What is in a name?

Like many authors, I spend a lot of time tasting the names of my characters. Do they fit them, do they please me, are they adequate for the period—many, many questions.

Some characters come with names. Matthew Graham popped up neatly labelled as did Alex Lind, a modern woman who gave me a mental headshake before throwing the rather handsome Matthew a surreptitious look. Other characters begin life with one name and then, about halfway through my rough draft, I just change it. Inspiration has struck, which is why Adam de Guirande is named Adam and not Gilbert. (A change I am very happy with)

In a WIP I’ve been working on for quite some years, my female protagonist popped up as Sofia Carolina Rudbeck. Of mixed descent, the Swedish young woman lives in 17th century Stockholm and will spend much of her childhood in proximity to Queen Kristina. Not something Sofia is all that thrilled about, because Kristina is several years older and not always all that nice. Anyway: after like 40 000 words it struck me that my character shared her name with my sister. (I rarely call my sister Sofia, I use Fia instead which explains why it hadn’t struck me before, I guess)

So, could I really use my sister’s name for an invented character? I decided not, so Sofia became Hannah. That worked for a while—especially while I wasn’t working too much on the WIP. But now that I am back to thinking about it, Hannah Carolina just doesn’t sound right. At all. The person taking shape through my words totally agrees. When I ask her for suggestions, she just gives one: Sofia. When I ask the male protagonist, he says the same.
“I’ve never called her Hannah,” he says.
“That’s because you call her your little pigeon,” I tell him.
Jon Crowne smiles. “I like pigeons.”

Where I have vacillated over the name of the female protagonist, there was never any doubt about Jon’s name. Not that it is his real name, but that is between Jon and me—at least for now. And by the time he is in a position to reclaim his real name I suspect he won’t want to. But we shall see: such matters tend to become clearer as the full story takes shape.

I’ve now renamed Hannah. She is back to being Sofia, and ever since I took that decision, other bits and pieces of the narrative are falling into place. I even know how things will end. Well, almost. Still, a major improvement from how things were three or four weeks ago, and all because of a name that chafed and irritated. Clearly, there IS something in a name, no matter that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

Raquel 800px-Godward_Summer_Flowers_1903

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Using real-life peeps to spice up your historical fiction

There are moments when I feel rather torn. In one corner of my brain my medieval characters are clamouring for my attention, in another, 17th century Matthew and his wife Alex are just as vociferous (with some reason: I’ve sort of left them hanging) In my frontal lobe my new characters are spreading out, and as I have three WIPs in various stages of completion this means I have one group of contemporary protagonists, another set of (new) 17th century characters among which figures a certain Queen Kristina of Sweden, and a new medieval set. My new medieval set is presently snagging a lot of attention – Edward I is a commanding presence, even when relegated to a supporting role.
“Supporting role?” Edward’s droopy eyelid twitches.
“Yup.” I give him an ingratiating smile. “If not, you’d take over the entire narrative, sire.”
“Hmm.” He doesn’t look convinced and gives Robert FitzHugh a rather dark look. I give Edward a warning scowl. “This is MY brain,” I remind him. “If you don’t behave, poof, and you’re gone.”
The tall king smirks. “You think?” He shakes his head. “I am a conqueror at heart, fair authoress. Where I want to go, I go.”
I forgive him for his condescending tone because of his indirect compliment—and because I do need him to stick with the project. He may not be the protagonist, but he’s the “real-life” character my story pivots around.

I do that a lot: I use real peeps to anchor my make-believe to a historical period. I prefer fictional protagonists, but they become far more solid when they hover round someone who did exist, their lives affected by what this real person did or didn’t do. In Edward I’s case, it’s his obsession with Wales that sits at the heart of my plot. In my series The King’s Greatest Enemy, it’s the final fate of Edward II—and of Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella—that set the boundaries for my story.  Within those boundaries, I subject my Adam and his Kit to a lot.

If we leap ahead to the 17th century and Matthew and Alex, one of my more joyous discoveries was a certain Alexander Peden. I had been reading up on the persecution wreaked upon the Scottish Presbyterians after the Restoration of Charles II (this relatively tolerant gent had little time for the members of the Scottish Kirk, probably a result of how he was treated by the Scots in 1650 when, as a  newly crowned king of Scotland, he was dragged hither and dither as it pleased his Scottish lords) and had just realised that the little town I’d chosen as closest to Matthew’s beloved Hillview, Cumnock, had been the home of a most fiery and determined Scottish minister, nalemly Alexander Peden.

As a consequence, Alexander (or Sandy to his friends, among which I now count myself) came to play a pivotal role in the third of the books, The Prodigal Son. His was a cloak-and-dagger sort of life, always on the run from the English who wanted nothing more than to apprehend him and send him off as indentured labour to the West Indies. Eventually Alexander was captured, betrayed for the very generous prize on his head. Fortunately for him, the attempt to transport him failed utterly.

In one of my WIPs, Queen Kristina of Sweden plays an instrumental role. So far, this WIP is taking one step forward and two back, mainly because I can’t quite decide whether I like Kristina or not. I lean towards the not – the lady held a very high opinion of herself. At the same time, I admire her for being a big,big girl in a man’s world. Thing is, until I’ve made up my mind, poor Sofia Carolina (very much a figment of my imagination) can’t exactly make up hers either.
“Some days I like her, some days I don’t,” Sofia tells me. “Thing is, even when I don’t like her, I still care for her.”
True. So do I, because Kristina’s childhood was no child’s play, surrounded as she was by a wacky mother and serious gents who constantly reminded her of her duties to the state. As she herself said, “any child born to inherit the crown belongs to the state”.

I shall have to make up my mind about Kristina later. At present, I am more concerned with Edward I. As multi-layered as an onion, that man is.
“Ah. You find me enigmatic?” the king asks with a little smile.
“I find you contradictory,” I retort. “On the one hand a loving husband, a good lawmaker, on the other a brute.” Oops. Shouldn’t have said that. He is fading away fast, and I must throw myself forward to grab hold of him before he totally disappears. “Stay and prove me wrong,” I tell him.
“I can’t.” He glares at me. “Things were complicated back then.”
Well, clearly my Edward I will have moments when his conscience pricks him. That, IMO, is good.

 

 

Of stereotypes and heroes

The men in my brain have a tendency to ambush me at the most inappropriate moments. Note the men in my brain: in real life, I have only one man, and he is not much given to ambushing me—and when he does, he calls it a surprise, ergo the ambush is a (supposedly) pleasant experience. Which it mostly is.

Anyway: while hubby (in singular) is a singularly one-of-a-kind gift to womankind (well, to me, at any rate), the men that populate my brain come in all kinds and shapes, and they’re not always warm and cuddly. Especially not when I am planning to put them through their emotional paces. For some odd reason, neither Matthew nor Adam nor Jason nor—OK, won’t bore you with this never-ending list—appreciate it when I place the lives of their beloved in jeopardy. Hence the ambush, with me being crowded back in one mental corner while facing three glowering males.

“Hey, it’s an opportunity for you to show off your hero qualities,” I tell them.
“So stereotypical,” Jason replies. “The damsel in distress saved by her white knight.” He claps Adam de Guirande on the shoulder. “Problem is, only one of us is a knight.”
“But you’re all heroes,” I try, fluttering my eyelashes at them. “Besides,” I add in view of their icy silence, “your damsels do a pretty good job of saving themselves—and you.”
“They do,” Adam says. His mouth tugs into a smile. “Without Kit, I’d be…” He drags a finger over his throat, making me shudder. Yes, had Kit not risked her own life, he’d have been feeding the crows since seven centuries or so.
“I don’t like it,” Matthew mutters. “And this new book of yours, what will you put us through this time?”
I’m about to say that he doesn’t need to worry, this time his Alex is safe and no one will die. Until I remember that isn’t the case. So I hem and haw and say something vague about hoping he’ll like his new adventure. He gives me a penetrating look. I pretend a major interest in my nails.

Once I’m alone again in my mental space, I spend some time considering the stereotyping accusation.  And yes, I’m guilty as charged in that all my male protagonists are strong and reliable men who will go to whatever lengths necessary to protect their loved ones. This does not necessarily make them a stereotype, though. Matthew Graham, Adam de Guirande and Jason Morris are all very different men, shaped by their experiences and their times. Are they all a tad possessive when it comes to their women? Yes. Are they all very protective of their lady love? Absolutely. Are they all good-looking? To me, yes. (And here I must admit to teetering on the edge of stereotyping in that they’re all tall and well-built, but one of the benefits of being a writer is that I can please myself in these matters) Are they stereotypes? Nope. Adam, Jason and Matthew all agree: they’re quite unique, thank you very much.

Likewise, my female protagonists are no stereotypical damsels in distress – I don’t believe all that many women are. Instead, they are as strong as their men, albeit at times restricted by their gender. Accordingly, my 14th century female lead, Kit de Guirande, is no atypical sword-swinging female.
“Thank the Lord for that,” Adam mutters. (See? They’re always there, eavesdropping on my thoughts)
No, Kit is strong and determined, but she is also very often pregnant which sort of puts paid to any Wonder Woman aspirations she might have. On the other hand, strength comes in many forms, and sometimes it is our lot—whether we be women or men—to just bear things, survive despite the obstacles along our way.

In difference to Kit, both Alex and Helle are capable of fighting to defend their man. Both are modern women, albeit that I’ve sent Alex falling through time to live out the rest of her existence in the 17th century. Very much fun, that, even if Alex doesn’t always agree. The challenge when it comes to Alex is that she must reasonably change from the out-spoken and very independent woman she is when she first crash-lands at Matthew’s feet to a woman more in sync with her times. After all, no person is ever written in stone, we evolve throughout our lives this due to our experiences and the expectations on us. And so Alex Lind learns (and slowly accepts) that in this new world of hers she has no legal status. She is only an extension of her husband and has no choice but to accept his decisions. A hard road to travel for one as independent as she is. Fortunately, Matthew is an intelligent man who loves his wife dearly and therefore involves her in the decision-making—as long as they agree…

“As it should be,” Adam says.
“Aye,” Matthew agrees. “My wife is mine to care for, mine to cherish, mine to discipline as she might need it.” His eyes twinkle. “Mind you, disciplining Alex is a tad dangerous: she may very well end up kicking me to the ground.”
“Too right,” Alex says. My time-travelling lady has a black belt in Karate. Has come in quite handy when she’s had to save Matthew from all sorts. Not something Matthew likes to discuss, though: in his book, he’s the one supposed to do the protecting.

“I’ve never disciplined my wife,” Adam says. “For a man to bear hand on a woman…” His voice trails off, his cheeks going a dull red when Kit just looks at him. “Once,” he says quietly. “I did it once and was immediately ashamed.”

“Well, anyone tries to discipline me and they won’t know what hit them,” Helle says. In tight jeans showing off her strong legs she looks extremely self-sufficient, especially standing the way she does, arms crossed over her chest.
“My lioness has quite the bite,” Jason says proudly, ruffling her blonde curls. And he’s right. Helle saves his life on a number of occasions no matter the cost to her. As I think it, Jason’s face clouds. No doubt he’s recalling just how much it cost her the first time round…

I guess if there’s any stereotype I’m guilty of it’s believing in love. Not your romantic pink-flushed love, more the gritty lasts-for-a-lifetime love that somehow manages to overcome everything from the loss of a child to the loss of your dignity and pride. That’s how my male protagonists love their women, that’s how they’re loved in return. They stand and fall together, my Adam and his Kit, Matthew and Alex, Jason and Helle. A bit like hubby and me if I may say so—albeit that so far our lives are rather ordinary and humdrum compared to the exciting times my poor characters live through.
“Good. Keep it that way,” hubby says, stooping to kiss my brow. “I’m not sure I’m made for all that hero stuff.”
Silly man. He is a hero. My hero.

Stealing the limelight – or how a secondary character grew into a central one

Writing historical novels very often leads to discovering new favourites. When I started writing my The King’s Greatest Enemy series, I was very much into Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella, only occasionally sparing a thought for Isabella’s son, the very young Edward III who became an unwilling participant in the events that led up to his father’s deposition and subsequent (purported) death.

As my writing progressed, Edward grew on me. The idea of a young boy torn in two by his love for both his parents had a lot of potential for emotional tension. And I imagine it was tense—and difficult—for Edward to watch the rift between his parents widening. Even more so when he ended up as the official figurehead for Isabella’s invasion of England: she came, she said, to deliver the English from that foul snake Despenser, and to protect the throne for the rightful heir, her handsome son.

What her handsome son thought about being paraded at the head of an army intent on ousting his father was neither here nor there according to Isabella. Edward likely did not agree, and these early experiences made him all that more determined to become a king so perfect no one would ever dream of attempting to oust him.

Eduard3
Edward the boy king

It also made him determined to rule his own roost. I imagine living under mama’s thumb for a number of years only reinforced that feeling. It is strange that a woman as intelligent as Isabella did not realise just how much her young son resented her attempts to order all things in his kingdom, even more so when the Isabella & Roger duo showed little inclination to step aside as Edward grew older.

Edward had few opportunities to rebel. The royal administration was in the hands of Mortimer’s capable officers, Isabella and Mortimer held the Great Seal, and Edward spent his days surrounded by people who served his regents rather than him. A difficult situation for a young king who aspired to power.

What Edward did have were friends. Having learnt from his father’s fate just how dangerous it was to play favourites, Edward cultivated a varied selection of young men, some substantially older than him, some as young as he was. What all these young men had in common was that they were the heirs to important lordships in England, i.e. Edward was forging strong relationships with the men that would in the future be his barons. Along the way, this group of companions would also help Edward reclaim his royal power.

In my recently released book, any reclaiming of power is still in the future. Edward III is as yet an untried youth, chafing under the rule of his mother and her favourite baron. He is confused by what is happening around him, he is afflicted by guilt for his part in his father’s deposition, and he is quickly learning to be very selective as to who he trusts. He is also an adolescent, a lanky teenager thrust into a position of eminence which requires adherence to protocol when he’d prefer running wild with his companions. Plus, at the age of fifteen he also becomes a husband, a role he intends to take very seriously. After all, Edward has seen first-hand just what a failed marriage can lead to, and is therefore determined to ensure his Philippa is content.

A larger-than-life lad is my Edward, and where initially he was more of a supporting character, he has become one of the protagonists, a young puppet fighting his puppeteers for control over his own strings. I admire this boy-king. I am impressed by how quickly he learns to play the political game, I smile fondly at his more boisterous moods and am not sure whether to groan out loud or pat him encouragingly on the back when he rides north at the head of his army to teach the pesky Scots a lesson. At the time, he was fourteen…

As all those familiar with history will know, some years later Edward wrested control away from his mother and her lover. At eighteen, Edward III began his own personal rule, forty plus years in which he was the undisputed king, his authority never questioned.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_CrécyWas he a perfect king? I suspect the French would have replied with a resounding NO. After all, Edward III unleashed the Hundred Years’ War on France, resulting in far too much death, too much loss. He was ruthless in war—whether in France or Scotland—but he was also a man determined to act honourably towards his vanquished foes. Well…if it suited him politically.

Whether perfect or not, Edward III is definitely one of the more impressive English kings. But he tends to be overlooked, squashed as he is by the tumultuous reign of his father, and the equally volatile reign of his grandson. Both the king that preceded him and the one that came after were destined to lose their crowns, obliged to abdicate. Heady stuff, that, and in comparison, Edward’s reign can seem a bit staid. Here was a successful king, happily married and with the reins of government held firmly in his hands. No scandal (except for Alice Perrers when Edward was already slipping into his dotage), no rebellions.

Ironically, Edward’s happy and fruitful marriage would indirectly cause one of the more violent periods in English history. For a medieval king to have so many accomplished sons was almost as bad as not having any, and while the brothers seem to have worked well enough together, the same could not be said of their children. And so, within decades of Edward III’s death, one of his grandsons had usurped the throne from another of his grandsons, thereby laying the foundations for the extended civil war that would plague England for most of the 15th century.

Fortunately, I am not writing about that era. No, I am writing about the years that shaped Edward into the man and king he would one day become. I am writing about a queen and her baron who became addicted to power, about a very young king who could do nothing but bear it—at first. I am writing about a son plagued with guilt over his father’s fate, about a half-grown royal lion finding his claws and teeth. I am writing about a boy who dreamed of valour and glory on the battlefield, a lad who rode to was under the flag of St George, determined to forge his kingdom into something bigger and better than it was!

Creating characters – an uncontrolled happening

Sometimes, people ask me how I create my characters. I never quite know how to answer, because I’m not sure I have a standardised process. Rephrase: I definitely don’t have a standardised process.

First of all, sometimes my characters sort of pop up all ready to go. That is the case with Matthew Graham, my first “complete” character. (And he looks very satisfies when I say that, all six feet and more of him lounging against a mental door. Sunlight seeps in, highlighting the odd touches of chestnut in his dark hair, his shirt strains over a broad chest, and…Get a grip of yourself, Anna! ) This 17th century man was inspired by a LOT of reading about the 17th century – specifically about the religious persecution that plagued Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation a century or so earlier. Anyway: in Matthew’s case, he just appeared one day, a serious man with strong convictions. A tad too goody-goody (And don’t frown at me, Matthew Graham) , a tad too dour, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with him. Until a vision of a red bra had me sitting upright in bed one night.

Okay, okay: yes, I know a red bra is a serious anachronism if I’m writing about the 17th century. Thing is, the wearer wasn’t in the 17th century. She was in our time, humming along with something playing in the background. Well-shaped legs in tight jeans, dark, unruly hair cut short, and eyes like cornflowers in the sun.

the-letter-writer-surprised“Who is she?” Matthew asked, peering over my shoulders.
“No idea.” But I already knew she was called Alex, and the tall fair man standing by the cooker was her father.
“I want to meet her,” Matthew said.
“Fat chance. You’re like three centuries apart.”
Matthew fiddled with the worn linen of his shirt sleeve. “She belongs with me.”
“She does?” I looked at the laughing Alex, and I saw a shadow over her, a sadness similar to that which I sometimes saw in Matthew. So maybe he was right: maybe they did belong together, she a nice contrast to his serious disposition. Might liven things up a bit, to have her land in his life.
“Fix it.” Matthew nodded at my keyboard. “Put those magic fingers to good use and bring her to me.”
Which was how I ended up writing The Graham Saga about the rather reluctant time traveller Alex Lind (well, until she met Matthew) and her adventures in the 17th century.

Another of my characters is the consequence of repeated visions of a woman lying on a sheep’s fleece. She is cold, she is dirty and wet, and the man who has just saved her from certain death is also indirectly the man responsible for her recent suffering. This woman is as yet not fully formed, and the man who looks at her shivering form and weeps in silence, plagued by guilt, anger and fear in equal measures only has a name – Jon Crowne – and a face. Those two require a lot of work yet before they can be brought out into the light.

Very often, my characters start as voices. A low, insistent whispering, the odd laugh, a line or two of dialogue. The voice itself tells me little beyond the gender, but soon enough, these voices begin to tell me their story, their thoughts and their dreams, and as they do, the character takes shape and form.

At other times, it’s a gesture. I see someone walking down the street, and the way she whips round when someone calls her name, her hair lifting in the wind, has me smiling, while in my brain the entire little episode is planted into a mental pot, watered by my imagination until that gesture became a figure became a person who then starts to whisper of her dreams and hopes, her fears and past.

Now and then, it is something I see. A hand lifted to adjust an escaped curl. The muscles in a hairy forearm bunching when the owner grips a fork. I watch, entranced, as all those golden hairs move and shift, glistening where the sunlight catches them. And so, just like that, I have my first image of Adam de Guriande, medieval knight and protagonist of my series The King’s Greatest Enemy.
“I’m not that hairy,” he protests, flexing his arm. He is covered in golden fuzz, deliciously so. When I say as much, he flushes.

I guess the conclusion of all this is that I don’t really know how my characters are created. Sometimes, it seems to me they create themselves, with me the lucky beneficiary. Well, okay: not always so lucky, because some of the people who pop up in my head are not exactly the kind of peeps I’d invite over for tea and cake. In any case, whatever it is that sparks these creative bursts, it is not a process. Bummer. I can’t apply for an Author ISO 9001 certification, seeing as ISO requires the process to be repeatable and measurable.  Instead, I embrace those flashes of inspiration that result in a brand new character – even if sometimes this has a very disruptive effect on my sleep!

In my very own bubble

reading-franz-eyblThe other day, I was feeling a bit wilted around the edges. Best cure for that is to curl up somewhere and escape into a book. Quite often, I’ll opt for a book set in the past, one of those books that combines blood and gore with courtly love and honourable men (like my own books, come to think of it. But I cannot read my own books to escape: I end up using a red pen and doing further corrections…)

When I am feeling very, very low, I prefer it if the book in question is one I’ve read before – I need the warmth of familiarity rather than the suspense of new adventures. In these situations, my go-to books are rarely any literary pearls. I’m not in the mood to savour carefully constructed sentences – I need love, and preferably steamy love. So I read Sylvia Day. Or Amanda Quick. Or (yup: I do) E.L. James.

I have a crush on Gideon Cross (Sylvia Day’s very hot, very powerful, male protagonist) I have less of a crush on Mr Grey, but both these men hide scars under polished exteriors, and I like that. In Amanda Quick’s case, her heroes are less scarred, less powerful, just as hot – and seriously, peeking as a Regency hero undresses is something else, starting with those tight, tight Hessians.

Now, when I’m re-reading Ms Day or Ms Quick, I can always argue I am doing it to hone my writing skills. These two ladies are accomplished writers, delivering well-wrought characters and (especially in the case of Ms Quick) delicious dialogue. I read Ms Quick to laugh. I read Ms Day to fan myself.

Ms Quick writes romances set in the 19th century (all through the century) and has a preference for male heroes with green, grey or amber eyes. Her heroines are determined young ladies who set out to sort whatever problem they might have all on their own, and invariably the hero comes to their aid – well, except for when the hero is the problem. Excellent historical context, vivid descriptions and intelligent plotlines make Ms Quick’s books fun to read – several times.

readers-jean-jacques-hennerMs Day does write historical romances – quite adeptly, I might add – but it is her Crossfire books that I return to time and time again. A male protagonist burdened by his past encounters an equally scarred young woman. Sparks fly, and just like that, Eva and Gideon grow into my heart. Eva is no retiring violet – but her past haunts her. It is Gideon who saves her from her past, and she in turn takes on the task of freeing this man from the shadows of his childhood. Two damaged people trying to heal each other – a somewhat combustible combo, all of it delivered in well-paced prose, generously laced with hot, steamy sex scenes.

In comparison with Ms Day, Ms James delivers clunky and tedious sex scenes. So boring, in fact, that I rarely read them. The dialogue is awful, cliché stacked upon cliché. Anastasia Steele is an anachronism: here we have a young, pretty woman in the 21st century who does not have a laptop (seriously?) who is unused to smartphones (err…) and is also a virgin – a total innocent when it comes to sex. Which makes it sort of incredible when she accepts Grey’s proposal to enter into a Dom-Sub relationship with him.

The writing is generally awful. The supporting characters are caricatures. And despite all this, Ms James’ books have sold millions and millions. Why? Well, that is what I try to work out as I re-read them. Pure research, people…Ha! Who am I trying to fool? I read them because I like them, and I know why I like them: Ms James offers a new take on the oldest story around, that of love as a healing force. Like The Beauty and the Beast, Anastasia saves Christian. From himself, from his self-imposed loneliness, from his past, from his self-hatred. Come to think of it, all good romances are variations on this old chestnut. The interesting thing about Fifty Shades is that it’s not a good romance, in the sense that the writing is sub-standard. And still it sells. Obviously, Ms James has succeeded where it truly counts: she has given the readers protagonists they truly care about.

reader-fragonard_the_readerNone of the above crosses my mind when I retreat into my escapist bubble. In my bubble, all I want is to be entertained, dragged out of my reality which, at present, sucks. Any writer who can create an illusion strong enough to yank me out of the here and now has, IMO, done their job. Kudos to them, I say.