Monday, October 23, 2006

Robin Hood, Robin Hood!

Last weekend Nottingham held its fourteenth annual Robin Hood Pageant in the castle grounds. It was business as usual for my re-enactment society Regia Anglorum who were employed to provide part of the living history exhibit and acts of derring do in the main arena.
The photo to the left features members of the Nottingham branch of Regia, the Conroi de Vey.
I am on the far left of the photo and dressed down in my 'cooking frock'. Just before the photo was taken (by Sarah, also known as the Lady Nicolaa and the mum of the two little boys in the picture) I remembered to remove my by then disreputable apron!
De Vey has performed at most of the pageants, aided and abetted by other groups within Regia Anglorum's framework - Cestrefeld, de Bec, Deoraby to name but three, together with guests from other societies who share Regia's ethic for 'getting it right.' Not that the Robin Hood Pageant is an event calling for white-hot authenticity. It's a fun show where anything vaguely Medieval goes. Costumes range from Viking to fifteenth Century. Purple velvet, wench corsets, black leather and fantasy gear are well represented. Regia's dateline for this event was late 12thC and we dressed to suit.
Numerous traders have booths and stalls on the site and it's a great opportunity to do some early Christmas shopping. I picked up some Fraoch beer for my sons.
Also a medieval drinking cup from
A while ago I blogged that I was considering what sort of food to dish up to the Regia members at the pageant, given that I'd be cooking outdoors, using a firebox and cauldrons and catering for approximately thirty people, including some vegetarians. I finally decided on a spicy beef stew for the Saturday, containing (as well as beef!) onions, ginger, cumin and black pepper. I'd tried this out before at Castleton and it had worked very well. Also it's a fairly generic, authentic medieval dish. Being as it was the Robin Hood Pageant, I could always claim that we'd stolen the spices off the sheriff's baggage cart! The vegetarians dined on a leek and onion pottage. People returned for seconds, so it was evidently a success! Sunday's main course was sweet and sour chicken (authentic Medieval again. The Museum of London cookbook has it in the Norman section, although more academic works put it later, but I assume it comes from a long tradition). Actually, when I say authentic, the meat should have been goat or rabbit, but chicken is more readily available today and user friendly. For smaller quantities I'd have used the original suggested meat. The sweet and sour was obtained using wine, wine vinegar, honey and currants. There were also onions in the dish and garlic.
We also had nibbles, including parsnip cakes - mash cooked parsnip with flour and salt and fry on the griddle in a little butter in the manner of a potato cake. Excellent! We had pear tarts and leche lumbard among other things. The latter is an interesting medieval dessert for which there are as many recipes as days in the year. My adaptation is this: Empty a bag of dates into a saucepan. Cover with white wine. Add a couple of teaspoons of mixed spice and one of ginger. A few screws of ground black pepper. Cook until it makes a squidgy mush. Then stir in breadcrumbs until you have a stiff but still moist mixture. When cool, mould into an oblong shape. It will look like a plate of poo (ahem!). People at shows who've never encountered it before will look at it askance, but once they've tried it, if they like dates, they can't stop eating it.
As always, when attending a show in kit, there was a lot to learn just by being around re-enactors and enthusiasts for a couple of days. I had a go with a hand quern (hard work, but wonderful to see grains gradually emerge after several grindings onto the boult cloth as flour.
Fun too to learn that a pine cone makes a marvellous brillo pad for a scummy cauldron!

All in all a great weekend. Good friends, good food, loads of research and a medieval atmosphere. What more could anyone want....apart from a bit less rain on the Sunday afternoon!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Covered up!

Every year the All About Romance website
runs a contest for the best book covers published in romance industry in the USA during the previous year - romance in this sense covering a broad church. So large and popular has this particular contest become that it now has its own dedicated site at Cover cafe.
I am delighted to announce that the cover for Shadows And Strongholds (St Martins Press) has made the final ten in the historical section as adjudged by the panel. If anyone would care to vote for it in the final placings, then please do! I am thrilled not only on my own behalf, but on Larry Rostant's. He's the illustrator of my new look covers and when I told him Shadows and Strongholds had made the final, he was touched and really pleased because this is the first award of any kind he's been up for.
'Shadows and Strongholds' belongs to the genre of 'headless bodice' covers of which there have admittedly been a plethora since The Other Boleyn Girl brought them to the fore. Some readers say they have become tired of them, but they still seem to be doing very well across the board and personally I love mine (and not only because I have seen sales more than quadruple since their inception!) Of course there are abominations - there are in any style of cover, but done well, the 'headless bodice' and its variations 'bodyless feet' for e.g. The Time Traveller's Wife, can be dead certs for getting readers to at least notice and pick up the novel in the first place. To judge from the finalists in the historical section of the 2005 Cover contest, the 'headless bodice' has had strong appeal to the judging panel with five of the ten being of this type. I also notice from glancing around that heroines with their hands behind their backs appear to be a key feature! Here's the url to the historical section.
When Larry first designed Shadows and Strongholds, the heroine's gown was blue velvet. I sent in an example photo of a typical gown of the period that a re-enactor friend had made using orange and gold brocade from a bolt of cloth especially woven for English Heritage. That fabric design and the colours have been morphed onto the Shadows and Strongholds gown. It's not strictly accurate in style, but the fabric is! I have been told that the cover was the hit of the Frankfurt Bookfair last year and that foreign publishers who had given Shadows and Strongholds a miss in the old hardback cover, were coming back to reconsider buying purely because of the cover art. That might not be what one wants to hear as a wordsmith, but as a commercial author, one gets down on one's knees and says thank you!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Folk Tale - Amalthea

I probably receive about a dozen e-mails a week from readers. It's always lovely to hear from people, as well as interesting to know a little bit about them. It helps with the demographic of who my audience is, but I'm also generally a curious person about life, the world and everything, so it's good too to have some feedback and interraction.
Back in August Deborah Peake (on the right in the photo) wrote to me saying she'd enjoyed the novels and was interested to notice that I'd mentioned I used musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Runrig for inspiration when writing. Deborah herself is a great fan of these artists and as a musician herself in a two-woman folk band has appeared supporting Runrig at the Skaagen folk festival. She asked if I'd like to hear the kind of music that she and her partner Helen Andrews composed and played. Of course I did! Deborah was kind enough to send me a couple of CDs (Dancing a Different Dream and Blame it on the Stars.) and over the past few weeks I've been listening to Amalthea. What a treat.
They have their own unique sound, but I would say that if you like artists such as All About Eve, Sarah Maclachlan, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands, the Corrs, the Dixie Chicks or Enya, you will probably love Amalthea. It's modern folk, looking both forwards and back for its inspiration. Helen's voice is just beautiful and Deborah's violin accompaniments and solos have the ability to make you ache. What's more they compose most of their material themselves. You can hear a sample at their myspace site.
They're not paying me to post this accolade - honest!
I find music a hugely influential muse to my writing. Every scene I write owes something to the singer and the song. Although I have only recently come to Amalthea, I suspect they'll be appearing on one of my novel soundtracks some time in the future!
Oh, and while I'm on the subject of music and just to pinch a moment from Helen and Deborah,
My Emo/rock orientated son has just introduced me to a band called Alter Bridge. Their album One Day Remains and particularly the track Down to My Last have been great inspiration for the siege of Newbury I've recently been working on!