Category Archives: Guest post

‘Writing Cromwell’s London’ – Guest post by Antonia Senior, author of The Tyrant’s Shadow

The Tyrant's Shadow by Antonia SeniorThis week, Corvus published The Tyrant’s Shadow, Antonia Senior’s third novel and the second to be set in the troubled middle years of the 17th century. The Civil War, and Cromwell’s Commonwealth, is one of the most compelling periods in English history (Oxford, where I live, is steeped in Civil War history) and I can’t get enough of it. I am so pleased to be able to host a guest post in which Antonia Senior looks at the challenges an author faces in bringing this period, and its remarkable personalities, back to life – especially Oliver Cromwell. Many thanks to Antonia for taking the time to write such a fascinating piece.

First, here is a little about The Tyrant’s Shadow. A review will follow shortly.

A court without a kingdom, a kingdom without a king…England, 1652: since Charles I’s execution the land has remained untethered, the people longing for change. When Patience Johnson meets preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she believes her destiny is to become his wife and help him spread the Lord’s word. Simmonds sees things quite differently. Patience’s brother Will has been bestowed the job of lawyer to Oliver Cromwell. Tasked with aiding England’s most powerful man, he must try to overcome his grief after the loss of his wife. Then Sam Challoner, Will’s brother-in-law, returns unannounced after years in exile, forcing Will and Patience to question their loyalties: one to a ruler, the other, a spouse. Who do they choose to save? Themselves, their loved ones or their country…

Writing Cromwell’s London

I was raised to hate Oliver Cromwell. Hatred of Cromwell, dark mutterings about Drogheda and a bone-deep affection for the Mountains of Mourne – these the are legacies of an Irish mother. It was a dark day when, steeled with red wine and misplaced bravado, I said to my Mum: “Actually, I don’t think Oliver Cromwell was so bad. In fact, I quite like him.”

Readers, she was not tickled.

Treason's Daughter by Antonia SeniorI went looking for Cromwell the Monster in the sources when I set out to write The Tyrant’s Shadow. My first book on the period, Treason’s Daughter, followed events from 1640 until the death of Charles 1 in 1649. My second Stuart novel, The Tyrant’s Shadow, is set in London in the mid 1650s – when England’s politicians and soldiers are desperately attempting to find a solution to the King-shaped hole in the constitution.

For me, this is one of the most fascinating moments in all of English history. We were without a King; without a settled constitution. A vacuum of power, and a violently unsettled body-politic. In all my work, I have grappled with the nature of power; how is it earned, exercised and lost. And more pertinently as a novelist, perhaps, why do people want it?

This is no new pre-occupation for a writer. In my novel, my character Will quotes Lucan’s Civil War – a masterpiece study on the men who fought for Rome, written by a poet compromised by his proximity to Nero’s toxic court. “As long as earth supports the sea and air the earth, there will be no loyalty between associates in tyranny and no power will tolerate a partner.’

This is the position in 1653: power is uneasily shared between Cromwell as head of the army, the army itself, and parliament. But the triumvirate is fatally flawed – all three partners want different things; and there is further dissent between army factions and within Parliament. There are two versions of what happened next. Version 1 has King Oliver violently seizing power as the fruition of years of scheming. Version 2 has Saint Oliver reluctantly taking charge to prevent a descent into anarchy and madness.

The answer, I think, is a tangle of the two. And it is these historical tangles that are irresistible to a novelist. In I wriggled, looking for the hints and clues, extrapolating wildly. I found not a monster, but a man who believed himself sincere, who was continually compromised by the exigencies of wielding power. A man who could be both sincere and duplicitous, violent and gentle.

I also found God. Not personally, you understand. There is nothing like a good rummage in the barmy theistic arguments of the seventeenth century to bolster your atheism. But Cromwell cannot be weighed without reference to his great and bombastic belief in God’s providence working through him.

God presents problems to the secular novelist. He is central to understanding the torments of Stuart Britain. It is too easy to be a little sneering of these ardent beliefs – which seem to us to be dancing on the head of a pin. Fighting over the unknowable. I was reminded of 6th century Constantinople – the setting for an earlier, unpublished novel. There were riots on the streets, vicious, bloody affairs whose entire catalyst was over the nature of Christ: was He both God and Human separately and simultaneously, or was He His own divine mesh of the two?

It is easy to mock the sincerity of these beliefs. Hard to understand that for our forefathers who interpreted the bible literally, these were not arcane arguments of the cloister, but questions of faith which could lead to eternal damnation in a flaming hell.

God, I think, is one of the reasons why the English Civil Wars are not a popular era for readers. Publishers find it hard to shift books on the Civil Wars, which is odd given the attractions: a murdered King, families split apart, a high blood count, stories of great courage and great betrayals.

But God muddies the waters. It is not east to know which side you are on. The old adage that the Parliamentarians were Right but Repulsive and the Royalists were Wrong but Romantic is actually pretty fair. Our 21st century souls rejoice in the Parliamentarians’ distrust of tyranny and impulse to freedom, but recoils at the peculiar joylessness of their puritanism.

And of course, the rebels ended up, anyway, with King Noll – a tyrant of sorts. But as tyrants go he was no Robespierre, no Lenin, no Mao. His Shadow was relatively benign. Unless you were an Irish catholic, I can hear my Mother muttering darkly.

Why did Cromwell want power? I did not quite find him – he is too obscured by other people’s views of his motives. I found a man who inspired great loyalty, and devotion. A man who roused fierce hatred. A man who tried – but often failed – to hold the moderate line in a world turned upside down.

Cromwell’s London is a place of subtlety and shadow – and I loved writing it for all the reasons that make the era difficult to sell. It is full of ambiguities. In The Tyrant’s Shadow, there is another Tyrant – a domestic one, rather than a political one. The obverse of tyranny is complicity with it; and I wanted to explore this idea as well. My heroine, Patience, is married to man of certainties who treats her badly. At one point, as he hits her, she thinks: “He will do as he will do. Such is the nature of tyranny. All she can do is find her pride, hiding in peculiar corners.”

‘What seven things you should know if you want to write crime fiction’ – Guest post by Paul Finch

Ashes to Ashes by Paul FinchThis week, Avon publishes Ashes to Ashes, the sixth novel in one of my very favourite crime series – the DI Mark Heckenburg books by Paul Finch. My review is on the way (the book was my holiday companion in Italy last week) but in the meantime I’m delighted to host a Blog Tour guest post from Paul Finch on the intriguing subject of ‘What seven things should you know if you want to write crime fiction?’. It is a brilliant post!

Before that, here’s a little of what Ashes to Ashes is about:

John Sagan is a forgettable man. You could pass him in the street and not realise he’s there. But then, that’s why he’s so dangerous.

A torturer for hire, Sagan has terrorised – and mutilated – countless victims. And now he’s on the move. DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg must chase the trail, even when it leads him to his hometown of Bradburn – a place he never thought he’d set foot in again.

But Sagan isn’t the only problem. Bradburn is being terrorised by a lone killer who burns his victims to death. And with the victims chosen at random, no-one knows who will be next. Least of all Heck…

What seven things should you know if you want to write crime fiction?

Well, it’s an interesting question, and certainly one I haven’t been asked before. Off the top of my head, I can think of seven things it might be useful for you to know. I wouldn’t say that these are the seven most important things, but it probably wouldn’t do you any harm to be forearmed, as they say. So here we go…

Guilt goes with the territory

This may seem a curious thing to say, but it reflects reality. By its nature, crime and thriller writing deals with the darker end of the human experience. It won’t just be routine wickedness you are exploring. Whether your lead characters are heroes or villains, they’ll be dicing with danger, skating along the edge of the abyss, doing all kinds of things that law-abiding citizens in normal life never would. Now, if you want your writing to be authentic, you’ve got to go the extra mile to ensure that you get the facts of these matters correct. That will entail lots of online research into areas you wouldn’t usually go anywhere near, such as the formation and organisation of criminal empires, the methods and modus operandi of serial killers, the anatomies of the world’s most successful bank robberies and/or assassination plots, the use and availability of illegal firearms, the impact upon human bodies of poison, nerve gas, biological weaponry, the formation of police investigation teams and the emergency procedures they follow, the complexities of drugs-trafficking, the risk and probability of terrorist attacks, the depth and breadth of those security shields that protect western cities against such catastrophic threats.

All of this is going to make fascinating reading, of course, for a security expert should he/she ever have call to examine your online activity. You will have the excuse that you’re a crime writer and that it’s all part of the game, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel a tad nervous when you’re indulging in it.

You’ll be challenged on facts

Never has the phrase ‘facts matter’ been more relevant than it is to the average crime/thriller writer. One of the most basic problems you have as an author in this field is that you’re straying into a fascinating, complex world which also, rather inconveniently, happens to be real. So, for example, you may be delving into law enforcement with all the procedures, protocols and legalities inherent to that. If you think that’s tough, you may also find yourself concerned with military matters, or security issues involving international law, the intelligence services and/or spec ops deployment. Medical and forensics questions will almost certainly arise; you may need to discuss weapons, explosives and the like. But the real problem is that you’ll likely encounter real-life people who have expertise in these fields, and if you get things wrong, they may well call you to account – sometimes in public.

While it’s not incumbent on you to become a guru in these matters, it would certainly help if you did some basic research. Whatever you do, don’t wing it.

(I will add that it won’t matter quite so much with the likes of MI6 and/or the SAS, as they’ll never comment anyway, and almost certainly will be delighted if you spread misinformation about their techniques).

You can chat to those who know

Library and internet research may help you factually, but it’s often a dry process and is unlikely to hit you from left-field with cool new ideas. In contrast, speaking to someone who’s actually done unusual things in his/her life can be much more fruitful. And the good thing is, with the exception of those ultra-secret organisations I mention above, most members of the security services are happy to chat about it, though they only tend to do so if approached … so don’t feel awkward about trying to pick their brains.

Police officers or ex-police officers are particularly good in this regard. I have a slight advantage here as an ex-copper, in that they may feel they can trust me more with the really juicy stuff, but I’d be surprised if the majority weren’t willing to have a chat with any writer. There may be certain areas they won’t go if they don’t already know you, but on the whole I think they’ll be willing to talk widely and informatively about their job. Never make the assumption that they’ll think you’re silly. They won’t. Many coppers I know also read crime fiction, while others would like to write – to immortalize their own exploits – but can’t, and so become very protective of writers they form relationships with, as they see that as the next best thing.

It is not a solitary profession

The semi-mythical image of the writer slugging on alone in his/her attic, virtually penniless and with no one to call a friend, particularly does NOT apply to the crime/thriller writer. I mean, I can’t comment on the ‘penniless’ bit – that all depends on your personal circs, but you DO have friends.

In all the literary fields, I’ve never known anywhere where the networking between practitioners is quite as vibrant as it is in crime and thrillers. There are literally hundreds of authors writing this material at professional level, both at home and overseas, and they’re all doing exactly the same things you are: hammering away at their keyboards, proof-reading, flipping through websites on the research trail, chatting things over with their agents and editors – and not always to their personal satisfaction. More importantly, thanks to the internet, most of these men and women are now connected. There are all kinds of online crime-writer clubs you can join, places where friendships are made, experiences aired and info shared (and info about which publisher has a new slot available, or which editor is looking for what can be very useful indeed). This is a great way to relieve pressure, because it shows that you aren’t the only person struggling with writer’s block, or character development, or just with the sheer physical effort of trying to finish a full-length novel. Likewise, there are many crime fiction conventions and festivals you can attend, and crime-writing societies you can join. A burden shared is a burden halved and all that, on top of which a lively social life, especially when it’s crammed with folk who all share the same interest, can only improve your quality of life.

Readers can take as much as you can give them

Don’t be lulled into thinking that, just because certain subgenres within the overarching genre of crime writing are cosier than others – a good example being the ‘village green murder mystery’ – you have to handle your readers with kid gloves. In short, it’s quite the opposite.

One of the best examples of village green-style crime fiction in the modern day is the TV series, Midsomer Murders, and look at the body-counts in that, not to mention the various methods of dispatch. We’ve seen people killed with farm-tools, sliced, diced, decapitated, churned up by combine harvesters. One poor chap was beaten to death with cricket balls fired at him out of a batting machine. Crime readers, whatever style they prefer, are generally speaking a ghoulish bunch, who are here to enjoy a dalliance with the darkness. So, don’t hold back. As long as you don’t deal with death in juvenile fashion, you can, on the whole, pile on the grimness and violence. I mean, personally I’m a great believer in less being more, but I don’t think you can pussy-foot around the subject of murder, especially in this modern age when ‘true crime’ is so popular – and there ain’t nothing gorier than ‘true crime’.

So, if you feel you need to lay it on, don’t worry about the sensibilities of your readers. Lay it on.

Crime writing is a very broad church

So many people who don’t read crime/thriller fiction have complete misconceptions about it. They immediately think Agatha Christie and the traditional English whodunnit. That is undeniably there and is very popular. Sidney Chambers, the crime-fighting village vicar of James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries, still embodies something of that atmosphere, and his adventures sell widely. But there are other fields too. Our fictional crime-fighters, like crime-fighters in real life, vary across the spectrum – from sticklers for procedure and crusaders of correctness to embittered louts who are never any better than they need to be and subsequently walk tightropes through a world of crime and sleaze. It doesn’t even stop there; often we use hardboiled PIs as our models, the smart-mouthed heroes created by James Crumley, Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler, who are no strangers to the seediest worlds imaginable and will play by any rules to win. Sometimes the villains themselves are our central characters. The violent gangland thrillers of Ted Lewis, Malcolm Mackay and Howard Linskey perfectly exemplify this.

So there you have it; we range from those quintessential leafy villages in the heart of Middle England to urban hells populated by addicts, prostitutes, contract killers and corrupt politicians.

Oh yes, we’ve got it all. Feel free to explore at random.

There is no requirement to write on the side of good

As I intimated in earlier paragraphs, we are not, as authors, bound by real-world morality.

For my money, one of the best crime thrillers ever written is Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis, which was published in 1970 but filmed in 1971, perhaps more famously, as Get Carter. It tells the tale of a mobster from the North of England who makes good in London, but when his brother is murdered back home, gets on a train in a quest for gangland justice. What follows is a brutal, gritty noir filled with anger and darkness, and in the character of Jack Carter, it gives us an amoral and uncompromising hero, a cold-blooded hardman who is only different from the evil hoodlums he finds himself gunning for because his personal code of ethics is marginally more admirable than theirs.

But hey, this again reflects reality. You’ve doubtless heard the phrase ‘it takes a wolf to catch a wolf’. Well, we crime authors mustn’t be ashamed of putting that into practice. Morally ambiguous heroes are often far more interesting than those goodie two-shoes of the old school. In any case, as I say… this is fiction, not real life, so it doesn’t matter anyway. If that’s what you want to do with your book, go for it.

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I can’t thank Paul enough for such a wonderful, fascinating post!

For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Ashes to Ashes blog tour

‘My nearly debut novel’ – Guest post by G.J. Minett, author of Lie in Wait

Last week, Zaffre published the paperback of Lie in Wait, the latest crime thriller from G.J. Minett. To mark the occasion, I’m delighted to host a guest post in which the author tells us about his ‘nearly debut novel’, a novel with a really rather unusual name. But first, a little of what Lie in Wait is all about:

A man is dead. A woman is missing. And the police have already found their prime suspect…

Owen Hall drives into a petrol station to let his passenger use the facilities. She never comes back – and what’s more, it seems she never even made it inside.

When Owen raises a fuss, the police are called – and soon identify Owen himself as a possible culprit – not least because they already have him in the frame for another more sinister crime.

Owen’s always been a little different, and before long others in the community are baying for his blood. But this is a case where nothing is as it seems – least of all Owen Hall…

A dark, addictive thriller, ingeniously plotted with a twist that will make you gasp, LIE IN WAIT is perfect for readers of Angela Marsons or Rachel Abbott.

‘My nearly debut novel’

Given that I’ve been writing since I was at primary school and have harboured dreams of being a published author for more years than I’d care to admit, it would be fair to say that the words ‘overnight success’ are never going to feature in any summary of my career to date. Like most authors however I had my fair share of near misses along the way and none more frustrating than with the first novel I ever completed.

I had started it while still at university, then put it not so much on the back burner as in the freezer for a few years when I started teaching. It was initially called Lobello (don’t ask!) and was a somewhat anarchic comedy about life at university – think Tom Sharpe without the polish and you won’t go far wrong. When I came back to it a few years later, it attracted the attention of an agent who was then in the early stages of his career but who is now a household name – I shan’t say who because he may not wish to reminded of those days! He really liked the novel and asked if he could represent me, which was not the most challenging question I’ve ever been asked, I have to say. He even came to visit us at home although I suppose the fact that he was also visiting one of his established authors nearby may have had something to do with it.

Most writers will understand what I went through over the next twelve months. Every so often I would receive a letter, saying which publishers had been approached. Then the rejections started coming in, most saying positive things but all ending with a few variations on the theme of ‘in the current economic climate’ and the inevitable ‘thanks but no thanks’. My agent tried, bless him. He got me to rework the prologue and opening chapters, changed the title to One Degree Under, tried just about every publishing house around until even someone with his boundless enthusiasm had to bow to the inevitable and call it a day.

He has now gone on to establish himself as a leading figure in the literary world. Lobello/One Degree Under on the other hand has been stuck in a drawer ever since and doesn’t often see the light of day. The last time I took it out and dusted it off, I have to admit there were still passages that made me laugh but the weaknesses are so egregious I can’t imagine what possessed either of us to believe it deserved to be published.

It’s served its purpose though over the years. It proved I could sustain a novel right through to the end. It was the first indication I’d ever had that someone in the literary world felt I could write. It engendered correspondence with other prominent figures which encouraged me to believe that if I ever got my act together and had a serious run at it, I might just be able to get a novel published someday. If I’d realised then how long it would take, I might have reassessed a few priorities and gone for it in a big way much earlier.

Can’t complain though. It may have been a long time coming but it’s been more than worth it. And even if it’s only because of its sentimental value, I’ll probably take that first novel out of the drawer another five or ten years from now and read it again. The words soft spot were coined for things such as that.

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For other stops on the Blog Tour, please take a look at the poster below.

‘Why I write’ – Guest post by Brad Parks, author of Say Nothing

This month, Faber & Faber published thriller Say Nothing by Brad Parks. I’ll be reviewing this shortly but, in the meantime, I’m delighted to host a very entertaining guest post from Brad on why he writes and what he gets out of it. But first, a little of what Say Nothing is about:

On a normal Wednesday afternoon, Judge Scott Sampson is preparing to pick up his six-year-old twins for their weekly swim. His wife Alison texts him with a change of plan: she has to take them to the doctor instead. So Scott heads home early. But when Alison arrives back later, she is alone – no Sam, no Emma – and denies any knowledge of the text . . .

The phone then rings: an anonymous voice tells them that the Judge must do exactly what he is told in an upcoming drug case and, most importantly, they must ‘say nothing’.

So begins this powerful, tense breakout thriller about a close-knit young family plunged into unimaginable horror. As a twisting game of cat and mouse ensues, they know that one false move could lose them their children for ever.

Hugely suspenseful – with its fascinating insight into the US judicial system and its politics of influence and nepotism – Say Nothing is, above all, the poignant story of the terror these parents face, and their stop-at-nothing compulsion to get their children back.

Guest Post: Why I Write

Given recent events, you poor Brits are surely accustomed to crass, boorish Americans—not mentioning names or anything—so this shouldn’t come as a shock:

I got into writing for the money and the sex.

It’s true, oh gentle For Winter Nights readers. My first writing gig was for a local weekly newspaper, when I was fourteen. The job paid 50 cents a column inch, which was more than I could make babysitting.

So that was the money. As for the sex? The gig involved covering the high school girls basketball team.

Now, suspend your disbelief, but at fourteen I wasn’t quite the paragon of strapping masculinity that I am today. I was short, fat, and wore braces. However, I figured that if I was writing for the paper, girls would have to talk to me. And then I’d be able to work my charm on them and get dates.

(Pause).

Yeah, that part didn’t quite work out. But it did introduce me to the joy of storytelling, and to what I soon discovered was the real reason I got into writing:

I love being read.

No matter how cringe-worthy my articles were—and, trust me, they were bad—the mothers and fathers of these girls basketball players would lap it up, and then report back their thoughts about that week’s article.

It made me eager to impress them with my insight, to entertain them with witty turns of phrases, to get them talking about my story in the bleachers at the next game—no matter how sophomoric my prose actually was.

I’ve come a long way as a writer since that time (or at least I hope I have). But some things haven’t changed. My fundamental goal when I sit down to write is still to make people react to my words—whether they’re feeling tension, or laughing, or crying, or something else altogether.

This feels like an especially appropriate confession to make at For Winter Nights, because this blog covers such a wide swath of genre fiction. And, to me, the real hallmark of great genre fiction is that it values the entertainment of the reader over the self-gratification of the writer.

Don’t get me wrong, I get a ton of enjoyment out of this, too—it’s a wonderful, albeit patently ridiculous, way to make a living. But I’m never going to let my own needs take precedence over yours as a reader.

And when I hear from one of you, saying my book made you stay up all night to finish it? From where I sit, that’s even better than money.

But not sex. This writing thing has its limits, you know.

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Say Nothing by Brad Parks is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)
Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. Say Nothing is his UK debut.

For other stops on the Blog Tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Guest post: The background for the Bernicia Chronicles by Matthew Harffy

To celebrate the publication by Aria earlier this month of Blood and Blade, the third novel in the Bernicia Chronicles, I’m delighted to host a guest post by its author Matthew Harffy. In it, Matthew presents his thoughts on the term ‘Dark Ages’ and discusses the background to the Chronicles, which are set during a fascinating yet enigmatic period of British history, a period that sets challenges all of its own to historical authors.

My reviews of The Serpent Sword and Blood and Blade

Blood and Blade by Matthew HarffyThe background for The Bernicia Chronicles – Where does the history come from?

People often ask me if it is difficult to write about a period that is often referred to as the Dark Ages. They ask about the sources I use and how I can know what it was like and what happened. The short answer is, I can’t know. Nobody can really know what it was like to live in seventh century Britain. But, we can guess and we can make informed judgements.

Most, if not all, historians and academics of the post-Roman period of British history deplore the term “Dark Ages”, feeling that it somehow denigrates the amazing feats of craftsmanship, art and learning of the time. But I think the term is right for many reasons. First, of course, it really would have been dark. Houses and halls were lit by a central hearth and maybe some rush lights or oil lamps. Candles were expensive and rare, and apart from the richest in society, the setting of the sun probably signalled bedtime.

The second reason I feel that the term is accurate is that there are very few first-hand written accounts from the period. The Germanic tribes that settled in Britain after the Romans left were not a literate people. They had written language, runes, and created great sagas, poems and riddles, but they rarely wrote these things down. Most of the Old English texts that have survived, such as Beowulf, were written centuries after the seventh century.

The third reason for the term, I think, is that archaeology from the time is so hard to come by. Of course, in such a densely populated island as Great Britain, there are many finds; especially of burials, which is where we obtain much of our knowledge of the people of the era. But the Anglo-Saxons built their houses in wood, and timber doesn’t last long when unattended in the British climate, so there are no buildings left for us to walk around, no crumbling castles, mosaic floors or huge walls to marvel at. We must rely on aerial photos and LIDAR data giving away the location of great royal halls, and then piece together what they may once have looked like.

The Serpent Sword by Matthew HarffyAgainst this backdrop of what I think of as Dark Age Britain, you could be forgiven for believing that putting together a story that is gripping and also factually accurate is nigh impossible. But what some see as a hindrance, I see as a blessing. The period gives me great freedom to craft plots without being constrained in the same way that I would be if I wrote about a later time when there were newspapers, written diaries and an almost infinite number of primary sources.

I have bookshelves full of history books about the Anglo-Saxons, their clothing, their weapons, their politics, their kings, and all manner of other subjects, but the two books I return to over and over are The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Bede’s History of the English Church and People. I read the events described within these tomes and try to find something that sparks my attention. For The Serpent Sword it was a mention of the year following the death of King Edwin. Bede described the year as “looked upon by all people as despicable and shameful”. He goes on to talk about the savagery of Cadwallon’s harrowing of Northumbria. I thought this would make the perfect backdrop for my hero’s story. In The Cross and the Curse, it was the battle of Heavenfield and the coming of the first Christian bishop from Iona that caught my eye. In Blood and Blade, the story of the protagonist, Beobrand, is told around two historical events – the marriage of Oswald to the daughter of King Cynegils of Wessex and the siege of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh).

The Cross and the CurseAs soon as I have the idea for the historical events, I read up as much as I can about them and then go about weaving a page-turning plot around them. I map out the novel as best I can, with the limited information available, and then I get writing, focusing much more on the story, than the history. I rely on my prior reading and immersion in the period for the day-to-day details, and I also do further research to fill in any gaps after completing the first draft.

Another area of research that really helps to bring the period to life is that of living history, or practical archaeology, as carried out by groups such as Wulfheodenas and Regia Anglorum. There is so much that has been learnt by these extremely dedicated and knowledgeable people who some might see as just wanting to dress up in chain mail and hit each other! But there is so much more to what they do than the battle re-enactments (though I am sure it is the fighting that attracts most spectators, and possibly most people to join the groups). They recreate all of the tools, clothing, armour and weaponry using only resources that were available to our Anglo-Saxon forebears. Regia Anglorum has even built a full-size hall at a site they own, called Wychurst. Talking to people who have helped forge tools and build halls, men and women who have worn kirtles, breeches and byrnies and stood in a shieldwall on a rainy Saturday afternoon, people who have not only read about these things, but actually lived them, is a wonderful way to get what all historical fiction writers strive for – authenticity.

Ultimately, I cannot know whether the stories I write have any bearing on what really happened. In fact, I would be very surprised if events were anything like I portray them in the Bernicia Chronicles. But I am not trying to explain Dark Age Britain’s history, I am seeking to entertain. All I want to do is to tell a good tale against a backdrop of a credible seventh century. What I am aiming for is that when a reader finishes one of my books, they feel they have seen into a lost world. Did it happen that way? Was it like that? Almost certainly not, but I hope readers go away thinking that it might have been.

Matthew HarffyAuthor info:
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.

Book info and links:
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 also available for pre-order.

Contact links
Website: www.matthewharffy.com
Twitter: @MatthewHarffy
Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Blood and Blade blog tour poster

What’s in a name? – Guest post by Joanna Hickson, author of First of the Tudors

First of the Tudors by Joanna HicksonOn 1 December, Harper published First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson, the first in a new series of novels to portray the rise to power of quite possibly the most famous, and infamous, royal dynasty in English history. It begins with Jasper Tudor, uncle to the young Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, and what a fantastic story it is. Moving from castle to castle at a time when England and Wales were torn apart by the Wars of the Roses, First of the Tudors is a thoroughly enjoyable and lively account of such a fascinating time and Jasper Tudor is placed right at the heart of it all.

To celebrate the publication of First of the Tudors, I’m delighted to host a guest post by Joanna Hickson, in which she discusses the problems she encountered in naming her historical characters. Jasper Tudor had a very unusual name, even for the 15th century. Where did that come from? And what to do when so many important historical figures share the same name?

Review of First of the Tudors

What’s in a name?

When you write novels based on the history of medieval Europe there is often a problem identifying one character from another, because the same Christian names crop up time and time again in the family trees of the major dynasties. In England during the fifteenth century for instance the name Henry occurs confusingly often, cropping up in kings no less than four times and, due to the habit of sycophantic nobles calling their offspring after the reigning monarch, in almost every other courtier family fortunate enough to have sons. In First of the Tudors I have avoided repetition by calling Margaret Beaufort’s posthumous son, who was dutifully baptised Henry, by the Welsh variant of his name, which is Harri, leaving the ‘proper’ name to his half-uncle, King Henry VI.

Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna HicksonIt was a device I adopted in one of my previous novels set earlier in the century when the name Richard had become almost ubiquitous, owing to the initial popularity of the boy-king, Richard II. I made a guess that this could have been awkward for young noblemen arriving at court twenty years later saddled with the name of a monarch who had been unceremoniously usurped by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV. So, having an embarrassment of Richards to deal with in Red Rose White Rose I decided to give one of the three central Richard characters the nickname Hal after the new king’s son and heir, who Shakespeare also nicknamed Prince Hal. And following this thread, I had no hesitation in calling my Hal’s son and heir Dick rather than Richard, because he was a pugnacious character who became a very powerful earl, played a key role in the Wars of the Roses and eventually became famously known as ‘Warwick, the Kingmaker’. That left me free to use the name in full for his cousin, who so nearly became King of England himself, Richard, Duke of York, husband of the novel’s central character, Cicely Neville.

It was necessary to be similarly inventive when Henry VI’s longed-for heir was baptised Edward, named for the pre-Norman-conquest saint, King Edward the Confessor, at whose shrine in Westminster Abbey his mother had prayed desperately for a son. Unfortunately when this little prince was still a child, his cousin Edward of York seized the throne and became King Edward IV and suddenly there were too many Edwards in my timeline! However, as his mother was a French princess and a lady who dominated her monkish and withdrawn husband, I considered it more than likely that she would have insisted on using the French version of his name, so that he becomes Prince Édouard in the pages of my book. In the same vein, despite English historians invariably referring to her as Margaret of Anjou, she appears as Queen Marguerite in First of the Tudors, because one of the other important female characters is Lady Margaret Beaufort, also a proud and strong-willed woman, who definitely would not have appreciated having her name ignobly shortened to Meg or Maggie!

The Agincourt Bride by Joanna HicksonHappily I had no identity dilemma with the hero of First of the Tudors – Jasper Tudor. In fact it was his unusual Christian name that drew me to him in the first place as it was a conundrum I confronted in The Tudor Bride, a novel which focussed on the clandestine ‘misalliance’ between Henry V’s widow Queen Catherine de Valois and her Master of the Wardrobe, Owen Tudor. While their firstborn son received one of the usual panoply of noble names, being baptised Edmund, I felt I had to figure out why the couple went completely off-piste for their second and called him Jasper? While I would not claim that no other boy was baptised with that name in England in the fifteenth century, I have not come across one during many, many years of researching the period.

Don’t get me wrong, I personally think Jasper a splendid name and lucky are the several hundred boys who have received it annually in twenty first century Britain. But in 1430, which is roughly when my new hero was born, it was unusual – probably unheard of – in England. And therein lies a clue, for there were a number of Jaspers documented in France at the time and of course his mother, once again, was French. Jasper was thought to be a corruption of Caspar, one of the Three Magi who were much revered in the medieval Roman Catholic Church and perhaps a name given to boys born on Twelfth Night or Epiphany, celebrated as the day the Magi brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. The other two were called Balthazar and Melchior, names very occasionally also found in medieval European courts.

The Tudor Bride by Joanna HicksonSo as a princess, Catherine de Valois could have heard of the name but what circumstance might have caused her to break with English noble tradition and give it to her younger son? Well, Jasper also happens to be the name of a semi-precious gemstone, much used in medieval jewellery, most frequently in its red form known as bloodstone, although it comes in many and varied colours. Jasper Tudor was a redhead; the Welsh bards who sang his praises during the Wars of the Roses particularly refer to this fact. This is one of the delights of writing historical fiction; coincidence is allowed and we wander spellbound in the realms of extrapolation from the little snippets of information our research throws up. Another of them that rose to the surface for me was the fact that medieval midwives believed jasper to be an aid in relieving the pain of childbirth. It did not require a huge leap of imagination to picture Queen Catherine owning an item of jewellery set with bloodstones and for it to be used during the birth of her second Tudor child, a boy that proved to have hair the colour of those stones.
Jasper was a name that suited him perfectly, as a powerful courtier and wandering knight errant and one that actually ‘made his name’. For although he was created Earl of Pembroke by his half-brother Henry VI and should therefore have officially been referred to as Lord Pembroke, in the poetry of the Welsh bards and other fifteenth century historical sources he was simply called Lord Jasper – my hero!

Living among the extraordinary maiko of Kyoto, Japan – Guest post by Lesley Downer, author of The Shogun’s Queen

The Shogun's Queen by Lesley DownerThis week, Bantam Press publishes Lesley Downer’s new novel The Shogun’s Queen. This attractive novel, set during the middle years of the 19th century, tells of the transformation of the young and beautiful Okatsu from being an independent and free-sprited member of a samurai people, the Satsuma Clan, to becoming Princess Atsu, concubine and consort to the shogun himself. The Shogun’s Queen is both a romance and an adventure as Atsu’s changing fortunes are played out against a backdrop of Japanese politics, piracy, warfare and secrets. And Atsu is destined to play a role at the heart of it.

I’m delighted to host a guest post from Lesley Downer as part of the blog tour that celebrates the publication of The Shogun’s Queen. In it, Lesley tells us of her own experiences while researching the novel, a journey that led her to live among the geisha and maiko of Japan.

Living among the extraordinary maiko (trainee geisha) of Kyoto, Japan

When I’m in grey wintry London I spend a lot of my time in my mind back in Japan. There men and women lead rather separate lives and I was privileged to find myself welcomed into the women’s world. I often think back to the extraordinary time when I lived among geisha.

When I was in Kyoto doing research for my latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, I often went back to Miyagawa-cho, the geisha district where I used to live, to look up my friends among the geisha and maiko.

The upstairs room I stayed in for 6 months there only had three proper walls. The fourth was just sliding glass doors which didn’t do a very good job of keeping out the cold in winter or the heat in summer. I could hear every noise on the street outside. The doors opened onto a narrow balcony. I’d stand there and look down at the maiko clip clopping by on their high wooden clogs, chattering and laughing.

Lesley with a maiko friend

Lesley with a maiko friend

Maiko are trainee geisha. Most are in their mid-teens but they are magical creations – creatures of artifice, not teenagers. Their hair is oiled into stiff wings by the local hairdresser, who tucks in wads of yak’s hair to give volume. In the evening their faces are painted shimmering white and glow in the dark and they paint just the middle of the bottom lip with a single petal of bright red, which gives their mouths a pouting, bee stung look. They wear spectacular richly-coloured kimonos with long sleeves with bells that tinkle as they walk and a stiff very long obi sash of glittering brocade tied into a huge bow at the back with the ends hanging nearly to the ground.

They’re walking works of art – which is what the word ‘geisha’ means – ‘artiste’. Gei is ’arts’, sha is ’person’. In Kyoto the trainee geisha (aged 15 to 20) are called maiko – literally ‘dancing girls’ and the adults who’ve finished their training and qualified as geisha are geiko – ‘arts girls’. In all the other cities in Japan – and yes, there are geisha in every city in Japan – they are called geisha.

People always ask me if they sleep with men for money. My answer is that that’s like asking whether ballet dancers or opera singers sleep with men for money. Geisha are professional dancers and singers and skilled at the art of keeping the conversation light and entertaining – the perfect hostesses, in fact, and many a man’s ideal wife. They get paid quite enough – an enormous amount – just to do what they do.

Lesley in geisha makeup

Lesley in geisha makeup

Even at sixteen the maiko – the young trainee geisha – are already gracious and composed and confident.
Koharu was one of my favourites. I was once walking down the narrow street in Miyagawa-cho, lined with dark wooden houses with paper lanterns hanging outside. It was beginning to rain and I’d forgotten my umbrella. Koharu, a sixteen-year-old from a country town in the north, ran over and walked alongside me, holding her oiled paper umbrella over my head to protect me. She walked with tiny steps, toes pointed in. It was daytime, so she wasn’t wearing makeup. Her face was washed clean and she had huge innocent eyes.

In her bedroom she had a hard wooden pillow to stop her hair being mussed. She also had photographs of her pin ups, film stars and pop stars, tucked along the mirror. One had come to Kyoto and asked to be entertained by maiko and she’d been chosen to sit next to him, pour his drink and talk to him. She told me about it bubbling with excitement.

I also saw her at work in the evening, no longer a wide-eyed sixteen-year-old but a beauty with a white-painted face, pouring sake for rich and powerful men, teasing them, making them feel young again.

Being a maiko is a bit like being a model. There’s a distinctive look, a distinctive way of walking. Koharu was a country girl, a farmer’s daughter, but as a maiko she mixed with the richest, most powerful men in the realm – for those are the people who attend geisha parties. It was a sure way to rise in the world.

Last time I was back I heard that Koharu had left and gone back up north to get married but many of my other geisha friends were still there. I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been welcomed into their world.

In the end I collected my experiences into a book about geisha and went on to write several more books about the extraordinary worlds which women occupied in old Japan. The most recent, The Shogun’s Queen, is set largely in the vast harem in Edo Castle – a place where three thousand women lived and only one man, the shogun, could enter. But that’s another story!

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Blog tour poster