The Story So Far ...

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Interview - Nina Romano

Today I am delighted to welcome to the blog author Nina Romano, author of the Wayfarer Trilogy.

I began by asking her: ~ You write full length fiction and poetry. Do you keep these two very much separate, or do you find yourself working on both prose and poetry simultaneously?

I do keep them separate.  It seems I can hear only one whistle at a time.  I always have a poetry file going for each year and the poems are at different stages of development—so I have many drafts of the same poem.  When I receive an acceptance for a poem, I write a note of the date and in which journal or literary review it will appear.  But my head doesn’t gear up for a poetry collection unless I’ve put together a chapbook of poems around a theme or have a particular premise to cull from and many poems already published that will work as a unit

Fiction becomes sketched on a completely different canvas.  Two of my novels were born of published short stories, one from a treatment and a current one is from a novella.  

Speaking of short stories, how different is the discipline, compared to full length novels? Do you find one technique easier than the other? And when an idea comes to you, do you immediately know whether it will be a short story, or something longer?

This is a “loaded” and difficult question.  I haven’t written a short story in quite a while, but I did finish a novella a few weeks ago.    

Let me preface the answer by saying first that, for me, I think poetry is a gift from God.  Images, elevated language, strong nouns and verbs, rhythm, metaphors—they all come to me randomly and I put them down on paper—any paper, envelopes, bills, grocery lists, theater playbills—whatever.  Then I put those snatches of phrases or beginnings into a file by year. There I develop and revise them until I find the poem hidden within.  

In Grad school at Florida International University, I had a fabulous poetry professor and mentor, Campbell McGrath. He taught me to find the energy in the poem and go with it.  

I find short stories to be the hardest form of writing for me because of the compression.  Novels give you so much time to develop the story. I always wanted to be a novelist—it’s challenging and I get to follow my characters around for much longer—that’s why I love it. 

Ideas on the other hand, abound.  They’re all around us.  An idea, will present itself to me already in the genre it needs to find a home in—I’ll know—by the type of inspiration it is, if it’ll be part of a poem, or go into a short piece, or become a novel scene.  That inner knowledge is born from years of writing—years, and years, and years.  

Can you tell us about the Wayfarer Trilogy? What is the premise, and where did the idea come from?

In a word: Giacomo.  He is in all three of the novels and he is the character I was most challenged to write.  Giacomo is loosely drawn from my grandfather’s like.  He was in the Italian Navy and travelled to China as a sailor in the Boxer Rebellion.  Giacomo is the wayfarer, but in a sense all of my strong women characters in this trilogy are wayfarers also, in the sense that they’re all going, moving, traveling. The word WAYFARER comes from the Middle English weyfarere, from wey, way way plus farere—traveler, and from faren—to go.  The word’s first known use was in the 15th century.

Lian travels all over China to find her lover, Giacomo, in The Secret Language of Women.  
Angelica travels from her secure Sicilian family nest and the desire to protect herself from intimacy into the loving arms of Giacomo in Lemon Blossoms. And Marcella, Giacomo’s daughter in In America, travels the gamut of wanting to become a professional singer to the realization that she was born too soon and was destined, instead, to be a wife and mother.  

Obviously, since book three is published, there will be no more in the series. So what's next? Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’m still working on historical fiction and romance, but a completely different genre—Westerns. I’m devising a novel of the old west set between New Mexico and St. Louis, but because I’m a Gemini, I’m working on two novels at once.  And I think I’m falling in love with my character Luke Wolf, in Darby’s Decision (working title), and my protagonist, Cayo Bradley in the other—I’ve even written poems about him that can be found in my poetry collection: Westward: Guided by Starfalls and Moonbows.  

You've presented several times at the Miami Book Fair. What words of advice would you give any new or aspiring author thinking of going to their first book fair?

Appearing at the Miami Book Fair International is prestigious.  There’s no denying that.  It’s a great honor and privilege to present a book at the Fair. I thank Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books and Books and the founder of the Fair, for having offered me the opportunity to read and present five times from my poetry and fiction.  

While the Miami Book Fair itself is free except for sending in three copies of your book, here’s the truth.   I believe if you have an already established career and have a recognizable author name with a best-selling title, you will do well in sales, but if you are a beginner or midlist author, while you will have an audience, you should not expect to sell many copies.  

I’m going to be brutally honest here.  The majority of popular authors are fully funded by large publishers.  I think that the bulk of new authors are disappointed by the fact that they are not subsidized because they have small, independent publishers or are even self-published.  The bottom line is that attending readers save their pennies for those “bigwig” authors in order to have the books autographed by them.  

The question remains: who is footing the bill for travel, housing, meals, and expenses?  If it’s a big publisher, then go for it.  But if you’re not living in Florida then you must calculate the cost—is it worth the time, travel, effort and money plus the emotional cost of perhaps not selling many copies or not even selling one? And I think this probably applies to most books fairs.  

Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to speak with you.  I so appreciate it.

Thanks to Nina for taking the time to talk to me.
Find Nina: Amazon Author Page
Nina's Website

I've just heard today from Nina that: LEMON BLOSSOMS,Book #2 of the Wayfarer Trilogy, is a 2016 FOREWORD INDIES Book Award FINALIST. Thanks Foreword Reviews and Turner Publishing. Congratulations!

Monday, 13 March 2017

Writing to Music - Sarah Parke

For the latest in the Writing to Music series, I am delighted to hand over the blog to author Sarah Parke:~

Creating a Novel Mixtape

Listening to music is an important part of my creative process. I know a lot of writers who listen to music while writing and there seem to be two camps: those who write to instrumental music, and those who listen to music with words. There’s quite a bit of debate over whether lyrics distract the writer from their own words. Personally, I like my music wordy enough to drown out my nagging inner editor.

Music can also be a helpful tool in your writing toolbox.

Each time I begin a new novel project I spend hours “getting to know” the cast of characters I’ll be working with. I write out character sketches, conduct interviews, and locate photos that help me visualize my characters. I also create a mixtape or soundtrack with a song for each major character.

I wish I could claim the idea for a novel soundtrack as my own. But the idea came from my high school English teacher who once gave us an assignment to create a soundtrack for The Great Gatsby. It was the most fun I ever had with a school project, and I’ve adapted it to fit my needs as an author.

One of the things to consider for your novel’s mixtape is music genres. If your novel takes place in the Gothic South, you might want to limit your song selections to country music, blue grass, or Christian music. By contrast, if your novel’s setting is India under British Colonialism, your soundtrack might consist of Bollywood music and British waltzes. The point is, consider all the cultural and historical attributes of music.

My current novel is an alternative history for a Young Adult audience, so I find myself turning to the alternative rock genre. It was my preferred genre when I was an angsty teenager, but alternative music also deals with a lot of YA themes (love, heartbreak, disappointment, anger, and independence). The tempo (fast or slow) and mood (solemn vs. energetic) are important factors when choosing music for my novel’s mixtape, but the lyrics are more important for my purposes. I pay close attention to the words in a song, looking for particular lines or refrains that speak to my characters’ motivations, or a painful memories from their past.

As an example: My main character, Mallory, is a sixteen year old girl born with goat horns and hooves in an alternative version of Victorian England where Napoleon won the Coalition Wars using Dark Magic. She is an angry-loner type because London society shuns and fears her deformity. I chose “Pieces” by Sum 41 as Mallory’s song. It has an upbeat tempo, but conveys a message of loneliness and not fitting in. The line “I tried to be perfect / But nothing was worth it” is particularly appropriate for Mallory, who struggles to find her place between two worlds throughout the novel.
Pieces - Sum 41 (Youtube)
The novel’s anti-hero, Mallory’s uncle Archibald, is a fun character to write because he is a bit of a black hat with good intentions. Archibald is a recovering magic addict. The song I chose for him was “The Pretender” by Foo Fighters. The lyric “I’m the voice inside your head/ you refuse to hear / I’m the face that you have to face / mirrored in your stare” speaks to the two sides of Archibald’s psyche that are warring with each other.
The Pretender - Foo Fighters (Youtube)
The right song creates an almost immediate connection to a specific character for me, helping me to “hear” a character’s voice when I’m writing dialogue or emotionally intense scenes. This sense of connection is especially important when I am dipping in and out of drafting mode in 20 minutes sprints during a long week of working full time. Sometimes all it takes for me to fall back into the grip of a scene is to listen to some songs from my novel’s soundtrack.

Music can also help your story’s pacing. If you’ve ever watched a horror film and gotten that fluttering sensation in the pit of your stomach as the character on screen walks down a dark hallway, you can thank effective sound design for your anxiety! Movie and television soundtracks are meant to convey tension without words and they can help improve the pacing of your scenes.

My current novel project has several fast-paced fight scenes. Oftentimes I’ll reread a “quick” scene and find it overly wordy. Then I’ll read over the scene with a fast-paced song playing in the background and I find myself cutting words and tightening sentences. A frenetic tempo forces me to write shorter sentences; abrupt banter; quick paragraphs. The pace of my writing conforms to the pace of the music. It’s a great revision strategy!

The internet has made it easier than ever before to search for free music and create playlists. The following sites require you to sign up for a free account, but you can stream music with limited ads: YouTube, Spotify, and 8tracks.

And while you’re building your novel’s mixtape soundtrack, you can also play around with creative album art with online graphics programs like Canva or PicMonkey.

Just remember that your novel’s mixtape should be a tool to help you stay invested in your story. If you find yourself spending your writing time reading music lyrics, you should probably turn back to that blank page!

Happy Writing (and listening)!


Sarah Parke is an author and editor. When she’s not writing about monsters in Victorian London or supporting the publication efforts at Globe Pequot Press, she enjoys spending time with her husband and their menagerie of animals. Follow Sarah on Twitter, @SParkeAuthor or visit her website at
Her first novel, The Mourning Ring, is a Historical Fantasy about the teenaged Brontë siblings. You can order it on:
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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Wulfric Spott - A Mercian Man of Means

Last month I wrote about Anglo-Saxon names, and mentioned Eadric Streona (the 'Grasping'). He does come into this story, but I wanted to talk about another man with an odd name: Wulfric Spott, a Mercian man of means.

Wulfric Spott was a man of wealth, but he wasn't an ealdorman; he was 'merely' a thegn, but he witnessed 43 charters as a minister and he had lands in Staffordshire and Derbyshire, estates in Shropshire, Leciestershire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. His will also refers to lands in South Lancashire and Cheshire. He was the founder of Burton Abbey at Burton on Trent.

Confirmation of Wulfric's will, 1004

Straight away his will demonstrates his wealth:
First I grant to my lord 200 mancuses of gold, and two silver-hilted swords and four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled, and the weapons which are due with them.
A mancus of gold would be the equivalent of 4.25g, or a unit of around 30 pieces of silver.

Wulfric makes various other grants of land, but to his daughter he leaves a portion of land which seems to be exempt from the usual terms:
And the land at Tamworth is not to be subject to any service not to any man born, but she is to have the lordship.
As well as bequests of huge parcels of land - "And I grant to Aelfhelm and Wulheah the lands between the Ribble and the Mersey, and in Wirral" - he leaves personal items:
And I grant to my god-daughter,[the daughter] of Morcar and Ealdgyth, the estate at Stretton and the brooch which was her grandmother's.
The family of Wulfric Spott was one of the most influential and powerful of its day, with branches linked to the royal family and a regular involvement in power struggles and political rivalry. 

Wulfric seated on a horse, wielding a sword and clad in mail
Wulfric, from an 18th C pencil drawing of the stained glass window at Hall Hill, Abbot's Bromley

Wulfric Spott's brother Aelfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria, was murdered in 1006, and his sons Wulfheah and Ufegeat were blinded. Wulfheah was one of the prominent ministri during the reign of Aethelred II (the Unready) and it's generally believed that Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia 1007-1017, was Aelfhelm's murderer. His rise to power certainly would not have been hindered by the removal of prominent men who surrounded the king. The rivalry does not seem to have stopped there, for Eadric is named as the murderer of Sigeferth and Morcar, thegns of the Seven boroughs*. These brothers were members of this same family; Morcar was married to Wulfric Spott's niece. There is a possibility that they were related to King Aethelred  through his marriage to the daughter of Thored of Northumbria. 

Vacillating between the causes of Edmund Ironside and Cnut in the war of 1015-16, Eadric was playing a dangerous game. Edmund had defied his father, Aethelred II, and married Sigeferth's widow, thereby gaining the allegiance of the Northern Danelaw. Cnut's English wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton, was the daughter of the murdered Aelfhelm and the cousin of Ealdgyth, Morcar's widow. 

It is also possible that this family was connected to that of Leofwine, who held Eadric's ealdordom after the latter's death. His son Leofric succeeded him, and his son Aelfgar married Aelfgifu , who may have been the daughter of Ealdgyth and Morcar.

The Encomium Emmae Reginae shows us how important this family was. 

The Encomium Emmae Reginae - Emma receives it from the author
(her sons Harthacnut and Edward are in the background)

It was written for Cnut's second wife Emma, as a propaganda exercise for the claims of her son, Harthacnut, and in Book III it denies that Harald is Cnut's son. This in itself is not enough to refute Harald's claims, and the Encomium further denies that he is Aelfgifu of Northampton's son. Clearly his position as her son is important. If Emma denies that he is of this family, then she is not attacking them. The importance of Aelfgifu's kinship is clear, and Emma does not wish to offend this great family.

It's not clear exactly when Wulfric died, but the charter issued by Aethelred confirming his will is dated 1004 (pictured above) so we must assume that he died before this date. His mother, Wulfrun, was a noblewoman, after whom Wolverhampton is named. Hers was the only recorded name among the hostages taken by Olafr Gothfrithson when he took Tamworth in AD940. The fact that Wulfric Spott was also known as Wulfric son of Wulfrun, rather than of his father, suggests that she was a wealthy woman whose status outranked her spouse's.

From his will, it's clear that Wulfric did not squander any of the family fortune.

*The Five Boroughs or The Five Boroughs of the Danelaw were the five main towns of Danish Mercia (what is now the East Midlands). These were Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford.  There is a unique 1015 reference to the 'Seven Boroughs', which may have been included Torksey and York.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Review/Interview - The Beauty Shop: Suzy Henderson

This month's review represents a bit of a departure for me, in that it is as modern as my historical fiction reading has ever taken me. Other than the 'modern day' parts of Brideshead Revisited, I can't recall ever having read a book set in WWII. March's featured novel is The Beauty Shop.

Suzy Henderson was born in the North of England and initially pursued a career in healthcare, specialising as a midwife. Years later, having left her chosen profession, she embarked upon a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at The Open University. 
That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write. 

It was an old black and white photograph of her grandmother in her WAAF service uniform that caught Suzy’s imagination many years ago. Her grandmother never spoke of her war service and died in 1980, taking her stories with her. When Suzy decided to research her family history and her grandmother’s war service, things spiralled from there. Stories came to light, little-known stories and tragedies and it is such discoveries that inform her writing today.

Having relocated to North Cumbria, she has the Pennines and the Scottish Borders in sight and finally feels at home. Suzy is a member of the Historical Novel Society and her debut novel, "The Beauty Shop" was released in November 2016.

Suzy can be found at  
HerWebsite, Wordpress, Blogger, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, and LinkedIn

Despite what I've already said about never usually reading books set in this time period, I have to say that from the first page, it almost ceased to matter about the setting. 

Immediately, I trusted that this author was going to provide me with a good, satisfying read. Simply, she does it properly: her writing style is wonderful, with lots of 'showing not telling' but never any showing off. There is nothing mannered or pretentious or forced. In every scene there is a light dusting of scenery, weather, furniture - just enough to let us know where we are and who we are with. The dialogue rang true to me, with speech patterns differing between the Americans and the Brits and without any jarring modern expressions to jolt me out of the past.

So to the story itself. This book could have been a fictional retelling of the remarkable people who were involved with the Guinea Pig Club, focusing on the medicine and the technical advances, and that would have been compelling. But here the author chooses to weave a love story into the saga, and it was the right decision. However astonishing the tale of the pioneers of reconstructive surgery, the impact on the lives of those affected is much more movingly told when the reader is encouraged to consider the emotional impact of these events: wives and girlfriends who turn away, the psychological traumas, the attempts at reintegration into society.

Within the love story itself, we are confronted with the brutal reality of war. The death of a character induces feelings of guilt, even though the couple are not in a relationship at the time. This must have been a frequent response to such occurrences.

The two central characters, Mac and Stella, are well-written and their story plays out realistically. Stella is a woman of her time, and displays 1940s sensibilities. It was easy to believe in her, to watch her firmly in her own world. The events which conspire to make sure that the romance is never straightforward seemed all too real; these people were living through a war, and it marked them both, in different ways.

I won't reveal the ending, but I will say that reading the epilogue, which brings some of the surviving characters into the present day, I was reminded once again of the 'realness' of it all, and I cried. 

And when I'd recovered my composure, I asked Suzy a few questions:~

What inspired you to write the book - where did the story come from?
SH: I was researching Bomber and Fighter Command when I discovered the story of the Guinea Pig Club – a club formed by the burned airmen who were treated by McIndoe. At the time, I had a few ideas floating around for a novel, as you do, but nothing that grabbed me. Then, as I read on, and uncovered more about McIndoe and the club, I suddenly realised I had my story. It was such an intense feeling that gripped me and refused to let go until the story was complete.

The inspiration came from McIndoe’s unusual methods of care as opposed to his gifted and pioneering surgical ability.
For instance, he insisted on allowing the ‘boys’, as he called them, to keep a keg of watered-down beer on the ward. Then there were the nurses and volunteers. McIndoe insisted on having pretty nurses for his ward as he saw that as one way of maintaining and boosting the men’s morale. By engaging with beautiful women, McIndoe felt they would realise they still had a chance of finding a partner and having a life, despite their disfigurements. And before the term 'sexist' arises, we must remember that the 1940s were very different times.

Often these men were depressed, lost, and without hope. McIndoe took them aside, reassured them and showed them how to live again. He knew what his boys needed, and was determined they should have it, no matter the cost. He fought battles with the Air Ministry, and other government and health departments and ranted and raved until he won – but he did it all for the airmen, for their benefit, and I’m quite sure that if he hadn’t, they would have faced a very different and possibly bleak future. This was an era where disabled and disfigured people were shunned, sometimes locked away even from the eyes of society. It is still so relevant for today's society as even though we have moved on and achieved great change, there is still much discrimination and a lack of understanding and compassion. 

I’m sure on the surface, McIndoe was a typical surgeon and a man’s man, but beneath it all, I sensed a huge heart and much compassion, common sense and foresight. He truly was ahead of his time and a great inspiration.

Were you able to talk to anyone who had been directly involved with the Guinea Pig Club?
SH: Firstly, I had the opportunity to talk to a dear lady and a former WAAF, Igraine Hamilton. I think it was during 1941 when she became a volunteer on the ward for a short time and she witnessed such a lot. Igraine was specifically asked by McIndoe to become a volunteer – he was a family friend. Her story was very moving indeed, and a couple of things she told me are embedded within the novel.

I also chatted with Bob Marchant who is the current club secretary of the Guinea Pig Club and has been directly involved with it for many years now. He also worked alongside McIndoe after the war, during the 1950s, up until McIndoe’s death.

Last, but not least, I had the ultimate honour of chatting directly to one of the ‘guinea pigs’, Sandy Saunders. He is the loveliest man, very gentle and he wasted no time at all in re-telling his personal story. His tale was very moving, and I confess I cried at one stage, not that I told him of course, but his voice was rich with emotion and such sorrow. His accident or crash occurred during training towards the very end of the war in 1945, and his navigator was killed. Sandy confessed he has continued to feel guilty for the death of his friend ever since and continues to have nightmares. Yes, that conversation will remain with me always, and I’m so blessed to have had the chance to speak with him. 

Did you have any prior knowledge of the mechanics of, and technical skills required to fly bombers?
SH: No, none at all. I mean I knew the various parts of the B-17, and that was all, so I had a lot to learn. Thanks to the internet I managed to find a B-17 pilot training manual and also relied heavily on personal accounts of pilots and airmen who flew in B-17s during the war. I was able to pick up on various things and discovered enough to be able to write the flying scenes. 

In addition, I read books, and I watched movies – movies are a fantastic resource and being a visual learner, I found them immensely helpful, especially on the technicalities of flying. It enabled me to show the effects of aerial warfare, something which is difficult to do I feel without experience. And watching movies is such a great way to spend your working day - one of the perks of being a writer!

What can readers look forward to - are you working on a second novel?
SH: Yes, I am. My next novel will be released later this year, and once again it is set during WW2. However, this story moves between England and France and features another real person – a woman. I’ve wanted to tell her story for quite a while, but I gave way to Archie McIndoe in writing the first book and she’s been patiently waiting ever since.

Buy The Beauty Shop

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Right to Reply - The 'Dark' Ages

Continuing my series where I ask three authors questions about their specialist period and invite them to reply, either agreeing or disagreeing. This month, authors Matthew Harffy, Justin Hill, and Glynn Holloway, who all write books set in the 'Dark'Ages, give me their opinions:~

Wes Hael (welcome), Gentlemen. Who is the mightiest warrior of the age, and why?

MH: Hwaet! Throw a log on the hearth and fill your horn with good mead, for I will tell you the tale of the greatest warrior king to walk this land of Albion in a time when middle earth was yet young.

File:Penda of Mercia.jpg
Stained Glass depicting Penda's death (Attribution)

Stepping from the mists of time comes Penda, son of Pybba, king of all of Mercia. He was a man hungry for battle fame and glory. He ruled for a score and ten years and in his long reign Penda slew five other great kings. 

Some say his power came from the old gods, for it is true that he eschewed the Christ, instead giving sacrifice to Woden, Thunor and Tiw. The priests say now that these pagan gods are nothing and cannot hold sway over men. But think you of the pallid, blood-spattered corpses of followers of the nailed-god that were strewn before Penda and his warband and ponder. Mayhap the old gods are all but forgotten now, perchance their power wanes, but Penda cut great swathes across Albion in their name. He gave them blood and they rewarded him with victory and a dragon’s hoard of gold.

JDH: Pah! Nonsense! Clearly the greatest warrior was Harald Hardrada –the superstar of his age. In fact, it’s only the fact that he is a Viking, that his achievements have been trivialised, overlooked, or ignored.

Harald is driven out of his homeland by Knut the Great, as a teenage boy on the threshold of manhood, and is driven into the East – modern Russia – but which was then the Mirkwood of the Germanic imagination. It was everything that Tolkien made it out to be in the Hobbit - dangerous, deadly, sinister – but the real-life Mirkwood came with terrifying Turkic horsemen named the Pechenegs, rather than spiders. 

Near-contemporary depiction of Byzantine Varangian Guardsmen

Harald learns the hard way. He fights and works his way south, ends up in the Varangian Guard, fighting and leading campaigns around the Mediterranean for the Byzantine Empire (ending up in the Emperor’s personal bodyguard) and being drawn into the Byzantine politics of the age, where he puts down a palace coup – personally blinding the Emperor of Byzantium. 

This is all before the age of thirty!

After that he has twenty-odd years of raiding around the Baltic, burning Hedeby, and crowning his achievement with a final victory on the fields outside York, at the Battle of Gate Fulford. 

GKH: Penda, stepping from the mists of time – followed by a resounding chorus of, ‘Who are yer?’
The answer is, ‘Penda  - just one of many warlords of my time.’

Harald Hardrada, the Thunderbolt of the North. He was the Thunder Box of the North by the time Harold Godwinson got through with him.
No, gentlemen, I’m afraid neither of these two candidates will do for the title, Mightiest Warrior of the Age. Undoubtedly, that honour should to the aforementioned, Harold Godwinson.

Harold Godwinson 02.jpg
Harold places the crown on his own head

Hardrada may have enjoyed great victories during his time with the Varangian guard but how much greater is Harold Godwinson in defeating such a formidable foe in one battle at Stamford Bridge? Harold achieved more in a single day than Alfred the Great did in his lifetime and all this after a legendary march north from London.

The next battle Harold fought was Hastings, here he might face some criticism because he lost but I’ll have none of it. 

Harold’s army consisted of around three thousand housecarls, the rest were made up from the fyrd, a sort of militia. All of William’s soldiers were professionals and most of them seasoned veterans. Add to this, William had cavalry, infantry and archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and you find yourself wondering what took William so long? The battle lasted all day – two to three hours was the usual time in this era – and this was against an army that had marched up to Yorkshire, fought a great battle, sustained a good deal of fatalities and casualties, marched south to Sussex, to do it all over again. Duke William won the by the skin of his teeth. I think you must agree, Harold is the greatest warrior of his time.         

Which is the best battle of the age, and why?

MH: Penda fought many battles, drenching the land with the slaughter-dew of his foes. But perhaps his greatest victory was at the battle of Maserfield. It was in the long warm days of Weod-mōnaþ, the time some call August, in the marches of Powys and Mercia where Penda, allying himself with the men of Powys, stood in the shieldwall before his greatest rival of the time, Oswald of Northumbria. King Oswald had returned from exile after Penda and Cadwallon of Gwynedd had slain the previous king of Northumbria, Edwin. 

Oswald had swept down from the north, defeating Cadwallon at Heavenfield and set about forming alliances with other kingdoms by marriage, religion or with the edge of a blade. By the year 642, he was the over-king of most of the realms of Albion. He was strong in his faith of Christ and led his men bravely, but his god seemed to abandon him as he marched into Mercia to his final battle.

alt text
St Oswald

Penda’s host destroyed the Northumbrians and Oswald was killed. His body was hacked into pieces, each part raised aloft on great stakes as an offering to Woden. Penda had broken the strangle hold of the Northumbrian kings and it would be weakened for many years.

JDH: I’d give the nod here to Edmund Ironside, who I think is really the man who deserves the title of the Last Anglo-Saxon King. 

Edmund has the misfortune of being the son of Ethelred the Unready, a king who lived too long, and largely squandered the work of Alfred the Great and the House of Wessex. Edmund is one of the most spectacular Anglo Saxon figures: his life brilliant, bright, as brief as a shooting star. 

Edmund Ironside - MS Royal 14 B VI.jpg
Edmund Ironside

While Ethelred’s reign is a list of defeats and disasters, Edmund ends up rebelling against his father, the Mercians and a large number of Wessex aristocracy – who are keen to accept Knut as their king – and in 1016, he leads a rag-tag of retainers in a summer of resistance, criss-crossing southern England and beating Knut’s larger Danish army five times, at Penselwood, Sherston, London, Brentford, and Sheppey. 

A brilliant campaign, and a testament to the charisma and character of the English king with the coolest nickname. 

GKH: The best battle of the era is without doubt, Stamford Bridge.

To qualify for the best battle there must be a fearsome adversary. I think you’ll agree, Vikings were fearsome. Your opponent must have a great leader and Hardrada easily qualifies here. His army had already won a victory at Fulford Gate against the Northern Earls. It was an easy victory for the Norwegians, so their capabilities were proved. 

Another ingredient is the ordeal that Harold’s army had to endure in marching two-hundred-and-twenty-five miles over six days, before engaging their enemy in battle. Add to this are the legendary Berserkers, Hardrada had with him. They stood like giants on the bridge across the River Derwent, between the English on one side and the Norwegians on the other. Only the quick thinking of a housecarl, jumping into a washtub, sailing under the wooden bridge and thrusting his spear into the Berserker where he least expected it, enabled Harold to cross the river and engage his enemy. 

So, there you have a recipe for a great battle, which ended in a resounding victory for the English. It was one of our finest days. Even to this day, the good people of Stamford Bridge celebrate Harold’s victory by eating Spear Pie.  

Which is the best weapon to use in battle, and why?

MH: Those who measure such things in the cold light of day would say that the spear, coupled with a wall of strong linden-boards, is the best weapon of war. But I am a scop, a spinner of yarns, and I say that it is the sword that is the greatest and noblest of all the weapons. Picture the blade, mottled and threaded with different patterns and hues. The iron could be the skin of a fish, or the ripples playing on water. And the hilt, the guard and pommel are also things of exquisite beauty. Golden rings and precious metals interlaced with garnets adorn the finest swords and such splendour marks them for what they are: a thegn’s weapon, a lord’s blade, a king’s sword.

File:Knife blade 600dpi spine 1200dpi.jpg
Pattern-welded blade (Attribution)

Swords are not borne by any fyrd-man. No ceorl will strap a tooled and bejewelled leathern scabbard to his side. No. The sword conveys to all that its owner is a man of worth. An oathsworn man. Mayhap a man to whom one should swear an oath.

A sword is the symbol and the soul of a true warrior.

JDH: Last week we had a couple of trees brought down, and rather than pay someone to split the logs, I bought a new Gränfors axe, which are hand crafted in Sweden, and stamped with the smith’s initials. 

So, I’ve been swinging and chopping, and each swing has allowed me to muse on the effect of an axe on the human body. Chroniclers talk of how the English bearded axe could cut through horse and rider in one swing, and I believe it. There’s something quite simple, and beautiful, about the axe. It has a minimalist quality to it, and I doubt there’s anything quite as effective and destructive. 

GKH: Best weapon must be the bow. You can use it on horseback or standing, you can even use it if you’re up a tree. Enemies can be dealt with from a distance as well as up close. Arrows can even penetrate armour and with the ability to shoot twenty arrows or more in a minute, you can do a fair amount of damage. Burning arrows can also be used to set fire to your enemy’s defences.

And finally, with a bow and arrow, you can hide behind a tree and from a safe distance, shoot someone in the back and then run off laughing into a forest to become a legend. Centuries later, people will still be telling stories and singing songs about you.

Better to fight on horseback, or on foot? Why?

MH: What foolishness is this? Are you moonstruck? Battles are not fought from the back of a mount. How would such a thing be possible? For surely any man attempting such a craven thing would be thrown from his saddle. I heard once in a great hall in Frankia that there are men far to the east who fight on horseback. That they have created some means to hold their feet fast whilst mounted. But I have never seen such a thing, nor do I believe it could be so.

Battles are fought face-to-face and toe-to-toe. Shieldwalls stand and clash like waves beating against a cliff. No beast would be brave enough to charge such a thicket of spears. It takes the bravery of men to heft their war-gear, don their helms, and approach their foes until they can smell their breath and sweat and fear.

Cavalry Vs Shield Wall

JDH: Yes, Matthew is spot on here. I’m all for planting my feet on the ground and standing in a phalanx of well-armoured warriors. 

GKH: I was tempted to say horseback because of the manoeuvrability – it’s much easier to outflank an enemy if you have speed but then on the other hand, if the infantry reforms there is not a lot you can do on horseback. So, why not do as the Saxons did; ride to battle on horseback, then dismount and form a shieldwall? Protected by their shields, the guys with their spears, axes and swords can take care of anyone the archers failed to hit.

Even these days, if you want total victory, you must have boots on the ground – that’s boots you notice, not hooves.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria/Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse was released on 1st August 2016. Book three, Blood and Blade, was released on 1st December 2016.
The Serpent Sword, The Cross and the Curse and Blood and Blade are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good online bookstores.
Killer of Kings and Kin of Cain are available for pre-order on Amazon and all good online bookstores. Kin of Cain is available tomorrow!

Contact links:
Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Justin Hill studied Medieval Literature at St Cuthbert's Society, Durham University. 
The Independent on Sunday listed him as one of the UK's Top Twenty Young British Writers in 2002. He has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and been shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Encore Award. 
He is currently writing the Conquest Series: which covers the events around the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Shieldwall, the first of these, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. 
Find Justin on Amazon
and on his Website
Connect with Justin on Facebook

G K Holloway left university in 1980 with a degree in history and politics. 
After reading a biography about Harold Godwinson, he became fascinated by the fall of Anglo Saxon England and spent several years researching events leading up to and beyond the Battle of Hastings. 
1066 is his debut novel. Currently he is working on a sequel. One day he hopes to write full time. 

Visit G K Holloway's website

I'm honoured to say that Glynn and I also collaborated on the #1 best-selling e-book of alternative history 1066 Turned Upside Down

1066 Turned Upside Down: Alternative fiction stories by nine authors by [Courtney, Joanna, Hollick,Helen, Whitehead,Annie, Belfrage,Anna, Morton,Alison, McGrath,Carol, Redgold,Eliza, Holloway,GK, Dee,Richard]

Thanks to Matthew, Justin and Glynn for this lively debate! Next month: The Twelfth Century.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Less Tudor, More Seymour, and a Queen on Twitter: Interview with Janet Wertman

Today I am delighted to welcome to the blog author Janet Wertman, author of Jane the Quene, the story of Jane Seymour. Janet spent fifteen years as a corporate lawyer in New York, she even got to do a little writing on the side (she co-authored The Executive Compensation Answer Book, which was published by Panel Publishers back in 1991). But when her first and second children were born, she decided to change her lifestyle. She and her husband transformed their lives in 1997, moving to Los Angeles and changing careers. Janet became a grantwriter (and will tell anyone who will listen that the grants she's written have resulted in more than $20 million for the amazing non-profits she is proud to represent) and took up writing fiction.

Welcome to the blog, Janet. May I begin by asking:~ the Tudors are enduringly popular for readers of both fiction and non-fiction. What was your reason for choosing to write about Jane Seymour, in particular?

JW: Twenty years ago, I started to write about Anne Boleyn. I imagined a secret diary as read by Elizabeth, its lessons applied in her own life. I actually wrote more than a hundred pages of that book before Robin Maxwell actually published it (what are the odds that the universe would send the same idea to two people!?). Switching to Jane was initially just a healthy alternative to wallowing in self-pity for the rest of my life….but then I got more and more excited about Jane as a worthy topic all her own. 

Indeed, I now see Jane as the most fascinating of Henry’s queens. Jane was the last to really fall in love with him – the last to experience the vestiges of the golden monarch who was even then showing signs of the paranoid old man lurking beneath. That was a remarkable opportunity for an author – one that I took full advantage of by writing half the book in Cromwell’s point of view. That allowed me to turn Henry into Shroedinger’s cat, both good and evil at the same time, and let the reader decide who he really was. 

You were lucky as a child to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library and look at some books and letters of Elizabeth I. But in general, how easy was it for you to research Jane the Quene? Did you have access to documentary evidence?

I did indeed – but no more than anyone else. British History Online - I can’t say enough about that resource! They put you just a few easy clicks away from page after page of original documents, including the full Letters and Papers archives. That alone provides enormous detail – specific things that happened, where the Court was on particular dates, behind-the-scenes ambassadorial instructions…That was really all I needed!

That said, I have been fascinated by the Tudor era for a long time, enough to have done extensive background research before getting to the point of needing such detail. I have read a ton of books over the years and assembled a decent library of sources (my biggest find came at a tag sale in 1976, when I snagged the entire sixteen-volume set of Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England). I’ve also been to England and visited many of the places that still exist (and I’m thrilled to be going back this Spring!). So I did have a bit of a leg up.

I think the thing that most helped my research was my timeline. I started it years ago as a way to amalgamate the important information from all the biographies I read. Historians tend to group events around themes and skip giving dates, so I needed to deconstruct and then reassemble the data. The resulting chronology was so helpful that it inspired the format I chose, where each scene opens with its date and even specific time. 

Jane Seymour - Holbein

The timeline will continue to be central to my writing – I’m expanding it right now in preparation for the next books. But I have learned to be more careful.  In the past, I just threw in every date I could find, with more or less detail depending on what I had or what I found interesting. I didn’t source anything, which means that when dates and facts conflicted (which happens all the time) I had no basis on which to judge accuracy (let’s just say that I know to significantly discount the Spanish Chronicle’s takes…). Now I am footnoting!

I don't think I'm revealing any spoilers to say that book 2 in the series will focus on events after Jane's death. As an author, how difficult was it for you to leave your heroine/protagonist behind and continue the series without her?

Surprisingly, not that hard. It’s all part of the territory – we Tudor fans accept that early/tragic/grisly deaths are part and parcel of Henry’s court.  What was harder for me was still having Thomas Cromwell in the new book but losing his thoughts (given that he dies a third of the way through, he was not a contender for one of the two voices I allow myself per story - another spoiler 😉 ).  

Edward Seymour

The good thing is, I knew it was coming. So I was careful to plan traits in Jane the Quene would make his downfall plausible. I’m doing the same thing now, knowing that I will lose Edward Seymour’s point of view in Book Three (I’m also setting up Tom Seymour to go crazy – I started to a small extent in Jane, making him vain and somewhat empty headed, I’m accelerating it now. I need him to get a whole lotta resentful before Book Three starts!) 

What do you think is the underlying reason for the continuing interest in all things Tudor?

These stories have it all: passion, power, betrayal – and for the ultimate stakes. Plus all the characters are archetypes. What a powerful combination!
It may also have something to do with the fact that the Tudor characters are a kind of a cultural litmus test. I recently saw a meme that remarked that you could tell al lot about a person based on what movie they know Tim Curry from. Well, you can also tell a lot about a person based on who their favorite Tudor character is…  

What will come next for you? Do you have anything planned for a new series of books?

I have three trilogies planned, two more after this one (!), that collectively will cover the entire Tudor era after Henry VII. The second trilogy will focus on Elizabeth, starting with Mary’s accession (the first trilogy ends on Edward VI’s death) and taking us through the Gloriana years. The last trilogy will circle back to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn – kind of like a Star Wars thing.  After that? I’m not quite sure. I do have some ideas for a few standalones…but I have plenty of time to figure that part out! 

Thanks so much to Janet for taking time to talk to me.
Find Janet on her Website on Facebook and on Twitter
also on Pinterest and Google +
Find Jane Seymour on Twitter (Yes, she does have her own account!)

Buy links: Amazon UK 

Since I spoke to Janet, her book has been reviewed by the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Congratulations Janet!

Monday, 13 February 2017

Writing to Music - HE Bulstrode

Throughout 2017, I'm inviting authors to talk about music, writing, and writing to music. This month I hand the page over to author HE Bulstrode:

Music and the Writing of Historical Fiction

When people write about the relationship between music and writing, much of the discussion tends to be concerned with the former’s impact upon productivity, but what I will focus upon here, will be something a little more nuanced: the manner in which music can help the writer reach back into another time.

Agnes of Grimstone Peverell (H.E. Bulstrode's West Country Tales Book 5) by [Bulstrode, H.E.]

Firstly, however, I would like to make a few observations regarding my own thoughts regarding music’s general usefulness to the process of writing itself. If I have slept well and am at my most alert, listening to music whilst writing can serve as an enjoyable stimulus, but when I am feeling tired, or as if my head were stuffed with little more than cotton wool, music becomes a positive hindrance to composition. Mental fatigue, more so than physical, renders music a distraction and an impediment to the marshalling of thought, and putting together words on paper, or on screen. If I am tired and wish to write, listening to music is therefore best avoided. Music may serve as either a stimulus, or an impediment, to composition, depending upon how alert I happen to be at the time. 

For the author of historical fiction, music presents another means of peering into the past, and attempting to more fully immerse ourselves in a lost world. However, as with our use of other sources in the form of the written word, buildings and monuments, the visual arts and the material culture of everyday life, the further back we go, the more difficult it is to reconstruct the auditory world of our forebears. Today, thanks to radio, television and, perhaps most importantly, the internet, we possess access to a hitherto unimaginable quantity and variety of music.

If we are writing a piece set during the period of directly recorded sound, which commenced with the invention of Edison’s phonograph in 1877, then it is relatively straightforward to identify and locate pieces online, although not a great deal is available from the age of the wax cylinder. From the 1910s onwards, the amount of material greatly expands. Before then, we have to rely on musical notation and more recent performances and recordings of this music, to capture what people of an earlier age heard. This allows us to access at least a sample of what was played and sung during the early modern period, but the music associated with Church and court is better represented in the record, particularly from early in this period, than what was heard in the taverns or at village gatherings.
Detail from Purcell's Chacony in G Minor for Strings c. 1680

Musical notation in its current form became common only in the latter part of the 17th  seventeenth century, and if we venture further back – before the 14th century – we find ourselves in a world in which fixed note lengths are not recorded. The earliest English secular song for which both music and lyrics survive is ‘Sumer is icumen in’ from the 1260s, which many of you may recognise as the tune used to memorable effect in cult horror film ‘The Wicker Man’ in 1973. 

Once we venture back into the early mediaeval period and beyond, matters musical grow very dark indeed, and as for the actual tunes and melodies that were heard in the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, or, indeed, in ancient Britain, we remain ignorant. That said, you can listen to a rather haunting recording of a melody deciphered from a cuneiform tablet found in the city of Ugarit, Syria, in the 1950s. This hymn to the Hurrian goddess of the orchards – Nikkal – was composed for the lyre over 3,400 years ago. 

With respect to the influence of music upon my own writing, I found it useful to listen to compilations of songs from the 1910s and the 1920s to prime my mood for the writing of the period ghost story, ‘Old Crotchet,’ set in 1920s Somerset. This, however, being upon the cusp of living memory hardly qualifies, in my opinion, as history. What has proved to be more challenging, and indeed, interesting, has been tracking down music that would have been familiar to folk of the middling sort, and lower, during the 17th century, as part of the research for my forthcoming novel ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return,’ and published novella ‘The Cleft Owl,’ which span the late 1670s to mid-1680s. 

Of particular use has been reference to the pieces contained in ‘Playford’s Dancing Master,’ originally published in 1651, and in a number of subsequent editions until around 1728. 

A YouTube search will find not only recordings of many of Playford’s tunes, but also accompanying videos of re-enactors performing historical dances. The Estonian early dance ensemble Saltatriculi include a number of these in their repertoire, such as ‘Moll Peatley (The New Way),’ and ‘Parson’s Farewell,’. Without seeing such dances, I would have had no idea as to how they would have been performed. 

The Bodleian Library’s outstanding collection of digitised broadside ballads, dating from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, is freely available online, and provides a wealth of information relating to popular preoccupations and attitudes over the centuries. The broadside ballad pictured here, dealing with the reuniting with his lover of a boatswain taken into slavery in Algiers, was published at some point between 1671 and 1704. As you can see from this example, these publications frequently featured only lyrics, and would refer to well-known tunes to which they could be set. 

In sum, seeking out and listening to the music associated with a particular period and section of society, as well as reading the lyrics of popular songs, helps to flesh out the writer’s picture of the past. We can never seek to recapture, and convey, the taste and texture of any part of history in a truly authentic form, as we lack direct experience of it, but in listening to the music and voices of the past, we can step a little closer to that goal. 


Find HE Bulstrode on his Blog
On Facebook
On His Amazon Author Page