Monday, March 02, 2015

Creating a Mosaic: Adventures in Research and Writing, an essay by Margaret Redfern

Margaret Redfern, whose novel Flint I highly recommended back in 2009, is here with an essay that takes readers through the often serendipitous research process involved in writing her latest book.  Flint told the story of two brothers, Will and Ned, making their way across 13th-century England to Wales as part of King Edward I's campaign to build fortresses in the land he plans to subjugate, and the second book is set two generations later.  In The Storyteller's Granddaughter, which begins in Turkey in 1336, a young woman encounters numerous adventures and obstacles as she makes her way to England in search of Will, her storyteller grandfather.

Margaret's own journey in search of details on how her characters lived is equally fascinating, and she has provided many gorgeous photos of historic sites in Turkey.  Flint was published by Honno in 2009 (£6.99), and The Storyteller's Granddaughter, also published by Honno (£8.99), appeared in 2014. 

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Creating a Mosaic: Adventures in Research and Writing
Margaret Redfern

The process of writing – my writing – is a bit like creating a mosaic: lots of little coloured stones that have to be shaped and ordered to create an imagined picture. So where do these 'stones' come from? I wanted to separate this into 'headings', nice and orderly, but it doesn't work that way. Everything is interconnected. Maybe serendipity plays a part, or synchronicity...

The Storyteller's Granddaughter (SGD) is a sequel to Flint, 60 years later but flicking back in time to various points in the characters' stories, that ill-assorted group of travellers heading for Antalya and the autumn sailing to Venice. There’s more of Will's story, the narrator of Flint.

Flint’s central theme was of music, in the Welsh bardic tradition; SGD's is storytelling, in the Chaucerian tradition, but also the more ancient tradition of the Welsh bards and Oghuz Turks.

Everyone has a story to tell: everyone has secrets.

At the end of Flint Will, the legendary storyteller, says, 'for all I know I've a brat or two in this world.' So the idea for a sequel came about, sixty years from the end of Flint, two generations later. The central character is the granddaughter of Will, but where Will told stories, the granddaughter elicits them from those around her.

The setting is Turkey, a country I've known since the early 1970s: then (my first teaching job in a girls’ lise in Adana) it was the old southern Turkey of dancing bears in the street and nomads coming down in camel train from the mountains in September for the cotton harvest…

My travellers came in through this gateway. Walled, then, of course. The
fountain is just beyond, in the process of being excavated.

I made a special recce in 2012 to Antalya, and a pilgrimage to Konya and the Turkish Lakes. Antalya and that part of the coast is now very much in the 21st century, with dual carriageway and heaving traffic – until you are inside the Kaleici, the Walled City, and then you are in the Antalya that Kazan and Dafydd and their friends visit. Inland, Beyşehir (SGD uses its old name of Viranşehir, which itself means ‘the desolate city’) is old world, almost the 1970s Turkey of my memory. The Eşrefoğlu Mosque is real, a remarkable – and rare – wooden mosque over 700 years old.

Inside Eşrefoğlu Mosque
Turkey retains the same hospitality I remember from my first time there, and that described by the traveller Ibn Battuta, the Man from Tangiers, in his Travels, 1325 – 1354. He travelled further and for longer than Marco Polo, and his account of Turkey is first-hand evidence. I gave Ibn Battuta a walk-on part, and Dafydd became the translator Battuta mentions, the one who leaves him in Turkey.

Eşrefoğlu Mosque, Taken from the women's gallery

Jehann Yperman is another ‘real person’. I wanted a character with a harelip: Rémi. I Googled ‘medieval harelip’ and came up with the name of Jehann Yperman. He is remarkable, and so sadly bypassed. His books on surgery – written by choice in Flemish not Latin – deserve recognition. At the time I met a check-out girl in my local Tesco. I saw the unmistakeable lines of harelip reparation. She was more than happy to talk about her operation, her speech therapy…and so, synchronicity being alive and well, I was able to think through the life of my character Rémi, minus the speech therapy. A battered copy of Medieval Prose came in handy too; it had a section on the elaborate hand signs used by Benedictine monks.

Couldn't resist this one, looking westwards from Antalya.
Freya Stark explored those mountains.

There was a problem. I'd chosen a time which is an eye-blink in Turkish history. After the end of the Seljuk Empire but at the very beginning of the Ottoman Empire, for less than 100 years, Turkey was governed by beyliks of small 'states'. It’s a piece of history too complicated to tell tourists and casual historians. I've always liked 'in-between' times and places, but now there seemed little information.


Not a very inspiring photo, but this is the water pool in the mosque. There
is a light well above and a Turkish couple explained to me (in Turkish!)
that the stars were reflected in the water, and astronomers could thus study
the heavens.

And here is where synchronicity again comes knocking: Cambridge University Press had just published a History of Turkey, and volume 1 covered 'my time'. A million blessings on the head of Kate Flett, the editor, and also for her own book, with the snappy title of European and Islamic Trade in the Early Ottoman State. From that, it was a tiny step to find Nomads in Archaeology by Roger Cribb.

Another book that was bedtime reading was Peter Brears' fantastic Cooking and Dining in Medieval England. I had met Peter Brears in Bangor at a weekend symposium, The Impact of Edward I's Castles in Wales, just in time for the final draft of Flint. Brears must have been finalising his book as it was published soon after, in time for my research on SGD.

Another connection to that is the annual Lincoln Christmas Market. Last year I found the spice stall in the Bishop's Palace. Fabulous. I'd puzzled over Grains of Paradise and here they were, also the long black pepper I'd never heard of and that was going out of fashion in the 14th century. It tastes quite different from peppercorns.

Me doing the Turkish bit, head covered with Turkish shawl - a modern one
though I have traditional white muslin ones with beautiful beaded edges -
some of them over 40 years old now.

Food is important because 1315-1322 in Europe were years of terrible weather, bad harvests, animal fatalities, starvation and death for thousands. I was researching this in 2010, when we had a desperate winter and spring and a sodden summer. The first haymaking was in August; cereal crops were ruined; root crops rotted; there was talk of a grain price-hike, shortages…how did those people of the 14th century survive?

Dai the Welshman is the grandson of Dic, the rescuer at the Mawddach Falls in Flint. He has no gift for storytelling. He says, 'my Welsh tongue is tied if I try'. This is a reference to an ancient Welsh poem. Throughout Flint and SGD, I include ‘implags’ – implanted plagiarisms – references to other writers as part of the narrative. Not plagiarism but a nod to ghosts, and a tease for the reader. I love the idea, and include references not only to Dede Korkut but old Welsh verse, the Bible, Nasreddin Hodja, the Mevlana – all these as well as the chapter headings. (The same is true of Flint but that also references the symbolism of numbers.) Mostly we learn Dai’s story from others, and from the narrative, and his thoughts. He is a mystery: he seems quiet but others call him ‘dangerous’. He is a compassionate man with a terrible past. It is compassion that forces him to tell Kazan and Niko part of his story, and even then we learn of it partly through his memory, not his words, and partly through the other characters who lived in those famine years.

Beysehir - the Viransehir of the story - lakeside with boats and reeds.

The girl Kazan is the central character, the Storyteller's granddaughter. I deliberately didn’t give her a name at first. It's an ancient idea that you have to earn your name. She was named Sophia after her Nene (Turkish), her Nain (north Wales), her Nan (northern England), but she's never called Sophia. Her mother's name was Çiçek (Turkish); Fflur (Welsh); Flower (English). The connection is with the old stories of the Oghuz Turks, and the story of Bamsi Beyrek and the Lady Çiçek who can out-ride and out-shoot and out-wrestle any man except Bamsi Beyrek. I wanted some of the old traditions of storytelling, interspersing the prose with song or verse. It's a Welsh bardic tradition, prose studded with englyns, and also a Turkish tradition. Kazan is a male name, from the stories of the Oghuz Turks.

The road along the lakeside leading to Egirdir (old name is Egridir)

There was a problem of the clichéd girl masquerading as a boy, and how to explode it. She could not travel alone so I questioned where she would sleep; go to the loo; wash, because this was the hamam tradition of Anatolia and not mucky England. I used this problem to create an intimacy between Dafydd and Kazan. There is a very useful and informative website on the hans of Turkey (www.turkishhan.org) that proved an invaluable guide – I got to visit some of the real ones too, as well as the virtual.

Konya - the Mevlana museum and centre - easily identified by the turquoise
tower/dome which replaced the original after the time of SGD

As well as ‘real people’ having ‘walk-on’ parts, there is the influence of the travellers’ tales and the astonishing maps, especially the Mappa Mundi held at Hereford Cathedral. Created by a Lincolnshire man, ‘Richard of Haldingham or Lafford' (Holdingham or Sleaford) recent research suggests a date of about 1300. There may have been a second map kept in Lincoln – certainly Lincoln is clearly depicted on the map, Steep Hill, houses, cathedral. I saw the Mappa Mundi for the first time a few years ago; a small group of us were standing there in awe and the woman next to me said, 'Is that it?' The rest of us became a lynching squad.

Blue the Fenman is not blue with Lincolnshire woad because it wasn't a centre for woad-making back in the 14th century. I had fun with his dialect. It was not possible to keep it purely 'fenland', so it is an amalgam of Lincolnshire dialects, trying to avoid obvious anachronism but trying also to include superstition, such as the ‘shivery spiders’ as an antidote to fever.

Konya skyline, looking towards the two breast-shaped mountains.

One other connection amongst so many not noted here is that of Ontario. I was staying over Christmas and the New Year with my son and Canadian daughter-in-law. I had already found that the best book ever on the history of Flanders was in Chatham Ontario Library. Now I realised that a different country means different websites and there was a report on the Toronto archaeological excavation of Alahan, that site in Turkey that I longed to explore but knew I couldn’t, and that Kazan and her Nene visited to reap herbs, and where she found the amethyst ring that was listed in archaeological finds from an excavation, Chatham library ordered the entire report, express from Toronto, and it arrived on the eve of my departure. Skim reading and note taking has never been so rapid. But what a find!

Synchronicity is alive and well.

Margaret Redfern, February 2015

(Margaret Redfern’s last book in the ‘Storyteller’ series, The Heart Remembers, is to be published by Honno in August 2015)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Looking at the 2015 Walter Scott Prize longlist

As has been reported in other sources, the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been revealed for the first time ever.  In past years, readers have gotten to see only the shortlist and the eventual winner. 

Per the BBC:  "Judges said this reflected the 40% increase in entries for the prize as well as the 'high quality of historical fiction' currently being published."  An excellent sign for the genre a 40% increase is significant.  In addition, now that the prize has reached its 6th year, knowledge about it has become even more widespread, and publishers are no doubt paying attention and submitting more titles than ever.

The longlist includes:

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Holocaust in Germany)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry (20th-c Ireland and Africa)
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (17th-c Amsterdam)
The Lie by Helen Dunmore (WWI England)
Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre (17th-c England; out in April in the US)
In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds (North Africa and Sicily, WWII)
Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud (1914 England)
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (India in 1912)
Wake by Anna Hope (1920s England)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (11th-c England)
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (WWII Germany)
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (WWI and after; Turkey, England, Peshawar)
The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak (16th-c Istanbul; out in April in the US)
The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling (14th-c China)
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (1922 London)

When I posted about the list on the Historical Novel Society's Facebook group on Tuesday, the reaction was enthusiastic about the award itself, mixed about the choices.  No one had read all of them, or close, which is to be expected.  The three I've read were books I enjoyed, for the most part, but I wouldn't put them on a favorites list.

Author Douglas Jackson noted on FB that the books were historical fiction of the literary sort, which is a good point.  Apart from The Miniaturist, they would seem to fit more closely with literary (elegantly written, character-centered, more slowly paced) historical fiction than with the "genre" variety. 

I've linked up my reviews of the three I'd read (I can thank Booklist for assigning the books to me).   Which ones have you read?  Feel free to leave links in the comments if you've reviewed them.  Which are you rooting for, if any?  Would you put any on your list of top reads for 2014/5?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tony Hays, Historical Mystery Writer: A Remembrance

I've occasionally noted the passing of other historical novelists on this site, but this post is different because it's a more personal remembrance and thus both easier to write (because there's so much that could be said) and much harder.

Historical mystery writer Tony Hays passed away suddenly a month ago, on January 25, 2015, from complications of diabetes while on vacation in Luxor, Egypt.  He'd been taking a short holiday from his job, which involved teaching English to Saudi airmen in Saudi Arabia for an American defense contractor. His obituary is online via the funeral home's website.

Among his other published works, Tony was the author of the Arthurian Mystery series, which includes four novels and one novella set in 5th-century Britain, and will have a new historical mystery, Shakespeare No More, appearing this September from Perseverance Press.  He was 57 and had plans to write many more novels.

I'll be writing a different profile, more focused on Tony's work, for August's Historical Novels Review, but that's still a while away, and I didn't want his passing to go unremarked here.

Tony was a big supporter of this blog and my two books and had appeared here several times.  I first interviewed him about books 1 and 2 of his Arthurian mysteries, The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice, back in 2010.  He had told me it was his favorite interview; I especially liked how it came out because it shows his sense of humor as well as his expertise on post-Roman Britain.  I reviewed his third book, The Beloved Dead, when it came out in early 2011, and he contributed a guest post on writing about well-known historical figures in 2012, when The Stolen Bride was published.

We became good friends over the past four years, chatting about our experiences with teaching and higher education (he'd taught English at universities and community colleges for 20+ years), the ups and downs of the publishing industry, his many active writing projects, and animal rescue, among other things.  He used to take in and rehabilitate former puppy mill dogs for the local animal shelter at his home in Savannah, Tennessee, and had many great stories to tell about how they were adjusting.

For more on his background, including his time as an intelligence operative in Kuwait (Tony loved traveling the world and led a fascinating life), read his interview with Publishers Weekly from 2012. He was always modest about his accomplishments, and although he was hugely knowledgeable about many historical eras, his manner was the opposite of intimidating.  He was generous with his time and knowledge and eager to help support newer writers.

It was rare for a day or two to go by without a short note or reply from himhe wrote such lively and interesting emails and he often sent me stuff to read and comment on.  Although I don't normally look at unpublished manuscripts, I was pleased to have been an early reader for Tony's soon-to-be-published historical crime novel, set in the Jacobean era.  It's a terrific book, and he was thrilled about its upcoming publication.  I only wish Tony was able to see it in print.

In the course of our conversations, Tony had given me travel suggestions (when my husband Mark and I visited Glastonbury, England, in fall 2011, we stayed at a great B&B he recommended) and helped me out with advice a number of other times.  We met in person at two of the Historical Novel Society conferences and had planned to meet up last July when I was in Nashville for an HNS chapter meeting; he was going to take me around to see The Hermitage and other local sites.  Unfortunately, he had a home repair emergency come up and couldn't make it, so we put it off until a later date.

News of Tony's unexpected death came as a terrible shock. After never getting a reply to my last email, I checked his Facebook page expecting to see vacation pictures and found instead many recent tributes from family and friends, mourning him and celebrating his life.  It's been hard to process that he's no longer there at the other end of the keyboard, excited about a new topic for a novel or checking in from one of his travels.

While he left this world much too soon, I'm grateful for his friendship, support, and the many hours of entertaining reading his novels provided me.  I hope new readers will continue to discover them, too.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book review: The Siege Winter, by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Franklin’s final novel, skillfully completed by her daughter after her death, recounts two young women’s courage during a dark, chaotic era.

As civil war devastates mid–twelfth century England, Maud, the 16-year-old chatelaine of Kenniford, weds a boorish older man to save her people. Raped and discarded, Em, a peasant girl from the Cambridgeshire fens, is rescued by an aging mercenary and becomes an expert archer under his tutelage. Their stories converge as Matilda, the previous king’s heir, escapes her rival, King Stephen, and seeks shelter at Kenniford.

The event-filled plotline includes themes of vengeance and coming-of-age, a hint of romance, and a mystery about a piece of parchment that Em’s attacker will kill to repossess. Her slow recovery from emotional trauma is especially touching.

The cheeky wit and precise descriptions that were Franklin’s hallmarks are as sharp as ever, and the major characters are delightfully human. The book also has a genuine feel for medieval life and times. This unique collaboration is a worthy conclusion to one remarkable career and a promising beginning to another.

This review first appeared in Booklist's January 1st issue.  The Siege Winter is published by Morrow this week in hardcover ($25.99, 352pp) and as an ebook.  In the UK, the book is titled Winter Siege.

I've reviewed several of Ariana Franklin's (aka Diana Norman) books previously on this blog - Fitzempress' Law, her first novel from 1980, and King of the Last Days, which is about as hard to find.  My favorite, though, is Shores of Darkness, historical suspense-adventure set during the time of Queen Anne.  It's an outstanding romp through the late Stuart era.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Spotlight on the historical fiction of Lake Union and some self-published success stories

Today I'm shining a spotlight on Amazon Publishing's Lake Union imprint, which publishes historical and contemporary fiction along with selected nonfiction.  Over the past few months, the number of self-published historical novels being picked up by Lake Union for re-release caught my attention.  The folks in Editorial there are clearly paying attention to sales and reviews for indie novels on Amazon and carefully choosing high-quality titles to acquire for reissue.  The process typically involves editorial revisions as well as a cover redesign.

(Lake Union acquires many original titles, too, including I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith, who was interviewed here a year ago.)

Here's a look at some of these formerly self-pubbed titles with their cover makeovers.  A few of these  have featured on this site previously. It's great to see many historical novels getting wider distribution and attention in this way, and I love the broad range of periods and subjects represented. 



The story of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the collaboration that produced the Little House books.  This was one of my favorites of 2013 (see my earlier review).  The new release date is March 17th, 2015.



A woman is secretly trained by her father in painting in 14th-century Tuscany.  The new edition with this beautiful cover was published in December 2014.



A young midwife in 1775 Boston becomes a spy for the patriot cause and discovers a conspiracy against her good friend Abigail Adams and her family.  The new edition is out on April 7th, 2015.  Jodi Daynard guest posted here in 2013 about her in-depth research into the period.



Here's longtime historical novelist Colin Falconer's story of Isabella of France and her troubled marriage to Edward II of England, which sets her on the path to political rebellion.  New edition out April 21, 2015.



In this decades-spanning saga set in the antebellum South, a strong bond develops between a privileged young woman and the enslaved woman who was her wet nurse.  The revised edition was out in August 2014.



A beautiful maid of honor at Henry VIII's court tries to avert the unwelcome advances of a notorious philanderer by asking the king himself for help.  New edition was released January 2015.



In 406 BC, a young Roman woman marries an Etruscan nobleman to secure a truce between their warring cities. When the political ties between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii break down, Caecilia has a difficult choice to make.  New edition out April 28, 2015.

Originally published by Pier 9/Murdoch Books in Australia, the book was later self-published on Kindle and print in the US... and subsequently acquired by Lake Union (along with the next two in the series).  Read my reviews of The Wedding Shroud and book 2, The Golden Dice, as well as Elisabeth's guest post on feminine power in Etruscan society.

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In addition to the titles above, Libbie Hawker's Tidewater (about Pocahontas; May 17th reissue) and Carol Bodensteiner's Go Away Home (a woman's coming of age, set on the WWI home front in Iowa; June reissue) were picked up by Lake Union, but their new cover art isn't online yet.  As Lavender Ironside, Libbie Hawker has written a series of Egyptian-set novels, beginning with The Sekhmet Bed (which I reviewed in 2012).   Read more about Lake Union's acquisition of Go Away Home at Jenny Quinlan's Historical Editorial blog.

If I'm missing any others, please mention them in the comments.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review of Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan, a dual-period gothic saga

An isolated house allegedly filled with ghostly presences. Two women mired in restrictive social circumstances and linked over a generation. Secrets from the past reawakened years later. Atmospheric and resonant with emotion, Kate Riordan’s saga has many elements of the traditional gothic novel but is in other ways a refreshing departure.

Fiercombe Manor in Gloucestershire, a Tudor-era dwelling crafted of golden stone, sits at the base of a valley “so steep that it’s like an amphitheatre.” As Alice Eveleigh wanders the grounds and gets to know her temporary home during the languid summer of 1933, her observations form an inviting travelogue of this hidden corner of the Cotswolds.

Left pregnant after a brief affair with a married man, Alice is forced by her parents to leave London to stay with her mother’s old friend, Edith Jelphs, the housekeeper at Fiercombe, until the baby is born – after which it will be taken away and brought to an orphanage. Away from her mother’s disapproval, Alice thrives in her new environment, though her pretense of being a widow proves to be tiring. Mrs. Jelphs is kindly but cautiously watchful, more so as Alice begins quietly uncovering a local mystery.

A previous mistress of the estate, Lady Elizabeth Stanton was a dark-haired beauty who lived in nearby Stanton House in the late 19th century and who was pressured to produce a son.  Why was Stanton House dismantled, and what became of Elizabeth and her daughter Isabel?

Hints of tragedy, inherited madness, and restrictions placed upon women wind through this dual-period novel, but while it offers occasional frissons of suspense, it lacks the terrifying menace typically found in the genre. The pacing is leisurely, and despite a past that holds overwhelming sadness, Fiercombe is a lovely setting in which to linger. If you google “Owlpen Manor,” the place that inspired it, you can visualize its charm.

Fiercombe Manor will be published by Harper tomorrow in hardcover ($26.99, 416pp).  The UK title is The Girl in the Photograph.  Thanks to the publisher for enabling access via Edelweiss.  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

This is Kate Riordan's second novel; the first, Birdcage Walk, is a murder mystery based on a real-life Edwardian crime.  It's available in the US on Kindle for a mere $2.99, so I snapped it up.

And here's a pic of Owlpen Manor, to save you the extra step of googling.  I would love to visit this beautiful place in person. Its website is here, and the owners even offer holiday cottages (very tempting!).

Owlpen Manor at front right, Holy Cross Church in background. 
© Copyright Derek Harper, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book review: The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, by Julia Quinn

Sir Richard Kenworthy has some big secrets – does he ever. For his own private reasons, he travels south from Yorkshire to London to convince some eligible young lady to wed him at short notice. Quinn’s impressive romance, set in the post-Regency era, details the unusual courtship of Richard and Miss Iris Smythe-Smith both before and after his motives are revealed.

The fourth of five daughters, Iris is a sensible woman who doesn’t attract attention, so she’s puzzled but quietly pleased when Richard asks to call on her. He’s handsome and kind, but what’s the hurry to get married? When he deliberately steals a kiss from her in sight of her aunt, he forces her hand – and when Iris learns his true purpose, her anger is justified.

While the premise feels a bit over-the-top, this novel is rooted in the conventions of its time, when one careless decision could mean social ruin. Both gentle yet witty, Richard and Iris are a well-matched pair. Quinn also accomplishes the near-impossible by redeeming Richard’s character in the eyes of Iris and the reader and by crafting a believable reconciliation.

There are some lovely descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside, and fans of the series (this is book #4) can look forward to more terrible music from the Smythe-Smith string quartet.

Here's a special feature for Valentine's Day: my first review of a historical romance here.  If you've read this novel, what did you think?  According to other reviews I've read, Richard is one of Quinn's more controversial heroes; you'll have to read the novel to see exactly why.

I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review; thanks to the publisher for granting me access via Edelweiss.  The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy was published by Avon in 2015 (384pp, $7.99 / $9.99 Can).  The UK publisher is Piatkus (£8.99).  It was named to the LibraryReads list for February.