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.

Twitter: http://bit.ly/2ChurchillTwitter
Facebook: http://bit.ly/2ChurchillFacebook

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

Sunday, 11 December 2016

What Prue Batten learnt whilst writing Guillaume

The latest author in the "What I Learnt..." series is Prue Batten. Prue has written fantasy novels in the past, but in recent years has become a successful historical novelist, first with her Gisborne Saga trilogy, and now with her spin-off series, the Triptych Chronicle. I reviewed the first of that series, Tobias, earlier in the year. The latest of her novels is Guillaume, which is set in twelfth century Lyon. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak of it and here is what I thought:
"With her customary elegant use of language, Prue Batten plunges us effortlessly into the mercantile houses, twisted alleys and secret shadowy tunnels of medieval Europe. Guillaume is a riveting tale of twelfth century trade, treachery and intrigue."

So read on, and find out a little of what Prue learnt while writing this great novel.

What Prue Batten learnt whilst writing Guillaume


1. The secrets of Lyon.



I had no idea! In the twelfth century it was a sophisticated town built on its strong Roman foundations, foundations that contained labrynthine tunnels snaking upward from the Saône to the centre of the town. The very placement of these tunnels (called traboules) gave any users quick access to and from the river. For merchants, an added bonus – goods could be carted from barge to warehouse without being seen, giving wily traders an edge in the marketplace. Once I discovered the traboules in my reading, the next step was to secure information of their condition and usage in the twelfth century. There’s barely a time in Lyon’s history where the traboules haven’t been used. Even to WWII. (But that’s another story.)

For me, I had a location for murder and mayhem in the twelfth century.

2. Did the Reformation really happen in the 16th Century? Or was it much earlier? Perhaps in the 12th Century?



Called the Waldensian movement later in history, it began with the wealthy merchant, Pierre Vaudès. Vaudès became a reformist thinker and gave up his wealth in favour of following a simple path based on the Gospels. He had parts of the Bible translated to the Lengua Romana, so that the common man might understand that God’s love was not dependent on money, images and plenary indulgences. His preachers, of which there were many, became known as Sandalati because of their simple footwear. But more particularly they were known as The Poor Men of Lyon. The Church declared the Sandalati heretics, and the preachers and followers were forced into hiding in fear of their lives, eventually leaving France for the hidden valleys of Piedmont and giving the world a simple reformist philosophy long before Martin Luther.

This gave me an interlacing plotline…

3. That it is entirely possible to include the loveliest poetry and music in a novel.

I love the inclusion of relevant poetry and music from the times in which a novel is set. Dorothy Dunnett was iconic with her usage of the device. One of my characters is a minstrel, a poet and an aesthete. He allows me to make use of other word-forms and thus it was that I was able to use the beautiful ninth century poem, Pangur Bàn about a white cat and a monk. I sourced the online translation by Robin Flowers and when Guillaume, Tobias and Adam stay at the small priory of Pommiers en Forez, they are cared for by Brother Hugo, who has a white cat.



I also read about the most emotive piece of music this year, Carmina qui Quondam. As it dates from the eleventh century, I felt it would most definitely appeal to a minstrel of Tobias’ standing. And I included other song lyrics from the times as well.

These were indulgences in the writing of Guillaume, but like the colour in stained glass, I hope they add to the novel’s depth.

4. I learned a new word – one that resonated and one that I just had to use in my novel.

This year, I purchased a wonderful book called Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane. Essentially a list of colloquial words to describe landscape, for me it was like discovering precious gems. One word stood out – ‘endragoned’ – first coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins to describe a roiling sea. Could I use this word? Why not if I acknowledged its provenance? Thus:

‘They entered the hall – a wave of sound rolling toward them like an endragoned sea crashing upon rocks. Nothing but men’s voices, a grumbling roar that made one search for the soft ameliorating face of any woman at all…’

Macfarlane’s book is a true treasure and I don’t think this will be the last time I use it.

But I learned many other things during this year of writing. Research fills one’s mind with such things as one creates the framework for historical novels. All providing layers and dimension for one’s story.

Thank you, Matthew, for allowing me to reveal four special ones.



Connect with Prue Batten:

http://www.pruebatten.com
Facebook
Pinterest

Thursday, 1 December 2016

BLOOD AND BLADE - It's OUT NOW!

After what seems like a very long time, BLOOD AND BLADE, book three of the Bernicia Chronicles, is now available in e-book, paperback and audio book formats.



Thank you to everyone who has pre-ordered it. If you haven't already bought it, what are you waiting for? And after you've read it, don't forget to leave a review - it really helps to make a book a success.

Thanks!

BUY BLOOD AND BLADE from all good online stores:

Amazon
Kobo
iTunes
Good Play
Audible

Sunday, 13 November 2016

What Elaine Moxon Learnt when writing the Wolf Spear Saga

This month's guest in the "What I Learnt..." series is Elaine Moxon. Elaine writes early medieval historical fiction as ‘E S Moxon’. Her debut ‘Wulfsuna’ is the first in her ‘Wolf Spear Saga’ series of Saxon adventures and was published in 2015. She is currently writing the second Wolf Spear Saga, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain. Elaine is a member of the Historical Novel Society and a contributing author on the blog of ‘English Historical Fiction Authors’. You can find out more about book two from Elaine’s website and on her blog, Writers’ Grove, where she talks about writing and research.


What Elaine Moxon Learnt when writing the Wolf Spear Saga


I’ve always had a love of history. It has been an integral part of family life for me from a young age. Both sides of my family are keen amateur genealogists and I remember visiting a wealth of ancient sites along the west coast of southern Britain and Wales during family holidays. If there was a stone circle or a castle, we were there! One of my great-grandfathers was a member of the Ancient Order of Druids and hearing about him as a child filled me with wonder. This early fascination remained with me and found its way into my Wolf Spear Saga series in the form of seers and wood sages.



As a teenager, I was intrigued by the Saxons and Vikings, whose beliefs were the stuff of fantasy novels. I think I felt close to these people of the past as I had a Saxon maiden name and often dreamed about who my ancestors were. Moxon is a Norse matrilineal surname stemming from ‘son of Meg’ with roots in northern Britain, particularly Lancashire. This Germanic and Norse presence remains today not only in surnames, but in place names and of course our language; their legacy left behind in everyday words such as ‘thank you’, ‘bread’ and ‘field’. Being an island, Britain has always been subject to waves of migration and invasion. My heritage provided another link for me with these distant travellers, as the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, fleeing famine and fascism in rural Italy. And so, migration too is a main theme in ‘Wulfsuna’.

When writing the first saga, I learnt that rising sea levels were killing livelihoods for fifth century Germanic tribes, who began to search for new land. Many took up service for the Romans as mercenaries or ‘Foederati’. They were conveniently placed to hop over to Britain when numbers needed bolstering. The wall at Vindolanda often required additional troops to hold the Picts at bay and in the south-east, shore forts ensured Germanic savages not allied with Rome didn’t make it through the defences. Of course, these southern fortifications placed uneasy decisions upon those stationed there, who had perhaps married into the British population; they were fighting kinfolk from their homeland and I imagine this did not sit well with many of them.



All of this was conscious knowledge I had grown up with, read and researched prior to writing and publishing ‘Wulfsuna’. One major thing I did learn, however, occurred after publication. My heroine, Morwyneth, is a young Seer whose new-found powers of foresight result in her expulsion from her home. She is then found by the Wulfsuna tribe, who toss her in the back of their last wagon, fearful she is a river-witch or ‘Nix’ sent by their enemies. As the Wolf Sons travel across country, Mowyneth goes with them, receiving further visions of the future along the way. The mode of transport was a logical decision I made early in the story. The Wulfsuna knew they would not be returning to Germania and had brought wheels and axles with them so they could butcher the ship’s wood into wagons.

Researching for a blog post, quite by chance I came upon a very ancient cult involving a wagon goddess. This goddess or priestess travelled across country in a wagon, visiting towns and villages foretelling the success of the harvest for the forthcoming year. Bad fortunes resulted in ritual sacrifices of beast or man, or in some cases the kings themselves! At the end of her tour, the priestess would be ritualistically cleansed by her accompanying priests or slaves, who themselves became sacrificial victims, for they had seen the goddess unclothed. Thousands of years old, this cult is prevalent in not one, but several cultures worldwide. We can find elements of wagon travel, sacrifice and ritual cleansing in the Norse ‘Vanir’, the Celtic Nicneven or Cailleach and of course Sulis, the revered water goddess at the springs in Bath. Nerthus, another Celtic deity, lived in a wagon and is mentioned by Tacitus and the Indian texts of the ‘Rigveda’ allude to a sun chariot ridden by the sun’s bride.

I had unwittingly tapped into an ancient archetype. Morwyneth was a wagon goddess! I learned that even if we don’t consciously draw on our own experiences, segments of our lives (and perhaps things in the past we’ve read or viewed) and ancient archetypes seep through into our work as we write. Hidden layers from our subconscious or primeval memories linger beneath the surface; treasure we or our readers, may or may not uncover. But what fun to know they are there, waiting to be found! It certainly gives me food for thought as I put pen to paper, or fingers to keys, wondering if my subconscious is secretly plotting out aspects of my novel as I write.

Connect with Elaine Moxon:


Writers' Grove blog
Website
Buy Wulfsuna from SilverWood Books