Category Archives: Guest post

‘History and The Hunger’ – guest post by Alma Katsu, author of The Hunger

This week, G.P. Putnam’s Sons publishes the US edition of The Hunger by Alma Katsu. While I’m looking forward to posting a review of the novel for its publication in the UK in early April, I’m delighted to join in the celebrations for the American publication with a guest post by Alma Katsu on the historical background and inspiration for this remarkable and terrifying tale of the Donner Party, based on a true story.

But first a bit of what the novel is about:

Evil is invisible, and it is everywhere.

Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them. Whether it was a curse from the beautiful Tamsen, the choice to follow a disastrous experimental route West, or just plain bad luck–the 90 men, women, and children of the Donner Party are at the brink of one of the deadliest and most disastrous western adventures in American history.

While the ill-fated group struggles to survive in the treacherous mountain conditions–searing heat that turns the sand into bubbling stew; snows that freeze the oxen where they stand–evil begins to grow around them, and within them. As members of the party begin to disappear, they must ask themselves “What if there is something waiting in the mountains? Something disturbing and diseased…and very hungry?”

‘History and The Hunger‘ by Alma Katsu

I love writing historical fiction. Marrying fact and fiction makes for something especially pleasing to read, I think, something that melds the familiar and comforting to the spicy and unknown.

There’s a challenge there, though. It’s difficult to know how familiar your readers are with the historical event in question. You don’t want to bore readers by telling them what they already know, but you don’t want to assume too much and risk frustrating the reader.

When I first started working on THE HUNGER, I wasn’t sure how much was generally known about the Donner Party. These are the basic facts: two families, the Donners and the Reeds, set out from Springfield, Illinois on April 15, 1846, heading to Independence, Missouri, the “jumping off” point for the trip west. They travel with a much larger party until the split in the trail known as the “parting of the ways” where the Donners and Reeds opt to take the new Hastings Cut-off that promises to shave 300 miles off the trip. They have no way of knowing that the cut-off is little more than a notion in the mind of Lansford Hastings, or that Hastings is a bit of a charlatan, trying to lure settlers to California in order to wrestle the territory away from Mexico.

The Donner Party decides to try their luck. They would not have made this choice if they knew there are over a thousand inhospitable miles ahead. They know the mountain passes will close off once the snow starts, and snow comes early at the higher elevations.

Which is how they come to find themselves stranded on the wrong side of the mountain pass when the snow starts falling and refuses to stop. They try to make it up to the pass but are immobilized. Snow is piled over their heads, over the roofs of their makeshift cabins. They have almost no supplies. Only a few head of livestock survived the punishing trip. There will be no escape until the spring thaw but no one knows when that will be.

There were 90 pioneers at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek when the snow started falling; only 50 will survive.

But there’s a bigger historical context that I tried to capture in The Hunger. In many ways, the story of those pioneers is the story of America. The Donner Party’s story is one of immigrants, of people looking for a better life. But it’s also the story of America’s restless expansionist spirit, the country’s willingness to leave homes and kin, uproot themselves, load their possessions into a wagon, and head into the unknown. Americans had been migrating to the west since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but travel to California was not yet at the epic levels of the Gold Rush and the West was largely uncharted territory. Today, we can only marvel at their confidence, traveling under these conditions with babies and children, the elderly and the sick. They let nothing stop them: some were in poor health, others traveled without wagon or oxen. Some had nothing more than a mule, a few even expected to make the two thousand-mile journey completely on foot.

Americans made the perilous journey because they believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were an exceptional people who were ordained by God to occupy the territory clear to the Pacific Ocean. By settling the West, Americans felt they were fulfilling a long-promised destiny. But it’s not as though this territory was free for the taking. That’s the darker side of America’s expansionist aspirations. Texas’ war for independence emboldened some Americans to think that California, too, could be prized away from Mexico. This was the real reason Lansford Hastings zealously promoted his cut-off: to lure more American settlers to the Mexican-owned territory and, eventually, force America to defend the interests of its citizens. And the darkness doesn’t stop there: trails cut through the middle of Indian Territory. You can’t discuss the Westward Migration without looking at the devastating effect it had on the Native American tribes residing in the Indian Territory. And lastly, it’s also the story of religious freedom. Mormons were starting to look West to build a community after violence had driven them out of Missouri and Illinois.

The Hunger is meant to be a cautionary tale. There are reasons nearly half the wagon party died, lessons we shouldn’t ignore. Some aspects were outside their control—the horrendous weather that winter, for one—but the group let themselves be divided by pettiness and class differences. They let themselves be fooled by businessmen who valued personal profit over human lives. They selected the wrong man to be their leader and refused to listen to the people among them who knew better. They paid for their hubris, yes, but you only need to look around to realize that things haven’t changed that much today, 170 years later.

And this is the true lesson of the Donner Party.

US edition by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (published 6 March)
UK edition by Bantam Press (published 5 April)

Alma Katsu: Before she started writing novels, Alma Katsu was both a music journalist and an analyst for the likes of CIA and RAND. She has pounded the halls of the Pentagon, been in the West Wing of the White House, and interviewed rock stars. Her novels—The Taker, The Reckoning, and The Descent (which, oddly enough, have nothing to do with music or national security)—have been published in more than a dozen languages.


‘The Recent Boom in Space Opera’ – guest post by Gareth L. Powell, author of Embers of War

Embers of War by Gareth L PowellOn 20 February, Titan Books published Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell, a brand new space opera that ticks all of the right boxes. You can read my review here and buy it here. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to host a guest post from Gareth in which he discusses the recent boom in space opera. As someone who loves space opera more than chips (how I need my books on spaceships and alien artefacts…), I couldn’t be more thrilled by the prospect of a boom and the next novel in Gareth’s series can’t come soon enough for me.

The Recent Boom In Space Opera

Like it or loathe it, space opera’s always been an important part of science fiction. Maybe even the heart of the genre. Whatever else may be going on, there have always been books about big spaceships, colossal alien artifacts, and vast interstellar wars.

As a sub-genre, space opera went through a bit of a renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with books by Alastair Reynolds, M. John Harrison, Stephen Baxter, Gwyneth Jones and others. Now, as we approach 2020 (itself an almost unbelievably futuristic-sounding date to those of us raised in the 1980s), it seems to be undergoing another dramatic resurgence.

In 2014, Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus and BSFA awards—the only novel ever to have achieved such a clean sweep. The sequels Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, and the related novel Provenance have followed it. The fact these books feature dark-skinned main characters in a gender-neutral society seems to have touched a nerve in ways not seen since Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels brought left wing politics into space opera back in the 1980s and 1990s, and opened the way for more diversity in the genre, both in term of subjects and authors.

Becky Chambers’ delightful 2014 novel, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, explores the complex relationships between a diverse human and non-human starship crew, including love between man and computer, an interspecies lesbian fling, and a creature caught in a symbiotic relationship with a parasitical virus. The sequel A Closed And Common Orbit continues to expand on these themes, and a new book is on its way.

In 2016, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children Of Time won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for its portrayal of the struggle between a starship carrying the last survivors of the human race and a civilisation of uplifted, intelligent spiders. Spanning thousands of years and following the development of spider civilisation, and the rise-and-fall of various human societies, the book has the epic feel of the very best space opera coupled with a visionary examination of what it means to be truly civilised.

Kameron Hurley’s dark and disturbing 2017 novel, The Stars Are Legion, has been jokingly described by its author as, ‘lesbians in space.’ In reality, it’s a savage, epic tale of tragic love, brutal war and revenge set amid a cloud of decaying organic world-ships, in which an amnesiac soldier sets out on a desperate mission that will either save or destroy the fleet.

Mathematician Yoon Ha Lee received the 2017 Locus Award, as well as Hugo, Nebula and Clarke nominations for his novel Ninefox Gambit, which follows the fortunes of a young military officer and the ghost of a disgraced, long-dead commander as they participate in inter-factional conflict in an Empire whose technologies and tactics are determined by consensual acceptance of the Imperial Calendar.

Since the publication in 2011 of Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey’s ‘Expanse’ series — now on its seventh volume, Persepolis Rising (2017) — has been charting humanity’s rocky progress from being an interplanetary society centered on Earth, Mars and the asteroid belt, to an interstellar society of colonies scattered among fifteen hundred worlds. We see the upheaval through the eyes of the crew of the independent frigate Rocinante. They are drawn from various squabbling planets and ethnicities, but stay together because of the love they have for each other and the ship on which they live.

Taken together, these excellent books show that we’re currently living in something of a golden age for progressive, inclusive space opera. And it’s against this background that I launch my own series, starting with Embers of War, which was published by Titan Books on 20 February.

Embers follows the adventures of the former warship Trouble Dog, and her misfit crew of war veterans and cadets, as they race to rescue a liner that’s been downed in a politically sensitive star system. Featuring strong female leads, ancient alien mysteries, and some full-on space combat, I hope Embers of War can take its place alongside the books I’ve listed above, as part of the recent boom in space opera.

Embers of War by Gareth L Powell is published by Titan Books. You can find Gareth on Twitter @garethlpowell.

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

Embers of War blog tour_Final

Creating Scarcross Hall – guest post by Katherine Clements, author of The Coffin Path

The Coffin Path by Katherine ClementsThis week Headline Review publishes The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements. This beautifully written novel, set on the moors in the 1670s, is a haunting, atmospheric and deliciously creepy tale that transports the willing reader to another time and place, so vividly created by this marvellous writer. I am delighted to feature on For Winter Nights today a guest post by Katherine Clements in which she discusses the inspiration for The Coffin Path‘s ‘crumbling pile with a dubious history, Scarcross Hall.

My review of The Coffin Path.

Creating Scarcross Hall

‘It’s grander than he’d supposed, with the high chimneys and crenellated gables of an older age, mullioned windows and two jutting wings on either side of a central hall, clearly designed with more than practicality in mind – a statement of wealth and power, one man’s attempt to make his mark in this wild landscape.’

This is Scarcross Hall, the setting of my new novel The Coffin Path, as first encountered by one of the main characters, Ellis Ferreby.

When I began to plan my 17th century ghost story, I knew that the house I created would play a significant part. Set high on the desolate West Yorkshire moors, Scarcross Hall is a crumbling pile with a dubious history. The stuff of gothic cliché perhaps, but as an historical novelist with a respect for the past (and my readers) I wanted to make sure my house was historically plausible.

East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935

East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935

The Coffin Path takes place in 1674 and, for story purposes, my house needed to be at least 100 years old, preferably with a much longer history. Luckily for me, the West Yorkshire area has a distinct architectural heritage, rooted in the area’s economic past.

The pre-industrial economy was mostly farming and weaving. Sheep were farmed for wool rather than meat and through the 15th and 16th centuries the area became one of the foremost producers of Kersey – a coarse woollen cloth that was made for domestic and international markets. For some it was a hard, hand-to-mouth existence but, then as now, some people got rich. Self-styled ‘Yeomen Clothiers’ built large residencies to reflect their status at the top of local society. Known as ‘Halifax houses’, these vernacular buildings were built of the local millstone grit, with long mullioned windows and often a circular rose window above the doorway. Local gentry also built grand manor houses, ensuring the continuity of their estates by adding to older timber-framed buildings.

I went looking for examples.

Oakwell Hall

Oakwell Hall

Scarcross Hall probably owes most to Oakwell Hall in Birstal near Batley. Built in 1583 by John Batt, this manor house has been beautifully restored with 17th century interiors and was the first place I visited. It delivered inspiration in spades. In The Coffin Path readers might recognise Oakwell’s central hall with large mullioned windows and a huge stone fireplace, circled by an upper gallery that connects the first floor rooms. A bedroom, complete with large Elizabethan bed and painted fire screen, was the model for the creepy old bedchamber in Scarcross Hall.

Oakwell Hall bedchamber

Oakwell Hall bedchamber

When I found out that Oakwell has its own Civil War history (the Battle of Adwalton Moor was fought nearby in 1643), Brontë connections, (Charlotte Brontë is said to have based Fieldhead, the house in her novel Shirley, on Oakwell), and even its own ghost, I was sold. I had found a great prototype for the interior of Scarcross Hall, but what of the exterior?

Next was East Riddlesden Hall, built in 1642 by wealthy Halifax clothier James Murgatroyd. There has been a house on this spot since the 12th century, owned by various gentry families, but the house that exists today is mostly 17th century. Despite a salubrious history, the hall fell into disrepair and was uninhabitable by the early 20th century. This picture, taken in 1905, certainly has the atmosphere I was looking for.

East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)

East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)

The hall was almost demolished but was saved by locals William and John Brigg, who bought the hall in 1933 and donated it to the National Trust. Inevitably, East Riddlesden has its ghosts too: the Grey Lady, who is said to have been bricked up alive by her cuckolded husband, and the Blue Lady, who met a slightly less dramatic end by drowning in the fish pond!

East Riddlesden Hall was saved by the passion and generosity of two local men, but many other houses were not so lucky.

High Sunderland Hall is widely thought to have been the model for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. This 16th century house, built by the Sunderland family, stood on the outskirts of Halifax, on a site inhabited from the 13th century. Quite unlike the other houses I’d encountered, High Sunderland was incongruously decorated with Latin inscriptions and many grotesque statues of mythical creatures.

Emily Brontë would certainly have been familiar with the building during her time as a teacher at nearby Law Hill School. Here is Emily’s description of the Heights, which seems to match the pictures we have of High Sunderland:

Before passing the threshold I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front and especially about the principal door, above which, among the wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500 …

High Sunderland Hall

High Sunderland Hall

Imagining High Sunderland as it might have been inspired several elements of my own fictional house: the bleak setting, the crenellations, the strange, atmospheric mixture of the sacred and the superstitious. Sadly, it was demolished in 1951, though judging by the photos of the house in its latter days, it may not have been the most welcoming place. Perhaps it may have looked something like this…

‘There are slates missing from the roof, cracked panes in the leads and a crumbling central chimney. A high wall lends poor protection, pocked and lichen-stained, ravaged by years of storm and gale. It has the air of a shipwreck, abandoned and disintegrating amid the great wild ocean of the moor. Even now, the dark windows seem to stare back at him, soulless, like the eyes of a destitute.’

The Coffin Path.

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

Coffin Path blog tour poster

‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration’ – Guest post by Angus Donald, author of Blood’s Game

Blood's Game by Angus DonaldLast week, Zaffre published Blood’s Game by Angus Donald. Angus is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. I loved every book of his Robin Hood series and was so sorry to see it end last year (you must read it if you haven’t already!). But Angus Donald is back and this time he takes us to another favourite period of mine – the Restoration period of the 1660s and 1670s and the extraordinary court of Charles II.

I am so thrilled to post here a guest post from Angus in which he discusses ‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure’. I studied this period as part of my degree (Rochester is a favourite poet of mine and I love his depiction – and that of Charles II – in Blood’s Game) and so I’m particularly grateful to Angus for taking the time to write such an in-depth, considered and fun article about such a fascinating subject as the court of King Charles II!

Before the post, here’s a little of what Blood’s Game is about.

London, Winter 1670.

Holcroft Blood has entered the employ of the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom after the king. It is here that his education really begins. With a gift for numbers and decoding ciphers, Holcroft soon proves invaluable to the Duke, but when he’s pushed into a betrayal he risks everything for revenge.

His father, Colonel Thomas Blood, has fallen on hard times. A man used to fighting, he lives by his wits and survives by whatever means necessary. When he’s asked to commit treason by stealing the crown jewels, he puts himself and his family in a dangerous situation – one that may end at the gallows.

As the machinations of powerful men plot to secure the country’s future, both father and son must learn what it is to survive in a more dangerous battlefield than war – the court of King Charles II.

Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure
By Angus Donald

At Edinburgh University in the late 1980s, I founded a club called the Hedonism Society or HedSoc. We met in pubs, drank a lot and . . . that was pretty much it. For obvious reasons, I don’t remember much about what we talked about. But I’ve always had an interest in pleasure, mine, of course, but also the pleasures of others. And I think it was partly this interest that drew me to write Blood’s Game, a novel set in the Restoration period, which concerns the daring attempt by Colonel Blood to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. While that is the main plot strand, the novel also explores the court of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, and his outrageous, libidinous, scandalous and frequently drunken friends and followers.

Pleasure was political in those debauched days. If you allowed yourself to be seen to be having fun you were making a statement about yourself, your loyalties, your politics and your religion. You were also saying most emphatically and publicly that you were not a Puritan, not a supporter of the old Cromwellian order, and that you approved of the new monarchy, and the second King Charles, wholeheartedly.

Like most things in life, context is crucial to understanding this age.

In 1660, at the age of thirty, after a long and penniless exile, Charles regained the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. He had had a pretty miserable time abroad but the people that he was now ruling had just come out of a dark and terrible period in our history. The bloody civil wars, in which a larger proportion of the population died that in any conflict before or since, were followed by the austere Puritan rule of the Commonwealth and the dictatorship of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. During this cold interregnum period, most sports were banned, drunkenness and even swearing was punished with a fine, non-religious expressions of Christmas were stopped, many drinking establishments were closed, as were all the theatres. Women who were caught working on Sundays were put in the stocks and shamed, bright clothes were banned and sober dress was the order of the day. Make-up was scrubbed off girls’ faces by soldiers who caught them wearing it, right there and then. It is instructive to recognise that armed men stopping and humiliating women in the streets in the name of religious purity does not only happen in other parts of the world. We had our own approximation of the Taliban once.

So, when Charles returned to the throne, he wanted to show his subjects that it was now perfectly all right for people to enjoy themselves. Drinking was OK, sex was OK, fun was back in fashion. Hip hip hooray! The theatres were reopened, and there was a resurgence of bawdy, satirical plays. Public drunkenness, particularly among the aristocracy, became almost a badge of rank – and an expression of loyalty to the King. Pranks and japes abounded – a pair of well-born young men, friends of the King and members of the notorious Merry Gang, scandalised London by appearing on a balcony, completely inebriated, and pretending to sodomise each other. Poets and playwrights could openly criticise the King, his court, his morals and his mistresses. And did so enthusiastically. The chronically alcoholic poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, leader of the Merry Gang, wrote of the King: “Restless he rolls from whore to whore/ A merry monarch, scandalous and poor”.

Because Charles took his sexual pleasures seriously. He had many lovers as a young bachelor, including his nanny Mrs Wyndham, who took his virginity when he was fifteen. And after he married Catherine of Braganza, in 1662, he had at least seven mistresses, and possible as many as thirteen, who bore him a dozen children.

The role of mistress was semi-official – a whore or courtesan, or woman with whom the King had a casual encounter, would not be counted among their number – and a man who kept one was obliged to pay for her food, drink, accommodation and servants, as well as making her generous presents from time to time, perhaps when he paid her a visit. Many of the mistresses and their illegitimate children, those whose paternity the King acknowledged, received earldoms and dukedoms from the monarch and many British aristocrats today trace their ancestry back to Charles II.

The Puritans of the previous age would have turned in their graves had they known about this public and permitted acknowledgement of the extra-marital lusts of men. Because society looked to the King for guidance on how to behave, the fact that he had so many mistresses, so openly acknowledged, sent a clear message to everyone.

Adultery, forbidden by God, punished by Puritans, was now normalised.

Two of the the most famous of Charles’s mistresses – the formidable beauty Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, and the famous actress Nell Gywn – make appearances in Blood’s Game. In the period when the book is set, Barbara was about thirty and was being replaced in the royal affections by the feisty and outrageous Nell, who was ten years younger. Gwyn was an actress, and before that an “orange-seller” in the theatres, a profession which some historians take as a euphemism for prostitute. Perhaps because of her lowly origins and dubious trade, she was never ennobled by her royal lover, although her two children were.

Barbara, on the other hand, came from the aristocratic Villiers family. She gave Charles five children and, as a long-time and fecund mistress, she wielded more power at court than childless Catherine. In fact, she was known as the Uncrowned Queen and she used her position ruthlessly to enrich herself and her friends. She persuaded the King to grant her lavish titles and lands and properties – she was given Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII, and the title Baroness Nonsuch, and promptly dismantled the palace and sold off the building materials to pay her gambling debts.

Gambling was another sinful pleasure, long denied, which the gentlemen and ladies of the Restoration court now engaged in with enthusiasm – sometimes to their financial ruin. Indeed, in Blood’s Game, the climax of the book is an epic game of Whist, which was just coming into fashion at the time.

Women as well as men adopted the hedonistic credo of the era. Barbara Villiers was an enthusiastic, if not entirely successful gambler. At one point she was obliged to “borrow” tens of thousands of pounds from the Privy Purse to settle her debts, but when this was discovered by officials, such was her sway over the King that the debt was immediately written off by her indulgent royal lover.

When Charles’s interest in her began to wane, she was not above finding other gentlemen friends to pleasure her. She became the lover of Jack Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, when he was a handsome and penniless young officer at court. She bore Churchill a daughter and tried, unsuccessfully, to claim she was the King’s.

Charles was not exactly delighted that his long-time lover, a woman he had given so much to, had taken a younger man to her bed – Barbara had also given Churchill a gift of £5,000, money she had received from the King, which infuriated Charles – but he was perfectly gentlemanly about the situation. He was, after all, beginning his own new relationship with Nell Gwyn at the time. There is a (probably apocryphal) tale, which I have included in Blood’s Game, that a servant was paid £100 by the Duke of Buckingham to inform His Grace when Churchill and Villiers would next be enjoying a tryst. The mischief-making Duke then persuaded the King to visit Barbara at the same time. The story goes that when the King arrived at her apartments unexpectedly, the naked Churchill had to hide in a cupboard, and was swiftly discovered there by the cuckolded Merry Monarch.

Apparently, the King saw the funny side, and forgave his young rival. He said: “You are a rascal, sir, but I forgive you because you do it to get your [daily] bread.”

A stinging insult – he basically called Churchill a man-whore – followed by forgiveness. And all the while keeping his sense of humour. That’s a class act.

It is little stories like this and many, many others, that made writing Blood’s Game such a sinful pleasure. I can only hope that you find reading it as hedonistic.

Buy Blood’s Game
My review
Follow Angus Donald on Twitter

‘The origins of The Vintener Trilogy’ – guest post by Michael Jecks

Last week, Simon and Schuster published Blood of the Innocents, the final part of Michael Jecks’ Vintener Trilogy, a series of books that takes us back in time to that most troublesome of centuries – the 14th – and the Hundred Years War. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to host a fascinating in-depth guest post from the author. In it, Michael looks at the origins of the trilogy, its historical inspiration and its growth into a series that is now complete.

Blood of the Innocents by Michael JecksFirst, a little of what Blood of the Innocents is about

France, 1356: Ten years have passed since the battle of Crecy, and the English fighters are still abroad, laying siege to cities, towns and even small villages. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales raids across France to draw King John into a battle for sovereignty.

Berenger Fripper, having lost everything to the plague, is now captain of a company of mercenaries, but treachery and deceit dog him when his travels with the company lead him to Uzerche. And then his path crosses that of Prince Edward and his men as they embark on their latest chevauchée to bring death and disaster to the King of France’s subjects.

Enlisted as Vintener under Sir John de Sully, Berenger finds himself drawn into a new struggle. Can the English defeat the much larger French army, or will they find themselves finally overcome when their weary feet bring them at last to the field of battle near Poitiers…

The origins of The Vintener Trilogy

It was a surprise four years ago when my new editor at Simon and Schuster suggested I should consider a change of direction.

Until then I had been a cheerful writer of crime thrillers which happened to be set in the far-distant past – during the reign of King Edward II and his deplorable friend Sir Hugh le Despenser (and if all you know about those two was that Edward died in a particularly nasty manner in Berkley Castle, and that they were gay, then you need to read my books and prepare for a minor revisionist shock).

But no, my new editor wanted me to stop writing my Templar series, which had reached thirty-two titles at that stage, and consider a violent war series.

‘I thought you might have some ideas,’ she said, looking at me hopefully.

‘Medieval?’ I guessed. I knew she liked blood and stabbing weapons.

She smiled and nodded.

‘Um,’ I said.

Because starting out with a new concept is always tough. There are no rules, no existing plot-lines and characters – not even the outline of a landscape. Everything is open. Some people say that sitting down with a blank sheet of paper is terrifying when they are about to embark on a new novel; well, after thirty-two titles in a series in which I knew the landscape, history, people, legal issues, and already had a bank of seven or more different potential murders, I was happy to write more in that line. It was much harder to start from scratch.

And yet …

There was a period I had always wanted to cover: the Hundred Years War.

Fields of Glory by Michael JecksMany years ago – I’m guessing 1978 – I was a member of a mail order bookseller which specialised in history and warfare. One month there was a book with a wonderful write-up. It was The Hundred Years War, written by Desmond Seward. It gave only a brief introduction to the war, which is hardly surprising bearing in mind it covered so many events, but I was engaged by the colourful characters, from Sir Walter Manny, Lord John Talbot, Sir John Fastolf, the Duke of Bedford, to the Kings of both countries. Later I read Jonathan Sumption’s books for more detail, yet Seward’s book was so vividly written, the author so obviously enthusiastic about his subject, that I was gripped.

I would write about the Hundred Years War, then, but that was little help. When you are confronted with a new project, you have a series of difficult questions to answer: how should it be written, and from whose perspectives? Should it be a story about the rich and famous, about Kings and their avarice, or a tale about the scruffy fellows at the bottom of society? And which period of the war should I cover?

I wasn’t overly keen on Agincourt, since so many others have marched behind that banner – in fact I rather liked the idea of starting with Sluys, or one of the chevauchees launched by King Edward III, but then I had a stroke of luck.

If you love books, you tend to recommend them to others, and lend your copies. Often they don’t come back. One book I was very annoyed to lose was “Quartered Safe Out Here”, by George MacDonald Fraser. It was the story of his experiences during the Burma campaign. He fought under General Slim, stopping the Japanese and crushing them. A great warrior, Slim was an inspirational leader who had joined as an ordinary soldier in 1914, fought through the hell of Gallipoli, and rose through the ranks purely on the basis of his own merit and courage. The ordinary troops adored him: GM Fraser said, “he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier.”

“Quartered Safe Out Here” is the best war memoir I have read. MacDonald Fraser wrote about his platoon, Nine Section. Suddenly I had a vision of a vintaine of men, archers marching across France, rarely knowing what each day would bring, trudging ever onwards, cold, wet and bored – their hunger and thirst interspersed with flashes of pillage and drunkenness – and occasional bouts of terror. I could look at the motivations of each soldier, his background, his reasons for exchanging hearth and home and comfort for the dangerous life of a medieval soldier.

I loved it!

So I selected a group of men. I had a rich palette to choose from: Falstaffian characters, ruffians, the semi-sorcerers of the gunpowder-makers and gunners, and then, of course, the deplorable mercenary types. And as soon as I started I realised that my main issue would be writing this rag-tag group of men so that modern readers could identify with them.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a firm believer that the society that gave us Boccaccio and Chaucer was not so dissimilar to our modern version. People have not changed radically in outlook or behaviour, but murder is more frowned upon in the present age. The idea of depicting an army on the rampage, slaughtering all within reach, raping women and behaving with abhorrent disregard for others – and depicting them as sympathetic characters or heroes? That would be tough.

If I have a rule as a historical writer, it is that I will not lie. I could not ignore the baser acts of the English in France. I wanted to show them. For that I hit on the idea of writing from the perspective of a French woman dragged into the fighting, who wanted only to escape. Bringing her into the story balanced it, allowing me to look at the war from the point of view of those affected by it. We are used to pictures of refugees trudging their way across the countryside trying to find safety. The Second World War had many images of peasants with overfilled carts; the Vietnam War, the Bosnian War, the Russian attacks on Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, the wars in Iraq and Syria all have their victims. I wanted to show that none of this is new. History repeats itself.

There was one thing I was determined to do with this first novel, and that was to exclude the King and his top advisers. I wanted this to be a story of ordinary soldiers. However, there was one aspect I had to look at.

Historians tend to fall into one of two categories: those who believe Edward had no intention of fighting a major battle – he was a terrorist bringing a wave of brutality to the French countryside, and did all he could to evade the French when he realised they were hurrying to catch him; or those who say that he had a deliberate war plan – that he force-marched his men to Paris to torment the French into joining battle, and led the French to the field he had chosen many years before: Crécy.

I had to try to show how Edward III was thinking.

My immediate thought was to pick a servant who could listen with brazen impudence to what his superiors were planning, but that didn’t quite hack it for me. A cheeky servant is rather a cliché nowadays, and I didn’t think that a man who spent his time obviously listening in to the King’s war-planning meetings would have a good life-expectancy. I had to think up a new character.

Blood on the Sand by Michael JecksI didn’t get my man until I recalled a grave in Crediton’s Church of the Holy Cross and The Mother of Him Who Hung Thereon. Up at the far right-hand side behind the altar there is a tomb dedicated to a Sir John de Sully. He was a knight of that period. He fought in his first battle, possibly, at Bannockburn in 1316. After that he had a starring role in almost every major battle of the 1300s, rising to become one of the Black Prince’s most trusted men, still fighting with his Prince in 1367, when he would have been in his 80s (I assume more in an advisory capacity than as a warrior). He was so famous and respected that he became one of the early knights of the Order of the Garter, and died greatly honoured at the age of about 106. Yes, that isn’t a typo.

With Sir John I had a character whom I could use to great effect as a link between my vintaine force of archers and the main plans and issues of the English King on the march. My archers would be a vintaine serving under him in this book, and he would give the perspective of the commanders without actually being a part of them. Through him my archers would get their view of the campaign and planning.

I had my men, I had their commander, and now I was leaning towards the march to Crécy for my book. That would make a good climax. Job done, I thought.

But as I planned and outlined my story, it became clear that there was more for me to look at. For example, when the battle of Crécy was done, the English marched on. Edward was determined to take a port to facilitate further incursions into France and chose Calais to be his bridgehead. He would take it and hold it for England. Clearly the capture of Calais would have to become a sequel to the first book about Crécy. And again, after Calais, there was the horror of the Black Death, and the subsequent return to battle that ended in the battle of Poitiers.

So my book would have to become a trilogy, and a trilogy more about a small group of men and how they coped with life in the army, but later on, how they coped with the most appalling tragedy Europe has coped with – the plague.

There are always a lot of problems when writing, such as the difficulty of knowing when to stop researching and start writing. I have always firmly believed that it’s essential to visit a place before trying to write about it. One thing I always try to do is paint a specific area, because by analysing a scene as a painter, I find myself looking more carefully at individual features of the landscape.

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Poitiers on holiday in 1315 while planning Blood of the Innocents, and there I found the main battlefield and memorial, which was very touching – it’s dedicated to the fallen of the French, Gascon and English armies. I took a lot of photos all about the area, and planted it firmly in my mind by making a few sketches.

The trilogy is a strong story of how war affects victors and victims, the soldiers, but also the refugees. I don’t gloss over the way that the English treated their enemies or the local populace. It wouldn’t be fair to do so. But I try to give a feel for how the English thought, felt, and reacted which is, I hope, fair. At the end of the day, it’s up to the readers to give their opinion – so, I hope you enjoy the books, and hopefully that they inspire you to find out more about this astonishing period of English and French history.

Happy reading!

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‘Historical sources for Another Woman’s Husband’, Guest post by Gill Paul

Another Woman's Husband by Gill PaulEarlier this month, Headline published the latest novel by Gill Paul, Another Woman’s Husband, a novel that brings together the stories of two significant women in 20th-century British royal history – Wallis Simpson and Diana, Princess of Wales. I’ll be posting my review in November for the paperback release, but, in the meantime, I’m delighted to host here a guest post from Gill in which she discusses the historical sources for her novel.

First, a little about what Another Woman’s Husband is about:

Two women, divided by time, bound by a secret…

1911. Aged just fifteen, Mary Kirk and Wallis Warfield meet at summer camp. Their friendship will survive heartbreaks, continents, and the demands of the English crown, until it is shattered by one unforgivable betrayal…

1997. Kendall’s romantic break in Paris with her fiance is interrupted when the taxi in front crashes suddenly. The news soon follows: Princess Diana is dead. Trying to forget what she has witnessed, Kendall returns home, where the discovery of a long-forgotten link to Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, will lead her to the truth of a scandal which shook the world…

Historical Sources

When I decided to write about Wallis Warfield and Diana, Princess of Wales, both of them controversial women, the first choice was which of the dozens of books about them both I could trust. Back when I was studying history at uni, we were taught to question sources. Who wrote it? What audience were they writing for? What were they trying to achieve by writing? What information did they have and what did they not know?

Sometimes it makes sense to read the most recent biographies first, since you can assume their authors have read the preceding ones. Anne Sebba’s That Woman is a brilliant read and highly recommended, although I don’t agree with her assertion, originally proposed in Michael Bloch’s biography, that Wallis suffered from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. The evidence for this seems flimsy: large hands, male bone structure, deep voice. None of her lovers ever reported that she had male characteristics in her genitalia; she was clearly a sexually confident woman so it seems to me a curious leap to make.

The first-ever biography of Wallis was written in 1937 by a woman called Edwina H. Wilson. Wallis suspected Mary Kirk of having collaborated with the author, but I don’t think she did. There would have been far more detail in the childhood sections if she had, and surely a more negative view of her character, since it was written the year after Wallis and Mary fell out.

Wallis’s autobiography, published in 1956, is fascinating because it allowed me to hear her voice, but it contains a lot of revisionism. For example, according to her, Ernest was present when the Prince sent an on-board telegram just as she embarked for New York in March 1933. He wasn’t, and it was a clear sign of the Prince’s personal interest in her at an early stage. Wallis tries to make out that until the summer of 1935 his friendship was more with Ernest than with her – but I beg to differ.

Mary Kirk is all but written out of Wallis’s autobiography but I managed to find a biography of her, written by her sister and niece. It’s a short, self-published, photocopied transcript of letters that Mary wrote to her sister Anne, and replies that her sister imagines she might have sent, along with interspersed explanations. A strange book altogether, but immensely valuable to let me hear Mary’s voice and the phrases she used, such as “rich as mud” and “I’m on the outs with Wallis”.

When it comes to Diana there is as yet no academic, properly verified and footnoted account of her life, although she richly deserves one. Andrew Morton is the obvious starting place when it comes to biographies, as he is immensely well connected in royal circles even twenty years after Diana’s death. But his bestselling book was secretly based on interviews with Diana herself, was written as her marriage was imploding and had her seal of approval, so it clearly had its own agenda and its own bias.

I decided not to write about Diana as a character but to let her be a ‘ghost’ in the novel, while others investigated the circumstances of her death. My time frame was very tight – 30th August to 28th December 1997 – and I had to be careful not to include information discovered after that date, which Alex in the novel wouldn’t have known about. I watched the Panorama documentary made two weeks after the crash, as well as the ITV and Channel 4 ones made the following year. Martyn Gregory’s account Diana: The Last Days seemed the most trustworthy of dozens of books about her death – not least because he lists his sources in endnotes – and with his help I pieced together a timeline of when information was revealed. I couldn’t include the strange story of James Adanson, a paparazzo who may or may not have been driving the white Fiat and who died soon after the crash in mysterious circumstances… But I think there were already enough anomalies to give Alex plenty of material for his own fictitious documentary.

Other posts
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
A review of The Secret Wife

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

The Real Wonder Woman – guest post by Emily Hauser, author of For the Winner

Last month, Transworld published For the Winner by Emily Hauser. This is a fabulous novel – an interpretation of the Jason and the Golden Fleece myth that focuses on the extraordinary and unusual story of Atalanta, a female Argonaut. I’m delighted to host a guest post by Emily on an irresistible subject – ‘The Real Wonder Woman’.

For the Winner by Emily HausnerThe Real Wonder Woman

I went to see Wonder Woman in the cinema a few weeks ago. I loved it. It was brilliant. But as I watched the astonishing feats of the Amazons – named after a mythical tribe of warrior women first mentioned in an ancient Greek epic over 2,500 years ago – I thought that the fantasy powers granted to them in the film paled into insignificance when compared to the achievements of the real Amazons, the real Wonder Women of the ancient world.

As a scholar of the ancient world and an author of historical fiction, it’s my job to bring those real, powerful ancient women back into the foreground.

One of these Wonder Women of antiquity was Atalanta, an extraordinary woman and a warrior who lived over three thousand years ago in ancient Greece, not far from modern-day Thessaloniki. She was a self-taught warrior, the fastest runner in the world, one of the best archers of her time, and the only woman, according to history, to accompany Jason and the Argonauts on the legendary voyage of the Golden Fleece. And it’s the story of this extraordinary warrior – a Wonder Woman before her time – that I set out to tell in the second novel of the Golden Apple trilogy, For the Winner (Transworld 2017).

Atalanta is in many ways a forerunner of the character of Diana in DC Comics’ Wonder Woman. She was a formidable fighter, one of the greatest heroes of her generation, and yet she struggled to gain recognition and credibility as a woman. She was abandoned by her father, who (in Atalanta’s case) cast her out on a mountain to die because he had wanted a son and heir. She was a devotee of the goddess Artemis – the Greek goddess of the hunt who later, in the Roman world, would be called Diana.

But what I love most about Atalanta is that, in contrast to today’s Wonder Woman, she is entirely human. She does not need to rely on superpowers or her birthright as the daughter of a god to vanquish her enemies. Her strength comes from her own determination, her own training, her own will to survive. She fights in battles alongside heroes like Hercules and Theseus. She earns her place on the voyage with Jason and the Argonauts and travels to the ends of the earth, disguised as a man – and when she is discovered and exiled in the wildnerness, she refuses to give up. When she returns to Greece and her father – having recognised her at last – wants to force her to marry, she will only do so on her own terms. She demands that the man she will wed should outrun her in a footrace – which she believes will be impossible, until she makes a fatal mistake… And as Atalanta is forced to make a choice during that final footrace that will change her life forever, we see not only her strength, but also her courage as she faces all the odds and… you’ll have to read For the Winner to find out what happens next!

Wonder Woman is, without a doubt, a brilliant and necessary demonstration of the power of a female lead who does not need a man to survive; a woman who can fight as well as – if not better than – a man.

But the ancient Greeks got there first.

For the Winner
For the Most Beautiful

For the Most Beautiful by Emily HauserGiveaway!
The giveaway has now closed and the winners have been contacted.

The publisher has kindly given me signed copies of For the Winner and its predecessor For the Most Beautiful to give away here and/or on Twitter. If you’d like to go into the hat, just let me know which you’d like in the comments below or retweet the post on Twitter, again saying which you’d like to go for. The deadline is this Friday (7 July) at 4pm (UK and Ireland entries only – sorry about that.).