26 March 2015

Excerpt Thursday: NEVER BE AT PEACE by M.J. Neary

This week, we're welcoming author and Unusual Historicals contributor, M.J. Neary, whose latest title is NEVER BE AT PEACEJoin us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Never Be At PeaceBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb. 


A pugnacious orphan from a bleak Dublin suburb, Helena Molony dreams of liberating Ireland. Her fantasies take shape when the indomitable Maud Gonne informally adopts her and sets her on a path to theatrical stardom - and political martyrdom. Swept up in the Gaelic Revival, Helena succumbs to the romantic advances of Bulmer Hobson, an egotistical Fenian leader with a talent for turning friends into enemies. After their affair ends in a bitter ideological rift, she turns to Sean Connolly, a married fellow-actor from the Abbey Theatre, a man idolised in the nationalist circles. As Ireland prepares to strike against the British rule on Easter Monday, Helena and her comrades find themselves caught in a whirlwind of deceit, violence, broken alliances and questionable sacrifices. In the words of Patrick Pearse, "Ireland unfree shall never be at peace". For the survivors of the Rising, the battle will continue for decades after the last shot had been fired.
 

**An Excerpt from Never Be At Peace**
 

Walking down the corridor of Belcamp Park, Bulmer spotted a trail of dark spots on the scratched wooden floor. The glistening substance looked like spilled paint. The countess had been working on one of her landscapes, and she was not known for her neatness. As Bulmer walked farther down, the spots became wider and more numerous, their trail leading to Helena’s bedroom.

            The wax from the shapeless candle stump was dripping over his hand, hardening around his knuckles. The door opened with a sinister creak. Bulmer did not make it far past the threshold. Five feet away from him Helena was lying curled up on the mattress where they had spent so many nights, a pillow clutched to her stomach and a bloodied towel between her legs. A washcloth drenched in vinegar was spread over her forehead. Shivering and delirious, she seemed unaware of his presence.

            A second later Bulmer felt fingernails digging into his arm and heard a menacing feline hiss. “Don’t dare coming near that girl.”

He turned around with a shudder and beheld the Lioness of Lissadell. “Wake her up and I’ll strangle you,” she said, dragging him out into the hall.

“What in the name of God …”

Constance tilted her artfully disheveled head. Her grey-streaked mane heaved as if it possessed a soul of its own. “Use your imagination, Hobson, or your knowledge of biology, if you possess any. Does this look like a case of migraine?”

“How long has she been like this? Has she been seen by a doctor?”

            “No worries, the doctor’s already done his part – as you’ve done yours.”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “You’re asking too many questions, Hobson. Just fetch your things and go to home to your Mama. Ask her why women resort to such measures. She has all the time in the world to educate you – I don’t. Helena needs me. If you’ve any decency left, you’ll let this poor girl be, after everything you’ve done to her.”

            The candle slipped out of Bulmer’s hand, setting the woven doormat on fire. Constance stamped out the flames swiftly with her slipper, shoved the speechless Quaker aside and she locked herself in Helena’s bedroom.

            Bulmer slid down to the floor and froze in an excruciatingly uncomfortable position across from the closed door, his gaze following the blood trail. The overwhelming sensory experiences of the past five minutes shocked his body into sleep, surprisingly deep and peaceful, devoid of nightmares, like a miniature death.   

***

            The smell of tobacco drove Bulmer out of his tepid oblivion. Wincing from the soreness in his limbs and neck, he stood. Helena’s door was left ajar, and the bedroom was empty. Leaning against the wall, he began limping his way down the hall towards the light coming from the kitchen.

The two women were smoking and gossiping. Helena looked alarmingly pale, though her mouth was tinted with cherry-red gloss. Her hair had been brushed back and adorned with rhinestone pins. She was wearing the same narrow tartan skirt she had on for the arrival of the scouts in early September.

            “It was horrid,” Bulmer heard her say. “Oh, Con, I know I should feel relief, but … What happens next? Is it a sort of thing a girl takes to a priest?”

            “You know it’s for the best,” the countess replied. “The Hobson boy is unreliable. You have your acting glory before you, and all the men in the world.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever look at another man for as long as I live.”

            “I felt the same way after Maeve’s birth. How I loathed that child and Casi! Women who tell you that being a mother is the greatest blessing are either liars or primitive breeding cows. No thinking woman can take pleasure in such things.”

            Bulmer started coughing – not to attract attention but because the cigarette smoke was irritating his lungs. The women turned their heads to look at him without changing their poses.  

            “Miss Molony,” he said with affected courtesy, “do you have any final words for me before I clear out? Though, your recent actions speak eloquently enough.” In his heart he had always known this affair would end. He just did not suspect it would end so soon and on such an ugly note.

            Helena blew a cloud of smoke in his face. “You have no say in matters concerning my body.”

            “Of course, I don’t. Your body is the property of the Abbey directors and the Fianna boys.”
 

Never Be at Peace: a Novel of Irish Rebels available now from Fireship Press.


About the author

Marina Julia Neary is an acclaimed historical novelist, award-winning essayist, multilingual journalist, dramatist and poet. Her areas of expertise include Neo-Victorianism, French Romanticism and Irish nationalism. Her literary career to depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the Chernobyl catastrophe. Neary declares that her mission is to tell untold stories, find hidden gems and illuminate the prematurely extinguished stars in history. She explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand. Her debut novel Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of London Slums (Fireship Press) appeared on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. Her subsequent novels include Wynfield's War (2010), Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian (2011), Martyrs & Traitors: a Tale of 1916 (2011), Never Be at Peace: a Novel of Irish Rebels (2014) and Saved by the Bang (2015).

23 March 2015

A Dreadful Punishment – looking into the crime of “Petty Treason” and the beliefs surrounding it.

By Lindsay Townsend

There were a series of crimes in the Middle Ages that were thought so dreadful they were considered to be a form of treason. High treason is the offence of attempting to injure or kill the king or queen, and little or petty treason involves any “underling” killing his or her superior Under the law of petty treason, codified in 1351, wives accused of murdering their husbands, or clergy killing their prelates, or a servant killing his or her master or mistress could be tried under this charge.
                                                  
Why were such crimes considered treason? In the Middle Ages, hierarchy was seen as natural, as part of good order, created and ordained by God.  God was always seen as male and at the apex of creation. Earth mirrored heaven, it was believed, and so man was held above woman. To a medieval man, a wife should obey her husband and be inferior to him, and the same was believed to be true for servants and their masters and mistresses.

Attitudes held at the time and the the demands of the church reinforced such ideas. One of the most popular lay stories of the fourteenth century was that of Patient Griselda, who submits to her odious husband while he takes her children from her, tells her he has killed them and finally tells Griselda he has divorced her. As an ideal, patient wife, Griselda then forgives him when her bullying husband reveals that all these ordeals have been fake and a test of her obedience. The church may have raised the Virgin Mary as a perfect woman but all other females and wives were said to be tainted by the sin of Eve, tempted by Satan in the guise of a serpent into stealing an apple from the tree of knowledge and then tempting her husband Adam into sharing it with her. For that sin, the church believed women should be subservient to their husbands.

The message was clear: wives must obey. To murder one’s husband (whom a medieval wife had promised to obey in the marriage ceremony) was seen as the ultimate betrayal, a deadly, intimate act. Servants, too, were encouraged to be servile, especially since they lived with the family, inside the family.

Writing as I do about relationships and romance, I am particularly appalled by the crime of petty treason. For a wife convicted of it, the punishment was dreadful – she was burnt at the stake. It was a crime where the same act – murder of a spouse – was treated in different ways. A man could kill his wife and be tried for murder, but a wife killing her husband was committing treason. A man was allowed to beat his wife because, it was believed by philosophers like Thomas Aquinas that women were less capable of reason than men. This last did mean, strangely enough, that women could be acquitted of the crime of Petty Treason if it was discovered that she had no “accomplices”. Women were not considered able to murder their husbands alone! So in 49 cases of husband killing brought before the justices in medieval Yorkshire and Essex, 32 were released. For those desperate women who were convicted however, a terrible fate awaited. In one of my novels, A Taste of Evil, I have my heroine Alyson accused of the crime of petty treason, with that barbaric threat hanging over her.
  
This horrific punishment was the same as for relapsed heretics and for the same reason. For a wife to kill her husband was seen as a form of heresy, a move against God’s order. Some “mercy” could be offered by the executioner’s choking the woman by cords before the flames touched her, but that often went wrong as the cords could also be burnt by the fire. The law was finally repealed in 1790.

[Renaissance image of Patient Griselda from Wikimedia Commons]

http://www.lindsaytownsend.co.uk

22 March 2015

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Elinor Florence on BIRD'S EYE VIEW

This week, we're welcoming author Elinor Florence whose latest title is BIRD'S EYE VIEWOne lucky visitor will get a free copy of Bird's Eye ViewBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb. 

Rose Jolliffe is an idealistic Canadian farm girl who joins the air force in World War Two and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs, searching for bomb targets on the continent. Working with hundreds of intelligence officers at an English mansion, she spies on the enemy from the sky and makes several crucial discoveries. Her British commanding officer Gideon Fowler recognizes her almost supernatural skills, but can he be trusted?
Lonely and homesick, Rose finds comfort in letters from the home front. As she grows disillusioned by an unhappy love affair and the destruction of war, tragedy strikes, and her world falls apart. Rose struggles to rebuild her shattered life – and finds that victory ultimately lies within herself.

**Q&A with Elinor Florence**
 
 
What makes your historical novel Bird’s Eye View unusual?
Two reasons: Firstly, it’s the only novel ever written in which the protagonist is a Canadian woman in uniform. The contribution of women who served in all the Allied forces during wartime -- American, British, or Canadian -- has been sadly overlooked. Secondly, my heroine is an aerial photographic interpreter. She studies aerial photographs, searching for bomb targets. This was an essential part of Allied Intelligence, but we hear only about the code-breakers at Bletchley Park.
 
 
How did you become interested in this topic?
I grew up on a former airfield used to train aircrew for the British Commonwealth Air Training Program. In fact, the house where I grew up was a former barracks building. I could identify with the farm boys and girls who couldn’t wait to join the air force. It seemed like such a romantic, exciting thing to do, especially since women were accepted into the armed forces for the first time during World War Two.
Later, when I started my career as a newspaper reporter, I saw an old picture in a magazine of a woman wearing an air force uniform, studying an aerial photograph with a magnifying glass. I immediately thought: “I could have done that!” I didn’t research and write my fact-based book until later, but that image stayed in my head.


In real life, where did the photo interpreters work?
Just like the real interpreters, my fictional heroine works in a gorgeous mansion called RAF Medmenham, located not far from London on the banks of the Thames River. It was built out of white chalkstone, and locals called it “The Wedding Cake.” It’s now a four-star luxury hotel called Danesfield House. There’s a photograph of it on the back cover of my book. Danesfield House was in the news recently because George and Amal Clooney held their wedding reception there!


What qualifications did a photo interpreter have?
Interpretation was hard work, almost like learning another language. As well as math skills and scrupulous attention to detail, they needed a sort of sixth sense. Of course they only had black-and-white photos, so they learned to distinguish different textures of foliage and soil and metal and concrete. I like to say the interpreters had to recognize Fifty Shades of Grey!


Were the interpreters mostly male?
The unit began with forty interpreters; by the end of the war, there were six hundred interpreters, more than half of whom were women. Women proved to be especially good at it, because of their attention to detail. Of course their activities were top-secret. So the women had to overcome the male viewpoint that they couldn’t keep their mouths shut!


What was their most important discovery?
There were many, but the most famous was made by a woman who found the first jet-propelled weapon of mass destruction on a photograph. Today we call it a cruise missile. The Allies knew that the Germans were up to something, but they didn’t know what. The photo interpreters were ordered to look for “anything queer.” Finally, British interpreter Constance Babington Smith, nicknamed Babs, discovered the flying bomb on an aerial photo. It looked like a tiny aircraft with wings. Thanks to her discovery, the Allies were able to wipe out the German experimental station.


Almost everyone says Bird’s Eye View made them cry. Why is it so moving?
While writing for Reader’s Digest, I specialized in what were called “the heart stories.” I learned to recognize those tidbits that tugged at the heartstrings. In researching my novel, I interviewed many people who lived through the war, and they told me about their loves and their losses and their sorrows.

 
One thing that really stood out was the homesickness. Imagine being isolated from your loved ones for years! It was even worse for the Americans and Canadians because they couldn’t go home on leave. Their only connection was through letters, so I included many letters from home in Bird’s Eye View. My heroine simply longed to see her own country again -- a primal emotion that comes straight from the heart.    
 
 
About the Author
Elinor Florence is a career journalist who has written for daily newspapers and magazines including Reader’s Digest. Like her heroine, Elinor grew up on a prairie farm in Saskatchewan and now lives in the Rocky Mountain resort of Invermere, British Columbia. Married with three grown daughters, her passions are village life, flea markets, and old houses.

Find Elinor Florence on the Web:

Author Website:

Author Blog: Wartime Wednesdays

Facebook: Elinor Florence – Author

Twitter:

Goodreads:

Pinterest:

Amazon Author Central:

Where You Can Find Bird’s Eye View:


Also available at www.amazon.ca and www.amazon.co.uk

20 March 2015

New & Noteworthy: March 20

Blythe Gifford has a cover for WHISPERS AT COURT, her June 2015 release from Harlequin Historical in the US and UK. The second Royal Wedding story, it is set at the English court of Edward III, where noble French hostages are being held as prisoners of war. 
Lady Cecily scorns the French hostages, who are treated as honored guests. The men play at love games and Cecily fears her mistress, the princess, could be disgraced. War-weary chevalier Marc de Marcel wants only to return home. Uncertain whether his ransom will ever be paid, he makes an unlikely alliance with enticing, fire-and-ice Cecily. He'll help her keep the princess safe from ruin if she'll help him escape. A pact which could lead them into a scandal all their own…
• Ian Lipke has begun a new project: a history of the University of the Third Age in Brisbane Australia, to be released in 2016 when the movement in Brisbane will be thirty years old. There will be sections by scholars of international renown such as Dr. Rick Swindell, Ainslie Lamb, Ron Browne, and Barrie Brennan. More information to come as the project progresses.

Heather Domin is partnering with a new indie publisher, Sidh Press, to translate her books into French. The French editions of SOLDIER OF RAETIA and ALLEGIANCE will go on sale within the year, with translations of HEIRS OF FORTUNE and future works to come at a later date. 

19 March 2015

Excerpt Thursday: BIRD'S EYE VIEW by Elinor Florence

This week, we're welcoming author Elinor Florence whose latest title is BIRD'S EYE VIEWJoin us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Bird's Eye ViewBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb. 

Rose Jolliffe is an idealistic Canadian farm girl who joins the air force in World War Two and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs, searching for bomb targets on the continent. Working with hundreds of intelligence officers at an English mansion, she spies on the enemy from the sky and makes several crucial discoveries. Her British commanding officer Gideon Fowler recognizes her almost supernatural skills, but can he be trusted?
Lonely and homesick, Rose finds comfort in letters from the home front. As she grows disillusioned by an unhappy love affair and the destruction of war, tragedy strikes, and her world falls apart. Rose struggles to rebuild her shattered life – and finds that victory ultimately lies within herself.


**An Excerpt from BIRD'S EYE VIEW**

I leaned over and studied the photograph once again. I had been working on it for two hours, yet I couldn’t interpret the strange pattern of light-coloured circles against a darker background of grass.
I was becoming adept at identifying surfaces based on tone and texture alone. Earth, grass, sand, rocks — each had its own distinctive shade of grey. By now I was skilled at reading a photograph, squeezing out every drop of information like the pulp of an orange.
What had made those strange spheres? No weapon or vehicle that I recognized. I stuck out my lower lip and blew air upwards over my flushed face.
Fowler came into the room and stopped beside my desk. “Everything all right here, Jolliffe?” It had become a private joke, his using the same words every day.
I looked up at him and smiled. “Yes, sir, except for the heat. The problem is the exposure on this photograph. Maybe if it were darker I could make out some detail inside these circles. I’ll check the others and see if they’re any sharper.”
“Very good, Jolliffe.” He smiled back at me and I felt a frisson of excitement. Don’t be a fool, I told myself. Lately I couldn’t help noticing that even in the midst of my deepest concentration, if Fowler walked past my desk it took me a few minutes to recapture my focus.
I went down to the print library and told the duty clerk what I needed.
“Sorry, Assistant Section Officer. The prints are checked out to someone else.”
“Is anyone on duty in the darkroom?”
“No. We aren’t expecting any new photos tonight. Mrs. Hamilton said to call her if anything else arrived.”
“Well, don’t bother her. Just give me the negatives. I’ll pop into the darkroom and make a print. It should only take me twenty minutes.”
“If you’re quite sure —” She eyed the stripe on my sleeve and handed over the negatives.
I turned on the red warning light outside the entrance to signify no admittance, and slipped between the heavy floor-length curtains. Gosh, it was sweltering! The interior room without windows was like a steam bath. The reddish-coloured safe light seemed to pulse with an unearthly glow.
I found the negative and slipped it into the enlarger. Almost faint from the heat, I made a decision. Quickly I slipped off my shoes, then my skirt. I pulled my tie over my head, and unbuttoned my shirt. Finally, off went my stockings and garter belt, leaving me in my underwear.
I felt lighter and cooler, my bare feet damp with sweat on the stone floor. I lifted a piece of paper out of the cardboard box and slipped the edge into my mouth, identifying the emulsified side when it stuck to my upper lip. After sliding the paper between the sheets of glass, I flicked the switch on the enlarger.
I burned in those puzzling circles by allowing the light to fall on them directly, protecting the rest of the photo by dodging my hand back and forth under the beam, and slipped the print into a tray full of developing fluid.
While I watched the dark image rise from the white paper, I splashed clean water from the rinsing tray over my shoulders and throat. It felt delicious on my hot skin. When the photo was ready I picked it up with a pair of rubber tongs and slid it into the tray of fixing solution.
As I gazed at the image, my mind wandered. Suddenly I had one of those rare sensations of flight. I almost felt myself lift physically from the floor and soar high above the tray, seeing it through a bird’s eyes.
Of course! I knew what those circles were — nothing to do with any type of warfare. “It’s goats!” I said aloud, and laughed. The circles were the grazed patches made by goats on tethers, walking around the stakes in mathematically precise spheres.
I returned to my own skin and my feet touched the stone floor just as a shaft of light entered the darkroom. I whirled around. Gideon Fowler was standing inside the blackout drapes, staring at me. For a couple of seconds both of us were transfixed.
“Terribly sorry,” he muttered, before vanishing again.
I looked down at myself. My arms and shoulders glistened with drops of water, gleaming in the rosy light. My modest white cotton brassiere and underpants were more revealing than any bathing suit. I wished I had been wearing my standard issue bloomers, but they had been replaced long ago.
Why hadn’t he seen the warning light? Everyone at the station down to the lowliest cleaner knew that opening the curtains could ruin the precious film. I scrambled into my uniform, my temperature rising again.
Quickly I ran a rubber squeegee over the photo and stepped outside the darkroom. I looked up and saw that the warning light overhead had burned out. I marched down the hall and handed the negatives back to the filing clerk.
“Did Flight Officer Fowler find you, ma’am?”
“Yes, he did,” I replied, pretending to study the photograph in my hand. “The warning light outside the darkroom needs replacing. Could you do it right away, please?”
I walked down the long hallway, my footsteps slowing as I approached the camouflage room. Outside the door I squared my shoulders, then went straight to my desk without glancing left or right. Sam’s face was glued to his stereoscope and Fowler was sitting with his back to me, reading a file held open on his lap. No one spoke for the rest of the shift.

About the Author
Elinor Florence is a career journalist who has written for daily newspapers and magazines including Reader’s Digest. Like her heroine, Elinor grew up on a prairie farm in Saskatchewan and now lives in the Rocky Mountain resort of Invermere, British Columbia. Married with three grown daughters, her passions are village life, flea markets, and old houses.

Find Elinor Florence on the Web:

Author Website:

Author Blog: Wartime Wednesdays

Facebook: Elinor Florence – Author

Twitter:

Goodreads:

Pinterest:

Amazon Author Central:

Where You Can Find Bird’s Eye View:

Also available at www.amazon.ca and www.amazon.co.uk

15 March 2015

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Carol McGrath on THE SWAN-DAUGHTER

This week, we're welcoming author Carol McGrath, whose latest title is THE SWAN-DAUGHTER, book #2 of The Daughters of Hastings trilogyOne lucky visitor will get a free copy of The Swan-Daughter - this giveaway is open worldwideBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb. 

It is 1075 and Dowager Queen Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor has died. Her niece Gunnhild, longs to leave Wilton Abbey where she had been a guest since 1066. Is her suitor Alan of Richmond, Breton knight and cousin to King William interested in her inheritance as the daughter of King Harold and Edith Swan-Neck or does he love her for herself? And is her love for Count Alan an enduring love or has she made a mistake. Then there is Count Alan’s younger brother! The Swan-Daughter is a true eleventh century tale of elopement and a love triangle.

Praise for The Swan-Daughter

‘A wise and lyrical evocation of the lives of women in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and high romance in the true sense of the word. A captivating read.’ Sarah Bower , best- selling author, Needle in the Blood.

‘She [Carol McGrath] brings the 11th century alive, packing in a wealth of well-researched detail. Her style is easy to read and her Gunnhild is a rounded and sympathetic character.’ The Historical Novels Review, February 2015.

** Q&A with Carol McGrath**

I would like to thank Unusual Historicals for this opportunity to talk about my writing practice and specifically about The Swan-Daughter, the second novel in my 1066 Daughters of Hastings series. I stress that while it is part of a Trilogy, The Swan-Daughter is a stand- alone novel.

Is writing something you have always wanted to do?

I have always wanted to be a writer. As a child I made my own books. Many of these were witch stories or rewrites of adventure stories such as The Island of Adventure. As a teenager I was obsessed with history and was determined to study it at University. I did! I studied History, English and Slavonic Studies at Queens University Belfast. I taught History, even ran a High School History Department but, importantly, I was ever a great reader and my advice to all prospective writers is to read widely. Once I grew up, I never had time to write because I had children, a busy home, husband and career.  I began writing seriously when I attended Oxford University Continuing Education day classes and for several years became part of a fabulous group that included writers who had successful writers in their families. One of these writers was Antonia Fraser’s niece. One Christmas, Eliza’s family read the first chapters of my novel, not one actually published, but one about love, linen and suffragettes set in 1910-12. That was special and I felt honoured that they loved it. It was also encouraging that so long ago a creative writing teacher wanted me submit my work to agents. I never did. At that time writing was an interest only. And it was such fun! I wrote because it was a passion. Now, I am thrilled to have reached a standard where I feel I can share my passion with readers.

What is your experience of writing courses and workshops? Can they really help writers?

No man or woman is an island. These workshops and courses can be helpful on, at least, a basic level. I studied on The Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford University, a two year part time course to study writing poetry, plays and prose. Two years later, I gave up teaching to take an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University, Belfast. When I achieved a distinction on this MA, Andrew Motion, the MA’s external examiner, invited me onto his PhD course at Royal Holloway, University of London. This I completed at MPhil writing a 35k thesis on How Romance Tempers Realism in Historical Fiction as well as my debut novel The Handfasted Wife.  I think academia worked for me. I thought a lot about the process of writing, gained confidence and honed my writing skills. My advice to writers is that if you chose this route thoroughly research creative writing MAs and, especially, doctorates very carefully. I was lucky. I met great tutors and writers and was writing in a fabulously creative environment especially whilst studying prose and poetry in Ireland. Writing courses and workshops do not necessarily make you a writer but they can foster that gem of ability that you may already have. I experienced a long apprenticeship and I value this. I did it, not especially to be published; this happened along the way. I did it because I love writing and want to learn to write as well as I possibly can. It is not the only way to become a traditionally published author as we all know. I think workshops and courses can be uplifting and encouraging. They help you create a network of writing friends.
  
You write Historical Fiction. What comes first, the research or the story? What are your feelings about historical accuracy in Historical Fiction?

This is a very pertinent question and one I am speaking on at The Alderney Literary Festival next week with Simon Scarrow. I believe both do matter. Accuracy matters as far as one can be accurate but obsessive accuracy can push an author into the realms of historical non- fiction. I research thoroughly, often to achieve atmosphere, but am aware too that to be accurate about the women who lived in the period I write about and the many facts concerning The Norman Conquest and its aftermath, one needs to understand provenance. Who wrote the source and why? Primary sources can give the writer a strong sense of that past, its atmosphere and preoccupations. I think for my current writing period the 11th C, it is important to understand religion and politics of that era. Women were the footnotes of this history but it is possible to research the society they lived in, its laws and its every-day life. I want to recreate that world, to know for example, little details that enliven it such as how they brushed their teeth. Then, I want to place my characters, real and invented personalities in that very strange world. But I want my characters to lead my plot. I do plan the narratives but the stories can change as I write. I am always aware that I am writing a story, not a history book. Story matters. As for accuracy where characters are concerned, we do not actually know, as a rule, what these long ago people really thought or what their conversations truly were. However we can invent in an informed way and bring them to life in a work of fiction. 

What inspired you to write The Swan-Daughter?

When I discovered that there was so much to the story of the noble women of 1066, especially the Godwin women, albeit snippets in sources, I was hooked. These noble women were strong personalities. The Handfasted Wife was influenced by The Bayeux Tapestry. The Swan-Daughter came about because, whilst researching The Handfasted Wife, I discovered the Anselm letters between Harold’s daughter Gunnhild and Archbishop Anselm, written circa 1090. In these the Archbishop tells Gunnhild that she had eloped from Wilton Abbey which was wrong in his eyes as she should have taken vows, though he appreciated there had been feeling between her and Count Alan. ‘Feeling’. Amazing that this is said in an era of dutiful arranged marriage and said in a letter by a Norman Archbishop! The letter states that that since Count Alan has died it is a further wrong that Gunnhild has taken up with his brother and that no good would come of this. The Archbishop begs her to return to Wilton Abbey. I used the historical background of castle building and land grab for the fictional story and as I was fascinated by emergent Anglo-Norman romance I worked Tristram and Iseult into the love triangle aspect of it. Really, this novel is a mix of invention and fact. Above all, The Swan-Daughter is a story of two people ill-suited to each other and what happens next, particularly as Gunnhild was officially confined by the societal dictates of her time.

What do you consider the secret of writing successful historical fiction?  

Invent characters whose journey a reader wants to follow and more than this, wants to inhabit for the duration of the journey. Recognise what it is to be human. Recognise the limitations facing a character when he/she breaks the rules of the time they inhabit. Research well but bury that research in the story. Think about a story’s theme and incorporate delicious little details into the world of that story so that the reader is hoodwinked into entering a past world and, importantly, is hoodwinked into believing in it. Above all, remember that we are writing fiction and telling stories. We are not writing history books.


Many thanks to Unusual Historicals for hosting me today. Comment. There is a copy of The Swan-Daughter available internationally for a lucky reader. 
***
The Swan-Daughter by Carol McGrath published by Accent Press 11th December 2014

The Swan-Daughter is available from all good bookshops and on amazon.co.uk and amazon .com and all e readers.

About the Author

Carol McGrath lives in Oxfordshire, England with her husband and family. She taught History until she undertook an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast, followed by an MPhil in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her debut novel, The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066 was shortlisted for the RoNAS, 2014 in the historical category. The Swan-Daughter is second in the trilogy and published in 2014. It is also a stand- alone novel. The third, The Betrothed Sister, set in the medieval Ukraine and Denmark, and about Harold’s elder daughter will be published in 2015. Carol can often be discovered in Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library where she undertakes meticulous research for her novels. Find Carol on her website:



12 March 2015

Excerpt Thursday: THE SWAN-DAUGHTER by Carol McGrath

This week, we're welcoming author Carol McGrath, whose latest title is THE SWAN-DAUGHTER, book #2 of The Daughters of Hastings trilogyJoin us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of The Swan-Daughter - this giveaway is open worldwideBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb. 

It is 1075 and Dowager Queen Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor has died. Her niece Gunnhild, longs to leave Wilton Abbey where she had been a guest since 1066. Is her suitor Alan of Richmond, Breton knight and cousin to King William interested in her inheritance as the daughter of King Harold and Edith Swan-Neck or does he love her for herself? And is her love for Count Alan an enduring love or has she made a mistake. Then there is Count Alan’s younger brother! The Swan-Daughter is a true eleventh century tale of elopement and a love triangle.

Praise for The Swan-Daughter

‘A wise and lyrical evocation of the lives of women in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and high romance in the true sense of the word. A captivating read.’ Sarah Bower , best- selling author, Needle in the Blood.

‘She [Carol McGrath] brings the 11th century alive, packing in a wealth of well-researched detail. Her style is easy to read and her Gunnhild is a rounded and sympathetic character.’ The Historical Novels Review, February 2015.

** An Excerpt from The Swan-Daughter, Chapter One**

It had been so easy to take it. 
            As Wilton Abbey’s bell tolled for her dead aunt’s midnight vigil, everyone- priests, nuns, novices, postulants and girls- passed through the archway into the chill of St Edith’s chapel. Gunnhild hovered near the back of the gathering. When the nuns’ choir began to sing the first plainsong, she lifted a candle from a niche close to the doorway, cupped her free hand around it and slipped out into the cloisters. She hurried along a pathway through overhanging shadows until she reached her aunt’s apartment, rooms that were set away from the main abbey buildings. Pushing open the doors she crept into the reception hall, crossed her aunt’s, the dead queen’s antechamber, the great bed-chamber and finally into Aunt Edith’s vast wardrobe. I must find it because when I do I shall have a suitable garment to wear when I leave this place. I must take it before it is given to that dwarf, Queen Matilda.
She set her candle in an empty holder on a side table a little distance from the hanging fabrics and stepped into the space between wooden clothing poles. Frantically, her fingers began fumbling amongst Aunt Edith’s garments.  Which one was it? No, not those woollen gowns, nor the old linen ones either. No, look again.
Gunnhild moved along a rail by the wall fingering linens and silks until finally she found what she sought at the very end. She reached out and touched the overgown, pulled it down and took it out into the candlelight. Its hem was embellished with embroidered flowers- heartsease or pansies- in shades of purples and blues with centres of glistening pearls. Her aunt had worn it when Gunnhild had first travelled to be with her in Winchester for the Pentecost feast of 1066, just after Aunt Edith’s husband, King Edward, had died and Gunnhild’s father was crowned king. She had remarked then to Aunt Edith that heartsease was her favourite flower and Aunt Edith had lifted her hand, smoothed it along the silk and said, ‘One day, this dress will belong to you.’
***
The Swan-Daughter by Carol McGrath published by Accent Press 11th December 2014

The Swan-Daughter is available from all good bookshops and on amazon.co.uk and amazon .com and all e readers.

About the Author

Carol McGrath lives in Oxfordshire, England with her husband and family. She taught History until she undertook an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast, followed by an MPhil in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her debut novel, The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066 was shortlisted for the RoNAS, 2014 in the historical category. The Swan-Daughter is second in the trilogy and published in 2014. It is also a stand- alone novel. The third, The Betrothed Sister, set in the medieval Ukraine and Denmark, and about Harold’s elder daughter will be published in 2015. Carol can often be discovered in Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library where she undertakes meticulous research for her novels. Find Carol on her website:



11 March 2015

A Miracle Close to Home: Chincoya, 1264

The restored castle at Almodóvar del Río looks the way Chincoya might have in 1264.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
Spain’s thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa Maria are a treasure of medieval culture. Many of their stories recount events that had just happened in familiar places. This is especially the case for the songs that take place in Andalucía.

Cantiga 185 begins, “I heard a miracle that took place a while ago, over in Chincoya.” This may be the first time the event was written about. Such immediacy gives the song a partiality and emotional weightiness the miracles about far-off lands lack. Any thirteenth-century Spanish listener would have understood the implications inherent in the reference to Chincoya, in modern Jaén, at the border of what was at the time the Muslim kingdom of Granada.

Both Chincoya and its corresponding castle on the Muslim side, Belmez, would have been responsible for maintaining security in a sensitive border region. The story focuses on the castles’ two alcaides, castellans appointed personally by their respective kings for upkeep, defense, and general administration. The Christian alcaide of Chincoya has been identified in real life as a man named Sancho Martínez de Jódar.

Sancho’s fictional double has a character flaw in spite of his best intentions: “the alcaide there protected it well, but he lacked the good sense to protect it completely” (lines 11-12). The concept of good sense recurs in the Cantigas time and again as the most important virtue. Sancho’s sin would seem innocent enough: “He had a great friendship with a Moor who was the alcaide of Belmez” (15-16a). Making friends with other castellans in the region could even be a good strategy, but this alcaide’s location across the enemy border makes it a bad idea.

From Cantiga 187 (185) of the Códice rico 
The alcaide of Belmez conspires with the King of Granada, Ibn al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty, and a vassal of Castile since the time of Fernando III in 1246. The Moor explains to his king that he can deliver Chincoya Castle to Granada by using the alcaide’s trust to lure him out and capture him. Sancho, unsuspecting, goes out to meet his friend, bringing two squires with him. The stage has now been set to show the gap between proper conduct and the irresponsible behavior of the alcaide of Chincoya.

The squires say they are afraid of the alcaide of Belmez and offer reasonable arguments against going to meet him: Unarmed and not dressed for self-defense, Sancho has failed to take even the minimal precautions. Because we have seen the alcaide of Belmez plotting to betray Sancho’s friendship, we are obliged to believe the squires in this instance. When the squires turn back to their castle, they not only do what is right, but also show themselves to be more sensible than their alcaide, who displays his stubborn intentions by proceeding to contravene a law in which anyone who has charge of a castle specifically on the border may not leave it without the king’s mandate. In line 51, Sancho crosses a river, which is presumably the border into Granada.

The alcaide of Belmez wastes no more time duping his supposed friend, and captures the Christian alcaide. Under threat of beheading, Sancho informs his captors that only fifteen Christians defend his castle, and that they have nothing to eat. Sancho then returns to Chincoya to ask the Christians to hand it over to the Muslims. This is the last time we hear anything about the alcaide of Chincoya. Because the second stanza indicates that he almost lost the castle, and the laws only indicate punishments for such behavior when the castle is lost to the enemy, we may guess that he assumes guardianship again after this incident. However, ignoring the man who is supposed to be in charge of the castle, especially during its victorious moments, is a serious criticism of his actions, not unlike the kind of insults so frequent in the cantigas de escarnno y de maldizer. His conduct throughout the cantiga is in direct opposition to the fearlessness recommended in the law books of the time.

A more appropriate response comes from those inside the castle. In spite of what would appear to be the hopelessness of their situation, they heroically refuse to give up on their duty to keep King Alfonso’s castle safe from invasion. They comply with the heroism legally suggested for the people who might find themselves inside a besieged castle.

When the alcaide is threatened by the King of Granada, he folds immediately and betrays Chincoya. Similarly defenseless against the King of Granada, the men inside the castle show what separates them from their incompetent leader by thinking of the Virgin Mary as protector rather than giving in to fear. They place a statue of Our Lady, which in the miniatures appears as a majestic enthroned Virgin and Child, on the outside walls and bargain with her, remind her that she, too, is under threat, and reiterate their devotion (“somos teus,” line 76).

Instantly, they see results. The host turns back, and the three Moors who get through are thrown over the castle walls, merely to make the King of Granada see that he should retreat because he knows that those protected by St. Mary cannot be defeated.

Defending Chincoya in the Códice rico 
Such a swift turn of events in such hopeless circumstances, directly after the people inside the castle enlist Mary’s help, clearly indicates the intervention of the Blessed Virgin in their favor. If the castellan of Chincoya had asked for her help, he might well have received it, but he lacked the good sense. Throughout the song, the unthinking alcaide, who trusts an enemy and abandons the castle to its fate, contrasts sharply with those of good sense, who stay to defend their king’s castle and who place their faith in St. Mary, the only being who is truly worthy of it.

Although it would be impossible to legislate faithfulness in the hearts of his soldiers, King Alfonso praises it as a common trait of the people of his kingdom and offers it as the best example of his soldiers’ potential. All of the laws concerning his citizens’ duties toward their king’s fortifications amount to suggestions for achieving this state of ultimate loyalty. A dependable armed force is the only one of real use to a king. The alcaide of Chincoya in 185 is an anti-example.

Chincoya Castle today. Photo from applicajaen.com 
The ending functions as a moral to the story, poising itself purposefully as the concept anyone listening should take away: It is right to praise Mary; she takes care of her own (and it is only too clear who they are in Cantiga 185); and her enemies will always be defeated. These are useful lessons for anyone, and perhaps especially for military men who find themselves in similar situations.

It is spectacular that only fifteen men without provisions successfully defend themselves against an army, but not completely incredible, because well-staffed castles turned back armies on a regular basis. By never straying far from everyday, almost prosaic, events that really occurred, such miracles invite the devotion of even the most skeptical. Here, the audience is absorbed in the story because its location is readily identifiable by the listeners and features situations someone they know will probably encounter in their lives. It is easy to look up to the defenders of Chincoya, close in space and time to the potential audience, and to identify their behavior as an ideal model.

Listen to a great recording of Cantiga 185. 
Learn more about the Cantigas de Santa Maria
I’ve written about the legal implications of the alcaide’s actions in Law and Order in Medieval SpainI’m also working on a short story based on the incident in Cantiga 185—stay tuned for more Cantigas stories!

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is currently a bilingual copyeditor. Find out more about her historical novel, Seven Noble Knightshere, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!


Selected Resources
Alfonso X, el Sabio. Cantigas de Santa María. 3 vols. Walter Mettmann, ed. Madrid: Clásicos Castalia, 1986-1989.
—. Cantigas de Santa María: Edición facsímil del códice T.I.1 de la Biblioteca de San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial, siglo XIII. Madrid: Edilán, 1979.
—. Las Siete Partidas del Rey don Alfonso el Sabio cotejadas con varios códices antiguos por la Real Academia de la Historia y glosadas por el lic. Gregorio López. Nueva edición. 3 volumes. París: Librería de Rosa y Bouret, 1861.
Montoya Martínez, Jesús. Historia y anécdotas de Andalucía en las Cantigas de Santa María de Alfonso X. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1988.
O’Callaghan, Joseph F. Alfonso X and the Cantigas de Santa Maria: A Poetic Biography. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

Paredes Núñez, Juan. La guerra de Granada en las Cantigas de Alfonso X el Sabio. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1991.