ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “giveaway”

En garde – with pens aloft!

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

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

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

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

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

Oh I wish!

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

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

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

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

Alison MortonNov16_sm

Alison Morton

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

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

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

Yes. Courage.

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

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Helen Hollick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE! The happy winner is Richard Tearle!

Of writing, Star Wars and home-coming Crusader knights

CS me1smallToday I welcome yet another fellow writer to my blog. Char Newcomb is a Star Wars fan who writes excellent books set in medieval times – maybe not so much of a contradiction as one might think, seeing as swords play a major part in both these settings. Anyway, having recently read Char’s latest release For King and Country, I felt it appropriate to sit her down, serve her tea and cake, and throw her some questions. Plus, she has been kind enough to offer a giveaway – further details at the end of the post 🙂

First of all, congratulations on your new book. Me, I am always a bit ambivalent when I publish a book – there’s a great sense of pride and achievement, but there’s also a substantial amount of separation angst. Is it the same for you?
Thank you for inviting me to chat with you today, Anna. There is incredible satisfaction writing THE END, but a massive amount of angst when you release your ‘baby’ into the wide, wide world. It is hard enough to share with critique partners, beta and advanced readers, but now the novel is there for everyone to see. And then you have to do it all over again!

CS 20035702072_420e501e13_z-2I touched upon your fascination with all things Star Wars in the brief intro above. Would you say this iconic Sci-Fi story has any bearing on the story you tell? Are there any common elements? And why the Star Wars thing to begin with?
Star Wars is based on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, put very simply, the adventures and transformation of a character. Battle Scars I & II don’t have all Campbell’s elements, but my stories are the adventures, trials and tribulations of a young knight who goes off to war and is changed by that experience.
I started writing Star Wars to escape the stresses of real life. I was a fan of the movies since A New Hope debuted in 1977 and in 1992 discovered a novel by Timothy Zahn that picked up the story 5 years after Episode VI. Heir to the Empire plunged me back into that galaxy far, far away. I was driven to add to the saga and penned my first short story. A Lucasfilm-licensed role-playing game magazine was looking for short fiction, so I submitted my story and it was accepted for publication!

Your books are set at the close of the 12th century, and while this is very long ago, we still know quite a lot about the principal players. Tell us a bit about your research, and specifically about how you’ve recreated the world of everyday lives.
My initial research started on the web where I found gold – fully digitized (and translated) contemporary chronicles of the events, politics, and people of the Third Crusade. The Annals of Roger de Hoveden offers the crusaders’ side of the story; and a number websites give background information, but few provide the detail necessary to immerse a reader in the past. But – speaking in my librarian voice – a good online resource includes citations and bibliographies, which led me to Saladin’s chroniclers. I read biographies, general histories, books on society and culture, on warfare in medieval times, and found more citations and bibliographies – it’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? Then there is more angst – have I missed some important aspect of the place and time? I plunged in with a deeper understanding of the life and times of Richard I, integrating my fictional characters into that world and hoping I have transported my readers to the past.

Is it the research that drives you or the story-telling?
It’s been a mix of both. My reading of de Hoveden’s Annals began purely out of an interest in learning more about The Third Crusade. It laid the groundwork and said ‘you have a story to tell.’ It became a matter of creating situations where Henry and Stephan could participate. For King and Country takes the knights back to England and introduces Henry’s family, and while there is the wider political context, Henry’s conflict really drives the story. I knew where I wanted each of the characters’ story arcs to go, and then confirmed that each would fit with the historical events through my research.

What inspired you to set your books in this particular period?
I had decided years ago that I was going to write a time-travel spy novel set during the American Revolution, which is an era I studied in more depth in college as a U.S. history major. A BBC television show on Robin Hood distracted me. It featured a couple of episodes with Richard the Lionheart in the Holy Land. I was hooked. Two books later, here we are…

CS kingMedWhy did you decide to build something round the old legends of Robin Hood? Was it your original intent to have Robin be the main character? If yes, when did Henry and Stephan take over?
Robin would like to think he was supposed to be the focus of Battle Scars – he does have a bit of an ego – but he started off as William, a knight and friend of the main characters, a fairly minor role. The original short story that began it all was Henry and Stephan’s story. I told my critique group that William was a Robin Hood-like character, but I had no intention of integrating the Robin Hood legend. I think I was intimidated by the thought of it when so many other writers had written such brilliant takes on the tales. At that point, I wasn’t even planning to write a novel, let alone a Book II, but I re-named William and his life took shape in my mind and in many notes on the computer when, more than two years later, I decided to write the novel. A few chapters into Men of the Cross, I introduced two young thieves, who were merely there to push the plot along and show sides of Henry and Stephan that the reader hadn’t seen. My critique group loved the boys and said, “I hope we see more of them.” That’s when the idea of creating my own version of the Robin Hood legend took shape, and suddenly those two thieves had names: Allan and Little John.

Your books are original in that there is no damsel-in-distress vs saving-knight love story. Instead, we have a fiery blaze of passion and love between Henry and Stephan. Was this planned from the beginning?
Henry had no plans to fall in love with another man, but that had always been one of the main themes of Men of the Cross. Henry did not think of himself as ‘gay,’ if I can use the modern term. And Stephan, who readily admitted his preference for male sexual companionship, changes as much as Henry does as their relationship develops from close friendship to love. The Church’s stance provided plenty of conflict, especially for Henry, and that continues in For King and Country, when Henry worries that his family will see the depth of his relationship with Stephan.

Did you find it difficult to write the Henry and Stephan scenes? (And I must add I think you’ve done a fantastic job, delivering a sequence of scenes of such tenderness I can but applaud you.)
Thank you! I love Henry and Stephan, so writing their love scenes and pouring a range of emotions into them became easy, but that only came after I experimented – with the writing, that is – with various levels of heat. Readers with faint hearts don’t have to worry about anything too graphic – there might be a scene or two in Book II that hits a 3 out of 5.

Obviously, homosexual relationships are as old as the human race, and Henry’s and Stephan’s closest companions take it in stride that they are lovers. Do you think this is indicative of how people would have reacted back then?
I wish I could say yes, but the Church was hugely influential in the daily lives of people, and the Church condemned sodomy, which included homosexual behaviour as well as many other types of sexual activity (e.g., adultery, sex in anything but the missionary position, sex only on certain days of the month). Of course, humans being human, rules were broken, but a quick trip to the confessional – where priests had a list of penitentials for such sins – and your soul was safe from the fires of Hell. Considering Henry’s concern about keeping his love for Stephan hidden from everyone but his small circle of friends, perhaps some people accepted (or ignored) it. Obviously, no one could openly condone it. (Anna says: if you want to read more about this, Char and I have collaborated on a post regarding sex in the middle ages – or rather the attitudes towards it.)

In your book, Prince John is portrayed as the ultimate bad guy. Leaving aside the fact that all good stories need a villain, do you think this is a correct representation of John?
Interestingly, for a short time whilst Richard was on crusade, John had the support of many English barons in the struggle against Chancellor William Longchamp’s quest for power, but I fully believe John’s motives were to consolidate his own power. He showed his shifting loyalties when he abandoned his dying father Henry II to go to the winning side. Prior to that he led the disastrous campaign in Ireland, and during the period of For King and Country, he plots with Philip of France to usurp Richard’s throne. He and the French king were willing to pay the Holy Roman Emperor to keep Richard imprisoned! My plan is to end Book III of Battle Scars with John ascending the throne and I’m having a hard time imagining a happily-ever-after. The tales of John’s treachery and abuses leading up to Magna Carta certainly make him look the villain. He made bad decisions. He trusted the wrong people, if he trusted anyone at all. If Philip of France had not been John’s adversary and he’d not lost most of continental realm to the man, it would be interesting to speculate on the ‘what ifs’.

Likewise, King Richard is the recipient of a lot of hero-worship from your protagonists. Here and there, you include the mutterings from the common people, who have little reason to love their king and his taxes. What is your take on Richard?
Richard was a great warrior and military strategist. I think he knew the art of diplomacy and was adept at negotiation, including during his time in captivity. But he was not a great administrator. On the other hand, with the exception of Longchamp’s appointment, Richard generally chose able men to manage the business of the kingdom. Unfortunately, because of the crusade, his lengthy imprisonment, and the campaigns against the French, he spent all but a few months of his reign on the continent. He gets a bad rap for bankrupting the kingdom and not spending more time in England, but the Angevin empire was more than England and the troubles happened to be with the Plantagenet continental holdings. Kings of the medieval period didn’t sit in the castle waiting for news from the front lines. They led their troops, fought alongside them. Philip of France invaded Richard’s territory. What kind of king would not want to keep his Angevin empire intact?

I know you’re planning for a next book in the series. Have you already started writing it or are you still at the research phase? And can we hope to see plenty of Henry and Stephan in that book as well?
Henry and Stephan will remain major players in Swords of the King. I am in the very early stages of research at this point and only have a few plot points mapped out. I wish I could say I was further along, but real life tends to get in the way of the writing. I hope to begin writing by the end of summer, but unlike some people – eyes the interviewer & smiles – it will probably take me at least 9 months to finish the first draft. In other words, don’t look for Book III anytime soon!

Assuming Henry and Stephan would pop into your present day life for a visit, what would you offer them to eat? And what would they think of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker?
Lasagna – my Italian mom’s recipe – and some good red wine. I’m rather fond of Argentinian Malbecs myself.
Since I do spend many hours writing about Henry and Stephan at home, they are surrounded by Star Wars, and like my own kids, they think it’s pretty cool. Anyone who has never seen any of the seven films should always start with A New Hope, Episode IV, which is how I introduced the young knights to the Star Wars universe. They got past the strange aliens, the flying ships and robots, and the fact that Obi Wan looks like a priest in his long brown robe. Neither Henry nor Stephan were fond of the whinging Luke Skywalker, but as he showed his bravery and resourcefulness both knights were won over to the light side and became firm believers in Luke’s dedication to the Rebel Alliance. There was no question in their minds that Vader was evil and they were curious about his armor. But those lightsabers – most impressive!

Yes, I imagine having those at hand would have made it that much easier to win a medieval skirmish or two 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by, Char, and best of luck with your new book!

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Now, I have already read For King and Country, and my review is as follows: WOW. Nah, just kidding, so here goes:

It’s well over a year since I read Ms Newcomb’s first book in her Battle Scars series, Men of the Cross. Set during the Third Crusade, this book introduced Henry de Grey and Stephan l’Aigle, two young men who find themselves in more ways than one while fighting the infidel in the Holy Land.
Now Henry and Stephan – together with the enigmatic Robin – have returned to England, only to find the enemy lives and breathes at home as well, in this case as the grasping Prince John, younger brother to the imprisoned King Richard – and determined to make England his own.
We all know the general story of Richard and his younger brother, we all know that England was ravaged by strife, with some men siding with John, others with their king. This is the complicated mess to which Henry and Stephan return, and soon enough it becomes apparent it will be very difficult to identify friend from foe – even within the immediate family.
Ms Newcomb has stepped outside the normal restrictions imposed on novels set in these times in that her Henry and Stephan are not only comrades in arms, they are lovers. In a sequence of beautiful scenes, she breathes careful life into their passion, moments of tenderness and love that make it abundantly clear theirs is not a short-term relationship, theirs is the love of a lifetime.
Unfortunately, Henry is the heir to estates and is expected to marry. Fortunately, the young bride, Elle, is no more interested in marrying Henry than he is in marrying her, which leads to a creative approach to things.
While Henry’s marital issues are a recurring theme throughout the book, the central plot is based round Prince John’s determination to fight his brother for England. In secret, he is arming and provisioning various castles – among them Nottingham – and this is where Sir Robin, loyal knight to King Richard, takes the lead, forming a band of men to create as much havoc as possible. Men such as Tuck and Little John, Allan and Will take on shape, becoming very different creatures than the outlaws we know from the old tales of Robin and his Merry men. And yes, there is a Marion too.
Beautifully written, chock-full of historical details imparted elegantly throughout, For King and Country is a compelling and wonderful read.

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I think it goes without saying that I warmly recommend this book, and so it is with great pleasure I can inform you that Char is giving away a Kindle copy! To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment in which you share your take on King John. Good or bad?

If you want to buy your own copy – of course you do! – click here!

To find out more about Char & connect with her, why not try her website or her Amazon page? Char is also on FB and Twitter.

Who is real? Me or them?

Descartes

Descartes, by Frans Hals

Back in the 17th century, the French philosopher Descartes wrote “Cogito, ergo sum”, which is Latin for “I think, therefore I am.” He did a lot of thinking, this French man – and in particular, I suspect, as he lay on his deathbed in a freezing and unwelcoming Stockholm. His thoughts at the time would probably have been “why was I such an idiot as to come here?” Even in his extremis, however, Descartes would have known he existed – after all, he was still thinking, no matter how rambling his thoughts.

These days, our thoughts are not sufficient confirmation of our existence. We require other people – even total strangers – to verify that we’re around. We post on FB and hope someone will like our post. We tweet just to make sure people know we are there. The fact that we’re tweeting about totally mundane things such as “I just had coffee” is neither here nor there. We write posts on our blogs and hope someone will stop by, maybe even leave a comment (Yes please: remember, you’re dealing with a frail 21st century soul who has existential angst. Or not ;)) Likes, tweets, comments – indications that we do exist.

Ahem. I am pretty sure I exist anyway. If I pinch my calf it hurts, should I pass by a mirror, I can catch my reflection. Having said that, I am pretty sure my invented characters exist as well – I mean I have long, fulfilling conversations with all of them in my head. So maybe I don’t exist – at least not to a larger extent than Matthew Graham and his wife Alex does. Such thoughts make my head ache.

One day, we will all die. Hopefully we will leave a larger legacy behind than posts on FB and thousands of tweets. Hopefully, we will have left our mark on flesh-and-blood people because we have interacted with them in real time. We have hopefully hugged them, laughed with them, walked through summer twilights with them, lain on our back and studied the stars with them. You can’t do any of those things on FB – or on a blog. You can merely attempt to describe the experience. Weirdly enough, I can definitely do all of those things with my invented characters. There I am, peeking over the shoulder as Matthew cradles his new-born child. Or standing very still in the shadows, not knowing quite how to comfort a weeping Alex as she strokes her husband over his head. Which begs the question: do they exist?

R&R webstampAt times, my invented characters have the same sense of disorientation – like when Alex is plagued by far too vivid dreams

Alex struggled back into the light, and the man holding her was solid under her hands, his concerned eyes a gold-flecked green in the light of the candle he had lit.
“Matthew?”
“Aye, Matthew, that’s me, lass.”
Alex struggled to sit, her sweat-drenched shift sticking to her skin. Matthew handed her a mug of cider, helping her to hold it steady. She blinked, trying to clear her mind of the fragmented images of Isaac. Jesus, I’m going insane, she thought. She drained the mug and with trembling hands began to undo the laces of her chemise.
“Let me,” Matthew said. He got her out of the sopping garment, and found a towel to pat her dry with, sitting with her shivering, naked body on his lap. She curled into him, her arms tight around his neck, and he ran his warm hands up and down her bare skin, crooning her name in a hoarse, breaking voice.
“I’m not sure,” she groaned. “Are you for real? Or are you the dream?”
“I’m no dream,” he whispered back, “nor am I a ghost. I’m here, now, and so are you. It’s the others that don’t exist, Alex. It is them that are the dream.”
“A nightmare,” she said against his chest, “not a dream, never a dream. A black hole of loneliness. An absolute freezing emptiness.”
“Ah, lass.” Matthew kissed the top of her head and gathered her to him. Alex needed him even closer, pulling at his shirt, his breeches in a frenzied attempt to get at his skin, his warmth.

When we die, the legacy we leave behind are the memories we created in other people. Once the people who remember us are gone, we become one in thousands upon thousands of previous existences, one grey shade in a silent crowd. But we did exist, right? We believed, we loved, we struggled to make sense of our lives.

“So do we,” Alex tells me. “Every day, we go on with the task of living.” She gives me a smile. “Feeling maudlin today?”
“Somewhat.” I smile back at this my imaginary (or not) friend, complete in skirts and bodice, a neat white collar and a cap. Alex sits down beside me and takes my hand. Yup, I can feel her taking my hand. I obviously am delusional – or gifted with a very vivid imagination.
“When you die, we will still be around,” she tells me.
“And that is supposed to make me feel better?” I ask her, feeling a spurt of jealousy that my characters will know immortal life (well…) while my life-span is restricted by the biological events of birth and death.
“It makes me feel better.” Alex grins. “Seems sort of fair, given all the stuff you put me and Matthew through.”
“I don’t put you through anything! Your lives just sort of happen.”
“Really?” Alex doesn’t even try to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. Okay, okay. I like my books to be packed full of action and love and adventure and emotional drama and historical events and… I clasp Alex’s hand, and she squeezes back. We sit like that for some time. “If you kill him, I will drive you crazy,” she says. “Literally.” Alex gnaws at her lip.
“I can’t…” I break off. I was about to add ‘promise anything’, but the look in Alex’s dark blue eyes has me swallowing them back.
“My Matthew doesn’t die,” she hisses. “Ever!” She throws a look to her right, and we both sort of shiver as we catch sight of the huddled shape that is Matthew. Poor, poor Matthew. The things he goes through in Revenge and Retribution… “I swear. I will haunt you every moment of your life if you let him die.” The expression on Alex’s face makes me realise this is no empty threat.
“I’ll do what I can,” I say with a sigh. No need to tell her killing Matthew would be the equivalent of breaking my heart in two. No need for her to know just how much I love this tall man with hazel eyes and dark eyes, this man who loves her (AAAGH!) so completely, who holds to convictions and integrity no matter the cost. Alex laughs softly beside me.
“Silly,” she murmurs. “I can hear all your thoughts just as well as you can hear mine.”
“Oh.” I blush.
“He’s mine,” she tells me. As if in response, the huddled shape in the periphery of my mental eye raises his head. Matthew may be bloodied and bruised, he may look like a train or two ran him over, but when he smiles at his wife, it’s like seeing the sun break through a dark thunder cloud. And just like that, Alex is no longer by my side. She is running like the wind towards her man.

On July 1, the next instalment of The Graham Saga, Revenge and Retribution becomes available. I have done my best to keep Matthew safe and sound – but sometimes my best is not enough.

Find my books on Amazon US or Amazon UK

For a brief, visual introduction to The Graham Saga, why not watch my trailer?

Should you by now be salivating with need to READ my books, do not fear: I am offering a giveaway – one paperback, one Kindle. All you have to do is leave a comment and let me know if you are one hundred percent certain you exist!

UPDATE JULY 1: GIVEAWAY WINNERS – AS DRAWN BY MY SON – ARE MSGENERALLEE AND SABRINA

Get ye gone, ye evil spirits

trickban

Samain. All Saints Eve. Hallowe’en. A night to be wary of, a short moment in time when the thin veil that separates the living from the dead can be breached, when restless souls wander the dark in search a new abode. Well, assuming you believe in stuff like that, right?

I’m not sure I do. No, wait; I’m sure I don’t. I’m quite certain the deceased generations that precede us have little interest in us, the living. I seriously doubt that they go traipsing around in the cold and wet of a late autumn evening, hoping to run into someone still alive to strike up conversation with. After all, the probability of meeting people out for a brisk walk is very low if you restrict yourself to the last night in October. No, the dead have other things to do – hopefully mainly to remain at peace.

In Sweden, until recently the celebration of All Saints was a sedate religious affair. All over the country, we set lit candles on the graves of our dead ones – we still do, and in the dark of the October night the candles flutter and gasp, throwing elongated fingers of moving shadows over the silent graveyards. Ghosts? I think not. Remembrance? Absolutely.

Nowadays, many Swedes have embraced the US Hallowe’en traditions. Pumpkins are cut into jack o’lanterns (but we’re still pretty crap at making pumpkin pie), houses are festooned in synthetic spiderwebs and paper cut out ghosts. Our stores sell Hallowe’en cakes (bright orange marzipan replaces our traditional green marzipan), our kids want to dress up – but we don’t do any trick or treating, as every Swede knows that trick or treating is an Easter tradition. (Go figure; maybe I should elucidate you, but not now, maybe around Easter.)

Despite our national aversion for trick or treating this time of the year (it’s too cold, it’s too dark), I do feel that a Hallowe’en Blog Hop without a treat is like celebrating your birthday without a cake (impossible!) Besides, our fearless leader and blog organiser, Francine Howarth, has urged us all to be generous. One should not disregard the instructions from a fearless leader…

So, without more ado, let me reveal the treats I have in store for you, dear reader:

I am giving away one copy of The Prodigal Son. If you’re interested, leave a comment with your e-mail address and let me know if you’d prefer to meet a witch or a wandering soul should you be abroad on Samain.

I am also giving away a copy of my latest release (due out November 1) A Newfound Land. But this treat comes with a caveat; I give you my book, you give me a review. Sounds fair? If yes, leave a comment and your e-mail address.

And guess what? The winners get to choose if they want a Kindle or a paperback.

Give away open until Nov 3, after which we must really start focusing on Guy Fawkes!

UPDATE, NOV 4.

HI ALL,
THE GIVEAWAY HAS NOW ENDED AND THE WINNERS ARE GORDON LEVINE AND CAROL MCGRATH. CONGRATULATIONS!

While you’re at it, why not visit all the other bloggers participating in the hop?

Hallowe’en Blog Hop Participants

1. Francine 8. Derek Birks 15. Douglas Boren
2. Marie Laval 9. Denise Covey 16. Anna Belfrage
3. NancyJ 10. Grace Elliot 17. Susan Hanniford Crowley
4. N. R. Williams 11. Gilli Allan 18. Stephen Tremp
5. Alison Morton 12. Alison Stuart 19. Hywela Lyn
6. Karen Aminadra 13. Mary Pax 20. Iyana Jenna
7. Lori Crane 14. Natalie-Nicole Bates 21. Vala Kaye

A banquet for the queen

summer-banquet-hop-copyThis post is part of the on-going Summer Banquet Blog Hop hosted by Maria Grace, ably assisted by David Pilling.  The theme of the hop is food – preferably food from the period the participating authors write about, which should result in quite the smorgasbord of dishes. I therefore recommend you to visit the other participating blogs (listed right at the end) and whet your appetites. And why not enter my giveaway while you’re at it? But first my little contribution…

Picture a chilly spring day in 1649. Queen Kristina of Sweden is on progress, and as she and her party cross the country she stops at whatever manor is close at hand for food and bed – sometimes only for food. Somewhere halfway between Stockholm and Köping is a little manor, a rather humble place. The present master has a fancy title but not much more, and while the manor adequately supports him and his family that’s about as far as it goes. The old stone house faces a little lake, and the last weeks of sunshine have convinced the shrubs and trees to produce budding leaves, draping a green haze over winter bare branches. Flowering coltsfoot stand like little suns along the ditches and if you look closely under the trees you might find the odd, shy anemone.

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From the lake comes the honking of geese, the sun has just cleared the eastern horizon and tottering on her clogs, Maja makes her way down to the lake, carrying a basket of steaming linen. And so, dear reader, the stage is set…

Maja was on her knees, rinsing the laundry for the third time, when she heard the housekeeper,  Fru Märta, yelling her name. Maja got to her feet, rather unsteadily, and stuck her ice cold hands in her armpits. This early in April the lake was still rimmed with ice, and hours of dunking the master’s shirts and the mistress’ longsleeved shifts in the water had resulted in throbbing nails and reddened skin.
“Maja! Get over here. NOW!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Maja muttered and set off in a long-legged trot. She smoothed at her clothes as she went, retrieved her cap from the apron pocket, re-braided her hair and tucked it all out of sight before entering the manor’s enclosed yard.
“Where have you been?”
“I…”
“The moment I turn my back, off you go. I won’t have it girl, you hear?”
“But I…”
“Silence!” thundered Fru Märta. The slap caught Maja unaware, and she staggered back a couple of paces. “We have guests,” hissed Fru Märta. “Important guests.” She twisted her hands. “Lord help me! A banquet to arrange and all I have to help me is this… this slut… Bah!”
“I’m not a slut,” Maja said – quietly. It was her mother who was the slut, or so Maja was told. She wouldn’t know, never having met the woman. All her life she’d lived here, for sixteen years she’d been at Fru Märta’s beck and call, regaled with stories of how her mother had seduced the baron’s eldest son and then tried to hide her shame by placing her newborn baby in the woods to die.
“Lucky for you old Per came along when he did,” Fru Märta would say.
Maja wasn’t so sure; maybe it would have been better to die an unknowing babe than to live under Fru Märta’s thumb – as she seemed destined to do for the rest of her life. Whatever the case, Maja’s mother was hanged for her sins, while the baron’s son went on to marry and inherit the title. Now and then it struck Maja that the present lord of the manor was her father, that the lordling and his sisters were her siblings, but these were notions she kept very much to herself, as voicing them out loud would lead to a severe beating.

“Don’t just stand there girl! Think! What do I put on the table to feed the queen?”
“The queen?”
“What? You’re deaf as well as stupid? I just told you; the master, God help him, has been requested to serve the royal party dinner – today!”
“Oh…” Maja sucked in her lower lip. This was not good, not good at all. After a long and cold winter the storing sheds were nearly empty. As far as she recalled there was a barrel of salted pork, two smoked legs of lamb, three stone jars with pickled tongue and… Oh yes; the dried ducks.
“At least two dozen guests,” Fru Märta moaned.
Oh dear; Maja thought so hard her head ached. In a nearby shrub a thrush chirped, and a couple of sparrows were squabbling by the gutter.
“Birds,” Maja said.”Would Her Highness eat birds?”
“Birds?” Märta scowled. “Everyone eats birds! And it’s not Her Highness, you fool, it’s Her Majesty.”
“It is?” Maja thought Her Highness sounded better – more powerful, like. “Have Per set up his nets, if he does that now he should catch a dozen or so, don’t you think? The stable lads can help him chase the birds into the nets. And you can braise them whole and serve them with your cinnamon sauce – the one the master likes.”
“Hmm,” said Fru Märta, tapping her foot. “That’s one dish.”
Maja looked in the direction of the henhouse. “A hen or two?” she suggested.
“A hen? Are you daft? Now that they’re back to laying you want me to kill them off? Stupid, stupid girl!”
“But the roosters – there’s five or six left.”
“Roosters, you say?” Fru Märta pinched her mouth together. “Yes… I could serve up the heads on a separate platter, have them standing up. Fitting, don’t you think? Crowned birds for a crowned head.” She cackled at her own jest, broke off to scowl. “Well go on then! You have roosters to wring and pluck. And then there’s the lamb to slice, and the duck – what do I do with the duck? Oh yes, prunes and hazelnuts.” Fru Märta bustled off, yelling for Per. Maja set off for the henhouse.

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By noon, the household was swaying on their feet. The mistress had been so flustered she’d spilled her breakfast beer all over her best gown, and for an hour panic had been absolute as Maja rushed from the kitchen to the great hall, to the master’s bedroom, alternating between basting birds, sewing the mistress into her second best bodice and sweeping the worst of the dust from the floor of the hall. No one used the hall as it was cold and dark, but it was by far the grandest room in the house, and the master had ordered the grooms to use the best furniture from other parts of the house to ensure it was adequately adorned.

The table required six men to carry it, and placed around it were the six high-backed chairs the master’s father had brought back as spoils of war twenty years ago. From Poland, Fru Märta had told Maja once, which was why they were so excessively decorated, the armrests ending in carved talons, the backrests crowned with two-headed eagles. The embroidered tapestry that normally belonged in the master’s bedroom was taken outside, shaken carefully and hung opposite the huge fireplace in the hall. Logs were carried in, a fire was lit and Fru Märta opened all the doors wide to air out the lingering smell of mould and dead mice.

The best linen was brought out and even if it was a bit yellow Maja was sure no one would notice – not in the dark hall. Spoons were polished, knives were set out, and Lisen, the child in charge of the pigs, had been set to scrub the pewter platters with sand. The master unlocked his coffer and brought out the silver goblets and matching pitchers – more spoils of war – and to the side he stacked his six books, because everyone knew the queen was a learned and well-read woman.

Once adequately dressed, the mistress busied herself with exchanging the tallow candles for the precious wax candles she kept locked away in one of her chests and to further sweeten the room she sprinkled the floor with crushed cloves and cardamom, with sprigs of dried lavender and sage.

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“There,” Fru Märta said, sinking down to sit on the single chair in the kitchen. The oak table was laden with food. On the master’s silver plate stood the six rooster heads, beaks agape as if they were still crowing. In the round pewter bowl that was so heavy it took a man to carry it lay eight and twenty thrushes – well, some of them were sparrows, but no one would notice – swimming in the pungent cinnamon sauce for which Fru Märta was justly famous. The ducks lay side by side decorated with finely chopped prunes and hazelnuts, the smoked legs of lamb had been sliced so thin each sliver of meat was near on transparent – “to fill out the plate, you fool,” Fru Märta had said – and bubbling on a large pot over the fire was the last of the cabbage and the salted pork.
“Not good enough for the queen,” Märta snorted when Maja asked how Fru Märta intended to serve this dish.“But she has servants, doesn’t she?”
It was Maja’s personal opinion that the cabbage and pork smelled the best, but then what would she know, she’d never tasted duck – or lamb – and her head still rang after Fru Märta’s rap with the wooden spoon when she’d caught Maja trying to steal a sliver.
The headless roosters had been stuffed with sage and wrinkled winter apples before being roasted, and Maja had to hand it to Fru Märta that she’d done a right god job in plating the birds, decorating them with an assortment of feathers and dried fruit. The pickled tongue had been sliced, enhanced with ground allspice and was served on a bed of stewed nettles that had been picked behind the privy. Maja hoped no one would eat of them as she hadn’t had the time to only pick the tender shoots.

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“There’s no bread,” Fru Märta said.
“Bread?”
“Oh, woe to me! Dear Lord, how have I displeased you that you burdened me with this girl? What are you, a newt? There must be bread on the table!”
“There isn’t any,” Maja said.
“Fix it! Now!”
“But…”
“No buts! I must see to the beer.” Fru Märta rose to her feet. “And if you don’t sort it, I swear I’ll have you tasting the rod, you hear? Or maybe I’ll have the master turn you out, useless creature that you are.” With that she was gone.
Maja looked in the flour bin and there was at most three pound left.
“Think, think, think,” she told herself. In a bowl on the table was the blood from the roosters, and if she remembered rightly there was still some hot water in the small pot. In a matter of moments she was whisking water and blood together, adding the flour bit by bit. The resulting dough was soft and warm, and she kneaded it quickly, shaping it into six rounded loaves that she flattened with her hand. She found a skillet and a piece of lard and soon the kitchen smelled of warm bloodbread.

Märta inspected the bread and gave a curt nod. “Good.”
Maja beamed and curtsied. She had a bed for some nights longer.
There was a call from up the lane. “They’re coming, they’re coming!”
“Quick, quick!” Märta rose to her feet. “We must carry it all in to the hall – now! And don’t forget the cheese,” she threw over her shoulder as she rushed off to oversee the presentation of her dishes.
Per ran. Maja ran. Lisen ran.
The master ran – but not with the food, rather to greet his royal guest. The mistress didn’t run, she waddled, being greatbellied with child.

At last they were done. Fru Märta used a taper to light the wax candles and stood back, nodding with satisfaction. In pride of place were the thrushes, the rooster heads looked eerily lifelike in the shadowy interior of the hall, and to the side was the cheese – a bit mouldy here and there, but Maja thought she’d cut most of it off – and the bread. The roasted birds glistened with fat, the duck and the lamb were surrounded by pitchers of beer and wine, and the tongue had been further decorated by some hastily crushed sprigs of thyme.

In the yard the commotion was such that Maja hastened to the window to take a peek. So many horses, and dogs, and men at arms! The master was bowing and bowing, the mistress had sunk into a curtsey and seemed incapable of rising out of it, and in the middle of all this chaos stood the young queen, shaking down voluminous silk skirts over her riding boots.

Swedish_queen_Drottning_Kristina_portrait_by_Sébastien_Bourdon_stor“She looks like a man!” Maja said. Fru Märta came to stand beside her.
“She does,” she agreed, “poor woman, it can’t be easy to face the world with a nose like that.”
“Fru Märta!” Maja gasped. She looked at the queen, in a long, dark coat and her hair unbound. Like a mane, Maja reflected when the queen took off her hat and shook out her curls. She even carried a sword, which made Maja widen her eyes even more. A sash decorated the queen’s chest, a long plume was affixed to her hat, and even from here Maja could see the silvered tassels that decorated the riding gloves in dark red leather.
“It’s not right,” muttered Fru Märta. “A woman should look like a woman and dress like a woman, no matter that she’s the queen.”
“But she’s the king as well,” Maja said, “she reigns alone.”
“Pfft! You just wait until they’ve found her a husband! She’ll be so busy breeding, she’ll hand over the crown to him. As she should; a woman is incapable of ruling a country and soon enough we’ll have a real king again, not a wench that rides astride.” With that Fru Märta sailed off, telling Maja not to dawdle, there was plenty of work left to do in the kitchen.

The April afternoon was shifting into blue dusk when the mistress appeared in the kitchen.
“You did well,” she said, nodding at Fru Märta.
“Thank you mistress,” Fru Märta said, inclining her head no more.
“Is…” The mistress looked about, taking in the empty platters. “Are there no left overs?”
“No mistress,” Fru Märta said. She sighed and shook her head. “Not as much as a rooster’s wing, mistress. All of it gone.”
“And in our sheds? Surely there must be..”
Fru Märta shook her head again, eyeing the mistress with some disdain. Maja knew for a fact Fru Märta considered the mistress a puff-head, a vain woman with none of the skills required to run the household. A good mistress would know, down to the last smoked kipper, what she had in her stores.
“Nothing?” The mistress spread her hands over her protruding belly. “But how…”
“There’s beer,” Maja offered.
“The ground elder has come up,” Fru Märta added.”And there’s some rice, I think.” She moved close enough to place a hand on the mistress’ arm. “We’ll live,” she said.
The mistress backed away and nodded, biting down on her lower lip. “We’ll live,” she repeated and escaped the kitchen.

Märta chuckled and sat down. “Silly woman. Bring me some of the smoked lamb, will you? And don’t forget the beer!”
At last Maja had her first taste of smoked lamb. She was not much impressed, thinking that cabbage and salted pork was much tastier. But she didn’t say so, nodding eagerly when Märta asked her if she wanted more.

That night Maja ate like a queen – for the first and last time in her life.

Giveaway

I am giving away an e-book version of my latest release, The Prodigal Son. To enter, please leave a comment in which you tell me which of the dishes above you would never, ever eat and what your favourite cake is. Don’t forget to leave your e-mail so that I can contact you.

Blog tour participants

Of course you must set the stomach juices flowing by visiting the blogs of all the other participants. Who knows; you might end up with a new favourite recipe!

    1. Random Bits of Fascination (Maria Grace)
    2. Pillings Writing Corner (David Pilling)
    3. Anna Belfrage
    4. Debra Brown
    5. Lauren Gilbert
    6. Gillian Bagwell
    7. Julie K. Rose
    8. Donna Russo Morin
    9. Regina Jeffers
    10. Shauna Roberts
    11. Tinney S. Heath
    12. Grace Elliot
    13. Diane Scott Lewis
    14. Ginger Myrick
    15. Helen Hollick
    16. Heather Domin
    17. Margaret Skea
    18. Yves Fey
    19. JL Oakley
    20. Shannon Winslow
    21. Evangeline Holland
    22. Cora Lee
    23. Laura Purcell
    24. P. O. Dixon
    25. E.M. Powell
    26. Sharon Lathan
    27. Sally Smith O’Rourke
    28. Allison Bruning
    29. Violet Bedford
    30. Sue Millard
    31. Kim Rendfeld


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