Sunday, 4 November 2018

I couldn't NOT write if I tried, and other cliches!

I've often read the cliches quoted by other authors about how they couldn't NOT write or how their characters speak to them. 

I've always thought such things were nonsense. After all, I have now written six novels, so I can speak with some authority as an author, but I have published all of them since turning forty. The fact that I went for the first forty years of my life without feeling compelled to write has sometimes made me feel like a bit of a fraud. Perhaps only real authors cannot avoid writing. Maybe for real writers the compulsion to put pen to paper is stronger than I had ever felt.


But, as with so many cliches maybe the truth is that you only really understand them when they happen to you. Recently, I wasn't able to write for a couple of weeks and suddenly I got it. I imagine it's like an athlete who suffers an injury and is unable to compete in their chosen sport. As anyone who knows me will attest, I'm no athlete but the frustration at not being able to sit down and write was very real. I didn't hear the voices of my characters whispering to me, and I didn't dream of the stories that I must tell, but I did have the nagging feeling that I should be adding words to my current work in progress.



People occasionally ask me if I enjoy the writing process. This is a very difficult question to answer. It is extremely taxing to write a novel-length piece of prose, particularly one that others are going to want to read. There's the research and planning, and then, of course, the seemingly endless hours of writing page after page of the first draft, followed by yet more hours of editing and polishing. This is then followed by further edits and tweaks that are needed after my editor, copy editor, proofreader and test readers have all had their say. So I think to say that I enjoy the process would be a stretch. But the simple fact is I do enjoy the final product of the creative process and I especially like hearing from people who have enjoyed reading the books.

I recently got an email from a reader that made my day. It was a message thanking me for writing the Bernicia Chronicles. This isn't that unusual, and I always love getting emails like that from readers. What writer (or anyone for that matter) doesn't like receiving praise? But this email in particular stood out from the norm in that the sender seemed to fully understand how difficult it is to actually wring the stories out of my brain. He likened my writing to giving him a time machine, an ability to lose himself in the past as depicted in my stories, taking him away for a brief time from the humdrum day-to-day life of the 21st-century.

What made the email even better was the timing. It came after this extended period when I had been unable to write and I was facing the uphill struggle of getting back into the swing of the writing process. This was a very welcome boost, reminding me that there are many people looking forward to reading my next books. And this email, from someone I do not know and will probably never meet, provided me with a much-needed lift. For although I now understand the writers who say they could not NOT write, because I too feel as though I always have homework that needs to be handed in tomorrow, it doesn't make writing any easier!

So what am I saying with this whole rambling post? Perhaps this is just a way of avoiding carrying on with the writing! I'm sure that is true, but I also think I'm trying to say two things: first, don't dismiss cliches, as usually they are true, at least for someone, and secondly, if you have read and enjoyed a writer's work, don't underestimate the power you have to lift their morale with an email, tweet, Facebook comment or an online review. Writing is by its very nature a solitary pastime, and as the writers are alone for a long time during the gestation period of each book, it is all too easy to lose sight of why we do it.



So thank you to everybody who has taken a moment to contact me either directly or indirectly via reviews, it is really appreciated!

And now I'd better get back to writing my new book, which will be the first novel I have written outside of the Bernicia Chronicles series. I can't put it off any longer, I've got that nagging feeling that I need to get on with it. Those characters are calling to me. I couldn't NOT write it now even if I tried!

Sunday, 16 September 2018

REVIEW: THE DAMNED by Tarn Richardson

The Damned (The Darkest Hand Trilogy #1)The Damned by Tarn Richardson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In THE DAMNED Tarn Richardson brings us a devilish melange of historical fiction, thriller and horror, all blended together with copious amounts of gore against the backdrop of the early days of the First World War. Richardson's writing is fluid and literary, but without pretensions, and the plot is as action-packed as any airport novel, or even graphic novel (I am pretty sure there are nods to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's fabulous Watchmen in the story's denouement, which I don't think I imagined). The protagonist, Poldek Tacit, an embattled and flawed Catholic Inquisitor, is a powerful creation, but he would be weaker without the rich cast of supporting players. Here there are strong, sexual women, pompous cardinals, altruistic and pious priests and nuns, English Tommies, trying to maintain some semblance of dignity while their thoughtless, callous military leaders send them onward to certain death. Richardson's descriptive prose paints equally vivid images of mud-clogged trenches as sun-drenched Italian fields glimpsed during flashbacks into Tacit's troubled past. THE DAMNED is a truly genre-busting novel, with characters to root for and villains to despise. Highly recommended. There are two more books in the DARKEST HAND series, so this can be seen as the first course in what I am sure will be a delicious and wholly satisfying, if somewhat dark, angst-filled and gore-splattered, meal.

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Sunday, 29 July 2018

Prue Batten's MICHAEL, Book Three of the Triptych Chronicle

A few days ago, Prue Batten released her latest book, Michael, the third in her fabulous Triptych Chronicle. I am a fan of Prue's writing and everything points to Michael being just as great as the previous books in the series. So without further ado, here is Prue to tell us a little about the book and some of the issues she has faced while writing and researching it.

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Matthew, whose kind words featured on the cover of Guillaume, Book Two of The Triptych Chronicle, has invited me to post on his blog as I celebrate the launch of the finale to the twelfth century trilogy: Book Three - Michael.


Matthew has spoken in the past about the dilemma faced by fiction writers when research detail is thin on the ground. But he remained undeterred and seemed to have the same kind of excitement about the lack as myself.

It gives one scope and licence for the imagination…

The first issue for me was the setting for Michael. Much of actual twelfth century Constantinople was destroyed in two cataclysmic events – the Fourth Crusade and the Ottoman Conquest. I had to think hard and carefully about navigating the city. Fortunately, there’s clever online 3D modelling called http://www.byzantium1200.com It’s been a true godsend and has enabled me to walk the walk and talk the talk.


My novel is about twelfth century trade – about quality goods from the east and the covetousness that arises as western merchants fight to trade the best. I needed to find rare and highly valued commodities, the kind that would arouse deathly jealousies. In Michael, that became a silk called byssus, but there certainly wasn’t a surfeit of information. A snifter at most – the silk is rare and naturally golden, sourced from the sea and woven by a secret cadre of women through the centuries – true story. In fact, it is believed that the famous Blessed Veronica, imprinted with Christ’s face, is byssus. The silk’s value is undeniable, not least because of its enigmatic nature.

You see my problem.

Likewise, in trying to find a suitable convent outside Constantinople for one of my characters, I was concerned by Byzantine historian Judith Herrin’s prophetic words ‘many … are noted for a single reference and remain unidentified’. Once again, it seemed I was entering unchartered waters. I chose to once again make another fiction call, placing one of the ‘single reference’ nunneries, Xylinites, outside the city in a location of my choosing –west of the River Lycus that flows down into the city.

And then there was the Contarini family. They had a huge political, diplomatic and religious presence within Venice throughout its medieval and Renaissance history. Whilst there is evidence that they had dealings with Byzantium, there is no evidence of which of the many family members might have travelled there in 1195. Thus I ‘created’ a fictitious Contarini – Giacomo. It suited my plot to have Giacomo and Michael in the same room at the same time. It was one of Dorothy Dunnett’s greatest techniques and I enjoyed playing with the dice in such a way. But I do remember asking myself at one point, as another blank wall approached: ‘Are we having fun yet?’


In truth I loved every minute of writing this novel and its award-winning partners, Tobias and Guillaume. They were all hard-won stories but this one especially so, and I hope readers enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the journey.

Is this my final farewell perhaps to the twelfth century?


I’m not sure…


Michael is available at mybook.to/Sarapion

Click on the following links to find out more about Prue and her writing.

Website: http://www.pruebatten.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Prue.Batten.writer
Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/pruebatten
Amazon: http://author.to/pruebatten

Thursday, 21 June 2018

REVIEW: The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry

The Last Kind Words SaloonThe Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone who knows me will almost certainly have heard me mention that Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is one of my all time favourite books. I have read several other westerns penned by McMurtry, and whilst none of them has reached the heights of his Pulitzer-winning masterpiece, they have all been entertaining enough. So it was with some excitement that I spotted The Last Kind Words Saloon in a bookshop. I jumped at the chance to read a new McMurtry western, and the fact that it was short, was a plus for me, as I have very little time to read. That it was about Wyatt Earp, one of my favourite characters, clinched the deal.

I am not really sure what McMurtry was aiming for with The Last Kind Words Saloon, but it is written with his recognizable charm and sparse prose and has that feeling of authenticity that makes it feel as right as a well-worn pair of boots. Each chapter is a short vignette in the life of Earp, Doc Holliday, Charlie Goodnight and a handful of other western legends. The plot doesn't really go anywhere and McMurtry manages to sidestep and gloss over the showdown at the O.K. Corral, rather than make it the climax of the novel. I think this was intentional and perhaps says something about McMurtry's idea behind the novel. This is about the debunking of the western myths. Showing the sad, petty, violent and often lost people who became legends. There are no heroes in this vision of the American West, just drifters, drunks and chancers and some hard-working men and women who managed to forge a future for themselves in difficult times and in the harshest of terrains and climates.

It has the ennui of McMurtry's Buffalo Girls and perhaps even the shortness of the book was a nod to the subject matter being the sorrowful end of the golden age of the American frontier. If Lonesome Dove, with its close to a thousand pages, is a tour de force of western writing, The Last Kind Words Saloon, at about two hundred pages, feels like a shadow of McMurtry's most famous work, perhaps echoing the sad decline into insignificance of characters like Wyatt Earp who, rather than doing the decent thing and dying in a blaze of glory, lived out his later years in relative obscurity and poverty in California.

I enjoyed this book, mainly because McMurtry, even when he is not trying hard, can breathe life into his characters and write fabulous, insightful dialogue, but if you have not read Lonesome Dove, go there first. This one is for the true fan and best left as a slightly bitter digestif after the sumptuous main course.

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Friday, 4 May 2018

The Dark Ages is the best era - and here's why! A fun talk at Wrexham Carnival of Words.

This time last week I was at Wrexham in North Wales attending the Wrexham Carnival of Words festival. I was appearing as part of their popular Historical Fiction evening, sharing the stage with some wonderful authors.


The first part of the evening was a relaxed buffet mingling and chatting with the Wrexham Writers Group, which was a fabulously relaxed affair with fun and enlightening conversations and some wonderful catering. A special shout out for the Canadian lady who brought treats from her shop, The Canadian Cottage - the Peanut Butter Truffles are to die for, and they deliver all over the UK.


I had a lovely time, meeting the local authors and chatting all about writing and publishing.

Then came the main event, which was split into two halves. The night was compered by fellow historical fiction author, Dave McCall (who writes under the name, David Ebsworth). Dave was a wonderful host and ran the evening with just the right touch of humour and fun.

The first half of the proceedings was entitled My Era is Better than Yours, and it pitched four writers against each other, each trying to convince the audience that the era they write about is the best.


I talked about the Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages and alongside me were Carol McGrath (Norman Conquest), Michael Jecks (The Plantagenet Apocalypse) and Tony Riches (The Tudors).

Me, Carol McGrath, Michael Jecks and Tony Riches

Each of us spoke for six minutes, then there were questions from the audience, and then we were allowed a further minute to seal the deal. After that, the audience voted for their favourite era.

Well, I rolled out my secret weapons, that were reciting some of Beowulf in the original Old English and then mentioning that, without the Dark Ages, we would not have had J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, I won with a resounding majority of the votes! Not bad, considering, as I pointed out, the baddies in my books are often the Welsh!

You can read my full talk at the end of this post.

Robyn Young and Dave McCall

After a short break, Dave went on to interview Robyn Young about her novels and her journey as a writer. It was a relaxed, enlightening talk and the forty-five minutes flew by. Then we were all signing books and chatting, before heading back to the hotel for some wine and chips (apparently a tradition of the festival).

Signing books is always a blast, though I forget how to write my own name!

When we got back to the hotel, there had been a mix up and, despite the organisers having done the same thing for years, the new management of the hotel forbade us eating our chip-shop-bought chips in the hotel restaurant. So, after a few minutes of indignation, still basking in the glow of victory, I invited everyone up to my room.

Greasy chips! On my bed?!

What goes on in Wrexham stays in Wrexham!

It was all very rock and roll. There was talk about throwing the TV out of the window, but in the end the party was over by eleven, leaving me with a room filled with empty bottles and glasses and reeking of chips! And some great memories of Wrexham.

The aftermath of the after party!
Photo Copyright Matthew Harffy

My full talk notes
My Era is Better Than Yours - Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages

Being here in Wrexham is an honour, but I’m pretty sure that being here in Wales in particular is going to go against me. I can’t see how I can win because, although my era is of course better than all the others, my books are written from the perspective of the bloody Saes! Yes, the Anglo-Saxons, who become the English, are the main characters, and the Welsh are often the baddies! Of course it was the Anglo-Saxons who gave the Welsh their name, Welsh being the old English for foreign. You see the English penchant for disliking anyone different to them started long before Brexit!

So why is my era the best? The early medieval, as it is known by historians and academics, is more commonly known as the Dark Ages, a term coined by historians centuries ago who saw the decline of the Roman Empire as a descent into darkness and a loss of education and learning.

I like to call it the Dark Ages because nobody knows much about what was going on, especially in Britain. There are few primary sources and those there are, are pretty sketchy. All of this is great for an author! It is also sometimes known as the Heroic Age – and who doesn’t like a good heroic protagonist?

Hƿæt! Ƿē Gārdena     in ġēardagum,
þēodcyninga,     þrym ġefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas     ellen fremedon.

No, I haven’t just had a stroke, those are the opening lines of Beowulf translated by John McNamara
as:

Hail! We have heard tales sung of the Spear-Danes,
the glory of their war-kings in days gone by,
how princely nobles performed heroes’ deeds!
(Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005.)

Epics like Beowulf, the oldest English poem, came from this period. And the seeds of the legendary tales of King Arthur emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire. The greatest stories in the English language hearken from such a time of myth and legend, a time of scops singing their tales in the flickering light of smoky mead halls.

All good stories need conflict and Dark Ages Britain is rife with it – Angles and Saxons clash with the native Welsh, Anglo-Saxons fight other Anglo-Saxons, they fight the Picts, they fight the Irish, and of course later, they all fight the Vikings!

There were so many small kingdoms in Britain it was like a continent in miniature, providing a great scope for stories.

Not only were there battles between the different kingdoms, there were clashes between religions. It is a period before Christianity had become the overwhelming winner in the battle for the hearts and souls of the people of Britain. The Anglo-Saxons worshiped the pantheon of gods that were the same as those followed by the Vikings in all but name. Thunor/Thor, Woden/Odin, etc. Christianity came into Britain from Ireland and Iona in the West and North, and from the south from Rome and France over to Kent and through the kingdoms of Britain. As I said before, conflict makes for great stories and here there was a new God promising everlasting life battling against the old pagan gods that demanded sacrifice. Even the two strands of Christianity were in conflict. Culminating in the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, where such exciting things were discussed as the calculation of the date of Easter and the type of haircuts that monks should have! Heady stuff indeed!

The Dark Ages cemented so much of what we know today in our day to day lives. The names of the days of the week come from the gods - Woden gives us Wednesday, Thunor gives us Thursday, Tuesday is from Tiw, the God of war. Even the counties in many areas come from the kingdoms of pre-conquest Britain. Sussex for the South Saxons, Wessex for the West Saxons Essex, the East Saxons, Mercia, Powys and Gwynedd… all have their roots in the Dark Ages.

Even the name 'Wrexham' may possibly trace its etymological origins back to this period as being derived from an Old English name, 'Wryhtel' and 'hamm' meaning water meadow i.e. Wryhtel's meadow. And Wrexham was almost certainly founded by Anglo-Saxon Mercian colonists in the 8th century. So without the Dark Ages and those bloody Saes, we wouldn’t be talking here today!

With all the great battles and action you might be forgiven in thinking there is no place for women, but you’d be wrong! Women don’t have a great time in some of my books, but unlike later in history, it was an enlightened time in many ways. On marrying (which didn’t have to be done in church, by the way – after a couple plighted their troth and were hand-fasted, they were married). On getting married women were given a bride gift, which was theirs alone to do with as they pleased and they were also allowed to inherit and own land and wealth. Although the history of the era is crowded with kings, warriors and priests, there are also powerful women who commanded great influence, women such as Hild, the Abbess of Whitby, of the famous Synod. And others, such as Queen Eanflaed and her mother Ethelburga, who are often mentioned as having profound influence on the men in their lives, often changing the course of the politics of whole kingdoms. Nothing changes! I am sure Melania is running the United States of America!

Of course, as I said before, the Dark Ages are really the Early Middle Ages and apart from the lack of electric light, they were not that dark at all. If you look across the whole period you can see exquisite craftsmanship such as that seen in the Sutton Hoo burial and the Staffordshire Hoard, and of course the Lindisfarne Gospel and the Book of Kells were produced by monks in the British Isles in a time that is infamous for its lack of education. If you look wider, over the rest of the continent, the Moors bring algebra and advances in medicine and science in this time, and there were massive innovations in architecture across Europe.

In short, with its epic poems, the works of great craftsmanship, the impacts on our everyday language and place names, the Dark Ages still burn brightly in our history and our collective psyche, not to mention they still enthrall us and are a great backdrop for gripping novels!
And that is why my era, The Dark Ages, is the best!

Final closing comment

The others have talked about Shakespeare, and Boccaccio and Chaucer and the Domesday Book. I bring you an author better than any of those. The best author of the twentieth century! J.R.R. Tolkien!

The Dark Ages is a time of enlightenment and progress, as well as a huge amount of conflict. An era of great kings who stood in shieldwalls alongside their retinues of brave warriors. Kings like Oswald of Northumbria, who was part of the inspiration for one of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th century. In JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the exiled King of Gondor, who returns to claim his birthright, is based on Oswald.

On talking about the time when the epic poem Beowulf was written, Tolkien described it as “a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion”. It is an era, he said, that is to us “as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo”.

I think the echoes from that distant time still resonate today, particularly in the British Isles where people speak a language that after so many centuries still has essential kinship with that spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.

Beyond our language, we share many other characteristics with the men and women who recounted sagas and told riddles around the hearth fires of feast halls. Some would say we are still a bellicose people, and we certainly still like a good drink. But above all of that, just like those Dark Age forebears, all of us here tonight like a good story.

(Wrexham, 27th April, 2018)


Unless otherwise stated, all photographs copyright Phil Burrows.

Monday, 9 April 2018

REVIEW: DAUGHTER OF WAR by Simon Turney

Daughter of War (Knights Templar #1)Daughter of War by S.J.A. Turney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having conquered ancient Rome, Simon Turney turns his hand to medieval Spain.

Daughter of War is set in 1198. It is a period of upheaval and violence, a time of bloody reconquest, as Christians battle Moors to reclaim the kingdoms of Iberia. In this tumultuous time there are several factions, each vying for power, land and wealth and not all followers of Christ are friends of the Knights Templar. Against this canvas of intrigue, greed and uneasy alliances, Turney brings us the gripping tale of Arnau de Vallbona, a young knight, who finds himself thrust into conflict with a ruthless noble. Along with the lady he is sworn to protect, the honourable Arnau joins the "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon" where he learns there is great strength in giving oneself over to higher causes. And victory can come from placing one's faith not only in God, but in his new brothers and sisters of the Temple.

Turney is a master-storyteller and this is a classic, epic adventure that hurtles headlong like a galloping destrier. With prose and plotting as polished and sharp as a Templar's longsword, Simon Turney propels the reader into the turbulent time of twelfth century Spain.

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