ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “self-publishing”

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).

 

 

 

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…

medieval william-the-conqueror-manuscript-illustration

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

No, no, no! Please don’t die! – of the constraints imposed by reality

I write historical fiction, and as such I am a big fan of knowing my period and the important players of the time. However, my first series featured a time-traveller and her 17th century husband, a couple affected by what was happening round them – Matthew Graham is obliged to uproot himself and his family and leave Scotland due to the religious persecution in the aftermath of the Restoration in 1660 – but they were never anywhere close to the centre of things. This allowed me a lot of freedom when plotting their lives and adventures – albeit that I do have real-life characters flitting in and out.

EHFA Isabella_and_Roger_Mortimer

Isabella and Roger – IRL (hmm, like a century after the fact)

My new series also features fictional characters. But this time round, I’ve tied their fate to that of the movers and shakers of the time, and suddenly my writing is populated by far more characters who did exist than did not.
“I should hope so.” Roger Mortimer pours himself a goblet of wine and reclines on one of the window seats that have, just by magic, popped up in my head. “It is us that are truly interesting.”
Well, excuse me for not agreeing 100%, Lord Mortimer! Well, okay: I am fascinated by Roger Mortimer – have been, since a certain Mr Wilmshurst (one of my first history teachers) summarised the story of Queen Isabella and Roger.

At the time, Queen Isabella came as a fresh air, proving to everyone in the class room that not all medieval ladies were meek and submissive. In actual fact, I think very few were: it suffices to look around at the women that surround us to realise submissiveness is not necessarily an ingrained female trait. But you see, no matter how tough as boots Isabella was, I never really warmed to her. I did, however, warm to Mortimer.
“He would not have given you as much as a glance,” Isabella says from where she has joined Mortimer by the window. She twirls, showing off her perfect figure. Everything is perfect about her – but there’s something hard and calculating about her, and I’ve always felt she could have done more to save her lover from his fate.
“My fate?” Mortimer stands up, and beside him, Isabella is as dainty as a foal beside a stallion.
“Well, you know,” I say, squirming a bit. “You die.”
He gives me a humourless smile. “I know. I was there, remember?” His hand rubs at his neck. “I was hoping you’d apply an alternate history approach.” .
Ah. But I already do – sort of – and one can only play with the facts so far, unless I aim to recreate an entirely new historical setting, which I don’t. So I clear my throat and shake my head. “Sorry. Facts are facts.”
“Are they?” His brows shoot up. “So you know everything about me and Isabella?”
“Umm…” Obviously not. It’s not as if these two were kind enough to leave me huge diaries to read. And even if they had, who’s to say that would be the truth. The truth is never much more than a perception – unless we talk of the hard facts, such as “he was born then, died then.” Died. Gone. An irrefutable fact.

I’m going to come clean here and say I have a major, major problem when my characters – invented or not invented – die on me.

1280px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

Dead – very dead (Ophelia by Millais)

Now, when it comes to invented characters, the savvy writer can keep a careful eye on the character’s development and the plotline so as to ensure death is not the only option. Close shaves at times, but not death. Not yet. Preferably not ever – or at least not in any of the books I intend to write about this character. Some characters take matters out of your hands by being quite contrary and end up dead anyway, but such misfortunes can be avoided when dealing with imaginary peeps.

The problem is compounded when dealing with people who did live – and die. Unless you’re aiming for alternative history – as my pal Roger so helpfully suggested – in which you could, f.ex., keep Harold alive at Hastings while having William eating dust, writing about real-life people is constraining.

“Harold?” Roger snorts softly. “He was a Saxon savage. With William came order and structure. No William, no Henry II, no Eleanor of Aquitaine, no Edward I, no Edward II.” His brow furrows. “Not that Edward II would have been a major loss to mankind.”
“Whatever,” I tell him, wanting to clap him over the head for his disparging comment about Harold. “My point is rather that real life characters such as you were born, and then you DIED.”
And once these historical people reach their best by date, no tweaking of the plotline will help – there they lie, as still as a rock and with as much animation. Truth be told, they were just as inert prior to being included in the ongoing Work-in-progress, but once you start breathing life into a person, they become your baby, sort of, and we don’t like it when our babies die.
Roger Mortimer gives me an amused look. “Your baby?”
“Figuratively speaking.”
“Ah.” He glances at Isabella, who has moved off to study her reflection in a pool of water. (My head is very roomy, okay?) “Not baby in the more modern sense?” He winks.
Sheesh! My cheeks heat, and darkly handsome Roger Mortimer throws back his head and laughs. Well: I’ll get my revenge – sort of – by sticking to the actual dates, so come December 1330, this vibrant, forceful and extremely ambitious man will be lying in an anonymous grave somewhere. Right: I need to take a little break and fortify myself with a gulp or two of tea. Roger – who is quite the gentlemen when he wants to be – pats me on the back and tells me not to feel too bad about killing him off. After all, most of his contemporaries were of the opinion he deserved it. This he says with a crooked smile, and I know his ignominious death still rankles.

My conversation with Mortimer is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Adam de Guirande, my very invented hero who loves Mortimer as a father – even if at times he doesn’t like him or his methods much. If I am upset by the thought of Mortimer’s death, it will eviscerate Adam.
“It will.” Mortimer’s dark gaze follows Adam’s progress towards him. “So we don’t tell him. Not yet.”
“Not yet,” I promise.
Mortimer moves off with Adam, doing one of those elegant fade aways my characters often do when they desire some moments of privacy. I revert to my morbid musings regarding the demise of characters.

One of my main gripes with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Throne series is that he keeps on killing people off. No sooner have I developed a relationship with one of his main characters, and he offs them. I have still not recuperated from Ned Stark’s beheading, let me tell you. Now, if I feel so bereaved, I can only imagine how bereaved he feels. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he maintains a professional distance to all his imaginary creations – but I don’t believe that, as anyone with half a brain cell can see how much of himself he has invested in his books and characters.

Still, Martin has the option of keeping them all alive. Had he wanted to, the entire Stark family could still be sitting in Winterfell, expressing that “winter is coming” in between bickering about whether to worship the Seven, the old goods, or the fire god. Not necessarily the most riveting of stories, but he could have aimed for a Happily Ever After seeing as he invented the Starks.

Had George R.R. Martin been writing about William Wallace, Happily Ever After would not even be an option. After all, we all know how Wallace died, and there was nothing happy about it. (And while I break out in hives every time I see Mel Gibson depict Wallace wearing a kilt, I must give him plus points for that awesome death scene.)

Edward_Burne-Jones.The_last_sleep_of_Arthur

A very dead Arthur (Edward Burne-Jones)

It’s very frustrating to know from the beginning you’re going to have to kill off some of your protagonists – just because they happen to have a fixed death date. Alternatively, you end the story before they die, but sometimes that isn’t an option. In the example of William Wallace, there really is no point at which we can have him riding off into a rosy sunset, leaving his future fate to be determined by the reader.

No, William Wallace had no Happily Ever After, and neither did my Roger Mortimer. I sigh and press the heels of my hands against my eyes. Shit: Adam de Guirande will never forgive me for this, for allowing him to develop such strong bonds with a man I knew from the beginning wouldn’t be around to grow old. But that, dear readers, is one of those things us writers have to deal with. Still: I wish…

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!

Most dark and dangerous

Barbara FW CoverOkay, so today I have invited Barbara Gaskell Denvil to join me here on Stolen Moments. Barbara writes like a master of art paints, creating light and shadow, reek and perfume, good and bad. Her male protagonists are all (and yes, I mean ALL) deliciously complicated beings, with so many layers they resemble an onion. Well, apart from the fact that I imagine them all as devastatingly attractive (not necessarily handsome), and however much I love my onions, they are not what I would call hot.

Barbara is re-launching her book Fairweather. A promisingly thick tome set in the reign of King John – well, not entirely – and featuring a man named Vespasian. Except that his name isn’t Vespasian. I read this book several years ago, but I am thrilled to soon have the opportunity to read it again and submerge myself in a world of medieval politics, black magic and intertwined fates. You love books like this, and you will lose yourself in Fairweather. Just make sure you grab hold of Vespasian’s shirt and follow him out of this rich and detailed world back to the light of everyday life!

I gave Barbara the task of introducing Vespasian to you. So, ladies and gents, I give you dark and dangerous (very, very dangerous) Vespasian, as seen by his creator. Or maybe creator is the wrong word. Maybe Barbara merely channels the force that is Vespasian.

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

Let me introduce you to a close friend of mine. Jasper de Vrais, Baron of Demis-Bayeux, Gloucester and Stourbury, holder of the seal of Thoth, more commonly known, while incognito, as Vespasian Fairweather.

The symbolism of this pseudonym is important, but Vespasian is not going to explain it. He rarely explains anything unless he is speaking of alchemy and the battle of Good against Evil.

Barbara last_judgement_large

Hieronymus Bosch – The Last Judgement (good vs evil) 

Murder, torture, magic and the battle to end all battles follows wherever Vespasian marches. He marched into my head one day, and I have never been able to get him out. Perhaps he belongs there. I believe that one day, if I am patient, he will lead me into the second book of The Lilith Chronicles. Fair Weather is Book one, and this is being published in ebook and paperback on June 2nd this year.

Vespasian approves. He is on his way from the shadows into the light.

This most unusual character more of less wrote himself, and that’s just as well, because I’m not sure I could have managed it alone. He is not an easy character to describe and I doubt he would stand around waiting for anyone to try. He goes where he wishes, be it in the past or the present, and perhaps even the future. But in spite of all his many deep and troubled faults, this is a man capable of great love. His love for Tilda goes very deep, and for a man who understands magic at it roots, that is very deep indeed.

I am disclosing secrets here and he may not be too pleased, for he prefers to stay in the shadows. He has aroused the hatred of those in power and although his own powers are considerable, he stands alone and cannot outwit the crown, all the lords, the cruel gathering of the cult, and Lilith herself.

Magic is the answer. Vespasian is no super-hero of course. In fact he is no hero at all, and in his youth he was tempted into dark and violent paths where he was capable of great cruelty before he discovered the greater power of love.

Alchemy is neither good nor evil and the powers it infers are more spiritual than physical. The later attempts to turn common metals into gold are aberrations of a far older belief dating back to ancient Egyptian deities, and this is where the power grows. But it brings neither happiness nor release and must be controlled by those who are strong and wise enough. Vespasian is both strong and wise, but he is troubled by his own demons and his own past. Not everything will be as it first seems and there is no alchemic golden promise for the future.

But there is Molly, who can look back through the centuries even though she does not understand how or why, and there is Tilda who is the heart of timid innocence, and who adores Vespasian even though she knows many of his faults.

It is Tilda who will alter everything, and it is Molly who will change the direction of time. But it is Vespasian who will control the end.

So take my hand and come creeping into my book with me. No fair weather awaits, but Vespasian is waiting and he has a great deal to tell you. Be careful. There is danger as well as sunshine, but there is protection growing and you will be safe. At least I think so.

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

I’m assuming the above has you rushing off to buy your own copy of Fairweather. Trust me, you will not be disappointed!

Buy on Amazon US
Buy on Amazon UK

B grandma 2Born in England, Barbara grew up amongst artists and authors and started writing at a young age. She published numerous short stories and articles, and worked as an editor, book critic and reader for publishers and television companies. Barbara broke off her literary career to spend many hot and colourful years sailing the Mediterranean and living in various different countries throughout the region.

When Barbara’s partner died she came to live in rural Australia where she still lives amongst the parrots and wallabies, writing constantly, for her solace has now become her passion.

With a delight in medieval history dating back to her youth, Barbara principally set my fiction in medieval England.She also writes fantasy, tending towards the dark.

Find out more on Barbara’s website or her Amazon page

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

And the finalists are…

Those of you who follow my blog will know that one of my proudest moments as a writer was when I won the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Award in 2015. Seeing as it all happened in Denver, that particular city will always have a special place in my heart.

HNSIndieFinalist2016The Historical Novel Society does an awesome job when it comes to spreading the word regarding good historical fiction – both traditionally published and self-pub. This year, I have the honour of being one of the final judges for the HNS Indie Award 2016, and I thought it might make sense to allow the four finalists to introduce themselves. Having read all four books I can conclude the quality is impressively high – which does not exactly make my job any easier 🙂 Not that I’m surprised: to reach the finals, these books have gone through a rigorous selection process, and what remains is la crème de la crème as one says in French. All are worthy winners, and at this point it comes down to the subjective preferences of the judges – a bit like selecting the winner in the Olymic Women’s ice-skating event.

HNS BARBARA_S-3800(web)Today, I’d like you to meet Barbara Sjoholm. An American lady with a Swedish name – but with a large dollop of Scottish blood, she tells me. Barbara’s book is called Fossil Island and is set in the late 19th century in Denmark. For me, as a Swede, it was a pleasure to read about Georg Brandes, Carl Nielsen and Victoria Benedictsson. I suspect these are not household names elsewhere in the world, but for us up here in the north they most definitely are. Not that knowing about these people is fundamental to enjoying the book: Fossil Island is a lovely story featuring a young teenager and her first, faltering steps towards adulthood. Ms Sjoholm writes in small letters throughout, her intense scenes crawling in under your skin and leaving you short of breath. There is one particular scene involving a desperate woman, a man, and his handkerchief that is among the best I have ever read. Ever.

I’ve prepared a set of questions for all four of the finalists, and without more ado, I hereby give you Barbara!

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your finalist book
Fossil Island is set in late 19th century Denmark at a time of great changes in women’s roles in society and is loosely based on the real life character “Nik,” otherwise known as Emilie Demant Hatt, who later became an artist, writer, and an ethnographer in Lapland. I had earlier translated Demant Hatt’s delightful travel book, With the Lapps in the High Mountains, and had read a memoir she’d written but that wasn’t published in her lifetime. This memoir told the previously unknown story of her adolescent romance with the composer Carl Nielsen, which began when she was fourteen and he was twenty-two. There were just enough details in the memoir to awaken my interest and think what a marvelous novel it would make. Fossil Island allowed me to write about music and art, natural history, rural Denmark and Copenhagen, bicycling, and repressed and expressed sexuality, subjects just hinted at in the memoir and Carl Nielsen’s collected correspondence.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
The basic plot was set: talented boy meets girl, and boy eventually moves on, leaving girl behind. I didn’t change Nik’s situation in life, but brought out as much as I could based on the limited facts and my knowledge of Danish society and culture. That said, I felt free to invent other characters and give them different fates, and yes, I was surprised at times at what everyone got up to.

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 love all aspects of novel writing, from early inspiration and research to revision and polishing. Rewriting is satisfying because it’s possible to work more deeply with the underlying themes and metaphors. For instance, in real life, Nik had an uncle who owned a bicycle factory and she lived in a small village on the Limford, across the water from the island of Fur, very well known for its Eocene fossils. Both bikes and fossils play a role in the novel; it was in rewriting I explored their connections to freedom and to the layers of the past.

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
It’s often the subtle scenes that are more taxing to write than the more dramatic ones. Fossil Island reproduces the repression of the 19th century novel, but also tries to suggest what Nik and her older sister might actually have been feeling about their impossible loves and longings. I felt I had to walk a line in some scenes—not saying too much, but allowing the reader to guess what emotions were stirring below the surface.

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
Tomboy, passionate, uncertain, high-spirited, curious.

Are you planning any sequels to your book?
Fossil Island has a published sequel, The Former World, which carries on Nik’s story through age eighteen.

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
My agent, Robert Lescher, died while I was writing the novel, which eventually became two shorter novels. I had difficulty attracting a new agent for Fossil Island, perhaps because of the length or the relative obscurity of the subjects. I’d previously published with mainstream, independent, and university presses, but I was curious about the new technologies of printing and publishing on demand, and thought I’d like to explore them.

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
I wouldn’t rule out doing another indie publication. I really liked the copyeditor I hired and enjoyed the whole process of making an attractive-looking book. Actually, books, plural, because my process allowed me finally to accept that I had a novel and a sequel in hand. The production, through IngramSpark, was surprisingly easy and professional looking. I had the usual indie problems afterwards with publicity and distribution, in particular getting Fossil Island into bookstores and libraries, even though I had some good reviews, but I found some ways to overcome at least some of the obstacles. It helped that I published the novel in 2015, when Carl Nielsen’s 150th anniversary was being celebrated.

Finally, what does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
This is my first historical novel. It’s always been a genre that I’ve enjoyed reading and it’s been lovely to be in the company of other novelists working in this field. It’s an honor to have been chosen as a finalist by HNS.

Thank you, Barbara! And for those of you who want to know about Barbara, I suggest you pop by her website. If you’re curious about Fossil Island, here is the blurb:

HNS Sjoholm_FossilIsland_Cover194xDenmark, 1887. Nik Hansen is a fourteen-year-old tomboy who spends her time dreaming and fossilizing on the nearby island of Fur, a geologic marvel. Her older sister, Maj is starting to entertain ideas of women’s rights. The summer begins with a visit from the girls’ aunt, accompanied by a young man she calls her foster son. Carl Nielsen has just finished his music studies and plans to become a composer. Flirtation turns to a secret romance between Nik and Carl, as Maj weighs an engagement to Lieutenant Frederik Brandt. The following summer brings the sisters’ intertwining stories to a head during a month in Copenhagen with their aunt, where they juggle passion, jealousy, and violent events with their search for independent lives of their own.


On Amazon US

On Amazon UK

The other finalists are Maria Dziedzan, Lucienne Boyce and Alison Morton

UPDATE! Barbara was one of the joint winners. CONGRATULATIONS!

Midwinter is a dangerous time…

all-aboard-with-medallionAll December, IndieBrag has been hosting a blog hop in which various authors have shared this and that about their holiday traditions. As you may know, IndieBrag promotes quality Indie books by awarding BRAG Medallions to those books that lie up to their exacting standards. (see this post)I am the proud winner of eight such medallions, all of the books in The Graham Saga having been so honoured. *puffs up a bit* Anyway, enough about stuff like that, instead, let us leap straight into the holiday fun.

It’s not that long ago since midwinter equalled a close to impenetrable darkness – no electric light, nothing but the odd tallow candle. In countries such as mine, so far north as to stretch beyond the Arctic Circle, winter is one long, uninterrupted night. It was also a time fraught with other dangers: too long or too cold a winter, and people would starve or freeze to death (or both). No wonder those long-gone ancestors of ours did their very best to placate the gods and ensure the return of the sun, celebrating the Midwinter solstice with sacrifices – a midvinterblot.

Carl_Larsson_-_Midwinter's_Sacrifice_-_Google_Art_Project

Carl Larsson – Midvinterblot (a rather romaticised version)

The Vikings were big on celebrations – especially during this the dreariest part of the year – so their midvinterblot became one very wet, very long party, as various animals were sacrificed to the gods. Always male animals. And every ninth year there was an even bigger party, in which nine of each animal was sacrificed. Sometimes men were among the sacrificial lambs – or so the Christian apostles would have us believe.

Anyway: in the 11th century or so, my pagan forebears became Christian, and the ancient festivities of the midvinterblot were appropiated as part of the Christmas celebration – minus the sacrifices. Some generations on, and all those gods of old, all that folklore was bundled together as being heathen rubbish – something good Christian people did not associate with. Except for the tomte, of course.

20151215_092712Here is a tomte, drawn by yours truly. A precursor of the Christmas elves, this tomte is an old, old being. And grey. No red cap, no jolly “ho ho ho”. Every farm had their own tomte, a sentinel spirit that kept an eye on the beasts and the humans, keeping them safe from the evil that lived in the woods and the dark winter nights. The tomte kept the fairies away, stopped the trolls from doing their changeling thing, ensured the cow gave good milk and the hens laid eggs – assuming of course, that the humans kept their part of the bargain.

An irate tomte was a dangerous tomte. Children would sicken and die. St Anthony’s fire would ravage the crops. The cows would go crazy and kick the farmer’s wife to death. The farmer would disappear into a sinkhole. You get the picture, right?

Our tomte is called Olsson. He is not a particularly nice or sociable creature. Only rarely have I seen him, a shadow hastening by along the wall of the barn. But I know he is there – watching over us. At times I hear his clogs clip-clopping over the ancient floorboards in our barn. When the moon is high, chances are I’ll see him, a small little thing standing in the middle of the yard, bowing to the lady moon. Or I won’t – Olsson prefers to keep below the radar. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he mutters, giving me a beady look that makes it abundantly clear I would be a fool indeed to forget his presence – or my duty to him, the guardian spirit of our home.

So, every Christmas Eve I do what housewives in Sweden have done since ages back. I make rice porridge – rice boiled in milk and sugar, with a cinnamon stick or two. Why rice? because once this was a delicacy, the most expensive type of porridge available. Once it is done, I set out a large bowl for the tomte. That is all he expects – a plate of rice porridge once a year. Well, and some respect, of course. In return, he’ll be around to keep an eye on the future generations as well – not a bad trade, all in all.

A5 Mailer-FrontIn my series, The Graham Saga, half-Swedish time traveller Alex Lind keeps the tradition of rice porridge alive – just in case there is a tomte about keeping an eye on her family. In the below excerpt, Alex has had a harrowing morning. One of her sons has been forcibly carried off to grow up with a neighbouring Indian tribe, and just that morning she saw him, on the other side of the river. What was she to do but try and swim across to reach her son?

She dressed, pulled on an extra pair of stockings to warm her ice-cold feet, and went in search of her family. It was Christmas Eve, and she had tons of things to do before tomorrow. The saffron buns she had baked yesterday, the ham was also done, but the pies and the fowl, the trout she was curing, and the bread…!
Someone was taking care of that at least, she sniffed as she came down the stairs. From the parlour came a steady hum of male voices, while from the kitchen came sounds that indicated all the Graham women were there. Her stomach growled, and Alex decided sustenance was her first priority.
“Better?” Mrs Parson bustled towards her, dragging her to sit as close as possible to the kitchen hearth.
“I haven’t exactly been ill.”
“Nay, you just nearly drowned,” Mrs Parson said. “A normal wee thing, no?”
“I didn’t nearly drown,” Alex said. “I’m a very good swimmer.”
“David said how you were well under, and then the Indians pulled you out.”
“I would have made it across on my own,” Alex said with far more conviction than she felt.
Mrs Parson snorted, obviously not believing her. She served Alex a bowl of hot chicken soup, complete with leeks and carrots, and sat down opposite her. “Did you see him, then?”
Alex nodded, her eyes swimming with tears. “At least he knew who I was.”
“Of course he did,” Mrs Parson said, smiling at her. “And now he knows you for a daftie as well, no?”
“A daftie?” Alex’s voice squeaked with indignation.
“Aye. Throw yourself in the river like that!”
“You could have died,” Betty remonstrated, setting Timothy down in Alex’s lap.
“I just had to. He was so close.” She bent her face to Timothy’s bright corkscrews.
“At least he knows for certain just how much you love him and miss him,” Naomi said in a soft voice, “and that must be a great comfort to him.”
“You think?” Alex gave her a grateful look.
“If my mother had done something like that…” Naomi came over from where she was making pie, and holding her flour-covered hands aloft pecked Alex on the cheek. “I would have been so proud of her.”
Alex stayed in the kitchen, comfortable in the warmth and the industrious activity. She helped Ruth with the four chickens, setting them to simmer in a heavy broth, complete with wine, prunes, winter apples and finely diced salted pork. Alex made approving noises at Sarah’s squash soup, and had her fingers rapped when she tried to steal a piece of honey cake from under Mrs Parson’s nose. By the hearth, Agnes was minding the rice porridge, a staple of Graham Christmas Eves.
“Swedish tradition,” Alex said as she always did, ignoring the amused look that flew between her daughters. “You boil the rice slowly in milk and cinnamon, and then you make sure you set a dish outside the door for the little folk.”
“The little folk?” Mrs Parson laughed. “I’ve told you, no? The little folk live in the Old World, not here.”
“How would you know? Spoken to any recently?”
“No, on account of them being there, not here,” Mrs Parson replied with irrefutable logic.
“Hmph,” Alex said, “you never know, do you?”

20151216_122527I hope you’ve enjoyed this Holiday-inspired post. I urge you to continue following the IndieBrag blog hop, the next stop is with Janet Leigh. And, just to be on the safe side, why not set out a dish of rice porridge for the little folk. After all, as Alex says, one never knows, does one?

 

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