Know What You Don’t Know

When I need to write something I have no expertise in, I look for a template. A model.

In Empire’s Hostage, my protagonist Lena is told of a historic battle, one that forced an uneasy peace and the setting of a border. But I truly have no talent for writing battles, even one where it’s only a story being told, all the rough and bloody action reduced to a tale.

Image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay 

Many many long years ago, in another life entirely, I had to write my first grant application for major funding – several hundred thousand dollars – for the research lab I was responsible for. I’d never done this before, and it was going to fund my lab (and pay my salary) for several years. But, I knew someone who had done this successfully the previous year. So, nicely, I asked if I could see his application, which he gladly shared with me. I read it, analyzed it, and then used it as a template for the one I wrote. Not a copy, because we worked on different things and needed different equipment. But a framework. He read it, made some suggestions, which I incorporated. I got the grant.

Ever since then, when I need to write something I have no expertise in, I look for a template. A model. So when it came to writing this battle tale for Hostage, I went looking for an account of a battle fought across a river in an early medieval setting. That’s all I needed, and I found it, a beautifully written account of the Battle of Stamford Bridge.  I took its details, and placed them in my setting, and wrote the tale Lena is told:

“Word came that the Marai were up the Tabha,” Donnalch continued. “The summer had been wet, wetter than normal, and so the boats of the Marai could be rowed up the river much further than usual, nearly to this spot. They found naught but sheep; the shepherd lads or lasses had fled at the sight of the boats. But one of those lads at least was fleet of foot, and so word reached his torp quickly, and from there a man and horse rode out across the hills, to find Neilan’s army at the coast.”

If you know the Battle of Stamford Bridge well, it might be recognizable from what happens. But even if it is, I don’t find that a problem. It can only add to the historical feeling of my invented world.

Importantly, in my mind, I did all this with the permission of the original author of the piece I used as a model. It took a little while to track him down: first I had to contact the webmaster of the source site, who contacted his writer, who contacted me. But he was glad to share, and I ensured that both he and the website are credited in Empire’s Hostage. (I sent him a copy of the paperback, too.)

The lessons I learned writing that grant application back in the early 80s have stayed with me across three careers: know what you don’t know; find a model and use it; ask for help. I’ve used this in every book since, whether it’s in writing the last battle in Exile, the music for the song in Reckoning, or the descriptions of Casil in both Exile and the upcoming sixth book, Empire’s Heir.

But there’s one more thing. In Empire’s Heir, the character Cillian is thinking about the responsibilities of those who teach:

“I believe that when the records are written, to be remembered as the teacher of Colm of Ésparias will be a great honour, ” Gnaius said. A reminder to me, I knew, of the responsibility we shared, the unbroken line of learning we had to maintain. We honoured those who had taught us, while expecting one or two students in our lives who would both exceed and succeed us.

I became very good at writing grant applications. Very good. Which leads me to the final piece of advice, if advice this is:  give back. Pay it forward. Share your expertise with others, give them a hand. Provide the model and the assistance, and perhaps your student will exceed you. If so, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Featured Image: Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay 

A Different Perspective

When is north south?

This is a map of Scotland; the county shown in red is Sutherland. Suðrland, in Old Norse, Southland, even though it is some of the most northerly land in mainland Britain. But from the point of view of the Norse, who ruled parts of what is now northern Scotland from the 8th to the 15th centuries, it was south.

We are used to maps with north at the top, but if you’re a northern people, that’s not the most useful view.  A rotated, south-up map of western Europe gives you a sense.  Sutherland is the red star.

By Tyrannus Mundi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I borrowed this concept in its entirety for Empire’s Hostage: Sorham, the name for the land north of Linrathe, means ‘south-home’ in one of my semi-invented languages. Like northern Scotland, this area bounces between Linrathe and Varsland, my Norse-analogue country: disputed territory, with many treaties and much intermarriage.

Lena, the protagonist, sent into Linrathe as a hostage to a treaty, encounters this concept through, literally, a map turned upside down. Lena will learn many things in Linrathe, many of which – most – will change her understanding of not just her country and its history, but of the subjective nature of what she has been brought up to believe is truth. A different perspective.

Featured image: by Santa3 from Pixabay

The Sterre

“The other Wall—it is not a stone wall, or not mostly, but an earthen dyke for the greatest part—is The Sterre.”

I scanned the map. I found the roads I had ridden, and Karst, and followed the road with my eyes back to the Wall. Then I let my eyes travel down toward the bottom of the map. I could not read the names, but I could see the line of another wall, and named villages, and then a gap of ocean where the islands lay, and then just the edge of another land. “There is another Wall!” I said. “And what lands are these, here?” I pointed to the bottom of the map.

“The land to the far north, at the bottom, is Varsland, and the islands belong to it.” Perras said. “The other Wall—it is not a stone wall, or not mostly, but an earthen dyke for the greatest part—is The Sterre.”

Empire’s Hostage

160 kilometers north of Hadrian’s Wall, another wall spans Scotland, from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. Sixty-three kilometers long, twelve years in the building, the Antonine Wall was abandoned a mere eight years after its completion.

Hadrians_Wall_map.pngCreated by Norman Einstein, September 20, 2005

There’s little of it left. Other than its foundation, it wasn’t a stone wall, but built of soil and turf and probably topped by a wooden palisade. The Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered it built to subdue the Caledonians.

I borrowed the concept of the Antonine Wall, but in my world it is a dividing line not between the ‘civilized’ south and the wild north, but between the country of Linrathe and the disputed territory north of it, Sorham. Sorham has been controlled by both Linrathe and Varsland, a country of seafarers even further north, just as parts of Scotland were under Norse rule until well into the 13th century. In Empire’s Hostage, it belongs to Linrathe.

This map of my imagined world has a different orientation than what we’re used to: south is up. This is how the nation of Varsland sees the world.

Why ‘The Sterre’?  I wish I could remember. One thing I should have was keep a record of how I developed words in my constructed languages. But its purpose in my books is to have kept the people south of it – the people of Linrathe – from moving north during a time of plague, many generations before the events of Empire’s Hostage.  It’s still a border, though, and a defensive earthwork, so it can be repurposed as politics demand – and they will.

Featured image: Antonine Wall at Barr Hill near Twechar, by Excalibur, CC 3.0

Bards, Monasteries, and Education

The concept of the Ti’acha – the elite schools of Linrathe – is introduced in Empire’s Hostage, when Lena, standing as hostage to a truce between Linrathe and her country, is sent to one. What is a Ti’ach, and where did the idea come from?

Ti’acha are boarding schools. Both boys and girls attend: depending on which Ti’ach, the focus may be history and politics, or mathematics and science, or the healing arts, but music and languages are always part of the learning. Children of landholders mix with children of the peasantry: while the wealthy pay for their children to attend, demonstrated intelligence or skill will always guarantee a place.  The schools are based—loosely—on the monastic and cathedral schools of Ireland, Scotland, and England.

Image by MAGIC BOIRO, SL BOIRO from Pixabay 

In the mid-500s, the Irish monastic movement began, possibly at the monastery of Clonard, and spread out across Ireland and into what is now Scotland. Most monasteries had a school attached, both for young men who had a religious vocation and for those who would take their place in government or the military: boys of the land-holding class, for the most part. Latin and Greek were part of their education, as was a study of classical authors such as Virgil and Socrates, as well as mathematics, astronomy, and music. These subjects are what are taught in my world too.  I changed the names of the Greek and Roman writers, but their thoughts remain the same.

At the Ti’ach Lena is sent to, the Comiádh, or head of school, is a man named Perras. In A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland (1906, and a rather romanticized view) Patrick Joyce writes of the Fer-leginn, the ‘man of learning’ who was responsible for the educational direction of the school, in concert with the abbot, who was responsible for the religious aspects of the monastery. Organized religion doesn’t exist in my invented world, so there is no one to direct a religious side. There is a ‘Lady’ of the Ti’ach, Dagney, who is also the scáeli (bard) attached to the house. Her authority is equal to that of Perras, but he teaches history and politics; she music and literature.

For Dagney’s expertise, I borrowed from the tradition of bardic schools, which may have existed in pre-Christian Ireland, taught (perhaps) by Druids and likely by bards. Their role was to pass on oral history and literature, continuing in some form into the 19th century.

I simply combined the bardic schools and the monastic ones. Is it accurate? No. Does it feel familiar? Yes, and that’s what I wanted.

Other types of formal education do occur. Younger children of landholders, or those not suited to the rigors of advanced study, may be taught by a travelling teacher. These men and women, themselves taught at the Ti’acha, may stay for a season or many years. Again, this is based on a long tradition throughout Europe of itinerant teachers, attached both to noble households and wealthier towns.

But women in the Ti’acha? In the real early-medieval world, women weren’t all as badly educated as popular culture would have us believe, but neither were they included in mixed schools. Daughters of the nobility were tutored in mathematics and sciences, languages and history; nuns in certain houses were taught Latin and Greek. I deviated quite a bit from real history, but I had my reasons: the exploration and challenging of gender roles is one of the themes of the series.

Diplomacy was one of the roles played by the English scholar Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne, in the mid-700s. Columba of Iona, two hundred years earlier, undertook diplomatic negotiations between the Kingdom of Dalriada and the Kingdom of Ireland. Diplomacy needs educated, agile minds: those who acted as envoys and negotiators must have been taught well, either at the monastic schools or by teachers who themselves had learned there.

The role of the Ti’acha in politics and diplomacy continues to be important in the books following Empire’s Hostage, including the book releasing in September, Empire’s Heir.

This article has been modified from one first published at https://rwranniewhitehead.blogspot.com/2020/06/guest-post-marian-l-thorpe.html

Featured Image: By Fulda – Manuscript: Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, 2nd quarter of the 9th century), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=380431

Hostage

We exchange our heirs, in surety for each side’s good behaviour.

In the modern mind, the term ‘hostage’ conjures up someone taken by force – the Iranian Embassy hostages; the person grabbed by a gunman in a robbery. But in Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the Empire’s Legacy series, ‘hostage’ is used in an older way.

“What does it mean, to be a hostage?” I asked. I saw something flicker in Turlo’s eyes. He grinned again.

“Exchanging the children of high rank as hostages is an old and honoured tradition,” he answered, “although not one we have respected, in some generations, and in truth needed to be reminded of. We’ll treat Donnalch’s son, and the other boy they are sending—his brother’s son—with every courtesy. They will lodge in the White Fort for now, and then be sent south to the Eastern Fort when the weather improves, to learn with our senior cadets. Darel, you will basically live the life that Donnalch’s son would have, whatever the education, in arms and tactics and books, they deem appropriate. That is the gist of it: we exchange our heirs, in surety for each side’s good behaviour. You will not be mistreated, but, understand, neither will you be truly free.”

In Hostages in the Middle Ages[1], Adam Kosto points out that:

In medieval Europe, hostages were given, not taken. They were a means of guarantee used to secure transactions ranging from treaties to wartime commitments to financial transactions. In principle, the force of the guarantee lay in the threat to the life of the hostage if the agreement were broken. 

Who were these hostages?  In her review[2] of Kosto’s book, Shavana Haythornthwaite tells us the preference was for sons of the family, but ‘the question of exactly who a hostage was in the Middle Ages was in fact part and parcel of the question of what the structures of power were.’ And that’s who stands as hostage to the treaty in my book.

He grinned. Nothing, ever, seemed to keep Turlo’s spirits down. “But the treaty, my lad, and lassie,” he added, “requires hostages. Donnalch’s son and another to us, and two children of our leaders to them.”

But peace treaties weren’t the only reason for hostages, and the interpretation can be broad:

Hostages were taken and held as surety for various reasons: the holding of property, the promise of paying off debts, the securement of peace. Hostages could be taken for social reasons, if broadly read. The fostering of sons is a form of social contract involving the holding of a boy by another family to strengthen a network of alliances. Betrothals and marriages of daughters and sisters, especially in the cases of making treaties between warring factions, served much the same purpose as a hostage or a fostered son: a promise of peace held in the body of a person.[3]

In later books in the series, almost all these broad definitions of hostage are part of the story, just as they were part of life in the middle ages.


[1] Kosto, Adam J. Hostages in the Middle Ages, 2012, Oxford University Press: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199651702.001.0001/acprof-9780199651702

[2] Haythornthwaite, Shavana.  Review of Hostages in the Middle Ages, (review no. 1579)
https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1579

[3] Medieval Hostageship c.700-c.1500: Hostage, Captive, Prisoner of War, Guarantee, Peacemaker. Matthew Bennett & Katherine Weikert, eds., Routledge, 2019

Local Support!

I was very pleased when our local arts council asked to interview me for their website.

Writers need support.  Yes, we work alone, in silence or not, depending on our individual preferences, and much of our thinking and plotting and creating is done in solitude, too.  But we need colleagues to talk to, and when we get to publication, we need a different sort of support: publicity.  So I was very pleased when our local arts council asked to interview me for their website.  Here’s the link:

https://guelpharts.ca/marian-thorpe-launches-the-empire-s-hostage

Thanks again to the Guelph Arts Council!

The (Successful) Book Launch

I crossed my fingers, ordered nibbles for twenty-five people, and hoped for the best.

Friday – yesterday, the day after my book launch for Empire’s Hostage – I was an exhausted wreck.  Partly dueme reading ebar cropped to only four hours sleep (more on that later); partly due to the adrenaline-overload aftermath.  The launch was beyond-my-expectations successful.  The room was full, the applause after the readings generous, and I sold a lot of books.

So how did this happen?  I put posters up in all the cafes downtown, and did lots of Twitter and Facebook promotions, which were generously retweeted and shared by a lot of people and organizations in our town. The local arts council put the event on their calendar, and did their share of advertising. The bookstore in whose upstairs bar the event was being held did their share with an in-store display and advertising on their website. And then I crossed my fingers, ordered nibbles for twenty-five people, and hoped for the best.

I had asked a couple of my writing friends, one a poet with a newly-published book, one an established writer of genre fiction, to read that night as well.  That broadened the appeal a bit, I hope, and provided some new exposure for both of them, as well. Anyhow…it all worked.  I could have ordered a lot more food; the beer and wine flowed nicely at the bar, people stayed for the whole evening.  I signed my name on title pages many times. It felt like a good night.

But I am not a night person.  I start falling asleep about 8:30 most nights, and struggle to stay awake till 10 pm. The first thing I’d done when arriving to set up at 6:30 was order a coffee.  It was quite a large coffee, and I drank it all.  So I was very awake for the whole evening…and the late evening….and the early morning…. Even the pint of beer I’d had after my reading didn’t help. I finally fell asleep about 2 am, and slept till 6 am.  Yesterday felt like the day after an overnight flight. I managed to send thank-you emails and twitters and facebook posts. I organized breakfast for my overnight guests (even baking muffins); I remembered our appointment with our lawyer to sign our wills.  I went grocery shopping (and didn’t forget anything).  And then I crashed. The day is a blur from early afternoon onward.

Would I do it again?  Definitely!  But next time (perhaps when Empire’s Exile comes out) I won’t drink a large coffee at 6:30 pm.  Mid-afternoon might be better….

Here’s the link to the books on Amazon.  The e-books are free through Sunday the 28th.

(The less-than-wonderful photo is a friend’s phone shot.)

Walls in Empire’s Hostage, walls in history.

“…they did not find the conquest of the northern lands easy, for the inhabitants knew the hills and valleys, forests and caves well, and used them to their advantage’.

The advantage of writing historical fantasy is that it is fantasy – in the case of my Empire’s Legacy series, the fantasy isn’t the dragons and wizards sort, but the creation of a world loosely based on cultures, historical events, and people, all of whom existed.  But I have taken huge liberties with timelines, geography, and cultures, so while the setting and background of the books may seem familiar, it isn’t anywhere you really might know.

In previous installments of this occasional series, I’ve talked about various aspects of Lena’s world. (Lena is the protagonist of Empire’s Daughter and Empire’s Hostage, in case you are new to this blog).  In the newly-published Empire’s Hostage, Lena’s world expands to include the lands north of the Wall.  The Wall is based on Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman wall in the north of England built by the Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 to mark the dividing line between civilized Britannia to the south, and uncivilized (and unconquerable) Caledonia to the north.  It plays the same role in my books, dividing the ‘civilized’ Empire from the unconquered lands of Linrathe.

Linrathe, though, has another wall, further north, an earth-and-wood rampart called The Sterre.  Where did this come from?  Well, although it has a very different role in the world of Empire’s Hostage, it’s based on the Antonine Wall, another Roman wall – this one built by the Emperor Antoninus Pius, in AD 142, in an attempt to move the boundary of Roman occupation farther north.   In Empire’s Hostage, the character Perras, quoting a work of  history to Lena, tells her “… ‘they did not find the conquest of the northern lands easy, for the inhabitants knew the hills and valleys, forests and caves well, and used them to their advantage’. It is a wild land, Lena, and very difficult, and more so as you go north. But they did try; the Sterre, the other wall you noticed yesterday on the wall map: they built it, but could not hold it for more than a dozen years, if that. Their armies retreated south, and left these lands in peace, more or less.”  The Romans held the Antonine Wall for only eight years, before retreating back to Hadrian’s Wall, likely for all these same reasons.

Antonine_wall

Here’s a picture of what the Antonine Wall looks like now, nearly two thousand years after it was built.

In the next installments, I’ll be talking more about how early-to-late medieval Scottish history influences Empire’s Hostage.  In the meantime, if you’re intrigued, here is the link to the books!

 

Photo of the Antonine Wall  by: Excalibur [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Second Books are like Second Children

Do me a favour? Pay my second book some attention; it wants to be read.  And its older sibling is free right now, on Amazon, for the Kindle reader or app….so for a minimal price, you can have them both.  Think of it as a kindness. If I know other people are giving them their share of attention, I can focus on gestating the third baby!

I’m the third sibling of three…the baby.  My father was an amateur (and then professional, for a while) photographer.  There are hundreds of pictures of my sister, the oldest. (Remember this was 1948, when black & white film had to be hand-developed.) Hundreds. 

When my brother came along, six years later, there are fewer.  A couple of requisite baby shots, the christening, a few more.  But his presence clearly wasn’t as exciting, didn’t need to be recorded in the same way.

This is fairly typical, from what I’ve seen with the photos and video of my nieces and nephews, too.  The first baby gets a lot of attention; the rest…not as much. (There are even fewer photos of me.)

And that’s pretty much how I’ve been reacting to the publication of my second book, Empire’s Hostage. Yes, I’m pleased to see it in print. I’m doing my part to promote it.  But I lack the ‘look at what I produced!  It’s the best baby ever!’ excitement that first child/book engendered. Don’t get me wrong…I think it’s a fine book, a worthy sequel to the first. I’m proud to have written it. Some of the reviews have blown me away. But it’s the second child. I’m more realistic about its prospects and the work involved in getting in out into the world. And with the first still needing attention, and my mind already pregnant with the third, it’s going to fight for its share of my time. Do me a favour? Pay it some attention; it wants to be read.  And its older sibling is free right now, on Amazon, for the Kindle reader or app….so for a minimal price, you can have them both.  Think of it as a kindness. If I know other people are giving them their share of attention, I can focus on gestating the third baby!

Empire’s Legacy Book One is FREE

For a limited time (Sunday July 23rd to Thursday July 27th), the Kindle edition of Empire’s Daughter, Book I of the Empire’s Legacy series, is FREE on Amazon.

For a limited time (Sunday July 23rd to Thursday July 27th), the Kindle edition of Empire’s Daughter, Book I of the Empire’s Legacy series, is FREE on Amazon.

Empires_Daughter_Cover_for_Kindle

 

“… the world building is quite remarkable and the characters incredibly real. The reader is pulled in by the rich descriptions – the action scenes are brilliantly done, and the romance is unforced. This is a good one.” Rebecca Rafferty

 

 

 

While you’re there, you might want to check out Empire’s Legacy Book II, Empire’s Hostage. It’s not free, but it’s priced as low as Amazon will allow for the Kindle edition.cover ebook under 2MB smaller

Involving, evocative, intelligent—an outstanding historical fantasy.” – Maria Luisa Lang

For some of the background to the Empire’s Legacy series, take a look here.