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Worldbuilding: Agriculture in an Early-Medieval World

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich to readers is the presence of agriculture as part of the background of life.

The scenery, the customs and traditions, the way of life – all were portrayed so well that it felt like reading about a real time and place.” 

Helen Hollick, Discovering Diamonds review of Empire’s Daughter

This, in some version, is one of the most frequent comments – or compliments – about my books. How did you build such a real world? people ask.  There are a lot of facets to this, but the one I’ll look at today is the role of agriculture in creating an early-medieval setting.

I have an advantage over many writers: I grew up in a rural setting, did agricultural work from the time I was thirteen, come from a long line of agricultural workers, and have two degrees in the subject. And landscape history – which is inextricably tied into land use and agriculture – is a major hobby of mine. Nonetheless, it’s not what you know as much as how you use it, really.

Let’s look at animal agriculture first. Early medieval Europe, which my world parallels, had horses and cows, sheep and goats, and pigs*. Empire’s Daughter opens in a fishing village, but one that also farms. Geographically, it’s set somewhere equivalent to perhaps northern Wales – in my mind, it’s the landscape of Anglesey. Thin soils, rocky heathland in places; deeper soils in others. So it can support some grain crops, and some animal agriculture.

Lives revolve around animals: lambing, shearing, slaughter, as well as the cycle of planting and harvest. Fences are important, tough wattle fencing to keep animals out of gardens. Children are employed to scare birds, watch sheep, keep the goats away from crops.

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich is this is present as part of the background of life. For example, in a scene where a council of landholders have met for political reasons, other conversations still happen. The country’s been raided badly by a Viking-like people, and it’s just beginning to recover. Political decisions about leadership need to be made, but so do more mundane choices – and this young landholder, his father dead in the battles – turns to an older man for advice:

“Sorley,” he said when I sat down. “Should I put the meadows along the water to the plough, if I can find seed? They’ve been grazed, but we’ll not have sheep in numbers for a few years yet.”

“If those meadows are like the Ti’ach’s, they’re wet,” I said. “Better leave them to the sheep, and plough better drained land, if you can.” He’d be late getting the barley in, but it needed only three months to be ready to harvest.

Empire’s Reckoning

It’s two short paragraphs – but it brings the real, daily concerns of people to life.

Knowing how people and animals lived together also adds authenticity to a story. In many cases, it was in one building, either separated by a rough wall, or with the animals on ground level and people living above them. Cattle produce an enormous amount of heat, and this arrangement allowed for the animal’s heat to benefit people – and it also meant the people were right there in case of a predator attack. In this scene the character has begged shelter at a peasant cottage: 

She led me to the half of the bothy the animals occupied, the milk cow and the pigs, if they had them. Although this should be slaughter month, so the pigs might already be ham and bacon, hanging in flitches above the hearth. The byre was empty, as I had expected; what animals they had would be out foraging, but it was dry, and the reed bedding tolerably clean.

I settled into a corner, spreading my tattered blanket, which served as my cloak, out flat. I wished the cow had been indoors; her warmth would have been welcome.

Empire’s Reckoning

Here the rhythms of the agricultural year are shown to be important without bringing undue emphasis to them, and the living conditions of the people.

I could find other examples: how sheep are hefted to a hillside (hefting is a learned behaviour passed from ewe to lamb that limits where sheep will wander); how sheep and cattle were moved to market; the low value of the coarse wool of the upland sheep.  None of these get more than a mention here and there, or at most a couple of paragraphs, but they serve to create a solid agricultural basis to a world that depended on it. (Which, of course, we still all do, but most of us are so distanced from it, we forget.) In many ways, this is the equivalent of, in a contemporary urban novel, of stopping at Starbucks, or debating sushi or pizza for dinner: the details that reinforce the common rituals and experiences of our lives. In another post, I’ll look at the crops of medieval Europe and how they too influenced both daily life, and my books.

Featured image: Limbourg brothers/Public domain

* The sheep are coarse-wooled, darker than you might expect. The pigs aren’t likely pink, and they’re running loose, foraging; taller, razor-backed, bristly and dangerous. The cattle might be white, and fierce; castrated males are used as draught animals. You plough with oxen, not horses, in most cases. And the horses are ponies, shaggy and tough.

Divided Lives

How did Lysistrata, Sparta, The Lord of the Rings, and Icelandic women influence Empire’s Daughter?

Tali grinned, her teeth white against her tanned face. “Oh, there’s a problem,” she said. “Our prospective new metalworker is neither from Delle, nor newly-qualified. As a guess, I’d say our new smith brings thirty years of experience—military experience. And his name is Casyn.”

I stared at my aunt, my hands tightening on the crab trap. Maya gasped. All men left the villages at seven to enter the Empire’s military schools, spending their adult years serving in the army. In retirement, they raised horses or grew grapes or taught in the schools, finishing out their days with whatever part of their regiment had survived. Twice a year, war and distance allowing, they came to the villages for Festival, to be provisioned, to gather food and cloth and wine, to make love and father children, to give and carry messages. Festival lasted a week, and then they left. This pattern had shaped our lives for generations.

I shook my head. “But he can’t.”

Can you imagine a society where men and women’s lives are so divided? But this is the society into which my protagonist Lena has been born, and it’s all she knows. Readers ask where this idea came from.  There isn’t a simple answer, but I’ll do my best.

History is one source. The idea of male children being taken at seven into military training is from the social structure of the ancient city-state of Sparta, where exactly that happened.  Spartan boys were basically cadets until age 20, when they took on greater responsibility in the military; they could marry at 30, but did not live with their wives, but stayed with their military comrades in barracks….and that was the germ of the idea of the men and women living almost completely separate lives, except for a couple of weeks each year.

Icelandic and Viking women, where women frequently were completely responsible for farming and fishing and all the other work while the men were at sea, either fishing (Iceland) or raiding (Vikings) was another source.  The apprenticeship of girls at twelve to a trade is simply based on long practice throughout much of the world.

Woman blacksmith – England ca. 1915 – 1920

I must tip my hat, too, to a book with a similar societal structure, Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Woman’s Country. In her book, set 300 years in the future after nuclear war, a society has developed where women and children live in towns with a few male servants; most men live in warrior camps beyond the town walls. I read The Gate to Woman’s Country about five years before starting Empire’s Daughter, and it was definitely a direct influence.

In Empire’s Daughter, we learn that this division of men and women’s lives came about due to a disagreement between men and women about the expansion of the Empire. Villages were governed by a council of three women, the men being away too often for war. When the Emperor asked yet again for men to fight, the women had had enough, forcing a country-wide assembly resulting in the partition of their lives, known from then on as the Partition Agreement. Here I was tweaking two ideas: Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, where women withhold sex until the men stop fighting, ending the Peloponnesian Wars, and, the Ent/Entwives conflict in The Lord of the Rings, where a similar wish for exploration vs a settled life leads to the sundering of the lives of male and female Ents.

This way of life is not without its costs, and some of those are made evident in Empire’s Daughter, and over the rest of the books in the series, as war and peace bring new challenges and new ideas.

More on this divided life, on the idea of twice-yearly Festivals, and on partnerships between men and women, in future posts.  

By the way! Subscribers to my newsletter are getting a monthly instalment of a story about how the Partition Agreement came about, a prequel to Empire’s Daughter set several hundred years earlier.

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(Or you can read the on-going story a month behind newsletter subscribers here.)

BOOK SPOTLIGHT & REVIEW : DISCERNING GRACE by Emma Lombard

The White Sails Series, Book I

London 1826. Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton with his salivary incontinence and dead-mouse stink. Discovering she is a pawn in an arrangement between slobbery Silverton and her calculating father, Grace is devastated when Silverton reveals his true callous nature.

Refusing this fate, Grace resolves to stow away. Heading to the docks, disguised as a lad to ease her escape, she encounters smooth-talking naval recruiter, Gilly, who lures her aboard HMS Discerning with promises of freedom and exploration in South America.

When Grace’s big mouth lands her bare-bottomed over a cannon for insubordination, her identity is exposed. The captain wants her back in London but his orders, to chart the icy archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, forbid it. Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam gallantly offers to take Grace off the fretting captain’s hands by placing her under his protection.

Grace must now win over the crew she betrayed with her secret, while managing her feelings towards her taciturn protector, whose obstinate chivalry stifles her new-found independence.

An excerpt from the novel, followed by my review.

London, 13 May 1826

A deep-throated rumble of laughter drew Grace’s eyes across the crowded drawing room, and over to Uncle Farfar. Heading over to him, she admired the double row of gold buttons on his blue naval coat glinting in the luminescence of the gilt chandelier above. The crystal beads cast a sprinkling of starlight around the room. Grace thought the evening had a distinctly tropical aura with wide-fronded palms and vines spilling from all corners in a waterfall of greenery. Grace also thought Mothers’ décor was fanciful and faux.

Uncle Farfar beckoned a young man, the single epaulette on his right shoulder announcing that he was a lieutenant in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. “Ah, Fitzwilliam. Just in time,” beamed Uncle Farfar, his face flushed with pleasure. Uncle Farfar was actually Admiral Arthur Jameson Baxter, highly decorated for his successful engagement in Admiral Nelson’s campaign at the Battle of Trafalgar. He had lovingly endured the childhood nickname Grace had bestowed upon him when she was eighteen months old, and unable to pronounce his name, Uncle Arthur. He had not escaped the deep weathering of a man who had spent his life at sea, and though his face was much rounder these days, Grace thought he still had a kindness in his eyes.

Centring himself between Grace and the new arrival, Uncle Farfar said, “Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam, may I introduce you to Miss Grace Baxter, my niece and the delight of my life.”

Grace smiled politely, admiring the shades of gold shimmering across Fitzwilliam’s smoothed-back hair, caught tidily in a black silk ribbon at his graceful nape.

“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Baxter,” said Fitzwilliam, formally kissing her hand.

“Lieutenant.” Grace took her hand back, fingers curling, and Fitzwilliam clasped his own behind his back.

Uncle Farfar’s sharp eyes flicked across the room, and his cordiality shrivelled. “God save us, see who approaches? Lord Silverton.”

To Grace, Lord Silverton appeared closer to a hundred years old, despite him only being in his early fifties. He was also a childless widower of renowned wealth and lineage. His bulging midriff announced no shortage of good food. He had been a mysterious figure on the outskirts of Grace’s life since she could remember, but no number of years had lessened her discomfort around him.

“Your servant, madam,” drawled Silverton, bowing stiffly.

Grace dipped her head in greeting, lowering her gaze from Silverton’s beady eyes to the neatly tied cravat at the base of his bulbous, waggling chin. How could any respectable lady willingly draw herself to the attention of this crusty, timeworn creature?

“Your gown is simply delightful, Miss Baxter,” said Silverton. “Reminds me of the gossamer wings of a dragonfly.” Silverton’s obtrusive stare seemed to blacken Uncle Farfar’s mood further.

Oblivious, Silverton droned on, “Fascinating creatures! Dragonfly rituals of courtship may seem romantic to those inclined to observe the world through rose-coloured spectacles, but the amazing show of flips and spirals is usually the female trying to escape the boorish behaviour of the males.”

“I cannot possibly imagine how that feels,” Grace muttered, peering impassively around the crowded room. Fitzwilliam’s quick dry cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh, and Grace studied him from the corner of her eye. His face betrayed nothing.

Just then the butler rang the bell. Silverton’s beady eyes fixed on Grace. “Would you care to dine with me this evening, Miss Baxter?”

Uncle Farfar cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind Silverton, I’d appreciate my niece’s company this evening.” Uncle Farfar drew Grace away before Silverton could say anything more, and ushered her into the dining room. Fitzwilliam followed two steps behind with his allotted dinner companion, Miss Pettigrew. Her petite hand curled in his elbow, and her coifed black hair barely met his shoulder. Grace had made her acquaintance only once before, and realised with a sinking heart that she was in for an evening of little to no conversation with the demure creature, should she sit beside her. The stretched table was laid with the snowiest of linen, and set with such precision that even the King of England would have been pressed to find fault.

Uncle Farfar waved at the empty chairs. “Would you care to sit between Lieutenant Fitzwilliam and I, Grace dear? You might need to give me a kick under the table if we bore you with too much naval chatter.”

Grace sank into her chair. “Nonsense, Uncle. I do so enjoy your tales.”

Fitzwilliam waited for Miss Pettigrew to be seated as she gave him a simpering smile. A wave of relief washed over Grace at not being stuck with Silverton for the evening. Uncle Farfar clearly had the same thoughts, and he chuckled, “At least you’re squirrelled with us, away from that pompous windbag.”

Grace peered down the long table, her eyes narrowing as she caught Silverton’s beady eyes, grey as a wolf’s pelt, roaming freely across her décolletage. She scratched absentmindedly at the fine lace edging around the low neck of her lavender gown, aware that her unladylike fidgeting would likely irk Father at some point in the evening. But it could not be helped. Lace was wretchedly itchy.

Fitzwilliam pulled in his chair, and nodded at Captain Steven Fincham sitting stiffly opposite him like a squat Napoleonic figure. Dark circles beneath Fincham’s bleary, bloodshot eyes gave Grace the impression that he was in poor health, was suffering from the crapulous effects of intoxication, or both.

With the soup course over, Grace eyed the line of footmen entering with platters laden with succulent roast lamb. The thin slices looked perfectly browned on the outside with just a peek of pink inside. Her stomach grumbled at the rich buttery scent of the potatoes being served onto her plate. She intended to enjoy every mouthful. At the sound of cutlery pinging on glass, Grace turned her attention to her father, Lord Flint, who rose with his wine glass raised.

“As you know, my dear wife’s partiality to dinner parties ensures they happen with alarming regularity.” A polite smattering of laughter rippled around the table. “But tonight, we have two guests who deserve our well wishes.” Father inclined his bewigged head at Captain Fincham. “Captain Fincham and Lieutenant Fitzwilliam will soon be leaving England’s fair shores in an effort to expand our great nation’s knowledge of the world.” His crystal cut glass glimmered in the candlelight. “To a safe and prosperous journey, gentlemen.”

“To a safe and prosperous journey,” echoed the diners.

Uncle Farfar’s grey head peered around Grace at Fitzwilliam. “Where are you off to this time, Lieutenant?”

Relieved to be released from Fincham’s melancholy, and Miss Pettigrew’s muteness, Grace widened her eyes, equally interested to hear his answer.

“Plymouth first, to pick up the rest of the ship’s company and fresh supplies, before we sail to Tierra del Fuego,” said Fitzwilliam.

“Damned notorious waters off the Horn of South America, eh?” declared Uncle Farfar.

“That’s right,” interrupted Fincham, his unsteady hand lowering his empty glass to the table. “We’re sailing out tomorrow on the Discerning. To chart the coasts between Montevideo and Chiloé Island.”

“Ah, yes, the hydrographic survey! I recall hearing of it around the Admiralty.” Uncle Farfar’s eyes blazed. “The Royal Navy has been around those parts for years, but they’ve few charts to show for it. About time someone had a crack at it.” He inclined his head at Fitzwilliam. “Sounds just the kind of adventure a young man like you would relish.”

“Indeed, sir.” Fitzwilliam agreed.

Grace tucked a chocolate corkscrew of hair, that had rebelliously come undone, behind her ear. “What a pity you shan’t be here for the ball next week, Lieutenant. Mother will no doubt outdo herself again.” Fitzwilliam was about to reply when Lady Flint’s tinkling laughter drew his attention down the other end of the table. Despite numerous suitors declaring that Grace’s natural beauty stemmed from her mother, Grace thought Lady Flint’s shrewd eyes and downturned mouth erased all prettiness. She glanced back at the handsome naval officer beside her.

“You’ll have to pardon me, Miss Baxter,” Fitzwilliam said ruefully. “I find society balls to be little more than an exercise in attaching one unwitting party to another, usually for monetary gain.”

“Hear, hear!” Fincham banged the table, jangling the silverware. Miss Pettigrew squeaked with fright. Fincham blustered, “The oceans of the world are far less dangerous to navigate as far as I’m concerned.”

Grace laughed. “I quite agree, Captain Fincham. Father had me all but married off to Colonel Dunne until he found out he’s as poor as a church mouse and about to be shipped off to India.” She turned to Fitzwilliam, one brow arching as she whispered from the corner of her mouth, “Dull as a butter knife too.”

Clearly amused by her honesty, Fitzwilliam’s shoulders jiggled with silent laughter, and he smirked. Grace had never understood how Father threw her at suitors who were highly suitable on paper but wholly unsuitable in person.


Now you’ve read the excerpt, here’s my review:

A young woman discovers she’s been promised to a disgusting old lecher, and so, she runs away. Not the first time this scenario has started a story, but the young woman in question doesn’t usually end up as a cabin boy on a survey vessel! 

But that’s exactly where Grace Baxter’s flight takes her, and the twists and turns of her story (or should I say the ebb and swell, as we’re aboard ship?) as she adapts to life on board, learns the skills of seamanship, and fights for acceptance among the other men make for entertaining reading. We meet an array of characters against whom Grace must pit her wits – and her fists – to take her place as one of the crew, creating an ensemble cast, each of whom adds in their own way to the story.

Emma Lombard’s debut novel is full of detail that helps the reader envision the confined world of the Discerning, the ship on which she’s taken refuge. It’s clearly well researched: the daily tasks of the crew; the fear when Grace must learn to climb rigging; the food served, and the stench of the sleeping quarters all serve to create a believable backdrop to Grace’s tale.

Many conflicts and reversals, big and small, keep the reader’s attention, without feeling forced or added simply to have yet another problem to be solved. Discerning Grace is a romance, too; can you put a determined young woman and an honourable lieutenant together on a ship without one?   Discerning Grace is an admirable debut novel, and a beguiling blend of historical fiction and women’s fiction.

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

From First Draft to Finished Book: An Editing Journey (Part 1)

After eight months, the first draft of Empire’s Heir is done. Now what?

Empire’s Heir is my sixth book, and my revision process has evolved along with my writing. I’ve always been an edit-as-you-go writer, but with increasing age comes increasing difficulty to be at the computer for long hours. So I decided this time not to do that, guessing that the revision process would be faster than constant rewrites. So with very few exceptions, I just kept going with the book, making notes if I added a plot thread or changed something that affected earlier scenes. I also planned the scenes more, knowing – usually – what points needed to be made before beginning them, although, as usual, my characters sometimes had different ideas.

So: now I have this 130K manuscript in front of me. One file. What do I do first? Back to that increasing age problem: my eyesight isn’t what it was. Computer screens are difficult after a while. So my first step was to print it, with a very wide margin on one side for notes.

Then I analyzed it paragraph by paragraph: what purpose(s) did each paragraph serve? Did it build character, describe setting, cause conflict, advance the plot? (Preferably more than one of those, in most.) If they don’t, mark as OMIT, or CONDENSE.

In this pass, I also identified the main plots, and the subplots, keeping track in a notebook of the page numbers. Turned out there were 26 plot threads to be woven into the story: four large ones, 22 small conflicts that needed resolving before the end.

Then I divided the book into its three acts, which for this particular book is its defining overall structure, and analysed how much page time each conflict got.

This was interesting, because it showed me some significant gaps in two of the major plot threads.  So I made a list of those.

Then I went back to revise.  First, I fixed the paragraphs marked OMIT or CONDENSE.  Then I took out a few of the 22 minor plot threads that really didn’t add to the story.  After that, I went back to balance the plots better, making sure they contributed to each of the three acts.

You’ll note I haven’t worried about conciseness or cadence, clarity or flow, or anything to do with the quality of the prose at this point. That comes later, after I know the book’s bones are solid, and connected: the skeleton on which the flesh of the story lives. It’s still far from the final version, but it needs now to be seen by other eyes and minds than mine.

So it’s gone to my critique team: three readers who know my world and my characters well, and, equally importantly, won’t be hesitant in telling me what works and what doesn’t; what’s still extraneous; where I’ve missed a plot thread; which character is still two-dimensional; which one needs introducing earlier – that sort of thing. When I have their feedback, I’ll incorporate it.

I’ll write about that, and the next step: pruning it down from 130K – in another post. But not until I’ve done that work!

Featured image: Image by Wokingham Libraries from Pixabay 

Balancing

Each man kills the thing he loves…
some with a flattering word…

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word…

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Like almost everyone a year into the pandemic, I find myself thinking ‘I want my life back.”

I’ve slowly realized, though, that for me this isn’t only about the restrictions of the pandemic. Sure, I miss eating out, and movies, and meeting friends and family. But being a fairly introverted sort, happy with my own company most of the time, those aren’t a huge part of my life. What I’m missing more are the things I used to do, until writing took over my life.

I’ve written four books and a novella in the last five years. (Plus eighty thousand words of a first draft I tossed out completely.) Good books, by their reviews and awards, and not short (except the novella). Plus innumerable blog posts, my own and as a guest; book reviews, articles…sometimes it feels like all I do is write.

I used to have another life.

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A life where I could spend four hours birding, and not feel guilty. A life where I didn’t just watch birds, I drew them, turning my work into cards for friends and family.

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A life where I could spend hours with Ordnance Survey maps and Google Earth, studying field boundaries and the position of Roman villas, or bronze age barrows, or the remnants of ecclesiastical sites along a river. (And then go out and walk these sites, but that is a pandemic loss, at least this winter.)

A life where I read for pleasure, not for research or review.

This is no one’s doing but my own. I’ve always been immersed in my work, regardless of which of my several careers we’re talking about. I thought, in the first couple of years after I stopped working, I’d found a better balance. Then I slipped back into old habits, in part for the sheer joy of doing what I had always wanted to do, a need and desire that had taken a back seat to work and travel and the other demands and pleasures of life.

I took a day off to go birding this week, down to the shores of Lake Erie to look at waterfowl and early songbird migrants, and when I got home, my fingers itched to draw that flotilla of redhead and scaup dotting the Inner Bay, or the tundra swans passing overhead. I read a book for pleasure, too – Kazuo Ishiguro’s newest, Klara and the Sun. And I thought – why isn’t this my life? No one’s forcing me to write a book a year, to not draw, or not take another landscape history course – no one but myself.

Hindsight tells me why. I’ve wanted to be a writer – a published author – since childhood. The reality of that happening – and happening to critical acclaim, too – was exciting. (It still is.) It’s been exhilarating. But I’m starting to see the cost. Ironically, the things I’ve mostly stopped doing: birding, studying landscape history, reading about deep ecology – are the things that have helped inform the worldbuilding of my books, an aspect of them which is almost universally singled out for praise.

Am I going to stop writing?  Of course not. Writing brings me joy and challenge, and I have my characters’ stories to tell. But after Empire’s Heir comes out later this year, will the next one follow close on its heels?  Maybe not. Perhaps, loyal readers, you’re just going to have to wait a little longer for Druisius’s novella, and the last book in the series, and whatever else appears, asking to be told. But they’ll be better books for it.

Framing and Finishing: Of Housebuilding and Writing.

The first draft of a book is like a house under construction.

Saturday morning at a few minutes past midnight, I completed my work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir. Or at least, the first draft. The first draft of a book is like a house under construction: the foundation is poured, the framing’s done, the walls and windows and doors are in, and the roof. (And you hope it doesn’t leak.)

But inside, it’s a mess. The detritus left by the workers is scattered all over. The floors are plywood; the walls not yet wallboarded, the wiring and plumbing roughed in.  There is a lot of work left to do.

And so it is with a manuscript. It’s as messy and incomplete as the house. The garbage needs removing: the scenes that don’t add to the story, the plot line that complicates or goes nowhere, the characters who add nothing.

Walk through the house with a critical eye. Maybe a framed wall is in the wrong place; maybe you want a window where there isn’t one. Changes can still be made, although they’ll add time and take work. Better now than later, though. Later is much harder (ask anyone who’s renovated: a house or a book.)

Then it’s time to complete the plumbing and wiring, the connectors that link themes and plot and story together, often mostly unseen, and get the wallboard up.  Inspectors – or structural editors – are a good idea at this point. (Actually, the inspectors are almost certainly legally required, the structural editor isn’t – the analogy’s not perfect. But you get my drift.)

And then it’s time for the finishing. The painters and carpet layers, the cabinet makers, the tile installers, making sure the colours blend or contrast, the fine carpentry is precise, the transitions from room to room, carpet to hardwood to tile, are smooth. Another place a designer, or friends with good eyes and aesthetic sense, can help. Maybe your first choices are too trendy, too minimalist, too overblown. Is every space used well, not too crowded, not too empty? In the manuscript, I – or my beta readers, or my editor, or all of the above – are checking description, dialogue, and the cadence and flow of language, looking for monotony, purple prose, repetition, and a host of other things that affect the story.

Now the finishers are gone. Time for a thorough cleaning: they’ve been careful, but they can’t help leaving some mess. Sawdust in a corner; carpet threads; a dropped finishing nail or two. Time to sweep, to vacuum, to wash all the counters and floors. Time for the proof reading, and like sweeping and vacuuming and washing, use more than one technique: hire someone, listen to your book, change fonts. (There will still be one or two nails on the floor, or a drop of paint somewhere: it’s inevitable, just like the typos that slip through.)

And now the house – and the book – are done. While the finishing’s been happening, so has the exterior. You know your neighbourhood: what works?  Brick? Siding? Shingle? Stucco?  Same with the cover. Neighbourhoods and genres have their conventions, and you probably want to fit in without looking identical to every house on the street, or book on the bookstore shelf.

Right now, what I have is that mess: something that looks like a book, but inside is an unfinished jumble. There’s a lot of work to do before Empire’s Heir is a book someone will want to live inside. I’m letting it settle, and then I’ll start.

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

A Changed World

It became quickly evident there were themes of loss and uncertainty I hadn’t planned, of separation and restrictions.

A year plus 10 days ago, I was in Rome, experiencing the feel of the city and visiting locations that would be settings in Empire’s Heir: the Imperial Palace, the Baths of Caracalla, others. The virus was a problem further north in Italy, but I had no worries about going to Rome. The world changed rapidly after that – we flew home to Canada from England a month later from an eerily empty airport, on a half-full flight, to restrictions that have fluctuated in gravity, but never gone away.

I hadn’t started Empire’s Heir yet: I had a general idea of the story, but little else. After I started writing it, it became quickly evident there were themes of loss and uncertainty I hadn’t planned, of separation and restrictions, and the meaning of space as something both necessary and isolating.

In my first trilogy, Empire’s Legacy, we were introduced to my protagonist Lena. Eighteen, facing war and hardships, she remains remarkably resilient – although not unscarred – throughout the three books. At the beginning of Empire’s Heir, she is forty. Mourning the sudden death of her third, unexpected child, she’s trying to make sense of her life.  Events set in motion at the birth of her oldest child, Gwenna, are shaping affairs both political and personal. She’s floundering, trying to reclaim some control of her own destiny – and she’s lost some of the resilience she had as a younger woman.

Cillian, thirty-three when we first meet him in Empire’s Hostage, is fifty-three. In a 7th century world, he’s far from young, and he’s coming to terms with the restrictions and losses of age.

I was growing old, and age brought loss, of things small and great: the acuity of hearing, the rapidity of thought… I had thought I accepted this decline; that my injuries had taught me to live with things lost.

The subplot of trying to live with loss, to rebuild lives shaken by uncertainty and unexpected change and its aftershocks, runs through the story, shaping it as I write. I can immerse myself in history and my faux-7th-century world. But the real world intrudes, influences, insists on inclusion, if in subtle and hidden ways; some, I may not even realize. Is this the book I would have written had there been no pandemic?  I doubt it.

Featured Image: The Aurelian Walls, Rome: Lalupa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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!

Legacy of the Brightwash, by Krystle Matar: A Release Day Review

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world.

The choices we make are complex, and our reasons for making them sometimes understood, sometimes not. We are influenced by our upbringing, our society and its place in it; by an immediate situation. Sometimes no choice is right, or safe, or even moral: like Odysseus, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, deciding which choice leads to the least grief.

Tashué Blackwood, the protagonist of Legacy of the Brightwash, is a man who has had to make such a choice. In a complex world of power and subservience, Tashué walks carefully, following the law and staying safe, even through the imprisonment of his son for refusing to give in to the laws of the Authority and register his Talent; even through seeing his son’s mother taken to a breeding program to give more children with Talent to the Authority.

But all men have a breaking point. For Tashué, it is the discovery of a mutilated child’s body on the banks of the Brightwash, a child with an unfamiliar tattoo on its neck. Torn by offered power and influence; by a woman whose love is forbidden to him; by his love for his son and by his own conscience, Tashué is a man fighting not only a corrupt society, but his own past.

Krystle Matar’s debut novel has both outstanding world-building and character development. There is nothing superficial or stereotypical about either her world or the people in it. While clear parallels can be drawn between Matar’s fictional world and our own, it stands as a unique creation. We are shown pieces of its structure, but like a partially completed jigsaw puzzle the outline is there, and some parts are more complete than others, but it’s not a finished picture – just like most of us don’t have a thorough picture of our own histories, either personal or of the world in which we live. Instead we have hints, echoes, memories, allowing the reader to slowly build a concept of what has shaped both the world and its inhabitants.

It’s an immersive world: Matar uses all our senses to evoke luxury, horror, pain, exhaustion, love. Characters’ thoughts are shown to us, their fears and obsessions, their momentary joys, their disgust and doubts. That Tashué is a tormented man is made abundantly clear. Matar is a skilled writer: words and sentences and paragraphs flow, show, sometimes overwhelm the reader with sensation and emotion.

The magic – Talent – is nearly irrelevant to the book, except as a metaphor for difference, for something that can be used to separate one group of people from another, to control and degrade – and sometimes because of that constant debasement, explode. The truth behind the mutilated child is both horrifying and a logical extension of the arrogance and privilege of the ruling class who see only themselves as truly human.

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world. Its ending raises more questions than it answers: mysteries have been solved, but Tashué is far from being free of conflict – nor is he likely to be. Truly a magnificent first novel. I look forward to its sequel.

Featured image: Image by Brigitte is always pleased to get a coffee from Pixabay