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Friday, June 01, 2012

Book Review: The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Running VixenThe Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Chadwick's THE RUNNING VIXEN, the sequel to her debut novel THE WILD HUNT, is much more than just another historical romance. Instead it's a vibrant and often moving story of the loving relationship that develops between two opposed characters, supported by a rich historical backdrop that most authors have difficulty in achieving.

Many of the supporting characters return from THE WILD HUNT and Chadwick has lost none of her ability to bring the Norman era to life. From melees and tournaments to cross-Channel trips and rides around the Welsh border, her story is never less than alive and full-bodied. The protagonists are likeable and, crucially, believable, and their developing romance is both poignant and devoid of cliche.

One of Chadwick's particular strengths lies in the richness of the historical detail that she brings to the table and I can think of few authors who achieve the level of seemingly effortless realism evident in this novel. Another aspect I really like is that the harshness of the era is evident in the plotting; there's no sugar-coated fantasy here. Instead of dragging the mood of the story down, however, these dark inroads merely add to the novel's themes of love, sacrifice and understanding.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Importance of Setting in Historical Romance

Previously, I explored a couple of the ways in which setting is crucially important when writing fiction in general. For this blog post, I’m going to be looking at its uses in the historical romance genre in particular.

The Regency period has been an ever-popular staple – particularly among American readers – of the historical romance genre since its first inception, no doubt because of the Jane Austen effect and more recently the books of Georgette Heyer. Such stories utilise bustling ballrooms, expansive country piles, landscaped parks, promenades along beachfronts, run-down slums and rattling stagecoaches to grand effect.

I’ve deliberately chosen to avoid writing stories set during the Regency era. That’s not because I don’t like it, but because I feel like I can add little that hasn’t already been done in an over-populated genre. I’ve gone out of my way to research an era we still know relatively little about – the Dark Ages of Britain, aka the Anglo-Saxon period – to allow me extra freedom in creating my own worldscapes.

Other consistently favourite eras include medieval Scotland – the Braveheart effect, perhaps – and Ireland, along with the Norman era of jousting knights and hulking stone castles, of whom Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the hardest-working authors. I also find stories set during siege warfare to be particularly intriguing; one I once read took place during the English Civil War and was very inventive.

For the latest historical romance we’re working on, Sue and I are concocting a wild and bleak landscape in which the story will play out. I’m talking wide, desolate marshland and storm-wracked coastal landscapes. The idea is that the harsher the elements, the warmer the love and the more heated the passion.

Time will only tell if it works out that way…

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Setting in Fiction: Why it’s Important

In this two-part blog series, I’m going to be talking about how the actual setting of a historical romance story is a crucial element of the narrative and one which can be used to enhance the writing no end. Part 1 will look at the importance of setting in general, while Part 2 will examine its uses in historical romance.

Setting is one of the most important things to me when I read a book. I can’t imagine Jane Austen’s stories without scenes taking place in busy ballrooms, gossips a-chatter in every corner. Try imagining the work of the Bronte sisters without their backdrops of windswept moors. It just doesn’t happen.

Scenery is important for a number of reasons. It adds atmosphere to the story, for one thing; there’s no better way to give your reader’s imagination a workout than by placing your story in remote or exotic wilds, or in a place where danger lurks in every corner. In this sense, scenery enhances and adds flavour to any story.

It’s also possible to enhance characterisation via setting. You can portray an accurate reflection of your character’s mindset in their surroundings; placing them in a field of summery wild flowers is the perfect romantic idyll, and will set them up for a romantic encounter accordingly, while depicting a character alone and adrift in a grey, featureless world will create a depressive state in an effective way.

Personally, I love stories that are well-grounded in a landscape; I’m a very visual reader, and I like to ‘see’ what’s going on in my mind as I explore a book. I suspect many other readers are the same. The good news is that scenery-building is great fun, too…

Monday, May 14, 2012

The future of historical drama on TV

Although I’ve now come to the end of this blog series charting the highlights of the current crop of TV historical drama, there’s still more to come. Fans of well-written shows like those listed over the past week have an exciting future ahead.

One show conspicuous here by its absence is The Borgias, the story of the notorious Spanish crime family who rose to the highest ranks of the Catholic church. Jeremy Irons headlines this show, which has just been greenlit for a third season, and by all accounts it’s very much like a European spin on The Tudors. We’re definitely looking forward to catching up with it in due course.

Meanwhile, forthcoming shows are constantly being announced. A TV miniseries adaptation of the excellent Robert Harris novel Pompeii has been on the cards for many years, and will hopefully achieve fruition soon.

Later this year, Channel 4 will be broadcasting the new miniseries based on the Ken Follett novel World Without End, which is a kind of sequel to his Pillars of the Earth. With the story set a couple of hundred years after the original, there’s a whole new cast and storyline to enjoy. Channel 4 will also be showing a miniseries version of the Kate Mosse book Labyrinth at some point.

Finally, American studios recently announced plans for a big-budget TV series based on the Vikings. I for one am over the moon about this; films over the years on the subject have invariably been lacking, and I look forward to seeing a show that gets into the real nitty-gritty of the subject. The future’s bright!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Tudors: how historical drama on TV became so much fun

The final stop on our odyssey of historical drama entertainment on TV is The Tudors, one of the most successful of all series. It enjoyed huge viewing figures and lasted for four seasons, allowing full time to cover the story of Henry VIII and his six wives.

I think one of the reasons that The Tudors did so well is that it has the factors that keep soap operas high in the ratings: the drama takes place on a small scale, involving the machinations of those in the Tudor court; the same reliable faces appear week after week, and the dominant personalities on display make for plenty of conflict.

There’s lightness, and love, but also moments of unbelievable cruelty that serve as a stark reminder of the ruthless behaviour of those at the top.

Sue and I are currently working our way through a box set and have reached season three. We’re loving the show: not only does it look fantastic (the costume design deserves particular mention) but the scripts are strong, too. Every episode features plenty of incident and that much-loved intrigue.

In the end, The Tudors proved that history could be sexy instead of dry and dust-bound. A young, attractive cast ably step up to the table (I find James Frain and Natalie Dormer to be particularly watchable) and, as Henry, Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a performance that’s become my favourite depiction of the king: as actor, he internalises everything, so gone is the necessity for bushy red beard and fat suit.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Game of Thrones: recognisable history in a fantasy setting

Game of Thrones is, without a doubt, the best written of the TV dramas covered in this blog series, sitting comfortably at the top alongside Rome. Before the disgruntled outcries of ‘it’s fantasy, not historical drama!’ here are a few reasons why it deserves inclusion on this list:

a) Game of Thrones is an example of low, rather than high, fantasy. If you go in expecting singing dwarves and ethereal elves, you’ll be disappointed. Yes, there are brief glimpses of supernatural creatures and references to dragons, but for the most part this show is grounded in the context of a realistic world.

b) There are many references to history, both British and international. The story is set within seven rival kingdoms, akin to the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. There’s a great wall in the North, similar to Hadrian’s but on a grander scale, devoted to keeping out hostiles. Medieval jousting takes place, along with the hunting of wild boars by kings. The author, George R. R. Martin, was inspired by the Wars of the Roses for his depictions of power struggles between various houses. And one character is clearly influenced by Genghis Khan.

c) The show is brilliantly written, full of drama and plot twists, and just as intriguing during the moments of quietness as it is during the spectacle. One of my favourite scenes in the first season involves Charles Dance discussing the merits of political manoeuvering with his son, a conversation which takes place while he skins a deer. It’s just two men chatting, but I was hooked on every word.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Spartacus, a Roman gladiator TV show for mature audiences

While previous historical dramas covered in this blog series have been geared towards female viewers (or at least mixed audiences), Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a show that goes all-out for the male demographic.

It’s a grisly business, charting the slave revolt in ancient Rome made famous by the 1960 Kirk Douglas film in which a number of gladiators rose up against their masters and formed an army. The producers of Spartacus fill every episode with sex, explicit violence, and the kind of slow-motion action that we saw in 300.

Only strong stomachs need apply: a plot point in one episode involves a man having his penis removed. Rarely an episode passes without blood awash the screen. Yet, despite the unpalatable subject matter, something about this show’s writing really hits home.

There’s a strong mix of male camaraderie and political scheming, with John Hannah playing a particularly entertaining villain. The characters and their relationships grow on you as the show goes on, so that by the final episode both Sue and I were completely hooked.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, a six-part prequel miniseries, came next, followed by season two proper, Spartacus: Vengeance.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Camelot, a fantastic soap opera in need of stronger writing

The short-lived TV series Camelot, which lasted for just one series before being cancelled, was an attempt to retell the King Arthur legend for audiences weaned on the sex-and-blood drama of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. It didn’t work very well, with audiences switching off in their droves after the first couple of episodes.

One of the problems was the weak, diluted writing. Much of the show’s storylines resembled those of a long-running soap opera, with much promised and little resolved (despite copious amounts of running time devoted to the subject). There were hints at greatness – Eva Green and Joseph Fiennes bagged a pair of excellent roles – but many were put off by the sickly, skinny-looking male model cast as the once and future king.  

The fantastic elements were kept to a minimum – there was a little shape-shifting here and there – and one of the biggest drawbacks was the lack of budget, which resulted in poor effects and numerous other problems, like a pitched battle between two armies reduced to half a dozen extras milling around a field.

Some gratuitous nudity added to the mix failed to work, key character actors were underused (a delightfully lusty James Purefoy has far too small a role) and we were left with glimpses of might have been. Thankfully, a fellow fantasy show, based on a certain series of books by one George R. R. Martin, turned out a lot better…

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

TV’s Rome, possibly the best historical drama ever made

Coming next in our journey of exploration was the HBO series Rome, which ran for two seasons from 2005 to 2007 before it was cancelled. If Pillars of the Earth is good, then Rome’s even better: a truly faultless show, exemplarily written. It’s hard finding anyone willing to fault it.

On the face of it, the story is about the political manoeuvrings of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but these strands merely serve as backdrop for an even more gripping foreground story, charting the misadventures of two Roman soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, and a household belonging to a scheming woman named Atia of the Julii.

Rome is the show that gave audiences a taste for adult-themed historical drama; themes explored over the course of the series include murder, incest, assassination, sex and, of course, intrigue, which turns out to be the lifeblood of such productions. It’s a series that covers Roman society in great depth, from the pomp and splendour of the Imperial displays to ruthless scrabbles for survival on the mean streets.

And you’ll be hooked from the very beginning.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

What writers can learn watching The Pillars of the Earth

When Sue and I watched The Pillars of the Earth, the eight-part TV miniseries based on the novel by Ken Follett, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing: here was historical drama, done on a television budget of all things, putting similar Hollywood fare to shame.

The beauty of Pillars is that it paints a complex story of lives and loves in a way that’s at once both engaging and easy to follow. The 12th-century backdrop is turbulent, charting the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, but the central, smaller story is even more interesting. On the face of it, it’s about the building of a cathedral, which sounds rather dry, but this device is used as a microcosm to portray the dramatic doings of a large cast.

The sumptuous production values are one thing, but the quality of the character work is even better. It’s hard to pick a favourite: Ian McShane’s delightfully sinister villain is an obvious choice, but if anything the protagonists are even more layered and arresting.

Pillars is also notable for collecting together a number of fine actors who’d be at home as the protagonists of romance novels, historical or otherwise: Rufus Sewell, Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Eddie Redmayne, Natalie Worner and Sam Claflin are all on top form and the series is well worth a watch for any of their fans.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Catherine Cookson on TV: gutsy, grounded storytelling

We’ve been steadily working our way through a box set of Catherine Cookson TV movie adaptations made between 1989 and 2001 by producer Ray Marshall. All of these are splendid entertainment: hard-hitting stories in which realistic characters are wrung through the mill in various ways.

One reason the Cookson adaptations work so well is that they’re invariably gutsy and down to earth. Cookson’s heroines typically rise from the gutter, fighting against sometimes overwhelming odds to make successes of their lives. As such, these tales are hugely inspirational and despite their period settings they never feel dated.

A second reason for the success of these TV movies is that they’re well grounded in reality. The working class Tyneside settings are a character all of themselves and viewed together they create a kind of uniform backdrop on which a varied tapestry of stories is played out. If you want examples of how to make setting and era come alive, then I’d wholeheartedly recommend giving these a go.

For an interview with the producer, check the BBC Tyne website.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Historical Drama on TV: A boon for writers

Over the past couple of years, Sue and I have been getting into television in a big way: we've discovered the delights of the contemporary historical television series. Ever since we switched off the soaps - goodbye, Eastenders, I haven't missed you yet! - and started exploring some of the great shows out there, we've found our writing improving in leaps and bounds.

This cultural renaissance started when we caught up with the Channel 4 broadcast of Pillars of the Earth, an 8-part miniseries adapted from the Ken Follett novel. Following on from this, we never looked back: we fell in love with HBO's Rome, were scandalised by Spartacus and got hooked on The Tudors.

Each of these shows occupies its own niche: some of them portray the highs and lows of the royal court, while others come across as grubby soap operas with lashings of sex and violence. Each of them have two things in common: great writing and intriguing characters you inevitably love or hate.

During the course of this week, I'm going to be taking you on a journey of some of our favourite historical drama shows, looking at what makes them a boon, not just for readers, but for writers as well...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

- Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

As probably the most famous writer in history, Shakespeare knew his stuff. But for once I'm going to have to disagree with him, at least in part: names are crucially important, at least when you're an author choosing names for the characters in your work.

When you're writing fiction, names usually have to fit the characters. Contemporary protagonists in an ordinary world might be Joe, Ian or Kate. But call someone Reginald, Percival or Eustace and readers will immediately think they're either fussy, fusty or just plain old-fashioned. Even worse, a wrongly-picked name may throw them out of the story altogether.

I'm currently at the naming stage while doing early ruminations for my next novel. The challenge when choosing names for historical characters is picking something that's easy to grasp (not to mention pronounce) for the average, modern-day reader. That can be slightly tricky when you're writing in an era like the Anglo-Saxon one, where typical names included Aedelbeorht and Eadburga...

Friday, April 13, 2012

Random Idea Generation

Unfortunately, a combination of the Easter holidays and family commitments has meant that my writing has had to come second these past two weeks. Why is it when you're too busy to write you always seem to get the best ideas popping into your head, usually at random and unhelpfully-timed intervals?

Thankfully, I keep a number of notepads and pens to hand that allow me to scrawl down any important stuff that I'll likely forget again five minutes later. The most useful one of these rests on my bedside cabinet, and is used occasionally when ideas turn up in the night. It's also extremely handy for jotting down those half-glimpsed dream-thoughts which invariably dissolve once you're fully awake...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale

Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective ProseSin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always remember a piece of advice in Stephen King's ON WRITING, which I read a good few years ago: King recommends that writers get themselves a "writer's toolbox" of skillsets, reference books etc. that they can fall back on and use to enhance their trade.

Ever since, I've been keeping an eye out for really good guides to the nitty-gritties of writing: namely, spelling, punctuation and grammar. SIN AND SYNTAX may well be one of the best of those guides.

The first and foremost thing about this book is that it's an entertaining read. No dry, academic textbook stuff here (and believe me, I've read my share of them). Hale is a witty and involving author, and she makes a potentially unengaging/uninteresting subject positively zing at times.

The book is split into short, manageable chunks that make reading - and learning - a breeze. Language is brought to life in all of its wondrous forms, with equal prominence given to Shakespeare and modern-day rap lyrics. You'll learn a lot from reading it.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Seasonal Inspirations

Now that the equinox has been and gone and winter is but a distant memory - try telling that to my dogs, who were shivering in the cold air this morning - it looks like spring is finally upon us. It's been a long wait, as always, but a worthwhile one too. Early spring is one of my favourite times of year as a writer.

Does anything point the way towards spring better than snowdrops emerging from a litter of last year's dead leaves?

In terms of the seasons, winter is by far my least favourite. It's the best time of the year for celebrations, but in every other respect, winter is the dead season. It's a period when merely being outdoors is unpleasant, and time outside is spent in hurrying to the next indoor vantage point. As somebody who loves being outdoors, it's a tough few months.

Spring is another matter entirely. Colour is all around us, emerging from flower beds and hedgerows. The birds and the beasts seem genuinely happy with the warmer temperatures, judging by the constant birdsong outside my window. Better still, things are only going to get better with summer and autumn (two more seasons I love) coming up. This is a time of expectation and lifted spirits.

What does spring mean for writers? For me, it's a time of year to be thinking about new projects, planning ahead for the long and hopefully dry summer. Personally, I have copious notes for a new book I'm in the process of planning, a project that will no doubt occupy plenty of my creative time this year.

Inspirations are all around us. I get most of my inspirations by taking long walks through the countryside, and there isn't a better time to be doing so. The warmer temperatures, clear skies, and blooms and buds of nature around us can't fail to engage the senses. It's the time of year when I start carrying my camera around again as a matter of habit, never knowing what beauty I might spy next.

It's a time when you can't help but feel good to be alive...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Trumpington Cross: a grave discovery

This week, the newspapers have been reporting a story about the archaeological discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial site in a village near Cambridge. The grave, which dates from the mid 7th century, contains the body of a 16 year old woman lying on a bed of which only the fittings now remain.

A story interesting enough in itself, you might think, but what makes this doubly newsworthy is that the woman was buried with a solid gold cross at her neck. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans when they first arrived on our shores, and the spread of Christianity among them was a gradual process, so this find helps historians to date their knowledge more accurately.

Incidentally, the above facts led to a typical howler from the unreliable Yahoo! News team, who reported on the discovery of one of ‘Britain’s first Christians’, totally ignoring the early Celtic church, the Irish missionaries and their work, and even that the Romans themselves were Christianised before they left Britain centuries prior to the date of this burial!

The University of Cambridge website features a lengthy description of the excavation, along with a slideshow of related images and a video of experts discussing the finds. Michelle Ziegler’s excellent blog, Heavenfield, also explores the implications.

Once again, I’m struck by the exquisite detail of Anglo-Saxon jewellery; the cross itself is a thing of beauty. These may have been the Dark Ages, but not when it came to such intricate art and craftwork. The notion of a Saxon bed burial – described by researchers as ‘very rare’ and ‘extraordinary’ – is also a new one on me.

This find also paints an evocative picture: a young woman, possibly an early convert to Christianity in a pagan society, living close to the river Cam on the contested frontier land between Mercia and East Anglia. Was she a princess, a woman of power and status? Or perhaps a nun, living in a small commune with her fellow sisters? Was she struck down by the plague in the prime of her life?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but I hope the archaeologists are able to share more key details with us once they’ve completed their tests.


BBC News, Daily Mail

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Eavesdropping as a tool for writers

“Confound it all, Samwise Gamgee. Have you been eavesdropping?”

“I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves sir, honest. I was just cutting the grass under the window there, if you’ll follow me.”

- from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Eavesdropping is a dirty word these days. Think of it and you think of the Leveson Inquiry, dodgy tabloid journos and phone hacking. The mere act of listening in on somebody’s private conversation is taboo, a form of theft. Yet eavesdropping is one of those tools that can provide a wealth of inspiration for writers in the right circumstances.

The term ‘eavesdropper’ originated in the mid 15th century to mean “one who stands at walls or windows to overhear what’s going on inside” (thanks, Online Etymology Dictionary). I’ve heard tell that in the old days it used to be a criminal offence to listen to somebody else’s conversation. But writers who resolutely refuse to do so are missing out.

Put simply, eavesdropping is a great source of external inspiration.

Writing is an all too often solitary job, and for all writers the ideas sometimes stop flowing. It goes with the territory. And sometimes the best thing to do is to get a breath of fresh air, grab a cup of coffee and sit down in a busy café, listening to the words filling the air around you.

I’ll admit that I’d never considered using eavesdropping as a source of inspiration until I was required to do so for my writing course. So, with notepad and pen in hand, I visited my local town on a market day to give it a go. Once you’ve gathered the courage to break a social etiquette, it actually turns out to be quite easy.

Initially I tried eavesdropping on people who were walking as they talked. Big mistake: listening, following without being noticeable and scribbling notes are three things that just won’t combine. Next, I lurked in a doorway while listening to a couple of guys chatting outside a tailor’s, and that worked better. The trick is to look inconspicuous; pretending to text or talk on your mobile phone works a treat, or bring a book you can pretend to be reading.

The best territory, though, is when you find somewhere you can sit down and have a reason to be; a pub or café is perfect. It’s perfectly normal for a writer to grab a drink and make notes at their table, so nobody suspects a thing. Pretty soon, I’d jotted down enough of a conversation to complete my assignment, and a few weeks later I’d transformed that conversation into a short story that I felt pleased with.

If you’re really unhappy about going out and having a listen, there are alternatives. The Eavesdrop Writer Blog, based in America, has transcripts of all kinds of overheard conversations and is well worth a look. And – forgive me for saying so – reality television can sometimes offer you a way to listen in to strangers chatting from the comfort of your own home.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Book review - THE WHALE ROAD by Robert Low

The Whale Road (Oathsworn, #1)The Whale Road by Robert Low

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

THE WHALE ROAD is the first in a series by Robert Low concerning the adventures of Orm and the Oathsworn, a band of vicious Vikings whose journeys take them all around the world.

The first thing you notice about this story is the level of violence. It makes Bernard Cornwell's writing look positively tame in comparison. There's death, destruction and hand-to-hand combat on every page, with an emphasis on the visual and visceral. There's also an incredibly high body count, the highest I've ever encountered in a book, and you start wondering whether anybody will make it out alive come the end.

The plotting and backstory isn't as important to Low as living in the moment, detailing a life set in miserable, cold surroundings punctuated by moments of extreme violence. The essence of the adventure is a hunt for the treasure of Attila the Hun, but at times it feels like a Macguffin, designed to keep the characters ever-moving.

There are flaws, particularly early on. The opening chapter is muddled, introducing a large cast while at the same time portraying some back story involving a fight with a polar bear. This makes for very confusing reading, but thankfully the rest of the story takes place in the present. The supporting cast is filled with larger than life characters, although the best is Hild, the sole female in the book who casts a long shadow over all the rest.

At its best, the story reminded me of Herzog's AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD, depicting a dwindling group of survivors seeking out their doom, with the presence of death ever near. Low's writing is excellent when it comes to describing action, and a rooftop chase is a particular highlight. Now my appetite has been whetted, I'll be on the lookout for the follow up, THE WOLF SEA.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Monday, March 05, 2012

A Horse's Grave in the Wood

Sue and I discovered this unusual monument a few years ago, while out walking in Morkery Wood near Castle Bytham, Lincolnshire. Back then, information on the obelisk was scarce, and the only mention of it I could find was a hesitant guess that it was some kind of ordnance marker to do with the army stationed here during WW2. Since then, the full story has come to light.

It turns out that the monument was erected by General Henry Grosvenor, one-time master of the Cottesmore Hunt, who lived at nearby Stocken Hall in Stretton some two hundred years ago. Grosvenor was a well-known figure who ran his own stud farm at the hall, providing the Duke of Wellington with his famous horse Copenhagen.

The story goes that Grosvenor’s favourite horse, one ‘Black Butcher’, died on the spot beneath his owner during a hunt. Grosvenor then erected the gravestone to commemorate a much-valued steed.

Seen today, the memorial is much eroded, although the image of the horse on the front remains striking. A poem on the reverse has been totally obliterated. The unknown stonemason chose soft ashlar stone for the carving and inscription, but his choice has fared badly with our country’s changeable weather. However, the Rutland Online website has provided a full transcription of the tribute:

“Within old Morcary Wood you hear the sound

Of Lowther's voice encouraging the hounds.

Pass ye not heedless by this pile of stones

For underneath lie honest Butcher's bones.

Black was his colour yet [his] nature fair,

Where ere the hounds went Butcher would be there

'Tis graven to be a tribute to his worth,

Better hunter ne'er stretched leathern girth.”

Grosvenor seems to have held his animals in high regard; a former resident of Stocken Hall Farm noted the prevalence of dogs’ gravestones near the hall itself. Incidentally, a portrait of Butcher, painted by famed equine artist John Ferneley, now hangs in Grimsthorpe Castle near Bourne, Lincolnshire.

As Morkery Wood is today the favoured haunt of dog walkers and cyclists, discovering this lonely grave was a surprise. It feels somehow incongruous. The grave is set back from one of the main pathways in the ancient woodland and easy to miss in the summer months, when it’s hidden in the undergrowth. There’s a subdued and solemn atmosphere to this forlorn spot, and it’s no surprise that the soldiers once stationed here supposed the grave to be haunted, presumably by the hulking, fleet-footed spectre of Butcher himself.






Thursday, March 01, 2012

Writing Collaboratively: how it works for us

I recently read an interview with popular thriller writer Nicci French - actually husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French - that revealed their process of collaboration:

“They tend to write alternate chapters and email them back and forth for each other to revise until both feel satisfied; friends try and guess whose bits are whose and don’t always get it right. They spend months talking about each book before they start, yet cannot imagine actually writing in each other’s presence.”

This insight heartened me, because it’s very similar to how Sue and I work together in our own writing. We first started working together on the same manuscript five years ago, when Sue’s illness meant she could no longer sustain writing alone. Since then, we haven’t looked back.

For us, writing collaboratively doesn’t mean a painstaking process of discussing every sentence before one of us jots it down. I don’t know if anyone could ever write like that; you’d get on each other’s nerves before you finished a single paragraph, and it would take you ages to actually get anywhere. Writing is still a solitary practice, even when you’re working with somebody else.

When we come to starting a new book, Sue and I spend months together plotting, bouncing ideas off each other and developing characters and their back stories. Once all the details are finished, I write out the chapters, one by one, in initial draft form. These are then emailed to Sue, who edits until she’s satisfied, before sending them back to me. I then craft a second, more polished draft.

Working this way gives each of us our own space and allows us both to contribute to the creativity of our stories. We’ve completed four manuscripts so far, and are well into the plotting stage of our fifth, so I can say without a doubt that it definitely works for us.

Would you write together with your nearest and dearest? Would it be a case of harmony and unison, or daggers at dawn?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Fascination of Anglo-Saxon Britain

The mere thought of Anglo-Saxon Britain is enough to send me scurrying to my keyboard, ready to write. I focus exclusively on novels during this era for a number of reasons.

Dark Age Britain stretches from roughly the time when the Romans left our country in 450 AD through to the Norman period directly following on
from the Conquest in 1066. During these centuries, Britain experienced tumultuous times and myriad peoples. The Romano-British and Celtic tribes were eventually subsumed and vanquished by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came over in the 5th and 6th centuries. Major kingdoms emerged, each seeking superiority over the other. By the 800s, the Viking threat reached Britain, with repeated raids eventually leading to wars, settlement and rule. Then, in 1066, the Normans took over the country and the Anglo-Saxons became a conquered people.

Stories thrive on conflict and the era is full of it. It was a time of contrasts: early paganism vs. the spread of Christianity, peace vs. warfare, tribe against tribe, people against people. The Anglo-Saxons were a rural folk who shunned the Roman towns and villas (believing them to be the work of giants). Many of them were farmers. Yet the kingdoms held their own courts and hierarchies, with kings, ealdormen and thegns administrating the countryside. It was a time of hard work and harder play, with fires roaring in mead halls and warriors drinking ale while listening to poets recite the great stories of Beowulf and his contemporaries.

Historical romance stories work best when there's a deep division keeping the hero and heroine apart. A mere glance at this era offers numerous possibilities for conflict and romance: perhaps between a Brittanic princess and Saxon raider; or an Anglian woman and Viking invader; maybe a Norman lord and the Anglo-Saxon woman under his yoke. The possibilities are boundless.

Let the adventures begin.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why Historical Romance?

I often get surprised reactions when I tell people I'm a romance author. After all, I'm a bloke - shouldn't I be more interested in crime novels and thrillers? You know, so-called masculine pursuits? I think it's worth going over the reasons I've chosen to stick with this particular genre.

I hadn't really encountered romance during all my years of reading, aside from when I studied the novels of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte during my university days. I was more of a horror buff - you couldn't drag me away from the novels of H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries.

I have Sue to thank for properly introducing me to the contemporary romance novel. Sue is, and always has been, a huge fan of Harlequin Mills & Boon and she inspired me to try out one of the books. Soon, I'd been introduced to the wonderful writing of Liz Fielding and the many other authors working for the publisher. It didn't take me long to progress onto historical romance novels, where the likes of Nicola Cornick, Carol Townend, Joanna Bourne and Michelle Styles bring long-forgotten eras back to sparkling life.

Before long, I decided to write my own historical romance. It was a difficult beginning, not least in the huge amount of research that needs to be undertaken when first starting out. I wrote a story about a highwayman roaming the roads of 18th century England, and submitted it as part of the RNA's new writer scheme. The critique I received was enough to inspire me to carry on writing - and submitting to the NWS. Since then, I've switched eras - I now write exclusively in the Dark Ages - but my love of the historical romance novel hasn't diminished.

As genres, romance and horror actually have more in common than you might think. Both are frowned upon as examples of the basest genre fiction by fans of highbrow literature. Both devote their time to human emotions. I think that's why I love romance so much - the stories are all about getting inside the hearts and minds of real people, dealing with thoughts and feelings that all of us can identify with today.

Meanwhile, the historical angle gives me the opportunity to indulge in my passion for the delights of kings and queens, warriors and knights, castles and siege warfare. The historical romance genre is one that offers me everything I could ever want to write about. I doubt my enthusiasm will ever diminish.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Backlog back online

Unfortunately, all of the archived posts on this blog were previously moved, in error, to draft format. I've just loaded the entire blog back online. One of the consequences of this is that some followers may find their inboxes spammed with back-dated posts.

I can only apologise for this.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Blog revamp

This blog has been pretty quiet for the past couple of years, so Sue and I have decided to give it a major revamp. This will be taking place from now until the end of the month. We're still on our journey to becoming published historical romance writers, and we want this blog to once more become the useful resource it once was to both readers and writers.

I'm going to be keeping the blog updated every week with an assortment of the following posts:

  • Our writing journey. A mix of day-to-day progress, successes, failures and everything inbetween. An important part of this will see me blogging about inspirations - the things that help me sit down and write. It could be anything from a photo of a thatched cottage to a description of a summer's walk through the countryside.
  • Local history. Sue and I are lucky enough to live in a place surrounded by history in terms of the little stories that most people don't know. For instance, in our neighbouring village we had a medieval outlaw beheaded outside the very church in which he'd sought refuge. Again, we find things like this hugely inspirational and I hope to be sharing some of that stimulation.
  • Writing advice. Here's where we'll be sharing the tips, tricks and lessons we've picked up to help fellow authors with their work.
  • Anglo-Saxon history. Our novels are firmly entrenched within the Anglo-Saxon era, so I'll be including posts detailing archaeological discoveries and research linked to those times.
  • Romantic inspirations. Here's where I'll be looking at important fictional heroes and heroines as well as actors and personalities who act as our muses.
  • Reviews. As and when we come across any relevant media.

We're both looking forward to what we're hoping will be an eventful and useful year.