I’m delighted to welcome Keith Stuart to the blog with a post about the research he undertook to write his new novel, Pied Piper.
I should say from the start that the novel grew from a very short piece of writing – almost a literary doodle – which I had no expectation of ever becoming a book. I certainly never sat down and said, “I’m going to write an historical novel.” Throughout the development from that initial scribbling into something bigger, it became clear that the historical backdrop offered the perfect setting for the themes I wanted to explore, themes which are contemporary, in fact.
I have long been fascinated by how notions of masculinity and male friendship have changed in my lifetime. I could count on the fingers of … well, two fingers how many times I can recall my father embracing me. As children he left demonstrations of affection to my mother and as adults we would greet each other with an uninhibited, fulsome handshake! That was not the case with my own two sons: if I ever held my hand out to greet or congratulate them, they would ignore it and throw their arms round me. I was often struck by how unashamedly demonstrative they always were with their male, as well as female, friends. Huge hugs and declarations of “I love you, man,” were open and genuine.
I am also aware that the biggest killer of males between the ages of 17 and 35 in the UK is suicide and I wanted to explore what the implications for all that might have been for a young man in that age bracket, at the time of my father’s youth. The thought of my children being whisked away, to who knew where, hardly bears contemplating and the evacuation, Operation Pied Piper, provided me with the scenario to explore those issues. To my knowledge it is an event most frequently told and visualised through the eyes of the mothers or children and yet how much it must have affected fathers, whom I suspect were less able to express their anxiety and grief.
So, off I set with my story, trawling my knowledge of ‘that time’ from history lessons, reading I have done, films I have seen, but I knew I had to get things right. Internet searches found specifics like the wording of leaflets that parents received through their letter boxes, instructing them about the evacuation: that, I felt would underline the enormity of the scheme on a personal level as well as the scale.
I knew that it all happened in a governmental (albeit understandable) panic and that many children had returned to London before the Blitz began a year later, but I had to get the timings right both of the story and the war-time backdrop. I needed to check out the weather that year and the timings of blackouts, readying of the undergrounds stations as shelters, etc.
I was, however, writing intuitively, telling a story which was evolving as I explored the emotions of the children’s father. Through lack of forward planning, particular events in the narrative took me into historical cul de sacs from which I could only extricate myself with research. Means of communicating, health care provision, transportation all needed getting right – even details of train routes. Internet searching solved each of these, accurately, I hope!
All the research was on a needs-must, at-the-time, basis. It is a period of history that does interest me, perhaps because I just missed it, but I wanted to know more to achieve authenticity. The real issues for me, however, were relationships, emotions, male bonding and friendship and mental health (as we now call it).
As I finished Pied Piper during the COVID pandemic, an irony relating to the novel, me and the issues, occurs. I thought I was going to be lucky enough to be part of a generation that avoided something like a world war. We skirted with the Cuba crisis and the Cold War but most political, economic and military crises in my lifetime have been short and not ones which have meant fearing for our lives for months or years on end. And then along comes COVID, though not on the scale of the two World Wars, there has been an extended period where the future of our lives has been in doubt. This current crisis has raised mental health to the forefront and it has reinforced my feeling that it was worth exploring through the main character in Pied Piper, a young father in 1939.
Thank you so much for sharing your research processes with me. I always find them fascinating.
Here’s the blurb
In September 1939 the British Government launched Operation Pied Piper. To protect them from the perils of German bombing raids, in three days millions of city children were evacuated – separated from their parents.
This story tells of two families: one whose children leave London and the other which takes them in. We share the ups and downs of their lives, their dramas and tragedies, their stoicism and their optimism. But. unlike many other stories and images about this time, this one unfolds mainly through the eyes of Tom, the father whose children set off, to who knew where, with just a small case and gas mask to see them on their way
This novel is free to read with #KindleUnlimited subscription.
Keith Stuart (Wadsworth) taught English for 36 years in Hertfordshire schools, the county in which he was born and has lived most of his life. Married with two sons, sport, music and, especially when he retired after sixteen years as a headteacher, travel, have been his passions. Apart from his own reading, reading and guiding students in their writing; composing assemblies; writing reports, discussion and analysis papers, left him with a declared intention to write a book. Pied Piper is ‘it’. Starting life as a warm-up exercise at the Creative Writing Class he joined in Letchworth, it grew into this debut novel.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Faith L Justice to the blog with a post about the way she researched in order to write Dawn Empress.
Q. How Far Could a Roman Army March in a Day and Did They Wear Socks with Their Sandals?
A: 37 miles and “Yes”—Details in the post!
My mission is to tell interesting stories about little-known, but important women, while entertaining the reader. Because I write biographical historical fiction, historical accuracy is extremely important to me. For every novel, I must answer hundreds of questions like those posed in the title, so I do a tremendous amount of research beyond the facts of births, deaths, wars, etc. The sights, smells, sounds, and descriptions of clothes, food, housing, and transportation helps the reader experience a kind of time travel as they immerse themselves in a past culture. Personally, I find research the most fun part of writing my books. I get to learn new stuff, visit interesting places, and share my passions with readers.
I ran across the empresses who are the subjects of my three-book series The Theodosian Women when I researched my first novel set in the early fifth century. Pulcheria (Dawn Empress) took over the Eastern Roman court at the tender age of fifteen and ruled as regent for her under-age brother Theodosius II. Placidia (Twilight Empress) ruled over the fading Western Empire for her under-age son Valentinian III. Athenais (work in progress), a pagan philosopher/poet married the “Most Christian Emperor” Theodosius II. These women fascinated me. I wanted to tell their stories, but I had a lot of research work to do.
This was hampered by the times. The fifth century experienced great turmoil as barbarians invaded the Roman Empire sacking cities, disrupting education and culture, and destroying records. This left only fragments of primary sources for future historians to ponder. Archaeology filled in some of the blanks, but there was lots of room for my imagination. My print resources consisted of translated copies of primary sources, general histories by well-respected historians, and a couple of obscure biographies. I still remember the unmitigated joy I felt when I found a used copy of Galla Placidia Augusta: A Biographical Essay by Stewart Irvin Oost and plunked down my money. I wrote Pulcheria’s story later when Kenneth G. Holum’s Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity was generally available. I’ve provided research bibliographies for each of my novels on my website but here’s a visual sample of my research book shelves.
My first drafts are usually “white room” versions concentrating on the plot derived from the histories. I spend my second draft answering pesky questions about food, clothing, health, religion, architecture, art, technology, trade, and natural disasters—anything that adds color and context to my character’s lives. These details mostly come from specialized books and academic articles. The Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (part of the Oxford Facts on File series) is a good place to start, but I couldn’t write with confidence without the academic articles I find at JSTOR (free with a library card) and Academia.edu.
Research has changed enormously in the past twenty-five years, making it much easier for the casual scholar. For my first two novels, I had to haunt the research branch of the New York Public Librarylooking up academic articles in dusty indices. About half of the journals seemed to be missing when I searched for them in the stacks. Now with a library card and a computer, anyone can access thousands of academic journals and presentations. I have over 300 titles in my miscellaneous research file alone.
The coolest new tool I’ve found is an interactive website called Orbis the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. Created and maintained by Stanford University, Orbis provides travel data in the Roman Empire. I fill in the details and it tells me how long it would take an army to march from Constantinople to Aquileia in January: 26.5 days, covering 1588 km (987 miles) at 60 km (37 miles) per day. Do I have a post rider carrying an important message from Rome to Toulouse in October? How about a trader moving exotic animals from Alexandria to Rome during the summer? No more looking up obscure modes of transportation, determining distance on Google Maps, and hand calculating. Magic!
My all-time favorite research technique is the site visit. I have a dozen books on Constantinople and Ravenna with gorgeous pictures and incredible diagrams, but nothing beats walking the famed walls that lasted a thousand years, feeling the weather change when a storm blows in across the Black Sea, or seeing surviving frescoes and mosaics in fifth century buildings. I took the picture of this stunning mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy.
I also do hands-on history by volunteering at archaeological digs. While working on Hadrian’s Wall in the UK, I got to visit the Vindolanda Roman Fort and see rare correspondence of a young Roman soldier asking his mother to send him knitted socks for the winter, among many other everyday artifacts, such as a doll, grocery lists, and a birthday party invitation written by the wife of the commander. In Tuscany, I helped uncover and preserve a mosaic of Medusa (pictured below) at a dig of a first century Roman villa. All this fuels a sense of awe and respect for these ordinary people who are long gone, but still very human in their needs, which I hope comes through in my writing.
Museums come in a close second for favorite personal research. We have world-class ones here in New York. I studied 5C Roman clothing, coins, art, and jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, giving me a motherlode of detail to enrich my stories. If this pandemic we’re living through has any upside, it’s that museums around the world have made their collections available online. We can now virtually visit special exhibitions, search collections, and order previously inaccessible images and books. But I’m looking forward to going back in person.
So that’s my research process—lots of reading and note taking, punctuated with museum trips, site visits, and archaeology digs (a.k.a. vacations). After living vicariously in the fifth century for twenty-five years, I have an extensive personal library, but I want to give a hearty shout out to all the research librarians who helped me over the years. For accuracy, I trust “Ask A Librarian” over a chat room on the internet any day. Support your local libraries. They are national treasures!
On a final note, my sincere thanks to MJ Porter for hosting me on this blog tour. It’s always a privilege to meet new readers. If any of you have questions about my research process or my books, feel free to get in touch through my website or other social media. I love to hear from people. Stay safe out there!
Thank you so much for sharing. A pleasure to have you on the blog. Note for UK readers, JSTOR offers some free articles, and others can be purchased with a subscription package:)
Here’s the blurb;
As Rome reels under barbarian assaults, a young girl must step up.
After the Emperor’s unexpected death, ambitious men eye the Eastern Roman throne occupied by seven-year-old Theodosius II. His older sister Pulcheria faces a stark choice: she must find allies and take control of the Eastern court or doom the imperial children to a life of obscurity—or worse. Beloved by the people and respected by the Church, Pulcheria forges her own path to power. Can her piety and steely will protect her brother from military assassins, heretic bishops, scheming eunuchs and—most insidious of all—a beautiful, intelligent bride? Or will she lose all in the trying?
Dawn Empress tells the little-known and remarkable story of Pulcheria Augusta, 5th century Empress of Eastern Rome. Her accomplishments rival those of Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great as she sets the stage for the dawn of the Byzantine Empire. Don’t miss this “gripping tale” (Kirkus Reviews); a “deftly written and impressively entertaining historical novel” (Midwest Book Reviews). Historical Novel Reviews calls Dawn Empress an “outstanding novel…highly recommended” and awarded it the coveted Editor’s Choice.
Faith L. Justice writes award-winning historical novels, short stories, and articles in Brooklyn, New York where she lives with her family and the requisite gaggle of cats. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Writer’s Digest, The Copperfield Review, and many more publications. She is Chair of the New York City chapter of the Historical Novel Society, and Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine. She co-founded a writer’s workshop many more years ago than she likes to admit. For fun, she digs in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Chrystyna Lucyk-Bergerand her new book, Two Fatherlands, to my blog, to answer a few questions about the research that went into writing her series.
This sounds like a wonderful book, merging historical fact with a compelling narrative. Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring the historical characters/or events to life?
The research for this series was a journey unlike anything I will ever be able to share in the space available here. It was simply amazing. And daunting.
First, the process. I made the grave mistake of spending almost a decade researching my first novel on Ukraine in WW2, which ended being as much a novel as a documentary is a blockbuster action movie. I was trying to get a grasp on the sheer complexity of a world at war and I lost focus. So, after learning my lesson, I tackled the Reschen Valley series differently. I got the big picture, and had a rough idea of the lay of the land, so to speak, before I started writing. But even that took nearly five years before I could really get started because the majority of my resources were in German, and many more in Italian.
The other extra challenge I made for myself was that I was a pantser. I did not outline and plot out my books in advance. It wasn’t until I was at Bolzano that I had learned to appreciate outlining and I have never looked back. By the time I started Two Fatherlands, which is the fourth book in the main series (excluding the prequel), writing was all about “what happens to my characters next and how do I get them all to meet up again?”. The historical events take a firm background in the series but they are integral to the plot. I chose specific “drivers” for the different parts of the story. From the beginning, Angelo’s father—Colonel Nicolo Grimani—was my Mussolini rep, steering the Fascist agenda that makes up the main conflict in the series. Therefore, it is Angelo’s story that serves as the catalyst for bringing the historical mile markers to the forefront.
As I said, the main resources for my research were in German and Italian. I had the idea back in 2005 to write one book about the reservoir before I even started researching. That was before I had any idea how much was involved in the flooding of that valley! And nobody had really written about South Tyrol’s tragic history in English, except for one professor in Innsbruck whose work happened to have been translated thanks to an exchange program with an American university. The other was a Hungarian diplomat from the Sixties, who had written his memoirs about the South Tyrolean conflict in English. That was it! I had to learn German if I wanted to write this story. At the very least. Because the Italians had their own version…
I live in Austria. I am one of those language learners who learns by doing. I was immersed in German, I visited South Tyrol at least three times a year (I live half-a-day’s drive away), I pulled up all my Latin language knowledge for the Italian and dug in, trying to interpret the foreign information. It took me over 10 years from the first idea to really getting a grasp on the materials. This was long before Google translator, long before DeepL. I was going with what I could and it was like putting together a million-piece jigsaw puzzle. I didn’t get to work until 2010 and gave myself exactly two weeks to plan my characters and timeline. By the end of the two weeks, I had a three-book series planned. NOT plotted, which eventually put me back quite a bit as well.
My greatest sources were a museum in Graun and the eye-witnesses whose accounts I recorded about the valley and the flooding in 1950. That was fantastic. One of them gave me three books: someone had gone through all the trouble of recording every single family, every house, drawing out every piece of equipment they used for farming and cooking and cleaning and living, getting down the heritage, culture and lifestyle of the valley into one book. That was amazing. I use a lot of photos when I do research. I also try to travel to the places I write about. It brings so much to life for me. Other than books and books and books, I got copies of the original letters written from the civil engineering department and the offers sent to the landowners with the ridiculous prices. I had logs of how many cows, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, acres, etc., each farmer had. I got images of the aerial maps. I used the models built by those in the Obervinschgau Valley (the real name of the Reschen Valley) who wanted to demonstrate the absolute annihilation of the valley. I panned the huge model of the towns and villages with a video camera like a filmmaker would. That does not mean I stayed true to all the facts. I put, for example, one of the rivers near Katharina’s farm because I loved the sound that river made and I felt it was important to have her near it. I adjusted the lay of the land and even made her farm up higher than it would have been, because I wanted her to have a bird’s eye view of the valley. There’s plenty I fictionalized, but much, much more that I did not and where I stayed authentic.
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?
Yes, Felix Mitterer’s TV mini-series Verkaufte Heimat(Sold Homeland) was absolutely integral to my research. It provided me with plenty of inspiration and brought so much to life for me including clothing, colors, signage, how the rooms and buildings look, the feel and atmosphere, the body language differences when communicating. I study and train cross cultural communication, and so I am fascinated by how different cultures and personalities communicate; what we understand and what we meant to say, or not. I use these to concoct conflicts. By the time I’d seen the series though, I was already into the second book, The Breach, and had very similar storylines already happening based on anecdotes and eye-witness accounts from other research.
South Tyrolin the 20th Century by Prof. Rolf Steininger and Schöne Welt, Böse Leut (Beautiful World, Evil People) by Claus Gatterer also provided me tons of material. Only about four years ago, I managed to get my hands on a doctoral thesis by Brigitte Mari Pircher specifically related to the Reschensee reservoir and the building of it. Suddenly I had all those pieces about the lake in one very compact, succinct and accessible book. She used a lot of the same resources as I had, but she because she is bilingual, she had suddenly given me access to the Italian materials as well in German, which I am fluent in now. So that was exceptionally helpful. But I’ll tell you one thing, if I hadn’t at least mastered German, this would have been a difficult story to get down.
A couple of years ago, a South Tyrolean publisher expressed interest in translating the series. I got a ten-page questionnaire about the research and got corrected on five or six things that I had in the books (which I changed immediately) but 95% of what I confirmed and explained was spot on. It turned out that the translation costs were too high for them. Which is sad, because since then a lot of interest has been drummed up about the reservoir by both German and Italian authors, documentary filmmakers and even a Netflix series has been filmed on the Reschensee.
On a personal note, as a child I read all of the Chalet School books (they were old then), and this sounds like it follows some similar threads. I was enthralled when they had to escape from the Tyrol.
I just looked that up. That’s amazing. Sounds like the kind of series I would have devoured when I was younger!
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s fascinating.
Here’s the blurb;
It’s a dangerous time to be a dissident…
1938. Northern Italy. Since saving Angelo Grimani’s life 18 years earlier, Katharina is grappling with how their lives have since been entwined. Construction on the Reschen Lake reservoir begins and the Reschen Valley community is torn apart into two fronts – those who want to stay no matter what comes, and those who hold out hope that Hitler will bring Tyrol back into the fold.
Back in Bolzano, Angelo finds one fascist politician who may have the power to help Katharina and her community, but there is a group of corrupt players eager to have a piece of him. When they realise that Angelo and Katharina are joining forces, they turn to a strategy of conquering and dividing to weaken both the community and Angelo’s efforts.
Meanwhile, the daughter Angelo shares with Katharina – Annamarie – has fled to Austria to pursue her acting career but the past she is running away from lands her directly into the arms of a new adversary: the Nazis. She goes as far as Berlin, and as far as Goebbels, to pursue her dreams, only to realise that Germany is darker than any place she’s been before.
Angelo puts aside his prejudices and seeks alliances with old enemies; Katharina finds ingenious ways to preserve what is left of her community, and Annamarie wrests herself from the black forces of Nazism with plans to return home. But when Hitler and Mussolini present the Tyroleans with “The Option”, the residents are forced to choose between Italian and German nationhood with no guarantee that they will be able to stay in Tyrol at all!
Out of the ruins of war, will they be able to find their way back to one another and pick up the pieces?
This blockbuster finale will keep readers glued to the pages. Early readers are calling it, “…engrossing”, “…enlightening” and “…both a heartbreaking and uplifting end to this incredible series!”
Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is an American author living in Austria. Her focus is on historical fiction. She has been a managing editor for a magazine publishing house, has worked as an editor, and has won several awards for her travel narrative, flash fiction and short stories. She lives with her husband in a “Grizzly Adams” hut in the Alps, just as she’d always dreamt she would when she was a child.
Today I’m delighted to welcome David Loux to the blog to talk about the research for his new book, Chateau Laux.
Your book, Chateau Laux, is set in a time period I wouldn’t even know how to start writing about. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories.
My research did not start out with a novel in mind. It began with an investigation of the Laux family surname in 2005. This research resulted in a lot of information related to the provenance of the name, which I presented in a paper addressed to a Laux family reunion in York, Pennsylvania, in 2010. It subsequently provided the foundational material for Chateau Laux.
Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring your historical landscape to life?
One of the challenges of historical research is that much valuable information is lost over the years—especially the good, warm-blooded stories of individual lives. Fortunately, interest in the Laux name goes back many years, and I was able to benefit from genealogical publications in 1910 that provided information which would have been increasingly difficult to access over time. Another very tangible benefit to my research was that the Laux name was of noble origin, which meant that I was able to discover information that went all the way back to the middle ages. Some of the information was in French and some was in Latin, and the wonderful research assistants at the Bibliothèque Nationale were a big help. I also benefited from connections made through the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in Reno, which put me in touch with researchers familiar with Occitan names and pronunciations. Finally, and most importantly, family group members in southern France were able to provide information from archives that would have been unavailable from other sources.
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?
When I first started my research, I had very little idea of the milieu and other significant associations connected with the name, which means I had to keep an open mind and read anything I could get my hands on. There were many false starts and dead ends. As far as critical resources, I would have to say that Chateau Laux would not have been the same without the research assistance of the Bibliothèque Nationale, as they were able to provide context and authenticity that would otherwise have been elusive. But then again, every resource previously referred to was essential in its own way. It helps that I was able to read French, and to a lesser extent, Spanish, as some of the information was only available in those languages.
Thank you so much for sharing the research you undertook to write your book. It’s so fascinating to find out what makes people write the stories that they do.
Here’s the blurb;
A young entrepreneur from a youthful Philadelphia, chances upon a French aristocrat and his family living on the edge of the frontier. Born to an unwed mother and raised by a disapproving and judgmental grandfather, he is drawn to the close-knit family. As part of his courtship of one of the patriarch’s daughters, he builds a château for her, setting in motion a sequence of events he could not have anticipated.
David Loux is a short story writer who has published under pseudonym and served as past board member of California Poets in the Schools. Chateau Laux is his first novel. He lives in the Eastern Sierra with his wife, Lynn.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome Renee Yancy to the blog with a guest post on the historical research she undertook to write her new book, The Test of Gold.
The true story of Consuelo Vanderbilt inspired my new historical romance, The Test of Gold. Consuelo was a “Dollar Princess,” the nickname coined for heiresses in the late 20th century who possessed multi-million dollar dowries and married cash-poor British and French aristocrats.
The Gilded Age occurred after the American Civil War, from 1870 to the early 1900s, a turbulent time of rapid economic growth in America. Captains of industry such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefelleramassed huge fortunes, but were considered nouveau riche by the patrician bluebloods of New York City. The exclusive list of people who could comfortably fit into the ballroom of the queen of high society, Caroline Astor, was called the famous “400.”
Social climber Alva Vanderbilt craved entrance into the 400, and schemed exactly how to achieve it. First, she built an extravagant “chateau” with one hundred and fifty rooms at 660 Fifth Avenue. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Then she planned a huge costume ball, the cost of which by today’s standard was $6,000,000!
When young Carrie Astor, Caroline’s daughter, didn’t receive an invitation to the ball, Mrs. Astor was forced to “call” on Alva to receive an invitation, and Alva was in.
During the Gilded Age, European aristocrats flooded New York City to find a wealthy bride whose dowries could shore up their crumbling ancestral estates, trading titles for dowries. Have cash, will marry! Consuelo’s mother, our infamous Alva Vanderbilt, forced her daughter at the tender age of eighteen to marry the Duke of Marlborough to obtain a royal title for the Vanderbilt name.
It was a loveless marriage, and in time, Consuelo escaped it and achieved personal happiness with Jacques Balsan, a French aviator and industrialist.
For my research, I explored some amazing estates of the rich and famous, read books about the etiquette of that time, and studied the fabulous gowns of Charles Worth, who was the premier Paris designer of the Gilded Age. I searched out the jewelry designs of Tiffany, Cartier, and Marcus & Co. Such fun and so beautiful to look at!
Doing the research took me into an era of incredible wealth and shocking poverty the likes of which will never be seen again.
My character, Lindy, has a happier ending!
Thank you so much for sharing your research with me. It’s fascinating to find out how authors research their characters and chosen period.
Now, here’s the blurb for The Test of Gold.
Raised in the shadow of a mother who defied convention, but won’t allow her own daughter the right to make the same choices, heiress Evangeline Lindenmayer has been groomed since childhood to marry into the British aristocracy.
When Lindy challenges her mother’s long-laid plans by falling in love with a poor seminary student, the explosion is bigger than the Brooklyn Bridge fireworks on Independence Day.
Renee Yancy is a history and archaeology nut who writes the kind of historical fiction she loves to read – stories filled with historical detail that immerse you in another place and time. When she isn’t writing historical fiction or traveling to see the places her characters have lived, she can be found in the wilds of Kentucky with her husband and two rescue mutts named Ellie and Charlie.
Now, confession time, I’ve not quite finished reading yet, so my review is ‘pending,’ but it doesn’t matter. I’ve read enough to know this book is fantastic, and so I’m going to shout far and wide on its release day.
Here’s the blurb;
“The bestselling author of The King in the North turns his attention to the obscure era of British history known as ‘the age of Arthur’.
Somewhere in the dim void between the departure from Britain of the Roman legions at the start of the fifth century and the days of the venerable Bede, the kingdoms of Early Medieval Britain were formed. But by whom? And out of what?
Max Adams scrutinizes the narrative handed down to us by later historians and chronicles, stripping away the most lurid nonsense about Arthur and synthesizing the research of the last forty years to tease out strands of reality from myth. His central theme evolves from an apparently simple question: how, after the end of the Roman state, were people taxed? Rejecting ethnic and nationalist explanations for the emergence of the Early Medieval kingdoms, Adams shows how careful use of a wide range of perspectives from anthropology to geography can deliver a picture of the emergence of distinct polities in the sixth century that survive long enough to be embedded in the medieval landscape, recorded in the lines of river, road and watershed and in place names.”
To give you a taste of what you might find within the pages of The First Kingdom, I’m going to share my review for Ælfred’s Britain, another truly fantastic, and incredibly accessible and readable book.
“Aelfred’s Britain is an excellent book, not confining itself to the period of Alfred’s rule but comprehensively offering an account of England from the reign of Alfred’s grandfather to the end of the reign of his youngest grandson (King Eadred) in 955. This makes it much more than a book about Alfred and rather a book about Britain and the Vikings just before, after and during The First Viking Age. Instead of focusing on England and the Vikings, the book covers the actvities of the Vikings in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, in a very similar vein to the wonderful book by Claire Downham ‘Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014’, along the way noting events on the Continent and in the homelands of the Vikings and Danes. This is an important development in the history of the period and a step that should have been taken long, long ago. There is little point in knowing events in England in isolation during this period – a wider view point should and must be adopted. The author also employs an enjoyable and enlightening look at the ‘map’ of Britain – offering something of a handy guide to the various ‘stopping-off’ points available to the men and women from Scandinavia along the coast and riverways. Some may find the author’s naming conventions a little annoying – but it seems to me that all historians have a preferred naming convention and insist on sticking to it no matter what – and it is only a slight bug-bear but that is because I know much of the period well. This is a far more ‘historical’ book than The King in The North (which I always felt was too much like a travel guide for comfort) but it is, at heart, a book by an archaeologist, and this means that the archaelogy is used to ‘clothe’ the ‘known’ historical facts and vice versa. Yet, and I must applaud this, the author, while relying on some slightly dubious ‘primary’ sources, does ensure that the reader is aware of this – and the reader would do well to heed the warnings. Overall a very enjoyable book, filled with fascinating insights that adopts a view point that has been a long time in being applied to this time period.”
Hopefully, this sets the scene for the direction taken within the pages of The First Kingdom.
The First Kingdom is released today in ebook, hardback print book, and audio book, and you can purchase it here;
On a side note, I’ve just noticed that The King in the North is on special offer for just 99p as an ebook. You won’t be disappointed with this detailed analysis of the seventh century, and at times, you will truly be walking through the Northumbrian landscape.
Watch this space for my full review of The First Kingdom, which I’ll write as soon as I’ve finished reading. I’m savouring this one because it is just so good.
When Rósa is betrothed to Jón Eiríksson, she is sent to a remote village.
There she finds a man who refuses to speak of his recently deceased first wife, and villagers who view her with suspicion.
Isolated and disturbed by her husband’s strange behaviour, her fears deepen.
What is making the strange sounds in the attic?
Who does the mysterious glass figure she is given represent?
And why do the villagers talk of the coming winter darkness in hushed tones?
The Glass Woman is an intriguing tale of Iceland in the late 1600s.
I make no bones that I am fascinated by Iceland, perhaps not during this time period, but earlier, when the country was being settled. I tried this book on the off-chance – Jane Eyre in Iceland – yes, please.
And indeed, it is a dark tale, told from the viewpoint of Rosa. It is dark, frightening and claustrophobic, and reads very much like a much more modern Icelandic ghost story I read recently. It makes you shiver, it makes you feel for Rosa, but then everything changes and the book is not at all what you think it’s going to be.
I found the story intriguing and engaging, and if it’s not Jane Eyre in Iceland, it’s because the book is actually much harsher.
Somehow, and I have no idea how, I’m about to release Book X (yes X) in the Earls of Mercia series, and that doesn’t include the three direct side-stories, or Lady Estrid, which could also be said to be a side-story, books. I decided it was time to take a hard look at myself, and why my very first historical fiction project is proving to be the longest so far.
The Earls of Mercia inspiration
The last century of Early England is a place well-trodden by non-fiction and historical fiction authors, so why did I choose to tell it through the eyes of a handful of people who almost slip through the historical record unnoticed because of the ‘giants’ of the period?
History is filled with those who get swept aside because other events overtake their achievements, and so it is with the Earls of Mercia. They were a family who ‘ruled’ continually from 993 to 1066 – a feat not even achieved by the Wessex royal family, begun by King Alfred, during the same time period. In the annals of the time they’ve been pushed to the side by the likes of Eadric Streona, King Cnut and the family of Godwine, by the events of both 1016 and 1066, and also by the fact that when the family married into royalty, it was destined to be short-lived.
I ‘discovered’ my first character – Ealdorman Leofwine – while meandering down the aisle in a university library. By rights, I shouldn’t have been there, not in that section, and equally, I shouldn’t have gone on to write my dissertation about him, but I did, but only after I’d made him into a fictional character. So just what was it that made him so appealing as a character?
As I read about the family, in Stephen Baxter’s, The Earls of Mercia, Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England, I was flabbergasted that this character existed and yet hadn’t been put to good ‘use.’ Ealdorman Leofwine, his sons, grandsons, and great-grandchildren were witnesses to all of the events I’ve mentioned above. Not only did they witness them, but they were involved as well. I remember picking up and reading Frank Barlow’s book on the Godwines and being disgusted that Ealdorman Leofwine, Earl Leofric, Earl Ælfgar and his sons and daughter get little more than the odd mention. The desire to tell a story only about the Godwines excluded the perfect foil for them. I couldn’t allow that to stand.
But, how to tell the story of a century, of four generations? Initially, my idea was to tell a retrospective story, through the eyes of the great-grandson who did survive the tumultuous events of 1066, using the idea of a scribe writing down the family’s history while he was imprisoned at the request of William the Bastard for well over a decade. I still have the words I first wrote. But, that was not the route I eventually went down. No, I wanted to make Ealdorman Leofwine more than just someone’s ancestor, I wanted to make him a person in his own right, even if I do harbour the suspicion that he might have been retrospectively given greater influence than he might have claimed.
And that is the path that I’ve continued to tread. My overarching ambition is to tell the story of the years from 993-1066, but each player must have their own story, they must all be allowed to live, before they die; they must all be people in their own right. And now, as I begin to retell the story that so many are familiar with, that of the reign of Edward the Confessor and the events that led to 1066, I’m pleased by my decision to ensure the Earls of Mercia have their own story to tell – and also by the fact that because of that, other historical characters are also having their story retold a little – the oft-forgotten or misunderstood characters, and that means kings as well as earls and great ladies.
I’m pleased that people who read about the Earls of Mercia are able to consider that the Godwines were not quite the ‘top-dogs’ they might appear to be from such a distance. Not that it doesn’t involve playing around with what some might call the ‘facts’ but that is the joy of historical fiction – in getting to know my characters, in playing around with the information that we do have, I can find other possibilities, and they are not quite as far-fetched as it might be believed.
I began writing the first book in the Earls of Mercia series in 2011. Since then I’ve been slowly working my way backwards through Early England, as well as slightly forwards in Denmark. It has meant that the first two books in the series have undergone some subtle changes as they’ve been rereleased in paperback and the copyright returned to me by my publisher. So, for any who haven’t started the books yet, it isn’t necessary to start with book 1, or even book 2, but if you’re going to, then the paperback version – The Earl of Mercia’s Father – is the correct edition to read. But I genuinely hope, that it should be possible to pick up any of the books and still be able to understand what’s happening and enjoy the individual title.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome the Historical Fictioneers and their new book, Betrayal, to the blog. Here’s the blurb;
“Betrayal, treachery, treason, deceit, perfidy—all names for the calculated violation of trust. And it’s been rife since humans trod the earth.
A promise broken
A mission betrayed
A lover’s desertion
A parent’s deception
An unwitting act of treason
Betrayal by comrades
Betrayal by friends
Could you resist the forces of misplaced loyalty, power hunger, emotional blackmail, or plain greed? Is there ever redemption, or will the destruction visit future generations and even alter history? These questions are still with us today.
Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges from post Roman Britain to the present day.”
This sounds like a fascinating project, and the authors have been busy answering my questions (yes, all of the authors:)) Enjoy.
How did the collection come about? (whose idea was it)?
The popularity of short fiction has been on the rise, and many of my author acquaintances have been writing shorter works: some as reader magnets they offer for a newsletter sign-up; others for their websites or on retail sites.
I was working on a series of short stories myself when an article landed in my inbox. A group of suspense/mystery writers had collaborated – with great success – on a free anthology. In that case, eight authors contributed to their book. Their individual ‘fans’ were thrilled to get a free story, and at the same time, they introduced their readers to authors they might not know. This sounded like a great way to tempt lovers of historical fiction to sample a new author, a new era. You’ve heard the old adage: ‘don’t re-invent the wheel.’
In November 2019, I broached the idea of an anthology with Cryssa, Annie, and Anna, who I’d met virtually through our work as co-editors of the English Historical Fictions Authors blog. Anna & I also met face-to-face at the HNS Denver conference in 2015, and I met Cryssa at HNS in Oxford, UK, in 2016. This was supposed to be the year I met Annie, but… COVID19.
Fortunately, these ladies were on board for the idea. We created guidelines for the stories and talked themes, word count, cover design, costs, and marketing before reaching out to eight more writers. And lo and behold…we give you Betrayal!
Will Jane Reader devour every story in the anthology? Will Joe Reader discover a new author, a new era, that intrigues. We all hope so!
Why did you choose the theme of “Betrayal” for your books?
When we were considering what could connect all the stories, we couldn’t rely on a unifying event like the Norman Conquest since we all write different eras. This meant that theme needed to be the unifier. Betrayal is a primal emotion. It stirs up our deepest fears. One can’t be betrayed by an enemy. Only those closest to us, the people who know our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses can wield this power against us. Each story explores betrayal in its many facets—shifting alliances, deception, intrigue, vengeance, and treason. Ultimately, they all examine the calculated violation of trust.
What was the once piece of advice you were given about writing historical fiction that has proved invaluable?
Elizabeth St. John
I wish I had been given the advice personally, for it came in an interview I read with Hilary Mantel, a historical fiction author I greatly admire. “My chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives,” she said, shortly after winning the Man Booker prize for Wolf Hall. “From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel.”
That one sentence gave me the confidence to move from extensive research to writing the fiction that became my trilogy, The Lydiard Chronicles. I could use my learnings to form the foundation of my characters, knowing I was free to weave their deeds, loves, friendships and enemies into their thoughts and feelings.
I’d written three books before I was persuaded to employ the services of a professional historical fiction editor. Before then, I’d used a general editor who had an interest in history but focused on spotting typos and making sure the commas were in the right places.
The editor who supports me now is able to take a much deeper view of my writing, as she checks for consistency across a series. Most importantly, she also provides developmental comments to support my revision process, and it able to fact-check details to help with historical accuracy.
This service can be expensive, but in the UK the costs can be reclaimed against tax. Although I find editing one of the least satisfying aspects of the writing process, I always look forward to seeing what comments my editor has made.
Do your research as best as you can, but recognise when it is time to stop researching and start writing.
I come from the formal end of history with a masters’ degree so I’m strict about getting the facts right by using three different sources. That’s the problem, of course. Sometimes there are none. Our job, according to writing friend Conn Iggulden, is to fill those gaps intelligently. So, we are back to thorough research, but fired by our imaginations.
I don’t pay a lot of attention to how-tos, but I did read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. He said something I really took to heart. To paraphrase it, he said your first job is to entertain someone who had a hard day at work and just wants to relax. That statement gave me pause. I’m so worried about getting the story “right” that I sometimes forget that it has to be entertaining. The reader probably doesn’t care about the historical accuracy if it gets in the way of a good story.
The best piece of advice is to remember that historical fiction is not ‘about’ history. Like all fiction, it is about a story. Do your research, but don’t let it swamp the story. Your readers may admire your attention to period detail in descriptions of clothing or buildings, but they won’t be reading your work at all if your story does not hold their interest.
Historical fiction defines when and where your story is set, but that is no substitute for skillful storytelling. Sometimes you have to rein in your interest in history to ensure that every chapter end persuades the reader to follow your tale to the end.
Many years ago, I sent my first WIP to an editor. The lady in question had been one of the teachers at a writing course I took and I really admired her writing, so it took some courage to send her my manuscript. Overall, she was very positive—except for one thing. “Scrap all attempts at writing period dialogue,” she wrote. “You have no idea how they spoke back then, I have no idea, the reader has no idea. The only thing we know for sure is that we probably wouldn’t understand them—or they us. Instead, write vivid and gripping dialogue so as to really hook the reader.” Yes ma’am, I thought, feeling my shoulders sag with relief and have since then concentrated on using dialogue to drive scenes rather than set them.
When I first began writing one of my university professors instilled in us the importance of thorough research. ‘Don’t be sloppy,’ he said, and went on to show us the importance of thoroughly researching from every perspective. Once you’ve read all you can, select the point of view from which you wish to write, and stick to it. I’ve written about many people from the Tudor period and they often appear in more than one book but they are never the same. People change depending on who is viewing them. Margaret Beaufort when written from Elizabeth of York’s perspective in A Song of Sixpence is initially a rather interfering, annoying mother-in-law but in The Beaufort Chronicle, which is written from Margaret’s own point of view, she is quite different. Viewpoint is important. It is also crucial that the opinion of the author does not interfere with that of the protagonist. In the author’s note I sometimes add the codicil, ‘The views expressed in this novel are not the author’s own.’
I’m not sure that I ever have been given advice specifically about writing historical fiction. But one thing I always try to bear in mind is the Dorothy Dunnett Quotation which is used as a banner for the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Award, of which I was the inaugural winner, and for which I am now a judge: “History is all very well, but it’s just the showcase. It is the arena in which your characters will perform, and which supplies the conflicts, stresses, dilemmas and the struggles they’ll get through.”
Live the scene. Walk through the events, not as a historian with the benefit of hindsight, but through the eyes of your character who can’t know that a battle is being lost (and why), or the true cause of a fire that destroys their city. Instead, tap into how your character would be feeling during these key moments, be it fear, rage, tenderness or love. Explore their world through what matters to them. If we look back on the historically momentous occasions of our age, we’ll find that we process these events through the lens of our own limited perspective, and in the end, it’s the people around us who make the most lasting impact on our lives.
A critique partner at my weekly writers group asked why I wasn’t using the real (okay, legendary) Robin Hood when I introduced a very Robin-like character in a story I took for the group for feedback. I had a flimsy excuse: ‘oh, he’s been done before by some very talented writers.’ They convinced me to introduce my own Robin-who-is-not-yet-Hood. I was bringing my own perspective, coming into the legend from a different angle. That story, Robin, and other characters from the legend, ended up being an important part of my novel Men of the Cross and ultimately drove plot arcs for Books II & III of my Battle Scars trilogy. My current work in progress, Rogue, takes the legend a step further.
Early on I was advised to let the research be my guide. While I write outlines, I also know that in the course of doing research, I will go wildly off course and the book will be better for it. So many wonderful characters and plot twists come straight out of history. The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” crosses my mind a lot when I’m doing research. Often I’ll use a sort of collage of real events to come up with a plot point, or I’ll honor a long-forgotten person whose name crops up once in an obscure document by using his or her name in my story. I love those small moments of juxtaposing the real with the imagined.
Why do you think historical fiction continues to fascinate?
Elizabeth St. John
Our fascination with the past often comes as a result of wanting to understand and connect with our present. There is, I believe, a certain reassurance to read of surviving great peril, overcoming terrible odds, enduring overwhelming sadness or loss. When we look for meaning in our own lives, looking back at the past can be consoling, offer hope and inspiration for a way forward. Many of my readers tell me they particularly enjoy the perspective of less well-known people, who may have moved in influential or royal circles, and were observers of great historical events, yet lived and loved much as we do today.
And, I think we all enjoy the travelling through historical fiction into another world, a past that is just out of reach but still evident in ruined castles, captivating portraits and fascinating insights from documents left behind.
The history books offer us the bare facts, and even those are often disputed, but rarely put the flesh on the bones. History is about the lives of real people, who lived and died, and historical fiction can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ in a narrative which for many can be inaccessible.
It’s also intriguing to explore the differences in cultural attitudes to such things as love and marriage, childbirth and death, crime and punishment. I’ve also enjoyed learning about the less well-known people around the central figures, such as kings and queens.
The best historical fiction transports the reader, evoking the sights, sounds and even the smells of a different time and place. For me, the fascination is to begin to understand the motivation of figures from history, and to discover why they acted as they did.
Because, until Back To The Future becomes true, or Dr Who turns up in the TARDIS, it is the only way that we can travel back through time – and not worry about getting home again for dinner.
Wanting to know where we come from is a timeless urge but wanting to have a glimpse in a vivid way about how people in the past lived is a strong part of that. Well-written historical fiction gives us the feel of how people tried to make sense of their lives in vastly different circumstances. They were still people, after all.
Sometimes we take a rather idealised view of the past, but as with anything in fiction, it’s an imagined landscape. And sometimes, we wonder how we would act and behave in those times. Historical fiction gives us, from the safety of our armchairs, an emotional connection to the slaughterfields of Cannae, the elegance of the Belle Époque, the dangerous headiness of Byzantium, being under siege in a medieval castle or caught up in the exciting revolutionary transition of the 19th century.
Speaking for myself, once I discovered that history is about real people and real situations (not just names and dates), about love and hate and deceit and disappointment, I was hooked. I’d much rather learn about an event that really happened than a legend from someone’s head. I’m still not sure most readers feel the same way I do, but since history repeats itself, why not be prepared.
The sheer diversity of historical fiction is what keeps readers coming back to this genre for more. It retains its appeal because of its immense variety and breadth of scope. Readers can enjoy romance, action, thrillers, or crime in stories set in any period of the past – it’s like being in a time machine without all the distracting technology. The contrasts between time periods are stark but whether you want to read about World War Two or Roman Britain, historical fiction offers it all.
The Betrayal anthology illustrates this very well with twelve authors writing stories set over a vast expanse of time and employing different writing styles to tackle the same underlying theme.
I think it offers an element of escape. We also tend to believe that life was simpler then, things less complicated and complex. To some extent, that is probably true as the majority of those alive in the past had little time to spend considering anything but how to find food and somewhere to sleep. But no matter the era, the people who live in the times would laugh out loud at the notion that their lives were simple. Take the political machinations in republican Rome, or the complexities of the English Civil War—whatever else you’d call them, they sure weren’t simple! Still: escaping to the past offers a breather from our time. And well-written historical fiction will not only expand the reader’s knowledge about a period, it will usually shed further light on the human condition as such.
There are many different reasons. As an author, I read a lot of non-fiction as part of my research, and while it informs, it can be quite dry. Historical Fiction not only tells us what happened, it helps us feel it. A non-fiction account of an execution will tell you what happened and why it happened but a fictionalised version, while based on the same contemporary account, makes the reader suffer alongside the victim. Fiction promotes not only understanding but empathy so the reader shares the protagonist’s pain.
I think that reading fiction, generally, is a form of escape. The reader wants to be transported far away from the everyday. And where better to escape to a more simple world, a more romantic world even, than the past? Okay, the past wasn’t always pretty, but isn’t there something more appealing about a horse ride than a trip in a modern car? Perhaps the reality wasn’t so lovely but we can imagine the beautiful houses, built when architecture wasn’t just about functionality. I think there is also an appeal because of the link to the fairy tales we were told as children, which are centuries old, and usually had old-fashioned illustrations, so there is a sense of comforting familiarity, too.
I’ve heard it said that we read to either escape or to learn. Historical fiction allows us to do both. This genre takes us to places where we could otherwise never go. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to go back in time and experience historical events first hand—to be with Elizabeth I as she stares down the Armada or to ride along with Charles II during his nerve-wracking escape from Parliament? But historical fiction also offers opportunities to learn, not just about the past but also to make sense of the present. History tends to be cyclical and it’s not hard to recognize echoes of the past in today’s struggles. There’s always a comfort in having a roadmap.
Historical fiction gives a reader a glimpse of a past they rarely see in history textbooks, textbooks that mainly consist of names, events, and dates. Those texts may – or may not – be accurate or complete, and they rarely factor in the human component. So historical fiction fills in the gaps. It makes history come alive and can transport the reader back in time. Perhaps it reveals more about the famous, or the infamous, but even being introduced to an ordinary person in extraordinary situations brings a better understanding of the past.
Great fiction can bring history to thrilling life. Historical fiction allows us to escape into utterly different worlds that still resonate with the familiar. There is nothing like connecting with a character from the past who is motivated by the same goals and feelings that we have today. We can empathize; we know what it’s like to struggle through life’s challenges and exult in life’s triumphs. But we have the extra bonus of hindsight when we read these stories of the past. Anyone who has nodded off with boredom reading dry history books and then becomes obsessed with the same events and time periods by reading masterful historical fiction knows the power of this genre.
A lifelong history enthusiast, Judith Arnopp holds an honours degree in English/Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies. Judith has written twelve novels to date, nine of which are based in the Tudor period covering women like Elizabeth of York, Anne Boleyn and Mary Tudor, but her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life. The Beaufort Chronicle: The Life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series) covers the transitional period between Bosworth and the death of Henry Tudor. She is currently taking a break from Tudor women and writing from the perspective of Henry VIII in “A Matter of Conscience.”
Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction and a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award.
Anna Belfrage wanted to become a time-traveller but ended up as a financial professional with a passion for writing and history. She has authored the acclaimed time travel series The Graham Saga, set in the 17th century, and the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy, set in 14th century England. Anna has also published The Wanderer, a contemporary romantic suspense trilogy with paranormal ingredients. Her latest release, His Castilian Hawk, is a story of loyalty and love set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales.
Derek Birks lives in Dorset, England, though he spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. For many years he taught history in a large secondary school before turning his hand to writing historical fiction. His stories, set both in the medieval period and late antiquity, are fast-paced and action-packed—almost no character is safe. He has also produced a series of non-fiction podcasts on the War of the Roses. When he is not writing, he enjoys travel, walking and watching films.
First published in 1994, Helen Hollick became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen(titled A Hollow Crown in the UK), with the sequel, Harold the King (U.S: I Am the Chosen King), being novels that explore events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales, and Life of a Smuggler. She lives in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, runs Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, and occasionally gets time to write . . .
Amy Maroney lives in Oregon, U.S.A, with her family. She spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction before turning her hand to historical fiction. When she’s not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, drawing, dancing, traveling, and reading. Amy is the author of the Miramonde Series, a trilogy about a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail.
Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova series featuring modern Praetorian heroines—tough but compassionate women. She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, a Masters in History and an over-vivid imagination. It was hot that afternoon when, staring at a particularly beautiful mosaic, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. Now, Alison blogs, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.
Charlene Newcomb lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian (retired) by trade, a U.S Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not at the library, she is still surrounded by books trying to fill her head with all things medieval and galaxies far, far away. She loves to travel and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar.
Tony Riches is a full-time author based in Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK, and is best known for his Tudor trilogy. After a career in the Royal Air Force he held senior roles in the National Health Service and Local Government. When researching his books Tony likes visiting the actual locations and discovering elusive primary sources. In his spare time he enjoys sailing and sea kayaking.
Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she received her B.A in Literature at the University of Missouri before moving to New York to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended. Today she lives in Sergeantsville, N.J with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
Elizabeth St. John
Elizabeth St. John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An acclaimed author, historian and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Lydiard Park and Nottingham Castle to Richmond Palace and the Tower of London to inspire her novels. Although the family sold a few country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going thee days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them—in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story . . .
Annie Whitehead has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England:To Be A Queen, about the life of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians; Alvar the Kingmaker set in the turbulent tenth century when kings died young and not always of natural causes, and Cometh the Hour, the story of King Penda the pagan king. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books and she was the inaugural winner of the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Award.
It’s been a funny old year, I think we can all agree on that. While, at times, I’ve really struggled to focus to write, I’ve also been lucky to chance upon a good number of characters that I really enjoy writing about – Coelwulf and his comrades – not that it makes it easy, but it makes it enjoyable, sometimes in a sick and twisted way. So here goes, a review of just what I’ve been up to during the weirdest year in living memory.
For the first time with any great degree of consistency, I’ve tried to track what I’m doing on a day to day basis. It’s been intriguing, but only lasted for about a third of the year, you’ll see why as we go.
I finished A Conspiracy of Kings, the sequel to The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter in January, ready for release in February. I’m really pleased I returned to Lady Ælfwynn because it moved my mind onto the project I’d been considering writing for a few years – about King Coelwulf of Mercia. I think that if I’d not written A Conspiracy of Kings, Coelwulf might still be waiting for me to start his story. But luckily, I did start to write about him in January, with a scene that has still to make it into any of the books, and in February I started with how I hoped to begin the story. Looking at my notes for the year, once I’d started writing the first book, it was all a bit of a whirlwind and a first draft was completed by the end of the month. One day I wrote 10,000 words. It seems he was really in my head. Those two years of thinking about writing about him, had paid off with a great character just waiting to come out of my imagination.
I’ve said elsewhere that there were quite a few influences on The Last King, the film, The Gentlemen directed by Guy Ritchie, the one that really made me think I should do anything I wanted with the storyline – make it bloody, make it brutal, make it sweary, and give it the ‘hook’ at the very beginning of the book. Another influence was the idea of a sportsperson at the height of their game – someone so good that they don’t really consider it anymore, and in fact, are a bit surprised that others aren’t there with them – that was the sort of warrior I wanted Coelwulf to be – already fully-formed with no backstory to wade through before getting on with the story of ‘right now.’
After finishing The Last King, I immediately pressed on with the follow-up, which became The Last Warrior. By now, it was March, and my part-time job as an exam invigilator was about to be suspended for the rest of the year – and of course, we were about to be plunged into Lockdown Part One. I had Coelwulf and pals to keep me going – and keep me going they did. By 8th April, my diary states that the first draft of The Last Warrior was complete, and I’d placed The Last King on Netgalley because I was really curious to see what people thought about it. I’d also reached out to a few people and given them advanced copies to read. The response was overwhelmingly positive as reviews started to trickle in throughout April. But now I turned my mind to Lady Estrid, and the eleventh century in Denmark.
Again, Estrid was a character I’d considered writing about for some time. She was a bit part character in my Earls of Mercia books, but she seemed to me the perfect vehicle for writing about comparable events in Denmark, as opposed to England, in the eleventh century.
I am fascinated by all of the Scandinavian countries in the ‘Viking’ Age, and beyond. But, I’m certainly no expert on what was happening.
My diary says I started writing the book on April 9th, but I know I’d written about 5000 words in February (to enter a competition that I didn’t win:)). I gave myself about two weeks of working on Lady Estrid, a breather as it were, and then went back to the edit for The Last Warrior. I know some people wait months between a finished draft and an edit, but I don’t like to wait quite that long, although I do think even a little bit of ‘distance’ can help the process. At this point, with very little else to do due to Lockdown, my notes become really detailed about editing and words added, but I won’t bore with those little details. Suffice to say, I’m normally someone that adds words rather than deletes them throughout the first edit – I tracked the words added, but not deleted, and how many pages I edited in a day.
At this point, I was also hoping to do a quick edit, and finish off my NaNoWriMo project from the previous November. Throne of Ash is a historical fantasy, and goodness me, it has bedevilled my year. So much so that I have it to thank for the number of books I’ve written about Coelwulf. At the moment, it just doesn’t ‘work’ and I know it just doesn’t ‘work’ and I still can’t quite work out how to make it ‘work’ but it will. Eventually. Or it won’t, and it will just continue to drive me a bit bonkers. But hey, I’ll share a mock-up cover all the same. (I like to have the cover designed before I start a book.)
The Last King was released on 23rd April. The next day, I began work on book 3 – which at the time I was calling The Last Lord, which quickly changed to The Last Sword, and then became The Last Horse. Throne of Ash was pushed aside, and so too was Lady Estrid. The women in my life, (Throne of Ash’s main character is a woman) were giving me grief. Coelwulf, Rudolf, Edward, Pybba and Haden were much easier going – the banter, the fighting, the ‘scenario’ – it all just fit what I was able to write at that time.
I know what you’re thinking – I was slightly over-achieving at this point – don’t worry, it’s all about to come to an abrupt stop because Lockdown was about to change. I’d had a month where not much had been any different, (I’m a writer, I write, I spend most of my time at home anyway) but now my other-half was furloughed and now began the great ‘walk,’ which I’ve also spent much of the year doing (a walk almost everyday building up to the point where I now go for my walk, rain or shine, sleet or snow.) Now my routine really suffered, and would continue to do so for months. It’s not a complaint, but I’m aware that I need my routine to accomplish all the tasks I set myself. I was still trying to write every day but my word count was down to 1000-2000. But, at least the story still wanted to be told.
By the middle of June I was doing a final edit on The Last Warrior, and the book was released on 25th June, just as The Last Sword had become known as The Last Horse, and I was happy that the first draft was complete. By 1st July, I’d noted in my diary that The Last Horse was ‘completed.’
People were really enjoying The Last King, and by the time The Last Warrior was released at the end of June I had three times as many preorders as I’d had for my ‘new’ series.
By now, some of the restrictions had been removed because Lockdown had ‘allegedly’ come to an end, but I remained local, although this was when my weekly, and now twice-weekly, walks at Cragside began. This was also when I attended (virtually) the International Medieval Congress hosted by Leeds University. I spent an enjoyable week attending so many talks and really reconnecting with my love of academic history. I purchased many, many books on my time period, and really hope they do the same next year, as it meant I could keep up with my almost daily walks.
I was also back to Lady Estrid, and editing The Last Horse, both must have been finished in August, but there’s a note on 11th August saying that Lady Estrid was ‘finished.’ (It wasn’t, but that’s a story for later on – I thought it was finished.) I turned my mind back to the next book about Coelwulf.
But, big things were happening for The Last King throughout the summer months. I’d managed to get an international BookBub deal for it and I’d taken the book on tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club (check here for details of the posts) and was also running a promotion on The History Quill in August.
The Last Horse was released on 27th August, and now I’d had more than double the preorders that I’d had for The Last Warrior, which had been triple the preorders I’d had for The Last King. I think my readers liked Coelwulf – and so did I.
By now I’m into September, and I had to have day-surgery to remove half of my thyroid, so again, things slowed down a bit – although I used the experience when writing The Last Enemy. And I was also into Tier 3 restrictions. By now, my notes have become really sporadic and I can’t track what I was doing to any degree of accuracy as earlier in the year. I think everything was coming off the rails a little bit – two difficult books, surgery, which knocked me more than I thought it would, and Lockdown. It wasn’t easy going with the writing and it was started to frustrate me – I needed my routine back but it was to be a few more months before it returned.
I’d spent my time pummelling Lady Estrid into submission. It had taken a great deal of time to edit, and I’d also written many more words from when I’d so confidently stated it was ‘finished’ in August. The ending was changed, the beginning was changed and I added to many more of my characters. I think in the edit I added about 15k words, and removed some of the elements that were giving me bother.
At some point, I finished The Last Enemy, and was back to editing it, and Lady Estrid, making use of Netgalley and The History Quill, was about to be released to a mixture of feedback – a bit of a Marmite book but one I was really pleased with. It had been a hard slog, over six months of thinking and writing about it, and with a bit of inspiration from Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival, I hoped I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do – a history of Denmark from the 1020s to 1050 – through the eyes of Lady Estrid, and her large, and extremely influential, far-flung family.
And then to November and NaNoWriMo once more. Did I think about finishing last year’s abandoned project? I didn’t, not at all, but instead took myself to the 1940s for a project I’m calling The Custard Corpses, and also a return to the Earls of Mercia books. Throughout November, I got my ‘routine’ back. I remembered all the restrictions I needed to place on myself to achieve what I wanted to achieve, the fact I prefer to write in the morning, and the knowledge that I can easily write at least 2000 words a day, even when I don’t really want. (I take part in NaNoWriMo every November and have done since 2013. I can’t stress how good it is for reinforcing all the things I know, but often forget, and because I always allow myself to step aside from my usual writing projects, how freeing it can be.)
At 50k, I put The Custard Corpses to one side, and powered through The English King – another story that took a while to find its way – but which did with enough ‘routine.’ The Last Enemy was released at the end of November, and the number of preorders continued to exceed my expectations, as did the number of people reading and reviewing and rating. Thank you to you all.
And to top the year off, I’ve also had the copyright restored to me for the second Earls of Mercia book. It’s a long and tedious story, but suffice to say, it was all reedited and rewritten during 2019 but I only had the paperback rights, and now I can release it in ebook as well. So, The Danish King’s Enemy is mine once more – a new name, a big section rewritten, a new cover, but still the same old Ealdorman Leofwine. If you’ve read one of the previous incarnations, please consider popping a review on the new one. It would be a huge help. And if not, it is in Kindle Unlimited, and it’ll be on special offer at the end of January 2021 too.
I can’t say I’m unhappy with what I’ve written in 2020, but it has been a challenge – not just because of events in the wider-world but also because my characters didn’t always behave – I’m looking at you Lady Estrid, and Throne of Ash.
But, 2020 has been fantastic in terms of the readers and reviewers that I’ve met along the way. I couldn’t have done it without them encouraging me on – demanding to know ‘what next’ for Coelwulf. I’m grateful to have been able to interact with them, and it’s shown me how powerful Netgalley can be, if the book finds a willing audience. I’ve also discovered a huge array of non-fiction books that I’ve been using to help me with my works in progress – and for that I’m grateful to the VIMC in Leeds. Without that my passion wouldn’t have been reignited and without that, I wouldn’t have powered myself through Lady Estrid, and she might well be mouldering in a corner, like other, abandoned projects.
For those thinking that I’ve written too much this year, remember, it has been Lockdown for nearly nine months, in my head, if not in others. I’ve only had my characters to distract me from the wider world. As a comparison, I released seven books in 2019, two of which were largely written in 2018. In 2020 I released six books, one of which was written in 2019, and another book which is ready for January 2021. I’ve managed about the same workload – I have suffered with my routine, and my motivation, but have taken great joy in the response my books have received.
And so to 2021. I have three books to edit and finish, and then I’ll return to the world of Coelwulf. I hope you, as my readers, will stay with me, but if not, thank you for spending 2020 with me. I hope I’ve managed to distract you from events outside our own front doors, and I will continue to try and do so. If you want to follow me, I have a newsletter which can be joined here.
Stay safe, people. I hope 2021 will be ‘better’, although I think for many of us ‘better’ is not quite what we once thought it would be.
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