loved him since that day when Roger saved twelve-year-old Adam from his abusive father.

“Complicated,” Kit de Guirande says when I ask her what she thinks of Roger. She frowns. “To love Roger Mortimer in this the year of our Lord 1323 is to ask for trouble.”
Tell me about it. Mortimer has just managed to escape from the Tower and has fled to France. In England, Edward II is cursing himself to hell and back for not having executed Mortimer while he had the chance. Despenser totally agrees, but wisely holds his tongue. Queen Isabella, Edward IIs wife, detests Despenser – and even more she detests being marginalised by the king’s favourite, which is why she’s rooting for Mortimer, albeit extremely discreetly. And then there’s Edward of Windsor, the young prince, since some months Adam’s new lord and master.

Adam loves his young lord. He agonises with Prince Edward as the boy is torn apart betwen his father and his mother – after all, Adam knows just how that feels, as torn between Mortimer and the prince. And then there’s Kit, whom he adores and desperately wants to keep safe, but how is he to do that in this political quagmire?
“All he has to do to keep me safe is to keep himself safe.” Kit fingers her veil. “If he dies…” She shudders. “If Despenser gets hold of him…”
Yeah. That would be bad. Very bad.

Well: in conclusion, Days of Sun and Glory is something of a medieval roller-coaster. People fight.People die. And in all this mess, all this upheaval, I just have to trust that Adam’s innate honour and loyalty will help him choose the right way forward. Sheesh! I keep my fingers crossed so hard they hurt…

Slide1So, what are you waiting for? Go and grab a copy of Days and Sun and Glory and leave the very complicated here and now for an equally complicated, if distant, 14th century.

And should you want to start at the beginning, why not pick up In the Shadow of the Storm as well!

And seeing as a new book is always cause for celebration, I am giving away two e-book copies of Days of Sun and Glory. Just leave a comment and let me know where you prefer to do your #summerreading 🙂 Giveaway closes July 21st.

UPDATE! The winners are Denise and Sharon! Congratulations!

One more in the gang of four

HNSIndieFinalist2016For those that have been following my blog over the last few weeks, you’ll have noticed I’ve spent some time promoting the four finalists in the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016. Why? Because these are very good books, historical fiction at its best – plus, of course, I’m one of the final judges. And I won the award last year, so I know just how much nail-biting goes on in secret among our four ladies.

AM LBF_0053_smToday, the turn has come to Alison Morton – the last of the four to be featured. Alison is a lady who lives in France, speaks French like a native and yet comes across as very English – with a whiff of the stern Roman. This is probably why she writes books set in a fictitious country called Roma Nova – Alison’s books fall in the alternate history category, which has its own challenges, primarily that of building a credible context. AURELIA is the fourth in the series – but it is also the first, at least chronologically. And for those who enjoy nail-biting, this is a one of those reads that has you doing just that – and staying up far too late. Anyway, let’s turn things over to Alison and hear what she has to say about her book!

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your book!
While I was drafting the first three Roma Nova thrillers, particularly SUCCESSIO, I became increasingly intrigued by the heroine Carina’s clever and no-nonsense grandmother, Aurelia. Her public role was well-known – head of a powerful family, senator, businesswoman, imperial advisor – but she gave out strong ‘keep out of my past’ signals. I wanted to know how her story tied up with that of Caius Tellus, the traitor who’d grabbed power in the Great Rebellion, and who was the mysterious man who turned up in SUCCESSIO with a red rose, a flower that Aurelia hated.The only way to answer these questions properly was to write Aurelia’s story as a young woman.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
The antagonism between Aurelia and Caius Tellus was set up as historical backstory in the INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, as was the shadowy history of the Tellus family and the Great Rebellion. Secondly, silver, its extraction, processing and selling was and is Roma Nova’s lifeblood; anybody or anything threatening that was threatening economic survival. The third factor was to dig into Aurelia’s military career, discover how she became a government spy and of course, to unearth the identity of her life-long love… Throw all those in the pot and the story worked itself out.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
I sweat the first draft out with cursing, tea and backache. The story is more or less there, but the first self-edit is where it twists threads, wrings emotions, ramps up the action and makes life nearly unbearable for the protagonist. It’s also where I look at the lighter moments and bring in a few quips and quirks about the characters, so it’s more fun.

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
When the heroine feared her small daughter had been abducted.

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
Tough, compassionate, impatient, intelligent, loyal

Are you planning any sequels to your book?
The sequel, INSURRECTIO, came out on 12 April – a few weeks ago! And I’m drafting the next (see curses, tea and backache above).

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
As for the first of the series, INCEPTIO. Alternate history stories from a debut author were a little quirky for the mainstream when I started in 2010, although the Roma Nova series has now secured me a top agent for a number of my rights. I love the control over design, production and timing that indie authors enjoy, plus the ability to use my previously acquired business skills. Once an entrepreneur…

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
We are extremely lucky to live during a publishing revolution, or is it evolution? I see myself as an author, full stop. Some rights I will retain and others I will sell for mainstream publishing if the occasion arises. But whatever choices I make, I will still be directing my own writing career. This is the essence of being indie.

Finally, what does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
When the email with the news pinged into my inbox, I stared at it, let out a whoop of joy, then danced round the office. Finally, I celebrated with champagne. More soberly(!), I am deeply honoured. The HNS indie review scheme is unique; AURELIA being selected as an Editor’s Choice was wonderful, being shortlisted as one of nine for the 2016 Indie Award was unbelievable and now being one of the final four is dizzying. If AURELIA goes no further, I will be thrilled out of my socks that she has come so far. Of course, I hope she may take the ultimate accolade…

Thank you, Alison, and I imagine all the finalists are hoping for that ultimate accolade 🙂 If you want to learn more about Alison and her Roma Nova world, visit her website. And for those curious about AURELIA, here’s the blurb:

AURELIA_cover_image800x520Late 1960s Roma Nova, the last Roman colony that has survived into the 20th century. Aurelia Mitela is alone – her partner gone, her child sickly and her mother dead – and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.

But her country needs her unique skills. Somebody is smuggling silver – Roma Nova’s lifeblood – on an industrial scale. Sent to Berlin to investigate, she encounters the mysterious and attractive Miklós, a known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.

Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles. She pursues him back home to Roma Nova desperate now he has struck at her most vulnerable point – her young daughter.

On Amazon US
On Amazon UK

The other finalists are Barbara Sjoholm, Maria Dziedzan and Lucienne Boyce

Running for the finishing line

HNSIndieFinalist2016Time to present yet another of the finalists in this year’s Historical Novel Society‘s Indie Award. And as this book feaures a Bow Street runner, obviously the author is hurtling towards the finishing line, head to head with her three competitors.This is yet another excellent read – but then, as I’ve said before, the one thing that was a given regarding the four finalists for the HNS Indie Award was that quality would be consistently high.

HNS Blog pic smallToday, it is Lucienne Boyce’s turn to clamber atop the hot seat. Lucienne is a lady not much given to flamboyance, neither in real life nor in her writing. Instead, in Bloodie Bones she presents us with a sparse, elegant prose, where every word has been carefully chosen so as to convey a very precise meaning – or so, at least, it seems to me as I read. Bloodie Bones is a book about justice – not necessarily as per the letter of the law. It is a story of what happens when those that have choose to ignore the few rights of those that do not have, especially in an 18th century society where new laws benefit the rich. One man is given the difficult task of seeing justice done, a balancing act in which the engaging Dan Foster must not only follow the law but also his conscience.

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your book
I’ve always been interested in radical history, and especially in the relationship between justice and law – the point at which people are prepared to break the law to fight for their rights. That’s what links my non-fiction work, which is on the suffragettes, with my fiction. In Bloodie Bones Dan Foster, a Bow Street Runner who is also an amateur pugilist, is sent to investigate the murder of a gamekeeper which is connected with local protest about a recent land enclosure. By focussing on a character whose job is to uphold the law, I can reflect the theme of the boundaries between lawlessness and protest, especially as Dan himself often recognises that the law is not always just. I also wanted to write about the enclosure movement which is often skirted over by historians as if it was an inevitable “progression”, when in fact it brought with it much suffering and injustice. One of the most important literary inspirations for the book was John Clare’s beautiful poem The Mores, which brings home the impact of enclosures on the working people affected by them.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
Yes, I knew from the beginning how the plot would progress. I plan my stories in advance, though I do leave some detail to be worked out along the way. It’s good too to leave space for the story and characters to develop.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
Difficult question. I love it all: the research, the drafting, the redrafting, redrafting and redrafting…

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
The scene where the boy, Walter Halling, meets Lord Oldfield and his gamekeeper in the woods. Lord Oldfield commits an act of terrible cruelty, which is based on real incidents. As I was writing it I was not only imagining but also commemorating the suffering inflicted on the weak and helpless then and now – I couldn’t help crying. If there is to be anything remotely resembling “progress”, then I want it to be to a stage where want, cruelty and suffering are no longer tolerated. (“Hear, hear,” Anna says!)

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
A man of disguises & secrets.

Are you planning any sequels to your book?
Yes, Bloodie Bones is the first in a proposed series of Dan Foster Mysteries. I’ve just finished drafting the second and sent it off to its first editor.

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
I’d already self-published one novel with SilverWood Books (To The Fair Land), and was impressed with their service, so I went with them again.

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
I think ideally I’d see myself as a “hybrid”. For example, I’m currently writing a biography of a suffragette, and I’d like to find a mainstream publisher for that if at all possible.

The pros of being an indie are that you are in control of the project – you don’t, for example, have to accept cover designs you don’t like. It also takes a long time to bring a book out in the mainstream – you can wait six months or more for a response to your submission, and then if you’re accepted it can be two or more years before the book appears. This was the experience I had with To The Fair Land: I went through a long period of making submissions, got a lot of interest and a number of those “nearly made its” familiar to so many of us, until eventually the book was accepted by an independent publisher. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was – but three years later the book still hadn’t appeared. No one’s to blame for this, things were tough in publishing, but from my point of view I just felt as if my life was on hold while I waited for something Out There to change. The decision to withdraw the novel and publish it myself was a difficult one, but in the end it was the right decision. Now I feel as if I’m moving forward in so many ways, with lots of projects on the go, and plans for more books, and being part of a fabulous indie community…I only wish I’d had the courage to do it sooner.

But there are cons, not least the cost. On the other hand, if you aren’t prepared to invest in your own work why should you expect someone else to do so?

Finally, what does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
Whether you’re mainstream or indie, you’ll always be haunted by anxiety about whether or not your work is good enough. So it’s a tremendous encouragement to me that Bloodie Bones has been read, enjoyed, and judged good enough, particularly by people who are experienced readers of historical fiction. It gives me hope that I’m doing something right. I don’t think the nagging doubts ever go away , and in many ways I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – complacency is no spur to achievement – but the thought that there are people who actually like my work is tremendously uplifting. And it’s given me a good excuse to crack open a bottle of bubbly!

Thank you, Lucienne – and I hope you’ve enjoyed the bubbly 🙂 For those eager to know more about Lucienne and her books, I suggest you pop by her website. And as to Bloodie Bones, here’s the blurb:

BloodieBonesCover-198x300“Parsons and tyrants friends take note. We have born your oppreshuns long enough. We will have our parish rights or else Bloodie Bones will drink your blood.”

When Lord Oldfield encloses Barcombe Wood, depriving the people of their ancient rights to gather food and fuel, the villagers retaliate with vandalism, arson and riot. Then Lord Oldfield’s gamekeeper, Josh Castle, is murdered during a poaching raid. Dan Foster, Bow Street Runner and amateur pugilist, is sent to investigate.

Dan’s job is to infiltrate the poaching gang and bring the killers to justice. But there’s more to Castle’s death than at first sight appears. What is the secret of the gamekeeper’s past and does it have any connection with his murder? What is Lord Oldfield concealing? And did someone beside the poachers have a reason to want Josh Castle dead?

As tensions in Barcombe build to a thrilling climax, Dan will need all his wits and his fighting skills to stay alive and get to the truth.

On Amazon UK
On Amazon US

The other finalists are Barbara Sjoholm, Maria Dziedzan and Alison Morton

UPDATE! Lucienne was one of the joint winners CONGRATULATIONS!

An author’s best friend…

The_Magdalen_Reading_-_Rogier_van_der_Weyden

The Magdalen Reading, Rogier van der Weyden (National Gallery, London)

…is a good reader. Today, I’ve invited Lisl Zlitni to visit, precisely because she is just that – a good reader. She also happens to be a very good writer, which is apparent not only in her excellent reviews but also in her poetry and those snippets of prose she has chosen to share. If you want to experience Lisl’s writing (and fab reviews) at length, do stop by her blog, Before the Second Sleep. In honour of the occasion, I’ve baked us a nice apple-pie. Plus, I might add, my home-made custard is to die for.

It is so nice to see you here with me, Lisl, what with you being all the way over in Alaska! 
Thanks so much for having me, Anna! I’m loving your weather—makes me feel so at home.

Lisl Denali_Mt_McKinley

Alaska – Mt McKinley (Denali)

Ha! I imagine it does…Speaking of Alaska, what is it like to live there? I suspect you too struggle with myths along the lines that polar bears wander down your streets in full daylight (at least it’s a myth here in Sweden)
Well, it can be somewhat isolating, especially if one doesn’t have many connections to Outside, as we call it. I don’t have television programming, for example, which is why I rely so much on the Internet, because I want to know what’s going on in the world. But that’s just me—we do have television here! It’s also really lovely in summer and winter with loads of stuff to do.
The myths I hear most are how many people don’t realize we don’t have penguins, they think we might not accept American money and are surprised to learn we have cars. At one time I worked in a small specialty shop frequented by tourists and loved hearing these silly things—typically they came from people who genuinely wanted to learn about Alaska, and interacting with their sincerity and friendliness made that one of my favorite jobs ever.

Like me, you live in a place where the seasonal differences are not only due to temperature but due to lack or excess of light. Do you think the dark of winter vs the endless light of summer has a permanent impact on the people living that far north?
Oh, definitely. People form habits and patterns based on these conditions and as part of our culture they are so ingrained we joke about them while simultaneously don’t even notice, if that makes sense. For example, the Summer Solstice is observed by just about everyone, even those with zero interest or real knowledge in the history behind it, because it marks a transition in our year when we psychologically start prepping ourselves for termination dust and the coming of winter. There’s an old joke (one of many) about how you know you’re an Alaskan, because you make your Halloween costume large enough to wear over a coat.

People who run into you on FB and the like, will probably mostly know you as a book reviewer – one of those readers who highlights aspects of the book not even the author may be entirely aware of. I get the impression you read very carefully. Does this mean you also read very slowly?
I don’t suppose I read slowly, though certainly I’m no speed reader. Overall it probably depends on the book. I think I do read carefully, which is a natural habit but there are others to thank for helping me develop my skills, including a particular professor. She engaged our classes rather than lectured and with her we learned so much regarding reading and writing about literature. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers her fondly.
In my reading I use a great deal of what I learned to this day, even with casual, not-for-review reading, though it doesn’t necessarily slow me down. Having said that, there are some books I do read more slowly, especially if it’s new information or a lot of characters to familiarize myself with.

Do you read more than one book at the time? If yes, do you read similar genre or totally different genre?
For better or worse, I do this a lot. At one time I tried to give it up, but finally just accepted the habit. It can be overwhelming on occasion, but then comes the satisfaction of closing up that last page of one book, then another and then another all within a short period of time.
Whether the genres are similar or different just depends upon circumstance—if I happened to have seen a book that looks really great, for example, and can’t wait, like a book on Kepler I recently came across. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, I think most of the time they aren’t the same, but perhaps there is always some connection: something in, about or related to one book leads me to another. What I can say for certain is that except for review books, which I read in order of when I received them, books choose me, not the other way around.

Lisl 51mASzxex8L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_I have recently noted a certain fascination from your part regarding graphic novels – the modern day version of what I used to call comic books.
I first read a Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale in a lit class in which we discussed the controversy of placing Holocaust memoir in graphic novel form. I thought it a great way to engage readers on all levels. Later I came across Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2, of growing up in an Iran adversely affected by the 1979 revolution. They could be painful to read but by the genre’s nature the pictures show more than just events: we as readers gain greater dimension to the author’s insight, including images of herself as she perceives herself. It is very, very powerful.
I can’t say I’ve read a ton of graphic novels, but you’re right; largely thanks to Turtle they are becoming more of a presence in my reading repertoire and it seems a shift is indeed occurring.

lisl 51Sqw7p5T2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What brought you to your love of reading, and what books were fundamental to igniting this passion you have for the written word?
Honestly, I don’t really know how I came to love reading in the first place, though my parents modeling it as a worthy pursuit—they were both enormous readers—surely played a large role. I can remember, even picture in my mind, books I found on shelves and flipped through, books about a boy in a jungle and animals that talked. Like now, perhaps the books beckoned to me and I couldn’t resist. Various people habitually brought me books as well: The Witch of Blackbird Pond; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Island of the Blue Dolphins; Strawberry Girl and The Cricket in Times Square were just some from my mother. My father also brought home books for me, most memorably Francis Marion: Swamp Fox of the Revolution. Even my older brother—horrible in my then opinion– picked up books he thought I might like. I still have from him Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation and The Favorite Poems and Ballads of Rudyard Kipling. The Crystal Cave and The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself both also surely went a long way toward my own writing, possibly because they both instigated a deeper delving into myself, owing to my fascination with and curiosity of their subject matter, but also they spoke of times I instinctively felt a close connection to, and it seemed almost as if I was trying to discover who I was, and why what mattered to me, did.

I know you have a son – and that he too is a voracious reader. How have you transferred over your love of reading to him?
I did the easiest thing any parent could do, but what is also the most powerful—I read near and to him. I never gave him any kind of spiel about how important books are, and didn’t have to act enthusiastic because I really was. Before he was born I read aloud—partly because I’d heard about how babies can hear their mother’s voices—but also I really enjoy feeling the words as I read. After he was born I continued to read to him, at that time whatever it was I was reading. As it turns out talking or reading to babies triggers an amazing series of events within the brain that in turn opens windows to further development. I remain in awe of how such a simple, pleasant act can benefit such complex systems.
Lisl 51DLJEfFIEL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Turtle has been a library enthusiast his entire life. Very early on he shared plots, illustrations, criticisms, favorites and so on with me, and we still read to each other. Over the years we have developed our own special little traditions or funny jokes, a development covered in Mem Fox’s wonderful Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. Simple to read; colossal in guiding children toward reading and other success
I also try to support the idea that what he chooses matters—ask questions, let him read funny or other parts of note to me, discuss ideas that arise from readings—and have always let him choose his own books from the time he could. Unless it’s for school I never make him finish a book he isn’t enjoying—how is that reading for pleasure?—and provide a nice place for his collection as well as comfortable spots to curl up and read.

What would you consider are the main benefits of instilling a love of reading in a child?
Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, there are some very practical benefits. While nothing is fool proof, I have nevertheless seen over the years that children who enjoy reading are less likely to be drawn into negative behavior. They also have a larger vocabulary, especially if they have been read to because they’ve made the connections between how a word looks as well as sounds, and are more confident about experimenting with new words. Children develop better communication skills and academic achievement tends to be higher. Perhaps best of all, it fosters loving relationships between people who truly share when they communicate.

Are there books you wouldn’t allow your son to read? And if so, why?
Well, I’ve found there are goalposts that have to be shifted a bit periodically, as well as maintained.
I don’t own a single book I wouldn’t let him read, primarily because we have always been able to discuss different topics, even if my side of the conversation was/is delivered with age appropriateness in mind. Having said that, I will say that when he was younger I might have had some difficulty with this “policy” of mine I have maintained because some books—specifically history—might have been really scary for him. Some of them are scary for me. As for books we don’t own—as far as I know, no, though that is said with some relief at him having reached this age, when I feel he is ready to read some of the more disturbing historical events.
Most parents worry about sexual content as well, and though that is a concern for me, I have to let him learn to be a responsible reader. Plus, I’ve tried to communicate that he’ll never get in trouble for asking me questions. In support of that I attempted to go beyond the standard “You can ask me anything” by communicating that while many kids ask and tell each other lots of details, much of this is incorrect and can lead to real trouble. He agreed the possible awkwardness of asking mom is way better than trouble encountered from following bad advice. I periodically re-inforce that with how I respond to books we read together, though we haven’t come across any real sexual situations in the books he chooses. Swear words, yes, and we’ve had decent conversations about appropriate—and not—places to say that sort of stuff. Hopefully this will keep working with continued maintenance, which is the real point.

I note that quite a few of my “new adult” acquaintances never read – they spend their time on social media and streaming movies instead – or channel-hopping between TV shows. Personally, I worry this leads to a general lack of reflection. Would you agree? And do you see a similar trend?
Sadly, yes on both counts. I suppose some people are more inclined to reflection than others, so even movies could trigger that for them. However, film can’t convey what words can, so a lot will get missed. And of course there’s the danger of shutting down imagination—if the film production company tells you what a dragon looks like, why should you try to imagine it? It creates lazy thinkers, in my opinion.
Nowadays I become really happy when I see people exchanging ideas or engaging in healthy debate, largely because it’s sorely lacking anymore. Even many families act, as someone wrote recently, like a group of people who happen to live in the same house rather than as a cohesive unit. We’ve got a rule we hope can create a positive difference: Read the book first.

You are not only a reader, you are also a writer. Tell us a bit about this!
Well, in school I loved to read and had a really great rapport with my English teacher. She encouraged my fledgling efforts, which at that time I think were small and not necessarily directed toward a bigger picture; they just sort of came and I didn’t have any real desire to complete them. This changed at one point, however, when I wrote a short story about two teenage girls during the Salem witch trials; I really liked the tale—secretly though, because I was unsure it was any good by actual standards. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep it, though it has been in my mind lately and I think at times of trying to re-write. At any rate, from there I did start to write more, but the results were most often poems. I later did write down some rough outlines for stories that lately have been repeatedly knocking, so I’ve been working on them.

What is it that attracts you to writing poetry? Which are the challenges vs writing prose?

Lisl Flammarion woodcut

Flammarion: the astronomer crawling under the edge of the sky

My mother was an enthusiastic reader of Edgar Allen Poe—she read and re-read his works a lot, and aloud, especially his poetry. She never came out and said poetry had to be read aloud, but I could hear in her voice what came to pass in the words, the narrator’s passion as he speaks of his Annabel Lee, or the isolated anguish of the man mourning the lost Lenore. Though at the time I wouldn’t have described it this way, I had an appreciation for how so much—events, emotions, information, even entire lifetimes—could transpire in so few words. That they were also lyrical and lovely captured my entire imagination and as I began trying my own hand at poetry, I experimented with different words, explored their meanings and histories, sometimes simply repeating the words to hear the way they sounded as compared to how they looked. Unarticulated thoughts began to transform into phrases born within my soul, and it was slightly intoxicating. I had never before been able to speak with great confidence—I was a rather shy child—but poetry was akin to a new language possessing the words I needed that my native tongue didn’t have, and it opened the world to me. Though the contexts are not exactly the same, I felt a little like the astronomer depicted in L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire as he crawls under the edge of the sky.
In some ways it seems like poetry comes easier to me, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say poetry is easy. In university, when my writing skills really improved a lot, I was a language tutor and somewhat of an MLA geek. Between that and the papers I wrote, I developed into more of an analytical writer. When I first started trying to expand on my stories this presented a great challenge as creative writing skills were now what I needed, but didn’t really possess.
Writing poetry requires saying a lot with few words, which is true of prose, of course, but the parameters tend to be narrower. Also, a word might not feel right, or could turn out to be much different to what you’d intended and you think, “What do I do with this now?” Although in poetry, this may be a pro because of the separations between poems, despite the relationship uniting them all in one volume. For example, I once tried to write a poem directed at a country—not my own, but one I really do like. I was trying to express anger, but the end result was something so radically different to what I’d aimed for I was astounded. When I thought about it more I wondered that what I had inside me was communicating a different anger that also needed to be directed elsewhere, not at this place I was so fond of. But the result was a complete product—with its own challenges toward my intentions, but still a workable poem.

Like all writers, I suppose you also use your writing as a cathartic exercise, i.e. you write with no intention of ever letting those particular words see the light of the day. And yet – in my case, at least – sometimes that writing is so intense it is almost a pity to hide it away. Your thoughts?
Ohhhhhh, yes. The poem I just talked about falls into that category. It feels so very personal, and I have some reservations, but I still thought, “And now I just put it back in the drawer?” Some work is so emotive it just can’t be contained again.

Lisl 51Ejl48vJ+L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_As a final question, which books would you bring with you to a desert island? You are only allowed three and they must last you a life-time…
This is really difficult. I mean really difficult. Just three?
I thought about The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have a Bevington edition from my university class that could keep me busy for many years. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of Will, but what he did with language was inspirational, and all those plays could really keep me thinking, and probably writing. And let’s not forget the poems!
Possibly Boorstin’s The Discoverers. He covers a variety of topics—astronomy, measurement of time, science, geography, history, key figures in exploration and expeditions for spices, discovery, the opening of China and so on. I’ve read it a few times and each reading grants me a new observation on something that didn’t quite settle in the last time.
Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest for Merlin. This may come as a surprise for you, given my oft-repeated love of Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. (“Yup,” Anna says) I do love Stewart’s book and feel almost drained leaving it off, but would have to confess that Tolstoy’s, which I read just once, leaves more room for discovery. Plus it has pictures. OK, well in all seriousness I don’t feel quite so connected to Merlin as with Stewart’s work, but the less familiar material would lead me through terra incognita and perhaps a few wonderful surprises.

Wow, not exactly the easiest of reads…Thank you so much for dropping by, Lisl – it has been most inspirational!
Thanks so much, Anna, for having me and I hope we’ll do this again sometime

 

Yet another finalist

A week ago, I introduced you to one of the finalists in this years Historical Novelist Society Indie Award. As some of you know, I was the proud recipient of this award last year, and this year I am just as proud to be one of the final judges.

HNSIndieFinalist2016I thought it might make sense to have the finalists introduce themselves and their books – having read all four, I can warmly recommend them. All of them are worthy winners, all of them are great reads. Not exactly a surprise, as the Historical Novel Society‘s Indie team under Helen Hollick does a great job of sifting through hundreds upon hundreds of indie books to create first a long-list, then a short-list. The short-listed books have been read by three judges, and their scores have chosen the final four. These final four will be judged by two judges, and hopefully James Aitcheson and I will agree on who the winner is. Well; we have to agree 🙂

HNS june 11download 008Anyway: today I’d like to introduce you to Maria Dziedzan. An English teacher and a philosopher, Maria was born in the UK, has lived and worked in the UK, and these days mostly lives there as well. But her father came from Ukraine, and it is his homeland, his people who have inspired When Sorrows Come. Set during WW II, I can assure you sorrows do come – en masse – and at times this is a read that tears your heart out. Populated by a number of unforgettable female characters – because this is a story about the women rather than their men – this is a tale of gritty survival in a Ukraine torn apart by Stalin and, subsequently, the German war-machine.

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your finalist book!
The first time I visited my father’s village in Western Ukraine with him, I met an old friend of his who had helped the partisans and paid the price. Nastunia had been betrayed, captured and tortured by the NKVD…and had lived to tell the tale to my father over fifty years later. She was a wizened old lady living in poverty when I met her and I was so struck by her indomitable spirit that when I came to write my first novel, after retiring from teaching, I inevitably remembered her story. So When Sorrows Come came into being.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
Yes and no. To some extent, I was in the iron grip of historical events and I chose to limit the period of the story essentially to 1939-46. I also wove oral histories which I knew into the fabric of the timeline and then I sketched in my fictional tale around my heroine, Anna. But I also found myself exploring new seams of sub-plots along the way as I was guided by some irresistible characters.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
It is certainly not the first draft…or not usually. I write the first draft by hand and it is then that I am assailed by thoughts of the unformed nature of what I’m putting on paper. But then I type it up and work and rework the section I’ve just written and I enjoy that more. I like the layering aspect of this stage as the storytelling is embroidered and polished. Apologies for the mixed metaphor!

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
With reference to the above, a perfect example would be the wedding scene. It comes about two thirds of the way into the story and has a great deal of work to do. It must move on a sub-plot but also show changes in the heroine’s relationship with her lover. It must include a myriad of minor characters and pre-figure several disasters. And it must also be a Ukrainian village wedding. If the reader has never attended one, they must feel they’ve had a chance to enjoy one by the end of the chapter. I wrote this chapter at least 9 or 10 times in the first draft and even then came back to add details when I was re-drafting the whole novel.

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
Brave, indomitable and loving.

Are you planning a sequel to your book?
I have just completed my second novel which is not a sequel to When Sorrows Come but some of the minor characters re-appear and one in particular plays quite a large role. The two novels stand alone but contribute to each others’ stories. This current novel, though, IS the first of two, possibly three, novels which will have the tighter link of a sequel.

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
Having sent off the first three chapters of When Sorrows Come to various agents and receiving the same polite rejection repeatedly, I decided to publish it myself because it was a story I thought should be told and one which I wanted people to read. It seemed pointless to spend a great deal of time and effort on something which would remain dormant.

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
There is undoubtedly a lot of satisfaction to be had in seeing something you’ve worked hard on coming to fruition without waiting for chance or fashion to find you. But it would be great to have the support of a publicity department!

What does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
Being a finalist has given a great boost to my confidence as a writer, of course. I was still working on my second novel when the news came and it energised me to finish it although I was only about half way through. It is also wonderful to have the approbation of people who see a lot of novels, especially as When Sorrows Come is my first. Writing is a solitary activity and feedback from readers is a very precious thing…especially when it’s as positive as this!

Thank you for that, Maria! And for those eager to know more about Maria, why not visit her website? And as to When Sorrows Come, here is the blurb:

HNS WSC new front coverAnna is a young woman whose family is torn apart by the brutality of Stalin’s bullies when they enter her village in Western Ukraine in 1939. Her community, like many others, is trampled and desecrated by Bolsheviks and Fascists in turn, while Russia and Germany fight for dominance in the East. But Anna is a resilient survivor who finds her own path, despite the dangers. When her lover joins the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, she decides to help the partisans in their fight against powerful enemies. Her determination only grows as she gradually loses those she loves…but being brave doesn’t guarantee survival.

 

On Amazon US 
On Amazon UK

The other finalists are Barbara Sjoholm, Lucienne Boyce and Alison Morton

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