Writing for Effect: A dialogue with Bryn Hammond

This is the first in a blog series, the purpose of which is not only to spotlight an author’s work, but, in a dialogue between myself and the author, to illustrate the variety of ways the techniques of writing can be used, and how styles differ. My first guest is Bryn Hammond, author of Amgalant, historical fiction based on the Secret History of the Mongols, which is is the oldest surviving literary work in the Mongolian language. It was written for the Mongol royal family some time after the 1227 death of Tchingis Khan (Temujin). Bryn has chosen to discuss how she used poetic speech, homely metaphor, and lively conversation in her work.

Bryn

This is going to be about Amgalant, my main work – my life’s work, though I potter with other things.

I call my historical fiction a ‘close reading’ of the Secret History of the Mongols. More than a source, the Secret History is my original, and I want to imitate its features – not merely its content. Early on, I confronted the fact that I had one major difference from most historical fiction: that I am text-based, text-to-text, not trying to re-create history as such but to give a version of a story already told. In search of a model or template, I looked to T.H. White and Malory. White’s Once and Future King riffs on Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, quotes Malory, talks to him and about him. That was me and my text. I was after a deep fidelity, and yet room to be myself – as T.H. White does not shy from idiosyncrasy of style or interpretations that are meaningful to him. My aims often felt like a contradiction, but as my Temujin says once, ‘Contradictions, when they work, generate much heat and light, or else they blow up in your face.’

Topic: poetic speech

In my first excerpt, young Temujin composes a message to his anda – a friend with whom he has exchanged blood, where resides the soul. His anda too has suffered at the hands of the king who has stolen Temujin’s wife. This is Temujin’s request for Jamuqa to join him in a war of rescue.

Simplest leaves least to go wrong, he thought, and he stitched together a few simple verses. Verses, for formal wear. And when underway he found that verses gave him a truer language, truer to his emotion, that was only flagrant in daily felts and furs.

They have cut the liver from my side.
How our fates, my anda, coincide.
Can we right the wrong?
We feel each other’s injury:
Your wound bleeds my blood and mine bleeds yours.
My other self, can I avenge you?
Can you comfort me?

It was his first draft, but he didn’t fiddle.


I feel strongly that I have to use as much poetic speech as does the Secret History, or else I belie the rich oral culture of the Mongols as well as the techniques of my original. The Secret History itself gives much weight and space to the spoken word. I am dialogue-heavy, but only in equivalence to my original. The Secret History marks significance by turning a speech into poetry, but it also reports people’s own poetic speech. People use this particularly when they need to be ceremonious, or courteous, or emphatic, or heartfelt.
Now, Temujin grows into a great ability with words. Here he is young and gauche and not used to formal communications. It is his first go at a message in verse. I had to make him heartfelt, I had to make him sound first-drafty, spontaneous, yet suggest he has a knack for this.
I took the opportunity to explain, through his experience, the value of talking in verse from time to time. Of course, the challenge is not to be off-putting to a readership who doesn’t burst out into verse, who might tend to see verse as stilted, as the opposite of spontaneous and heartfelt. I have to convince readers that the Mongols, in a culture of oral poetry, could slip into poetic speech with facility and no loss of genuine feeling.

Marian

“No loss of genuine feeling.” – or maybe a way to express deeper feelings, or perhaps more subtle ones? The use of ‘flagrant’ in verses gave him a truer language, truer to his emotion, that was only flagrant in daily felts and furs is an interesting choice – I think of ‘flagrant’ as meaning ‘blatant’, or even ‘over-the-top’, so I read this as an indication that verse allows him to convey a more nuanced, truer emotion.

The use of avenge/comfort in juxtaposition – I think Western perceptions of Mongol culture (as a warrior society) would expect ‘avenge’ but not ‘comfort’. The cognitive dissonance for the Western reader here speaks to our own preconceptions, but what does it reveal about Mongol society?

My last comment on this section is that the use of verse here in formal (courteous, ceremonial) context is reminiscent of Shakespeare, where nobles speak in verse but commoners do not. Did you consider that at all?

Bryn

With ‘flagrant’ I wanted to suggest an extravagance of emotion, that might have seemed too much to talk about. Verse gives him permission to feel as much as he feels, and say so. ‘Comfort’ I chose with great care, aware that it subtly undercuts preconceptions about the Mongols. I can say the same of hundreds of other choices I made.
There’s a word, ‘hachi’, important to the story from the start, because a khan before Tchingis, captured and tortured by China, sends a message back to his people in which he asks for ‘hachi’ – a message Tchingis cites as motivation when he strikes at China over thirty years later. If you’ve read a history on the Mongols you’ve probably seen ‘give me my hachi’ translated simply as ‘avenge me’. Now, my interest in revenge as a motive, whether I’m reading or writing, hovers around zero. So I’m going to look closely at that word, and I’m going to give you more shades to its meaning. I have Temujin’s grandfather think about the word when he hears the captured khan’s message:

Hachi means that which is owed, or felt due. It can mean an act of humanity. It can mean vengeance. It meant justice.

The word occurs in the Secret History for both gratitude and revenge. That’s nothing if not juxtaposition. ‘Hachi’ became one of my most beloved words to use – one I leave untranslated, because my reader has grown familiar with its cluster of meanings.
There is a strong tendency to translate things, understand things, believe things as per our preconceptions. When I began to write about the 13th-century Mongols, back in 2003, I had to dismantle the preconceptions in my own head. That wasn’t a short or easy process – it took real vigilance, self-examination, again and again stepping back to question.

On Shakespeare – I am a Shakespeare-head. I am certain he helped teach me how one talks in verse, or how verse can be a cadence in more ordinary speech, when the culture is steeped in it. The noble/commoner split doesn’t map onto the Mongol situation, at least in my telling (everything about the Mongols is contested, everything).

Topic: homely metaphor

My next excerpt is Temujin as Tchingis Khan, a king, fifteen years later. He has been caught listening to what his companions are saying about him.

Laughingly he called across to him, “Ile Ahai, you have your hare by the ears. I listen to learn, to learn what you make of me, for you are one of my principal makers. You make very much, but I shan’t be cowed, neither embarrassed. For my task is a joint labour and whereas Temujin is me, Tchingis is us. Mine is the sack, yours is the milk poured in; Tchingis is stood by the door with the churn in his neck and together we try to beat him a thousand times a day, and whenever we step in or out we lend a hand.”


To help write Temujin’s turn for homely metaphor, I admit I thought of Jesus’ parables in the Bible, that use a humble subject matter. Temujin’s style as a king is humble and common, but a gift for speech is among his greatest assets. So this is one of Temujin’s little parables, based on a homely subject: the process of churning milk into the fermented drink ayrag. It is spoken to his inner circle, and involves them in the Tchingis project, in his kingship.
Metaphor is much used in speech acts recorded by the Secret History – and other Mongol histories. Sometimes, at a critical moment, people have expressed themselves by a metaphor whose context is lost to us, and we can’t make sense of what they say. My challenge is to keep my English-language readers familiar enough with Mongol daily life that I can use those metaphors drawn from humble things, without the clunk of an explanation in (figurative) brackets. To work, this piece of speech has to have the casual references to ayrag-making and -drinking through the few hundred pages before it.

Marian

The concept of the separation of Temujin from Tchingis – the individual vs. the role really struck me (perhaps because I am writing a character in a similar situation.) The ‘homely metaphor’ works really well here to delineate this separation of person from position, and using the Mongol analogy brings it into its context beautifully. Which came first, the references to ayrag-making and -drinking in the previous pages, or the metaphor?

The lost metaphors: I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Darnok, where Picard is trapped on a planet with an alien captain who speaks a metaphorical language (from his own culture) incompatible with the universal translator. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but while (of course) it was easily solved, there are other examples in the Scandinavian sagas and perhaps even in Old English where we don’t understand the metaphors, concepts lost to time and change. It also brings to mind Robert MacFarlane’s book The Lost Words, which came about because of the loss of words related to nature in the 2007 edition of The Oxford Junior Dictionary. How much, do you think, are the lost metaphors due to cultural change separate from the evolution of language?

Bryn

Which came first? Daily life, always. Then it is there when you need it – waiting to be picked up in a metaphor.

I loved that Star Trek episode – particularly because those metaphors were drawn from a body of epic story. And then Picard recites from Gilgamesh to the alien! – my heart.
So yes, I think a lot of the loss is down to lost story, lost anecdotes. Most unfortunately, the only survivals of the oral story-world that Temujin lived in, pre-writing, are snippets extracted for use in other contexts. We know there was a wealth because of the Secret History’s ease of reference, as well as by analogy to the vast and wondrous world of Turkic epic, that began to be recorded from medieval times on because of its proximity to writing cultures.

Topic: lively conversation

Back to young Temujin for my third excerpt. He faces a circle of experienced companions-in-arms, who laugh – or try not to laugh – at Temujin’s naivety over the size of armies mentioned by his patron the khan of Hirai.

Grey-tailed Jungso of Noyojin started to effervesce silently and couldn’t stop. Others, two or three of them, told him, “Jungso. Jungso, don’t be uncouth.”
“I’m not,” he effervesced. Then he claimed, “I’m laughing at the khan of Hirai.”
“Fair enough, too,” declared Jirqoan of Oronar. “It helps when people are precise in military matters. Tumens,” he addressed to Temujin, “you can bet your bottom goat, is here imprecisely used.”
Temujin turned student-like to him. “A tumen doesn’t mean ten thousand?”
Bisugat, next to Jirqoan, answered. “In a fat year, like a cheese. Cheeses shrink in a lean year, but we still call them a cheese.”

It is an often-acknowledged truth that the real hero of the Secret History of the Mongols isn’t Tchingis Khan but his companions. I do a lot of group conversations to convey the input of the group. This means I have cast members who have one line, but I still want them to feel alive, like individuals.
One reason I chose the Secret History of the Mongols is its wonderful exchanges of speech. That suited the writer that I am. In historical fiction, the danger is that speech becomes stiff and stilted, in part because our slang isn’t theirs, in part because we often hear them through paperwork and not everyday speech at all.

Marian

The group conversations convey the richness of the oral culture and the importance of individuals within it.

I loved ‘bet your bottom goat’ because I as an English-speaker of a certain age and time expected ‘bet your bottom dollar’ and that it wasn’t that familiar phrase reminded me very sharply that this was a different time/place/culture. Was that your intent?

The flexibility of the measure of a tumen is superb, so easily understood. Is this your invention, or something shown in the Secret History of the Mongols?

Bryn

I do like to merge English-language slang with Mongol slang. This one was an easy example. I use whatever Mongol slang and figures of speech I can convey sense in, but where I need to amalgamate them with English idiom for explanatory value, I don’t scruple to do that.
Sometimes there’s a clash that’s fun to work with. Milk is a substance for infinite idioms in Mongol, which often come straight across in English. But if Westerners hear ‘he has milk in his veins’, they might well assume that’s an insult. In Mongol idiom, milk is pretty much always positive, and this isn’t said negatively, although it does tie in nicely with the English – and Shakespearean – ‘milk of human kindness’.

Tumens: This explainer was me.

You can find more information on Bryn and her books at

https://amgalant.com/

or purchase her books here

https://payhip.com/b/2ERGv or https://books2read.com/ap/xK6AY8/Bryn-Hammond


Would you like to be part of this series? Authors published or unpublished are welcome – leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Where The Gulls Fall Silent, by Lelita Baldock: A Review

In a Cornish coastal village in the 19th century, the sea is both a source of livelihood and a source of fear, the ever-present power that can give or take. When the fish are abundant, life, although laborious,  is good; when they are few, life is hard. Superstition is never abandoned in a community so tied to the rhythms and vagaries of nature.

Kerensa and her mother live, physically and socially, at the edge of the village, never quite part of the community. The reasons for this slowly unfold in this beautifully described novel, revealed both as understood through a child’s eyes and then, as she grows to maturity, through a deeper comprehension. Not all is what Kerensa has thought, nor is it as one-sided as she believed. As she matures, she overcomes both the village’s concerns and her own sense of not belonging, finding love and acceptance – only to have the tides of time and change threaten the village and their way of life.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay 

Author Lelita Baldock’s writing is evocative of place and time, the details of life in fishing village brought into being by a deft hand and an eye for what matters: the sound of the sea, the smells of fish and blood and sweat, the rock of a small boat on the waves. Where the Gulls Fall Silent has no events of national importance, no battles with sword or guns, but the story told is one of both defeat and victory on a small scale, a human scale; social history revealed through the lives of ordinary men and women. Men and women who both dream and are pragmatic; who have strict precepts for living but also a deep capacity for forgiveness; who can ride the peaks and troughs of a life tied to the sea and the land.

Where the Gulls Fall Silent is not a romanticized view of life in a fishing village: life is hard, death always close, moments of peace and security rare and fleeting. A difficult life, one that leaves its mark on people, as Kerensa learns – but one not easy to leave behind. The beating of waves can merge permanently with the beating of a heart, the sea always calling.

If I had any quibble with Where the Gulls Fall Silent, it was in its last few chapters, which are perhaps an unnecessary epilogue to the true story. Leaving the future after a certain point to the reader’s imagination would have been my preference, but regardless, the book is one that will stay with me for some time.

Recommended. No star rating, because I don’t give stars in most cases. Wondering why? My reasoning is here.

Why I Don’t Write Actual Historical Fiction

In my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, the last third of its story overlaps with about a quarter of my third book, Empire’s Exile.  In Exile, we see this section through the eyes of the narrator, Lena, and the characters of the soldier Druisius and the Empress Eudekia are peripheral (although very important) to the story.

But Empress & Soldier is told through the alternating viewpoints of Eudekia and Druisius, and so we are seeing the same events through different eyes – and discovering some those events can have very different motivations and interpretations. That’s not the problem: I enjoy exploring the ‘what ifs’ of different perspectives. But everything that happens in this section of Empress & Soldier must fit the chronology of events in Exile. Actions must occur within a framework that is set. Just like a real historical novelist, I can’t change what has already happened.

For me, working within this constraint is a huge challenge. It’s not how my brain works. I’m used to saying ‘oh, look, I really like how The Battle of Maldon is described, so I’ll borrow that but change its outcome.’  Now I can’t even change a conversation, a dinner served, a walk through the city. At the same time, these things are now background events, most happening off-page. My focus is on what Druisius and Eudekia are thinking, doing, feeling, learning—from and alongside the actions and events that already exist.

Which is, of course, what writers of real historical fiction deal with, in every story—and the more recent the history, the more records of events, the more constraints there are. I am not sure I could do this for an entire book, let alone more than one!

This is how I’m handling it: by a detailed analysis of each chapter (and each scene) in Exile that is reflected in Empress & Soldier.  This is an exacting and layered process that is very different from the creativity of writing, and is remarkably tiring.  But it must be done, and once it is, my mind will switch back to writing mode—and another challenge: how much of Lena’s story do I retell? (Enough for a new reader to understand what’s going on. Not too much, or I risk boring a returning reader. A fine balance.)

I occasionally consider writing a novel based firmly in historical fact. To save my temper, my hair, my liver—and perhaps my marriage— I don’t think I will.

To Wait Upon the Queen

A guest post from Karen Heenan

Lady, in Waiting, the third novel in my Tudor Court series, takes place during the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I. Its main character, Margaery Preston, is a chamberer, one of many levels of waiting-women in the royal privy chambers.

Image by Jo-B from Pixabay


Unlike a court headed by a king, where all public and private duties were carried out by men, a queen’s attendants, other than guards, were all female. This gave them some degree of power at court, as courtiers, court officials, and ambassadors all vied for attention and influence. To be a woman in Elizabeth’s court required connections: many attendants were related on her Boleyn side, but there were also cousins descending from her father’s sisters, Margaret and Mary.

The women were required to amuse the queen, and so had to be well­-educated, often speaking several languages; skilled in music or dance; and able to keep up with the queen on horseback or at the archery butts.


At the top of the heap was Katherine (“Kat”) Ashley, first lady of the bedchamber and the queen’s former governess. Mistress Ashley kept the privy chamber running smoothly, handling expenses on behalf of the household and keeping an eye on the younger women. But her main concern was always Elizabeth.


The ladies of the bedchamber came next—senior ladies-in-waiting whose duties included dressing and undressing the queen, combing and styling her hair, serving her food, entertaining her with music or conversation, and occasionally sharing her bed. (The queen was a bad sleeper and liked company; it was also a form of security in that she would never be alone). These ladies were generally older, and often married. Most were related to Elizabeth in some way.


Next in line were the maids of honor, who were both entertaining and decorative. Maids were generally well-born girls of fourteen to eighteen years of age. Their placement made it easy to secure good marriages under the queen’s eye.


The other women, including chamberers, were more all-purpose, and did whatever needed doing at any given time, from carrying trays to emptying chamber pots to my character Margaery’s least favorite task, collecting the pins which held the queen’s daily costumes together. (Heads would not roll if Her Majesty stepped on a pin, but it would be an unpleasant time, nonetheless).


With so many women, the court should have been a brilliant display of color, but it was not. As Margaery learns early on from Mistress Ashley, “Her Majesty likes her women to be soberly dressed.”


Elizabeth Tudor did not like to be upstaged, even by those closest to her.

Lady, In Waiting

by Karen Heenan
Book III of The Tudor Court

This unusual story of a marriage made for reasons other than love, between two people both with sometimes-conflicting duties to their sovereign and her advisors.

You can read the first chapter here.

FebruarySheWrote Review Roundup 1

Historical Fiction Reviews (Feb 1 – 12)

A round up of the reviews I’ve reposted for the social media promotion #FebruarySheWrote, highlighting women writers. I’ve focused on historical fiction authors for this month (primarily), and these are all reviews I’ve written, either for this website, or for Discovering Diamonds.

The War In Our Hearts: WWI fiction. ‘The depiction of {Jamie’s} troubled, doubting soul and the courage and resilience of Aveline are the centrepieces of this debut novel’

Discerning Grace: 19th C High Seas adventure. ‘an admirable debut novel, and a beguiling blend of historical fiction and women’s fiction.’

Summer Warrior: 12th C Scotland. ‘both entertaining and informative; a book to be enjoyed.’

Dear Comrade Novak: 20th C Romania. ‘one of the most devastatingly honest and brutal books I have ever read, yet I could not put it down. ‘

The Unseen/The Jealous: ‘mystics and mysteries in 10th-century Baghdad’

A Wider World: Tudor.  ‘prose as close to perfect as it comes, and settings and history thoroughly researched but conveyed with a light touch,’

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

Love & Adversity on the High Seas

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

 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.

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

In Empire’s Reckoning (now also available in the duology box set Empire’s Bard) 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/