24 December 2015

E-Book Marketing Doldrums - Update

Now I know why mainstream publishers launch for Christmas during early November.

Scent of the Böggel-Mann, my latest Chiller short, launched 4th December - mostly to rapturous silence. My fans bought, certainly, but only in the last week have reviews started to appear: 5 star, which is gratifying. The problem is, for buyers, for my own marketing, this month we have all been frantically readying for Christmas. As I said, this is why mainstream publishers launch during early November. I have taken note.

With the malt cracked and the red cabbage simmering, I shall wish one and all a very merry Festive Season - no matter what your festive season is.

5 December 2015

Launching: Scent of the Böggel-Mann

Is the heating on? Are you cosy? Good - you're going to need to be.

Scent of the Böggel-Mann is a supernatural short-read determined to prompt the shudders.

Elaine haunts auctions held in crumbling country mansions, dreaming of a find that will make her and Gary rich. A plain wooden shipping trunk has no key to its iron-banded locks but is far heavier than it should be. What might it contain? Bricks laughs a suave competitor. A body retorts Elaine.

Both are wrong. Both are right. Beware the Böggel-Mann. 

Kindle ¦ Kobo ¦ iBooks ¦ Nook ¦ Smashwords all formats

Enjoy the read.

Update for those following my previous E-Book Marketing Doldrums? posts:
  • two days ago (late, I admit) my newsletter went out with advance notice, buying links, and additional info.
  • yesterday (launch day) I hit Facebook and Twitter and shall continue to do so across this weekend.

29 November 2015

E-Book Marketing Doldrums? 2: Using Twitter

Twitter doesn’t sell books. Well, in the week since I’ve started this marketing upgrade it’s sold two of mine I wasn’t expecting and, more to the point, has added three people to my Newsletter list – this in the face of the previous eight months’ desert. Twitter can help build your platform. This is my ongoing goal.

I’d better mention that I don’t own a smartphone and haven’t come to grips with my Hudl tablet, so on-the-hoof interacting via social media of any description is anathema to me. I work on my laptop and the distraction of social media streams flitting past my eyes or pinging in my ears is beyond the pale. This means that scheduling is required, manual and automatic.

Twitter itself lives in the moment; applications such as Tweetdeck and Hootsuite enable scheduling, and also ‘quoting’ which allows more than the bog-standard 140 characters. Whereas it used to be a text-only medium, it is now, as are all social media streams, image heavy.

I use Hootsuite, mainly because it was the first application I tried many moons ago. However, until this week I’d not taken the time (a morning) to learn how to use it properly (‘quoting’) or to discover via Googling the problem why my images only showed up as a link (change Hootsuite’s preference from ‘ow.ly’ to ‘pic.Twitter.com’). 

A first try. I'll sort the text, honest.
Most of my images are, naturally, portrait-shaped book covers, whereas Twitter arranges images as a landscape at a 2:1 ratio (1024pixels x 512px optimum) and cuts oddly those not adhering to this ratio. By viewing the Home feed I’ve found that other authors tackle this by creating suitably shaped billboards which can take a variety of interchangeable text. This is now an ongoing project for all my titles.

An adjusted Facebook header, so not quite 2:1. Needs work.

Of course, even clueless me realises that a deluge of book promotions will endear me to no one. Tweets should engage, inform and entertain with advertising one’s wares way behind. For me, this is where automated scheduling comes into its own. Hootsuite offers a dashboard of streams populated with Tweeters of my choosing.

Some time ago I set up a stream to include writers I know. This has been expanded to include people and organisations who Tweet information complementing the subjects and locales used in my novels, from @Medievalists and @BLMedieval - British Library Medieval Manuscripts (Hostage of the Heart), @Roman_Britain (The Bull At The Gate) to @NorthYorkMoors (Torc of Moonlight). Each evening I go through this handy stream and schedule RTs (reTweets) scattered across the following day.

Twitter itself offers a list facility, and I use private lists for authors grouped by genre as this is how I started, pre-Hootsuite. Any RTing has to be done manually, so I might check a list as I close for lunch and RT a couple of Tweets that draw my eye. If I RT’d ten my feed would look as if a bot was operating it, which is how I would be acting.

I also have posts from a few blogs coming direct to my Inbox, notably English Historical Fiction Authors whose posts could grace many an academic forum. Those within my time periods, or those I just find fascinating, I jump back to the blog and Tweet from the base of the post.

This is the time to ‘Like’ Tweets in which I’ve been ‘Mentioned’. People who take the time to RT my Tweets I Like and/or thank. A bit of appreciation goes a long way. Often I RT one of their Tweets as a thank you. However, I find it surprising how often a Tweeter does not use a Pinned Tweet, basically a flag indicating which of their Tweets they would appreciate being RT’d. Make it easy and keep it changing. I’m not going to RT a Tweet that has been sitting at the top of a stream for four months. As soon as this post is uploaded a Tweet to it will replace the Pinned Tweet from the first post in this series. Find it at https://twitter.com/LindaAcaster

As to promoting my own titles, for ease of counting characters I dedicate a Word.doc to hold previously used Tweets. I’ll copy & paste a couple into the scheduled mix ensuring the timing is right for the title. For instance, Beneath The Shining Mountains has sold reasonably well in the USA but hardly made a mark in the UK, therefore there isn’t much point Tweeting the title at 8am GMT; the USA is 5-8 hours behind London time. Anyway, who buys books straight after breakfast?

I use #hashtags, not very well I have to admit. During the week I came upon #CleanRomance (and later #CR4U) and I am certain that one attached to a Tweet for Hostage of the Heart sold me a copy in the USA. The novel is what I term a ‘sweet romance’ but there is no hashtag for that description.

I'm finding that Twitter need not be a distraction, it can be tamed and become a useful tool. I treat people as I want to be treated and my Follower numbers are steadily increasing. None of this is a one-week job. To think of it in fiction-writing terms, it’s a sub-plot that reflects and bolsters the main storyline.

Three links I found particularly useful this week:
http://louisem.com/50053/how-to-make-blog-graphics + resources list
It does what it says in its title.
A comprehensive infographic and list of Twitter hashtags.

Ongoing: study hashtag use in other people’s Twitter streams [obvious - doh!] and check who uses them. Would these people be good to Follow?

Launch Update: On Friday I announced on Facebook a tease, ie no title or cover image:
     “A week today I'm launching a new Supernatural Short for the dark nights of winter - the type of story where the sucking of the wind could be a disembodied voice, twigs scratch at the window, and doors creak where they've never creaked before. This story stars a shed.
     I'd like to say it is a paranormal, but unfortunately that word has become a euphemism for... obviously I'm writing in the wrong genre :-) ”

My Facebook account is linked to Twitter, so it was Tweeted automatically, though obviously not in that depth.

Finally, in this blogpost I’ve gone into more detail than I intended because I was contacted during the week by a writer who found the Make a Plan post useful. If you’ve found this one useful, please Tweet it – LOL! Thanks.

22 November 2015

E-Book Marketing Doldrums? 1: Make a Plan

I look at my web presence, and particularly my e-book sales, and I cringe. But it can happen to us all – life overwhelm, health issues, burnout – for whatever reason, we blink and our business enterprise falters. Or in my case falls off a cliff.

This summer I had routine, if major, surgery. I thought I’d planned my writing life reasonably well around it. Alas, the rehabilitation has extended far beyond what I expected. Moreover, it is liable to impact my life until the New Year. If you are one of my readers awaiting Pilgrims of the Pool, the final novel in the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, I can only apologise for its delay. Life happens.

However, I do have a short Supernatural Suspense ready to upload. And this leaves me in a quandary. To do so at the moment would be to upload the title into a vacuum. Linda who? Not only will it need to be promoted, but a signposted path needs to be cleared to ease its launch, and that means marketing both my name and my current titles so as to ring a few bells in the ears of prospective e-book buyers. How to go about this?

My initial step has been to take stock. I listed available titles, indicating which could be aligned to the Supernatural Suspense. I then listed all titles in development, where each stands in its schedule, and sub-headed the sequence necessary to bring each to fruition. It was a bit of an eye-opener, to put it mildly, but the sub-headed sequences will help to break projects into manageable chunks. At the very least it gives me something to tick as and when completed.

My second step has been to check my current marketing plan. Ah... not so much a marketing plan as a badly corroded colander. Time for a rethink.

Nearly all e-book marketing gurus and would-be gurus emphasise the need to identify a target market – difficult, as I don’t write in a single genre – and to make personal connections across the spectrum of social media in order to hand-sell titles. The main problem with this is that it takes time and an awful lot of energy. The secondary problem is that Christmas is rushing up at speed.

So where and how to expend my limited time and effort?

I’m sure manufacturers of cars or laundry detergent have dedicated teams to hand-sell their products to their target markets, but they also use passive marketing. You’ve never passed a billboard or read an advertisement on the side of a bus? It is derided as a scatter-gun approach, renowned for its hit & miss effect; mostly miss. But the odds can be altered a little by targeting where, for instance, the billboard is placed.

Back to taking stock, this time of where I have, or have had, a digital presence: this website, other blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Yahoogroups... and that will have to do for the amount of time available. I again sub-headed possible To Do strategies for each along the lines of research promotional pages and add myself in; be active & helpful on... A bit airy-fairy? Of course it is, but even an airy-fairy plan is a plan of sorts.

How long to run with this before uploading the Supernatural Suspense? Good question.

I offer my titles for all the main e-reader portals: Kindle, and Nook, Kobo and iBooks via Smashwords distribution. Therefore, despite Amazon being my most profitable portal, I have no titles in its KDP Select. I can, however, offer Pre-Order to all. I’ve done this once and it wasn’t particularly successful. This time around I doubt I have enough wiggle space: both Kindle and Smashwords require a minimum of 10 days Pre-Order, so on this occasion I am counting that one out.

To give the title its best chance on launch I’ll pick a Friday to go live ready for weekend e-book buyers, which means 27th November or 4th December. As I type I realise that 27th is Black Friday sales day on the internet, and even an idiot with hardly a plan (ie me) knows that any squeak I can make will be drowned before its first breath. On the other hand, launching 4th December means that the title will still be listed in Amazon’s Last 30 days New Releases across the Christmas and New Year period.

Decision: 4th December will be Launch Day.

So when will I start to put the new marketing plan into action? You’re reading this . If you’re interested in seeing what and how I do, I’ll be posting regularly about my forays into segments of social media, so do call back or ‘Follow By Email’ to have the posts drop into your Inbox.

If you have made it all the way to the end of this post, many thanks for hanging in there. Like me, I'm sure you're gagging for a coffee. I both appreciate your patience and promise that following posts won’t be as lengthy. Have you been in e-book sales doldrums? Are you in them now? What are you doing to counter it? Please share your experiences, good or bad. They will be most useful.

Finally, may I ask a favour? If you found the post useful, quirky, or just plain laughable, please consider giving it a Tweet, or copy & paste the following handy RT. Y’see, every little helps, and so does saying... Thanks!

RT @LindaAcaster #Ebook Marketing Doldrums? How to Plan for a Christmas Launch http://ow.ly/UW4n7 #indieauthor

27 September 2015

#BookReview - The Bull At The Gate

A short stint in hospital for orthopaedic surgery and an on-going long stint of re-hab has somewhat curbed my writing of late; certainly medication does little to enhance concentration even though I can now write quite lucidly about coming off two weeks' morphine derivatives 'cold turkey'. However, research experiences apart, I've not been keeping an eye on my own ball but enjoying an extended run of reading and reviewing other people's novellas and novels.

So it was a somewhat golden surprise to have Google Alerts flag my name and to find a brilliant review for Book 2 in the Torc of Moonlight trilogy from someone who knows both its setting, York, and its Roman history. In depth reviews such as this don't come very often, so readers of this blog will have to excuse me while I bask:

"Her reputation as prolific East Yorkshire writer put Linda Acaster’s ‘Bull at the Gate’ (2014) onto my own ‘must-read’ list a while ago now. Half-way point in her boldly-conceived ‘Torc of Moonlight’ trilogy, this book’s immediate appeal is its firm location within the English city of York (Roman ‘Eboracvm’) - why I started her cycle here. And if Acaster’s title puns lightly on the taurean emblem adopted by her location’s one-time garrison, the legendary Sixth Victorious Legion, she also hints strongly what crossings and contrasts might still exist today. ‘Gates’ between then and now; between a modern tourist honeypot and the foremost northern fortress of a long-gone empire. A city where life was short and the gods unpredictable; need appeasing with sacrifice – ancient rituals of Mithras and Luna with which her twin-tracked story starts, ordeals by fire and water.

"The highly-strung modern protagonist finding himself confronting such ethereal crossings is once again ‘Nick’ - now moved to York to attempt a fresh start. Traumatised by the watery end of a former girlfriend in the first book of this trilogy, and haunted by her still, his days are spent in low-grade clerical work, inputting archaeological data and draining the office coffee-machine. His nights are different by any standard - spent in fear, love and loathing; waiting with camera and tarpaulin for a warning water-sprite who appears like a cyclone out of the bed itself, in his riverside bedsit. Episodes amongst the most original, well-described, and astonishing in the book; although explaining the damp stains and damage from these night-time emanations to a twitching landlady, or the woman in the local launderette, soon become the least of Nick’s troubles; as yet another girl in the archaeology department goes missing and even the constabulary sit up and take notice…..

"Today’s York and the powerful Roman city which lies beneath are as much characters in the tale as Nick and his shape-shifting opponents; together enabling a journey of discovery that takes him street-by-street, building-by-building; hunting on instinct for water and tunnels. Gone in hot pursuit of two lost girls and the cold spirit which detains them, down there below the street-line on a mission into the past. If Acaster’s style is sometimes complex along the way, her concepts unusual (sometimes cryptic, demanding concentration) or else what (for me, personally) most resonated here were a heroine with auburn hair, echoes in modern coinage of a Roman ‘Britannia’, or vignettes set in the Yorkshire Museum; any other reader knowing the city of York as well will be equally drawn–in by that ongoing-sense of mystery which trails Nick’s ‘A-Z’ quest through the busy streets and pages of this book. Tantalising tale of the paranormal as much as historical novel, ‘Bull at the Gate’ is sure to immerse a wide tranche of readers, willing to retrace his watery footsteps on a thrilling journey I’d recommend to any of them."

For a writer, there's a time when reading becomes a displacement activity. It's time, methinks, to pull my finger out and get on with the final novel in the series, Pilgrims of the Pool!

21 September 2015

#History - Does It Matter?

Site of Beverley Gate - via Chris Coulson/Creative Commons
If your city had a historic site dating back to, and before, the English Civil War, would you be agreeable to having it filled with rubble and paved over? This is what is being contemplated in Hull, the city of my birth, a mere 20 miles from where I now reside. 

In 1642 Beverley Gate, in the then walled town of Kingston-upon-Hull, was closed to King Charles I by local dignitaries who refused him access to the city’s considerable arsenal. The action is seen as one of the catalysts starting the English Civil War – Parliamentarians (Roundheads) v Royalists (Cavaliers) – when, in a parody of Magna Carta some 400 years before, an attempt was made to curb what was seen as the excessive power of the King. For history buffs more information can be found HERE.

My point is, do you have to be a history buff to care?

As I type, the country is commemorating the 75th anniversary of ‘The Battle of Britain’ when in 1940 young pilots from various Allied countries fought in the skies over southern Britain desperate to halt Nazi Germany’s invasion of Europe continuing into the UK. Television channels are awash with programmes, bookshops with new titles, and newspapers with articles and interviews. There are fly-pasts by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and commemorative Services of Remembrance in major, and minor, churches being held up and down the land

And yet, also as I type, members of ISIL are systematically destroying ancient historical sites and artefacts in parts of the Middle East in an attempt to rewrite history and redesign culture in its own image. It’s not the first totalitarian movement to do so, of course, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Those who have followed this blog over recent weeks may recall my posts on the Neolithic sites of the Orkney Islands: the Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, and the surprisingly comfortable design of the houses of Skara Brae. All have benefited from advances in understanding of the period, but none of it would have been possible had they been flattened, filled in, or wiped from history.

During the late 1980s archaeologists uncovered the foundations of Beverley Gate for the city of Hull. If the city has so little care for its heritage that it in-fills the site, who will have the will, or the financial wherewithal, to re-uncover it for future generations? And what will be left to re-uncover?

Not everyone in the city is disparaging of its heritage. If you feel strongly enough to support them, consider signing its on-going petition:

What is surprising, considering its current stance, Hull does have an extremely good Heritage Trail Guide, which includes pictures of both the old Beverley Gate and the 1640 map of the walled town. It’s available as a pdf download HERE.
Walled Town of Hull - Beverley Gate is bottom centre with White Frier Gate leading up -
University of Toronto: Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection
[Wenceslaus (Václav) Hollar, 1607-1677, was a renowned Bohemian engraver, born in Prague, died in London]

27 August 2015

A Interview on 'Dreaming' via Cleve Sylcox

It's been a while since I gave an interview, and this week Cleve Sylcox has been good enough to offer me a couple of spots on his Dreaming site, an interview and a book promo

Cleve runs a very good Facebook Page Indie Sci-Fi & Fantasy Book Promotion and is a formidable author of poetry as well as SF, with the sort out output that makes me want to scuttle under a stone. Perhaps I should just be inspired.

Networking is one of the aspects of a writer's work, and it can pay all sorts of dividends. No sooner had a link to Cleve's interview gone up on his Facebook page, than I had a nudge from The Darker Side of Fiction about a book signing event to be held in Peterborough, UK, in October. 

And here am I, hobbling about on sticks one week out of major surgery. You couldn't make it up, could you? No, you couldn't. Read it properly, Linda. It's Peterborough 2017!!

26 August 2015

Research: The Faroe Islands - Mountains, Fjords & Vikings

Northwest of Scotland, halfway to Iceland, lie the Faroe Islands, the most northerly destination of our 'Northern Isles' trip. Whereas the landscape of the Orkney Isles undulates along the horizon, the Faroes sweep up from the Atlantic Ocean as if a verdant green beast. Natural harbours are at a premium.

Parliament Point - Tinganes - where the Norse held their first 'Thing'.
Eighteen islands make up the archipelago, with under half the country's population of 48,000 living in and around the bay of its capital, Tórshavn. The extensive modern harbour was busy with shipping when we berthed, not only cargo ships and fast inter-island ferries, but with six- and eight-oar rowing boats practising for the country's gala day. Rowing is the national sport, and the clinker-built boats are direct descendants of the Viking ships that brought the islands' influx of Norse colonists from the 9th century onwards.

Extensive, and still occupied, 'Old Tórshavn'
Protruding into the harbour is the Tinganes peninsular, the site of the Norse 'Thing' (various spellings) and it is still known as Parliament Point. It continued to be the centre for government and trade, and the current red-painted buildings with sod-roofs for insulation date from the 16th and 17th centuries. A suprising number of modern buildings use the same roofing material. I found the area very reminiscent of the Bryggen in Bergen, Norway.

It was the Norse connection I was particularly interested in. As can Icelanders, the Faroese can read medieval documents written in Old Norse, and each other's written language, though pronunciation has changed so much over the centuries that verbal communication can be more problematic. 

Turf covering the stone foundation walls of a Viking age house & byre

We took in an excursion to Kvivik where, in 1942, an excavation had revealed the foundations of a Norse dwelling 21 metres (69ft) in length with a 7 metre hearth, and its 12 stall byre.

I could understand why the place had been chosen by its Norse settlers. Faroe is made of basalt lava with no fresh water springs, and down from the heights a wide stream still runs beside the site. The shallow sandy beach just over the modern wall is ideal for pulling up ships, and thick pasture rises up the mountain behind the village in a gentle crescent, ideal for grazing stock animals and small-scale farming. Artefacts unearthed included loom weights and spindle whorls, fishing weights, and children's toys of horses and boats.

Our local guide, Regina, explained that the modern Faroese are renown for having 2.5 children, 3 sheep, 1 border collie dog, and a boat. Perhaps only the technology has changed.

Other posts in this series:
Orkney 1: Vast Skies & Standing Stones
Orkney 2: Skara Brae
Faroe Islands: Mountains, Fjords & Vikings

19 August 2015

Research: Orkney 2 - Neolithic Skara Brae

After leaving the Neolithic megaliths of the Stones of Stennes and the Ring of Brodgar - see HERE -  we drove a few miles up the road to face the Atlantic Ocean at Bay of Skaill, a wide expanse of silver sand between two headlands. Partway along, now protected from the eroding ocean and its storms by a retention wall, is the best preserved Stone Age village in northern Europe, Skara Brae.

Neolithic World Heritage site Skara Brae, Bay of Skaill, Orkney

Ten distinct buildings survive. Aerial photographs show a scree of debris reaching into the sea, so the village could have been larger. The buildings, constructed in three distinct phases over the 5-600 years of occupation, are of a similar layout and most a decent family size. Everything visible is constructed from stone, either collected cobbles or the local sandstone split to size, much as were the megaliths mentioned above.

A covered and paved passageway linked the partially subterranean buildings, and each has a doorway that could be barred from inside. Across the fire-pit/hearth stands a three-shelved 'dresser'. Around it are a pair of grinding stones, 'boxes' capable of storing live seafood in water, and a container for (probably) fresh water. Two stone-faced bedding units face each other. Most buildings also have an alcove, or a small ante-chamber built into one wall. 

Skara Brae was uncovered from the sand dunes in 1850 after a particularly fierce storm and over succeeding years was gradually dug out. At the time it was believed to be an Iron Age Pictish settlement circa 500BC, a view that remained well into the 20th century, despite the furnishings material and no sign of any iron-working. After all, regardless of the evidence of the megaliths not far away, Neolithic peoples couldn't possibly be this refined, could they?

Part of still-covered passageway connecting the houses
It wasn't until the early 1970s that modern archaeology and radiocarbon dating finally blew this tenacious theory into the ocean. Not only is Skara Brae 4,500-5,000 years old, that small ante-chamber in most of the buildings had a water-fed drain in its floor and is considered to be the earliest inside flushing toilet.

Artefacts discovered on site include jewellery and clothing pins, and an assortment of bone and stone items not easily recognised. Also found have been a lot of antler from Scandinavia, jet from the North Yorkshire coast of England, and amber from the Baltic region, as well as pottery with designs seen at the Newgrange Neolithic site in the Boyne Valley of Ireland. As our guide said: Think of the logistics, both in communication and transport - Wow!

Other posts in this Research series:
Orkney 2: Skara Brae
Faroe Islands: Mountains, Fjords & Vikings  

12 August 2015

Research: Orkney - Vast Skies & Standing Stones

Turning towards Kirkwall (courtesy Michael Clarke)
There's nothing quite like sighting skerries and ever-larger islands, and knowing that the wide bay of the capital, Kirkwall, will soon be opening before our ship's bows.

The 70-odd islands making up the Orkney archipelago off the north-east tip of Scotland are renowned for their green and gently rolling landscapes, lack of trees, and wind strong enough to knock you off your feet. So how did it become the centre of the western north-hemisphere during what is commonly referred to as the New Stone Age?

For its size, Orkney carries more prehistorical monuments than anywhere else in both Britain and Europe, and it's not just the well-known clusters: the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Mor Stein, Quoyness Cairn, Maeshowe; single monoliths stand sentinel on low rises almost on every side. It made me wonder what lies beneath the foundations of medieval Norse Kirkwall.

We were on a half-day excursion on Mainland so our choices were decided, but our garrulous and informative guide - joy! an archaeologist - kept up a stream of enlightening facts and up-to-date conjecture to give context to what we were seeing.

Stones of Stenness
The Stones of Stenness, located at the junction of lochs Harray and Stenness, was our first stop. It is considered to be the oldest henge site in the British Isles, pre-dating Stonehenge in Wiltshire. The stones come from different parts of the islands and are believed to have been brought to the site by separate social groups who built a fire-pit in its centre and feasted together. 

A single shorter stone used to stand to one side. Known locally as Odin's Stone, it was remarkable in having a natural hole through which lovers held hands to swear their devotion, until in 1814 the landowner, fed up of trespassers, destroyed it. Even his own father was appalled. Thankfully, over the centuries when the Picts, the Scots, and the Norse claimed the land as their own, such desecration has been rare, or limited to graffiti. See HERE for the runic inscriptions left inside the Maeshowe chambered cairn by sheltering Viking Norse.

Map from the information board at the Stones of Stenness

Half a skip away lies the Barnhouse settlement, Maeshowe, and what has developed into the most fascinating archaeological dig in the entire UK. On the Ness of Brodgar a supposed simple Neolithic settlement has turned into what is believed to be a temple complex where, among others, the lower walls of a single building 82ft x 65ft (25 x 20metres) have been uncovered. Follow this LINK for spectacular images and a continuing 'Dig Diary'. A timeline for the building of all these monuments can be found HERE.

A very small part of the Ring of Brodgar
Half a skip from those - yes, these sites are all within easy walking distance - is the Ring of Brodgar which I had particularly wanted to see. 27 slim standstone megaliths remain, reaching 7-15 feet into a bright sky with hardly a breath of wind to ruffle the heather growing across its 340ft diameter centre. 

I've seen images of the Ring on television and in magazines, and each time I gained the impression of a flat landscape, much as my own photograph displays. In fact, the site stretches up and across the side of  hill, the stones enclosed by, even now, a deep ditch.

We couldn't explore the Barnhouse settlement, Maeshowe, or the excavation continuing on the Ness of Brodgar. Our visit had been designed to be a taster, and it certainly whet our appetites to return. 

Besides, we were boarding our coach to what will be my next post, another World Heritage site: Skara Brae. 

Other posts in this Northern Isles series:

5 August 2015

Research: England - Gainsborough Old Hall

The UK is known for its elegant country houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many now belong to the nation with their upkeep entrusted to English Heritage or The National Trust. Often these houses were built around earlier properties which were all but obliterated on amalgamation, or the earlier properties were cleared before rebuilding began. Therefore, finding a true mediaeval house - as opposed to a stone-built castle - is often a matter of visiting sites such as the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum where rescued medieval houses, or at least their main timbers, are rebuilt and the dwelling refurbished. 

This makes Lincolnshire's Gainsborough Old Hall, built in the mid 15th century on the banks of the River Trent for ease of transport, one of the very few timber-framed buildings whose original hall stands more or less as it was constructed.

Gainsborough Old Hall, with its east & west ranges.

The great hall, looking towards the 'upper end'.
The hall itself retains its beautiful beamed roof, its height designed so that smoke from the central fire - sneaking into shot at the base of the photograph - would be lifted high enough from the household to not cause discomfort.

In particular notice the narrowness of the hall, echoed in the Tudor brick-faced range in the photograph above.

The photo of the great hall shows the 'upper end' where the lord, his family and closest retainers would have congregated. To the right is the family's buffet, on which the lord's wealth in silver or gold plate would have been displayed, complemented by the richly woven or embroidered wall hangings and canopy.

In 1483 King Richard III broke his journey from York to London at the hall. It seems that the lord, Thomas Burgh, soon afterwards neatly switched allegiance to the King's enemy, Henry Tudor, and so retained his hall and lands when the crown changed hands.

One of two kitchen fireplaces, each of a size to take a full ox.

Surprising though it might seem to readers, writers are more interested in how a premises worked on a daily basis, rather than the great and the good who resided there.

The kitchen would have been built close after, or at the same time as the hall, and has a similar roof height and span. Whereas the hall was never upgraded with a fireplace, the kitchen has two facing each other across the width of the building, one for roasting and the other for boiling, with working trestle-boards arranged between.
The servery from the kitchen side. Servers did not enter the kitchen.

This image shows the servery where prepared food would be left on a counter the width of the wall to be collected by servers - usually high-born young men residing in the lord's household to finish their education: martial, written,  languages and the social skills necessary for their position in society.

Not shown are small ante rooms each containing dry goods such as flour, a meat larder, and the Clerk to the Kitchen's office where highly-prized and very expensive spices and sugar was stored under lock & key.

Were strewn rushes actually strewn rush matting?
One concern for writers is the use of "strewn rushes" to create both warmth underfoot in winter and to soak up spills. As any re-enactor will complain, it is easy to catch a foot in lengths of strewn rushes and so trip, and as one woman remarked, to walk across a hall strewn with loose rushes is to arrive with a heavy ball of the things caught within the hem of a long dress. 

Modern thinking, gleaned from illustrations of the period, is that "rushes" might have been a mediaeval shortform for "rush matting". The curators of Gainsborough Old Hall go with this concept, and one area close to the kitchen has been laid with lengths of flattened and braided rushes sewn loosely together. It makes sense to me.

In this post I've concentrated on the oldest, single storey, buildings, but soon after they were completed it is believed that the two-storey east and west ranges were added, with Tudor brick fireplaces and chimneys to serve the rooms very soon after that. Towers were added - only one survives but gives great views of the Lincolnshire landscape from its roof - and even more of the great and the good deemed the house a worthy place to rest their heads, including in 1541 King Henry VIII who met with his Privy Council there.

English Heritage has done a great job of making the building and its history accessible, including audio recordings of actors enacting roles in various rooms. It's well worth a visit. And, of course, has a great teashop.

29 July 2015

Research: Norway 4 - Viking Ships Not From Norway

How could I write a series about Norway and not include something about Viking ships? In truth, I found Norway surprisingly quiet about its Old Norse past. Yes, the places we visited mentioned farming and shipping from what the rest of Europe calls the 'Viking era', but mentions seemed to be the sum total of it. Even Bergen, which houses the Maritime Museum, doesn't go, er... overboard.

So for this final post in the series I shall concentrate on two replica ships which have made their mark in different ways and in different areas. First up is Sea Stallion from Glendalough.

'Sea Stallion from Glendalough' overwintering in Collins Barracks, Dublin, 2008

Note rowing benches and shape of the oars
Back in 1962 several Viking era ships were excavated from a watery grave north of Roskilde in Denmark. One was found to be 96 feet in length - often referred to a 'dragon ship' - and believed to be a coastal-sailing prestige vessel incapable of enduring the rigours of the open sea. That misapprehension was sunk when dendrochronology proved it had been built around 1042 from Irish oak cut near Dublin. 

From what was left of the original, blueprints were produced and a reproduction constructed using as close to known methods as possible. In 2004 it was launched, and in 2007 it was sailed using known Viking routes via Norway and Scotland to overwinter in Dublin, before returning to Denmark via the English Channel the following year. I recall watching a BBC programme on the first voyage during some of the roughest summer weather on record, expecting its back to break in the heaving seas, but seeing it flex along its entire length between wave troughs. It weighs 8 tons, has a draft of 3 feet and 60 oars. For its full statistics click HERE.

Sea Stallion from Glendalough still sails. Check out its interactive July 2015 route HERE.

The second replica ship is the Islendingur (Icelander), a copy of the Gokstad ship dating from 890 excavated from a burial mound in Norway in 1882. The original (more or less) now resides in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

Islendingur was built in 1996, almost single-handedly by Gunnar Marel Eggertsson who had sailed the Norwegian Gokstad replica Gaia to Washington in 1991. It was intended as a teaching ship for Icelandic children, but with the millenium coming up it was decided to re-enact the voyage of Icelandic Sagas hero Leif Eriksson and sail from Iceland via the old Viking settlement in Greenland, to Vinland. This was achieved, with a crew of only 9 (plus a motor in case of problems) in 2000, with the ship landing at L'Anse au Meadows in Newfoundland, the single authenticated Viking settlement in North America.

The picture left gives some idea of its internal size. The diagonal beam is, in fact, its mast which fits into the 'foot' by the visitors. Note the loose-laid decking, unlike the integral seating for the Sea Stallion of Glendalough. 32 oarsmen would have crewed the original ship, sitting on their individual 'war chests'.

The ship is smaller (75 feet) and nearly half as wide again with a deeper draft, ideal for carrying provisions, including live animals. Its full statistics can be viewed by following the link below.

The ship now resides on permanent display at Vikingaheimar, the Viking World Museum specially built to house it at Reykjanesbaer on the Atlantic coast of Iceland, between Keflavik airport and the capital, Reykjavik.

To view the other posts in this series follow the links:
Norway 1: In the Wake of the Vikings
Norway 2: The Hopperstad Stave Church
Norway 3: Bergen & the Hanseatic League

22 July 2015

Research: Norway 3 - Bergen & the Hanseatic League

Our cruise ship wasn't all six course dinners and gentle strolls round the deck admiring the awesome scenery. Part of the on-board entertainment included lectures. Geoffrey Farrell, ex Oxbridge, was our affable and informative speaker, and it was in no small part due to one of his talks that when the ship berthed in Bergen more than a few passengers looked at the Bryggen with different eyes as they headed for the Hanseatic Museum.

'Bryggen' means wharf. Out of sight to the right is the quayside.

The Bryggen is now a UNESCO heritage site, but the gable-end warehouses have been through several rebuilds, mostly due to devastating fires, since organised trading was established in the 11th century.
Little wonder fires took their toll.
The area soon became known as the Tyskebryggen - the German Wharf - when guilds of foreign merchants, financially backed by their market towns, began to take over the buildings. Eventually they made Bergen their centre in Norway, a kontor of their Hansa. 

The Hanseatic League, as we know it, was a set of formidable trading alliances, with either kontors or agent-warehouses in most major ports around the Baltic and North Seas. There were several on the east coast of England.

I found it interesting to realise that Hull, the embarkation port of our cruise ship in the UK, had been, and is now for historical purposes, a Hanseatic Port. In the mediaeval period its main export was wool from the religious houses in the region, and then cloth. I can't help but feel that when the town gained its charter in 1299 to become King Edward I's Kingston-upon-Hull, it was with half an eye to a cut of the Hanseatic revenues it would bring to the crown.

Bergen's Hanseatic Museum at the end of the Bryggen has recreated a merchant's combined warehouse and rooms, which included living quarters for eight apprentices (both servants and the shifters), the journeyman (who kept them in order) and the merchant himself.

Life was spartan. We couldn't take photos in the museum, but follow this LINK for a view of the sleeping quarters for the apprentices - two to a bunk - the sliding doors used to keep the rats from cuddling up. The merchants also had Assembly Rooms which, alas, we couldn't visit, but the linked article makes "interesting" reading.

Detail of one of the older merchant warehouses. I'm sure the bin isn't original.

Past wooded islands carrying red-painted summerhouses, and rocky skerries carrying odd-shaped lighthouses, Bergen is a wonderful city to sail into and a fascinating place to visit - from its funicular railway carrying passengers up the mountain for fantastic views of the port, to the smell of the Fish Market on the quay, to a visit of Edvard Grieg's house.

But will I use the warehouses of the Bryggen in future fiction? Maybe not directly in their place or time period, but aspects of the buldings, the shadows cast in the alleys, the close proximity of the lapping water, and the incidence of destructive fires, will all now filter into my subconscious ready to be inked on the page. 

With thanks Cruise & Maritime Voyages for embarking from Hull, and to the crew and staff of the Azores for a splendid holiday. As the saying goes I'll be back! In a week we leave for Orkney and Faroe. Expect more research posts.

15 July 2015

Research: Norway 2 - Hopperstad Stave Church

While on the cruise of the Norwegian fjords we took a single excursion from Vik to Flam. There was no other way I'd be able to visit the Hopperstad Stavkyrkje. Believe me, photographs don't do it justice, especially ours.

Hopperstad Stave Church set on a hill overlooking Vik on the Sognefjord

It dates from the early 12th century, only around 140 years after Christianity had been accepted as the nation's religion - which in reality means that both Christianity and Paganism would have been followed, the Old Norse pantheon led by Allfather not having yet been consigned to folklore - hence the carved dragonheads acting as 'protection'.

Carved roof detail of the Hopperstad Stave Church

Inside, it was darker than I imagined, the roundel windows set in the upper roof the only source of light, and we had to allow a good amount of time for our sight to adjust. The camera made it, more or less.

Detail of the load-bearing staves

If this sort of construction was being used in the 1100s, it was a skill well honed over decades if not centuries, and I can well imagine the lofty halls of Jarls sharing the same basic structure. Very much a touch of The Lord of the Rings.

Intricate carving and canopy paintings

Few stave churches survive. Many were destroyed at the Church's direction to be replaced by a more acceptable 'reformist' type now seen throughout Norway. Hopperstad was saved because it was out of the way and, after plague severely reduced the local population, most people had moved down to Vik by the fjord. It was a forward thinking conservationist in the 1880s, Peter Blix, who became the power behind its restoration. More information can be found HERE.

In the area, but not on our itinerary, were the Hove Steinkyrkje, the first church in the region to be built of stone, which has a beautiful painted interior, and the Urnes Stavkyrkje which has UNESCO World Heritage status.

Other posts in the series:
Norway 1: In the Wake of the Vikings - landscapes of the fjords
Norway 3: Bergen and the Hanseatic League.
Norway 4: Viking Ships Not From Norway

9 July 2015

Research: In the Wake of the Vikings

What other way could I follow in the wake of a Viking longship except by cruising the Norwegian fjords? Ahem... well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

We were on a small ship of 550 passengers, a tad larger than the biggest dragon ships, granted, but its wraparound deck afforded fantastic views. And it was the views I'd gone for. I like to footfall the landscapes I'm intending to write about, and the majesty and drama of the fjords have to be experienced from the water.

This is an early morning glide along the Hardangerfjord heading towards Ulvik and Eidfjord. Even in June there was plenty of snow on the higher reaches, so in any fiction there'd be no moving grazing animals to higher pastures. The area is renown for its mild climate, its orchards growing 80% of Norway's fruit harvest. Mmm...

Atmosphere can be everything when writing fiction

The itinerary took us successively north, along the Sognefjord and into the Aurlandfjord, the Nordfjord and into glacier territory, and the Storfjord into the Sunnylvsfjord and the Geirangerfjord. Many of these are known to have been inhabited, if sparsely, long before the feared Norsemen launched their fabled ships.

Here we are heading inland along Gerangerfjord past the famous de Syv Sostre (the Seven Sisters), one of many sets of impressive waterfalls along the route: 

The "shrubs" are fully grown trees

We took one excursion off-ship, arcing across the high plateau from Vik in the Sognefjord to Flam in the Aurlandfjord. The scenery was breathtaking and alien to both the lush natural flora and the cultivated fruit farms by the fjords' edges. Cherries, anyone? Raspberries? Perhaps not here: 

Who would have expected bare-limbed deciduous trees on the banks of a still-frozen lake in June?

So what did I take from the landscape? The strata colours of the rocks; the warmth of the atmosphere despite the snow and ice; the noise and sheer volume of water in the falls creating rainbows in the sunshine; the surprising lack of a breeze; the even more surprising lack of birds in comparison to the UK. More than anything, the serenity. This, and more, is both noted and now filtering through my subconscious.

Other posts in this series:
Norway 2: Hopperstad Stave Church outside of Vik. Now I know where The Lord of the Rings drew its architecture.
Norway 3: Bergen's Bryggen and the Hanseatic Museum
Norway 4: Viking Ships Not From Norway - replicas that have sailed the seas.