26 January 2016

Write the book you dream of reading...

My guest today is Jayne Castel :
She writes Early Medieval Historical Romance and Historical Fiction set in 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England. Two of her novels DARK UNDER THE COVER OF NIGHT and NIGHTFALL TILL DAYBREAK, reached the quarter finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards in 2013 and 2014. 

Over to you Jayne...

Write to please yourself first. Ignore what others say you should be doing, and forget about following trends. Do you think J K Rowling wrote ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ because she thought coming of age stories about young, orphaned sorcerers were ‘hot’? Of course she didn’t! She simply wrote the story that burned inside her, the one she dreamed of sharing with the world… and it just happened to become a bestseller.

Write the book you wish actually existed, the book you’d stay up all night reading. The beauty of being an indie author is that you can write whatever you want – so get out there and do it!

Here’s why writing the book you dream of reading – rather than writing what you think will sell – is crucial:

  • You’ll actually finish writing the book: Finishing a manuscript is hard work – that means if you don’t really love vampire erotica (or whatever’s currently on Amazon’s bestseller list), you’ll find it a struggle to get past page 100
  • You'll connect with your readers. When you write what you love, it shows. Readers get carried away by stories that have been written with passion and truth, stories they can relate to.
  • You’ll be original. The problem with following trends, rather than your heart, is that you risk writing a clone of bestsellers in your genre. Write what you want to read, and you have a real shot at writing something remarkable.

What do you dream of reading?

Here’s an easy exercise that will reveal what you should be writing. Choose a genre that you love, and then think about what it lacks. Write a sentence about it, with a ‘but’.

I love fantasy but…

I did this for my own books – which are actually a blend of three genres: historical, romance and adventure. Here’s what I discovered:
  •  I love history but find many mainstream works of historical fiction a bit ‘heavy’ and ‘macho’.
  • I love romance but find a lot of mainstream romance ‘frilly’ and ‘candy-coated’, with unrealistic heroes and heroines I could never relate to.
  •  I love adventure but I want to read novels where a woman is the lead protagonist.

To get the most out of this exercise, go into detail. Don’t just think about a couple of elements you’d change – make lists!

What did I end up writing? I write historical romance that’s set in 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England (not a traditional period for historical romance). Although I use a lot of real historical figures and events, my books don’t take themselves as seriously as mainstream historical fiction. At the same time, my novels are grittier and darker than most mainstream romance. There’s also a strong adventure element, and since it’s a romance – the heroine takes the lead role.

I’ve written five novels so far, and am currently working on my sixth. Every time I embark on a new story, it’s as much a discovery for me as for the reader. I believe there’s something magical about the creative process, something unexplainable and exciting – but the magic only happens when you write what you love.

More about Jayne:

Jayne writes historical romance adventures about warrior heroes and strong-willed heroines. She weaves powerful love stories into meticulously researched stories about honor, valor, loyalty and vengeance. 

Her KINGDOM OF THE EAST ANGLES series spans a decade and the reigns of three kings: Raedwald, Sigeberht and Annan. The series is a 'must-read' for anyone who loves reading historical romance set in a warrior-dominated culture.

Website: jaynecastel.com
Twitter: @JayneCastel

19 January 2016

Helena P Schrader - Defender of Jerusalem

Biographical fiction is the art of bringing historical figures back to life. 
Effective biographical fiction can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable. Good biographical fiction provides insight into the psychology of real historical characters and can help explain the historical events these people shaped by explaining the motives and character traits that drove them to play the role they did in history.

Writing biographical fiction requires all the skills necessary for writing historical fiction – and more. You need to maintain a balance between action, dialogue and description. You need to write effectively to be able to evoke scenes and environments with which the reader is not automatically familiar (the past!). And you need to have done your homework and really know about the historical period and society in which your book is set. In addition, you must know everything there is to know about the subject/central character – and the historical figures with whom he/she interacted. Thus, research in biographical fiction not only enables a novelist to produce a vivid environment – an effective and colorful stage on which the characters can act, but provides the story-line, plot and to a large extent the cast of characters as well.

Yet even two completely accurate, non-fictional biographies can produce radically different images of the subject. There are always gaps in the historical record, phases of a person’s life that were not meticulously recorded, or events so controversial that multiple – even conflicting – versions of them exist. Unless the subject of a biography also kept diaries of their thoughts and doings every day of his/her life, there is also the challenge of trying to understand motives for recorded actions. Yet even if the subject of the biography did keep diaries or write letters, there is the issue of how honest or self-serving such documents are. Biographers fill in the gaps, select which of several competing accounts of events seems most plausible and speculate about motives and emotions not recorded. Non-fictional biographers do this openly by discussing the different possible interpretations and explaining the reasoning for their analysis of the character's actions and motives. Novelists do this by turning their portrayal into a novel.

Another way of looking at it is to see the historical record as the skeleton of the biographical novel. Without it, you have no substance – and no credibility. But most readers do not want to read about skeletons, certainly not inert ones: they want characters with flesh and blood, with faces, emotions, dreams and fears.

So you need to research more than the life of your subject, you need to understand their family background, their profession (and that of their parents),  the customs and contemporary culture of the society they lived in, the legal system to which they were subject, the technology and fashions of the age, and  more.  And you need to know about the other historical figures who influenced them: their parents, siblings, spouses, colleagues, superiors and subordinates, opponents and rivals.  

If you understand the environment in which a person lived and the relationships your protagonist had, you will find it is easier to understand why your subject acted in certain ways, what he/she was likely to have felt in certain situations, and even begin to understand the fears and inhibitions that might have warped and hindered the protagonist.  If you understand enough about the environment and relationships of your subject, you are half-way to developing a complete character, with not only a skeleton but a face, a mind, and spirit as well. An excellent example of this is Sharon Kay Penman’s biographical novel of Richard III. She effectively explains King Richard III by showing how his childhood relationships with his brothers and his Neville cousins made him the man he became. The Sunne in Splendour is historical biographical fiction at its best.

With good research, then, you can establish the plot line of your biographical novel and acquire the knowledge necessary to create the scenery and backdrop in which the plot unfolds. With good research you can give the skeleton meat and animate it with emotions. But now it gets tricky. Biographical fiction strives to be not only a record of history (in this case a historical personality), but also a work of art – and that means that you may have to deviate – carefully, selectively and strategically – from the historical record.

Let me give an example from the world of painting. There is only one known (or surviving) painting of Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile, which was painted during her life time by an artist who may have met her. It is not a very good painting; it is stiff and lifeless, dark and almost amateurish. There are also many portrayals of Isabella by artists, who did not know what she looked like at all. These later works may not as accurately depict Isabella’s physical features, yet they may capture her spirit in that they make the viewer see aspects of Isabella’s known personality – her piety combined with iron will etc. etc.

This explains how different works of biographical fiction about the same subject can be very different, yet equally good. Is Schiller or Shaw’s Joan of Arc better? I cannot say off-hand which historians would choose as more accurate, but I do know that both – regardless of which is more accurate – are great works of biographical fiction.

Creating a work of art requires clarity of purpose, consistency of style, a proper use of light and dark, and it will require not only extrapolating and interpreting but some outright falsification. It is almost always necessary to create some fictional characters – servants or friends, lovers or rivals – that serve as foils for highlighting character traits, explain later (known) behavior or provide contrast necessary to give the central character deeper contours. However, from my experience as a writer of non-fictional biography (Codename Valkyrie: General Olbricht and the Plot Against Hitler) and biographical fiction (the Leonidas of Sparta trilogy, my current work on Balian d’Ibelin, and unfinished work on Edward the Black Prince), the greatest challenge for the novelist is paring away or condensing some of the known facts or making conscious changes in the historical record in order to produce a clearer, more compelling, central character. 

The risks of making changes are enormous – and someone is bound to catch you on them. But the risks of not making surgical edits are even greater: you can end up with a tome no one wants to read. To take another example from the works of Sharon Kay Penman, I feel her biographical novel about Richard I, Lionheart, fails to live up to her biographical novel about Richard III precisely because she put in too many facts and too many characters. As a result she failed to give the novel clear focus and Richard gets lost in all the action and subplots and sketches of other historical characters, few of whom come to life on their own. (As an aside, I think Penman’s A King’s Ransom is much better!) If you are writing about a person so fascinating that he/she inspired you to write a whole novel about them, then the greatest disservice you can do them is build them a monument that collapses under its own weight and complexity. 

Keep in mind that when resurrecting the dead, we raise the spirit not the body.  The spirit, not each pound of flesh or each wrinkle on the face, is what we wish our readers and future generations to understand and honor. And spirits are always ethereal, elusive – and not quite real.

In this spirit, I present: 
Defender of Jerusalem

Hollywood made him a blacksmith,
Arab chronicles say he was “like a king.”
He served a leper, but defied Richard the Lionheart.
He fought Saladin to a stand-still, but retained his respect.
Rather than dally with a princess, he married a queen —
And founded a dynasty.
He was a warrior and a diplomat both.
Balian d’Ibelin

Find out more about the historical Balian at: http://defenderofjerusalem.com
Visit my author website at: http://helenapschrader.com

12 January 2016

The Great Debate: Indie v Mainstream?

 by Margaret Skea

Put a group of fledging or would-be [Helen: or even established!] authors together and the Indie v Mainstream debate is almost guaranteed to be part of the conversation. It’s a hot topic and there are probably as many different opinions as there are folk to discuss it. Which is a roundabout way of saying that what follows is only my opinion, but based on experience of both sides of the ‘fence’. 

It went like this. 

1) I wrote a novel. 
2) I dreamt of having it published…becoming a best-seller…a Holywood blockbuster…(well maybe not quite that, but you get the idea).
3) I queried agents and, like most would-be authors, began collecting rejection slips. Not enough to paper the walls, but enough to be dispiriting. 

Enter Harper Collins and Alan Titchmarsh and the chance to submit my novel in their joint competition for unpublished novelists. 

After I won the Historical Fiction section of that competition I’d thought I’d have no trouble in finding an agent, especially when recommended by a Harper Collins editor – right? 


My second agent trail was no more successful than the first – they could see why I won the competition and liked (and in some cases loved) my writing, but no-one could see it selling to other than a Scottish publisher and in the words of one agent ‘That makes it uneconomic to sell on your behalf.’ There were two other problems – my main character wasn’t female – a male lead was a much harder sell, aside from the ‘swords and sandals’ – type books, which mine wasn’t, and (perhaps most bizarre of all) it was ‘too well written to be truly commercial’. 

I decided to go it alone. No, not the Indie route, though I did consider that (who wouldn’t?) but I didn’t feel confident that I had the technical skills to negotiate all the potential pitfalls and make a good job of it. (Nor the money to pay for good professional help). Instead I decided to approach publishers direct. Now in the UK you’re not really supposed to do that, but I did have a cunning plan. 

I wrote a three sentence email query to five publishers: introducing me, the book and the competition win, offered to send sample chapters and pasted the first page of the novel into the body of the email, reckoning that while they likely wouldn’t open an attachment, curiousity would probably ensure that they scrolled down the page.  

Net result: four requests for sample chapters, closely followed by three requests for the full manuscript and one (imagine me hyper-ventilating here) offer to publish based on the three chapters alone. In the end, after considering two offers and swithering about waiting to hear from the other two publishers, I decided on the ‘bird in the hand basis’ to take the first one. – The contract was signed before they read the full thing and I had a few restless nights hoping they when they did they wouldn’t change their mind! I’m pretty sure that my appearances on the AT Show had a lot to do with it, even if I did feel like a rabbit caught in car headlights while it was being filmed. And for the record Alan T. is as lovely as you might imagine him to be – generous, encouraging and kind.

The real excitement began when my ten copies of the paperback arrived, courtesy, as I thought, of the publisher. (It turns out the printer supplies 10 free copies as a matter of course.) The launch in Waterstones in Edinburgh was exciting too, as was signing oodles of books, and the incredible sense of achievement that I’d bagged that elusive mainstream deal. 

Launch of Turn of the Tide at Waterstones.
So far, so good. My first print review – in Scottish Field Magazine – was mercifully positive and the paperbacks were selling – slowly, but still. And to see a bookshop window full of my book was amazing. 

There are many positives in the mainstream route: in-built credibility, all the expenses of publication covered by the publisher, particularly a print run, and immediate eligibility for professional bodies such as the Society of Authors and also, in my case, the Historical Writers Association.

Masons of Melrose
There are also negatives: lack of control, especially of marketing, and no direct inter-face with Amazon; little knowledge of how book sales are going aside from the (once or twice a year) royalties statement; and of course the economics of it all – once I’d earned out my advance I received the princely sums of £0.89 for every paperback sold and £0.29 for every ebook. I understand the economics of the paperback production and don’t actually begrudge the publisher their whack for that, but the ebook? £0.29 – really? 

Writing colleagues who had self-published knew exactly how their books were doing, had the freedom to market as they pleased, and significantly increased royalties. 

Fast forward to early this year and my (one year late) completion of A House Divided, the sequel to Turn of the Tide. I contacted the publisher, who had an option on it, to discover that in the meantime they had bought over another publishing house and were up to their eyes with books in the pipeline, so that it was unlikely there’d be any chance of publication before 2017, and even that wasn’t guaranteed. 

In the circumstances it wasn’t a hard decision to re-invest money made from the first book and self-publish the second, and in effect become a ‘hybrid’ author – with a foot in both camps. What was hard was deciding exactly how. Print run v POD? Doing the editing / cover design / formatting etc myself, or contracting it out? Using a firm who would look after everything, or individually arranging the professional services required?

In the end I decided 
1) to set up a publishing imprint
2) to do a print run (1000 copies)
3) to oversee the whole process myself, but to buy in services as needed. 

I was fortunate, and was able to contract the same cover designer and printer that the publisher had used for the first book, thus ensuring a good physical ‘match’ between the two. I then negotiated an agreement with the current distributor of Turn of the Tide that they would take on A House Divided, which I hoped would solve the problem of how to get it into bookshops. And finally I found a copy-editor (worth his weight in gold) and a formatter to prepare the ms for both print and e-versions, and I set the publication date – 15th October. And when two mainstream bookshops offered to host a launch, I accepted both – one in Edinburgh and one in my local area.

Five and a half months seemed ample time to get everything done, but on reflection another six –eight weeks would have taken a lot of the stress out of the process – but I got there in the end – just. The printer, distributor and bookshop were all quite relaxed, but if the stories of sending a taxi from Edinburgh to London to pick up needed books were intended to calm me down, they failed miserably. And in the middle of all the organizing I made another, momentous, decision – to negotiate back the rights to the first book. So with two weeks to go until launch day I became a fully-fledged member of the Indie community. And with just three days to go, the physical copies of the new novel arrived, and to my great relief were exactly what I’d hoped for. 

Eight weeks into my new life as a ‘publisher’ things seem to be going well – A House Divided has been reviewed in a national newspaper - not a ‘luvvie’ but some complementary comments, with no significant negatives, and it’s been chosen for a Reading Agency promotion. The award of an Hawthornden Writing Fellowship  2016 came at just the right time, resulting in two full-page feature articles in different local newspapers, which has all helped in promotional terms and I have to admit to being quietly optimistic. 

Am I glad I made the shift ? – Definitely. Would I ever go back to a mainstream publisher?  Possibly, but the deal would need to be very tempting. In the meantime I’m enjoying being in control and delighted to have that most tricky of off-spring – a second book – under my belt.
Time to start the third.

I love my new logo and am looking forward to the time when all the physical copies will proudly display it.     

And finally, thank you  to Helen for inviting me onto her blog, and to all those who helped make my new venture possible. 
[Helen: you're welcome Margaret!]

Latest - Awarded an Hawthornden Fellowship for 2016.

Turn of the Tide: Winner of the Beryl Bainbridge Best First Time Author Award  

Sequel - A House Divided -  published 15th October 2015



Visit my webpage: www.margaretskea.com
Join Margaret on Facebook

Previous Post - click here  5th / 6th January 1066 

5 January 2016

5th January1066

2016 is the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, 
which took place on October 14th 1066. 
But there is a lot more to reflect on for this most
 important anniversary year. 

It all started on January 5th...

On January 5th 1066, King Edward, (later known as the Confessor) lay dying at Westminster, London. He passed peacefully away either late on the 5th or in the early hours of the 6th, and Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex was crowned King in the newly built Westminster Abbey, on the 6th January. The first English King to be crowned there - and the last.

On another Blog  I have posted the two views
English v Norman of this momentous event 

but for now, here's my version of January 5th 1066 
as written in my novel, 
Harold The King (UK title)
  I Am The Chosen King (US title) 

The fifth day of January.

For the first occasion in many a week the sky had cleared and brightened from the misery of rain into the vivid blue of clear winter sky. There was a nip of frost to the air. The sun was low, eye-dazzling, glittering through the diamond-bright grass and reeds.
Throughout the short hours of daylight Edward’s breath rattled in his chest, incoherent words flowing from his blue-tinged lips. As the sun set, burning gold over the Thames marshes, the temperature dropped to below freezing. Come morning, there would be a white crust riming the edge of the river, the courtyards would be a film of treacherous ice.
Edith was at his feet, attempting to rub some feeling of heat into them. Earl Harold stood, wrapped in his own thoughts, beside the brazier, absently adding more charcoal. By Edward’s bedside stood the King’s personal priest, Robert fitz Wimarch, the Archbishops Stigand and Ealdred and his doctor, Abbot Baldwin.
“I like not this dishumour,” Baldwin muttered, laying his fingers on his king’s feverish temple and shaking his head in resignation. There was nothing more he could do for the dying man.
Stigand bent over the bed, shaking Edward’s shoulder with anxious temerity. “My Lord King, wake up. My Lord, please rouse yourself!”
Edward’s eyelids fluttered, then, for a long moment, he lay still, quite silent, the breath caught in his throat. Suddenly his eyes flashed open and he recognised Stigand leaning over him. His eyes wide and fevered within a skeleton-like translucent face, Edward stared into the startled face of the Archbishop.
“I am for God,” the King croaked. “I have no fear of meeting Him, I look forward to sitting at His feet. Bury me within my mausoleum, now that it is made ready for my coming.”
Stigand nodded. “There is no need to fear death, for you have served God well and you go to an everlasting life from this transitory one.”
“The succession.” Edith hissed. “Quickly man! While he is lucid, ask him of my brother and the succession!”
Harold, remaining beside the brazier with arms folded, had to admit his sister was resolute.
Either Stigand deliberately misunderstood, or had no intention of mentioning Tostig’s enforced exile from England, a subject that could upset the King mortally. The Archbishop held the monarch’s bone-thin fingers and said, “We are here, my Lord Edward. Your beloved wife Edith and Earl Harold be at your side.”
“No, no. Tostig, remind him of Tostig!” Edith brushed Stigand aside and took her husband’s hand earnestly within her own.
Irritated but unable to retaliate, Stigand curtly beckoned Harold to come to the bedside. With reluctance, Harold complied. It did not seem possible that Edward was actually dying, that so much was going to change from this day forward. As a king he had fallen short of expectation, was, Harold had to admit, almost as useless as Æthelred had been, yet unlike his father, the people loved Edward. For his unstinting care and concern for the well-being of the common folk he could not be faulted. In affection, Harold had never felt anything but amicable indifference - neither liking nor disliking him. There were things he admired about Edward, others he despised, but that was so of any man. None save Christ himself was perfect.
Edith glowered at Harold, furious that he had not demanded Edward reinstate their brother as earl, or, in protest at the gross insult to the Godwinessons, gone into exile with him. As they had all those years past when their father stood accused of treason.
Harold had tried explaining to her the difference between the charge against Godwine and that against Tostig, but she had adamantly refused to listen to sense and reason, too wrapped in her own fears and disappointment to recognise the truth. Perhaps a more astute king would have made a move against the trouble brewing in the North before it came to the boil, would have urged caution or removed Tostig from office before it had been too late - but Edward was not a wise man. What was woven could not be unravelled.
Harold sighed with regret for what might have been. He supposed there was room inside the hearts of some men for one area of excellence only. For Edward, it had been in his worship of God and the building of so splendid an abbey. He stared at the sunken face beneath the white, silken beard, the blue eyes that sparkled, not with a zest for life, but from the heat of fever, ðæt wæs göd cyning - he was a good king. Harold sighed again. He could not deny Edward that epitaph, though it was not the full truth. It was not of his fault that he had made errors of judgement along his way, that he had been weak where he ought to have been strong. Edward had not wanted the weighty responsibility of a crown. He should have been an abbot, an archbishop; in that sphere he would have warranted ðæt wæs göd.
“There is much I need say!” Edward rasped. “I would have my household around me.” He glanced fretfully at those few occupants of the room. Harold nodded to fitz Wimarch who went immediately to the door.
They were waiting below, the members of the Council and other men of importance who had served the King. Were waiting for a summons or to hear that their king was no more.
In silence, save for the noise of their boots treading upon the stone stair and brushing through the fresh-spread rushes, they filed in one behind the other to encircle the King’s bed. He had asked to sit up and Robert fitz Wimarch stood behind him, tears blurring his eyes, supporting the frail old man.
“I had a dream,” Edward said, his voice clearer than it had been for many a day. “I saw two monks whom I knew well while I was in Normandy and who passed into God’s safe hands many years ago. They told me of the evils of the men around me, of my earls, my bishops and my clerics. They told me in this dream that unless I warned you to repent and bow your heads in shame before God there would come evil to my kingdom, that the land would be ravaged and torn asunder by the wrath of God.”
“That is indeed a vision of warning, my Lord King.” Stigand said with grave concern, making the sign of the cross as he spoke.
Agreeing, Ealdred of York nodded his head. “There is evil intent in all mankind and unless we humble ourselves before God we shall all face His anger.” He glanced meaningfully at Edith. “Men and women must serve God, and the chosen king, as they are commanded.”
Satisfied that his archbishops could be trusted to do their best to save the tormented souls of men, Edward spoke, with a dignified clarity, the words of the verba novissima, the will declared aloud on the deathbed, naming lands and gifts that were to go to those who had served him well. He spoke of the loyalty that his wife had shown him and said that like a daughter had he loved her. He smiled up at her, begging her not to weep. “I go to God. May He bless and protect you.”
In vain, Edith had attempted to sniffle back the flood of tears, but now gave in to her despair. She had not thought that she had felt anything for Edward, had simply endured his presence, his whining and pathetic weaknesses, but suddenly, now that she was to lose him, Edith realised that she looked upon him, this man who was three and twenty years her senior, as a father. Did she love him? She did not know, but she would miss him. She let the tears fall.
Similar tears were pricking in the eyes of them all. Some fell to their knees, others bowed their heads. Nearly all murmured the prayer of the Lord.
“Sir,” Stigand said softly, again leaning nearer to Edward, who had closed his eyes. “We would know your last wish. Would know who it is you would commend to follow you.”
Edward’s eyes opened. He attempted a weak smile at his Archbishop of Canterbury, fluttered his left hand towards Harold, who took it, absently rubbing his thumb over the taut surface of the proud-standing knuckles.
“My Earl of Wessex.” Tiredness was creeping over Edward; his words came with difficulty. He allowed his eyes to droop closed once more, his hand fall limp within Harold’s. “I commend my wife’s protection to you.”
Energy drained, his body slumped against the supporting arms of fitz Wimarch, the breath catching with an indrawn choke in his chest. The effort of putting thought and speech together had taken everything from him. “Leave, me,” he gasped. “I would make my confession.”

Harold II Rex
Same book - different titles
'A novel of enormous emotional power. 
Helen Hollick is a fabulous writer of historical fiction.' Elizabeth Chadwick

(Helen Hollick is also co-scriptwriter for the proposed movie 1066
 which is in pre-production and looking for funding.

Official 1066 the Movie Facebook Page

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