ANNA BELFRAGE

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the tag “Writing”

Historical Fiction – a genre or an umbrella?

Sometimes, people ask me why I write historical fiction. “Why such a difficult genre?” they ask, which in itself makes me a tad irritated, as historical fiction, IMO, is not a genre – it’s an umbrella under which all other genres coexist. In essence, the “historical” in historical fiction merely indicates that the story is set in a non-contemporary time. It says nothing about the content as such, albeit that many people seem to think historical fiction is defined by blood and gore and thousands upon thousands dying in one battle or other.

John Opie MurderOfRizzio

John Opie, Murder of Rizzo – is he painting history or a gruesome death? 

Yes, that stuff happens in historical novels. It also happens in contemporary novels – it happens in real life around us on a daily basis. There are historical novels that are essentially love stories, there are others that are coming-of-age stories, yet another author delivers a well-crafted thriller set in distant times, and quite a few produce so called cosy mysteries a la Miss Marple. As long as all these very different books are set in the past, they end up labelled as historical fiction – and considered comparable. Obviously, they are not.

I write books set in the past because I am something of a history geek. Since I was old enough to read for myself, I have submerged myself in stories set in the past – no matter genre – because I wanted to pretend I was there, in an era very distant from my own. Escapism in its purest form, one could say.

And yes, I spend very many happy hours researching my chosen setting – at times resulting in tangential excursions that bring no value whatsoever to my WIP, but expand my soul and enrich my life in general. After all, who doesn’t want to know that Peter the Great married a low-born, illiterate commoner? Or that Eleanor of Castile had a half-brother, Felipe, already a bishop when he threw his ecclesiastic career out of the window to marry a Norwegian princess?

Neither here nor there for the purpose of this post – except to highlight that I am as happy as a calf in a field of juicy clover writing historical fiction.

You can research your setting and the era you’ve chosen until you’re blue in the face. That in itself will not result in a page-turning novel. In fact, sometimes too much research produces a major info-dump instead – you know, books in which the author expends pages and pages on showcasing their own knowledge of the period, thereby effectively killing pace.

Millais_-_The_Ransom_-_72.PA.13_-_J._Paul_Getty_Museum

Millais – a Historical Painter or a Painter who loved to paint the past? 

A skilled writer of historical fiction inserts DETAILS, not paragraphs. A skilled writer – no matter genre – also knows that if you want the story you write to resonate with the reader, your novel must deliver some sort of insight into the commonalities of being human. Therefore, for a novel to come alive, it requires characters that are vibrant and complex, real enough to step out of the pages, no matter if they ever existed or not.

People have not changed all that much through the centuries. We are still needy creatures, both on a physical and emotional level. Think Maslow, and I guess we all agree humans have physiological needs, a desire to feel safe, to belong. We do in this day and age, they did back in historic (and pre-historic) times as well.

It is therefore a safe bet to assume human emotions and reactions are relatively constant throughout the ages. Someone betrays you, the visceral rage you feel is probably identical to the one your 12th century ancestor felt when he realised he’d been set up. Loving someone probably feels the same – maybe with the caveat that these days, we consider it a borderline human right to be loved and love. Back in the darker and grimmer eras that precede ours, love was something of a luxury: if you had food and a roof over your head, if you were safe and your children set up for surviving, you could live with not falling into throes of passion at the sight of your husband/wife. Truth is, you didn’t EXPECT to love your spouse – you married for reasons on the lower lever of the Maslow pyramid. But this doesn’t preclude that IF you fell in love, it would feel exactly the same way as it feels today.

All of us have personal experience of feelings and emotions. As these are the most important aspects to convey in a novel, we could all, potentially, carry a budding writer within. There is, however, a major difference between experiencing an emotion and describing it – plus, once again, it is a fine balancing act between describing too much and too little. Readers enjoy filling in the blanks. Writers don’t want them to fill in the blanks with the wrong stuff, so writers have to leave enough hints to steer the reader in the right direction. This is the major difference between “show” and “tell” writing – as in “She was so devastated and confused she had no idea what to do next” (the writer informs – tells – the reader of what the protagonist is experiencing) or “She couldn’t quite focus: her hands shook, her mouth was the texture of paper, her brain a total blank” (the writers presents the protagonist’s reactions which the reader analyses before concluding she is in a bad way, probably in some sort of shock).

Whatever the case, it is my opinion that to write a novel one must be fascinated by humanity, in all its diverse forms. It is only by presenting the reader with a mirror in which they can recognise their own emotions that a writer succeeds in hooking them. And once the reader has swallowed the bait, it doesn’t really matter if the book is set in the future, the past or the present. What matters is that the reader is willing to take a ride through the imagined landscapes produced by the writer, hand in hand with the protagonist.

Write what you love, they say. And I do, combining my endless curiosity as to what makes people tick with my love for the past. Do I write historical fiction? I guess I do – but more importantly, I write novels that explore the human condition. An exercise in self-exploration? Maybe. An attempt to exorcise personal experiences? Rarely. A fulfilling experience? Always.

Like Bambi on ice

I am stepping out of my comfort zone, peeps. Not a thing I like to do—I guess none of us do. And yet, unless we take that deep breath and jump, we will not grow, not reach our full potentials. Or so I tell myself, at least.

20170128_121800Specifically, I am working on the finishing touches of a new book. Well, new and new is a misnomer, as this novel and its two protagonists have been living in my heart and my head since 2006 or so. But as it has not seen the light of day before, it is new. The finished product is hugely different from the first draft (and I have 85 or so drafts. Crazy me) It is also very different from my other books, hence this sensation of setting a foot on the ice only to hear it crack beneath my weight.

I usually write within the expansive umbrella labelled historical fiction. Anyone following this blog can testify to my passion for all things historical, whether it be the Spanish Hapsburgs or the complications surrounding Edward II’s reign. It is therefore rather natural that my writing endeavours have been set in historical times, a happy marriage between the stories I want to tell and the history I so love researching.

Okay, so I do like adding the little odd quirk, which is why my 17th century series, The Graham Saga, features a most reluctant time traveller.
“Not now that I’m here,” Alex protests. She slides closer to Matthew Graham, her 17th century dreamboat of a man. “Now I mainly worry that you will yank me out of here and throw me back in the 21st century.”
I have toyed with the idea. Frequently. But things happened and soon enough Matthew and Alex were running with their own storyline. Plus, had I yanked Alex away from Matthew, I suspect this rather forceful male character would have made it his mission in life to drive me permanently insane.

A Torch in His Heart_SMBInstagram Shared Image“Insane?” Jason Morris chuckles. “You have no idea how close to insanity you’ve driven me.”
Ah. Allow me to introduce the protagonist of A Torch in His Heart. He first saw the light of the day in a very, very distant past—when the fall of Troy was still a memory and not a legend. He was a gifted child, son to an equally gifted healer, the mighty Nefirie. But whatever future his mother had hoped he would have, it all changed the day Jason met Helle. She was eight, he was twelve. Turquoise eyes met his, and that was that. Fate twined their threads together and bound them forever to each other.

All very nice, one could think, but Helle was out of Jason’s league and then there was the brooding and powerful Samion, Prince of Kolchis. Suffice it to say things did not end as they should back then. In fact, they ended so badly that since then Jason, Helle and  Samion have tumbled through time, reborn over and over again. Helle remembers nothing of her previous existences. Jason remembers everything, hence his quip about insanity. And as to Samion, well he’s a power unto himself. A very dangerous power.

By now, I suspect you understand why I feel that sheet of ice cracking underfoot. I am stepping into an entire new genre, people. A Torch in His Heart may be a lot of things, but it is not historical fiction. It is about love—the toothy, painful kind—it is about revenge and a need for closure. It is about making amends for what you did wrong last time round, about daring to love when it can potentially kill you to do so. Jason, of course, has no choice: he’s as imprinted on Helle as those ducklings were on Kant. Sam doesn’t really do love—he does possession. But Helle, well she does have a choice. Or maybe she doesn’t.

I take some comfort in the fact that while A Torch in his Heart is not historical fiction, it does qualify as time-slip. But other than that, this is my first venture into the world of contemporary romance, spiced up with a lot of mystery & suspense, quite some paranormal stuff and (ahem) a sequence of steamy scenes. I like steamy.
“Oh, so do I,” Jason says. “The best invention ever, IMO, when humans got round to hot water spouting from a tap.”
“Not that sort of steamy,” I say, scowling at him. He knows full well what I mean—heck, he’s the star of every single steamy sequence. He grins. He really has a most luscious mouth, and…Oops. I give Helle a little smile.
A Torch in His Heart_SMBFacebook Shared Image 2“He’s too young for me,” I tell her. “Much, much, too young.”
“No, he isn’t.” She folds her arms over her chest. “He’s like way older than you. But…” Here she rises on her toes and gives me a belligerent stare. “He’s mine, okay? Mine!”
It seems Helle has made her choice. For some reason, it makes my palms sweat. Sam won’t like this. Not at all. And when Sam doesn’t like something, he has a tendency to do whatever it takes to change things…

Oh, dear. I have to suppress the urge to bite my nails. How will this end?

If you want to know how it ends, I suggest you follow this link and nominate my book to the Kindle Scout programme. (PLEASE do!) Enough nominations can lead to a publication deal and if so, everyone who voted for the book get their own free copy. Yet another novelty in my life, this attempt to win a publishing contract. In difference to my choice of genre, this novelty does not make me feel like Bambi on ice. After all, should Amazon not publish it then I’ll do so myself—and that is very much within my comfort zone!

Sifting through history for interesting ladies!

sharon rsz_img_5302 1Today I have the honour of welcoming Sharon Bennett Connolly to my blog. This is a lady with whom I share a common passion for all things medieval and I was fortunate enough to spend a day with her last year in Lincoln. Needless to say, we spent that time visiting Lincoln Castle and Lincoln Cathedral, a first for me, not so for Sharon. (And she’s been back there since, to judge from the pic)

Sharon has recently published a non-fiction book featuring a number of medieval ladies. Aptly named Heroines of the Medieval World, it introduces the reader to quite the gallery of personalities. (You’ll find my review at the bottom of this post)

So, I gave Sharon a virtual cup of tea (with a slice of virtual cake – comes with the benefit of zero calories)  and had her sit on the hot seat while answering some questions.

Why this passion for history?

I honestly don’t know. I have always loved history – I just can’t get enough of it. The stories and the mysteries are so compelling. I love the ‘what ifs’. And it is something that is everywhere – you can go to Scotland, France, Russia, Canada and there is history.

Have you ever wished you could travel back in time to say hello to some of your favourite medieval heroines?

I would love to – so long as I can come back, I wouldn’t want to live in the past. I like my creature comforts too much. But it would be nice to sit at a table with Agnes of Dunbar and Nicholaa de la Haye and find out what made them so formidable. Or Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughters and ask them what they really thought of their mum and dad – oh, that would be so interesting.

If so, what would you take with you as a gift?

Now that is an interesting question. I think I would want to take them something practical, that we women find so useful today – maybe a decent sized handbag?

medieval loversWho are your three favourite medieval ladies and why?

There are so many! I have a soft spot for Nicholaa de la Haye, because writing about her on my blog gave me the original idea for the book. I admire Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror; I love the idea of this diminutive woman being treated as a partner by this great bear of a warrior. And she wasn’t afraid to defy him for the sake of her children. And Joanna of England, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She wasn’t always in control of her life, but she could put her foot down when she wanted to – such as when Richard I wanted to marry her to Saladin’s brother.

Do you have a special period you are particularly interested in?

Medieval, although it’s more the people than the period, for me. I have dabbled in the Napoleonic and Tudor eras, but always seem to go back to the medieval. However, I couldn’t specify a particular reign or century – it is more the stories and the characters associated with them, that I find fascinating.

Lincoln Cathedral or the York Minster?

Impossible decision – they’re both at the top, for different reasons. I’m a Yorkshire lass and York is something very special. But the refectory at Lincoln Cathedral do the most scrumptious cakes. (Totally agree!) I can spend a day in each of them and still not see everything.

I know you’re planning on writing a book about the women of the Conquest and I imagine Matilda of Flanders will be a pivotal character in such a book. What do you think of her husband, William the Conqueror? Was he a horrible baddie or is he the victim of a black legend?

I think it is never black and white. I’m from Yorkshire – and the Harrying of the North was a dreadful incident – but you can’t really hold a grudge for 1,000 years. William had his good qualities, he was a strong, able ruler and rewarded those loyal to him. He was also a loyal husband – there is no record of any mistresses and he seems to have prized Matilda as a wife, companion and ruling partner. He left Normandy in Matilda’s hands on a number of occasions and respected her abilities.

medieval woman w unicornWhile researching your book, what sources did you use?

Everything I could find. It is easier to research from home these days, so many contemporary chronicles, such as Froissart and Orderic Vitalis, are available online. I think I only ventured to the library a couple of times. I also have a pretty decent book collection myself – I always told the hubby they would come in handy one day, and I was right. I also found this great website from Columbia University, called Epistolae which has published the Latin letters – and their translations – written or dictated by over 200 women of the Middle Ages, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Adela of Normandy. It is a wonderful resource, giving a unique insight into these women.

I imagine you, just like me, run into the problem of contradictory stories: one version says A was murdered, another insists A rode into the sunset and lived happily ever after. What do you do in such situations? 

I like to present all the versions available, assess their validity and then explain why I have decided one may be more likely above the other. Sometimes there is just no way to decide which is true, so you just have to say you can’t decide, and leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions – luckily, I haven’t had to do that too often.

There are a couple of historical controversies that always cause a LOT of discussion: one of these is whether Richard III did away with his nephews yes or no. What do you think?

I think we will never know for certain, but the more I read about it, the more I think Richard had to be the culprit. He had the means – he was in charge; he had the motive – while they were alive, they were always a threat; and he had the opportunity – they were in his custody. I don’t like the way some people argue that Richard couldn’t have done it because he was too pious, and then say it must have been Margaret Beaufort because she was too pious. Excuse me? You can’t have it both ways. When the boys disappeared in 1483, Richard was the one who needed them out of the way. The Yorkists had already attempted to rescue them once, and he could not afford to have them free and attracting support to their cause. Henry VII did benefit from their disappearance, but 2 years later, rather than at the time. (Ha! I fear your answer will upset quite a few Ricardians… It’s very frustrating we’ll never know, isn’t it?)

Is there any event in history you would really, really want to change?

The execution of Joan of Arc. That was such a travesty. The poor girl was only 19 and was thrown to the wolves and devoured because she beat the English, almost single-handedly. When I was researching her, I came across all these comments about her on Facebook, saying she was mad and no saint. However, when you look at this teenage girl, leading armies and running verbal rings around her interrogators, you realise that, whether or not it was divine inspiration, there was something very, very special about her. No one deserves to be burned alive, Joan least of all.

Other than writing & reading history, what other interests do you have?

I love playing badminton, bike riding and the theatre. And exploring. During the school holidays, my son and I love nothing better than taking off for a day or two to explore new places. We love driving into the Pennines, or spending a day in York. On the last school holidays, we took a trip down to Hastings, research for me and exploring for Lewis – he re-enacted William the Conqueror’s trip when he landed on Pevensey Beach.

Christmas will soon be upon us. Do you have any special family traditions you would like to share?

We always put the tree up on the first weekend in December. When my son was born, I did start a tradition of buying a new decoration for the tree, every year. The idea was that when junior leaves home, he will have a full set of decorations for his tree. However …. I now don’t want to part with them, so I will probably get him a starter set from Wilko’s and keep the ones we’ve collected.

We also go to the annual village tradition of carols around the Christmas tree. It’s lovely. The kids have a great time, running around, catching up with their friends – and singing. Plus, there’s hot chocolate and mince pies afterwards. It’s a great village atmosphere.

Thank you for sharing this with us, Sharon. And should you ever want to pop by with a guest post, you are more than welcome!

sharon Lo-res jkt, 9781445662640 6About the author:

Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London.
She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.
Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

You can connect with Sharon on FB or Twitter.

My review: 

Since some years back I have regularly popped by Ms Bennett Connolly’s blog called “History…the interesting bits”. Quite often, we’ve honed in on the same historical ladies and I have enjoyed comparing my (always rather subjective) take on these medieval ladies with Ms Bennett Connolly’s more objective approach.

In Heroines of the Medieval World, Ms Bennett Connolly has collected several of her favourite ladies under various headings such as “The Medieval Mistress” or “Women who ruled” or (my favourite) “Scandalous Ladies”. Geographically, her selected heroines span the European continent, from Spain to distant Kiev, but focus lies on English and French women, some of them nothing more than pawns, others brave as lions when defending what was theirs.

Ms Bennet Connolly’s passion and knowledge of the period and her heroines shine through in every word. This is an informative read, introducing not only each respective woman but also their family, their relatives and the people in their proximity that may have been affected by them. I particularly enjoyed the chapter with Julian of Norwich in which Ms Bennett Connolly speculates as to who this Julian really was, thereby underlining just how little we really know about these long-dead women.

This is not a book one reads in one go. Rather, it is a book best enjoyed chapter by chapter so as to allow all the information to properly sink in. Ms Bennett Connolly delivers all this knowledge in a driven prose, maintaining a nice balance between pace and information throughout.  For all those who love immersing themselves in the past—and in particular the medieval past—this is a must read.

Buy link, Amazon UK
Buy link, Amazon US 

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.

Me and them – a beleaguered writer and her characters

It is strange with characters: once you’ve created them, they never go away. Not even when you’re no longer writing about them, but have moved over to other invented loves. They lurk in your head, mostly as silent shadows of themselves, now and then substantially more vociferous.

to-catch-a-falling-star-100dpi-201501

Apparently, not the last…

“Just because you’re done with us, doesn’t mean we’re done with you,” Alex Graham tells me, graciously accepting a cup of tea. (Now and then, we have these intense tea sessions in my head: all my characters and me. Like a major reunion…)
“Really? I’d never have guessed,” I reply. For the last few weeks, Alex and her 17th century hubby have been very active in my brain. So actiove, in fact, that I’ve written another 110 000 words about them. And here was I, thinking To Catch a Falling Star was the last in The Graham Saga.
“What do you expect?” Matthew asks, looking up from where he’s mending a rake. “We still have plenty of life left to us, and surely you must sympathise with our need to find out what happens to our bairns, our friends?”
I do. Heck, I want to find out too. It’s just that at present, I am mostly with Adam and Kit and the struggles they’re facing in 14th century England. Or with Jason and Helle, as we speak facing off with their own personal nemesis.
“Yes, please get on with that, would you?” Jason says, an accusing expression in his bloodied face. “You can’t leave us here, dangling between life and death for much longer.”
“Sorry.” I hand him a big cup of tea – and a huge slice of chocolate cake which he promptly passes to Helle. Jason doesn’t do sweet stuff. He’s into broccoli and chicken and other healthy stuff. “You’re making me sound very boring,” he says, those amber eyes of his giving me an accusing look.

a-torch-in-his-heart_v2

Coming 2017…

So maybe I should add that he’s very, very old, remembers most of his 50 odd lives, and has the most amazing mahogany coloured hair. Plus he’s been looking for Helle in each and every one of those lives with like zero success rate except for the life when he found her floating dead in Paris—and this one.
“A very persevering man.” Helle drags her blonde curls off her face, revealing that she too is looking the worse for wear. “Look, could you please just finish this scene before I catch my death of a cold and die?” Oh, right: she’s soaked. And if I were her, I’d be more worried about drowning.
“She can’t swim?” Kit asks, eyeing Helle over the rim of her mug. My 14th century leading lady stays close to her man, the green of her kirtle complementing her blue eyes. And her red hair, except that she isn’t showing us any hair, neatly veiled as behoves a modest wife.
“Modest?” Adam chuckles. “Haven’t you heard what she did to save me from certain death?”
Err, yes, I have. I wrote it, remember? Central scene in In the Shadow of the Storm… “Ah, aye, so you did.” He looks a bit confused. “But tell me, is it you that writes in which direction things will go, or is it we who direct you what to write?”
“I can swim,” Helle pipes up before I can reply to Adam’s question. “But I’m no fan of deep water.”
“And yet there is no need to swim in the shallows,” Kit replies. She nibbles daintily at her chocolate cake. “What is this?”
“Something as yet not discovered back in your time,” Alex tells her. “Just making a name for itself in our time.”
“Our time?” Helle leans forward. “I thought you were from my time.”
“I was.” Alex smiles at Matthew and squeezes his hand. “But now his time is my time.” She fixes me with one of those death-ray looks she uses to quell her many children. “You could have chosen a time with more modern comforts.”
“Sorry.” I jerk my thumb at Matthew. “He was in the 17th century. That’s where he belongs, rooted to his time in a way you’re not.”
“Aye,” Matthew says. “I prefer not being dragged through time.” He nods at Adam. “What do you think?”

under-the-approaching-dark

The next Adam & Kit book, coming in April

“Plenty of challenges in my time,” Adam replies. “I do not need to further complicate things.” He looks away.
“Will Mortimer win, do you think?” Matthew asks.
“You know, don’t you?” Adam asks.
“Aye, I do.”
“So why ask?” Adam demands, getting to his feet. “Is it to taunt me, for not knowing what to do when the lord I love as a father usurps the powers of the young king I serve and love just as much?”
Matthew clears his throat. “No, of course not.” He grasps Adam’s arm and pulls him into a rough embrace. “You’re a good man, de Guirande. Your conscience will guide you.”
“Amen to that.” Kit sets a hand to Adam’s shoulder. “And I’ll be there.”
“Nothing you can do, sweeting,” Adam tells her. He sighs. “Nothing either of us can do.” He turns my way. “How will it end?”
“Sorry. Can’t tell you.” I make a zipping gesture over my mouth.
“Bloody enervating writers,” Alex mutters, joining her husband and Adam and Kit. “Think they can decide our lives just as it pleases them.”

In the case of Roger Mortimer, I am restricted by historical facts—as I am, if to a lesser extent, when telling Matthew’s and Adam’s story. But I don’t say that out loud. Besides, when it comes to my invented characters, I rarely feel entirely in control. To answer Adam’s question, generally things turn out with me on control. Until they take a firm hold of their fates—even if it plays havoc with my initial plotline. Just as their continued presence threatens to play havoc with my sanity.

“Tsss!” Alex gives me a light shove. “Admit it, you love having us here.”
I do. Of course, I do. Without them, my head would be very empty. Sort like a huge black coffin without a corpse in it.
“You just have to accept it,” Helle says, handing me the last of the chocolate cake. “We may only exist in your head, but we’re the immortal ones here. Long after you’re gone to dust, we’ll still be around, sitting on a bookshelf or a Kindle somewhere.”

Well, that put me in my place, didn’t it? Me, the mere mortal, has spawned invented characters that potentially will outlive me. For some reason, that makes me smile before going in search of the Advil. Seriously, must they talk so much? And at the same time?

Running for the finishing line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Amazon UK
On Amazon US

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

UPDATE! Lucienne was one of the joint winners CONGRATULATIONS!

And the finalists are…

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
I love all aspects of novel writing, from early inspiration and research to revision and polishing. Rewriting is satisfying because it’s possible to work more deeply with the underlying themes and metaphors. For instance, in real life, Nik had an uncle who owned a bicycle factory and she lived in a small village on the Limford, across the water from the island of Fur, very well known for its Eocene fossils. Both bikes and fossils play a role in the novel; it was in rewriting I explored their connections to freedom and to the layers of the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Amazon US

On Amazon UK

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

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

Midwinter is a dangerous time…

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

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

Carl_Larsson_-_Midwinter's_Sacrifice_-_Google_Art_Project

Carl Larsson – Midvinterblot (a rather romaticised version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why the 17th century? A declaration of love

JA Elizabeth_I_when_a_Princess

Elizabeth Tudor

If one is going to be financially successful as a writer of historical fiction, one should write about the Tudors. Or about Rome – or medieval England. Maybe even Regency (especially when thinking Romance). Somehow, the 17th century exists in a bubble of obscurity, trapped between the great drama of the 16th century and the bloody upheaval of the 18th. The 17th century has no Marie Antoinette, no Mary Queen of Scots.

Instead, the 17th century has religious strife a-plenty. It has the Thirty Years’ War, it has pillage. It has Wallenstein and Philip IV. It has (sniff) Gustav II Adold hitting the dust at the Battle of Lützen. It has the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I, Cromwell’s mass deportation of the Irish. It has Mazarin and Louis XIV, it has the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish, it has a Glorious Revolution, it has men like John Locke and Isaac Newton. Really, not much to write home about, right?

Reading through that rather impressive list, I can only congratulate myself on my choice of century. After all, there is no shortage of dramatic material. Besides, there is a very personal reason for my fascination with the 17th century, and that’s my husband.

Let me immediately disillusion you by assuring you my husband is not a time traveller. And I’m thinking this is a good thing, all in all. My man has his feet very firmly planted in the here and now, a counter weight to my flights of fancy, an anchor to hold me, a harbour to keep me safe. (Have I mentioned I’m very much in love with him? Have I told you how he can still make me laugh until my stomach hurts, that he can still make me cry happy tears when he whispers certain somethings in my ear?) Anyway; my infatuation with Mr Belfrage is neither here nor there – or maybe it is, but seriously, I must not digress – but the fact that he carries a signet ring on his finger is very relevant to this post, as is the fact that his family can be traced back to the more remote parts of time. He can claim ancestry from Erik XIV of Sweden (but rarely does, as Erik XIV was borderline insane, plus 90% of all Swedish noble families share that honour) but he can also claim Stuart ancestry – and all because of the religious upheaval that plagued Scotland in the 17th century.

GIIA Gustav_II_of_Sweden

Gustav II Adolf

Picture Gothenburg in the early 17th century: having brought in Dutch city planners to design his new city – as yet very much under muddy construction – the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, also needed to populate this city of his, preferably with merchants. Sweden at the time mostly traded in raw material. We exported timber, iron ore, wool and oats. We imported everything else – including capable people. On the opposite side of the North Sea lived a nation of savvy merchants, namely the Scots. Being a small and relatively poor country, Scotland produced a number of surplus sons, many of whom crossed the sea to Sweden (or elsewhere – preferably elsewhere – only a minority chose Sweden, having as yet not developed latter day’s appreciation for Swedish blondes).

To this building site, yet another Scot arrived in 1624 – no doubt attracted by the fact that so many Scots were already there. John Belfrage was twelve, and came with his mother, Joneta Stuart. As per the records, they were fleeing their homeland due to religious persecution – that was the reason Joneta gave. Given that they chose to go to Sweden, we must assume these refugees were Protestants. Sweden looked askance at Catholics, what with Gustavus Adolphus being busy cementing his reputation as the global defender of Protestants.

As John received an education and rose to local prominence, we can deduce that Joneta carried funds of some kind with her. Other than that, we know very little. In what straits did Joneta find herself that her powerful Stuart connections could not help her? After all, Joneta was a Stuart, albeit from a cadet branch, but still…And what became of John’s father?

belfrage vapen

Beavers. Sheesh. Not the sexiest heraldic animal

John made a good life for himself. He became the mayor of a small Swedish city, saw his name and coat of arms placed among the Swedish nobility and had well over ten children. By the time he died, he was probably more Swedish than Scots, answering to the name of Hans (a diminutive of Johannes) rather than John. He probably mostly spoke Swedish, but I bet he now and then dreamed in Scots. Personally, I get the impression this was a very ambitious man, on a mission to reclaim whatever grandeur the precipitated flight from his homeland had caused him to leave behind. In my experience, vastly ambitious people have a large streak of egoism in them, so I am not entirely sure Hans would have been the kind of person I’d have liked wholeheartedly. But he did make good, and for that I doff my mental hat to him.

Anyway; this little glimpse into my husband’s ancestry fascinated me (it made him so exotic! Me, being young, craved exotic) Where before my preferred historical reading matter tended to be focused on the 11th to 14th century, I began reading extensively about the sixteen hundreds, a period defined not only by religious conflicts but also by the birth of modern science, of modern concepts such as the rights of men. Sadly, at the time those human rights did not include the right to worship as one pleased, but the seeds for future liberties were sown.

Graham Saga BannerOut of all this reading The Graham Saga began to take form. My central character very quickly became a Scot, and because I was particularly intrigued by the tales of Covenanters and the brutal persecution they suffered at the hands of the restored Stuart monarchy, this shadow man of mine developed into a former Commonwealth soldier, a man of convictions and a deep personal faith. Just to spice up his life a bit, I decided to endow this man with a woman very different from him. Enter Alexandra Lind, a modern day woman who had the misfortune (or not) to fall through time and land at Matthew’s feet. The rest, as they say, is history.

It all began in A Rip in the Veil, when Alex Lind first clapped her concussed eyes on Matthew Graham. Below an excerpt from that first book – I hope you enjoy it!

9781781321676-Cover.inddAlex rested back against the cave wall and concentrated on breathing without hurting herself. She studied him from under her lashes, irritated to find he’d gone back to gawking at her. What was the matter with him? Had he never seen a woman in jeans before? She looked closely at him. Tall, broad in shoulders and chest, but thin and with an underlying pallor to his skin – as if he’d been ill, just recently allowed out of bed. His hair was cut unbecomingly short except at the back where some longer strands still hung on, his cheeks were covered by a dark, unkempt bristle, like the one Magnus, her father, would sport at the end of his summer holidays – so far nothing alarming. His shirt though… Worn linen that laced up the front, mended cuffs – all of it hand stitched.
Maybe his girlfriend had made it for him, or maybe New Age people believed in doing everything from scratch, in which case they needed a serious fashion update. She moved, scraped her foot against the rocky ground, and winced.
“Is it alright if I touch you?” he said. “It might ease somewhat if I wash the blood off.”
“Sure, go ahead, touch all you want.” Well, within limits of course.
He looked at her with a hesitant expression. “All I want?”
She made a huge effort to look him straight in the eyes, despite the fact that she could see two – no, three – of him.
“Help me, I’m not feeling too good.” She turned her head to the side and retched, but this time it was just slimy yellow bile that burnt her throat as she heaved. “Damn,” she said afterwards, keeping her eyes closed to stop the whole world from spinning. “I must have hit my head really hard.”

He spent quite some time on her forehead, close enough that she could smell him, drawing in the scent of sweat and unwashed male. She wrinkled her nose. Phew! How about some soap?
“What?” he said. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, I’m fine.” She wasn’t; her brain was banging against her skull, the broken skin on her forehead itched, her ribs were using her lungs as a pincushion and her foot… no, best not think about her foot, because it looked absolutely awful, blisters like a fetter round her ankle and all the way down to her toes. She flexed them experimentally. It hurt like hell.

He poured some more water onto the rag he was using and wiped her face. She liked that, opening her eyes to smile her thanks at him. He smiled back, teeth flashing a surprising white in the darkness of his beard. He sat back on his haunches, a worried expression on his face.
“What?” Did she need stitches? Because she really, really hated needles.
“Your ribs, I have to do something about them.”
“Like what?”
“Bandage them, so that you don’t shift them too much.”
“You’ve done this before?”
“It happens, aye.”
“Oh, so you’re a doctor?”
“A doctor?” He laughed. “Nay, lass, I am no doctor. But setting ribs is no great matter, is it?”
“It is when they’re mine.” She shifted on her bottom. “It won’t hurt, will it?”
“No, but I will have to … err … well, I must … the shirt, aye?”
“The shirt?”
“Well, you have to take it off.”
“Oh.” Where did this man come from? “That’s alright; you won’t be the first to see me in the flesh.” He looked so shocked she laughed, but the pain that flew up her side made her gasp instead.

(…)

She was aware of his eyes on her skin, on her neck, but mostly on her breasts, quick glances that returned time and time again to the lacy red bra edged with cream that cupped her breasts and lifted them high. She sat up straighter, shoulders pulled back. She peeked at him, met his eyes and looked away.
“What’s this?” He put a finger on the satin strap. Impossible; men that hadn’t seen a bra didn’t exist – not where she came from.
“It’s a bra.”
“A bra,” he echoed, tracing it round her middle. She jerked back, making both of them gasp.
“My apologies.” He raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I shouldn’t … But there, now it’s done.” He gave her the shirt and averted his eyes as she struggled to put it back on.
Alex closed her eyes, trying to come up with a label to pin on this strange man. Isolated goat farmer? Recluse? Maybe he was an old-fashioned – extremely old-fashioned – Quaker, or maybe the Amish had set up a little colony up here in the Scottish wilderness.

A Rip in the Veil link

When the creative juices flow

imagesOG7LVEQ1

Me sitting down to chat w me…(Sargent)

Every now and then, I sit down to have a serious one-to-one chat with yours truly. Okay, so the conversation is generally one-sided, as I haven’t progressed to doing different voices for different sides of my personality, but the purpose of these little tete-a-tetes is to remind myself why I write. Primarily for me. You see, sometimes I forget that my main source of inspiration and energy is the desire to write what pleases me.

These meetings tend to be quite the hub-bub. Some of my more vociferous invented characters will take the opportunity to remind me that very much of what I write affects them – and they really want a say in it. Not about to happen, I remind them. After all, life is usually a long sequence of surprises (big or small) no matter if you’re living in the real world or in between the pages of my novels. Except, of course, that Alex Graham is of the firm opinion she exists well outside my writing. (She does. She swishes around in my head more or less all the time) Matthew Graham merely smiles. He knows this particular lady (me) has a crush the size of an elephant on him, and ergo, where I go, he goes. But I don’t tell Alex that. She isn’t good at sharing…

All of the above probably has the more pragmatic among my readers rocking back in their chairs. What, she admits to having conversations with her characters? Huh. I would argue all writers do. We need that spark of life from our characters to properly flesh them out, develop them into tangible beings. Things do, however, become problematic when they start expressing opinions about everything in my life – but I’m not going there. At least not today.

Michelangelo,_Giudizio_Universale_02

..and he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter…

So, where was I? Oh, yes: a writer writes to please himself. A painter, I presume, paints to please himself/herself. Nah-nah-nah, some of you say, reminding me that many are the artists and writers who have sold their talent for commercial rewards. Even that star among artists, Michelangelo, painted and sculptured on commission. Yes, he did. But somehow I don’t get the impression Michelangelo did much compromising on quality – or on being true to his ideals. I truly believe he was proud of his work – you see, it pleased him. (And in his case, if it lived up to his own exacting standards, he assumed the rest, maybe with the exception of Raphael, would like it as well, but then Michelangelo never liked Raphael – professional jealousy, one presumes)

17th century man 3

Pleased w his pic – but is it the truth?

I realise that Michelangelo is not perhaps the best example to bring forth. The man was a genius, his talent so bright no one in their right mind would attempt to interfere with his creative process. Many, many more artists (and writers) are far from geniuses, and somewhere along the line the artist who wants to eat may have to compromise. The portrait painter in the 17th century who survived from commission to commission was not about to risk his future by depicting Mr X (a rather ugly man) as he was. After all, Mr X had requested a portrait of himself because at some level Mr X was convinced he would look good hanging on a wall for all eternity. So the artist had to do some magic – a tradition that has survived most hale and hearty all the way to us, when Photoshop allows must of us to look great, even if we don’t.

I guess it all comes down to how dependent you are on your creative efforts to feed yourself. If yes, of course the artist must compromise to keep his children in food – but I suspect many such artists have felt physical pain at doing so. I am fortunate in that I don’t need to write to feed my kids. (And three of them no longer live at home) I write, as I remind myself, to please myself. Except I don’t. Not only. If I only did it for myself, why go through all the angst of publishing? No, it is time to come clean and admit I write to please myself AND my potential readers. Many, many readers, preferably.

My father was an accomplished amateur painter. He would stand for hours before his easel and consider just what shade of green he wanted for that specific leaf. Or he would hum happily to himself as he created a new collage. For him, painting was about escaping. Every Sunday, he would allow himself some hours in which he lost himself in his creative efforts, no longer the efficient business man, no longer the man who put the bacon on the table, but simply Ingvar, a man who once dreamed of becoming an artist but who got caught in the hamster wheel of life. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe he was unhappy with his choices – he loved his work – but sometimes the dream reared its rosy little head inside of him.

My writing started out as something similar. Hours in which I escaped into a world where I called the shots. This was before Alex and Matthew  grew into such formidable presences as they are today. Before Adam de Guirande popped up in my head, with his slow smile. Before that endearing Hannah Carolina and her sticky fingers, and definitely before Jason and Helle, torn apart by fate. These days, I have resigned myself to not calling the shots. I’m some sort of glorified secretary at times, fingers going numb in my effort to keep up with all the whispered suggestions from my characters, all the images that flash through my head. BUT. My writing is still an exquisite pleasure, moments in which I no longer think about the more mundane aspects of life, concentrated as I am on creating.

20150223_093655My father once expressed that his painting helped him develop professionally. Seeing as he was the CEO of a company, it is sort of difficult to see how his painting could impact his work life – or at least that was what I thought, until now, close to forty years later, when my writing most definitely has a positive influence on my daily work. You see, since I started investing serious time in my writing, my creative processes have improved. I trust my instincts more, and as to thinking out of the box – well, if you write about time travellers and reincarnated souls and more or less develop friendly relationship with real people who died seven centuries ago, thinking out of the box very much becomes the norm.

Likewise, the structure I implement at work (thinking out of the box is all very fine, but in some areas, such as accounting, it is definitely frowned upon) helps me in my writing. I may be wildly creative, have tons of little post-its lying about, but once I sit down to properly write, I adopt a serious approach, staring with a thorough structuring of my research. (Research sounds so dry. In reality, I wallow in lovely, lovely books about people and times I want to know more about. Lucky me!)

At one point in time, I dreamed about being a full-time writer, bring the world to its knees with my sweeping masterpieces. My father, in a surprisingly gentle manner for a man as rational as he was, reminded me that dreams are dreams. With a wry little smile, he told me that some things in life are best kept as precious bubbles, stolen moments in time uniquely our own.
“You’re too conventional to handle the harsh reality of surviving on your art,” he said, “as am I.” Hard words to hear when you’re twenty something – after all, what young person wants to be defined as ‘conventional’?

Many years have passed since then, and these days my father isn’t around. But whenever I sink into the world where my creative juices flow unhindered, I swear I can feel him at my side, a proud gleam in his eyes. And he was right, of course. I’ve never had to compromise to eat, so my writing remains a passion, an urge. It flowers as it pleases me – and my voluble characters – and quite often what pleases me pleases my readers. And if it doesn’t, well then I must remember that I’m mostly doing this for me.
“And for us,” Alex Graham says, sweeping her arm in a gesture to encompass all my characters, presently ranged around tea and scones (I do have a very roomy brain, okay?). Yes, of course for them, for the imagined people who have become my beloved friends and constant companions. “Sheesh,” Alex mutters, using her apron to dab at her eyes, “you really do have a way with words, don’t you?” Duh!

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: