Tag Archives: Writing

The Giant’s Grave, Penrith, Cumbria

I have been distracted from the 12th Century recently by a visit to a Suffolk church – or rather, by the intriguing single large stone opposite it. The stone looks for all the world like a Viking or early Christian hogsback grave marker, and has very clearly been shaped. But there are no hogsback stones in this part of the UK; they are only to be found clustered in the Northwest and Scotland. So what is it? And what’s it doing here? – the stone is not native, it’s been imported. This lovely blog post was of great help in researching that liminal phase as the Vikings became good Christians, for the short story that demanded to be written.

The Journal Of Antiquities

OS grid reference: NY 5165 3016. A short walk in an easterly direction from market Square and king street (A6) in the centre of Penrith is the ancient church of St Andrew, a Saxon foundation. At the north-side of the church stands a slight mound on top of which are two pillar-crosses and four hogback gravestones – collectively known as the Giants Grave. These stones are said to have been placed over the burial site of Owain Caesarius, legendary and heroic king of Cumbria during the early 10th century, who was said to have been a giant of a man. Also in the churchyard is the Giant’s Thumb, a damaged Anglo-Norse wheel-headed cross dating from 920 AD.

The Giant’s Grave, Penrith.

The two tall and slender pillar-crosses standing 15 feet apart are now heavily worn and it is difficult to make out the carvings on them, but they have been dated to around 1000 AD and are Anglo-Norse in…

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Snow cold

In case you missed it – the UK has had unusually snowy, cold weather this week.

My heating chose to show solidarity with my beloved Priory, and stop working! Brrr!

 Fire in snow
Image above by Jamesdlogan shared under creative commons license
https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdlogan/5152944175

 

Access to the Warming Room

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received is to incorporate your daily realities into your writing. The idea is, by contemplating a present object or experience, to sieze the depth of information available first-hand to put rich details into your depiction of the past. We were talking abut a Roman brooch I’d found, that ended up pinning Henry ll’s cloak together when he was knighted; this week I’ve had the opportunity to observe an entirely different issue when my gas central heating stopped working in the coldest weather the UK has had for some time. Luckily, I had backup electric radiators – until there was a power cut…
The year 1204/5 was one of those epic years when it was so cold that the Thames froze. Stored crops spoiled; fishponds were solid. To add insult to misery, King John called in all coinage in order to issue new money, so it wasn’t even possible to buy food at the market.
My monks were better off than most – but also had a burden that lay people didn’t share. The Rule of St Benedict stated that only three rooms in the Priory could have a fire; the infirmary, the kitchen, and the warming-room, and access to the last was to be as sparing as possible.
I have been writing scenes around this period with far more realism and insight than I bargained for – and am very much appreciating my visits to friends’ warm rooms, and hot suppers! I have a heating engineer booked. I can’t imagine how awful it must have been to have unrelenting bleakness!

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1215 and all that – whew!

I have been peacefully plugging away at my current Work In Progress; a follow-up to my book Sheriff and Priest, working title Son of the Priest. It’s about the trials and tribulations – both literal uses of the words – that Wimer’s son Jean encounters, trying to defend Wimer’s legacy from some rapacious land-grabbers.

I’m now about 2/3rds of the way through, and have begun to be very worried indeed. You see, although I know how the book ENDS – and of course, how it begins – I have had, up until today, no clear idea of why history took the course it did, in my little corner of Suffolk. Slightly problematic, for someone who prefers to lean on the historical rather than the fictional balance of historical fiction…

Enter Monmothshire County Library, the fine building whose picture you can see. In 1969 they purchased a volume of W.A. Morris’ “The Mediaeval English Sheriff to 1300”; on 23rd May 1973 it was transferred to the Students’ Library, where students are sternly injuncted:

“If there is notifiable disease in the house, i.e. Scarlet Fever, Diptheria, Thyphoid Fever, Measles, or Chicken Pox, do not return your books to the library until the Local Health Authority has inspected the house.”

Mysteriously, despite the fact that it had been taken out on loan three times in May and June, it was taken off the shelves on the 28th June 1973. Perhaps Scarlet Fever intervened… In any case, I found it in around 2005, in the second-hand book shop in Sutton Hoo, I think. And as I had scarlet fever, measles, and chicken pox in the 1960s, I thought it was safe to buy…

Now I’d used it extensively in researching Wimer’s career for Sheriff and Priest, of course; but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to mine it for the solution to Jean’s woes. Well, Reader – I’m not going to give away any spoilers; but should you have a copy of the book in your posession, I am finding pages 153-161 MOST useful 🙂

Nicky.

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Easily distracted…

Today I’m grabbing an hour to write in between other committments. 15 minutes ago, I wanted to know where the market might be in Ipswich in around 1190, give or take 20 years. It’s for a very small scene near the start of the book, setting up the antagonist – the Prior of Holy Trinity priory – as a baddie. I came across this, from just before the Conquest;

ipswich1086

And now I want to know what the Thingstead was – maybe the local version of Parliament Square? What was built on it, and how much survived the Conquest? The red crosses mark potteries – good old dark grey Ipswich ware, that I find such a lot of in the field. I hadn’t realised they were in the centre of town – what did they add to the smells and sounds? I can feel my whole hour of writing being sucked into the black hole that is research – but isn’t it fun? 😀

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Launch Day!

Today is The Day!

Both paperback and e-book versions are available on all Amazon sites (and are even linked together, after a bit of fighting with dragons), and the ebook is trickling out onto the wider distribution sites – currently available on Kobo and Indigo but not a couple of the others.

We are GO!

There is so much you could do to help make the launch successful:

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An interview

When did you first start writing?
Well, I’ve always been a story teller, as far back as I can remember. Poetry has, from time to time, forced its way out through me too. But I first started writing my historical fiction as a result of my archaeology hobby. You see, I’d found this previously undiscovered Priory, which led me into relearning Latin, so I could read charters and documents written at the end of the 12th century, and figure out what was going on. Then this man called Wimer kept popping up, and his life-story became so compelling that I had to put it in book form. The Henry stories started when I was letting Wimer incubate between edits – I had a full-scale writing habit by then, and a void!
What are you working on next?
I’m working on the Wimer successor novel at the moment, where Wimer’s adopted son Jean takes on the might of the 13th Century establishment, to stop them killing the Priory that Wimer built. He also discovers along the way that he wasn’t meant for a vow of celibacy…
Then Henry is still demanding attention too, with the third volume of 3 stories due out. I shall try and save the next batch of stories until I’ve finished Jean’s novel, but Henry can be very insistent!
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
I love the first draft, and the first edit, best. The first draft, because that’s when you find out what’s really going on in the story, and how far out your plot was – in my current story, I had a whole extra character elbow her way in! Then when the raw material is complete on the page, the first edit allows you to see how much better it could be, and to start shaping it into something finer.
What is your writing process?
I’m still developing my writing process. It is, of course, informed by a half-century of reading anything I could lay my hands on. I was surprised how classical a structure Wimer had, because I’d completely written that by the seat of my pants; Jean has been plotted, sort-of by the Snowflake method. I’m enjoying the challenge of that; I think I may continue to use that method for subsequent books as I’m learning this writing craft, because it gives me rules that support me whilst I’m learning and practicing nuance.
I use both copy and content editors, after I’ve had 4 or 5 passes through it myself!
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
When I’m not writing, I’m either working (as a business improvement consultant, what a contrast to my other loves!), or doing something archaeological or historical. I’m working on a metal-detector survey of an 1,000 acre estate in Suffolk, plotting finds on a map so the data can be cut by time, by material, or by use; a fascinating project. You wouldn’t believe how much time I invest in finding stuff, washing it, reporting it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, plotting it, doing show-and-tells to my landowners, researching finds… at least I’ve discovered that I can dictate into a little USB recorder that I sling round my neck, so I can write at the same time!
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I can remember being absolutely furious with my mother, because she tried to shorten a bed-time story. I wasn’t having any of that! I wanted full measure in my stories! I must have been around 2.
What do your fans mean to you?
My Henry fans are very opinionated, and I love them 😀 There’s nothing like a 7 year old describing in detail what he wants to read about next, to make writing worthwhile! That is, incidentally, another reason to self-publish – feeding that direct demand. If I went trad, that 7yo would be a different person by the time his request was published.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I got fed up with agent after agent telling me my historical novels were good, but they’d just published something mediaeval… or it didn’t quite fit their list… or-or-or. If I knew what I was in for, I might have continued to send out query letters – the marketing is a real learning curve! But the Henry stories – written for around the 6-9 age range – are simple to produce, and I can get them into peoples’ hands very quickly and cheaply.
How do you approach cover design?
I am very lucky in that my elder daughter is a fantastic and professional artist, and is happy (for a suitable bribe) to do all my Henry covers.
I used a service called 99designs.co.uk for the Sheriff and Priest cover. I was very impressed indeed with the quality and range of covers on offer, and I’ll likely use the service again. The end result feels well worth the price paid.
Who are your support people?
I’ve already mentioned that my eldest daughter does my artwork, but my youngest daughter is crucial to Henry’s success too – she’s my editor in chief. I read each story out to her, and she somehow holds it in her head as a whole, and suggests tweaks, or different word choices – she’s good!
I also have a circle of friends who are my cheering section, and who are my alpha readers for the historical novels. These are people who are good enough friends to say “this bit stinks”!
Describe your desk
My desk is archaeological in nature – I think it’s pale wood, but I’m not sure, there’s too much stuff piled on it! That may be why I generally write in the lounge, on my laptop, to my favourite music; or on one of the notebooks I have in every handbag and pocket.
Who are your favorite authors?
I am in awe of authors like Hilary Mantel, Sherri Tepper, and Lois McMaster Bujold, all of whom are writing way above a level I can achieve at the moment. I’m trying to read their books to figure out how they’re doing it, but it’s taking a long time, because I keep getting sucked in!

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Distant Echoes anthology

I’m very proud to have a story in here 🙂 There’s some fabulous tales.

Mine is about a Bronze Age girl on the threshold of womanhood whose world is ripped apart by an invading force. What future is there for someone who is only half-marked as a warrior?

“Gripping and thought-provoking stories of people, places and times past by writers from the Historical Novel Society.

A new anthology of nineteen award-winning and acclaimed historical fiction short stories.

Distant Echoes brings you vivid voices from the past. This haunting anthology explores love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, these stories will stay with you long after the last page.”

Pre-order now via the link below. Publication is on Monday 25th September.

 

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Review – For The Most Beautiful

For The Most Beautiful

by Emily Hauser

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s review pages.

Think of the tale of Troy. What names can you remember? Active men; Achilles. Paris. Passive women – Helen, only remembered for being beautiful; Cassandra being laughed at for her unbelievable prophesies. In “For The Most Beautiful”, Emily Hauser has told the story of two unlikely heroes, women whose voices have been lost. Krisayis, daughter of the Trojans’ High Priest, and Briseis, princess of Pedasus, start off near the top of the hierarchy, but both are enslaved by the Greeks. Their struggles in the face of that disaster, and the need to preserve the essence of Troy, form the core of the book. Looking down from the clouds is the panoply of gods – with their own desires and agendas, and with two of the female gods NOT chosen as “most beautiful”…

If I hadn’t been reading a review copy, I might have abandoned it. The early vacuousness of its protagonists, and shallowness of the gods, really irritated me. But I persevered, and gradually grew to like, and then admire, the girls – very much. I got to the end of the book, and immediately read it again, this time appreciating the superb character arcs that Ms Hauser has drawn. The gods hadn’t changed, but then that is the nature of gods.

This is a fascinating picture of life in Bronze Age Troy, from the point of view of women at both the top and bottom of society. Ms Hauser’s knowledge of, and respect for, the period shines through. Read it twice. You won’t regret it.

 

 

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Review – STITCHES IN TIME

STITCHES IN TIME – The Story of the Clothes We Wear

Lucy Adlington, Random House, 2015, £16.99, hb, 410pp, 9781847947260

This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s review pages

The author’s deep scholarship is very evident, as is her joy in clothing. A collection of anecdotes talking about an item of apparel per chapter, this book could have been entertaining froth; but it’s much, much more.

She focusses on the last 200 years, but ranges from prehistory onwards, describing the evolution of items in a very engaging manner. The book is illustrated with black and white sketches and photos, and has a colour centerfold.

From knicker elastic to hats, topics are covered in detail. My favourite timeline takes the pocket from a fold in a Roman toga to today’s handbag, covering chatelaines, a man’s “posturing pocket” (not what you might think), and the 18thC “indispensable” on the way; each journey has similar intriguing details.

I learned something new from every chapter, and was thoroughly entertained whilst doing so; there’s articles of interest here for everyone. The book has an extensive bibliography and source reference material, making it a good springboard for research. An excellent book for either the fashionista or the historical novelist in you…

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Review – Irvine Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstacy”

The Agony and the EcstasyThe Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book starts off slow, and the plot continues at this pace – it’s a pretty straightforward recounting of the major events in Michelangelo’s life, with some occasionally wooden reactions to them.
What makes this book shine – in fact, what makes it unmissably stellar – is the lyrical, beautiful descriptions of both the process of sculpting, and Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings themselves. You learn how difficult it is to mine marble, how to transport it, how to choose a piece without inclusions by watching the sunrise through it. Then Michelangelo picks up his hammers and chisels – made afresh for each sculpture – and Irving Stone takes you inside the mind of the master, so that you feel you understand the exact places to carve away the snowy grain of the marble to achieve the desired effect, and you taste the marble dust at the back of your own throat.
Stone’s bibliography leaves you in no doubt that he knew what he was talking about, and there is a surprising body of Michelangelo’s writings in existence. I think that reading this book is about as close as you’re likely to get to one of the greatest creative minds who ever lived, and this book will be coming with me when I go to Florence. It has made me yearn to see these great sculptures and frescos, which Stone describes with such authority and conviction.

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