21 July 2018

#Research: Neolithic Passage Tomb in Jersey

The entrance to the "hollow hill" of La Hougue Bie
What did you do on your holiday? Last time I was donning hard-hat and clambering down a ladder into Grime’s Graves in Norfolk. This time I’ve been bent double, crabbing my way into a Neolithic Passage Tomb on Jersey. This woman knows how to party, eh?

We’ve had a few days in the Channel Islands, just off the French coast, and while in Jersey took the opportunity to visit La Hougue Bie, a 6,000 year old passage tomb in the style of Ireland’s Newgrange and Orkney’s Maeshowe.

Just as the Channel Islands are not French but British Crown dependencies, Jersey’s place and street names aren’t French either but Jèrriais, what’s left of Viking Norman. In keeping with these contradictions, Neolithic passage tombs aren’t tombs in the sense of a grave; they have more in common with our accepted role of a religious building such as a church or temple, and nearly all of them are aligned to a celestial event.

Clouds permitting, at La Hougue Bie the rising sun at the Spring Equinox casts light along its 9 metre (30ft) entrance passage and illuminates the main chamber. When this happened all those millennia ago, what occurred in its confines and its alcoves has been lost down the years. We can only peer at the huge stones making up the walls and the even more massive capstones carrying the weight of the mound above – and stone church – and marvel at how people living on a small island 6,000 years ago could not only transport them from all over the southern region but lift them in place. And know they were aligning each stone perfectly to allow the inner chamber to be illuminated for a short period on a single day in the year. Shame on anyone using Stone-Age as a term of derision.

Left: wall stones, over 2m visible above the flooring, massive bulk of the capstones, plus an alcove at the rear of the chamber.
Right: view along the 9m entrance passage showing a figure stooping to gain admittance. There is no headroom to stand until the inner chamber is reached. At the right can be seen a "modern" concrete column to help reinforce the line of capstones making up the roof.

The eastern (obviously) apse of the church
I mention the medieval stone church built on the mound’s summit, Notre Dame de la Clarté – Our Lady of the Light – an interesting appellation considering what occurs below. The original was probably erected in this position as a means of ‘cleansing’ a pagan religious site. The current building dates from the 12th century and I will return to this interesting place in another blogpost.

During World War 2, when the Channel Islands were occupied by German forces, a watch tower was erected on top of the mound at the western end of the church, and a battalion command bunker tunnelled into the mound, thankfully doing little lasting damage to the structure, though the archaeological damage caused by 70 trenches nearby was irreparable. The bunker is now dedicated to the memory of thousands of “Forced Workers” brought to the Channel Islands, many of whom never saw their homelands again. Its minimalist setting proves a grim walk-through.

The most recent stone building is the combined visitor centre, museum and conservation lab, the latter separated by a large glass window from many fine exhibits gathered from across the island, and proving as much a focus for visitors as the gold torcs, bronze axe heads, and a replica of the biggest Celtic coin hoard I’ve ever seen. The most recent non-stone building was being thatched when we visited: a replica of a Neolithic longhouse being built by experimental archaeology volunteers.

Left: the partly constructed Neolithic longhouse viewed from the church; in front the exit from the WW2 command bunker walk-through.
Right: a selection of original Celtic coins from one of the hoards.

La Hougue Bie is, indeed, a place of contradictions, and well worth a visit.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

30 June 2018

#Research: Thetford Warren Lodge

Ruins of Thetford Warren Lodge
Four miles south of the Neolithic flint mines of Grime’s Graves, lies another open area in Thetford Forest, this time of sandy heathland. It is the last remaining shred of a once vast medieval Warren. At one end stands the ruins of Thetford Warren Lodge, built around 1400 on the orders of Thetford Priory which owned the Warren.

Rabbits, or coneys as they were known, are not native to the British Isles. The first influx came with the Romans but didn’t seem to make much impression on the landscape. The second influx followed the Norman conquest in 1066.

Coney meat was regarded as a delicacy by the Normans, while its fur trimmed the finest clothing. The coneys were farmed in warrens on what would now be termed an industrial scale, and only lords of manors, and religious houses, could own one.

The surrounding forest is early 20th century; at the time all the land would have been open heath. It has been estimated that this one warren was bigger than modern Thetford (11 sq miles). In the vicinity were over 25 warrens. Each would have had a fortified lodge. There were no villages or hamlets in this area, then or now.

Thetford Warren Lodge, built of flint as all stone buildings in the region were, even castle ramparts, stood like a mini castle itself, with walls up to three feet thick, small windows on all sides, and a fortified ground floor doorway leading to its undercroft store where pelts and doubtless meat, would be worked and stored. 

L: ground floor inner view; doorway to spiral staircase bottom left beyond the modern grille.
R: substantial brick-faced fire-back in what would have been the living quarters.

Connected by an inner spiral staircase the Warrener and his family (and men?) lived on the upper floor in what would have been considered good quarters for the time: note the large brick-faced fireplace. However, like a castle keep, it was meant to act as a refuge – against gangs of armed poachers. Cut off from normal village life, it must have been a harsh and lonely existence, especially for the women of the household.

Over the centuries coneys adapted to the wild, becoming the ubiquitous “bunny”, and in 1880 the animal lost its protected status under the Ground Game Act. Yet the industry of farming them continued into the 1920s when gradually the land was purchased for much-needed timber production following World War 1. Thetford Forest is now the largest lowland forest of mixed pines in Britain.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

23 June 2018

#Research: Neolithic Grime's Graves Flint Mines

Hubby on his way down
We have been away on holiday, though holiday seems a misnomer where we’re concerned. Hard hat and down into a Neolithic flint mine, anyone? 

Grime's Graves, in the county of Norfolk, was given its name during the Anglo-Saxon period of the so-called Dark Ages. In this case it was the Angle period, when the peoples from what is now southern Denmark and northern Germany migrated to the area and created the Kingdom of East Anglia. 1500 years on, the region containing the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk is still loosely known as East Anglia, and Grim’s Graben – “the diggings of Grim” (a euphemism for their main god, Woden; Norse Odin) became Grime’s Graves.

Lumps and bumps at ground level don't do justice to the vast area
The place is currently overseen by English Heritage, and it is on its website the best image of the area can be viewed – HERE – unless you happen to have a camera-drone handy. 

Even seeing such a photograph didn’t prepare me for driving out of the Thetford woodland and along the designated chalk track to park amid what can only be described as a green moonscape of gently waving grasses. It’s just… odd.

The delves, some over 10 metres (30 feet) across, are the visible remains of 433 vertical shafts hemmed almost shoulder to shoulder, though it is believed others are buried beneath obscuring sandy soil nearby.

All have been in-filled: by the original diggers, by later Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age peoples, or by Nature. To give an idea of the time-line, the first diggings - using red deer antler picks, they've been found in the middens - were probably started as the groundwork was being laid for Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

It is all a bit basic on-site. Chemical toilets only are available near the gate because there is a ban on any sort of non-archaeological excavation, no matter how shallow. The visitor centre is a self-contained wooden structure "sitting" on the land so as to do minimum damage. But its exhibition is interesting, the staff friendly and informative, and we eventually made our way across the beaten-grass path to what amounts to a small metal portacabin suspended in the mouth of “Pit 1”.

The duty-man who gave us the Health & Safety talk trained as an experimental archaeologist, and the small space displays everything from lime-bast fibres and rope, to flint arrowheads, scrapers, knives, a flint-bladed sickle, and a surprisingly light axe big enough to fell a substantial tree.

L: repro flint axe detail, with 3 knapped, unpolished, spare flint heads / R: repro flint knife with antler handle and sheath

Hard hats on tight, we stepped onto the ladder which disappeared through a trapdoor and down some 9 metres (30 feet) to the excavated floor level. We were lucky; an electrician was rigging up new lights in the radiating chalk galleries and the safety grilles had been removed. We’d been warned only to stick our heads and shoulders inside the gallery openings as turning around in a 1 metre high gallery could prove problematic. Merely backing out proved problematic, and I was grateful for the hard hat on more than one occasion.

L: Husband crouching in front of a gallery entrance, with a second covered by a grille to show size. 
Rubber matting is laid on the excavated floor to help save it from modern foot-fall erosion. 
R: Inside a chalk gallery; bear in mind the size shown in the left image

The galleries, there are six main ones, are up to 15 metres (49 feet) long, twisting, turning and intersecting as the seams of flint were followed. The sections of chalk waste, and the flint nodules, were prised free with antler picks and raised in baskets to the surface to be worked on.

The mine was wondrous to behold, to crouch in the small spaces with bright modern lighting reflecting from the white chalk, and wonder just what those far off ancestors used to light their work. And how many times a rockfall snuffed out a life.

NB: Click on the images to bring up a larger view. All photos (c) Linda Acaster.

1 June 2018

Early Summer eBook Promos #99c / #99p - Part 2

Following on from Part 1 - some of whose promotions may still be live, check before purchasing - here's the current promos I'm involved with. There won't be any more for a while, so take advantage while they're available.

Just finishing (ignore the date) are Speculative Fiction titles from Magic Book Deals SpecFic including sub-genres from Dystopian to Romance, Epic Fantasy to Supernatural Chills. My title is The Paintings.

Open now for Kindle Unlimited Addicts, this time from Magic Book Deals Romance until 5th June. My title is Beneath The Shining Mountains.

And finally, for this coming weekend only, over 60 titles in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres from the site of prolific author Patty Jansen. My title is Torc of Moonlight, Bk 1.

Enjoy your reading!

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 Cistercian 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.