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Tuesday 28 May 2019

Tuesday Talk: What my Arthurian Trilogy means to me.

I’m a published author. That in itself is an ultimate goal for many a ‘wannabe’, but seeing my books in print – after twenty-six years ‘in the business’  still gives me a thrill. Writing is a solitary occupation – and I do sometimes wonder why on earth I do this darn silly job! The work is hard; I am at my desk every day seven days a week, and most of it, since the blossoming of Social Networks, involves promotion of some sort or another on Facebook, Twitter and the like. The fact is, to be regarded as a good writer you have to sell books. To sell books you have to market them, which means exchanging pleasant chat on the Internet, (you don’t sell books by saying “buy my book – I wish it were that easy!) The plus side; I have made many wonderful friends worldwide, and I hear, first hand, from readers who enjoy my books.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to receive an e-mail from someone who has just finished – and loved – one of my books. Even after all these years, I am not confident about my writing. “Who is going to want to read my nonsense?” I think to myself as I struggle to get the next book written and edited. Then I discover an unpleasant review. (Tip to authors: don’t read the Amazon or Goodreads reviews unless you have a skin as tough as an elephant’s hide.) Constructive criticism we all welcome – trashing in public we don’t. But it happens, it’s part of the job, and fortunately the ‘loved this book’ comments outweigh the ‘hate this book’, so the gloomy feelings do not surface that often. And even when they do I have an army of friends out there who soon cheer me up.

I also have my books and characters.

The Kingmaking – the first of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is very special to me. Obviously, because it was my first full-length novel, but there is more to it than that, so many memories are connected to it.

I met and became friends with Sharon Kay Penman for one. I had been scribbling with writing my version of the Arthurian story – stripped of medieval trappings: no knights in armour, no holy grail – no Merlin, no Lancelot – just the struggle for survival by a man who became one of the most famous warlord legends of all time: Arthur. I never thought I was good enough to get published. I spotted a book with a sword on its spine at the local library. It wasn’t about Arthur, but it looked good: Here Be Dragons is probably one of the greatest historical novels ever written! I was blown away by it, and although I had never written to an author before, I felt I had to write to Sharon to thank her for writing such a fantastic novel. This was in the pre-email days, one of those old fashioned written by hand letters. Some weeks later I received a reply. “Helen, if you can write such an interesting four-page letter, I can’t wait to read the book!” A short while later Sharon came to London and suggested we meet for coffee. I can’t express how thrilling it was to sit with a real author chatting about history and writing. Truly one of the best days of my life. Sharon gave me some writer’s tips and recommended me to her agent.

I had to rewrite most of what I had written – tidy it up, cut down on the run-on sentences, see to a few more technical novice errors, but I had what amounted to one-and-a-half novels. You could have knocked me down with a feather when the agent said I had a trilogy on my hands,  I had not thought beyond one novel, let alone three!

William Heinemann snapped me up. I was in print. An author.
Launching Kingmaking May 1994
The first buzz of excitement was awesome. A national newspaper took me and my family out for the day to ensure they got an exclusive scoop. I was on the radio, TV – my career was launched.

And then sank.

The Kingmaking did well, but not well enough. Book Two, Pendragon’s Banner came out, none of the previous media hype came with it. ‘We’ll do a big marketing push for the paperback version,’ I was told. It didn’t happen.
‘We’ll do a big push for the third.’ That didn’t happen either.

An American publishing company, St Martins, took the Trilogy and printed from an uncorrected proof. I gave up counting after 360 errors – including ‘bread stubbled chin’ (beard stubbled) and Anglican instead of Anglian. I wept.

I received a really nasty e-mail some years later from a US student condemning me for my dreadful writing, my ignorance of English and accusing me of how dare I call myself an author. Did I go to school? this person ranted,  did I learn to read and write – the rubbish in this book did not indicate that I did. I received that hateful mail on Boxing Day. The hatred it conveyed still shocks me.

I wrote two more books (Harold the King UK /I am the Chosen King USA and A Hollow Crown UK /Forever Queen USA) Harold did well, Crown didn’t. Historical Fiction had gone out of fashion, no one was interested anymore . Heinemann decided not to print my backlist, my agent decided I was not worth the effort, we parted company. I was out of a job, but I picked myself up, indie published here in the UK – and then was picked up by a different US publisher (Sourcebooks Inc).

I also found freelance graphic designer Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics. She designs my indie covers and all my marketing material. Yes, the graphics in this article are all hers.  We are now best friends. I met Cathy because of Arthur – another thank you I owe the books.

Me and Cathy
I have fond memories of researching Shadow of the King – an epic family vacation in Northern France and Brittany undertaken one summer. We travelled with very dear friends who organised the whole trip. Hazel, one of those friends, was very dear to me. She passed away unexpectedly on October 31st 2001. I clearly recall sitting on a low wall high up the hill of Vezelay, looking down at the walnut trees and seeing a lizard scuttle away. Walking through the old, narrow streets of Avalon (yes there is actually a place called Avalon in France!) Exploring the amazing standing stones at Carnac – and all the shared laughter in between. Much of that holiday is reflected in Shadow, and therefore my memories.

The tragic scene in Pendragon’s Banner (no spoilers) where Arthur is fishing is also based on real experience. Another family holiday, camping beside the River Wye in Wales. My daughter was quite young, we went to see the river which was in flood after heavy rain. I held her hand so tight in case she should slip - and the whole scene played out in my mind. I cried as I wrote it. I have no doubt that what I saw was an echo of a past tragedy, the detail was too clear for it not to have been.

Like Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine I have heard the wind sing through the grass on top of Glastonbury Tor – and I’ve known horses as bloody-minded as Arthur’s bad-tempered chestnut, Onager!

I look upon my characters as real people, real friends – they drive me mad at times because what I want to write is not what they want to happen in their adventures – Arthur was very annoying at times. Frequently I would discover I’d written a scene that had come from nowhere – usually ending up with Arthur in some scrape or another. Once I distinctly heard a voice say, “Now get me out of that!”

My pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, does the same as I write my Sea Witch Voyages. The two characters are very alike, both difficult to deal with, both absolutely maddening, and  I love them both very much. To me, they are as real as you are…

Every so often I think that I can’t go on, that writing is getting too onerous, the marketing too difficult, especially now that my eyesight is becoming ‘wobbly’ (I have Glaucoma) But I could never walk away from Jesamiah, and Arthur will always, always, remain my first love.

All I need now is for people to get out there and buy the books….

Monday 27 May 2019

Tuesday Talk: Born Under Fire by Rina Z. Neiman

Due to unfortunate circumstances, the author's intended post was not received, however, please do browse below and follow Ms Neiman's ongoing tour. 

Paperback Born under Fire Book

Born Under Fire is a historical novel that tells the story of a girl coming of age and her drive to excel despite the devastating effects of long-term war. Born in Jerusalem under British rule in 1928, Shula grows up in a world in turmoil as Hitler rises to power and nations enter into war. Amid a landscape of ancient stone ruins next to modern Bauhaus architecture, and desert scrub ending at newly verdant farmlands, Shula grows into her independence as the State of Israel is born. Based on historical documents and events, Born Under Fire is also about the context surrounding the founding of the State of Israel, as well as the horrors and dangers of growing up in a conflict zone. Shula battles grief and depression due to the shattering events affecting her, her family, and the entire world. Despite this struggle, her resilient spirit enables her to reach great heights as a concert pianist..

Print Length: 258 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
ISBN-13: 978-1986349147
ISBN-10: 1986349144

Born Under Fire is now available to purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Thrift Books.

Praise for Born Under Fire

“I went to high school in Israel in the late 50's and heard many personal stories about the early years and the struggle for independence. Your book makes these years really come alive. Also, most of my relatives' tales were set in Kibbutzim and rural Palestine. Your book describes life in Tel Aviv as just as heroic. Lastly, I share your mother's love for Yemenite embroidery and am happy that your book calls attention to this beautiful art form.” 
Vita Hollander

“This lovely coming of age story provides a view into the challenges, conflicts and dilemmas facing the European Jews fleeing Hitler’s reach and trying to make Palestine their home. It pulls no punches and honestly acknowledges the dilemmas posed by the creation of this new country, but as it tells the story from the eyes of a young girl, we see those intricacies as she would have seen them, allowing the reader an understanding not only of historical events that readers may not be aware of (the proposed partition, the ethical dilemma posed by Jewish terrorist groups, etc.) but also of the emotional journey of these refugees and their children. This story is an important reminder of the effects of war and provides a critical piece of history necessary for understanding the world today.”
Nima M. Vincent via, 5 out of 5 star review

“This story drew me in from the very first page. The vivid descriptions of smell, sights and taste, longing, disappointment and joy, evoked real emotion and made me wish I were sitting at the kitchen table with Shula and her aunts. I appreciated the many history lessons tucked into the adventures, and was relieved to discover details about this time period without being burdened by the author's politics.”
Lisa Fliegel via, 5 out of 5 star review

About the Author, Rina Z. Neiman
Rina Z. Neiman is a writer, event producer and public relations professional. Born Under Fire is based on the true story of her mother, Shulamit Dubno Neiman, a Sabra, a musician and one of the first generation of modern-day Israelis. Rina lives in Marin County, California with her husband and son. This is her first novel.

You may find out more about the author and her book by visiting the website Also, you may find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

-- Blog Tour Dates

May 20th @ The Muffin
What goes better in the morning than a muffin! So, grab your coffee and join us today as we celebrate the launch of Rina Z. Neiman's book Born Under Fire. Read an interview with the author and enter to win a copy of the book.

May 21st @ Karen Brown Tyson Blog
guest post about how to manage time and distractions during the book writing process. If you are writing a book - or thinking about writing one - this one is a post you don't want to miss!

May 22nd @ Coffee with Lacey
Grab some coffee and visit Lacey's blog today where you can read her review of Born Under Fire.

May 23rd @ Coffee with Lacey
guest post about why researching primary sources is so effective.

May 23rd @ Bri's Book Nook
review of Born Under Fire

May 24th @ One Sister's Journey
review by Lisa of Born Under Fire.

May 26th @ Reading Whale
guest post about when you can finally start writing your book after all that research.

May 27th @ The Burgeoning Bookshelf
guest post about writing biographical fiction and when to dramatize real events.

May 28th This Blog
May 28th @ Book Collab Blog
Review of Born Under Fire.

May 29th @ Author Anthony Avina's Blog
Anthony Avina's features author Rina Z. Neiman's blog post about how she researched Born Under Fire.

May 31st @ Jess Reading Blog
Are you interested in writing history for young adults?

June 1st @ The World of My Imagination
review of Born Under Fire and enter to win a copy.

June 2nd @ Author Anthony Avina's Blog
review of Born Under Fire.

June 3rd @ Beverley A. Baird's Blog
review of Born Under Fire.

June 4th @ Amanda Diaries
review of Born Under Fire. 

June 5th @ The Frugalista Mom
review of Born Under Fire and win a copy of the book!

June 7th @ Bookworm Blog
review of Born Under Fire plus an interview with the author.

June 8th @ Jessica's Reading Room
how to make stories interactive. A must-read for all the writers out there!

June 9th @ Jess Bookish Life
Jess shares her opinion about Born Under Fire.

June 10th @ Beverley A. Baird's Blog
Are you doing research for your novel? Top 5 ways to research secondary sources.

June 12th @ Author Anthony Avina's Blog
Get to know author Rina Z. Neiman at today's stop over at author Anthony Avina's blog where he interviews the author.

June 14th @ Bookworm Blog
making your story interactive and why adding music is so effective.

June 15th @ Strength 4 Spouses
guest post about the importance of writing during deployment.

June 17th @ 12 Books
Visit Louise's blog over at 12 Books and find out her thoughts about Born Under Fire.

June 21st @ Choices Blog
Interviewing someone for your book? Make sure you visit Madeline Sharples' blog today where Rina Z. Neiman talks about how to conduct interviews with people who are (and who are not) willing to talk with you.

click here for last week's post: an interview with King Arthur! 

Tuesday 21 May 2019


If 'my' Arthur was asked to talk about himself and his portrayal in The Pendragon's Banner Trilogy - what would he say I wonder...?

It is the mid-fifth century, and I am Arthur, the Pendragon, son of Uthr, exiled King of the Britons, and now that he is dead, I am King, although it has been a long, hard battle to reach this position of authority. You will find me in many tales, some more outrageous than others, some more exciting, some more believable – but in this instance, I can be found filling the pages of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy written by Helen Hollick. The three novels are The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner and Shadow of the King, and they follow my life from youth to grey-haired old man. And it has been a turbulent life I can tell you! 

I am the boy, who became the man, who became the king, who became the legend, but whether I am a likeable fellow is up to the reader to decide. I am not the turn-a-blind-eye, God is more important than my realm king of the later Medieval tales. If anyone tried to cuckold me, I can assure you he would not live long beyond me finding out - neither would she, my wife, come to that.  But that line of a story does not fit with this Trilogy. Here, I am a post-Roman warlord. I have to fight to gain my kingdom and fight even harder to keep it. I have to be tough, even ruthless, at times. I am also passionate, and passionate people are often quick-tempered. But I like to think of myself as honourable and loyal to those who are loyal, in return, to me. I do not suffer fools, but I admire those with a brave heart. I adore my wife and Queen, Gwenhwyfar, although she too is a passionate woman and we have been known to have several rather dramatic fights. 
Still, it is always nice to ‘make up’ after our quarrels.

My Gwenhwyfar is no simpering maid, She has a sword and knows how to use it. Nor are we a childless couple, we had three sons: Amr, Llachue and Gwdre, although I will not reveal, here, how they tragically, did not come to reach adulthood. We have a daughter though - she survives us both. As for the other son, the one who in your modern times is named as Mordred, but in my time, called Medraut, the Medieval stories took the facts and twisted them into nonsense untruths. Yes, he was my bastard son sired on a woman who I did not know was my own half-sister, but he was no traitor and he fought, and died, on the same side as I.

My strengths? Dedication to my cause – bringing peace to these turbulent times here in post-Roman Britain. The Romans just upped and went back to Rome, leaving Britain in a state of chaos and vulnerable to foreign invasion. There are those, mostly my British enemies, who are certain that the Romans will return, I am equally as certain that they will not, which causes friction between many of us.

I am also convinced that the only way to achieve peace is to negotiate treaties with the Anglo-Saxons, Hengest and his brother Horsa, for instance, who are attempting to settle in what modern people call ‘Kent’, with our without my consent. I would prefer to ensure it is ‘with’, although taking Hengest’s granddaughter as my first wife was not a part of my intended plan! She is well capable of stirring trouble and is not keen on accepting that I divorced her. Frankly, I would rather have cut her throat, but that is not very honourable, or so my advisors tell me.

Buy on Amazon

My weaknesses? Women and drink. And my love for my wife, Gwenhwyfar. I guess I ought to add my stubborn pride as well? Although she has as much stubborn pride as do I.

In the eyes of factual history, whether I ever truly existed or not is a debatable point.  No author ever has the right of  'fact' where I am concerned, for probably, factually, I am nothing more than a myth, a legend, maybe several people who did actually exist rolled into one with their stories exaggerated over time. Whether I really existed or not is not the point though - I am a cracking good character, as far as fiction goes. (Or non-fiction as well, come to that!)

In the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, though, there are none of the later Medieval tales; this trilogy sets my life very firmly in the mid-fifth century and uses the early Welsh tales, not the knights in armour totally made-up stories. There is no Lancelot, holy grail or Merlin in this version. I am not a Christian king, either. My god is the soldier's god, Mithras - and my sword. And it is a better story for it, I think.

Some Amazon Reviews:

"What a story! Can't believe that I've come so late to Helen Hollick's wonderful writing. 'Pendrgon's Banner' and 'Shadow of the King' have been sitting on my bookshelf for years unread... I turned to them in desperation when utterly bored with the repetitive history fiction I've read authors worthy of more! 'The Kingmaking' I bought on Kindle. I fell in love with Arthur from the start, a flesh and blood hero with flaws and his feisty Gwen made for each other and believable (within the realms of legend). Helen Hollick's wonderful trilogy doesn't rely on unnecessary padding and her descriptions are heart-rending. I'm reading the series again and know I'll end in tears for Arthur. Here is a writer in the older style not ' jump on the bandwagon' writing!' Read and enjoy....."

"I absolutely loved The Kingmaking, the first in Helen Hollick's Pendragon's Banner Trilogy. The characterisation is superb, the action scenes memorable, and the grasp of the political machinations is so good it's like an extra fix of Game of Thrones!
Arthur is at times very unlikeable: no modern man in fancy dress here, but a man of his time - and that time was brutal. As for Gwenhyfar, I thought she was a brilliant heroine, at times strong, at times horribly vulnerable. Their relationship is compelling and feels true - no sickly romance here either!"

"From the very first page, I was hooked! I loved this book, the first of a trilogy. I'm a great fan of Arthurian Legends in general, but Helen Hollick brings such realism to her story. It is immaculately researched and far from the more usual romanticised approach. Her characters both good and bad are well fleshed out and real. Arthur himself, a ten-year-old boy at the very beginning of the book, is no romantic hero. He is a completely believable and flawed human being. A likeable boy, brave astute and loyal... he becomes as an adult, a bold and fearless warrior though no angel in his private life. Gwenhwyfar is no gentle female either, rather she is spirited and brave. As both child and woman, she is an extremely attractive, strong and interesting character. In the past, I have read various interpretations of Arthurian Britain, complete with magic and of course Merlin. You won't find those elements in this book which has a very different original approach to the legends. The battles are again truly realistic and Helen has no hesitation in describing their brutality. She ranks for me, among the very top rated historical writers of our time. I recommend it highly."


Hushed murmurs, a few mutters of protest from Arthur’s men were heard, but the invited guests this night were mostly from the settlement and stronghold – Councillors, dignitaries, men of trade and note – and well acquainted with Bedwyr. He had flirted with almost every woman present, tossing flattering remarks, giving looks of appraisal. Drawing pink blushes to a maiden’s cheek and to the elder matrons’, pleased they could still draw a young man’s attention. Women – and husbands – exchanged knowing glances. Aye, the lad was one for the ladies! Gwenhwyfar felt suddenly sick with apprehension. Her stomach heaved to her throat, her body trembled. Too easy was it to read those sneering looks on people’s faces, to imagine what vileness they were thinking and murmuring. People would more easily believe the excitement of lies than accept the tedium of truth. Arthur had his back to the table, to her. With a slight turn of his head, he cast a sideways glance at her, looked quickly away before their eyes should meet. She blinked aside tears. Surely he did not believe these lies? Did not doubt her faithfulness… surely?
He was a few yards from her. Staring ahead, not looking at her, his fists were clenched tight, the nails biting into the soft flesh of his palms, fighting the uncertainty. Somehow, Gwenhwyfar managed to get to her feet, although her body was shaking, her knees threatening to buckle. She walked calmly and with dignity around the table. Faces and voices faded. Nothing, no one, mattered except Arthur. She stared steadily at him as she came, people parting to make way for her. What madness was happening here this night?
“My husband, you are my only love. We have our disagreements and our sadness, as do all partners of marriage, but never would I betray you or that love. Never.”
Hueil had followed Arthur, stood eight paces to his other side. He snorted derision. “Do you not expect her to deny it?” He was warming to this thing, the overspill of resentment frothing to the surface. “They are lovers. Both have betrayed you as king and husband and cousin. Neither of them is openly going to admit it.”
“Ask whether she denies allowing Bedwyr to her chamber when she is alone. Whether she denies meeting with him in the garden, embracing him.” Morgause was smiling, pleasantly, almost offhandedly. The odious bitch!
Gwenhwyfar flung back a taut answer. “I do not deny either. Bedwyr is my kin, he is as a brother to me.”
Morgause gave a low chuckle of amusement. “Yet, he is not, technically, a brother, is he?” Her voice carried very well, even at a soft murmur.
Saying nothing Arthur had not moved. Gwenhwyfar stepped closer to him, her hand extended but not daring to touch him. “You do not believe this nonsense! Do you?” Her hurt for a moment had flared into anger, was struck suddenly to fear when he, at last, met her eyes. “You do!” she gasped. “My god, you do!” She bit her lip, let her imploring hand drop; dared not reach out, lest he brush her aside.
Arthur bit his bottom lip. He was breathing fast, his nostrils flaring, chest heaving for air, fingers gripping the cold touch of his sword pommel. He dared not take a glance towards the walls, dared not look, for he knew they were closing in on him, surrounding him, waiting to fall and crush him. He wanted to run, reach for cool, sweet air, for the vault of unbounded, starlit sky. Nor dared he look at Gwenhwyfar, for fear that just this once she lied to him.

Their quarrels were nothing, heated words between two people with opposing wills, nothing more than sparring or sword practice, an edge against which to sharpen ideas and opinions. All right, he admitted, whores had shared his bed even when they should not, but they meant nothing more than a way to satisfy a need. And aye, she had left him for a while, and in his solitude, he had turned to Elen, but Gwenhwyfar had gone because of her grief, not because of their often exchanged anger. He loved Gwenhwyfar, above all life he loved Gwenhwyfar, and it hurt deeper than any battlefield wound that others could snarl these vile accusations at her. He ought to make an end of Morgause, make an end to this incessant stirring of hatred and malice, and that hurt more. It hurt that even to protect the woman for whom he would willingly die, he did not have it in him to kill Morgause.

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Twitter: @HelenHollick

Monday 13 May 2019

Tuesday Talk Guest Spot: Writing a Trilogy by Erica Lané

I did not set out to write a trilogy although I have always believed in the power of three. Three points are easily held by the mind, one, two, three, is valid, credible, reliable.

I like planting shrubs in groups of three, in China the three-legged stool is a symbol of strength and cooperation. Life has a beginning, a middle and an end. The French revolution gave us liberty, equality, fraternity.

In writing it’s a device that is used for the purposes of rhythm, emphasis and rhetoric. You write it, emphasise it and say it again. The cadences of the Bible are frequently in threes, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind’ and in Shakespeare too. A famous threesome, ‘When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’

A trilogy is different from a series of books. In a trilogy the main characters move forward in their lives, slowly evolving as events occur, as life happens. In a way, the first book is a setup or a foundation stone and then the story is taken further and deeper. A trilogy ends when the main character either dies or there is some natural conclusion. In a series, there are connected worlds but perhaps not a single huge character arc, or there are different characters in each book but they are all in the same world. And a series can be and often is several books.

Henry III

If I were to continue writing about Isabella of Angoulême’s family, her Lusignan children at the court of Henry III and their involvement with him in Gascony this might mean I was writing a series or it might become a second trilogy!  Olivia Manning wrote two trilogies about her main characters, Harriet and Guy Pringle, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy and these are sometimes called a series, so the distinction is rather ambiguous.

After I had written Part 1 of Isabella of Angoulême, the Tangled Queen I knew I had to continue her story when she returned to France, this time in her life has not been written about much in fiction. Sharon Kay Penman writes her into the Welsh Princes trilogy, published 1985-1991. Jean Plaidy wrote The Battle of the Queens about Isabella and Blanche of Castile, published in 1978 and considered part of a Plantagenet Saga Series. Now there is an interesting use of saga and series for a description of several books about the same historical period. Rachel Bard wrote Queen Without a Conscience published in 2007.  Lisa Hilton wrote a fantasy historical novel, The Stolen Queen, which came out in the same year as Part 1 of The Tangled Queen, 2015.  I read some of these again before I began Part 2 but the quote that had gripped me from the very beginning came from an article by W. C. Jordan. And this was the Isabella that I wanted to write about.

Few women were in a position to play as important a role in the history of both England and France in the thirteenth century as the Poitevin countess, Isabelle of Angoulême.

I wrote and wrote and wrote and the pages grew. A few squeaks from the publisher about how it would be too big and unwieldy to produce. Could I cut it in half, make it into two books? What! Cut my baby in half? But then I found I could, and a friend who was reading the raw manuscript came to the same conclusion as I did about where it could be divided. A rather crude division, where was the middle page? Not a method that would be recommended I am sure. But it worked!

Now more research was needed, and more time could be given to events and details. New chapters had to be written and added to what was now the end of Part 2. New chapters had to be added to the beginning of what was now Part 3. I kept huge notebooks, handwritten, checking chronology and dates all the time and often getting bewildered about where I was. 

It was like being a detective, plodding police work, then an insight that gave you a clue to what must have happened. I had to make a grid to keep me on track, the story so far, dates, names, descriptions so that people were consistently described. So with some new chapters added at the end of what was now Part 2 and at the beginning of what was now Part 3, a trilogy was born. But by no means ready to walk into the world. One aspect I discovered with the trilogy was that there were events, descriptions, memories that could be referred back to, and this is a bonus when you are hoping your reader can keep up with your era and its people. 

The research and parallel editing began, for the story is full of all the historical events and facts I wanted to bring in, plus all the domestic details of life in 13th century France and England. Costume, food, childbirth and betrothals. For the larger events, there were sieges and sea voyages, military campaigns, plots and spies.  I visited Lusignan, Fontevraud, La Rochelle, Taillebourg. Niort, Saintes, Cognac, Bordeaux. Angouleme is just up the road, but the main buildings in Isabella’s life were sadly altered in the 19th century.

Finally, I could write FINAL (although I doubt it is ever really final for any writer) 
And now there was a manuscript, two manuscripts. For we still use that word, even though it is created with a keyboard on a PC and can be sent as an attachment with an email. And a manuscript today has to be repaired, not to have literal holes mended, with stout darning, but to be proofread, copy edited and sometimes there is a structural edit too. For something as long as a trilogy the latter becomes important.

A structural edit was needed and this can help the writer with the overarching story, can see where the plot has become confused, where a character’s development has fallen by the wayside, or in my case where I neatly tied up each chapter, leaving no real reason to read on. Once this had been pointed out to me I had the best writing time of all, scouring the chapters and finding ways of making the story zip along, with cliff hangers to tempt on the reader. 

And now there was a trilogy, the last two published within a year of each other. Each with a cover that has an antique map of France and a different emblem, a quill pen, Isabella’s gold matrix and her shield as Queen of England.

An interesting comment from Philip Pullman, that when you are writing you are a tyrant, a despot, in charge of everything, but when the book is published and goes into the world, the democracy begins as every reader has their own opinion and interpretation of the books. And so I wait to see how the trilogy is received but Isabella’s story has been told and that was always my most important aim with the books.

© Erica Lané

more about Erica

Erica Lainé has been an actress, a beauty consultant, a box office manager for an arts festival, a domiciliary librarian, a reader liaison officer, a speech and drama teacher, a writer of TEFL textbooks for Chinese primary schools, and an educational project manager for the British Council in Hong Kong. She was awarded an MBE for her work there. 

After Hong Kong, she came to south-west France with her architect husband to live in the house he had designed, a conversion from a cottage and barn. She lives here with him, a cat and a dog and rooms filled with a lifetime collection of books. She is president of An Aquitaine Historical Society and through this came to know about Isabella Taillefer, the subject of her trilogy. Isabella of Angoulême: The Tangled Queen.

Erica continues to be fascinated and intrigued by 13th century France and England and their tangled connections. 


Monday 6 May 2019

Tuesday Talk: Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers

Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston
By Kristen McQuinn

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview - and feeding me in her own home, no less! - I want to talk a little bit about the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen, Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women - they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses, in particular, had a key business and financial role as well as a religious one. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.
Close up of Hittite cuneiform writing on clay tablet
Close up of Hittite cuneiform writing
 on clay tablet
The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual, and other similar ones, showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

Hittite goddess and child 15th to 13th century BC © PHGCOM Wikimedia Commons
Hittite goddess and child 15th to 13th century BC
© PHGCOM Wikimedia Commons
Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or in pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favourite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy? 

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favourites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in the ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.” 

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction - indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should 'historical' be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as 'historical'? What actually constitutes history or fantasy anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of 'believability' is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three - and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of, in this instance,  women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was probably really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic. 

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

© Kristen McQuinn

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Twitter: @JudithStarkston