Love & Adversity on the High Seas

Emma Lombard decided she’d like to know a little more about her family history – and discovered a female ancestor who had run away to sea.

Emma Lombard’s Discerning Grace is a high seas adventure with an adventurous heroine – a young woman who runs away to sea rather than marry a boring old man. Here, Emma talks about the inspiration for Grace, what she does for fun, and what it means when she’s staring off into space.

What inspired you to write DISCERNING GRACE (Book 1)?

I’ve always been a little nosy—I know, I know … curiosity killed the cat! But back in 2001 during one of my regular letter-writing sessions to my grandmother in England, I decided I’d like to know a little more about our family history from the older generation. Once they’ve passed it’s so hard to find out what kinds of people they knew and the sorts of things they got up to.

So, my darling late grandmother, whom I was incredibly close to, indulgently began answering my questions and documenting memories of her own childhood and stories of ancestors. All it took was for me to read the opening to one of her letters and I just KNEW I had to write a story about it! This is what the letter said, ‘Your GGG grandmother was only 16 when she ran away from home to marry a sea captain … her family cut her off and she sailed the seas with him …’

Come on! What author couldn’t resist a little bit of real-life inspiration like that?

And so, that is how my purely fictional, historical naval adventure— with a dash of romance—blossomed. I’ve been thrilled by the journey of writing it and all the research too, but most of all, I’ve loved imagining the incredible courage and fortitude it would have taken my ancestor to choose such a life! Plus, there is my GGG grandfather’s side of the tale to consider too. As my grandmother put it, they were ‘obviously a very enlightened couple, and she a very, very liberated woman.’

What was the best piece of writing advice you received when starting out?

To give my main character, Grace Baxter, more agency instead of her being a victim of circumstance. I was pushed to get her to create and direct her own circumstances. This was a bit more of a challenge having a female lead character in the early 1800s because of societal restrictions on women in those days. But I also figured that there had to be pioneering women, even back then, who broke the mould. Since Grace is inspired by my three times great grandmother, who indeed bucked the norm in her day by leaving her well-to-do family in England to elope with an English sea captain and live with him at sea, I felt I had a little more leeway to play with when writing Grace’s character. And besides, what’s a rollicking romantic adventure without a feisty heroine!

What is your favourite historical era and why? Do you have a favourite historical female? Why?

I’m open when it comes to reading historical fiction through the different eras, from Jean M. Auel’s prehistoric The Clan of the Cave Bear, to Vikings and Romans, through to later centuries like in Wilbur Smith’s Courtney series. As for writing it, I’ve been so immersed in the 19th century since I’ve been writing my own books, that I have a soft spot for this era. There’s a great balance of knowledge and information out there since it wasn’t too long ago—say unlike the ancient Egyptian era. I have huge admiration for historical authors who write about ancient times. The research required for that is mammoth (snigger)!

While there are many well-known historical females, my research unearthed a whole world of unknown women whose stories have not had a spotlight shone on them. These have been my favourite historical females to find—mothers penning journals about parenthood, sisters writing letters to relatives from the other side of the world, wives aboard ships keeping diaries that recorded tiny details of daily life not captured in a ship’s log books. It took me ages to find some resources that spoke about women aboard ships who were not just there to entertain the sailors, but who played a pivotal role in sailing the ship, raising a family aboard, and supporting industrious endeavours. These are some of my favourites:

  • Seafaring Women by renowned historian, Linda Grant De Pauw
  • Female Tars by Suzanne J. Stark
  • Hen Frigates by maritime historian, Joan Durett
  • She Captains by maritime historian, Joan Durett

What message are you sharing in your books?

The themes in my first novel, DISCERNING GRACE (Book 1), include:

  • an independent woman
  • the importance of love over money
  • appearances can be deceiving
  • love can conquer all
  • triumph over adversity

Does each book stand alone, or are you building a body of work with connections or themes between each book?

I love reading a long series where you can immerse yourself into another world and get to know the characters intimately through several books, so it felt perfectly natural for me to write a series too. It has been a joy to evolve my characters from their young and naïve selves in the first book, and mature them through their life experiences in subsequent books. Discerning Grace (Book 1) is out now. The second book is nearly ready to publish, and I have complete draft manuscripts for books three and four.

A movie producer wants to turn your book into a movie and you get to make a cameo. What would you do in the movie?

Ooo, isn’t this every writer’s dream!

Due to the nature of my story aboard a 19th century Royal Naval tall ship, there aren’t that many female characters, though I could play no role on the ship since I get hideously sea sick!

I would have to stick with a role that is safe on land, so perhaps one of the dinner guests in my opening scene.

You have created images for your main characters, how does that help you write them?

I asked my beta readers to send me images of real-life people who they thought most looked like Seamus and Grace. Those images, along with the descriptions from my book, created the basis for the artwork I’ve commissioned (because I can barely draw a stick man!) They turned out exactly as I envisaged them in my mind’s eye!

It has been marvellous to have them drawn so young and fresh when we first meet them. For the subsequent books in the series, I can envisage the deepening of Seamus’s smile line beside his mouth, or the crow’s feet around Grace’s aquamarine eyes. I don’t necessarily speak to my characters, but I do sit and watch them interact and play out scenes in my head (it must look like I’m staring into space, and not working, when I do this!) I only need to look at their body language in their artwork for an inspirational reminder about how they react physically and verbally to different situations.

Since I own this artwork, I’ve actually created my own Redbubble store called, By-the-Book (yes, like the name of my newsletter), where my readers can grab their own favourite keepsakes.

What do you do for fun? What does a perfect day look like?

In everyday life, I’m Mum to four teenage sons—my men children, all of whom are taller than me—and two cantankerous cats who often thrash it out for a spot on my lap! I live in the perpetually sunny city of Brisbane in Australia. I love building jigsaw puzzles (especially Wasgij, backwards puzzles), playing Candy Crush (my secret shame!), and playing board games with my boys—though gone are the days when used to I beat them, they whip me soundly now. And I totally suck at Risk! Having raised four rambunctious boys, my perfect day these days constitutes solitude and silence. It doesn’t matter where, as long as those two ingredients are present.

AUTHOR BIO

Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace, is the first book in The White Sails Series.

Connect with Emma: WebsiteTwitterFacebookInstagramGoodreads

Just How Accurate is that Historical Drama? The Borgias

Renaissance Italy was by our standards extraordinary cruel, violent, and cynical.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Neil Jordan’s The Borgias, especially Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia. This isn’t a period I know much about, and so it was instructive in the general history of the time and place, if not the details.

But how well does it really reflect the time period?  To answer that question, I turned to Anthony R. Wildman, author of The Diplomat of Florence, a novel of Machiavelli.  Machiavelli’s life intersected with the Borgias, and like most people, I knew little about him except his reputation and that he wrote a book called The Prince. So when I had a chance to review Wildman’s novel for Helen Hollick’s historical fiction website Discovering Diamonds, I jumped at it. 

Here’s what Tony Wildman had to say about The Borgias:

In 2011 the world was treated to not one but two versions of the story of the Borgia family presented in the form of a TV series. Probably the most famous and immediately recognisable was the Showcase series, which starred Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, pope Alexander VI. It certainly had the superior budget, was lavish and beautiful looking, and fulfilled the key criteria of being an entertaining retelling of the story.

But for my money, the lesser known French-German-Czech version called Borgia: Faith and Fear was more interesting, and marginally more historically accurate (though that should not be the prime criteria for judging what is, after all, a work of fiction). Where Showtime gave us a version that was consistent with modern sensibilities, the European series felt much more historical.

Renaissance Italy was by our standards extraordinary cruel, violent, and cynical. Assassination, whether by the knife or poison, was a routine tool of statecraft; power was everything, and those who possessed it could do the most outrageous things with impunity; supposedly celibate cardinals and popes had mistresses and children who they openly acknowledged and used for the extension of their own power; political alliances were abandoned without a moment’s regret; and women were for the most part powerless chattels who had no expectation of ever being allowed to choose their own husband. In this world, the Borgias were perhaps a little more extreme than their rivals and enemies, but only a little more; indeed, much of their reputation for depravity was manufactured by their successors in power, who were themselves just as guilty of the sins of simony and treachery. And that is where Borgia: Faith and Fear is more faithful to the times.

In the American series, we are invited to be shocked at the way the Borgias behave, mostly by means of setting up the Borgias’ principal enemy, cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, as a ‘good guy’ who is constantly outraged by the behaviour of his nemesis. But in the European version, we are spared any of that moralising, and the bad behaviour (some of it very bad) is presented almost without comment. As a result, you feel as though you are watching real, actual 15th century people, and that is quite a trick for anyone to pull off, on the screen or on paper.

You can check out Anthony Wildman’s books on his website. Many thanks to Tony for this article!

A Landscape of the Heart: Building the World of my Books, Part 1.

Norfolk has a firm hold on my heart, my imagination, and a place in the construction of my fictional world.

The English county of Norfolk, as those who have been following my blog for some time know, is my second home. When I will see it again, in the wake of COVID-19, is another question, but it has a firm hold on my heart, my imagination, and a solid place in the construction of my fictional world.

Anyone who knows Norfolk – and my books – may now be asking how?  A flat land, for the most part; arable, with little rivers and chalky soils and patches of reedy fen. Not the hilly, sheep-grazed moorland that so much of my world encompasses. No, the influences are more subtle.

Firstly, Norfolk was part of the Danelaw, the part of England under Scandinavian rule. Twenty-nine existing places in Norfolk have ‘thorpe’ as a suffix or prefix, and while this happens to be my last name, its meaning ‘outlying hamlet, small village’ is from the Norse þorp, and from it I take my settlement names in Linrathe and Sorham.  In fact, Ingoldstorp, mentioned several times over the series, is the name of the village (Ingoldisthorpe, pronounced Inglesthorpe) just north of the one where I have spent my winters since retirement.

The next village north from that is Snettisham, and I borrowed Snetti’s name, too, for a minor character. There are more examples, but I won’t belabour this point. But in the last paragraph I wrote ‘twenty-nine existing places’.  There are also thirty-three ‘lost’ villages in Norfolk with ‘thorpe’ in their names, and it is these missing settlements that also inform my world.

Deserted medieval village is the correct term for these abandoned settlements.  In many cases there is nothing but a few lumps and bumps on the ground, and perhaps the ruins of a church. (Or sometimes, a church still in use, but standing in the middle of nowhere, apparently.) The reasons for abandonment are many, including land enclosure and parkland created for manor houses. Others suffered as rivers changed course or land flooded. But in Norfolk, one reason was simply depopulation.

Norfolk is now 40th of the 48 counties of England in population density, the number of people per unit of land. But in the middle ages, it was the most populous county, and its county town, Norwich, the second city of England. Until the plague: first the Black Death in 1349; then, two centuries later, a third of its population died in the  epidemic of 1579, and another third in 1665.  

The land Lena inhabits is like this, a depopulated land, villages scattered and distant, too few men to defend the land against threats from two directions. The reasons for the Empire’s depopulation and that of Norfolk are pretty much the same, although the Eastern Fever isn’t the Black Death.

But while Norfolk – and the Empire – are depopulated lands, they both have long histories. If Lena rides east from her coastal village, she will come to the military road, running north and south, wide and paved. If I walk or drive east from my Norfolk village, about, in my mind, the same distance, I come to a Roman road, running north and south. No longer paved; no longer very wide, but a reminder, every time I walk it, of a time there was a Roman fort on the coast, and villas along the ridge overlooking the Wash, and the coins in use bore the likenesses of emperors far away.

Peddar’s Way Roman Road, Norfolk

Danes and Romans; disease and depopulation; all these are important aspects of my books, influenced – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – by what I know. Not reproduced, but borrowed, moulded and transmuted into a different form, almost recognizable, almost history.

map of Scandinavian place names https://www.mygen.com/users/outlaw/Outlawe_Viking_Origins.htm

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Vikings and Buddhas

Viking-era trade created a network across and beyond Europe.

In Empire’s Reckoning, my newest book, the protagonist Sorley has returned home after an absence of a couple of years. His brother’s family has come out to greet him, but one member is missing.

I looked around, not seeing my half-brother. “Where’s Nyle?”

“Gone trading,” Roghan said. “He’s nineteen now, and there’s little for him here. So he took a place on a ship heading east to trade furs and amber.”

“East?” I said. “Down the Ubë?”

Sorley’s home is in the very north of his land, an area which I envision as equivalent to the Norse areas of early-medieval Scotland. And, as the Netflix series Vikings – if nothing else – has brought to more common knowledge, the Scandinavian people did explore, and trade, eastward.

Scandinavians, in fact, are often credited with creating a trading network in Europe, but that may be because the archaeological record is more perceptible for the Viking era than any other. Much of that network, in truth, already existed in the Baltic and the coastal areas of the North Sea. The Frisians dominated this trade, using early forms of the cog (a flat-bottomed, rowed boat) to transport goods along the coastlines and into river systems.

Viking keeled boats, however, allowed for open ocean travel, and while initially the Vikings came to raid, increasingly, they stayed to trade. The trading city of Dublin arose in this manner, and all around Northern Europe, Scandinavians took over or replaced existing trading sites such as Hedeby in Jutland and Eoforwic (York) in England.

 Further east in Europe, commercial trade along water-based routes created new economic centres in Eastern Europe, which trace their beginnings to the appearance of the people we call Vikings (or Varangians). Sorley’s half-brother and the ship he’s on are playing an important role  in the creation of the early framework of my pseudo-Europe’s economy.

Scandinavian traders travelled the river systems as far as Byzantium and even into the Arab world to obtain goods. They brought those goods back, both to emporia along the route, and directly to Scandinavia. Viking-era trade created a network across and beyond Europe, bringing items as rare as an Indian Buddha figurine, a north African bronze ladle, and Arabic coins back to their homelands.

Can you blame Sorley’s half-brother for wanting to be part of this?

The circa 6th C bronze Helgo Buddha, found on the Swedish island of Helgo, an important trading centre from the 6th – 11th C. The Buddha probably arrived in Helgo via Swedish merchants who traded east, along Russian rivers such as the Volga. © Swedish History Museum

For more information on the Helgo treasure:

http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/12/the-helgo-treasure-a-viking-age-buddha/

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Featured image: https://about-history.com/knarr-the-oldest-norse-merchant-ship/

How many hours? Planning research for a historically-based novel: #authortoolboxbloghop

For my first two books, I was lucky – years of immersing myself in the Roman and post-Roman history of Britannia meant I had little actual research to do, except fact-checking. But the third took me into the library.

The books I write are quasi-historical: they are set in a world with strong similarities to northern Europe after the decline of Rome. There are significant differences, but many of the events that shape it are based on real history. For my first two books, I was lucky – years of immersing myself in the Roman and post-Roman history of Britannia meant I had little actual research to do, except fact-checking. But the third took me out of the Britannia analogue – and into the library.

As I prepare to write the fifth full novel in the series, I am expanding into both a geography and a political history I know less about. So it’s time for more research, and in this month’s #authortoolboxbloghop, I look at how I do that.

When I say research, I mean major research, not the quick Google search for ‘how many public bread ovens were there in Rome’. (One for every 350 people, roughly, if you care.) Without giving too much away, the plot of Empire’s Heir, the next book, takes place mostly in Casil, my Rome analogue, and involves the politics of power as they rest in a high ranking, and therefore highly marriageable, young woman.

So, what major topics did I need to research this time?

Setting: Rome in the 4th C, which is the time in Rome’s history I chose to base my physical city on;

Character background: the education of an heiress to a country’s leadership in early-medieval Europe;

Politics: the politics and practicalities of marriage alliances.

(In other books, it’s been battles, and ship construction, and travel times between Rome and Britannia, and Viking travel into continental Europe and Byzantium…whatever you’re writing about, you need to define what you’ll have to spend time researching.)

Let’s look at those topics one at a time.

Setting:  Part of one of my earlier books takes place in Casil, so I’ve already done a fair bit of research. Three sources have been particularly useful

  1. Video reconstructions
  2. Ancient maps
  3. A research trip to Rome, with a private guide. (I realize this is a luxury out of the reach of many, but good guidebooks to ancient Rome could have been substituted, especially used in conjunction with the video reconstructions.)

What I have now are sources to refer to, and a fair understanding of the geography of Rome. Between watching the videos, taking an on-line course on ancient Rome, studying the maps and actually going to Rome, I’ve spent about two weeks – call it 80 hours – on this prior to beginning to write the book. I need to spend another 10 or so, I think, working with a map and the structures of buildings in conjunction with the plot of my story.  Where are the stairs she’ll need to access? How long did it take to get from the Forum to the Pantheon on foot?  What’s the easiest route for a character who is physically disabled to travel?

Character background: the education of an heiress to a country’s leadership in early-medieval Europe. I’m using a number of sources here, some on-line, more not: several new books on early-medieval women wait to be read. I did both a literature search, and asked some friends whose research area this is, to find the books to read. 40 hours here, for a solid understanding.

Politics: the politics and practicalities of marriage alliances.  Again, more reading; some will be covered in the other books; some will be separate. I estimate 30 hours.

In total, I expect to spend 160 hours in major research prior to writing. Four forty-hour weeks. Some of it’s already done, so now perhaps I have 80 hours to do, or 2 full weeks. But I can’t devote 40 hours a week to research – while I work as a writer & editor full time, that includes all sorts of other writing (like this blog post), my editorial work, and promotion and marketing. Call it 6 weeks, then (providing I don’t find myself going down fascinating rabbit-holes of trivia.)

As fascinating as I find all this, I can’t focus on one subject for too long. So I will divide it up –  a couple of partial days spent on the mapping and logistics (which I love, and can easily hyperfocus on); a couple of partial days spent on reading. The advantage, too, of doing it this way will be the cross-pollination of ideas that will occur – because while I have an overall plot outline, it will be the research that fills it out and provides details and plot twists I won’t necessarily have thought of. But it also means I won’t start the actual novel until September.

Sometimes I envy writers who get to make it all up!

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Romans in Africa, Africans in Rome

Druisius is a palace guard and a musician, and were my world real, he’d be of African origin.

We first meet my character Druisius in the last third of Empire’s Exile, when he’s assigned to guard the party of travellers from the lost West who have unexpectedly arrived in Casil. (If you’re new to my series or this blog, Casil is an analogue of Rome, in most ways.) Druisius is a palace guard and a musician, and were my world real, he’d be of African origin.

“I am different.” He was, of course, his dark skin making him stand out in Linrathe and Sorham. In Ésparias, where men from the southern coast and Leste served on the Wall, his appearance wasn’t remarkable, a matter of degree rather than sharp contrast.

Empire’s Reckoning

The Phoenicians, Greece and then Rome had traded with north and northwest Africa from about 900 BCE (Carthage was founded about 800 BCE) and among the trade goods were grain and salt, olive oil, gold and pottery. Rome controlled north Africa for about 500 years.

https://anthrogenica.com/showthread.php?705-Roman-Africa

But goods from further south were also brought to Carthage and other trading centres, and Rome, always looking for efficiencies, sent perhaps up to five expeditions into sub-Saharan Africa. (They also wanted, at one point, to circumnavigate the continent, but that appears to not have happened.)

In 21 BC, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, Proconsul of Africa, sent troops as far south as the Niger River (Manding: Jeliba or Joliba “great river”; Igbo: Orimiri or Orimili “great water”;  Tuareg: Egerew n-Igerewen “river of rivers“) in part to subdue the Garamantes people who had a nasty habit of disrupting trade caravans passing through their territories. Sixty or so years later, Suetonius Paulinus led an army across the Atlas range and possibly to the borders of modern-day Senegal. Two expeditions to Lake Chad occurred in the first century CE, and possibly one that travelled into modern-day Nigeria.

Roman military leaders kept detailed records (ok, Rome kept records of everything, pretty well) and much of what we know of these explorations comes from Pliny the Elder. But archaeological evidence also suggests that trade continued well after Rome declined as a world power. Analysis of copper-based objects in Burkina Faso shows the origin of the ore to be in the Eastern Mediterranean, and dating from the 3rd to 7th C of the common era.

So – back to Druisius. Rome was a cosmopolitan city; its colonies were, too, in part because one of its strategies was to send legions of young men far away from home, where they couldn’t lead rebellions against their land’s Roman rulers. Historian and archaeologist Anthony Birley, in his book Septimius Severus: The African Emperor notes that between 193 and 211 CE eight men of African origin commanded Roman legions in the north. Severus himself was of Libyan origin, and is portrayed in contemporary portraits as dark-skinned.  So there is nothing unusual about Druisius in my city of Casil.

Septimus Severus and his family. Tempera on wood. Acquired from Egypt in 1932 CE. from Roman Egypt c. 200 CE. It is on display at the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

But as my readers know, I build my world on detailed research. And in the work-in-progress (really, a work-in-planning) my characters return to Casil, and Druisius and his family will have a larger role. I know very little about early-medieval cultures of north Africa, and less about those further south. They may be Casilani traders now, but Druisius’s family would have mementos and traditions from their own culture, and I want those to be as reflective of reality as I can make them. So it’s time for a good chunk of research, made harder by the COVID-driven closure of my university’s library…but not too hard to work around that in this electronic age. I’m looking forward to learning something new.

The featured image is a bust of the Emperor Caracalla, Septimus Severus’s son. His mother, Julia Domna, was Syrian.

The Procurator & The Governor

How does an Empire, sure of its institutions and its laws and traditions, integrate its practices with those of another country?

Two new characters are introduced into my ‘Empire on the edge of history’ in the novella Oraiáphon and the novel Empire’s Reckoning:  Decanius, the Procurator from Casil, and Livius, the Governor. Who are these characters, and what exactly do they do?

A Procurator in the Roman Empire was the man in charge of the finances of a Roman province. He worked beside the Governor but was not subordinate to him, and his responsibilities included tax collection, rents on land belonging to imperial estates, pay to the military and other public servants, and the management of mines. You can see how this might be a position that allowed for enriching yourself, and your friends, and also could make the office-holder extremely unpopular among the residents of the province. Are tax-collectors ever admired?

Decanius arrives first, because the army must be paid, and tariffs and taxes are going to be collected as soon as possible. He’s an accountant through and through, counting and measuring everything, and he has no interest in the people of Lena’s land, or their laws and traditions. His name derives from Cato (or Catus) Decianus, the Procurator of Britannia at the time of Boudicca’s fight for freedom from Roman rule. Dio, writing a hundred years and more later, suggests that heavy taxation was behind the rebellion, and it would have been Decianus who was responsible for that. So with a little tweaking, the historic, hated Decianus becomes the fictional, hated Decanius.

File:Boudicca Statue.png
Statue of Boudicca at Westminster

Livius is the new Governor. (I just liked the name, in his case.) A Roman governor was responsible for the civil administration of the province; he was also the judge in capital crimes (smaller crimes often being left in the hands of the people he was governing) and was the commander-in-chief of all military units deployed in the province. Unlike the Procurator, who was a civilian, the Governor was a military officer. So almost the first thing Livius asks to do when he arrives from Casil is inspect the troops. An experienced official, Livius governs with affability, but he’s also adamant about what has to happen. “There’s iron behind his smile,” Sorley says of him.

Domitius Corbulo, the Roman governor of Germania Inferior

There were differences in how Imperial provinces (under the control of the Emperor) and Senatorial provinces (under the control of the Senate) were governed, but to say more about that might reveal too much of what happens in Oraiáphon. The roles and responsibilities changed over the years Rome had an Empire, and I chose the pieces that work. I’m not tied to a specific timeline: I borrow concepts, not exact history, in creating my alternate world. What I was interested in was how an Empire, sure of its institutions and its laws and traditions, integrates its practices with those of another country; not a conquered one, but one that has agreed to become a client province. Do they integrate, or do they impose? “We might have been a province of the Eastern Empire once before,” Lena says, “but we kept almost none of its laws and traditions, except in the army.” Peace has a price.

Oraiáphon Amazon

Empires’s Reckoning Amazon

E-pub

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Statue of Domitius Corbulo: photo by Carole Raddato, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Statue of Boudicca:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boudicca.jpg Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Statue of Julius Caesar (Featured Image): By Skitterphoto –  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

“I’m only a kid.”

In an early medieval setting, is it reasonable, historically, that a 14-year old boy would be chosen to lead a country?

“Welcome, Prince,” said Aslan. “Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?”
“I – I don’t think I do, Sir,” said Caspian. “I’m only a kid.”
“Good,” said Aslan. “If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not.”

~ C. S. Lewis

In my new book, Empire’s Reckoning, Ruar, the heir to Linrathe, the land north of the Wall, is proclaimed its leader when he is fourteen. While I call what I write ‘historical fiction of another world’, most of it is firmly grounded in actual history. Ruar isn’t automatically the leader (Teannasach) of his country; he’s chosen by a council of nobles, a process based on both the Witan of the Anglo-Saxon kings and the methods of choosing a king in early-medieval Scotland.

While Linrathe is based on Scotland, very few reliable records exist about very early Scottish monarchs. More is known of those who ruled in England. So it is reasonable, historically, that Ruar would have been chosen to lead? He has a couple of things going for him: he’s a son of the traditional ruling house, and, he’s fought in battle, so his nobles respect him. If we look at the kings of England (which wasn’t really all of England, but that’s another story) in the 10th C, here’s who we have:

Edmund I (ruled 949 – 946) was 17 or 18 when he was crowned, and like Ruar had fought for his country in a very bloody battle two years earlier. He died young, and was succeeded by his older half-brother, who ruled for nine years. But after his death, Edmund’s oldest son, Eadwig, succeeded: he was somewhere between 14 and 16.   Three or four years later, his brother Edgar succeeded him, also at about 16. Two even younger monarchs followed: Edward the Martyr, who was about 13 when he was crowned, and Aethelred, who was about 10.  They were all related; like Ruar, born into the ruling house. So, based on what we know about early-medieval kingship in Britain, it’s entirely likely Ruar would, indeed, be chosen leader.

Ethelred the Unready.jpg
Æthelred in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle, a 12th C monastic history.

How much these young men ruled without regents or a council is a matter of debate, but then, neither does Ruar. Nor is this limited to pre-conquest Britain: Edward III of England was 14 when he was crowned, although his infamous mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer were regents for him until Edward’s successful coup d’etat at 17 – the same year Edward’s first child was born to his slightly younger wife.

Which brings me to another subject – and a thorny one in historical fiction: the ages at which people were considered adult, whether it was for marriage or kingship or the inheritance of land. I’ll address this in another post; it’s a subject of discussion among my characters, too, but what happens in my world reflects what happened in Britain and Rome in the equivalent time period.

But, returning to my original subject, young leaders are not restricted to the far-distant path. Alfonso XIII of Spain, who had been king from birth due to his father’s death, took on all the rights and responsibilities of kingship on his 16th birthday in 1902. So perhaps, in a parallel world 1200 years previously, it’s not that unlikely that 14-year-old Ruar assumes the leadership of his land!

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World-building through Historical Characters: Gnaius and Galen

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political.

“Exactly so,” Gnaius agreed. “May I say more? I have lived in many of Casil’s provinces over the years. A physician travels with the army, if he wishes to become a skilled surgeon.”

– from Oraiáphon: A Novella of the Empire, 2020.

In my Empire’s Legacy series and its sequels (both completed and planned), the supporting character Gnaius plays, and will play, an important role. Gnaius is a physician, erudite and highly skilled, who has held many positions with both the army and to the Empress of Casil. He is a product of my imagination, of course, but he is based on the historical physician Claudius Galenus, best known to the modern West as Galen.

Galen (public domain)

I want to talk about Galen not so much in terms of the historical person, but as an example of how, in my alternate-world historical fiction, I use history to inform my world without being bound by it. The city in my world, Casil, is physically based on 4th century Rome, but politically it’s a blend of Rome and Byzantium. However, many of the conflicts that occur are from later in Europe’s history, between about 600 and 1000.

Galen lived in the 2nd century of the common era, at the same time as the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who appears as a figure from the past in my series (under a different name, of course). But this doesn’t matter: I’m not writing history. What matters is that Galen did almost everything I wanted Gnaius to have done: travelled extensively, learned about surgery and wound treatment in the field, practiced medicine in the capital city and became the personal physician to Emperors. So I have, effectively, lifted Galen out of the 2nd century and inserted him into my world at a later date.

There are both pros and cons to doing this. Readers will fall roughly into three categories: those who know nothing about early-medieval medicine, and will assume I’ve made Gnaius up entirely; those who have some knowledge of Galen, may well recognize consciously or unconsciously that Gnaius seems familiar, or right for the times; and those who know a fair bit about the subject, and may object to him being dragged forward several centuries.

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political. The real-life Galen fits neatly into the world, he’s just in the wrong century. (Certain readers may throw the book across the room in disgust at recognizing Gnaius as more-or-less Galen, although if they are that wedded to historical accuracy, they’ve probably given up on the series long before Gnaius makes his appearance 2/3 of the way through the third book.)

By some combination of serendipity and synchronicity, I learned in my research trip to Rome last week that Galen had lectured extensively at The Temple of Peace in the Forum, and indeed had stored his writings there for safekeeping. This plays right into the plot outline for the book (#5) I was there to research…and then I learned a fire at the Temple destroyed a fair number of those works. I’d already considered a fire in that general location as a plot device; now I have a historical occurrence to build around. The fire is not just plausible, it happened, and the destruction of some of Galen/Gnaius’s writings may well feed part of the plot of book #6, which is now little more than a concept.

The Temple of Peace in 1749 (public domain)

Gnaius is a minor character, although an important one. But by using Galen’s life as the basis for his, the verisimilitude of setting, character and plot is strengthened. Reviewers frequently comment on the depth and quality of world-building in my books: this is one way I do it. What are your methods for creating believable worlds?

Songbird: A Novel of the Tudor Court

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world.

A review with a guest blog from the author, Karen Heenan.

I absorbed my father’s love for Tudor history almost by osmosis, and it’s never left me, although the better-known aspects of Henry VIII’s six wives and his rift with the Roman Catholic Church were never the parts that interested me the most. Social history and the lives of people who were not courtiers or nobles, but still affected by the massive changes that Henry brought to England during his reign, are my area.

Karen Heenan’s Songbird caught my attention as soon as I heard about it, pre-publication. I knew about Henry’s love for music: he was reputed to be a skilled musician himself. I knew, vaguely, that he had court singers and minstrels, and with a little thought I would have related the name William Cornysh with Henry’s court, and I might have even known he had something to do with music.

This tale of Bess, a young girl sold to the King for her pure, lovely voice, and of her training to be part of the troupe of singers who entertained Henry and his court plunges the reader into the lives of a group of young men and women of the back corridors and rooms of the palaces. Like all royal servants, they had little control over their lives; they were subject to royal demands and whimsies: sing now; travel now; perform now, as they moved in and out of favour.

It would be easy to see them as pawns, unimportant, but Heenan crafts a rich and satisfying story around three lives, the girl Bess, the boy Tom, and the outsider Robin. The names expected in a Tudor court story are there, of course: Henry himself, Queen Katherine, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey. But they are the minor characters.  Through Bess’s eyes, we see events unfolding that are familiar to any student of Tudor history, but we also see the intimate details of her own.

Heenan writes with confidence and style, vividly drawing the reader into the Tudor court. Each character in her story is fully real, even the enigmatic Robin, and as they mature over the course of the book, their personalities develop. They become much more complex, but in ways that seem fully consistent with the children the reader first meets.

Court intrigues and politics; the fear of almost-random death from disease or accident; the divisions of class and the restrictions of religion: all these form the background to a bittersweet love story that unfolds over the course of the story. Each colours Bess’s view of life. her expectations, and her determination to grasp as much control of her life as is possible for a young woman in her position.

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world both familiar and new. I didn’t: I rationed myself, to enjoy it longer. I await its planned sequel with impatience.

William Cornysh and the Alchemy of Fiction

by Karen Heenan

Songbird was inspired by a throwaway fact in a biography of Henry VIII: the music-obsessed King once purchased a child from his mother to sing in the chapel choir. That was all it took to send me down the rabbit hole of history.

Then, of course, it occurred to me that meant I would be writing a book about music. I knew next to nothing about Tudor-era music, its structure, or its instruments. Thankfully, my main character, Bess, was a singer, so I could start there and learn as I wrote.

I quickly encountered the King’s Music, the name used for the royal company of minstrels who entertained at court, both publicly and in private, and placed Bess among them.

On researching the Music, and the topic of Tudor music generally, it was impossible to miss William Cornysh, who, in addition to being a significant composer of music both religious and secular, was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and also managed many of the musical and dramatic entertainments at court.

Those few facts were enough to start building the man, and then, with the strange alchemy that is fiction, when I learned more about him, those new facts fit the character I had created. Cornysh was talented, hard-working, and seemingly underappreciated, having only been rewarded with a grant of property shortly before his death in 1523. He was also a father figure to the choristers, many of whom were quite young. When the court was in London, the children often spent nights at Cornysh’s house with him and his wife, Jane, giving them a taste of normal life.

Much of my research for Songbird was done in the dark days of the pre-internet era, which on one hand meant I stumbled across interesting facts that I didn’t know I needed, but on the other meant I didn’t always find what I needed, except by the same happy accident.

As an example, the story had moved on from Bess’s early days with the Music, and Cornysh was mentioned only rarely. Then, while reading an online article totally unrelated to him, I saw a mention of his sudden death.

What to do? He wasn’t a major character at that point, and leaving him alive wouldn’t be egregious because history would not be changed in service to the story, but my sense of accuracy meant I could not suffer a man to live who had actually died.

Back I went to give him his end, and the story was actually stronger for his loss.

Songbird is available on Amazon