ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “storytelling”

In which Mrs Who converses with her characters

Writing Leonid Pasternak

At times, being a writer brings with it a sense of confusion: Where am I? Who am I? What era am I presently stuck in? Now and then, I need to pinch myself to bring me back to my reality, the one in which electrical light and central heating and hot, hot showers figure prominently, so as not to get stuck on a bloody battlefield in the 14th century or choke in a noose on a 17th century gallows.
“That’s what you get, for interacting with all of us simultaneously,” Jason Morris says with a little laugh, sitting back on the very roomy (and hideously purple. Colour-choice probably needs to be analysed) sofa that takes up most of my brain space at present.
“Well, it’s not exactly as I have a choice, do I? Once you take on shape, you all become very alive and real.” Besides, I find my various protagonists somewhat addictive, which is why I can’t just let them drift off into oblivion while working on something new.  I look at Jason, at Adam, at Matthew. And yes, it’s a “me and my boys” get-together, which will probably cost me a lot once their female counterparts discover they’ve been excluded. But for now, I intend to enjoy the company, not worry about the consequences.

“Oh, I am real.” Matthew Graham adjusts the embroidered cuffs of his fine coat so that the lace that adorns his shirt is adequately visible. For the day, my seventeenth century dreamboat is in dark blue, a colour that brings out the green in his hazel eyes. Tall, broad, strong – all my leading men are rather impressive, but this my first love has a special place in my heart, which he well knows. That long mouth of his curls into a satisfied little smile.
“Only in here,” I tell him, tapping my head.
“Alive in an environment controlled by a lady with a thing about Happily Ever After,” Jason puts in. “Not a bad place to be in.”
“Eh?” Adam de Guirande shoves his messy fair hair off his brow. “Happily what?”
“She likes us to ride off into the sunset,” Jason explains, which if anything just has Adam looking even more confused.
“You don’t get to die in her books,” Matthew clarifies.
“No, she just kills our children,” Adam mutters, and a look passes between him and Matthew. “And being alive does not bring any guarantee of happiness,” he continues. “What if Kit…” He gulps, half standing as if he wants to rush to his wife’s side.
“Happily Ever After,” Jason repeats, reaching across Matthew to pat Adam on his arm. “Yes, we suffer, we hurt, we are humiliated and frightened—as are our loved ones—but somehow we make it through alive right to the end.”
“Alive but not unscathed.” Matthew gives me a blistering look. “Losing bairns is hard—for the father as well as the mother. Being forced to leave your home is hard, being persecuted for your faith is hard, being abducted and humiliated and flogged and…”
Adam nods. “Aye. Being crippled…”
“You’re not a cripple,” I object. Anything but in my biased opinion, this medieval knight of mine fully capable of swinging a sword or wielding a lance.
“Maybe not in your time,” he retorts, “but in my time I most definitely am.” He points at his foot. “You know as well as I do that I can’t run with this.”
“Well, at least she hasn’t had you burnt at the stake,” Jason says, dragging a hand through his mahogany coloured hair. It trembles. Matthew and Adam blink.
“But you said she doesn’t let us die, that…” Matthew begins.
“Happily Ever After and you’re ashes in the wind?” Adam interrupts.
“Previous life,” Jason explains airily.
“Previous life?” Matthew echoes, edging away from Jason. “What kind of creature are you?”
“A man, just like you.” Jason glares. “It’s just that I’ve been reborn fifty times or so.” He most certainly has. If I have problems with navigating various time periods, poor Jason has the not so pleasurable experience of having lived through most of them. Jason gives Matthew a crooked smile. “We may have crossed swords, you and I. I was there at Naseby, at Worcester.”
“You were?” Matthew looks Jason up and down. “A cavalier?”
“If so, a very impoverished one,” Jason retorts, “but yes, I fought for the king.” He stares straight ahead. “Not a good life,” he mutters.
Adam leans forward. “You remember all these lives?”
Jason looks away. “Unfortunately.”
“Merciful Mother!” Adam exclaims. “How terrible.” He frowns at me. “How could you burden him with that?”
“Er…” I say. Not sure, actually. Just as I don’t know why I am presently stuck in a scene in which Adam is in deep, deep trouble – but best not tell him that. Or Kit. I can sense her presence at my back, like an avenging Fury she hisses that if I don’t get Adam out of this pickle she will make it her purpose in life to drive me insane. Nice girl, my Kit. I shake off her presence and refocus on “my” men.
“It’s my destiny,” Jason is saying. “And at least this time round I finally found Helle again.”
“Helen?” Matthew asks.
“Helle,” Jason corrects. “Like Helen but without the n.”
“Odd name,” Adam offers.
“Not if you’re an educated man rather than an illiterate knight,” Jason replies coolly.
“I’m not illiterate!” A sensitive matter with Adam—in particular as his wife reads and writes much better than he does. “And I’ll have you know very few men know how to read and write in my time.”
Jason holds up his hands in apology. “Helle is the name of a princess in Greek mythology,” he explains. “She ended up swimming with the fishes.”
“Mermaids,” Matthew says with a smile. “She’s the lassie who fell off the ram, isn’t she?”
“Ram?” Adam looks from one to the other. “She was riding a ram?”
“Long story,” Jason says. “I’ll tell you over a pint or two.”

My medieval knight may be medieval, but by know he knows full well what a pint is, so he shines up, as does Matthew. Moments later, the sofa is empty. Contemporary Jason, seventeenth century Matthew and medieval Adam are laughing, fading away into another corner of my brain where beer and peanuts await them.

writers 152dc-p1452I go back to my writing. I work on various WIPs at the same time – I enjoy it, even if it means hop-scotching back and forth through time. Mrs Who, that’s me, but instead of a Tardis, I have my trusted computer.

Seeing as I’m still not sure how to solve Adam’s situation, today I’m in the late seventeenth century and a tallow candle casts a faint light in a little room in which a man lies in bed, bloody bandages covering his upper body. A sword and shield rest against the wall, a pair of woollen hose lay thrown on the floor, and…No, no no! 17th century, remember? No sword and shield, no hose, and definitely no wimple and veil on the woman presently clasping her man’s hand and crying her eyes out. I peer at my beloved Matthew, lying so still, so pale, and my throat tightens. Is he going to die this time round? The woman at his bedside whirls, bright blue eyes slicing through me like Death Star rays.
“Don’t you dare!” she hisses. “Happily Ever After, remember?” I do. But sometimes my characters make it all very, very hard for me.

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

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

 

Making real people work for you

Valdemar_Atterdag_brandskattar_Visby_(1882)I write Historical Fiction. While my protagonists are entirely fictional, they now and then have to interact with “real” people – people who’ve existed, lived and died for real. This can be something of a bummer – especially when your perfectly crafted timeline suddenly crashes headlong into the wall of historical facts. That conversation your protagonist was to have with the wife of the Earl of Lancaster can no longer happen, seeing as the lady died some months before the planned meeting. (Shoot! How inconsiderate of her…) The touching scene in which the king and his wife are reconciled must be scrapped – the king would no more reconcile with his wife than he would have a crocodile in his bed (which would not only be very weird, but also anachronistic, as there were no crocodiles in England in the 14th century)

See? These real-life characters are hard to deal with. In actual fact, so are the invented characters, as all of a sudden they start developing opinions of their own and generally refuse to cooperate when they don’t agree with the overall plotline, but that is neither here nor there – not in this post.

At the same time, including real characters in the story adds a certain nerve. People can read the book, become intrigued and spend some time googling the real characters. Hopefully, they come away with the impression that the author has done a good job adhering to the overall facts. If not, there may be a problem, as readers of historical fiction tend to be sensitive to incorrect information. Not, I might add, that all readers of historical fiction KNOW the facts – but they are often quite convinced that they do, and if not they will google. Trust me – I’m a reader too.

The further back in history you write, the more leeway you have when utilizing the real-life characters. Also, I think it important to underline that Historical Fiction is precisely that: fiction. Even when writing about real historical people, we must keep in mind that we don’t know these shadowy ghosts from the past. What we have are fragments of their lives (at best), mentions in this roll or the other, acidic comments in one chronicler’s version of events, praise in another’s. So what any good historical fiction author does is that he/she constructs a picture – fleshes out the spare bones we have left to create a living, breathing character (in as much as characters can breathe, of course). Every such representation is incorrect in that it does not – cannot – be a fair representation of the person who lived and died all those years ago.

Henry_VIIThis is why we get such varied depictions of historical people. Authors may start with the same bare facts, but then they’ll add biases and personal values, which is why Henry Tudor may come across as the villain in one book, as an earnest man with a mission in another. Thing is, we have no idea what he was really like. Was he passionate in bed? Did he have the enervating habit of sucking his teeth as he thought? Did he take reading matter with him to the garderobe? Did he eat the veggies first? Did he now and then curse that meddlesome mother of his to hell and back? Or maybe he didn’t think her meddlesome at all? We simply don’t know. What we do know is that he won at Bosworth – and that, according to some, is down to pure luck, while others will argue for divine intervention.

Knights_TemplarTestament to the skill of the writer, is how well they succeed in influencing our opinions about those long dead people. Was William Marshal truly as gallant as Elizabeth Chadwick depicts him? I lean towards saying yes, and even if I were leaning towards saying no, I don’t think it would matter. This gentleman has been given the ultimate PR consultant in Ms Chadwick – her meticulous research coupled with her evident love for William have resulted in a representation that does breathe, does bleed.

Also, hands up those who knew anything at all about Llewellyn ap Iorwerth before reading Here be Dragons by Sharon Penman. No, I thought as much…Now Llewellyn may very well have been quite the thug, and there is something a tad bothersome about a man pushing forty wedding a fourteen-year-old, and yet Ms Penman – through research and admiration – has given us a hero, a man who sets the wellbeing of his people and his country before his own pride – no matter how much that hurts. To write a book in which Llewellyn is represented as being anything but a hero would be difficult. Too many readers would howl in protest…Yet again: we DON’T know if he had bad hair days, if he suffered from piles or refused to eat raspberries because they gave him a rash. But it doesn’t matter.

I guess the long and short of all this is that a historical fiction author must know his/her period, must be familiar with customs and foods, clothes and values. Of course, when writing about real people, the author needs to have read up on the facts that exist. But these are just the building blocks. A historical fiction author first and foremost wants to tell a story, and sometimes those real life characters have to be tweaked – a bit – so as to create the required tension. And so Henry Tudor is at times represented as diabolical, at others as an ambitious man who truly believes he deserves the English crown. A skilled author will have the reader accepting either or – for the sake of the story as such.

In the Shadow of the StormIn my recent release, In the Shadow of the Storm, I am writing about a turbulent time in English history. We’re in the 1320s, and on the one side we have Edward II and his beloved favourite Hugh Despenser, on the other side we have the disgruntled barons, led by Roger Mortimer. I suppose Hugh Despenser must have had some nice, cuddly personal traits. Some. Maybe. But I am writing this book strictly in the POV of people who are 100% loyal to Mortimer, and as Despenser hated Mortimer’s guts – a sentiment returned in full – Hugh Despenser comes across as a nasty, sadistic villain. I am sure he was – to those who opposed him and his king. But he was also more than that – to the king he served, to his wife and children. Of course he was.

“Him? Despenser is a sick, perverted bastard,” Adam de Guirande mutters. He glowers at me. “You should have allowed me to kill him.” Hmm. I can understand where my dear Adam is coming from, given what Despenser puts him through, but Despenser’s subsequent fate is a matter of historical record, and no matter how much I commiserate with Adam’s desire to avenge himself on dear Hugh, I cannot let this invented male protagonist of mine have his way. Nope. (And this argument has had Adam sulking in the corners of my mind for weeks. I finally cajoled him into returning to the party by promising him he could…Well, you’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next book.)

Likewise, a lot of the book centres round Roger Mortimer. We know a lot about Roger – detailed inventories of what he owned when he was attainted survive, as do mentions in rolls and legal documents. His overall biography – birth, marriage, children, political career, death – is there for us to study. We know very little about him as a person, though. He has left us no diary, no Youtube clips in which he shares his personal views. This for me as a novelist is manna from heaven: as long as I stick to the known facts, I can choose to depict Mortimer as it best suits me, and so in this first book I present you with a man of convictions, an honourable servant of the crown until something snaps in him. Is this a “true and fair” representation of the man? I don’t know – but then, neither does anyone else, seeing as those who had the privilege of chit-chatting with Roger Mortimer are so dead they’re not even dust in the air anymore.

As I said right at the beginning, I write fiction. I have the joy of constructing a plot that weaves its way through the tapestry of known history, my invented leads interacting freely with the people who populate the history books – as I see them. Sometimes, this causes me to tear at my hair while begging them all to cooperate so that we can get this pivotal scene right. At others, I sit back and stare at my computer screen before either bursting into tears (tragic scene) or grinning goofily (amusing scene). Sometimes, I have to get up and kiss my husband – but I don’t need to explain what sort of scenes drive that behavior, do I?

All in all, I consider myself lucky. My life is enriched by those vague shadows of the long ago, by the characters that populate my mind. Or maybe I am going crazy – if so an affliction I share with most of my fellow writers.

Ragnar and Aslög – the true (?) story

Right, so I thought it about time to set the facts straight – just in case anyone is thinking Vikings is a correct portrayal of dear old Ragnar. (Not that I care, not with Travis Fimmel to rest my eyes on) First of all, I thought it might interest you to know that Ragnar Lodbrok in essence means Ragnar Hairy Breeches. Secondly, let us keep in mind that Ragnar, like all ambitious little Viking boys, early on dreamed of becoming rich – very rich even – by stealing from others, a.k.a. raiding. If he was successful enough, he’d be able to buy a farm and retire with a comely wife. Plus, if he was really successful, someone might even raise a runestone over him.

Runestone 640px-U_240,_Lingsberg

Runestone. Picture by I,Berig

None of the above ever came true for Ragnar. The runestone thing mainly because Ragnar did not exist outside the sagas (although some say otherwise). The retirement thing because fate had other plans for Ragnar. You see, the Norse sagas are rarely very keen on the Happily Ever After. Such notions are for wimps, not for die-hard warriors like our Scandinavian forebears. No, the sagas are harsh and gritty stories of man pitted against his destiny, with not as much as a whiff of romanticism. Hang on: the sagas DO actually romanticise one thing – the concept of honour, of men who will rather die than betray their own integrity.

These days, things have gone downhill when it comes to honour and integrity – at least here in Sweden, where neutrality rather than integrity has been evoked as a guiding principle in (relatively) recent major conflicts. Not something all Swedes are all that happy about – at least not in retrospect, but then it is always easy to apply hindsight, isn’t it?

Neither here nor there – let’s get back to Ragnar. We have here a young man eager for adventure – and riches. So when he heard of poor Tora Borgarhjort, a pretty maiden whose bower was encircled by a fierce and deadly serpent, he decided to do the right thing and save her, to some extent motivated by Tora’s father’s promise that whoever killed the monster would wed his daughter and inherit his titles and riches.

We’re talking a huge serpent here, a vile creature that considered Tora its property and defended her from any potential suitor through a combination of fangs and poison. So potent was its poison that it burned holes through garments and human skin, and as a consequence, there was a pile of young dead men at the door of Tora’s bower.

Now Ragnar was a bright young man. He realised approaching the serpent required protective gear, which is why he fashioned himself a pair of breeches out of untreated goatskins (ergo the hairy breeches). These he then dipped in pitch and rolled in sand, so that they became more or less impregnable. In pants and with a spear in hand, he then snuck up on the serpent and managed to slay it, thereby gaining Tora’s hand and a jarldom.

I can hear some of you say, “What? Tora? Who’s this Tora, and where is Lagertha?” Sorry to tell you that the sagas are not always consistent, so in some Ragnar does wed Lagertha for a short while (after first having killed her tame bear and hound – beasts set upon him as a test by Lagertha) but divorces her to marry Tora, a much better catch seeing as she’s a jarl’s daughter and Danish – just like Ragnar.

By all accounts, Tora and Ragnar were very happy. Too happy as per the Norns, those rather cold-hearted crones that spin the threads of fate. Which is why they decided to cut Tora’s thread, and Ragnar was left a devastated widower. As any grieving Viking would do, Ragnar set off on a raiding expedition, hoping to dull the constant ache in his heart through violent action and plunder.

Kraka_by_Winge

Kraka/Aslög

Ragnar and his men were in a Norwegian fjord, and Ragnar sent some of his men off the ship to do some baking (and I rather like the resulting picture of self-sufficient Viking warriors with bulging biceps kneading dough). As they were doing their bread thing, the men were distracted by the sudden appearance of a young girl called Kraka. So beautiful was she that the bakers forgot their task, mouths agape as they stared at this female apparition. As a result, the bread was badly burnt, and Ragnar was less than pleased when his men returned to the ship.

“It was Kraka’s fault,” the men said, going on to describe this gorgeous creature. I’m thinking Ragnar was intrigued not only by the description, but also by the amusing fact that someone so beautiful should be named Kraka, which means crow. Whatever the case, Ragnar decided it was best if he did some inspecting of his own, but before doing so, he decided to do some research.

In an age devoid of internet, finding out more about Kraka proved difficult for Ragnar. Fortunately for you, dear readers, I do have internet (and books) so I can tell you in confidence that Kraka was really named Aslög, and she was the daughter of Brunhilde and Sigurd Fafnesbane of Wagnerian fame. Now that story of love, betrayal, blood and death is so complicated it would take an entire post to explain it all, so let’s just summarise by saying little Aslög is left an orphan when her parents die, and she is smuggled to safety in a harp by a gentleman named Heimer. When Heimer asks for lodging with a poor couple in Norway, the wife urges her husband to kill their guest as she can see that he is rich, and among his belongings they discover the girl whom they rename Kraka and set to hard work.

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Sigurd killing Fafnir

Ragnar got as far as the Sigurd Fafnesbane bit and was very impressed – especially as Sigurd had died like two centuries prior to Ragnar seeing the light of the day, so either Kraka was very old, or there was magic at work. When in doubt, go with magic, and Ragnar found this additional ingredient quite alluring. So he decided to set the young woman a test and invited her to visit him on his ship “neither dressed nor naked, neither hungry nor full, neither alone and accompanied”. Clearly, my ancestors enjoyed speaking in riddles…

Kraka/Aslög rose to the challenge and appeared swathed in fishnets having eaten a clove of garlic and with a dog at her heels. This, apparently, sufficed to sweep Ragnar off his feet, and he carried Aslög with him back to Denmark where he promptly married her and had many, many children with her.

Together, Aslög and Ragnar had four sons: Ivar Benlös (boneless), Björn Järnsida (ironside), Sigurd Ormöga (serpent’s eye) and Vitsärk. Ivar Benlös was supposedly afflicted with some sort of disease (in some cases attributed to his parents having had sex before marriage), but it doesn’t seem to have hampered his style much, as he and his brothers grew up to be as fierce as their father. So successful were the brothers in their raiding expeditions that people began to mutter that the sons were better warriors than their father. This Ragnar did not like. At all.

In an effort to set things straight, Ragnar decided to launch his own little raiding party – and he was going west, to ransack the lands of King Aella of Northumbria. To really show the world just what a fearsome warrior he was, Ragnar decided to go with only two ships, sufficient, in his opinion, to defeat that milksop of an English king. Aslög begged him not to go, plagued by foresight. When he insisted on going, she gave him a magic shirt, a garment which could not be penetrated by iron. But she was weeping as he left, knowing deep inside she’d never see him again.

Ragnar arrived in England only to crash straight into Aella’s army. Thanks to his shirt, Ragnar survived while one by one his men died, and so he was captured alive and hauled before a smug Aella who demanded to know his name. Ragnar refused to tell him, and so Aella had him thrown into a pit with vipers, there to die a slow, painful and – most distressing for a Viking – ignominious death.
“The piglets will squeal when they hear how the old boar suffered,” Ragnar supposedly said before dying, smiling at the thought of the revenge his sons would wreak on Aella.

The piglets most certainly squealed. As per the saga, the brothers were in their hall when the messenger carrying the tidings of their father’s death reached them. Vitsärk was playing draughts, and squeezed so hard round the piece in his hand that blood began to well. Sigurd was paring his nails and cut himself to the bone. Björn was honing his spear, and tightened his hold on the shaft until it splintered. Ivar calmly asked the messenger to tell them everything. Everything, mind.

The three younger roared and gnashed their teeth together, wanting to set off immediately to kill Aella. Ivar urged caution and stealth.
“Revenge is a dish best eaten cold,” he said, but was overruled. So off the brothers went, with Ivar choosing to distance his ships and men from his revenge-maddened brothers.

Aella was no fool. Upon realising who had died in his snake pit, he knew it was just a matter of time before the sons came, so he’d amassed a sizeable army, big enough to beat back the brothers who turned tail and ran back to their ships. All except Ivar, who decided to visit with Aella and expressed himself willing to accept weregild for his father’s death. Aella was more than happy to oblige, and settled sizeable land on Ivar, who seemingly was content to live in proximity with his father’s murderer. Not…

Over the coming years, Ivar fostered unrest and resentment among Aella’s vassals, and once the kingdom had been sufficiently destabilised, he sent for his brothers. This time, there was no army to defend Aella. This time, he was captured and dragged alive before Ragnar’s four sons. Not for Aella the snake pit, no, Aella was undressed, thrown to the ground with his back bared to the sky, and ever so slowly Ragnar’s sons “carved a blood eagle” on him. This entailed slicing through his back, breaking the ribs and pulling them wide apart to resemble wings, and then pulling the lungs out through the resulting hole. Nice.

The sons returned to Aslög, and she was satisfied that her husband had been adequately avenged. Björn and Sigurd went on to become kings of Sweden and Denmark respectively. As to Ivar, he stayed on in England – as per the saga as king of all England, as per what little facts there are as the leader of the Viking army that despoiled most of Mercia and East Anglia in the late 9th century.

There is an interesting little add-on to Ragnar’s saga, which refers to Ivar’s final resting place. It is said Ivar ordered his burial mound to be built just at the edge of the sea, prophesising that as long as his bones lay untouched, no one would be able to invade England. According to this little codicil, “the bastard William” found the mound and had it opened. Upon finding Ivar’s body un-decayed, William ordered a pyre to be built, and only once Ivar’s bones had been reduced to ashes did he proceed with his invasion plans. I’m thinking Ivar would have applauded William – after all, they both had Viking blood, a gift for violence and pillage.

100-travis-fimmel4So, did Ragnar exist in any form? We don’t know, sources from the 9th century being understandably scarce. Some people seem to think there was a historic Ragnar, a Danish Viking of great renown. But for him to be married to a woman whose father slayed a dragon, well, that does seem difficult to believe, doesn’t it? Whether real or not, the story of Ragnar and Aslög is a story of two equals, two people who meet and know immediately they belong together. Maybe it was Aslög seeing the hole of grief in Ragnar’s heart. Or maybe it was Ragnar seeing in poor Kraka a woman with the spirit of a lion. Or maybe it was those pesky Norns, thinking it would be fun to twine these two threads together and see what happened. A lot, as it turns out. Enough to build an entire TV series on.

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