12 June 2018

Tuesday Talk with Jen Black... Who were the Border Reivers

Reiver statue at Galashiels
You may well ask, especially if you live in the south of England.

The reivers lived in those counties that glare at each other across the English-Scottish Border: Northumberland, Cumbria and Durham; Berwickshire, Roxburghsire and Dumfriesshire. Some would include Selkirk. Westmorland used to be listed, but in the 1974 reorganisation the county was lost and now forms part of Cumbria. Helvellyn rises to 3,117 ft (950m), but reivers found the Eden Valley easy access to easy pickings. The Pennines that form the Durham Dales proved more of a barrier, though inroads were made. Every northerner knows the story of the monks at Blanchland in County Durham who cowered in their church until the Scots raiders passed by on their way home to Scotland and then rang the bells in thanks. The Scots heard the bells, turned back and raided the little village hidden in its deep valley.

George MacDonald Fraser described the reivers in his book The Steel Bonnets: “...they are not the most immediately lovable folk in the United Kingdom. Incomers may find them difficult to know; there is a tendency among them to be suspicious and taciturn, and the harsh Border voice, whether the accent is Scots or English, lends itself readily to derision and complaint. No doubt there are Cumbrians who are gay, frivolous folk, and Roxburghshire probably has its quota of fawning, polished sophisticates; they are in a minority, that is all.”

Qualities such as those he described were forged in harsh times that passed most of Britain by. From the late thirteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth, the Borders were frequently a war zone. During those times armies marched in both directions across the Border lands, burning, stealing and despoiling as they went; armies must eat, and the people of the Borders bore the brunt of it. 

When a man’s crops and livestock were seized, there was nothing he could do to support himself and his family but relieve his neighbours of the goods he needed. If the neighbour was in the same situation, then they joined forces and foraged further afield. Nationality was not a consideration in such desperate times; Scot raided Scot as much as the English and the English were not averse to raiding an English farm if needs must. Scots helped the English raid north of the Border and Englishmen aided Scots raids south of the Border. Families such as the Grahams had members straddling both sides of the line and no one ever knew for certain who they would support on any given day.

In times of peace, the raiding went on. Habits once formed, die hard. Feuds developed, some across the Border divide and some within it. The Maxwells feuded with the Johnstones in one of the bitterest and bloody battles known in Scotland, yet now no one knows how or why it began; possibly a power struggle for supremacy between two powerful tribes that turned the Debateable Land into a wasteland, according to Lord Dacre in 1528. Twenty years later Lord Wharton was busily fanning the flames to secure England’s interests and both clan leaders found themselves in and out of English prisons on an almost regular basis.

National policy tried to stop the lawlessness. The Borders were divided into six administrative areas known as the Marches and England and Scotland both appointed three Wardens whose task was to defend against invasion in time of war and put down crime and maintain law and order in peace time. Some were good men and others were the worst raiders of the frontier. A Warden often used one reiving family to help them catch another. Tracking thieves on horseback in the dark across trackless and boggy wastes was not an easy task and no Borderer was about to betray another Borderer unless it brought him profit or it played into his feud. Sex took no notice of national policy and intermarriages across the Border were common. Cattle rustling and protection rackets abounded. The words blackmail and kidnapping came into the English language via the Borders. Overpopulation of the more fertile dales and greedy landlords contributed to the problems and so did the Tynedale custom of dividing a dead man’s land among all his sons “whereby beggars increase and service decays.”

Their homes were makeshift things in many cases. Often burned down, they were replaced astonishingly quickly, built of clay and stones, sometimes turf sods with roofs of thatch. Larger villages had more substantial dwellings of stone and oak timbers. The Bastle was smaller, built on the same lines as a peel tower, which was more secure still; built of stone with massively thick walls. There was only one entrance at ground level, with two doors, one a yett – an iron grating - and the other of oak reinforced with iron. A narrow curving stair known as a turnpike led to upper floors. Usually they curved clockwise so a defender retreating to an upper storey had his unguarded left side to the wall; the man attacking up the stair was at a disadvantage with his sword arm to the wall. 

a Bastle house
The Kerrs, notoriously left-handed, built their turnpikes anti-clockwise. 

Smallholm Tower
The standard of living was generally higher in towns such as Berwick or Carlisle, but the daily food ration of a soldier in the Berwick garrison in 1597 would not satisfy us today; he received a daily ration of a 12 oz loaf, 3 pints of beer, 1½ lbs of beef, ¾lb of cheese and ¼of butter. If that was what the English army lived on, consider the diet of peasant farmers whose crops have been trampled into the mud by an army passing through.

The people of the Border have not changed much in four hundred years; the Elliots Armstrongs and Fenwicks, Bells and Nixons, Scotts, Maxwells and Kerrs are still where they were in the sixteenth century and it can be said that they form a distinct cultural and social bloc that is different from the rest of the British people.

About Jen Black
"I write historical romances and historical novels variously set in Scotland, Dublin or the north of England where I have lived all my life. With so many wonderful periods of history to choose from I don't stick to one; from Vikings to Victorians, I love them all! I'm rarely without a camera in my pocket and delight in displaying the pics on my blog. The beautiful Tyne Valley around Hexham features heavily, as do my holiday haunts and I can't ignore my beautiful Dalnatian dog, Tim"

Jen's Blog: http://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jen.black.775
Twitter @JenBlackNCL

Find Jen on:

A few of Jen's novels:

A Victorian-romance-mystery with both humour and drama!
In 1893 Daisy dreams of a career as an artist but runs up against the rock that is Adam Grey, who distrusts women and thinks wives should be content with home and family life. When a valuable painting goes missing in the country house where they are both guests, Adam turns detective and Daisy must prove that she is not the thief Adam initially believes her to be.
Does she want love and marriage or to fulfil her dreams? Can Adam get over his distrust of women?

Melanie Grey takes up a post as housekeeper to Lord Jarrow in remote Northumberland in the hope of a quiet life. Hiding her miserable past, she is surprised to discover the Master's life is not blameless and her curiosity will not let her rest until she finds out what he is doing. Unexplained night time activity involving kegs of whisky, rude Excise men, a shooting that almost kills Jarrow - will he let her into his life? Or will she always be just the housekeeper?

The bloody struggle to be king has begun for Finlay of Moray. Cheated by his grandfather, the girl he expected to marry wed to another, he rebels and faces an ultimatum from the old king - face execution or persusade Thorfinn of Orkney to join them.  His half-brother Thorfinn rules a sea-based empire from Orkney and he too wants something of Finlay - marriage to his sister and a war against kith and kin that will cost him dear.  Two women vie for his love and in the turbulent world of 1034 AD the threat of death is as close as a cold shiver down the spine. Set in present day Scotland, then known as Alba, this is an absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom. A hero worth fighting for and an exhilarating historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.

5 June 2018

Should I Be Looking In or Out of the Box? Or who needs a box anyway?

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick

Anyone who thinks that writing a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is as easy as pie has clearly never written an entire book right through to ‘the end’. Some of it is easy. Sometimes it seems easy, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of actually getting a book to that final publication stage the big question ‘why on earth am I doing this?’ can be one of those unanswerable questions - apart from 'because I'm bonkers'.

Creating a novel (or a non-fiction book, but I’m sticking to novels for this article) is hard work. No, it isn’t merely a case of sitting  down at a cosy desk tapping merrily away at a keyboard, the words flowing freely from the mind, down through the fingers and appearing ‘Hey Presto’ on the screen in front of you. Writing means getting a story written so that it is a readable, enjoyable, entertaining, gripping, page-turner of a read. Without any (or all) of those your book will not get beyond being a tiny piece of plankton floating around in the vast ocean that is the literary world. Well, for all practical purposes as far as writers are concerned, the vast ocean that is Amazon. The on-line book store, not the river.

Apart from the actual writing there is the thinking up the idea in the first place, then getting a first draft written, then the re-write, and the next re-write. Then several edits and probably a couple more re-writes. (And I can guarantee there will still be errors and typos!) Then trying to find an agent, or giving up on that and deciding to go self-published  -  ‘indie’. Which will include finding a good cover designer, and avoiding all the pitfalls that can drown an indie writer. Oh, and did I mention editing?

Eventually, hopefully, you will end up with a cracker of a novel which receives fantastic reviews and sells better than hot cakes. (Even with those dastardly missed typos that definitely weren't there at the proof read stage but mysteriously manifested themselves the moment the button to print was pushed.)

That all sounds do-able!’ Do I hear you say?
It is. That is what writing is all about, and there are professional editors, and critiquers and cover designers, all eager to help you. (For a fee, of course - and please, do be wary of the 'cowboy' charlatans who tout online for business - they are out there by the bookful.)

But there is a but. A big one.

To write a good novel you need an idea. 
And then a plot. 
You need the characters to people that plot, need to think up who they are, what they do, why they do it and what happens to them while they are doing it, or after they have done it. 

So you need a box. A story box in which to store all those ideas pouring (or sauntering) into your mind. It is a mind box, a little compartment in your brain where you stash your ideas. Or a spreadsheet, or a word.doc where you jot down your thoughts. It can be a big box or a little box, a wooden box, a cardboard box… a blue box, a red box… 

And all that thinking can be easy. Or it can be the ‘here I get stuck’ bit, especially if you want to write a series, like I am doing for my Sea Witch Voyages. So then, if you are stuck, you need to think outside of the box, don’t you? Assuming you have a box in the first place to think outside of.

The Sea Witch Voyages are nautical adventures for adults, with a touch of fantasy. Think the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Entertaining fun, with a drop-dead gorgeous pirate for a lead character. Mine is Captain Jesamiah Acorne, with Tiola, a white witch, as his girlfriend. Jesamiah is Jack Sparrow, Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower, Indiana Jones, Richard Sharpe and James Bond all rolled into one.
My tagline is,Trouble follows Jesamiah Acorne like a ship’s wake.’

Everything for writing the first novel, Sea Witch, came to me as if by magic. Plot, characters, situations – I wrote the first full draft in just under three months. I had no idea, at that point, that this was going to be the first of a series, but I had so much fun writing it, and I had totally fallen in love with Jesamiah, that I had to write another adventure about him. So Pirate Code followed which was harder to write because I found I was a little bit stuck inside the box -  the prospect of writing Voyage Two  was daunting – I needed to write a coherent, continuity-correct novel, and ensure that it was as exciting as the previous one. It was hard work, but I think I managed it.

buy on Amazon 
The third, Bring It Close was easier as it centred around that dastardly pirate Blackbeard, so my basic plot was dictated by the events of history. Ripples In the Sand was the fourth, and the fifth, On the Account, introduced a new character for me to fall for, Maha'dun. As my Jesamiah says, ‘He is the most irritating, annoying, confusing, inconsistent, loyal, courageous idiot I know.’ We (Jesamiah and me, and hopefully, more than a few fans) love him because he is all those things. And he has no idea what a box is, or what a box is for, apart from storing clothes and stuff in.

on Amazon
Now I am working on the sixth, Gallows Wake. Well, I use the term ‘working on’ somewhat loosely. ‘Thinking about’ is probably more accurate. No spoilers, but Jesamiah will be in trouble again, this time with a few old enemies and the British Royal Navy. How Maha'dun appears in it you will have to wait to find out, after all, Jesamiah believes that his friend was shot dead at the end of On the Account... (and buried in the wooden box of a coffin)

But I am finding getting beyond the first ten chapters of Gallows Wake is becoming a toughie. I have a rough plan, a sort of nautical chart with the starting point marked on it along with the eventual destination and various places during the voyage to drop anchor, but that clichéd ‘think outside the box’ business is bugging me.

 ‘Thinking outside the box’ is often given as a tip to help struggling writers. It means to approach a plot, an idea, that next novel, in an innovative manner. To think of what is going to happen to your characters in a way you would not have thought of before. So it means ‘think of clichéd situations in a way that is no longer clichéd.’ Or so I am told.

And there’s the rub. I think up my rough idea then I ‘chat’ to Jesamiah as I write and the other ideas just come. From where, I know not. I’m convinced that he whispers them to me. (I am not alone, most writers know for a fact that their characters exist as real people in an alternative dimension.) My problem is, Jesamiah has gone off and fallen asleep somewhere. Probably in or under a completely different box that was once brimfull of bottles of rum (now empty)...

When I am writing I don’t think inside the box, I don’t think outside of the box. Actually, I haven't got a box, I don’t know where a darn box is, or even whether I actually want a box. But maybe I should have a box? So am I thinking inside the box or outside the box about the need to get/have a box?

I need my pirate to stop messing about and get back here to start some work with me, so what I really need is not a box but a bottle of rum to lure him in…

Now there’s a novelty – thinking outside the bottle

Novella - how Jesamiah became a pirate

Images via Pixabay Graphics and www.avalongraphics.org 

originally posted on Heidi's Wanderings  April 2018