Sunday, 25 September 2016

Autumn newsletter - now you know what I did last summer!


It's been a busy summer!

Well summer is at a close, and despite the unseasonable heat here in the south west of England, the days are growing noticeably shorter and soon the land will be cloaked in autumn mists. I haven't sent out a newsletter for a while and when I do, they tend to just be announcing releases. So I thought this time I would give you a quick update of what I've been doing over the summer and what you can expect from me in the next few months. In other words, a proper newsletter!

During the summer, my first two books, The Serpent Sword and The Cross and the Curse, were published by Aria. They are both doing really well, and at the time of writing, they are at positions one and two respectively in the UK Amazon's Historical Thriller category. They are also both reduced to 99p at the moment in the UK, so snap them up if you haven't already bought them. It looks like they are cheap in other countries too, but it is hard to keep track, and the prices change all the time.


Book three of The Bernicia Chronicles, Blood and Blade, has now been edited and its cover is done. There are just a few last tweaks to things like the map inside and it will be ready to go. The few people who have read advance copies have raved about it, so I hope you'll like it too. You can pre-order it now.

I have also been working hard on book four, which I am tentatively calling, Killer of Kings. I set myself a schedule at the beginning of the year and I am well on track to finish the first draft ahead of my target. I wasn't able to write as much as usual over August, as I had some holiday time with my family and I promised myself (and them!) I would not work while we were away.


We went to Lake Garda in Italy and visited Venice and Verona too, as well as the small towns around the lake. I have visited Italy a few times before and I love it there. I have to admit to feeling the murmurings of the muse during this recent holiday as we walked, so perhaps there will be some novels set in Renaissance Italy in my future. Who knows?

 Shortly after coming back from holiday, I attended my first Historical Novel Society Conference. These conferences are held in the UK every two years and people travel from all over the world to attend. There are numerous panels, talks, speeches, pitch sessions with agents and generally two days jam packed with things of interest to historical fiction writers, readers and publishing professionals. This year it was held in Oxford at one of the colleges and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. To make it even more exciting, I had been asked to speak on a couple of panels: "Battle Scenes - Guts, Gore and Glory" and "Working with an Agent v Going Solo".
 
Justin Hill, a smiling me, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow. (Photo copyright: Christine Hancock) 
The Battle Scenes panel was the first time I was going to talk in public about my books or my writing, and as if that wasn't scary enough, the other panelists were true titans of historical fiction: Justin Hill, Simon Scarrow, Harry Sidebottom and Douglas Jackson, great writers all and responsible for the deaths of thousands of men in their novels. I was nervous beforehand, but I needn't have worried. They were all friendly, welcoming and very supportive.

It was a relaxed, fun session, with each of us giving our unique perspective and experiences on the art of writing battle scenes, but the conclusion from us all was that whether a battle scene is describing many thousand-strong legions in ancient Rome, mud-splattered Saxons and Vikings in a shieldwall, the cannons and cavalry charges of the Napoleonic wars, or the clattering roar of machine gun fire scything through young men as they stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944, the most important element is the character who will provide the point of view for the novelist to tell the story. If the readers are engaged and invested in the characters, the battle scene will be exciting and worth reading.

The other panel about working with an agent was also great fun. I shared the stage with two agents, Lisa Eveleigh and Joanna Swainson, and another author, Hazel Gaynor. The conclusion from everyone involved seemed to be that whilst it was very possible to be successful without an agent, provided an author is prepared and equipped to publicise themselves and handle all of the work traditionally undertaken by a publisher, the right literary agent can provide so much more, and open doors that a self-published author will not even get to knock on.

The last piece of news I have is that the audio books for the first three novels in the Bernicia Chronicles have been confirmed and are planned to all be available by the release date of Blood and Blade in December. I'm really looking forward to finding out who will narrate the stories and to hearing my books brought to life by someone else. It should be exciting.

But for now, as things settle back down into the normal routine of work, writing and the kids back at school, I am focusing on completing the first draft of Killer of Kings and then moving on with the editing. I should be finished by Christmas or sooner, with the book due for release around Fathers' Day next year.

All the best and I hope you have a great autumn (that's fall to any Americans out there!).

Happy reading!

Matthew

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

To History or Fantasy? That is the question!

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of The Scribe's Daughter by Stephanie Churchill in which I questioned the author's decision to create a fantasy world for her novel. I posed the question that if there was nothing overtly different from our world, why not set the story within a specific period of Earth's history?


I think my question was actually a bit disingenuous. If a writer wants to set their story on a fantasy world, then so be it! They can set it on any planet, as similar or different to our world as they want. That is the joy of creativity. It is hard enough to write a novel without having reviewers question your decisions. 'Write what you feel passionate about' is what writers are always told. Not 'write what people want you to write'.

Since writing the review, I have been wondering why I even mentioned it. But I suppose that as a reader, I am at the whim of my preferences and dislikes as much as anyone and for some reason that particular decision on the part of Stephanie Churchill just niggled at me.

Well, it seems that either Stephanie read my review, or others have asked her the same question, for she has recently posted on author Samantha Wilcoxson's blog answering the very question I raised.

It is an interesting piece in which Stephanie examines why she chose to write the book she did. It is well worth a read, so get on over there and read it!

Why Historical Fantasy? by Stephanie Churchill


Friday, 16 September 2016

What Annie Whitehead Learnt when Researching her Anglo-Saxon Novels

This month in the "What I Learnt..." series is author, Annie Whitehead. Like me, Annie writes novels set in the Anglo-Saxon period, albeit later in history.

Annie is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now. She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. Annie has also recently been involved in a project re-imagining the events of 1066, called 1066 Turned Upside Down. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the English Historical Fictions Authors blog.

What Annie Whitehead Learnt when Researching her Anglo-Saxon Novels


1. That flour dust is highly flammable. 

Writing a particular scene, I wanted a fire, or better still, some kind of explosion, but I knew that, for that very reason, smithies/smiths’ forges were kept away from the main buildings. Fumes from metals might have bothered jewellery makers, occasionally causing them to be overcome or even unconscious, but that was too specific. I got in touch with Dr Kevin Leahy, (National Adviser, Early Medieval Metalwork -The Portable Antiquities Scheme):

“The danger with bellows is, I am afraid, rather mundane, if the hot gasses (and they would be very hot) were drawn back into the bellows that would set fire to the wood and leather bringing proceedings to an abrupt end. A simple flap, opened by the air pressure when the bellows are blowing, but shutting as air is drawn in ready for the next push would have solved the problem. If you are looking for a loud noise in the Anglo-Saxon period thunder is probably a better bet.

‘If you are looking at a man-made explosion these did occur in flour-mills during the Middle-Ages and it may have occurred during the late Saxon period. The suspension of fine flour in air is a highly explosive mixture which could be set off by a candle or a bearing of a wheel running hot. I suppose an Anglo-Saxon water powered mill is less likely to run away than a wind-mill (supposedly introduced during the Crusades) but in any event the explosive mixture would have been present.”

I had my interesting fact, and I had my pivotal scene!

Interior of a watermill.
2. That there was a thing called the ‘Eavesdrip.’

I had a scene where a newborn infant died and I didn’t want to assume that, a la Victorian novels, babies were not allowed to be buried in cemeteries without undergoing baptism. I contacted my erstwhile tutor and Anglo-Saxon specialist, Ann Williams:

“The only reference I can find is in John Blair (The Church in Anglo-Saxon England, p471). There he observes that the later infant burials in the graveyard at Raunds, Northants (one of the few to have been thoroughly excavated) encroached on the reserved strip of land closest to the walls of the church; and in a footnote (201) says that ‘this looks like a case of the widespread practice of burying infants under the ‘eavesdrip’ and refers to Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in pre-modern Europe p216, ‘for the idea that water running off the church roof conveyed some kind of posthumous baptism.’ It kind of makes sense!”

I was able to write a fitting end to the scene and lay the tragic infant to rest.

Anglo-Saxon Church” attribution - G. Baldwin Brown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


3. That novelists end up chasing the tiniest facts, just to get it ‘right’.

Could my character describe another as having almond-shaped eyes, I wondered? Were almonds known to the Anglo-Saxons? I learned that yes, they were, but they were new and exotic and definitely ‘foreign’. Debby Banham, historian and author of Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England, says:

“Almonds and pine-nuts are mentioned very occasionally in the medical texts, but there are no archaeological finds … it is possible that they were just names, and never really used … however, they could have been imported in small quantities as part of the spice trade without making any impression on the archaeological record. Only the rich would have access to imported nuts.”

I suppose they were the Beluga Caviar or Kopi Luwak Coffee of the age!

Almond Plant

4. How vellum is made.

Writer Hugh Scott talks about verisimilitude and whilst I don’t quite agree with his definition, he says you have to “slap your reader with detail that he wouldn’t think of for himself.” Rather than simply mentioning that there was a pile of vellum on the table, I wanted a different detail. I learned how calf hides are softened in a lime solution before the bristly hair is scraped off with a really sharp knife, a process known as ‘scudding’. The skins are then stretched out on a frame known as a ‘herse.’ I learned all this just so I could have a character walking past the frames. But I thought this would be more interesting and a better setting of the scene than to mention the vellum sitting in the scriptorium waiting to be written on.

Charter of King Eadwig (Edwy) AD956

5. That, paradoxically, fiction turns historical figures into real people.

I have studied the Anglo-Saxon charters and other primary sources for many years, but it became a much more personal enterprise when I began writing about these people as characters. Above in the (vellum) document, Aelfhere of Mercia’s name is clearly visible. The fusion of the historical person with my fictional character was enlightening and very satisfying.

Pictures attribution: Watermill, copyright Annie Whitehead. All other images public domain unless stated otherwise.

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Sunday, 21 August 2016

REVIEW: The Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt

The Cunning Woman's CupThe Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought 'The Cunning Woman's Cup' some time ago when I realised it was set on the border of Scotland, in the tiny village of Duddo in Northumberland. The standing stones on the cover are ancient and are mentioned briefly in my own writing about the area, and I used to live near there too, so I was intrigued by the setting.

At first I thought the novel would be historical fiction about a cunning woman (or witch) from long ago, and there are elements of this in the book. But the main story is set in modern day and I have to admit this put me off reading it for a while, thinking it would not be "my kind of thing". How wrong I was. I loved this book.

However, whilst the interlinking story of the woman from Roman times with the lives of the present-day characters is well done and clever, it is not the highlight of the novel for me.

The real joy of this story are the characters. Hewitt has created a thoroughly engaging cast of people who seem totally real. I was enthralled by their tragedies and conflicts - some great, some minor - but all told with a total conviction and a poignant sensitivity.

'The Cunning Woman's Cup' is nothing like the books I usually read. There is no real action, no battles and derring do, and the main characters are elderly women, but I could not put it down as Hewitt paints a vivid picture of the passing of an era in British rural life. Many themes are investigated, from grief, love, the pressures of modern life and consumerism, to the erosion of beliefs and respect for the old ways of village existence.

This is a wonderful read. An aching tale of loss, friendship, the permanence of the past and how life is best spent surrounded by loved ones.

View all my reviews

REVIEW: Oswiu: King of Kings by Edoardo Albert

Oswiu: King of Kings (The Northumbrian Thrones #3)Oswiu: King of Kings by Edoardo Albert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 'Oswiu: King of Kings', Edoardo Albert brings to vivid life the battle for the land and souls of the British people in the seventh century. Albert tells an epic tale of kings and queens, omens and shieldwalls, where the future of a people was decided as much through the guile of its priests as the strength of its warlords.

Edoardo Albert deftly weaves the threads of a memorable cast of characters into the weft and warp of a vibrant tapestry of war, mystery and intrigue. Yet the true strength of 'Oswiu: King of Kings', is in the depiction of the effects of conflict on the men and women of the Dark Ages, as Albert reminds us there is much more to conquest than the ringing clash of swords.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 20 August 2016

REVIEW: The Scribe's Daughter by Stephanie Churchill

The Scribe's DaughterThe Scribe's Daughter by Stephanie Churchill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With The Scribe's Daughter, Stephanie Churchill gives us the foundations for a compelling fantasy series, with a sassy, engaging heroine.

The book is written in first person, from the perspective of young Kassia, who becomes embroiled in all manner of political intrigues, fights and flights from pursuits, as the novel progresses. There is a lot of action with Kassia's backstory slowly revealed as the plot unfolds. The world that Churchill has built is believable and interesting, though I have to admit, I don't really understand the creation of a different world where nothing is substantially different from a pseudo-medieval Europe. If there is no magic or dragons or something else that doesn't exist on Earth, why not set it in the real world at some interesting point in history? This felt at times like historical fiction masquerading as fantasy, or perhaps vice versa. Having said that, the setting did not detract from the story or my enjoyment of the book, and Churchill has created a rich world, with a real sense of realism.

The plot trips along at a fair old pace, with Kassia being confronted with one obstacle after another. Churchill's writing is excellent, with many an elegant turn of phrase. The writing seemed to get more assured and the characters stronger in definition as the book progressed, but speaking from my own experience of writing, I think that is often the case with debut novels.

The Scribe's Daughter is a great debut from a very talented new author. The story is fast-paced and exciting, with enough twists and turns to keep readers entertained, but Stephanie Churchill's outstanding achievement is her protagonist, Kassia, a heroine with a uniquely sarcastic and lively voice who you will root for and feel like you know after the first few pages of the novel.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

What Cynthia A. Graham learnt while researching for Beulah's House of Prayer

Next in the "What I Learnt..." series is Cynthia A. Graham. She is the winner of several writing awards, including a Gold IPPY and a Midwest Book Award for Beneath Still Waters. Cynthia is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the St. Louis Writers’ Guild, the Missouri Writers’ Guild, and Sisters in Crime. Her latest book, Beulah’s House of Prayer, is her first foray in the land of magical realism.


What Cynthia Graham learnt while researching for Beulah's House of Prayer


The past has always been fascinating to me because I never felt like it was some distant, forgotten time. It surrounds me, influences me, it contains the building blocks of who I am and where I’ve come from, it is everywhere. My family has always been a family of story. My dad was a master storyteller, relaying to me tales of his own childhood and those of his ancestors. Stories of covered wagons, twisters, music, and chopping cotton filled my thoughts and dreams.

 I grew up reading the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and when I matured devoured every novel by Jane Austen and any sister with the surname Bronte. While the stories they wrote were contemporary for their time, I was struck with the fact that our basic human needs and desires have not changed over the decades or centuries.  These authors helped me to fall in love with the mannerisms and the hardships of the past.

The Great Depression has always intrigued me, perhaps because I have known people who actually lived through it and have seen firsthand how it changed them. Their experiences colored their lives and the way they looked at the world forever. I suppose I wrote Beulah’s House of Prayer because so much of the American mystique regarding the Depression is defined by John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. But not everyone who lived through this time was a Joad -- an Okie traveling from home to try their hand in another place. In fact, the majority of Oklahomans stayed behind and these were the people who fired my imagination. I wanted to learn about them, why they stayed and what they suffered.


The Oklahoma Panhandle, where I set Beulah’s House of Prayer, was particularly devastated by the “Dust Bowl” days. It is easier to see the big picture when it comes to dust storms -- those eerie black and white photos of enormous clouds swallowing up houses -- than it is to understand the everyday nuisance and the absolute misery these storms created.  It is nearly impossible to comprehend how difficult it was to keep the dust out of a house. It had to be carried outside with a shovel after every storm. Towels and washcloths were wetted and placed in window sills to keep the dust from seeping in. Spiders, centipedes, and other insects sought shelter inside of homes and people would often wake to find them in bed.

It was also impossible to keep the dust off of and out of bodies. It is strange to think that something so seemingly benign could be deadly, but inhaled it caused dust pneumonia, an often lethal disease. To try and combat this, the Red Cross distributed Vaseline to citizens, instructing them to rub it in their nostrils to try and keep the lungs clear. But the dust was stealthy; it crept through masks, nestled in shirt pockets, and filled ears. It was impossible to escape.

Every day living was tedious and difficult. The storms were powerful enough to cause car batteries to short out leaving motorists stranded and they created the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire. Even a doorknob could deliver a considerable shock if the storm packed enough energy. Day after dust-filled day blotted the sun and eventually killed livestock and choked creeks and rivers.

But, above all, I believe these dust storms wore away at the fortitude of those living through them. They were soul killing. The mental and emotional toll caused by the constant monotony of storms, cleaning up, and hunger was staggering.  While some died from the dust outright, in the form of pneumonia or exposure, there was a hidden death toll in alcoholism and suicide. Those who didn’t succumb lived on prairie chickens and jackrabbits but they survived. And the heroism in this simple act of survival, in enduring one of the worst natural disasters in recent history, was what I sought to honor with Beulah’s House of Prayer.

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Keep up to date with Cynthia online: 

www.cynthiaagraham.com

@cynthiaa_graham

Buy Cynthia's books:

Beulah’s House of Prayer

Beneath Still Waters

Behind Every Door