17 August 2014

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Louise Turner on FIRE & SWORD

This week, we're pleased to welcome author LOUISE TURNER with her latest novel, FIRE & SWORD. The author will offer a free copy of Fire & Sword in ebook format from Amazon to a lucky blog visitor.  Be 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.

On the 11th June in 1488, two armies meet in battle at Sauchieburn, near Stirling. One fights for King James the Third of Scotland, the other is loyal to his eldest son, Prince James, Duke of Rothesay.

Soon, James the Third is dead, murdered as he flees the field. His army is routed. Among the dead is Sir Thomas Sempill of Ellestoun, Sheriff of Renfrew, whose son and heir, John, escapes with his life.

Once John’s career as knight and courtier seemed assured. But with the death of his king, his situation is fragile. He’s the only surviving son of the Sempill line and he’s unmarried. If he hopes to survive, John must try and win favour with the new king.

And deal with the ruthless and powerful Lord Montgomerie...

**Q&A with Louise Turner**

There are numerous historical novels set in Scotland – so what makes Fire and Sword an ‘unusual historical’?

Scotland’s varied history has long been a source of inspiration for writers – in fact, if it wasn’t for Sir Walter Scott and his much-loved ‘Waverley’ novels, historical fiction might never have achieved the popularity it has today.   

But when you think about it, the range of subject matter to be found in Scottish-based historical fiction is often quite restricted.  Readers can choose between the Wars of Independence (with stories invariably featuring Bruce or Wallace), the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, or the Jacobites.  It’s unusual to find anything else, though just recently the post-Flodden period (1513 onwards) has begun to receive the attention it so richly deserves.

Fire and Sword bucks the trend because it doesn’t fall into any of these settings.  Its events unfold during the late 1480s: we’re all familiar with the turmoil in England at this time as the War of the Roses built up to a climax, but in Scotland this period is often ignored.  Occupying an awkward hiatus between the Wars of Independence and the Reformation, it has been neglected by both novelists and historians: in fact, renowned historian Jenny Wormald once described it as ‘the bread-and-butter period between two layers of jam.’*  Wormald herself considered this assumption to be unfair, and certainly, when I was researching the novel, I found the history of this time anything but dull and static. 

* Wormald, J, 1981. Court, Kirk and Community: Scotland 1470-1625 (Edinburgh University Press), p. 3

So tell me more about the history behind the story

The key event which inspired Fire and Sword was the Battle of Sauchieburn (originally known as the ‘Second Battle of Bannockburn’) which took place on the 11th of June 1488.  It ended with the murder of Scotland’s reigning monarch, James III, by men loyal to his son. James’s heir then succeeded to the throne, ultimately becoming Scotland’s well-known Renaissance king James IV.

The period of transition which marked the beginning of James IV's reign was certainly not a comfortable one, with a great deal of unrest and tit-for-tat retaliation taking place over the winter of 1488 and onwards into 1489.  These unsettled times provide the backdrop to Fire and Sword, the novel itself examining the implications this regime change had for a member of the minor gentry who had the misfortune to be fighting for the losing side.

And the story itself?

Based on real characters and real historical events, it follows the changing fortunes of a young man named John Sempill of Ellestoun.  When John’s father dies defending King James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn, his heir’s future as Laird of Ellestoun and Sheriff of Renfrew is thrown into doubt.  John finds his lands and titles coveted by others, men who have thrown their lot in with the winning side and who are taking every opportunity they can to move against him. 

Unmarried, with no son to carry on his line, John’s situation is precarious.  If he’s to prosper, he must find an ally amongst the new government, but the only man who appears willing to help him is Hugh, Lord Montgomerie, a local magnate who’s earned a dubious reputation for violence and treachery.  Accepting any kind of assistance from Montgomerie is hardly a risk-free strategy: Montgomerie is himself embroiled in a feud with the Cunninghame family which threatens to escalate and engulf the whole of the Westland in violence.  Caught between these two warring households, John must somehow renegotiate his way into the new King’s favour, without getting caught up in Montgomerie’s feud.

What inspired you to write it?

I was inspired by the landscape and history of the area where I live in the West of Scotland.  John Sempill left us a marvellous architectural legacy in the form of the Collegiate Church of Castle Semple – you can still visit the ruins near my home.  When I started to research the history of the church, I stumbled across a reference to Sempill in one of the local historical accounts.  Only a couple of sentences were devoted to him, but they intrigued me.  They related how his father died defending the king at Sauchieburn, and yet a year later Sempill was made 1st Lord Sempill. 

This rapid transformation of fortunes seemed quite extraordinary, given that Sempill seems to have made a deliberate choice to opt for peace in a time when feuding and conflict was considered the norm. Writing a novel seemed like an ideal way to explore how this situation could have come about, and in the end it allowed me to travel to places where historians could not possibly tread without venturing too far beyond the bounds set by the available historical evidence.

How did you go about transforming fact into fiction?

It was an exhaustive process.  First of all, I looked in detail at the local historical accounts and mapped out the genealogies of the significant families:  to begin with this was quite a tedious exercise, because the local sources are full of fairly banal stuff like ‘such and such was at feud with someone or other’, leaving readers with the impression that late 15th century Scotland was full of tetchy barons falling out over nothing and perpetuating feuds which originated from nowhere.

It was only when I started to consider the local picture in its wider political context that things really became interesting.  The feuds that seemed so meaningless often had their roots in political grievances, real and imagined.  As I pieced together the facts, I discovered that events which happened here in Renfrewshire were key to the success of James IV’s reign.  The real John Sempill and Hugh Montgomerie had together played a fundamental role in these events, the story I’d unearthed much more complex than I’d ever anticipated.  In the end, what started out as a fictionalized biography of the life of John, 1st Lord Sempill turned into an exploration of how events unfolded over a mere eighteen months of this life. 

What do you find particularly interesting about this period in history?

It was clearly a time of transition.  The end of chivalry – if indeed, it ever existed – had come, while at the same time the whole chivalric code was being mythologised by career knights and nobles who knew that their time was coming to an end.  Progress at court by this time was as much dictated by political acumen and legal dexterity as it was by force of arms. 

Medieval self-loathing was also giving way to a more relaxed, humanist attitude, thanks to the growing popularity of Classical thinking, with transformative forces at work throughout all aspects of society.  The middle classes were becoming increasingly powerful through the growth of the burghs, artillery was changing warfare, and I haven’t even gone into the changes in religion which were to become ever more prevalent as the 15th century marched into the 16th!

 I find this an immensely invigorating and dynamic period of Scottish history: it’s a time when the country was beginning to flex its muscles and making efforts to make its presence felt on the European stage, thanks mainly to the energetic and charismatic leadership of James IV.  The great tragedy is that this period of self-confidence was brought to an abrupt and catastrophic halt with the death of James and much of the ruling class at Flodden in September 1513.

Sounds like this is mainly a novel about politics – is there a love interest?

I’d like to think that Fire and Sword is a novel about life, and about trying to make ends meet during very difficult circumstances.  Marriage and the continuation of the line is a fundamental part of the late medieval world, so yes, there, is a love interest, but the relationship between John and his new wife is a far from straightforward one!  I wanted to explore what could happen when wider issues impacted on the personal level.  John’s been betrothed in his youth to a young woman whose parents support the winning side.  In the aftermath of the battle, her family are reluctant to release their daughter to someone they perceive as a failure, but eventually, politics make the marriage a necessity.

I wanted to explore how a woman trapped in this kind of situation could make her displeasure felt and understood, and I also wanted to find out whether it was possible for two individuals brought together in such trying circumstances to eventually settle their differences and work together as a team.  Very little is known about the real Margaret Colville: to try and recreate her story, I had to rely very much on analogy and research into the lives of those real medieval women who have, thankfully, left their mark on the historical record.

You’ve used real historical personalities and real historical events – how much of the story actually happened?

I’d say the novel’s about 20% fact, 30% educated conjecture, and 50% fiction.  When I first embark on writing a historical novel, my initial task is to create a fixed framework of events which can then be used to establish the backbone of the plot.  Once this is done, I use the historical sources as inventively as I can to recreate what might have been going on in the background.  I’m quite fortunate (if that’s the right way of putting it!) because for this period of history, there are great big gaps in the evidence.  That’s where the creative aspect becomes vitally important, and this of course is the same territory where any respectable historian is afraid to tread.

Have you any future works in the pipeline?

The sequel to Fire and Sword was completed earlier this year, and will hopefully be submitted to the publisher in the near future.  Called The Gryphon at Bay, it turns the spotlight away from John Sempill of Ellestoun and on to Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie, charting his very spectacular fall from grace when he abuses his privileges and kills one Cunninghame too many.

There will be more books in the series, but for the moment I’m taking a sabbatical from late 15th century Scotland.  My current project marks a radical departure from the standard historical novel: it’s a time-slip novel set partly in modern England and Wales and partly in Ancient Sparta, and it follows the trials and tribulations of a young man from Sparta who finds himself trafficked into the modern world and must learn how to survive here.  It’s an exciting project which is far from straightforward to write, because there are two separate plot strands detailing events occurring in two different timelines 2500 years apart.  It may end up as two novels, it may end up in some other format entirely – who knows!  All I can say right now is that I’m having great fun working on it.

Learn more about author Louise Turner
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