26 May 2018

Research: Tomb Chests and Hanging Helms

Church of St Bartholomew, Aldbrough
The moral of this post is never underestimate a small medieval church in a small pre-Doomsday village.

My husband is adding to the genealogy of his family line and, in search of the later more law-abiding contingent, he is keen to visit churches in the locality during open days when parish records, often dating back to the 1700s or earlier, are available to view.

Just such took us to the village of Aldbrough, population currently about 1,000, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and into the 14th century church of St Bartholomew.

The church stands on a circular mound, thus immediately giving an inkling, not only of an earlier building or succession of buildings, but of a pre-Christian meeting place. I knew there was what some believe to be a Viking-age sundial, but I wasn't prepared to meet Sir John de Melsa, the "Giant of Bewick", who fought alongside Edward, the Black Prince, at the Battle of Crécy (Cressey) in 1346, part of the Hundred Years' War with France.

His effigy, in full armour including chain mail, measures six and a half feet in length. He would probably have been clutching a, if not his, sword down the length of his body. Alas, over the centuries he has also lost his feet, resting on the lion. Note the righthand pic which shows what is hanging above his chest tomb.

This is a copy of the bascinet upon which Sir John's effigy rests its head, except it's not quite. It is the copy of what was left of the original bascinet which hung above his tomb until in 1989 leave was granted by the Diocese of York for it to be sold to the Royal Armouries. It now resides in the Tower of London. Evidently these complete, or almost complete, effigies with a knight's accoutrements are extremely rare - as in there might only be one other in the country with a helm dating from the period.

It is surprising that it survived at all. The north aisle in which this monument stands, originally Saint Mary's Chapel, was used as a school in the early 19th century. According to the church's information leaflet the helm - the original helm - was used as a coal scuttle, doubtless by the same miscreants who carved their names in the lion, though they were hardly the first if that 1673, bottom right, is to be taken at face value.

Methinks I need to delve into the life and times of Sir John de Melsa, Governor of York 1292-96, and the Lords of Bewick. For a start, Melsa is Meaux situated between Aldbrough and Beverley, where a Cisterian abbey had been founded in 1151. So why did he direct that he should be buried in the small village church of Aldbrough? Is there ever enough hours in the day?

The same goes for the Viking-age "sundial" now incorporated into the wall of the south aisle, the image of which Blogger refuses to upload. I shall take that as a sign and give it a post of its own in the future.

Note: All images are copyright: (c) Linda Acaster 2018. Clicking on each will (should) provide a larger view.

19 May 2018

Early Summer eBook Promos #99p / #99c - Part 1

The sun is shining yellow, the apple blossom is tinting pink, and the first of the early summer ebook promotions are waving their flags on Kindle. Each listed carries one of my titles. Do you enjoy quizzes? Match the book to the promo!

First up is Magic Book Deals with the Romance Book Fair. From Regency to Contemporary, Fantasy to  PNR, there's even a boxed set! The titles are listed from chaste to steamy. Hover over a book cover and it will spin to its mini-blurb, which is a nice professional touch.

For a complete change of gear, if you use Facebook and live in the UK, you can enter a competition from Val Wood, bestselling author of Historical Sagas set in and around the East Riding of Yorkshire. Three lucky winners will gain a group of paperbacks from writers who live in and write about the region: Noir Crime, Chicklit, PI Crime, Fantasy Romance, and Val Wood's latest. No gold stars for realising which of my books is on offer. The competition is open until 12th June. Read all about it on her Facebook Page.

And another change of gear to Science Fiction and Fantasy hosted by renowned curator SFF Book Bonanza. From Space Opera to Steampunk, Epic Fantasy to Fables and Mythology, Young Adult and Humour - even a very good trilogy (I know, because I've read it!) there is at least one title to whet your appetite. Although the promo launches on the 21st, the titles are up and most of the prices have already fallen. Just check them before you hit buy.

Phew! If you can bear it, Part 2 will follow next week. Enjoy your reading!

12 May 2018

Marketing & Promotion: Facebook Author Page

Since Anita Chapman’s day course on Social Media For Writers, ruminations have been coalescing into the draft of some sort of plan. And then I was overtaken by events: namely an invitation to a joint promotion with a handful of other authors whose novels are set in the East Yorkshire area. Tailor-made, I thought, for Torc of Moonlight. The kicker was that I’d need a Facebook Author Page.

I’ve been on Facebook for years, but only with a personal profile on which I do not chat (usually) about breakfast cereal or the weather. How hard could it be to set up an Author Page? 

Author Page header: fb.me/LindaAcasterAuthor

Well, let me tell you, it’s not that easy. I found the instructions and set-up procedure highly counter-intuitive. But this is where Anita Chapman’s course notes came into their own. Who knew there was a tick box to ensure the page didn’t go live while half completed and looking like a shaggy five-legged camel? Why can’t I choose which buttons to have below the header? [Argh] What exactly do all those yes/no questions in Settings amount to? 

And why, oh why, isn't the header size requirements the same as for a profile page? However, the new requirement made me think about what I wanted in the smaller space. It doesn't show all my titles but too cluttered would look worse; I may even consider the design for a revamp of this website's header. Most important for the Facebook Author Page, would the header look decent on a tablet and a phone as well as a laptop? I use neither. Perhaps you can tell me:  http://fb.me/LindaAcasterAuthor

The page is still a work-in-progress, as these things usually are. Particularly, I want to decifer how to add my Newsletter sign-up and Goodreads links into the left menu. Goodreads says it can... and then it refuses to; you know how technology works. Or doesn’t. I can see an evening coming up spent on YouTube.

What am I going to use the Author Page for if I already use my personal profile as a quasi author page? Promotions and links to webposts to do with writing will definitely be moved across to it. Beyond that I’m not sure yet. I can see some duplication. There again, isn’t that technology all over.

5 May 2018

Research: Social Media for Writers

It's not just novels which need researching; so does back-end stuff like genre, publishers, agents, and... social media. Unless you're under twenty-five you weren't born with an inherent understanding of the technology. It has to be learned.

My usual route is Google > blogposts > ebooks > forums, because living out in the "northern" sticks might offer the luxury of dark skies and low traffic flow, but it also means face-to-face workshop  opportunities for writers are few and far between. Like non-existent.

That all changed when Anita Chapman from Neetsmarketing was persuaded up to sunny York to lead ten very willing participants through six intense hours of Social Media For Writers. Twitter (+ Tweetdeck / Hootsuite), FaceBook, Instagram and Blogging were covered in depth; Pinterest discussed.

So you know how to use these platforms? I thought I had a reasonable grasp, but it seems not so much. I made copious notes, tried various options on my laptop, and enthusiastically siezed handouts and worksheets. Anita is very open with her how-to and why-to information, and we each left with an A4 sheet of useful posts to read on her Neetsmarketing blog, the current handily being 11 Ways to Promote a Blog Post

Was it worth the day and the two hours each way travelling? Absolutely. It was akin to a sharp machete clearing a path through a jungle. More than that, it gave me the belief in myself that I could not only do this, but do it well. Now to put that into practice!

28 April 2018

Holding Out For A #Heroine

"That hurts"
I write novels about ordinary people; ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations leaving them fearing they can’t cope, but they do anyway because the alternative is too unpalatable to contemplate.

I don’t write about gung-ho macho men who can make world-changing decisions in an instant; I certainly don’t write about kick-ass women with a mouth full of sharp one-liners.

Who are these kick-ass women, anyway? Where are they from? They’re usually in the 18-25 age bracket. We’re talking millennials here, the snowflake generation who require universities to have “safe spaces” and who whine about gender inequality.

I’ve news. They’ve never had it so good. They should have been my contemporaries in the so-called “swinging” sixties. Heck, we both should have been around in the run up to World War One: poor food, looooong hours, no labour-saving devices, and the forbidding local workhouse standing as the only form of Welfare State on offer. Neither of us would have lasted five minutes.

Yet our female ancestors did, and they still found the time to lay the foundation of, alas, the whining society we have become. No wonder Historical Sagas, particularly those set in the beginning of the 20th century, continue to be read so widely. Forget Downton Abbey. Ordinary women in extraordinary situations determined to make a difference.

Those people still exist. Think of those who run foodbanks and soup kitchens, sit calmly on the end of Samaritan telephone lines, volunteers who help feed the incapacitated on our hospital wards – each has a story to tell but often merely offers a self-effacing smile.

The London Marathon event has just passed. So far over £45m has been raised on just the two major fund-raising platforms. One runner gave his life, thinking more about others than himself.

Following the 2017 London marathon, in total £65m was raised by individual runners for charitable causes big and small, international and close to home. Ordinary people in extraordinary situations who felt they had to do something because the alternative was too unpalatable to contemplate.

Who wants to write about gung-ho macho men and women with a mouth full of smart-ass one-liners? Give me a #heroine every time. They are the ones with the stories worth telling.

22 April 2018

Research: Strong Men, Food Animals and Terracotta Warriors

Fiction writers have a tendency to spend long hours creating, often to the detriment of replenishing their creative well. I particularly enjoy going off-topic. It gives pause for a little perspective on the work-in-progress and I never know what interesting snippets of info might spark an idea.

The reason I was in Chester to view its Roman artefacts (see posts one and two) was to visit nearby Liverpool to take in an exhibition at the city’s World Museum: “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors”.

Terracotta general
Facsimile showing original colouring
Back in the mists of time, or 475-221 BC, the seven major states/kingdoms of China participated in hostilities on such a scale that the period is known as the Warring States Era. Born into one of these, the Qin state, was Zhao Zheng who, at thirteen years of age, ascended to its throne. Twenty-five years and many battles later, he was announced as Qin Shi Huang – First Emperor of Qin – and of a united China which he set about extending.

His reign oversaw bureaucratic standardisation on a massive scale: currency, weights & measures, the Chinese script to aid written communication, axle lengths to aid the transport system;  new roads and canals were built, and various western boundaries were amalgamated into what is now known as the Great Wall of China.
Modern replica of excavated half-size chariot to accompany the Emperor

He also looked to the future, and like many who come to believe their own hype, was determined to either discover the elixir of life and thus live and rule forever or, as the next best thing, set himself up for resurrection in similar style. The elixir seemed to involve jade and mercury, which probably helped end his life aged 49. As to his resurrection, there were texts written after his death, rumours about the siting of his tomb, broken terracotta artefacts dismissed as being from close generations. Then in 1974, farmers digging a well… So began proper archaeological excavations, the uncovering of the first Terracotta Warriors and a reassessing of archaeological expectations.

In the same way the circles of raised stones at Britain’s Stonehenge is only a small part of its ritual landscape, so the located tomb of Qin Shi Huang is only a small part (about the size of a football pitch) of the necropolis designed to continue his luxurious life after death, believed to cover 38 square miles.

Detail of bronze cauldron (212kg) used by strongmen in acrobatic feats

Stable boy
As well as the army of over 8,000, plus chariots and cavalry, there is stabling and stable boys – all in terracotta, most life-size. There are bureaucrats, service workers, musicians, acrobats and strongmen, animals intended to feed them all, and animals for pleasure gardens, all in beautifully crafted and painted terracotta.

Alas, as soon as excavations began, problems arose. Within minutes of being exposed to the air, painted surfaces began to curl and flake, which is why the artefacts are plain, or bear only faint glimpses of original bright colours.

However, it has also stayed the hand of over-exuberant archaeologists for fear of destroying as much as is revealed. The tomb of Qin Shi Huang remains intact, though probes have revealed chemical readings for mercury off the scale. Perhaps later written texts were not so far from the mark.
A selection of animals for the pot

The exhibition in Liverpool displays eight excavated warriors, two replica half-size chariots  in bronze (the originals inlaid with silver), and 160 other artefacts, which I found the most fascinating. Who would have thought such a big thing would have been made of heating wine? Or the fine detail of a bronze cauldron weighing 212kg (467lbs) used by strongmen in an acrobatic performance? Or that one man’s megalomania would provide such insight into the craftsmanship and organisational skills of ordinary people 200+ years before our own current calendar began?

This is the sort of stuff writers get out from off-topic research. It certainly replenishes the creative well.

The exhibition “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors” continues at the World Museum, Liverpool, until 28 October 2018. The museum’s own collections are well worth a visit, too, as are all the museums and galleries close by.

Click images to resize.

All images are the author’s own, (c) Linda Acaster.

14 April 2018

Research : Roman Amphitheatre at #Chester

Model 1:75 size amphitheatre of Deva Victrix
In the second of my posts on Roman Chester, I focus on its amphitheatre, found within sight of the fortress' south-east corner tower (set in the green area to the mid left of the amphitheatre aerial view), one of twenty-two towers in its fortress wall.

Amphitheatres were one of the go-to entertainment venues of Roman life, and life in Roman Britain was no exception. There would have been an amphitheatre at every major population centre, particularly close to a legionary fortress which might hold a contingent of 5,000 men, plus the population of the civilian settlement outside its walls.
Deva Victrix ampthitheatre aerial view (Open Government Licence v1.0)

Few amphitheatres are known in Britain, never mind survive, simply because Roman fortress builders did their job too well. The legions might have left British shores in the 5th century, but those fortress walls made good defences for later Saxon and Viking strongholds, and the townships that followed way into the Norman medieval period, and beyond to the English Civil War in the 17th century. 
As these population centres expanded, so areas outside the walls were flattened and the old stonework re-used. The amphitheatre at Caerleon (Isca Silurum) in South Wales survives as grass and stone humps because Caerleon did not expand beyond large-village size.
View across the arena floor
View from the seating area
However, Chester (Deva Victrix) had been chosen for a fortress site because it lay on the navigable River Dee, a position that continued to play a pivotal role in the city’s expansion beyond the Industrial Revolution of the 18-19th centuries.
Not until 1929, when excavating workmen discovered a curved stone wall, did archaeologists move in hoping to find its amphitheatre. Even then, it was another 80 years before full excavations took place.

Due to listed buildings on the site, a little less than half the arena area could be uncovered. 
Even without the recent trompe l’oeil mural along the cut-off wall to help the illusion, to stand within the now gravelled arena space and look towards the low-level walls prompts a shiver of intimidation. 
When it was in use, the outer wall would have stood 12m/40ft high carrying seating on two raked decks for 7-8,000 spectators overlooking the ellipse-shaped arena below measuring 98m/320ft by 87m/286ft.  
Impressive isn’t the word.

To view other amphitheatres in Britain click HERE
Visit my post on Chester's Roman grave plaques HERE

All images other than that stated (c) Linda Acaster

9 April 2018

Research: Roman Tombstones in Chester

Part of the "Rows", buildings with elevated walkways
Having never visited Chester, I’ve now been twice within six months. The city is renown for its medieval Rows, elevated walkways of merchants’ living and business premises dating from the early 1300s and often displaying parts of the original beams and wattle and daub internal construction. Still used as shops and eateries, these stand on the line of the thoroughfares which once led through the Roman fortress Deva Victrix

As in York, Eboracum, the fortress walls still stand, somewhat repaired over the centuries to maintain their defensive properties. They now keep a tight rectangular grip on the heart of the city, their lengths a testimony to the might and organisational skills of Rome in the 1st Century AD. 

It’s well over a year since The Bull At The Gate, Book 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy launched, but once bitten by a period’s research it doesn’t easily relinquish its hold.

On this occasion I’d come especially to visit the Grosvenor Museum, a splendidly ornate Victorian edifice built in 1885-6 to house the burgeoning collections of the Chester Archaeological Society, among others. I knew it had a “Stone Room” containing tombstones, or grave plaques, from the Roman period. I hadn’t been prepared for the number, nor for their state of preservation, though taking photographs in the low light of museums isn't always easy. Click the images to gain a larger view.

Sextus, son of Sextus

The repaired stone on the right commemorates Sextus, son of Sextus, possibly from a cavalry squadron attached to Legio XX, and shows him on horseback with a boy on foot carrying weapons. 

Above the picture is a triptych of his portrait flanked by lions about to bite caught rams. According to the museum's information board, lions were used to symbolise the sudden attack of stalking death.

Marcus and wife
Not all plaques were tooled with such artistry, nor were they all completed. This plaque is for a centurion, Marcus Aurelius Nepos, and his wife. 

He carries a vine staff in his right hand as a symbol of his rank, but he is shown bearded and wearing civilian clothing, so he'd probably retired from service.

His wife is shown much smaller as a sign of deference to him. She is wearing a mantle, carrying a cup, and lifting the hem of her overdress to show a skirt beneath - perhaps pointing to their relative wealth. However, there is no inscription for her, and that dedicated to her husband is cramped beneath his feet. Did funds run out? Did Marcus organise the carving of their dual commemoration while still alive and another hand part finished the job?

The museum uses this plaque in an interesting recording to give voice to the unnamed wife, and convey a sense of the time. 

Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta
Of course, we need to be reminded that Roman tombstones, or funerary plaques, were not raised bare. Earlier peoples believed in colour, and the Roman civilization was no exception.

Meet Caecilius Avitus, his plaque as it was unearthed, and the museum's replica as it would, or might, have looked. With its abbreviations completed, the inscription reads:

"To the spirits of the departed Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta, an optio of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix. Served 15 years lived 34 years. His heir had this stone made."

Emerita Augusta is now Merida in south-west Spain. Caecilius Avitus may not have had a long life, but his commemoration doubtless lives far beyond his imaginings.

Needless to say, the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, is well worth a visit. It runs its entry on a donation basis.

All images are copyright to Linda Acaster.

See also: my post on Chester's unearthed Amphitheatre

31 March 2018

Musings on...Where To Start A Novel

Your characters are nailed, your setting researched, your time period decided. You’ve brainstormed The Big Problem plus a few smaller ones to scatter, and you’ve chosen who’ll carry the story. So where to start? If you’ve written some sort of plan, even a feeble outline, how can where to start be a problem? As always, the Devil is in the detail.

Received wisdom points to a moment of conflict, something to hook the reader. But conflict arises in many forms: conflict with self, conflict with an outside agency, conflict with the environment… And how can the reader be hooked into the story when there hasn’t been page-time enough to learn about the lead character so as to be able to make an emotional investment in him, her, it, or them?

One of my earlier novels, reincarnated as Beneath The Shining Mountains, is set among the native Apsaroke people on the cusp of American-European encroachment on their land. My publisher’s editor at the time dismissed it out of hand as “a Western”.

I could see her point of view; well, I couldn’t at the time and made my position felt, but I can now. Television was full of “Westerns” where the original peoples of the North American continent received a very bad billing. I was a historical re-enactor who gave talks and whose collection of books, recordings and anthropological papers outshone those of the local university. My problem, an insurmountable one according to my editor, was divorcing popular assumptions from the novel’s reality.

This is what readers do; I do; we all do. It’s an easy way of releasing our hold on our own reality and sliding into the reality offered by a novel. We read the signs and make assumptions:  flawed detective suffocating under a never-ending caseload being handed a shitty job because there’s more stress in the station than there is on the street... sort of thing. It might not state that in the opening, but from the tone of the cover, the back-blurb and the first couple of paragraphs, that is what the reader extrapolates. Over the next three or four chapters the reader constantly adjusts that expectation, realigning it to something akin to what the writer had in mind.

For my “non-Western”, I needed to plant a new set of expectations in readers’ minds. Having no control over the cover or the back-blurb, I chose to do it from the first page via an overview of Apsaroke village life, narrowing down to my lead character and her ally subsidiary. The opening was thrown back at me. “Pretty pictures” didn’t mean anything to a reader; people did. Readers wanted a character they could immediately identify with, ie connect with on an emotional level. The “pretty pictures”, if used at all, should be threaded in between.

So I gave the editor what she wanted. The story opens with two women having an argument about the male lead, therefore heralding him for the reader. A few “pretty pictures” are, indeed, threaded in between, but so is something more fundamental for the novel: a sense of personal history about to repeat, of a stalking catastrophe for more than just the main characters. Once written, I mirrored the same tone further in the chapter when portraying a snapshot of the life of the male lead.

The new beginning, about four pages worth, can be read by clicking the Preview option beneath the cover image in the right-hand column. Pick out the Big Problem, the “pretty pictures”, the elements that make up the sense of foreboding. Preceding the opening is a Historical Note to help slip the reader from their reality to the fictional reality, reluctantly allowed by the editor “as long as it’s no longer than 100 words”. So I ensured that it wasn’t.

These musings on where to start a novel came about due to the current work-in-progress, a true “Western” which will appear under my pseudonym Tyler Brentmore sometime over the summer. The story dates from 2014, so my notes tell me, when I’d written the first two chapters before the novel stalled. Returning to it, I could tell exactly why it had stalled: I’d started at a moment of major conflict. There’d been no page-time to learn about the lead character so as to be able to make an emotional investment in him.

This moment of major conflict still stands, but in the rewrite it erupts four chapters in. The preceding 9,500 words contain a few “pretty pictures”, but more to the point they contain a series of smaller, escalating conflicts: with self, with the past, with a hoped-for future, with outside agencies. The initial moment of major conflict has morphed into the novel’s Inciting Incident.

24 March 2018

Research: Mapping Our Way To Understanding

Here in the UK we are fortunate to be able to pore over Ordnance Survey maps of the entire country, rural and urban alike. Each map shows, via simple icons, a welter of detail beyond the topographical: modern, historical, and prehistoric. 

They helped me build an entire series of weekend walks, and I’ve relied on them heavily for my fiction, especially the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, which has its watery roots in those written walks. I don’t own a satnav, but carry a copy of the Ordnance Survey’s book of road maps in the family car and prefer to navigate rather than drive, pointing out items of interest not immediately seen from the road: Medieval castles, Iron Age ring-forts, Roman road routes, Prehistoric barrows.

What did people do before the first of these maps were commissioned in the 18th century? They improvised.

Maps have always been produced. Think of a stick carving lines in damp mud or sand, the detail being passed orally. Later those details were often written into charters. I came one upon such example recently while viewing a YouTube rendition of a 1981 BBC history programme In Search of Athelstan led by a young Michael Wood full of hands-on enthusiasm.

For a bit of context, Athelstan was the grandson of King Alfred the Great. It was Athelstan who, in the 900s, made his grandfather’s dream of a united England a reality. As kings did in those and later days, he rewarded his supporters with estates of land. Between 25-32mins into the programme, Michael Wood walks the boundary of one such estate by following the wording of its charter alongside a modern Ordnance Survey map of the area. The fact that he still could, over 1,000 years later, is at first nothing short of miraculous, even down to pointing to listed hedgerows and named streams. Yet is it?

I find the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral awe-inspiring, even though I’ve not yet laid eyes on it in person. Dating from around 1300, it is believed to be the largest medieval map still in existence (1.59 x 1.34 metres / 64 x 52 inches). Inked on a single piece of calfskin, it shows the world as it was then understood.

Christian maps of this era always place Jerusalem at the centre and the east at the top, but once you get your eye in the detail is spectacular and very recognisable. Britain is at the bottom left. 

Check out the digital version HERE, and be sure to highlight the colour-enhanced version showing how bright it would have looked when first commissioned. There is also a 15 minute explanatory video from History West Midlands fronted by an image of the beautiful Hereford Cathedral, itself dating from 1079.

Not all maps were undertaken by the great and the good. When I was a Native American re-enactor I saw reproductions of powder horns engraved with topographical maps, mostly river systems, for use by trappers known as Mountain Men.

They weren’t the only people who used this type of utility map. Left is an image of a powder horn dating from the American Revolutionary War showing a map of Charlestown and Boston, including named wharfes and gun batteries, which belonged to a British soldier, “E.B.” of His Majesty’s 47th Foot.

Along with handily dating it, 1775, “E.B.” added the inscription A Pox on rebels in ther crymes. Not a man to cross, then. Perhaps he didn’t want to be there.

Map reproduction is courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, where close-ups of this image and others can be viewed HERE.

The most modern, and a map that never fails to impress, comes from the International Space Station showing planet Earth. YouTube has a number of real-time and time-lapse runs. I’ve chosen one at random. May you find it very, very restful and glad you're living now and able to view it.

All images are reproduced via Creative Commons licensing.

8 March 2018

Read an Ebook Week: 50% Off!

It's Read An Ebook Week and I have three titles subscribed via Smashwords.com which offers its titles in both mobi format for Kindle and ePub format for Kobo, Nook, iBooks, etc. Use the coupon code RAE50 at the checkout to get 50% off - which is $4.50 for the Torc of Moonlight Books1-3 boxed set.

Grab it while you can. Read An Ebook Week finishes on Saturday 10th March.

Direct links:
Torc of Moonlight Boxed set   ¦   The Paintings chiller   ¦   Reading A Writer's Mind writer's guide


3 March 2018

#Writing Research: Using Weather Crises For Insight

If you've been living in the United Kingdom this past week you can't have missed the unseasonally severe weather conditions, dubbed The Beast From The East because the originating air currents are from Russian Siberia. During the last couple of days Storm Emma, originating offshore of Portugal, has streamed north to interact with it. It's been a "fun" time of blizzards, gale-force winds whipping lying snow into a whiteout, people trapped inside their vehicles, airports closed, power outages, the sea freezing...

But as the week progressed, the media quit its ever-escalating shrieks of horror and instead concentrated on the good deeds ordinary people did for one another: hospital staff walking miles to be on-shift, farmers working 12 hours straight using their field equipment to dig vehicles out of snowdrifts and open impassable rural roads, 4x4 drivers ferrying medical staff and meals-on-wheels to vulnerable people, members of an orchestra stranded in a hotel finding a wedding party, also stranded, and offering to play at their wedding. As the snippets came in it provided a wealth of "what if...?" scenarios for fiction writers.

One of the BBC's environmental TV programmes - Winter Watch - posed the question "How do the current conditions stack against those of the Big Freeze of 1963?", and showed a grainy black & white programme from the period. Having found it on YouTube I offer it above. It makes fascinating watching, its unintentional detail providing a mine of information for a writer. For those too young to remember, it was a time of very few homes with central heating, just a coal fire in a single room, no double-glazing, and everyone seemed to smoke.

The storms, though, were a mirror of today, starting with high winds from the far east of Europe then being met by a storm from the south. However, The Beast From The East we are promised will have passed by Monday; the Big Freeze of 1963 lasted two months.


24 February 2018

Historical Research: Glazing Without Glass

Glazing with horn rectangles
During my recent trip to York for the Jorvik Viking Festival, I also made a visit to Barley Hall, a medieval townhouse down an alley off Stonegate – all this well within the walls that would have surrounded the Roman fortress.

The oldest parts of the building date from 1360 when it was built as the city’s townhouse for Nostel Priory, a monastery near Wakefield 35 miles distant by modern roads. The building gained a second wing around 1430 and became the home of one William Snawsell, goldsmith, alderman and Lord Mayor of York.

How it looks today was not how it looked down the later centuries. Like many a medieval building in the UK it was hacked about, re-roofed in tile or slate, covered in brick and/or its exterior replastered. The York Archaeological Trust gained possession of the then decrepit building in 1987 and, after remedial and replacement work using techniques from the period, it was opened to the public in 1993.
Horn rectangles overlapping like roof tiles

I was particularly interested in the size of the windows, considering glazing with glass was appallingly expensive until relatively late (17th century). At Barley Hall residents overcame this by two methods: oiled linen and horn. Neither would allow the viewer to look out, only for light to enter. But how much light?

Horn was quite plentiful: The Shambles (butchers’ row) is only a few streets away, and all cattle of the period would bear horns. These would be boiled to soften, slit open and flattened. Depending on the age and thickness of the horn, layers could be split away, and a usable rectangle cut. These would be fitted in a frame to overlap slightly so that rain would run down the outer side. 

It looked extremely durable, and one window is said to be the oldest in England.

Oiled linen stretched on a frame

Fine linen, perhaps a textile such as would be used for an ordinary person’s chemise/under-shirt, would again be fitted into a frame and oiled using linseed. 

How many coats, and how often the material would need re-coating wasn’t obvious, but it is certainly a far quicker method. Both allowed a surprising amount of light in, even on the light-cloud day when I visited.

Oiled linen top / horn bottom

Perhaps even ordinary medieval homes, never mind the halls of the wealthy, weren’t quite the dark and dingy hovels we imagine.

See also my post on medieval Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire.

17 February 2018

Hand-Held Historical Research: #Viking Jorvik

Spear, long axe and seax (long knife), with shield behind.
Spring might not quite be with us here in the northern hemisphere, but in the Acaster household mid February starts the annual series of historical research field trips, not so much in a field – I could have done if I’d wanted – but in York’s city centre streets. Welcome to the trading empire of Viking Jorvik.

A little background: York began life in AD71 as a fortress built by invading Romans, and the rectangle of medieval walls still standing used the fortress walls as foundations, which gives a somewhat breath-taking notion of how large the fortress was. A civil settlement sprung up facing it across the river, to be known as Eboracum. I used this research and more for The Bull At The Gate, Book 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy.

As the Roman legions left early in the 5th century the Saxons were arriving on British shores, and to a far lesser extent took over the fortress area and settlement, calling it Eoforwic. By the late 8th century “Northmen” were raiding the land using their state-of-the-art transports, langskips, and by 866/7 what became known as The Great Heathen Army had taken the settlement by sword-storm as it annexed the northern portion of the country. Ideally sited on a set of navigable rivers emptying into the North Sea for a crossing to Scandinavian lands, Jórvik, as the settlement was renamed, became the capital of the Dane Law. It remained under Norse rule for 100 years, re-blossoming into a trading hub as it had under the Saxons, this time stretching from Iceland to Russia to Byzantium and Ireland.

More weaponry for sale than can be imagined.
Getting the forge up to temperature to make arrowheads
All this was mere dry academic history until in the 1970s a major redevelopment of Coppergate, an area close to the river, re-wrote it. Viking Age streets full of houses were discovered in the silt, and 40,000 artefacts were lifted from the ground. The shopping centre redevelopment went ahead, leaving a somewhat unassuming small shopfront to announce The Jorvik Centre and act as a portal to an animated reconstruction of the old Norse dwellings in situ, complete with sounds and smells, deep below modern footfall. Since it opened in 1984 it has welcomed over 20 million visitors.

Along with the opening of the Centre came the Jorvik Festival, relying heavily on the participation of re-enactors. This has grown substantially over the years, now covering a week of events, with traders and participants coming from across Scandinavia and Europe, and North America by the sound of accents overheard, as well as talks, lectures, feasting and a battle. There’s always a battle; we are talking Vikings.

It is an opportunity to lift historically accurate weaponry and clothing for weight, try out skills, and discuss manufacturing techniques with people who actually make these items. So I could be found discussing the relative merits of various types of arrowheads, who in their society would be able to afford seal-skin ropes and whether ropes made from lime-bast would be as good aboard a longship – sorry, langskip – trying out a hand-quern, watching craftsman work with wood and iron, spinning with a distaff, and taking a lesson in nålebinding which looks halfway between crocheting and knitting. 
Have hand-axe, can split & plane wood
A writer never knows when these things might come in handy.

10 February 2018

How Historical Should Be Your Historical?

I have been following an earnest debate in a Facebook group regarding how close to factual history Historical novels should stay.

On the one side there’s the fiction is never fact and shouldn’t be taken as such. On the other there’s the fiction should stick to the fact until the fact gets in the way of the fiction. And a lot of differing views threading in, around and between.

My stance is that authors have to be true to themselves and their prospective readers, as far as their publishers will allow.

I’ve never wanted to write about historical figures, or even historical events. I’m much more interested in how ordinary people lived their lives in what we might call a historical era, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I can make it up as I go. Just as modern London can’t be set in modern Poland for the sake of a fictional story, named places that existed as historical fact both have to be set in their true place and have an authenticity to them corresponding to the stated date. And not just in looks or smell.

I remember being in a cinema watching Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. RH (Kevin Costner) had just landed on English sands below the unmistakeable white cliffs of the country's southern shore when he uttered words to the effect of: Tonight I will dine at my father’s table – ie in Nottingham. The  cinema erupted in gales of laughter, with someone behind me quipping, ‘Got a helicopter waiting on the cliff-top, has he?’ And that was it for the film. The suspension of disbelief had been well and truly trashed, the audience more intent on chortling over the succession of gaffes than concentrating on the story.

Cinema-goers do that. Readers don’t. They throw the offending novel at a wall, give it a one-star review for wasting their time, and never read that author again. So novelists play fast and loose with history at their peril, while Hollywood adds the euphemism Based on... and runs all the way to the bank, massacring History as it goes.

Yet every Historical novel is also based on… people, events, places, eras, that once existed. History – the factual History we novelists take as primary or secondary source material – is based on… documents that are based on… hearsay or, if we’re lucky, eye-witness accounts, transcribed bytranslated from… and we would be foolish not to accept that everyone along that line is relating facts as they saw them, or was instructed to see them. Truth, after all, is a many-faceted light in the darkness.

This is one of the reasons historical novelists add a Historical Note to the back of their  books, gently separating the history from the fiction for interested readers. You’ll find one in each of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, to both separate and dovetail the past and the present storylines.

But there’s not one added to Beneath The Shining Mountains, a true based on… the remembrance of a then old woman, translated to an American ethnographer to be set down in a foreign tongue, doubtless edited for understanding, and doubtless edited again two generations later for a thin volume of “tales” from a people who lived yet whose life had perished, her story re-envisioned by me with the help of a wide range of secondary sources that might, or might not, have been as historically accurate as maintained.

How historical is your Historical?

Mine? I do my best. In the end its all any novelist can do. We’ve just got to ensure that we do it.

3 February 2018

Voice Recognition – Worth It?

Earlier this week planets aligned: a lengthy copy-typing task, and I attempted to add the end of one finger to a pile of carrots I was dicing – new knives tend to be sharp.

As luck would have it I’d been reading a blogpost from Joanna Penn (‘The Creative Penn’) on using voice recognition software. And what did I have lurking in a cupboard but Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 which I’d had for years (2011) but never got on with. 

Taking advice from her interview with Scott Baker regarding a healthier writing life, I dropped my old headset mike, ordered a USB desk mike, and began training myself to enunciate properly – fun with my accent. To my surprise it didn’t take long to show decent results, even when I tried it with just the laptop’s internal microphone.

More than that, the constant ache at the bottom of my back and across my shoulders eased substantially. I know I hunch over the keyboard, but I didn’t realise how tense I held myself.

Have I tried creating fiction via dictating? Not yet, but I intend to. My biggest hurdle will be thinking in long enough phrases. Dragon doesn’t understand individual words but context, and the more context the less likely it is to mis-recognise individual words.

Did I use it for this blog post? Yes – with additional editing input from my fingers – LOL! Part of the reason is that I've set up two profiles: one for the copy-typing task and one for my chat, and the former has had a more intense learning curve.

For those who wish to know such things (I usually do) the USB desk microphone is an entry-level (FiFine) on a six-year-old laptop using Windows 7. Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home editions have now reached #13 but looking at some current reviews not everyone is happy. I shall be sticking with my #11.5.

27 January 2018

My Name is Linda and I am a HOARDER

This image does *not* do justice to my office
I am currently culling my office. With two four-drawer filing cabinets, three desk spaces and two decent sized shelving units, anyone would think I’d have enough space in my room to spread. And so I have. And so I did. Until I could hardly get in to hoover.

Did I really start my writing career with a tinny portable typewriter and a cardboard box into which went everything: dictionary, thesaurus, paper, pens, notebook, and the typewriter? I wrote on the kitchen table during evenings when my youngster was in bed and my husband on shift. It worked. I learned my trade, and I started by selling short fiction to women’s magazines.

So how did it escalate to spread onto the landing? Into the dining room? Slowly.

Writing magazines, to which I ended up contributing, gave way to writers’ manuals. My move into historical fiction ensured I became a second-hand shop rummager, for it was amazing the non-fiction books that could be found therein. Brochures and guides were purchased when we visited historical sites; all kept just in case.

And then, of course, came the “paperless office” - that gross misstatement which ensured there was more paper than ever floating about. A good job, too, as it turned out. If all my early typescripts had been consigned to five-inch floppy diskettes where would I be now? (Yes, such things did exist, and they were truly floppy.) Even the three-inch have gone by the board, and have you tried using a CD with a modern laptop? Most are designed for streaming only.

Which brings me back to paper, because after the hacking of the server my email account was part of, do you really think I’d risk the only copy of my novels to the Cloud? But there comes a time when old accounts are no longer needed for tax purposes [pause for hollow laughter], and even I’m not interested in scrutinising hand-edited drafts of fiction.

So I guess I’d better keep plodding on. A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, as the saying goes. Thank goodness, I say. Who’d want an empty mind?

But there are limits.

20 January 2018

Beware Must-Read Lists

There’s one in today’s paper. Ten Books Every Child Should Own. It caught my eye immediately, as it was supposed to. But did it catch my eye for the intended reason?

I’m wary, if not downright cynical, about any such list, further fuelled by the fact that the headline had transformed by the inside page into Ten Books Every Child Should Read, which doesn’t mean the same at all.

My schooldays were scarred by the annual reading list, a wall of A1 sheets blocked in a neat hand to give each book’s title diagonally along the top and each child’s name horizontally along the left-hand side. A line of empty squares stood ready to receive a coloured star. Horrors such as Tom Brown’s School Days still haunt me.

In my teens The Little Red Book by Mao Tse-Tung (as he was known at the time) was the rage among my contemporaries. No one mentioned the word famine, never mind the deaths, upward of 30 million people. If you hadn’t read the book you were an unenlightened no one. Thankfully, the only books I could afford were to aid my employment prospects; everything else was borrowed from the library, and mine didn’t stock that title. I still feel a twinge of guilt for those 30+ million when I recall the preening, long-nosed glances my lack of reading the book attracted.

Likewise, I’m sure Mein Kampf was on someone’s must-read list, as were (are) the writings of Stalin, Marx, and the host of other the-end-justifies-the-means exponents. And this is my point: anyone – anyone – who waves a must-read list under another’s nose is waving it for a reason. Better to identify the reason before contemplating the titles, or attempting to imply the non-reader socially inadequate.

Today’s vaunted list, Ten Books Every Child Should Own [Read], is being used to publicise a writer’s recently published novel. There y’go… cynic that I am. I only hope that the majority of readers of the column hold a similarly cautious view and don’t rush to force the list down the throats of their unsuspecting offspring. There’s no faster way to put a child off reading. 

13 January 2018

Priming The Creative Well

This past week we’ve been in need of a sewing machine. I own two: my own 1960s Singer electric and my Granny’s Singer hand-cranked complete with beautiful Sphinx decals. Neither work. I went on the Net in search of a modern replacement, read various reviews, and stalled. I wanted something that would continue to work for years and not cost me half a mortgage.

By accident I also came across a DIY “refurbish a vintage Singer” video. It led me to checking the serial number of my Granny’s machine, and discovering that it couldn’t have been my Granny’s, at least not hers from new. It isn’t the 1920s-30s model I’d always supposed, but a January-June 1908 Singer 27, complete with original “coffin” lid.

YouTube is a wonderful invention. Two half days and the machine has been cleaned, oiled, and the stitch tension balanced between the top thread and long-bobbin under-thread, and from sounding like a WW2 bomber with bits falling off it runs quieter than I recall my electric doing. It left me staggered at the workmanship which, in 1908, produced a machine that not only offered stitches of differing lengths able to be worked on material as thin as fine lace and thicker than gaberdine, but also a host of attachments that would make a modern sewing machine blush. And I, with no engineering experience, could bring it back into use with no more than a tiny screwdriver from a set gifted in a Christmas cracker and a small amount of machine oil.

So what has this to do with writing? Here’s a Tweet I use alongside the hashtag #WritingTip

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. Good writers see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any - Orson Scott Card

In 1908, between January and June, 250,000 of these machines were manufactured. It was the first batch of true mass production for Singer. That meant a factory, not a small outbuilding. It meant training people; it meant hand-assembly; it meant selling an expensive machine destined for use by a woman that would free her from laborious hand-stitching and give her the wherewithal to provide an income for herself and her family.

How many story ideas can you see in that? How many story ideas have you hurried past today?

6 January 2018

Writers need to be Readers

It’s been a quiet Christmastide at Acaster Alcoves: daily walks, some socialising, but lots and lots of  reading.

As far back as I can recall, Christmas reading has meant research reading, but this year it has meant reading for pleasure. Except, for a writer, there is no such thing. 

Can I recognise the author’s misdirections? Can I second-guess the character developments, the denouement? What is causing me to skim, to withdraw from the fiction’s reality? Is the tenor used suitable, the balance of dialogue to narrative, the cut between characters?

Reading, especially for pleasure, is always a teaching tool – if we keep our eyes on the ball and our minds on the bounce. For one, I learned that I prefer reading off the page to listening to a dramatised audiobook. But far, far more important, my reading emphasised that characters are everything.  No amount of celebrity puffs or won awards will enamour me to a novel whose characters are out of step with their professed careers, or refuse to see what is staring them - and the reader - in the face, or have insightful epiphanies on the flimsiest of detail.

Readers are people, so characters had better be people, too. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle accepted this pre-requisite, otherwise he would never have gone to such lengths to have his Sherlock Holmes explain how his deductions were based on fact which Watson, and readers, had failed to notice. Elementary, or what?