Saturday, 22 October 2016

What Kelly Evans learnt researching The Northern Queen

This month in the "What I Learnt..." series I am pleased to welcome to my humble blog author, Kelly Evans.

Born in Canada of Scottish extraction, Kelly graduated in History and English from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. After graduating Kelly moved to the UK where she continued her studies in history, focusing on Medieval England and the Icelandic Sagas (with a smattering of Old Norse and Old English).

Her first novel, The Northern Queen, was released in 2015 and she is currently working on the second book in her Anglo-Saxon series, set in the years prior to the Norman invasion.

What Kelly Evans Learnt when researching The Northern Queen

Eadric Streona was truly a horrible person.

The BBC survey named him the worst Briton of the Eleventh Century, and with good reason. What a fantastic person to have as a character!

He was a rising star and trusted advisor in the court of Aethelred and was responsible to the death of my main character’s father and two brothers. It was a dangerous time for England: the country’s borders were weakly protected and England was a tempting prize for Danish invaders. After an invasion of the Danes in 1009, Aethelred was prepared to retaliate with force but was persuaded by Eadric to pay nearly 50,000 pounds of gold to make them go away, a hugely unpopular move: most wanted to see their king fight back, not give in and bribe the invaders.

After the Danish invader Sweyn Forkbeard died, his son Canute took over. Rather than side with his king, Eadric declared his loyalty to the invader Canute, shocking his fellow countrymen. At a battle where he fought for Canute against Aethelred’s son Edmund, Eadric cut the head off of a soldier who looked like Edmund, held it in the air and told the English that their leader was dead, an act which further sealed his reputation as worst Briton of the time. Eadric wasn’t done however.

Late that same summer Eadric switched sides once again, swearing loyalty to Edmund. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s comment on this act is revealing: “No greater folly was ever agreed to than this one.”

In October the final battle occurred and with it another of Eadric’s treacheries. Edmund should have won the Battle of Assandun; his forces were superior to the Danes and he had enlisted fresh fighters, compared to the Danish forces who were fewer in number and battle-weary. But at a pivotal moment, Eadric fled the battlefield, his many supporters along with him. The sides were now numbered in favour of the Danes and the English suffered a crushing defeat.

Eadric ingratiated himself enough with the new king to remain Ealdorman of Mercia but by the following Christmas, 1017, the mood had changed: Canute either suspected Eadric of treason or had already accused him of such and he was executed.

Such a fun character to write!

I really enjoy researching my novels. A lot.

My characters are related to Rollo, whose story is currently being told in the TV show Vikings. 

While researching my characters I traced their family trees for completeness sake, and also to provide additional information for readers on my website. Rollo, played by Clive Standen (and erroneously listed as Ragnar Lothbrok’s brother – they weren’t related), after attacking Paris and Bayeux (and marrying Poppa of Bayeux), was granted land in what we now call Normandy (‘land of the northmen’). His descendants lived (and still do) in most of the royal courts across Europe, including his great-granddaughter Emma of Normandy who was offered to the English king Aethelred in a marriage treaty that would help to protect England’s interests on the Continent. Emma is one of the main characters in my novel, and my main character’s enemy.

How Manipulation was Used by Women

It was incredibly difficult for a woman, even one of high birth, to gain and wield power. Emma of Normandy was the daughter and sister of the Dukes of Normandy but was considered a pawn in the political game between Normandy and England. Arranged marriages of high-ranking noblewomen was commonplace, with little to no consideration for the woman’s opinion. But Emma became a skilled manipulator, gathering wealth and support through bribes, promises of wealth and power, and gifts of money and land, enough to eventually affect the course of events in the country.

My main character, Emma’s ‘nemesis’, Aelfgifu, also from a noble family, was married to the Danish invader’s son Canute in what may or may not have been a love match. It was certainly an astute partnership as the act brought with it support for the Danish king. Despite this she was deemed unsuitable (their marriage ceremony hadn’t been presided over by a Catholic priest, rather they used the ancient practice of hand-fasting) and replaced by Emma, who, after Aethelred’s death, was seen as a perfect match for the new king Canute. Despite Emma’s support and machinations, Aelfgifu gained her own powerbase, to such an extent that she was able to persuade the country to accept her son, Harold, as king after Canute died. Through carefully thought out gifts of land and promises of more, Aelfgifu’s influence meant that she was able to aid her son effectively in his rule.

To prepare for writing The Northern Queen, I had to do extensive amounts of research into the people and period. My previous historical study only just touched on the Anglo Saxon period so I had a lot of work to do to get all of the details just right. More than just right, historical fiction readers are an exacting bunch! I started with a broad picture then narrowed my research considerably. And I loved it, the individuals, the rulers, the politics. The whole time period. And I loved finding a new history book, or a new source of information on the internet. I’m a data addict, and the research scratched that itch for months. All to ensure I told the best, most accurate, story I could.

Another huge advantage to the research is the people I’ve met, others interested in the early medieval period, from all over the world and dedicated to bringing the period to life. And while I’m working on a novel that takes place in a different time period (black death!), I still try to write a historical article on an element of the Anglo Saxon age each month for my website. You never stop learning!

Connect with Kelly Evans


Friday, 21 October 2016

REVIEW: Oswiu by Edoardo Albert

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Monday, 17 October 2016

REVIEW: Viking Fire by Justin Hill

Viking FireViking Fire by Justin Hill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Justin Hill is a terrific writer. His prose oozes poetry and a real sense of the time and place of his novels. In Harald Hardrada's saga, Viking Fire, Hill gives us a flawed and likable character, told in the Norwegian warrior-king's own words (as recounted to a priest in Britain before his death). This is the second of Hill's novels set during the build up of the Battle of Hastings. The first is Shieldwall, which is told from multiple viewpoints in third person. In Viking Fire, Hill has decided to tell the story from the perspective of the protagonist, which lends it an added immediacy and intimacy.

The first half of Viking Fire, that focuses on Harald's youth and his formative years, is the highlight of the book for me. The great warrior's character leaps from the page and Hill manages to make him deep and wholly believable. If there was one thing that disappointed me about Viking Fire, it is that it glosses over years of campaigns and exciting adventures when Harald was building up his power and great wealth in the service of the Emperors and Empresses of Constantinople. There are several wonderful chapters set during this period, but I couldn't help feeling there were dozens of stories hinted at, but not shown. I would have happily read more of Harald's escapades.

It is a real pity that the historical note was omitted from the hardback version I read. I recommend anyone who reads Viking Fire book to check it out on Justin Hill's website: It really added a lot for me to see why Hill had taken some of the decisions, and focused on some things more than others.

I loved Justin Hill's first 11th century novel, Shieldwall, and had been awaiting the sequel for years. Viking Fire was worth the wait. Hill brings to life the icy vastness of Nordic mountain ranges and fjords, the freezing, often deadly wastes of the Baltic, the bejeweled and heady riches of Constantinople, the ancient temples of the Holy Land, and the savage intrigues, alliances and huge battles of great nations, all in the life-saga of one truly magnificent man. A man whose name Justin Hill will not allow to be forgotten: Harald Sigurdson, known as Hardrada, King of the North, the Last Viking.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 25 September 2016

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

It's been a busy summer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!


Tuesday, 20 September 2016

To History or Fantasy? That is the question!

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

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

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

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

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

Why Historical Fantasy? by Stephanie Churchill

Friday, 16 September 2016

What Annie Whitehead Learnt when Researching her Anglo-Saxon Novels

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

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

What Annie Whitehead Learnt when Researching her Anglo-Saxon Novels

1. That flour dust is highly flammable. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almond Plant

4. How vellum is made.

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

Charter of King Eadwig (Edwy) AD956

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

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

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

Connect with Annie Whitehead


Sunday, 21 August 2016

REVIEW: The Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews