ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “Writing”

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.

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Apparently, not the last…

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

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Coming 2017…

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

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.

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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

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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.

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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?

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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

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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)

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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!

A fickle taskmaster

Inspiration is a fickle thing. It’s not as if you can sit down at your computer, crack your knuckles and say, “right; it’s 19:00 p.m. Time for some serious inspiration.” Generally, my brain will blank out entirely when faced with an expectation to be creative. “Nope,” it will say, shrinking away to sulk in a corner, “I don’t feel like it.” Ms Inspiration is, so to say, gone AWOL.

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Ms Inspiration taking a moment (CS Lidderdale)

Instead, Ms Inspiration tends to go into overdrive in the most unsuitable situations. Like at work; there I am in an intense discussion about Accounting Standards when the female auditor breaks off to fiddle with her hair bun, and just like that I know this is exactly the posture Alex would be sitting in when Matthew enters their little bedroom, and then … Phew! It’s an effort to revert to the intricacies of warranty accounting when your whole head is ablaze with images of Matthew and Alex, snatches of their dialogue flying through the air.

Like many writers, I’m also afflicted by nightly visits from my muse. I should be sleeping, but suddenly Ms Inspiration is whispering things in my ear, her voice urgent, and I jerk awake, grope for the pad I always keep by my bed and write as she dictates. I’ve become very good at writing in the dark, as my husband protests loudly should I turn on my bedside lamp to see my scribbles.

Nowadays I trust myself to be able to carry on from where I left off the following evening, confident that at some point the creative juices will flow as needed. It didn’t use to be that way, with me so scared that the half-baked idea in my head would vanish if I didn’t commit it to paper immediately. This lead to a lot of disrupted nights, to marathon stints at my computer that had my family grumbling it was a very LONG time since I cooked them a meal.

When writing historical fiction, inspiration must be bolstered by researched facts. Ms Inspiration harrumphs and shakes out her long skirts. In her opinion, facts are BORING, placing her within restrictive frameworks. Tough. No matter how inspiring that scene with the fork is, you have to cut it if your book is set in any period prior to the seventeenth century (except if you’re in Italy) as the fork was simply not used before then. And yes, Mr Gorgeous and Ms Feisty look absolutely wonderful together on the Chesterfield – but there were no such sofas in those times when men wore hose and codpieces, so either his costume or the interior will have to go. As an avid reader of historical fiction – as well as a writer – I know just how irritating I find those little anachronisms, and so I try really hard to ensure they don’t appear in my books. Having said that, I’m sure there will be a knowledgeable reader out there who will have the kindness to inform me that beeches weren’t exactly abundant in Scotland in the seventeenth century (HA! Caught that one myself) or that … whatever.

Writers that get the inspiration and the research to match can at times create awe-inspiring, magical novels that transport the reader to this other time, other place with the minimum of effort. That is what all writers want to achieve, we want to take our readers by the hand and submerge them in a bubble of imagined reality that will allow them to share in our characters’ adventures and woes.

Henri-Lucien_Doucet_-_CarmenBack to my own personal little task master, Ms Inspiration. I have frequently tried to convince her she should keep office hours – preferably on a GM+6 time zone so as to work around my day-time job. Ms Inspiration regards me as if I am crazy – or an exceedingly nasty type of slug – whenever I suggest this. Dark eyes flash, her hands with her dark red nails flutter at head level as she reminds me in a chilly voice that she is a free spirit, not some office slave. Well excuse me… I AM an office slave, and must somehow fit my writing endeavour into my otherwise very crammed days.
“Hmph!” Ms Inspiration sniffs. “An artiste does not lower herself to menial work.” No, an artiste should starve in a garret – at least as per Ms Inspiration, who believes in honing writing skills with desperation. Personally, I do like to eat. And have a comfy bed. (See my post about garrets here)

Now and then, Ms Inspiration looks utterly dejected. She will twist her hands together and shake her head, repeating that there is no option, none at all. Sometimes she even cries – most elegantly, of course: Ms Inspiration is a firm believer in doing everything with style. When Ms Inspiration cries, my stomach tightens into painful knots, because I know she is crying over one of my characters – mostly because she has decided they have to die. At least she shares in the pain of killing them off, but by the time I’ve written it all down and am crying my eyes out – in difference to Ms Inspiration, I cry rather messily, ending up with a bloated face and red-rimmed eyes – Ms Inspiration has already moved on, gesturing for me to get over it and get moving – look, she has new things lined up for me to see!

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MS Inspiration being vulnerable

Emotional roller-coasters are therefore a constant in my writing life. As are the moments of utter non-creativity because Ms Inspiration has decided she needs to catch up on her beauty sleep. Sometimes, in those moments I sneak off to find other sources of inspiration (but please don’t tell her that!) Like when I stepped outside on a moonlit winter night. The grass crunched underfoot, frost decorated the denuded trees that surrounded me. And just like that, out of nowhere, came the shadowy image of a man on a horse, and from his clothes I could see he was from the 14th century, and from the look on his face I could see he was in despair. But I have to give it to Ms Inspiration: she was the one who pointed out the woman standing to the side, her eyes locked on the unknown knight while silvered tears slid down her cheeks.
“See?” Ms Inspiration puffs up with pride. “What on earth would you do without me?”
The answer to that is I have no idea. I may find her enervating and inconstant, I roll my eyes behind her back, but wherever I go and whatever I write, I hope to have her always with me, either perched on my shoulder or dancing across my computer keys. Without her, I would be lost. Without her, life would be so much more boring. Without her, part of me would die.
“Tssss,” Ms inspiration says, sounding quite embarrassed. “No one dies through lack of inspiration.”
She’s wrong. Writers do.

A Lovely Blog Award

Over the recent weeks, I have been nominated THREE times for the Lovely Blog Award. Needless to say, I am both proud and grateful – and quite relieved that I didn’t post this upon receiving the first nomination, as that would have forced me to reveal far more than seven interesting facts about myself. I was nominated by three ladies with very different blogs of their own:

Jude Knight is a New Zealander with a no-nonsense approach to writing (well, she has thirty years of professional writing to fall back on) and a passion for regency romances. Good combo, that.

Judith Arnopp has published several excellent historical novels and shares astounding amounts of historical erudition with the rest of us on her blog

Maria Grace is the author of several Jane Austen inspired books and is a veritable dictionary on all things early 19th century. She is also a most generous person in that she week after week presents the world with a smorgasbord of historical posts – by others than herself – on her lovely blog Random Bits of Fascination

Awards come with rules. This particular award requites that the nominee should
one-lovely-blog-awarda) link back to those that nominated him/her (DONE)
b) post The Lovely Blog Award logo (let your eyes slide to the left, ergo DONE)
c) share seven interesting facts about themselves
d) nominate a further 15 bloggers.

Given my professionally ingrained structure, I suggest we do things in order, so let us start with those seven interesting facts about me:

luggage1. I am probably one of the best packers in the world. See attached pic of my luggage during my recent one week trip to Asia, and keep in mind that teensy bag included not only my clothes but also my winter jacket and my workout clothes and shoes. And a thermos (let’s not get into why) And yes, I did change clothes every day…

2. I suffer from “dentist-phobia”. I go into a cold sweat several days before my scheduled appointments and emerge every time totally surprised because it wasn’t as bad as I feared. This positive feeling is entirely forgotten by the time I am called for my next appointment. My dentist is a wonderful person who deals with my anxiety by telling me little amusing anecdotes or by distracting me by asking my opinion about the political situation in South America while he is drilling. Leaves me more frustrated by the fact that I can’t answer (due to his drilling) than scared of the drill, so obviously his diversion tactics work.

 

Cuauhtémoc3. I am a history nerd. Not sure where I get it from, as neither my father nor my mother were that into history. Whatever the case, I am seriously addicted to history, and I have passed the bug on to my kids, so much so that I am seriously worried one of them is considering naming his future child Guatemoc after one of the last Aztec rulers. He does at times consider El Cid instead – much better choice, as per me.

4. I was once nominated for the Venezuela softball team (short-stop) I was over the moon, but was brought back to harsh reality by my father’s gentle reminder that I was Swedish and therefore not qualified to represent Venezuela (And boy was there a major blow-up when the coach tried to convince my father that nationalities were a minor issue…) These days, I have resigned myself to seeing my athletic career go up in smoke – but now and then I dream of doing something so as to clamber atop the the top spot on the pedestal and cry my eyes out as I sing along with our national anthem, my hand clutched round the gold medal. Makes my kids roll about in hysterical fits of laughter…

5. I am the CEO of a multinational group – a challenging and rewarding job that teaches me something new every day. Recently I learned that housing in China is measured in “pin” which is approximately 3.3 square metres. Otherwise, after 25 years in the world of business I guess my general conclusion is that no matter the company, no matter its size, the problems faced are always the same and the proposed solutions to these problems are also surprisingly similar. Thing is, not always does the proposed solution work, and when it doesn’t, it is often due to those unpredictable quantities called “the company’s most valued resource” i.e. the people. It never does to underestimate the intelligence of the employees or to overestimate their willingness to change.

napoleon6. I don’t sleep much – consequence of the above and my wonderful and creative side-line as a writer. I would say I invest at least 30 hours per week on my writing, 50-60 on my work, and the rest is mostly spent on my husband – well, not in the literal sense, as that would leave him quite squashed. When I do get tired – and I do – I strike a pose before my mirror, tuck one hand into my shirt front and think of Napoleon, who apparently said: “Six hours sleep is sufficient for a man, seven for a woman. Anything more is for the inept.” Doesn’t always help…

boots7. I am a boot maniac. Clunky boots, the kind of boots that go well with that old song “these boots were made for walking and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you…” What can I say? I’m a woman working in a very male-dominated environment. Now and then I need props.

And now to my nominated blogs:

The first blog I ever started following was Wee Scoops. I remain a fan and am more than happy to see posts coming in at a heady pace at present.

I follow a couple of poetry blogs. The nice thing with these blogs are that the posts, in difference to mine, are nice and sort. Sometimes one needs nice and short which is why Black and Write is on my list.

Other blogs I enjoy:
Prue Batten – awesome writer whose books about a very different Guy of Gisbourne I have very much enjoyed (even if at times I’ve been a teensy, weensy bit annoyed with this introspective man). The lady has various interests, including crewel sewing and miniature books,  and accordingly her posts are always very entertaining – plus her blog is truly beautiful..
David William Wilkin – a gentleman who knows everything there is to know about Regency dances, and writes Regency romance with an eye for historical accuracy in everything. David knows his period in and out!
Regina Jeffers – I just love Regina’s series “A touch of…” and her historical posts are impressively well-researched. I recall a particularly detailed one about gibbets.
Lori Crane –  is a globetrotter, a musician/singer and the author of a number of polished books set in 19th century and early 20th century in the American South.
Alison Morton – fun, precise and very knowledgeable, this lady delivers posts about a lot of stuff, but quite often with a Roman touch.
Helen Hollick – seriously, a blog named Let us Talk of Many Things: of Books and Queens and Pirates, of History and Kings… says it all. Helen has a penchant for pirates, and I have a penchant for Helen (and her pirate).
Barbara Gaskell Denvil – a lady after my own heart, with a passion for history that sort of leaks off the page (or screen). She doesn’t post all that often, but when she does it is generally impeccably erudite. And as to her books – all I can say is “aaah”, and sigh happily.
Kim Rendfeld – excellent posts about early medieval Europe, and she complements this with a lovely series of scientific guest posts by her father.
Linda Root – beyond any doubt one of the most knowledgeable persons around if you’re into 16th and early 17th century Scotland. Plus she writes in a way that has me laughing out loud.
An Alaskan FB friend of mine, Lisl Zlitni has a beautiful blog with the beautiful name Before the Second Sleep
And then there’s the brand new blog started by Kathryn Gauci To judge from her beautiful cover (and her good taste in roses) this will be a lovely blog.
I just have to nominate The Review – a lot of people work hard to create a blog that showcases good books. And then there’s Book Heathen, whose recent post about the legend of Su-asti was so beautiful I just had to share it.
And finally, there is Katafalk – because I am entranced by the clothes she creates!

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing it from the writers

It has probably not escaped your notice that I’ve been doing a series pf posts about publishing, reading and writing. Today, I’m opening my doors wide to welcome Helen Hollick and Alison Morton, two very different ladies that have one characteristic in common: they are both equipped with enough driving force to create a gale. They also have in common that they write very good books – Alison’s latest book cost me all my fingernails, while Helen’s books about Jesamiah Acorn generally have me wishing the bloody man was real – and with me.

Right; with introductions out of the way, let’s jump straight into the interview. The ladies have expressed a predilection for tea, and Helen has made sure my homemade scones are accompanied by Devon cream. (Mmm. No need for you to sit on the side-lines and salivate as we dig in, so no further descriptions will be given)

Right; now that we’re all comfortably seated, I’d like to start by welcoming you to Stolen Moments and asking you to briefly introduce yourself as authors. What do you write, what do you plan to write?

AM INCEPTIO_front cover_300dpi_520x802AM: I write Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. It was marvelling at the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) when I was 11 that started me wondering what a Roman society would be like if run by women… I’m a feminist, too, more ‘lite’ than bra-burning (see here) , so I developed the writing technique of gender-mirroring. In an action scenario, you swap the typical roles of the men and women seen in other thriller stories. Interesting consequences… (Anna says: Too right!)
And the future? Now that Carina Mitela’s story in (dare I say award-winning?) INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO has mostly been told, it’s back to the 1960s. We find the redoubtable Aurelia Mitela as a young woman, lonely and unsure of her way in the world, but confronted by an enemy who not only wants to destroy her but her beloved Roma Nova. That’s the next three books taken care of!

Helen Large

Ms Helen Hollick

HH: I write two different Historical Fiction genres: my ‘serious’ historical fiction comprises an Arthurian Trilogy, set in the fifth century – the ‘what might have really happened’ story of King Arthur. In my trilogy there is no myth or magic, no knights in armour, no Lancecelot – no Merlin, just the story of a man who fought hard to gain his kingdom, and fought even harder to keep it; helped, and occasionally hindered, by the love of his life, Gwenhywfar. (The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner, Shadow of the King)
I have also written two Saxon novels, one about Emma of Normandy, who became Queen of England to two different Kings, and was mother to two more, (A Hollow Crown (UK title) / The Forever Queen (US title) and a story about the people and events that led to the most famous date in English History – 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. (Harold the King (UK title) / I Am the Chosen King (US title)
My other books are a pirate-based nautical adventure series – The Sea Witch Voyages. I wrote them for fun – hopefully readers enjoy them for the same reason! There are four published at the moment. Sea Witch; Pirate Code; Bring It Close and Ripples In The Sand. On The Account will be published soon. (Anna says: YAY!)
I also have an adventure series planned as a spin-off from my Arthurian Trilogy – The Madoc The Horseman Series. Not written yet though!

Helen, I know that you have made an active choice to re-publish your backlist through self-publishing – and to self-publish your new titles. What were your motivations behind this?

Harold Chosen KingHH: I was dropped simultaneously by my (ex) agent and publisher, William Heinemann because historical fiction had taken a bit of a downturn and the publishers did not want to re-print my backlist. I had the choice of giving up being a writer or obtaining my copyright back and going Indie. I chose the latter. While I was about it I decided to also bring out Sea Witch. I was repeatedly told (by agents and publishers) that Sea Witch was good but because there was a cross-over of genres – historical fiction and fantasy – they would be difficult to market, and besides, “pirates are not popular”. I still cannot understand this last statement – pirates have always been popular! I might add, I have no trouble marketing my books.

And are you still happy with your decision?

HH: Yes. Definitely. Although I do have the advantage of being traditionally published with my serious historical fiction in North America; I am what they call a “hybrid” author.

Alison, did you ever consider attempting to publish the traditional route? If yes, what made you decide to go for a self-publishing alternative?

AM bild

Ms Alison Morton

AM: I did indeed and was getting some full reads and ‘good’ rejections; “fresh, intelligent writing”, tight dialogue”, “good action sequences”, etc. Most concerns were about how to market “such innovative, high concept stories”. But both Helen Hart of SilverWood Books and my agent, Annette Crossland of A for Authors say they cannot understand why the Roma Nova stories weren’t snapped up by a mainstream publisher.
Anyway, I wanted my stories to reach readers – they are the ultimate arbiters, so I investigated self-publishing. I wanted my books to be have the higher possible production values, so I decided to go for assisted publishing.

What would you say are the main drawbacks for a self-published author?

AM: Ah, the terrible twins of visibility and discoverablilty; ultimately, not being in the bookshops, and bearing the cost of marketing.

HH: The only disadvantage of being Indie: I would very much like to have my books published in foreign languages in different countries, but it seems you need an agent for this. Also the current trend is for audio books, it would cost a hefty sum for me to produce all mine in this format. The marketing is also very hard work – I visit social media every day.  And I would like to point out that Helen expends a sizeable part of her time and energy on promoting other indie authors.

And the benefits?

HH: You are in charge of your own books. No agents or publishers insisting on changes – or awful covers. ( I speak from experience.)

AM: a) Freedom! A freedom that includes the freedom to fail, to make horrible mistakes, but also to choose and make decisions about your book. b) Flexibility and ability to set timing to suit you, and the high proportion of input into production, which is another way of saying control.

Which part of the book business do you find most challenging? Personally, I find the promotional aspect difficult, do you agree?

AM: The first draft! After the delights of research and thinking up the main plot structure, sitting down and giving physical form to the story running around your head is hard.

HH: I miss the input of a publishing editor when it comes to decisions: what should be left in or out of a novel, what cover to use? I always used to discuss the plot and way forward with a next novel with my agent and editor – now I am on my own. Decisions are sometimes hard when you are grubbing in the dark for good ideas. Promotion yes – I enjoy Facebook and Twitter but sometimes I feel it to be a bit of a burden (even though my internet friends are all lovely!)

AM: I don’t find promotion difficult – I’m an extrovert – it’s just a huge time-suck and you never know what works best. But I do know that if I stop promoting, sales go down. I favour soft promotion – blog writing, interviews, chatting, social media, but sometimes you do just have to go on Twitter and remind people about your book… And here I’m chuckling: to say Alison is an extrovert is a major, major understatement, wonderful woman that she is!

One of the comments made about self-published books is that the quality is deficient when compared to traditionally published books. What are your comments?

AM SUCCESSIO cover300dpi_520x800AM: I used to get that thrown in my face, but when I put my books in people’s hands, that changed. Now I get, ”Well, we know yours are excellent, but most are terrible.” And I can’t deny it. I’ve read some real shockers some starting with reams and reams of description and not getting to the action, some that are grammatically dreadful, some dripping with purple prose and some just not edited, neither structurally nor copy edited.

HH: Traditionally published books can also be bad. I do wonder, sometimes, how some managed to get published. Quality – in the writing style and in the production – can be poor in self-published books, I agree, but standards are getting higher now that writers are realising that the look of a book is also important.

How can one go about improving the quality of self-published books? What can you – well, we – as writers do?

HH: To be taken seriously as an author in the Indie world you have to make sure that your book is produced to a high quality level, that includes having it professionally edited and proof read, using a professional to design the cover, and ensuring the final product is of good standard – no comic sans font with text left-justified, for instance. Surely, after all that hard work of actually writing the thing you want to send it out into the world looking its best?
I am amazed at how many books do not come up to standard. It is so simple to check – compare your proof copy with a mainstream produced novel and ‘spot the difference’. Is the font clear and a reasonable size? Are the margins too wide, too narrow? Are they properly aligned? Are there any ‘widows’ or ‘orphans’ (a single word or sentence on a page, usually at the end of a chapter.) Do the last lines on the page align with the page opposite – did you use white paper instead of cream, which can make the pages ‘glare’ quite a bit thus making an uncomfortable reading experience. Did you use great swathes of italics (so very hard to read). Did you put the author and title on the spine and the front cover? (You would be surprised at how many authors don’t!) Are there any typos? Check and double check – and do not rely on a spellchecker to edit, words such as their/there hair/hare get missed!

AM: Well, my number one bugbear is editing. If an author isn’t willing to invest in themselves enough to commission a professional edit then I think they should ask themselves why they self-publishing. The other thing I feel strongly about is a need for a quality mark or standard across the whole self-publishing industry. Now this is quite going to be quite hard to get off the ground, but systems like the BRAG Medallion and Ascribe, a new one, and Awesome Indies are paving the way.

 I agree regarding BRAG and all that – and sometimes I wonder just how many traditionally published books would have made it through the BRAG process… not as many as some think, I believe!

There are a number of self-publishing providers out there who offer excellent comprehensive services to aspiring authors. Do you think that over time these providers will become far more selective as to what they actually choose to publish under their imprint, i.e. will self-publishing providers turn away prospective customers because they don’t quite meet the required standards? If yes, is this a development you applaud?

AM: That’s an easy one: yes, and yes. The good providers have a reputation to keep up and with the growing self-publishing market they need to be selective, for business reasons alone.

Helen JesamiahHH: It would be a wonderful ideal to aim at, but unfortunately is unlikely to happen especially with the larger companies. Small ‘personal’ companies wishing to make a respected name for themselves are already doing this, mainly because they have only a few staff members and a smallish client list. Therefore, they can turn away the non up-to-standard authors and concentrate on the better ones. Larger companies have more staff and are in a profit from business scenario – authors pay for what service they want, which may or may not include editing etc. I would hope that the better quality companies do reject the poorer quality submissions though.

Interesting: Alison seems to be of the opinion that it will help business to be selective, while Helen doesn’t believe the business constraints allow for such a development. I guess we will have to ask a publisher to comment…

Finally, let us assume the two of you end up on a deserted island – and aren’t you lucky to have each other under such dire circumstances? Anyway: the boat you were on sank, and together you could only salvage three books. Which three books would you agree on saving, and why?
Well, dear people, that didn’t work out AT ALL, as the two ladies ganged up on me and insisted they be allowed three books each. I, being a polite hostess, caved in…

AM: My nominations include Restless by William Boyd – Best spy book ever and with two strong female leads; The Prince by Machiavelli – for dealing with reality and keeping the brain exercised and Julian by Gore Vidal – The absorbing story of one of the most enigmatic Roman emperors and written by a master storyteller

HH: I would save a Rosemary Sutcliff – probably Mark of the Horse Lord or Frontier Wolf because Rosemary’s books are beautifully written and these two are my favourites. I wish I could write half as good as her!
Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons because this is the novel that led to me becoming a published author; I wrote to Sharon thanking her for writing it and added that I wanted to write books. She answered, “If you can write such an interesting four-page letter – I can’t wait to read the book.”
My third book would be The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. It is an inspiring fantasy novel and many of its scenes stay firmly with me. The story has been an enormous influence on my life and my writing.
I’d not worry too much about being stuck on a desert island, though, because I’m sure my Jesamiah Acorne would come and save us in Sea Witch!

Quite eclectic in their tastes, these ladies. Here be Dragons is definitely on my list as well, and I have obviously been remiss in not reading Julian. Oh dear; there went another book onto my TBR pile…

Thank you so much for stopping by ladies! It has been quite the pleasure to have you here with me – even if I am now totally out of scones and homemade blackberry jam!

If you want to know more about my guests, I recommend that you visit their websites and blogs:

Helen Hollick can be found at her website or her blog

Alison Morton has a combined website and blog,

 

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