Thursday, 15 June 2017

What Ruadh Butler learnt writing Lord of the Sea Castle

Today's guest blog post in the "What I Learnt..." series comes from historical fiction author, Ruadh Butler. Ruadh as born in County Derry at the height of the Troubles. A degree in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Ulster, as well as study in Virginia and London, couldn't entice him into a life of scientific research, but to keep the wolf from the door he worked in laboratories, in newsrooms, and in bars. He even tried his hand as a soldier, musician, security guard and lifeguard during his twenties. Ruadh lives in Northern Ireland and Lord of the Sea Castle is the second novel in his Invader series.


I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Lord of the Sea Castle. It's a great read. Here's what I said about it:

"From tourneys to treachery; from Welsh Marches to Irish marauders, Ruadh Butler propels us into the tumultuous times of the twelfth century. The clangour of swords and battle cries of knights echo from the pages of 'Lord of the Sea Castle', as Butler tells a gripping tale with skill, verve and gusto."

What Ruadh Butler Learnt writing LORD OF THE SEA CASTLE


1. You can still visit ruins built by the Normans in 1170.

My new novel, Lord of the Sea Castle, takes place in the summer of 1170 and follows directly the events of Swordland. This book charts the activities of a small advance force of some 120 men (and one woman) that cross the Irish Sea in order to build a bridgehead and prepare the way for an invasion by a Welsh baron named Strongbow. Led by the wonderfully named Raymond the Fat, the historic figure upon whom my lead character is based, they immediately began constructing a defensible position on a headland called Dun Domhnall in south County Wexford. I had the pleasure of visiting the site (which is now called Baginbun) a few summers ago as part of my research and was amazed to find that the earthworks his men had built almost a millennia ago were still visible. And what a construction! The wooden palisade which had once topped the double entrenchments would’ve disappeared or been stolen soon after 1170, but the bulwarks still soared over my head, running between the sea cliffs for two hundred yards or so. It was not difficult to stand atop those dramatic ruins, in that wind swept place, and imagine what it might’ve been like to be a Norman invader beset on all sides by enemies and pounded by the weather off the ocean. Given the importance of the campaigns that followed I admit to wondering if the site deserved better than a mere sign noting the date of Raymond’s arrival.

Baginbun Head with the Norman earthworks running east-west between the two beaches at the narrowest point in the headland.

2. Irish names can be tough!

While Ireland was an easily accessible place for traders from across Europe in the Age of Invasions it nonetheless remained, culturally at the very least, an alien place to those from the Romanised world of Christendom (as well as to us now in the western world). This is perhaps most readily seen in the difficulties pronouncing the non-Anglicised versions of places and people. Where does one start when attempting Máel Sechlainn Ua Fhaolain, Donnchadh Ua Riagháin and Máelmáedoc Ua Riagain?! They are certainly confusing, but to go with ‘Connor’ rather Conchobar or ‘Rory’ rather than Ruaidhrí would be for me to lose an immediate and easy access to what the Normans experienced when they first arrived in medieval Ireland. That is the distinct and very real feeling of unease with the unfamiliar. My desire is to transport and immerse the reader in the twelfth century and I hope that this small ruse helps that cause! In Lord of the Sea Castle, the second instalment of the Invader Series, readers will be introduced to the world of the Ostmen. They were the descendants of the Viking Norse and Danes who had founded the great cities of Ireland such as Waterford and Dublin in the ninth and tenth centuries. A three hundred year old and unique culture by 1170, the Ostmen retained many of the customs of their Scandinavian ancestors, mingling them with Gaelic beliefs adopted from the natives. It was against them that the full force of the Norman war machine would be directed. So rather than names like Diarmait we will have to contend with Sigtrygg and instead of Osraighe we visit places as easy to remember as Veðrarfjord and Strangrfjord!

3. The Normans were the first proponents of Ikea-style self-assembly wares.

They were the descendants of Scandinavians after all! However, the Norman version of Ikea products was less about furniture for inside the house and rather more about exteriors. They brought ready-to-assemble wooden castles with them whenever their sights settled upon a new land to conquer. Many of these fortifications were subsequently rebuilt in stone, but when they first took England, swarmed across Wales, and later invaded Ireland they erected motte and bailey castles. Speed of assembly was essential. The castle was the greatest weapon that the Normans had to help them survive beyond the frontier in hostile terrain and so in preparation they cut and numbered timber boards and trunks to bring with them. With these they formed the lower portion of the castle, the bailey, bringing all they had with them inside and secure. The longer process – the building of the high earth hillock, the motte, and the digging of a defensive ditch – could then begin safe in the knowledge that their horses and supplies were behind a sturdy barricade. While it is not recorded whether the men who invaded Ireland brought a ready-made castle with them to Ireland, they did leave remnants of their work for us to see. In a bend of the River Slaney at Ferrycarrig just outside Wexford Town, the first invader of Ireland, Robert FitzStephen, built his castle. While that fortress has long since disappeared, you can still visit its location and the castle reconstruction at the Irish National Heritage Park.


4. It was the Welsh bow, rather than the Norman lance, that really conquered Ireland.

From the very early days of their invasion of Wales the Normans had fallen in love with the natives’ most deadly weapon, the longbow. The Lords of the March soon began employing Welshmen into their armies and quickly found out how effective they could be when deployed in combination with Norman cavalry. Needless to say when the time came for a new adventure across the Irish Sea the Norman lords made sure they had archers from Gwent on their side.

At the Siege of Baginbun in 1170, Raymond the Fat’s force of 120 was almost two-thirds made up of archers with only a handful of the heavy cavalrymen we consider so characteristic of the Normans of the period. The remainder, usually treble that of the heavy cavalry, was made of ‘half-armoured’ horsemen believed to be esquires or apprentice knights. The same structure would continue to be used by the Cambro-Normans throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and would remain all most irresistible even when the invaders were outnumbered many times over in a hundred different battles against the Gael and the Ostmen.

Picture taken looking down between the earthworks at Baginbun Head in Wexford. They were constructed by Raymond the Fat in 1170.

5. The final conquest of Ireland by the English crown came as a result of the murder of Thomas Becket.

The invasion of Ireland began as a private enterprise undertaken, not by the state or a king, but by individuals. The first to try their luck in 1169 were the Geraldines, a family from west Wales linked through their shared kinship to the famed Nest, daughter of the last King of Deheubarth, and led by Robert FitzStephen. This clan had been considered all but outside the control of the centralised state created by King Henry II of England. In Ireland they no longer felt the need to make even token acknowledgement to the throne as overlord. They found freedom beyond the frontier. The Geraldines were followed to Ireland by Strongbow. Though a rich landowner in Wales, he had been exiled from the royal court for fifteen years and was suffering under the financial and social constraints imposed by his disgrace. In Ireland he sought a crown of his own. King Henry feared that he might succeed and raise a rival Norman state in Ireland. He feared the potential drain on his warriors and the threat to his western borders. He feared losing control. But Henry II was not the sort of man to waste money on military escapades. His campaigns were more often led by lawyers and justices and fought with court decrees rather than sword and steed in glorious battle. His first attempt to derail Strongbow and the Geraldines was to ban shipping to Ireland from all English ports. Without supplies or hope of reinforcement from their homeland, the Norman adventurers only just managed to maintain their hold over their new lands. Little did the adventurers realise, but the murder of Becket in December 1170 would bring about an end to their, and by extension Ireland’s, independence.

According to some sources, Pope Adrian IV had issued a Papal Bull in 1155 granting governance of Ireland to Henry II in return for his enforcement of Papal reforms on the island. However, the king, having only just taken the throne, had his hands full imposing control over his unruly subjects in England and put a pin in the idea. Fifteen years later, when Henry found himself under the threat of excommunication by Pope Alexander III following Becket’s murder, and with a sudden and very real need to absent himself from England, the king remembered Pope Adrian’s Bull. Bringing the hitherto self-governing Irish Church (particularly all the associated revenues and profits) back under the auspices of the Church of Rome was, Henry considered, something that might just put in back in the good graces of the pope. It was even worth the great expense of putting an army in the field overseas, the miserly king reckoned. But of course there remained another reason for him to take a force of 4,000 men across the sea: Strongbow and the Geraldines. The price of appeasing King Henry in October 1171 was a heavy one for the insubordinate adventurers to pay. Strongbow was forced to give up the cities of Waterford and Dublin in order to retain the rest of Leinster. The Geraldines fared worse. They lost all their hard won Irish estates while their leader, Robert FitzStephen, was imprisoned for several months by the king. The Irish princes and chieftains probably thought that they had a good deal when they made their submission before the might of King Henry. Little did they know that in the decades to follow Henry and his sons would use this compliance as an excuse to award their kingdoms to Norman knights in need of reward.

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Thursday, 1 June 2017

KILLER OF KINGS - It's publication day!

The wait is finally over!

KILLER OF KINGS is published today by Aria, an imprint of Head of Zeus.


AD 636. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fourth instalment in The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.

When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms, Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.

In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?

As part of the release activity, there is going to be a KILLER OF KINGS Blog Tour next week, where you can read reviews, extracts and Q&As.



KILLER OF KINGS is available as both e-book and paperback from all good online stores.

I hope you enjoy Beobrand's continuing adventures, and after you've read KILLER OF KINGS, please leave a review online.

Thanks!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The inspiration behind the Bernicia Chronicles

This post originally appeared as part of the KIN OF CAIN blog tour on Parmenion Books.

The inspiration behind the Bernicia Chronicles


Writers and other creative types are often asked what inspired them to create their work. In the case of my Bernicia Chronicles series of books, it’s a very difficult question to answer succinctly. I suppose sometimes a single moment in an artist’s life inspires them to paint a specific picture, or to put pen to paper, but more often than not, I would imagine that it is an accumulation of many influences that leads to somebody creating something new.

This is particularly true of the first of my novels, The Serpent Sword. I had never written anything longer than a short story or an essay at school before, so I had no real idea of how to go about writing a full-length novel. I didn’t even know how long a novel was supposed to be! When I came to the writing, I pulled on everything I had ever experienced, every movie I’d enjoyed, every book that had enthralled me, even all the great music I had listened to. I am sure that even things like video games and artwork have influenced me and provided inspiration for certain scenes or characters.

I am a firm believer that the best way to approach any new endeavour is to emulate those who have gone before and have been successful. I have heard the great author, Bernard Cornwell, tell the story of how he took his favourite Hornblower novel and then analysed its structure to create the plot for his first novel, Sharpe’s Eagle. For The Serpent Sword, I didn’t dissect any books I had liked in order to come up with the structure, but there are definitely well-loved characters and scenes that I recognise from other sources. Much of this was done subconsciously, and I didn’t even realise it at the time of writing. Some of the inspiration and influences for parts of the novel have only become clear to me years after completing the writing. There are even clearly autobiographical sections that I didn’t spot until quite recently.


A few weeks ago, I listened to the audio book of David Gemmell’s great debut novel, Legend. I first read Legend when it was published in the 80s. I was a fantasy-loving teenager and I just lapped it up. I enjoyed it just as much on this recent listen, but what surprised me were the number of sections where I thought to myself, “Wow! That’s just like a scene from The Serpent Sword!” Clearly Gemmell’s novel had soaked so deeply into my psyche that I was not even aware of how it had inspired parts of my writing.


There are some parts of my writing where I have knowingly used something I have read, seen or heard as inspiration. I love westerns and the whole section in The Serpent Sword where Beobrand and some other warriors chase miscreants across the wilderness of Northumbria is an homage of sorts to the western genre, in particular to a section of one of my all-time favourite novels, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.


I’m not going to give away all of the nods and mentions of other books and popular culture in the series, but if you look carefully you might well find quotes or references to science fiction movies and rock songs, along with more homages to famous westerns.

Of course, another massive inspiration for the books is the land of Northumbria itself. As a child I lived in a small village call Norham on the banks of the Tweed, which you may well recognise if you’ve read the series. I love the north-east coast of England. The cliffs, castles and islands dotting the slate-grey North Sea, all serve to make the past spring to life. It is easy to imagine the men and women of 1,400 years ago on those same windswept bluffs with the guillemots and gannets wheeling and diving into the sea. They too would have seen the heads of seals bobbing in the waves in the mouth of the river Tweed. The chill spray from the breaking waves would have felt the same to our forebears as to us. I find nature a great inspiration and a wonderful way to get close to the characters from my books. In fact, I think the weather and nature almost become another character in my writing.


Finally, another strong inspiration for me came from all those hours playing good old fashioned role playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons. You know, the ones with all the weird shaped dice? I loved creating epic stories with friends. Tales of heroes facing unimaginable odds against terrible foes. Unlike in my books, which are firmly grounded in historical fact, in the games I played there were monsters and magic. But even as a teenager I knew it was very important to maintain a consistent and believable reality within the story. And real jeopardy. Many kids at school would never allow beloved characters to get killed. In my games, if the dice didn’t go your way, or you made a rash decision, you were dead.


In my writing, I like to think I bring that same element of epic adventure and heroism that can be found in role playing games, but also the true sense of danger I found so appealing. Just because a character is well-loved, does not mean he or she will live forever. Sometimes their very death can be a tale of greatness.

Everything and anything acts as inspiration for my writing. Some of it knowingly, much of it unwitting. I plan my novels around a loose structure and synopsis, but the details of each scene and chapter are always undecided until I sit down to write. Then I just try to picture the scene in my mind and write as fast as I can. Where the ideas come from, well, we can call that an accumulation of life experience coupled with a vivid imagination.

But surely it is more poetic to call it that most elusive of things at a writer’s disposal — the muse.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

What Louise Turner learnt when writing historical fiction set in late medieval Scotland

It has been a while since the latest "What I Learnt..." guest post, but I am delighted to welcome to the blog novelist, Louise Turner.

Born in Glasgow, writing has always been a major aspect of Louise's life and at a young age she won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition. Her second novel, The Gryphon at Bay, which follows on from the events described in her first novel, Fire & Sword, is set in late 15th century Scotland and was published by Hadley Rille Books in March 2017.



What Louise Turner learnt while writing historical fiction set in late medieval Scotland

I came late to historical fiction.  I started out as a reader (and writer!) of science fiction. I first studied Archaeology at university as an interest-based subject because I thought it might help me write better science fiction. I soon became passionate about prehistory, to the point where I specialised in archaeology as an undergrad before continuing my studies at a postgraduate level, focusing in particular in Bronze Age metalwork hoards.

At that point, I regret to say that I had absolutely no interest in anything from the Claudian invasion of AD 43 onwards. My excuse at the time was that there was something lacking in the material culture of the Roman period, and I’d cite as examples the fluid ingenuity of La Tene metalwork as opposed to the regimented mass-produced consumerism of Samian ware... No doubt this attitude was only reinforced by the fact that I dropped history early on in school, so I could concentrate on geography.

With this kind of background, you may wonder what on earth possessed me to write a historical novel in the first place. At first, the motives were entirely self-serving. I was coming to the end of a short-term contract working for the local authority archaeology service, so I decided to find myself a writing project to keep me occupied in the downtime before my next contract.  Historical fiction seemed to be quite a good way to combine writing and archaeology, so I decided to give it a try.  I mean, how hard could it possibly be?

I soon realised that I knew very little about Scottish history.  Though born and raised in Scotland, I’d learned virtually nothing about our nation’s past at school. In fact, the only way I’d ever experienced medieval Scotland was archaeologically.  I’d worked on several important urban sites, but only at site assistant level. From this meagre experience I’d learned that Scottish medieval archaeology could be summarised by burgage plots and backlands, green-glazed pottery and oyster shells.

This gave some kind of a grounding, I suppose, and initial research at the local level soon revealed the kernel of a story. I’d stumbled across John, 1st Lord Sempill, a fairly unprepossessing minor baron who’d lived in the late 15th century and died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Right away,  I noticed something odd about his life story: he was made a Lord of Parliament just a year after his father died fighting for the losing side at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488, the battle which left King James III dead and his son James IV upon the throne.

Of course, at this point, I’d never even heard of the Battle of Sauchieburn. So there followed a very intense course of swotting up on Scotland’s past, a process which has, quite literally, changed my life. It’s easy to be secure in the assumption that Scotland’s past is simple, cut and dried.  The Scots fought the English, they got gubbed.  And so, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

But it’s not like that. Not at all. Scotland’s history is rich and complex, and it’s well worth wandering off the beaten track in an effort to find out something new.  My fictional biography of John, 1st Lord Sempill did just that, rapidly transforming into a complex, twisting tale of intrigue and political manoeuvring. What began in Fire & Sword has recently been continued in The Gryphon at Bay and that’s not the end of it, either. What I’ve learned from this is that I don’t have to go to England or Florence to get caught up in the personalities or the complexity of the past, it’s happening right here, literally on my doorstep!


This moment of epiphany was, of course, just the starting point for a long journey of discovery.  It’s impossible to write about politics without understanding more about the people. Late 15th century Scotland is quite a tough call, in a way, because there are large gaps in the record. Perhaps that’s why there’s a tacit understanding amongst modern readers that Scotland – compared to England, say, or Italy – was backward and regressive.

I was equally guilty of making such assumptions at first.  But the more I find out about late medieval and Renaissance Scotland (because this process is still ongoing...), the more I realise that it was in fact a country which punched above its weight in a cultural sense. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the court of James IV allowed the creative genius of composers like Robert Carver and poets like Robert Henryson to flourish.  Architecturally, Scotland achieved great things, but its achievements in the design and execution of high status secular buildings (such as Holyrood or Linlithgow Palace) tend to be overshadowed by Henry VIII’s and Cardinal Wolsey’s achievements south of the border.  Scotland’s merchants were in with the bricks and mortar in important trading centres like Middelberg and Antwerp. And our rulers were Renaissance men to be proud of: James IV - remembered best for his untimely end at Flodden – was in fact an educated, articulate man who dabbled in astrology, dentistry and linguistics.  He also invested heavily in cutting edge military technology, financing the construction of Europe’s largest warship, the Great Michael.

In short, Scotland was not a backwater.  Scotland was a small player, perhaps.  But as a nation, she tried very hard to be up there with the big boys.  As for the, savage, uncultured Scots...  Well, documentary evidence tells us that royal decrees were required during the 15th century to try and prevent Scotland’s urban populations frittering away all their wealth on the medieval equivalent of designer clothing. They liked to look good. They had a penchant for claret, and altogether, they seem to have been quite a sophisticated bunch.


But ambitions at the national level were constrained by what was happening locally, and this was where I made one of my most exciting discoveries.  Just about everything that was reported locally as an episode of small scale violence and local feud was a response to something much larger, an echo of grievances and differences being played out in Edinburgh, where the king and his government were largely based.

For example, one of the recurring themes in my novels is the feud between the Montgomerie and the Cunninghame families, which culminated much later in the cold-blooded murder of the 4th Earl of Eglinton during the 1580s. While this tends to be dismissed as an ongoing clash between a succession of personalities who just couldn’t put their differences aside and get along together, the truth is much more interesting. Between the 1480s and the 1540s, the Montgomeries were led by the hawkish, uncompromising Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie (later 1st Earl of Eglinton) who served as a Privy Councillor and was briefly appointed Vice-Regent of Scotland by James V. Hugh was 87 years old when he died, and during his life, he’d been ruled by five different monarchs: James II, James III, James IV, James V and Mary.  That’s actually quite mind-blowing, especially when you’re trying to balance this realisation against the fact that we always see life in the past as being nasty, brutish and short.

Hugh murdered a few folk in his time, and yet at the same time, he appears to have been one of the first secular, non-royal householders in the west of Scotland to have window glass installed at his residence, Eglinton Castle. All this suggests a level of sophistication (and wealth) which we wouldn’t necessarily expect from your average late medieval/early post-medieval Scottish nobleman.

Balanced against this evidence of conspicuous consumption on the part of the wealthy, I’ve been intrigued to learn that the society we dismiss as ‘medieval’ was in fact tightly regulated in order to help protect the poor and disenfranchised from exploitation. The burgh councils did their best to impose trading standards, stipulating the size and quality of loaves and fining dodgy tradesmen. I’m sure the system wasn’t perfect, and that corruption was rife amongst the ruling classes, but at least they were trying to make things equitable and fair.

I suppose what this whole process has taught me more than anything is that Scotland’s history remains very much underappreciated and unknown, and that, if you ask me, is a great pity. But there have been some other, unexpected, surprises, too. Born in Glasgow of Welsh parents, for years I’d always felt a bit of an outsider.  My friends used to think I sounded ‘English,’ and my Welsh relatives used to say I spoke ‘proper Scots.’  I can’t read or write in Scots, and I don’t expect many of my readers can, either. So I translate narrative and dialogue into something which I consider to be English.

But the thing is: it’s not really English.  The way I speak, and write, is full of idioms that I couldn’t erase if I tried. I’m always using Scots words like ‘burgess’ (as opposed to ‘burgher,’) ‘tron’ (the burgh weighing machine), ‘laverock’ (skylark) and even ‘outwith,’ which I’m told is peculiarly Scottish parlance. So yes, after all these years of assuming I’m an outsider, I’ve now learned that I am, actually, Scottish. The country of my birth has shaped me, made me who and what I am today.

It’s been quite a journey, and it’s taken me a long, long way from burgage plots and backlands, green-glazed pottery and oyster shells….

Louise Turner
March 2017

Buy Louise Turner's books on Amazon:


UK:
Gryphon at Bay
Fire and Sword

US:
Gryphon at Bay
Fire and Sword

Connect with Louise:

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Thursday, 23 March 2017

What the future holds for me and my writing

This post originally appeared as part of the KIN OF CAIN blog tour on David's Book Blurg blog.

What the future holds for me and my writing

If you’d asked me four years ago what the future held for me and my writing I would have said I hope to find an agent and then get published. In February 2013 I was close to finishing the first draft of my debut novel, The Serpent Sword. I’d never written anything longer than a few hundred words before and I could see no further than completing the book and somehow getting it out in front of readers who hopefully would like it. That was it. I really had no ambition beyond that, apart, of course, from the secret dream of selling millions of books and becoming rich enough to retire to a tropical island somewhere. But we won’t talk about that.


So much has changed in the last four years. I finished The Serpent Sword and found an agent. I then wrote the sequel, The Cross and the Curse, while my newly-acquired agent tried to sell the first book, and, unfortunately, failed. This failure pushed me to self-publish both books, whilst pressing on with the writing that had somehow become part of my life by this point. Both books were doing well and garnered many positive reviews. This finally piqued the interest of a publisher, so I signed a contract with Aria, a new imprint of publisher, Head of Zeus. Aria re-published the first two books and then published book three of the Bernicia Chronicles, Blood and Blade. They also managed to sell the rights for the three novels to Audible, who have now released the audio books for them, narrated by a great actor called Barnaby Edwards.


I have also written a prequel novella, Kin of Cain, which is out now, and completed book four in the Bernicia Chronicles, Killer of Kings, which is due out in June.

I am now well into the first draft of book five in the series, which will also be published by Aria, who have plans to release all the books in hardcover and mass market paperback in the coming months and years. I am even hearing talk of possible translations of the books in the works!


The point of this rambling on about the past and all the great things that have happened in the last four years is that I had no idea what would happen then, and I don’t really know what the future will bring in the next four years. But what I do know is that there will be more novels in the Bernicia Chronicles. Beobrand’s tale marches on into the seventh century and he will see more kings come and go. He will face his foes in the clash of shieldwalls in battles throughout the island of Albion and, who knows, perhaps even beyond its shores.

And when I decide to move on from Beobrand? When I am done with the mead hall and the shieldwall? What then? Well, I would love to write a western, but I am told there is no money in them. If I am ever close to living in my dream where I have enough money to write what I want and not care about how many people will read it, I will probably turn my hand to the American West. I can almost smell the rotgut whiskey and the pungent stench of gunpowder in the air of a rowdy cattle town when the ranchers and their cowhands have rolled in from the dusty trail. If you look carefully, you will see much of the so-called Wild West in the Bernicia Chronicles, but I would relish the chance to write at least one book set on the Frontier of civilization in the 19th century.


If, as is much more likely, I will have to write books that might sell and which appeal to readers of my books, I have an idea for a Viking saga, which actually has elements of a western in it. But I can say no more now, as it is just a twinkle in this author’s eye! It’s either that or romance, which my wife assures me sells better than the violent books I write. I’m not sure I would do very well at that, but I might have to think of pen name if I want to find out!

I am sometimes tempted to write a fantasy. I am a huge fan of writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and David Gemmell, so I have a firm understanding of the genre. And the thing that I like most about it, is that I would not have to stick to historical facts! In many ways, the stories I tell could easily be transposed into a word of epic fantasy. But as I am writing historical fiction, I am constrained by what is known to have happened, the technology available, and when things occurred. Oh, and no dragons or magic!


I would love the chance to be able to just create a plot and write whatever I wanted because I would be in total control and nobody could tell me I had got something wrong, as it would be my creation!

So, what of the future? I think we’ll have to wait and see. But if people keep buying my books, I think I can safely say I’ll continue to write them.

Hopefully others will enjoy whatever directions in which the muse takes me.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

KIN OF CAIN - Publication Day and Blog Tour!

KIN OF CAIN is published today by Aria, an imprint of Head of Zeus.


It's a prequel, standalone novella, that should please fans of The Bernicia Chronicles and also anyone wanting to check out my writing before picking up a full novel.


As part of the release activity, there is a KIN OF CAIN Blog Tour this week, where you can find reviews, extracts, interviews and guest blog posts.



Stops on the tour

1st March - Hoover Book Reviews
2nd March - Speesh Reads
3rd March - David's Book Blurg
4th March - Parmenion Books
5th March - For Winter Nights

KIN OF CAIN is available as both e-book and paperback from all good online stores.


I hope you enjoy it, and after you've read it, please leave a review online.

Thanks!

Sunday, 29 January 2017

What Stephanie Churchill Learnt while writing The Scribe's Daughter

Today, I am pleased to host a guest post from Stephanie Churchill, an author whose work I have talked about before on my blog. I reviewed her debut novel, The Scribe's Daughter, and later discussed her use of fantasy that is firmly embedded in historical reality.



Stephanie Churchill is a talented new voice, writing reality-based fantasy that reads like historical fiction. She is currently working on the sequel to The Scribe's Daughter, The King’s Daughter, which she hopes to release by the end of 2017.

"Woe is me. I think I'm turning into a god."


Contrary to the suggestion of Vespasian’s famous last words, no, I am not dying, and no, I am not turning into a god.  The quote is useful however, because it points to a very significant thing I learned while writing The Scribe’s Daughter, and its follow up, The King’s Daughter.  Or rather something I learned that I still need to learn.  That is, the problem of how to write effectively from the perspective of a limited character or reader while simultaneously being an omniscient, omnipotent author.  How do authors know how to unroll the scroll of mystery, doling out just enough clues along the way for the satisfaction of the reader while not giving too much away?

I didn’t set out to write a mystery.  I set out to write a character-driven, pseudo-historical book about a young woman who had a bad hand dealt to her.  (And if I’m honest, a series of bad hands repeated over and over through the book.)  The series of hardships and traumas she experiences grow her, develop her, turn her into a better version of herself than she was at the beginning of the book.  Never mind that writing a mystery was not a conscious decision.  The mysteries driving the plot became the tool to accomplish my main goal, the river in which Kassia swam in order to develop her character.  As Henry James said, “Plot is characters under stress.”



Since the element of mystery in my book caught me off guard, I wasn’t prepared to know how to approach the unraveling of those aspects as I wrote.  When I first sat down at my computer, I anticipated that the craft of writing involved nothing more than telling the tale as it unfolded before my eyes.  I found that it was much more complicated than this.  I realized that as the author, I know more than anyone else, and this knowledge had to be doled out slowly, carefully, and with much deliberation.

How subtle could I be?  How much could I rely on readers to catch?  If I made things too obvious, astute readers would grow bored.  I didn’t want to insult their intelligence.  On the other hand, if I remained overly obscure, readers on the other side of the spectrum might finish the book scratching their heads wondering how in the world that just happened, feeling blindsided and cheated.  As an author, you risk alienating one or the other audience.  Thus the necessity of careful, thoughtful deliberation.

It is difficult to know the beginning, middle, and end of a story as an omniscient author while writing it from the perspective of a person who is discovering the story as it unfolds – either as one of the characters or as a reader.  As the author, I had to constantly jump between broad plot arc, being the only one who could see the full parade from the helicopter above, and the “boots on the ground” parade float which can only see what’s just ahead.  I had to maintain notes along the way that reminded me who knew what at any point in the story.  At times I found myself writing dialogue only to delete and try again once I realized that this or that character couldn’t possibly know the thing I’d just made them say.  Not yet at least.

From a certain perspective, this job was slightly easier because I was only ever writing from the perspective of one person, Kassia.  I chose very deliberately to write this book in a first-person narrative.  This made the business of keeping straight who knew what at any given point much easier, I think.  But it still didn’t mean that other characters might not give things away in their conversations with Kassia.  How to realistically and authentically write dialogue for a character who knows a secret they are not willing to tell was one of the most difficult things I faced in the drafting and editing process.  How could Kassia quell her curiosity in the presence of the tight-lipped knower-of-things without wanting to throttle him or her to loosen their lips?  If you’ve read the book, you know Kassia would have been quite willing to throttle people!

I suppose authors who write primarily in the mystery genre handle the unraveling of a mystery in their prose often enough that it comes easily.  Maybe authors of formulaic stories do too.  But for me, holding a vast cosmos of an idea in my head – playing at being a god – while trying to mimic the more limited mind of a mere mortal, was a challenge that never left me.  As I write the second book, The King’s Daughter, the challenge is the same, and I’m not confident it will ever get easier for me.

To quote Disney’s 1992 animated movie Aladdin:

Aladdin: You're a prisoner?
Genie: It's all part and parcel, the whole genie gig.
[grows to a gigantic size]
Genie: Phenomenal cosmic powers!
[shrinks down inside the lamp]
Genie: Itty bitty living space! 

As an author, I often feel like I have phenomenal cosmic powers.  As a writer of fantasy I am not constrained by the historical record.  My characters can go and do what they want.  However, there are days that those powers must be tamed and subjected to the itty bitty living space of the plot and the necessity of pacing and good storytelling.  I don’t claim to have mastered this, but I have learned that I will need to work hard at it with every book.

“Woe is me.  I think I’m turning into a god.” – Vespasian 

To learn more about Stephanie, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page, or visit her webpage at www.stephaniechurchillauthor.com.

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Sunday, 22 January 2017

REVIEW: Legend by David Gemmell

Legend (The Drenai Saga, #1)Legend by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In interviews, when asked what my favourite books are, I always give Legend as one of my all time favourites. But I realised recently that I had not read it since it was first published when I was a teenager! So I decided to give it a re-read (actually a listen, as I managed to get my hands on an old audio book version).

What I discovered is that David Gemmell's debut novel is still as powerful today to my forty-five-year-old self as it was to fifteen-year-old me. It is an amazing tale of heroism, sacrifice, duty and love. It made me laugh and cry and swept me along towards the epic final battle like a literary tsunami.

Gemmell's writing is so powerful and seemingly effortless. He manages to give great depth to all of the characters that flit across the pages. The protagonists, from the implacable Druss, Master of the Axe, to Regnak, the unlikely hero, to the ascetic members of the Thirty, are drawn with great compassion and feeling. Even small, walk-on parts are given a backstory that explains who they are and what makes them tick, often to only see them cut down in defence of what they believe in a page later. Gemmell is able to make you feel attached to any character, whether hero or villain, in only a couple of lines.

The most surprising thing for me was how obviously the events described in this novel have influenced my own writing. I kept listening to pieces of the story and thinking, "Woah! That is just like that bit in my books...!" I have never knowingly copied any part of Gemmell's writing (or anyone else's for that matter!), but the influences are very clear if you know what you are looking for.

If you only ever read one of Gemmell's books, read this one. I don't think anyone has ever done fast-paced epic fantasy better than Gemmell, and Legend is arguably his best book.

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Saturday, 7 January 2017

REVIEW: The Maharajah's General by Paul Fraser Collard

The Maharajah's General (Jack Lark, #2)The Maharajah's General by Paul Fraser Collard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Fraser Collard's brilliant lovable rogue, Jack Lark, returns in this sequel to The Scarlet Thief. This time Lark finds himself in India, just before the terrible events of the Mutiny. Collard paints a colourful picture of the life of the British military in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is a strange life where the colonial British live in denial of the fact that they are surrounded by millions of Indians who do not relish being lorded over by these pasty, supercilious Europeans. The officers of the station where Jack is posted are as out of place in the dusty swelter of the Indian climate as Jack the impostor is out of place in the Officers' Mess.

The story is fast and furious, with the same kind of blood-splattering action that you would expect if you have read of Jack's previous adventures in the Crimea. Collard doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the horrors of war, and the set-piece battles are brutal and intense.

But it is not all blood, guts and the stench of gun powder. The tale is filled with twists and memorable, larger than life characters, from a villainous political officer, an exotic princess, the eponymous noble and honourable Maharajah, a spiteful and jealous lieutenant, and a lovely English rose, who blooms in the sultry Indian heat and captures more than one heart.

The Maharajah's General is a ripping yarn, and a satisfyingly energetic romp through a fictional Indian kingdom where Jack Lark once again shows he may not have been born into the officer class, but he can lead men with panache and vigour and he will not stand by and watch wrongdoing, whoever the culprit.

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REVIEW: The Flame of Resistance by Martin Lake

The Flame of Resistance (The Lost King, #1)The Flame of Resistance by Martin Lake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this, the first book in the Lost King series, Martin Lake explores the aftermath of the cataclysmic events of 1066. Lake has chosen to tell the tale from the perspective of Edgar Atheling, a character I barely knew existed and one that certainly deserves to have his story told.

The book is fast-paced and on more than one occasion I found myself wondering how Edgar was going to escape from some of the sticky situations in which he finds himself. In The Flame of Resistance, Martin Lake spins a ripping yarn of loyal huscarls, evil earls, proud kings, intrigue and pitched battles for the kingdom of England, bringing the late eleventh century to vivid life.


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