Saturday, July 29, 2006

Under The Influence!

Ali posted a list of her favourite five historical novels - Carla followed suit with some interesting choices.
I don't think I have five that I could name as top of the pile. There are way too many historical novels that I have loved and for different reasons at different times in my life. Those that have stayed with me during subsequent re-reads would be my most treasured reads, but they are numerous and I wouldn't put one above the other. Instead, I have decided to list some novels that meant a lot to me as a developing, aspiring, but unpublished writer of Medieval fiction...
So, not in any order, here are 5 novels/novelists to whom, in part, I owe my career.

1. Alinor by Roberta Gellis.
This novel blew me away when I read it. It's the second in a series - The Roselynde Chronicles, and in my opinion the best of the lot. Gellis straddles the line between historical romance and the romantic historical. Her plots, while romances, are very much grounded in the history of the period and her characters are of their time. The story lines too are meaty and detailed. Roberta Gellis showed me that it was possible to write believable, enjoyable absorbing intelligent historicals with a romantic leaning. Her male protagonist, Ian de Vipont is one of the best romantic novel heroes I have ever come across. He's tall, dark and handsome and in less skilled hands could have become ye typical boring Medieval romance hero cliche with a big sword (!), but in Gellis' hands he's something else. She makes of him such well-rounded character, complete with believable human flaws that whenever I read the novel, I expect to find him standing at my shoulder as a real person. Alinor, the heroine is that rare creature in Medieval fiction - a strong woman but totally of her time. She gets her own way 12th Century style and with panache. It's an absolute joy to see her running rings around the men in the story, Ian included!

2. Red Adam's Lady by Grace Ingram.
Grace Ingram also wrote as Doris Sutcliffe Adams, although I haven't read any of her novels under the second name because they are hard to get hold of and frightfully expensive. Red Adam's lady, however, is a delightful novel I have read several times. It concerns young Adam de Lorismond. Whilst drunk and disorderly, he abducts lady Julitta de Montrigord who has been sheltering in the village ale house while her horse is reshod. Realising his error, he does the decent thing and marries her, much to Julitta's horror. As the novel progresses, a tangled web of intrigue and treachery brings Adam and Julitta to the brink of destruction and his fate winds up in her hands. There's also a mystery to be solved. What did happen to the old lord's wife when she went out riding and never returned? There's an awful lot of novel crammed into 255 pages in paperback, but it never feels like a pint in a half pint pot. Grace Ingram was a wonderfully talented writer and should have been much better known than she was.

3.The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
The first in the series about Frances Crawford of Lymond. What a writer, Dorothy Dunnett was. In a class of her own. I feel very privileged to share her copy editor. I confess to three attempts to get into The Game of Kings, but something must have kept drawing me back, and when I finally 'got' it, I was blown away by the layers within layers in her writing. Her research, her superb use of language, her sense of humour, the scope of her imagination. I always imagine her painting her stories on a huge Renaissance canvas, with myself colouring away on my knees in a corner. Whenever I wanted to raise my game, I would read a couple of chapters of Dunnett to remind me what it was all about.

4. Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman
Sharon Kay Penman is a legend in her own lifetime and perhaps best known for The Sunne in Splendour, her novel about Richard III. I did enjoy this, but it was her novel about Llewelyn Fawr of Wales and King John's bastard daughter, Joanna, that really caught my imagination. If Gellis had shown me what could be done with imaginary protagonists, then Penman showed me the path of bringing real people to life. She writes the politics of the period better than anyone I know - although Gellis comes very close.

5.Avalon - Anya Seton
Anya Seton taught me about creating atmosphere and, rather like Dunnett, how to create paintings in words. I felt she did this particularly with Avalon. Cornwall, Wessex, Iceland, all came to life for me in this novel. The colours and textures are still vivid in my mind's eye today, and the story of Merewyn and Rumon is not a traditional love story, but more of a saga-like telling of interwoven personal journeys. I always find Avalon absorbs me into the textures of the 10th Century whenever I read it.

So there you have it. Five books, five writers, who influenced this particular novelists journey towards publication. There are many more, I haven't mentioned Graham Shelby, Ellis Peters, Valerie Anand, Mary Stewart, Cecelia Holland (for showing how sexy love scenes could be even when done in a collapsing stable as in Great Maria!) and a host of others, but only because it would take a novel to list them and the reasons. My thanks go out to them nevertheless.

To finish, here are 10 novels at random from my favourites list, not all historical, but all getting maximum points and highly recommended!

1. Hanta Yo - Ruth Beebee Hill - a tale of the Lakotah Sioux on the eve of the coming of the White Man
2. The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver - life in the Congo for a missionary family in the 1960's
3. The Vintner's Luck - Elizabeth Knox - 19thC Vintner meets up with an angel
4. Until The Sun Falls - Cecelia Holland - The Mongol Empire after the death of Genghis Khan
5. A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin - start to a huge fantasy series with a strongly Medieval feel.
6. The Lord of the Ring - J R.R. Tolkien. No hope for you if you don't know about this one by now!
7. A Respectable Trade - Philippa Gregory. The slave trade in 18thC Bristol
8. A Place of Execution - Val McDermid. A murder in the 1960's is re-investigated 20 years later on. If you're one of those people who always reads the end then don't in this case.
9. The Shining - Stephen King. A ghost/horror story that is an absolute classic of the genre
10 The Adventures of Alianore Audeley - Brian Wainwright. Hilarious romp set in the reign of Richard III

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Food for thought

Last Thursday I went along to my monthly meeting with fellow members of the Nottingham branch of Regia Anglorum
The Nottingham group is Anglo-Norman by ethnicity and a fertile source of research for my novels. With the help of its members, I have choreographed fight scenes in Shadows And Strongholds, and confirmed that yes, it is indeed possible to get one's helm stuck on one's head and have to have it prised off (helmet, not the head) by putting oneself at the mercy of someone capable of straightening it out for you.
Anyway, we have been told that we are to provide part of the living history exhibit for this year's Robin Hood Pageant at Nottingham Castle and this will involve me in researching up a menu that is a) authentic for the late 12thC, b) suitable for both vegetarians and meat eaters c) can be prepared over an open fire in whatever weather late October in the UK decides to throw at us. d) can accommodate lots of people if necessary, who might not actually say they are coming until 12hrs before the event - that's re-enactors for you!

At the moment, these dishes are on my short longlist! Beef and cumin stew for meat eaters, bean and cumin stew for the veggies. Parsnip cakes - like potato cakes, but rather obviously made with parsnips! I've done these before on the griddle and they were a huge success. Thick barley and vegetable pottage - comes out rather like risotto. Chicken in verjuice, (should have verjuice off our greenhouse grape vine later this summer), meatballs (to be researched), bread, cheese, honey, blackberry and plum compote, leche lumbard (sticky date slice), rosewater tart. I am also going to be trawling my Medieval cookery books for more ideas, plus lists of accounts. Perhaps a salmon...then again perhaps not. I'd do sweet and sour rabbit, but too many people are wussy about eating bunny. I simply have to do stuffed mushrooms as I know William Marshal was fond of them!
Once I've finalised my thoughts, I'll perhaps post again with the final list and perhaps some recipes.
The photo is of a feasting scene, late 12thC at Pembroke Castle

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Greatest Knight hits the charts!

Dropping by on the run.
Even though this is my blog and I'm an author for a living, I'm not rampantly into the self-promotion thing. However, I'm too pleased to sit on this at the moment. I have heard that The Greatest Knight has entered The Bookseller's Heatseeker chart. From last week's number nineteen, it has jumped to number 2. Needless to say I'm delighted and doing the happy dance!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sifting through the ashes

While I wait to see how my novel about William Marshal - The Greatest Knight is performing in paperback in the bookshops, I have continued to work on the story of the above's father, John Marshal. Working on the research is proving both fascinating and frustrating as witnessed by my attempts to get the facts about the Wherwell Abbey incident straight.
The incident goes like this - roughly. John Marshal and his troop were fighting for the Empress Matilda in the war with King Stephen for the English crown. They had to guard a crossing of the river Test at Wherwell and were faced with the larger, stronger troop of mercenary captain William D'Ypres descending on them from Andover, which D'Ypres had just sacked and burned.
The two forces fought a running battle and John and his men were finally driven into the Abbey. D'Ypres set fire to it and John was burned, losing the sight of one eye.
So now I come to write this incident and find that no one report agrees with another. I have around five different versions of the same story plus other snippets garnered here and there. Sure, there are similarities, but getting at the truth is like picking up individual grains of rice wearing thick woolly gloves.
What was John doing at Wherwell in the first place? One chronicle says the Empress' forces had built a temporary castle there as a forward base and to guard supplies. Feasible, since John was the Empress' marshal and responsible for various aspects of quarter mastering. Others make no mention of such defences. Sometimes the nuns were there and squawking about what was happening to their convent, at other times they aren't mentioned. What's the reality? Anyone's guess. Two reports say that John Marshal lost an eye during the burning of the Abbey and since one is the epic poem L'Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, it's likely to be true. But other aspects of the Histoire fudge the truth in the interests of a good story. John it says, was responsible for getting the Empress out of Winchester and for telling her to ride astride like a man. However, he wasn't anywhere near her desperate flight from the city, but was guarding that all important ford at Wherwell. Had he rushed there or was he there already dealing with supplies and surprised by the forces of William D'Ypres? What happened to the knights who were with him at Wherwell. Geoffrey Boterel was the brother of the Earl of Richmond and he didn't die there. 1148 is his given death date. What happened to Richard of Okehampton? Were they captured and led away in thongs (!) as one chronicle says. Did John really hide in the tower while the roof burned over his head, or did he make a break for it?
What I have to do with the information from all these disparate reports, plus some valuable remote viewing notes of the incident and an afternoon spend walking the ground myself, is write a credible version of the scene. I'm enjoying the challenge, but it goes to show that Pontius Pilate was right when he said 'What is truth?'

Photo is of the River Test at Wherwell. No trace of the abbey remains

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Back from researching

I've just returned from the heart of Wiltshire where I've been walking the ground of the Kennet Valley and researching material for my work in progress on John Marshal. We were staying in a cottage on a working farm just outside Devizes and on the edge of Salisbury Plain - so were treated to the occasional noise of 'fireworks' from the gunnery ranges, plus the frequent sight of Hercules aircraft from the RAF base at Lyneham, very close to where John is buried.
Places visited during the break included Winchester, where John had two houses, Marlborough, where he was castellan for about 20 years, Rockley on the Downs where he had a manor, which he gave to the Templars, and Wherwell, site of the hard battle between his troops and those of William D'Ypres during the flight fromWinchester. John's task was to prevent D'Ypres from encircling the Empress as part of a pincer movement by the royalist troops. John had to buy her time to let her make her getaway and he made his stand at Wherwell. He did so, but at great cost to himself and his men. His last stand was made at Wherwell Abbey, now in ruins and on private land. D'Ypres' men set fire to the church with John inside it. He survived and lived to tell the tale, but he lost an eye when melted lead from the tower roof dripped on his face. D'Ypres left him for dead and John emerged to walk, injured as he was, the twenty five miles to Marlborough.
Wherwell today- see photo - is a pretty, thatched village that looks as if it belongs in a cartoon from Thelwell Country (for those who've never heard of Thelwell, his whimsical sketches of English country life are an absolute and amusing joy). You would never guess, looking at its chocolate box prettiness that a battle so bloody and desperate had ever taken place here.
We also went walking in Savernake Forest and got lost (!). Fortunately we found our way out but had to walk back the long way via the road. However at least there was a pub en route. I thought about John Marshal. I was knackered after four hours pottering in the woods. He walked twenty five miles with a facial burn bad enough to cause permanent trauma and disfigurement. I don't know how he did it!