A classic is a classic is always a classic. Or?

Admit it. You’ve all experienced that mind-numbing exercise of having to read a certain book. “It’s a classic, a pillar of our literary canon,” gushed the teacher while shoving one of August Strindberg’s works in our hands. (Swedish literary canon, obviously.) Or you were handed a dog-eared copy of 1984 and told this, this was manna for the soul. (I much preferred Animal Farm. “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” A quote that, sadly, is as applicable today as when Orwell first wrote it)

Thinclassics-20180127_175250.jpgg is, even classics become dated. In fact, sometimes they become irrelevant, because the reality they describe is too far removed from the world that surrounds us. Over time, all classics essentially become historical fiction, and many readers don’t want to read about the past., they want to read about the here and now. This, I believe, is especially true of teenagers who are probably struggling with hormones and finding themselves just as a helpful soul gives them The Old Man and the Sea to read. Don’t get me wrong: I think this is a great book. Now. I wasn’t that taken with it as a fifteen-year-old, because seriously, an old man fighting a big fish became a bit old after the first ten pages or so. At the time, I wanted to read stuff that somehow reflected my own, very confused, reality. No fish or old men figured in my teenage daydreams…

Not all classics become dated. As an example, Robinson Crusoe is still very readable. As is Tom Sawyer, Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment (although veeeeery long and rather depressing). Or Lord Jim, Kristin Lavransdotter, Great Expectations, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Jane Eyre—the list is actually quite long. (And must include The Little Prince by Saint-Exupery. Mais bien sûr!) So why do some classics survive, while others do not?

In some cases, it is a matter of language. Authors like Conrad, like Hemingway, stand the test of time because they do not load their books with adjectives and adverbs (rather the reverse, in dear old Ernest’s case). Nouns and verbs are less sensitive to fashion than descriptive words, so if the text mostly consists of texts and nouns, the language remains relevant, vibrant even.

But what all those timeless books have in common is something else. It’s all about the people, peeps. There’s a reason why Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy still enthral new readers, despite the story being reasonably predictable and not exactly high-paced. Anna Karenina’s infidelity, her subsequent humiliation and despair still moves us, as does Jane Eyre’s depressing childhood and the terrible blow her pride (and love) suffers when Mrs Rochester numero uno is revealed. (In Jane’s case, though, I suspect it is that final line which sort of clinches it: “Reader, I married him.” Perfect.)

For well over a century, the Nobel committee has awarded authors the Nobel Prize in Literature for their contribution to the global literary canon. When I read through the list of the prize winners during the first fifty years, I suspect very, very many have already become obsolete. Seriously, how many have read Prudhomme? Benavente? Maeterlinck? Writer like Pearl.S.Buck are almost forgotten (more’s the pity in her case. The Good Earth is quite the read – but yes, it is dated) while others, such as Kipling and Undset still attract readers. Once again, because of the characters. We can still relate to Mowgli and Kim, and as to Kristin Lavransdotter, show me any woman in the world who can’t relate to her and how she faces up to what life throws her way.

Obviously, fabulous characters and no plot does not a story make. Readers tend to pick up books because they want to be told a story, they want to be transported elsewhere, hastily turning pages as they are sucked into the plot. The conclusion, therefore, is that it’s people and plot. But plot without people will never work. Never. Books with people and little in the way of plot can work. Sometimes. This is why a book like Fifty Shades of Grey—which we all “know” is terribly, terribly written, full of clichés and with awful dialogue (does ANYONE say “Whoa!” while in the throes of passion????)—sells millions and millions. Whatever else she may do wrong, E L James does one thing right: she gives the readers the people they want, in this case a very young but very mature and compassionate young woman who can take on and tame the angry, wounded beast that is Mr Grey. It’s the classic fairy tale of the good girl penetrating the layers of evil that shroud the beast to tap into his golden heart. Supposedly, she also writes hot sex scenes. Not so much, IMO. Once again: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that millions of readers care about Christian and Anastasia. Just like millions and millions (if we count since it was first published) care about Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy. Or Jane Eyre and the deliciously haunted Mr Rochester. Or the little prince and his rose, that rather vain and self-engrossed flower the little prince so loved.

LittleprinceI’m guessing none of the above comes as a surprise –neither for writers or readers. But I’d love to hear which classics you feel have stood the test of time and which have not. And while you mull that one over, I’m going to dig out my very old, very loved copy of Le Petit Prince. As always, I’ll laugh at the picture of the boa which has swallowed an elephant. As always, I will feel my chest constrict as we get to the sadder parts. Because that’s what all great classics do: they make us feel, they make us share in the pain and joy the characters experience, thereby making us grow (a bit) as people.

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

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.



That weird head-hopping stuff.

Writing a book is about establishing a connection between the reader and the character in the book. No matter how excellent the historical details, how correct the description of everything from how to dismantle a gun to how to perform emergency surgery in the wild, unless the reader is invested in the characters, the read will leave them at most lukewarm. Unless, of course, they read the book precisely to find out how to dismantle a gun, but generally expectations on a work of fiction are somewhat higher than that.

To establish that connection, the writer has at their disposal person and POV – point of view. Person is usually a choice between first person and third person. I once attended a very interesting lecture about using second person, i.e. “you” throughout a book and came away with the conclusion that this  a) was difficult to pull off without sounding patronising/hectoring  b) would never create that sensation for the reader of being inside the character’s head, seeing as the writer was always talking TO the character rather than THROUGH the character.

First person is not a favourite with me. Yes, there are a number of books written in first person that are very gripping, but in general I feel first person is rather restrictive. However, there are some books in which a combination of first and third person are used in an excellent fashion, and there is one book in particular where an initial third person bleeds over into a first person that I find quite amazing. This is a story about a woman afflicted by dreams of the early 13th century, vivid dreams in which she effectively sees the past through the eyes of a person living in the past. As the dreams become increasingly more vivid, as the lines between reality and dream become more and more blurred, our protagonist drifts from third person narrative to first person narrative and I, as the reader, am thereby dragged along into her obsession/that distant past life.

Many first person books end up being flat. There is a lack of depth in reactions, reflections, emotions as they’re often sifted through one very subjective view. (The obvious exception are intense books roiling with personal feelings where first person may well be the only choice as it is the subjectivity of the reactions that define the book and the character) Once again, some writers overcome this hurdle with ease – but far more do not.

Some books have multiple first person POVs, but those I tend to find rather confusing.  What I really detest about books written in first person is the “how do I fit in a description of my character now that I’m writing in first person” issue. Studying your own reflection happens a lot. Strange sentences such as “I dragged the brush through my long, golden locks” make me cringe, as rarely do we think of our hair as anything other than plain hair. Or “My blue eyes teared up.” Urk.

The benefit with first person books is that the POV is very clear. People writing first person rarely head hop – indicative of the fact that we generally do not know what the person we’re talking to is thinking, nor do we feel their emotions, be they anger or irritation or joy or whatever. Our first person character might see their reactions. “His face lit up” would indicate the person is pleased. “I watched with trepidation as his hand bunched into a fist,” indicates some sort of conflict. Our first person can guess at what they’re thinking/feeling. “To judge from how X kept his eyes on the plate, he had no desire to continue this discussion.” It might have nothing to do with an unwillingness to continue the discussion: maybe X was struggling with mirth and did not want to hurt the protagonist by bursting out in laughter.

Third person narratives (and I prefer those with various POV characters) somehow offer more depth – at least to me. They do, however, require that the writer sticks to the chosen POV throughout a scene/dialogue, this so as to avoid confusing the reader. Head-hopping, i.e. the writer’s tendency to leap-frog from one person’s thoughts to the other, not only causes confusion, it also causes distance, as the reader is thereby expected to bond with multiple characters simultaneously.

“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest. No way. Never. It was wrong, heck, it was probably illegal. (Here we are in HER head)
“Because I want you to,” he replied, amused by her stance, by how she lifted her chin. He had to hand it to her: she had guts—and a moral compass. Wouldn’t help her much, though.
(What? And now we’re in HIS head?)
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. She glared at him, hating the way he smiled, the way he looked utterly unfazed by her refusal.
(Back to HER head…)
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her and she backed away, her eyes wide and dark. She licked her lips. He liked that.
(HIS head. Somewhat sinister, isn’t he?)
“Dream on,” she snapped back, trying to inject determination in her voice.
(Oops! Back to HER, so I can’t continue exploring his sinister side. Pity…) 
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm, enjoying how she shivered under his touch, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Soft, slightly damp skin. Not only because of the damned heat, he supposed, bending down to brush his lips down her cheek, down her neck. She smelled nice. He kissed her just below her ear. She tasted nice too. She softened—for an instant, before yanking free and ducking under his arm, marching towards the door. A futile gesture. The door was locked and he wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to. He could wait all night if necessary.
(All in HIS POV. Quite the relief after all that preceding back and forth) 

Okay, so the reader gets the above. He wants her to do something, she doesn’t. He is clearly attracted to her, whether she returns the favour is unclear. But the reader does not need to develop more than a shallow bond with the characters – the writer is telling the reader just what each speaker is thinking with each line of dialogue, which is a far cry from how things are in real life. Far more importantly, this writing technique means the reader is missing out on how the POV character reacts to what the other person says or how she/he reacts – in itself an illumination of the POV character.

So if we were to write the above purely in her POV, it might read like this:

“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest. No way. Never. It was wrong, heck, it was probably illegal.
“Because I want you to,” he replied, the corner of his mouth twitching. Damn him for looking at her like that, as if she had no choice but to do as he asked!
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. She glared at him, hating the way he smiled, the way he looked utterly unfazed by her refusal.
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her. She scrambled back, not wanting him too close. Or maybe she did. She licked her lips. His smile became a grin.
“Dream on,” she snapped back, trying to inject determination in her voice.
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I told you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm. She shivered, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Too intimate, too gentle. His lips, brushing her cheek, her neck, and she leaned into his solid warmth, his gentle touch. He kissed her just below the ear and she bit back on a moan. No, no, no! What was she doing? She yanked free, ducked under his arm and marched towards the door. A futile gesture, she knew that. He wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to, and to judge from his expression he could wait all night if necessary.

What we get from this is that she is conflicted. She is attracted to this man, but she is also angry and intimidated.  This makes her an interesting character to the reader, we sort of like conflict, don’t we? His behaviour – as analysed by her – would indicate he is attracted to her, but not to the point of letting her off the hook.

We could also write the scene from his POV:

“Why would I do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Because I want you to,” he replied, amused by her stance, by how she lifted her chin. He had to hand it to her: she had guts—and a moral compass. Wouldn’t help her much, though.
“I won’t do it,” she said, setting her jaw. He just had to smile. His princess looked about as dangerous as a determined poodle. How fortunate he was here to keep her safe.
“Oh, you will. Eventually. You have to, you know that.” He took a step towards her and she backed away, her eyes wide and dark. She licked her lips. He liked that.
“Dream on,” she snapped back, and he heard the quaver in her voice.
“No dream, sweet-pea.” He crowded her back against the wall. “I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. Now.” He ran a hand down her arm, enjoying how she shivered under his touch, the muscles in her forearm bunching when he tightened his hold. He ran his thumb up and down her skin. Soft, slightly damp skin. Not only because of the damned heat, he supposed, bending down to brush his lips down her cheek, down her neck. She smelled nice. He kissed her just below her ear. She tasted nice too. She softened—for an instant, before yanking free and ducking under his arm, marching towards the door. A futile gesture. The door was locked and he wasn’t about to let her go until she’d done as he told her to. He could wait all night if necessary.

Well, maybe he isn’t that big a jerk. He is attracted to her and admires her and the use of “his princess” indicates he cares for her. He still has no intention of letting her off the hook, but after reading his POV the reader can toy with the idea that maybe there’s a valid reason behind his insistence. Maybe. Once again, we have been given deeper insight into the character than in the original head-hopping scene. This generates more interest from the reader.

Note that the changes are subtle. The dialogue as such doesn’t change, the overall conflict (he wants her to do something she doesn’t want to do) remains unchanged. But the persuasions behind their actions become somewhat clearer, indicating a complexity to their characters.

As an aside, I find it helps to write crucial scenes in various POVs as this tends to shed light on the various characters, thereby giving me, as the writer, a deeper understanding for their motivations.

Some writers—notably those who do it—feel head-hopping is no big deal. Some say well-known, established authors do it (and yes, sadly some do). Some even go as far as saying that adding the inner reflections of their various characters to their every line of dialogue enriches the reading experience. Hmm. Nope, not to me. Instead, I am highly irritated by head-hopping as it indicates that the writer is either a) unaware of some of the basics of writing, or b) a tad lazy, as it is much harder to refrain from head-hopping than it is to do it. Besides, every time the writer head-hops, there is a risk that this will yank the reader right out of the character and the story. What could have been a deeply satisfying read becomes nothing but a distraction, potentially enjoyable but forgettable. Seriously, what writer wants their books to be classified as that?

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.

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!

To write or not to write

I must admit straight off that the title to this post is a tad misleading, as it is not so much about writing as it is about everything that comes with it – at least if you’re writing for publication. And seriously, there are days when I want to chuck it all in. Not the writing as such – I don’t think I can chuck it in – but the sheer slog of spreading the word about my books is, at times, borderline exhausting. Plus, I am way out of my comfort zone here, having little idea what will work and what won’t. Even worse, sometimes what works one day falls flat on its face the next time you try it. Very disheartening, putting it mildly.

I believe most writers experience some sort of passion over their writing. Okay, so some crank out like three books a year that are formulaic and a tad repetitive, but even these authors probably experience moments of passion for their craft. I also believe very few authors enjoy the promotional side of things. First of all, it steals time from writing. Secondly, few authors are entirely at home discussing targeted ads and punchy one-liners. Thirdly, many of us writers are uncomfortable with the commercial aspects of writing.

Now, if the writing is done purely as a hobby, marketing your book is not a must. Maybe it suffices seeing it up there on Amazon, maybe holding a couple of copies of the book is enough. But for most writers, it isn’t. We want sales & reviews, some sort of recognition as to the merits of our work. Pretty silly, really, as what one person thinks is a great read, another may very well throw at a wall.

If you want to sell, you have to promote.
“Ah,” someone may say, “that only applies if you’re self-published.”
Nope. It applies to ALL authors. Publishing companies don’t exactly spend tons of money on all of their releases—they can’t afford to. Instead, they’ll concentrate their marketing efforts to the books they expect will sell really well, while their mid-list authors and downwards are expected to contribute to their own promotion.

Ironically, this means a lot of promo money is poured into books that don’t need it. Take Diana Gabaldon as an example: She publishes a new book and it takes on life of its own, snowballing through the sales ranks. (Having said that, Ms Gabaldon is an active tweeter, thereby maintaining a strong & growing platform. See? She too invests time in promotion!)

If, like many writers, you’re the ambitious sort, the one who wants to see your sales ranking improve and the reviews coming in, there’s no way around it: you MUST promote. But how? Ah, therein lies the question, does it not?

Blog tours help to create a certain buzz—a short-lived burst of interest that the savvy writer can milk for some months afterwards by reposting guest posts and reviews. Or you can do ads. Yup, write your own “copy” and put up FB ads or Amazon ads or BookBub ads. Not as easy as it sounds, but, I believe, relatively effective—assuming you’ve analysed your targeted audience, your targeted markets, your comparable authors. I.e. successful ads require a lot of work—yet another time thief, eating into precious writing time.

Mind you, all promotional activities take time. But there is no such thing as a free ride in a marketplace which sees millions and millions of new releases on a yearly basis, so either you promote or you drown in the deluge of books. Now and then, drowning seems the better option…

Alternatively, the happy writer concentrates on just that: the writing. Forget about publication, ignore the call of the market. No need to promote, no need to worry about pleasing anyone but yourself with your writing. I’m not sure I’d be able to do that. I need that ephemeral recognition, some sort of verification that what I write has the capacity to touch my readers. And so, dear peeps, I must bow to the inevitable: I write, therefore I promote.

Cracking the whip

writer“No inspiration,” I sometimes sigh, while staring at the screen which remains enervatingly blank. And yes, inspiration is a must when it comes to writing—if nothing else as the igniting spark—but there’s another component which is just as important: discipline.
“Of course,” my very own muse, Ms Inspiration says. For the day, she’s wearing a rather scary outfit—all black & red leather—and out of nowhere a whip materialises. She smiles—one of those smiles that is all teeth no warmth. When she’s in this mode, Ms Inspiration is frankly quite frightening, and I have to suppress the urge to stand up and run, reminding myself repeatedly that Ms Inspiration is not real. She’s a figment of my imagination.

“Ouch!” I jump like half a metre when she cracks the whip over my back. For a figment, she sure has quite the hand on her.
“You have work to do,” Ms Inspiration tells me. She nods at my very long to-do list. “Get cracking.” She chuckles and cracks the whip in the air a couple of times before fading away. I have no doubt she’ll be back to plague me if I don’t comply.

That to-do list of mine is full of stuff that requires discipline rather than inspiration. Things I do once I have a first draft to work with – once that initial conflagration of inspiration has burned down a bit. After all, the first phase of any writing project IS creative, inspirational. I dive right into my escapist bubble and end up so caught up in my developing story I often forget to cook and shop, surviving on copious amounts of tea and too much chocolate. This stage is exhausting – productivity is at an all-time high and I am burning energy as if there is no tomorrow, especially as I also have a pretty demanding day-job.

Some writers love this part of the process. I do and I don’t, torn between the exhilaration of seeing my story, my characters come alive, and being uncomfortable with the way I am engulfed by my creative side. You see, in all other aspects of my life I am VERY disciplined. I write lists. I plan dinners a week at the time. I am a structural fascist. Having my brain taken over by my characters—and a loud and opinionated lot they are—is way out of my comfort zone, however exciting.

Fortunately, once the first draft is in place, I can resort to structure—which in my case results in the to-do lists. Lists with things like “double-check how many blows to the head it took before XX died” or “MANTEL, not MANTLE!!!!!” or “time from Northampton to Leicester by horse?” or “top speed for a Tesla?” (and yes, obviously these are examples from different books). This is when I rewrite and revise, when I go back to my research notes to verify my facts.

Now, historical fiction authors come in all sizes. For some, the human-interest angle overshadows everything else, and a couple of historical errors is neither here nor there. For others, the historical facts must be as correct as they can be. I belong to the latter category, and my penchant for lists and structure—discipline—comes in handy when I chase up little details such as on what day exactly was there a full moon in April of 1328. Or spend hours studying what medieval maps I can find of the various towns in which my story takes place.

metsu_writerI think this is my favourite phase of the writing process, lovely hours spent polishing my work. This is also when I discover that perfect scene in which my heroine is staring out towards the setting sun has to go as the location she’s at would not offer all that much of a view to the west. I sigh mightily at having to cut the scene—but pat myself on the back for having the fortitude to do so. After all, facts are facts.

All of this requires discipline—and an eye for details. Fact-checking, tick, plot-structure, tick, grammar & spelling (MANTEL, remember?), tick, All those ticks build the foundation of the final story. Ultimately, though, it is the inspirational bursts, the characters and their lives and loves, which add the icing to the story-telling cake. And who wants cake without an icing, hey? Not me!
“Done yet?” Ms Inspiration reappears in a swirl of red and black leather. I proudly hold up my list. Write post is now neatly ticked.
“Well done.” She peers at the list (she’s seriously myopic but is too vain to admit it). “Only nineteen items to go.”
I groan. She cracks her whip. Here we go again…

Historical Fiction – a genre or an umbrella?

Millais Sir Isumbras ISUMBRAS
Millais: A Historical Painter, or a Painter who Paints the Past?

Sometimes, people ask me why I write historical fiction. “Why such a difficult genre?” they ask, which in itself makes me a tad irritated, as historical fiction, IMO, is not a genre – it’s an umbrella under which all other genres coexist. In essence, the “historical” in historical fiction merely indicates that the story is set in a non-contemporary time. It says nothing about the content as such, albeit that many people seem to think historical fiction is defined by blood and gore and thousands upon thousands dying in one battle or other.

Yes, that stuff happens in historical novels. It also happens in contemporary novels – it happens in real life around us on a daily basis. There are historical novels that are essentially love stories, there are others that are coming-of-age stories, yet another author delivers a well-crafted thriller set in distant times, and quite a few produce so called cosy mysteries a la Miss Marple. As long as all these very different books are set in the past, they end up labelled as historical fiction – and considered comparable. Obviously, they are not.

I write books set in the past because I am something of a history geek. Since I was old enough to read for myself, I have submerged myself in stories set in the past – no matter genre – because I wanted to pretend I was there, in an era very distant from my own. Escapism in its purest form, one could say.

And yes, I spend very many happy hours researching my chosen setting – at times resulting in tangential excursions that bring no value whatsoever to my WIP, but expand my soul and enrich my life in general. After all, who doesn’t want to know that Peter the Great married a low-born, illiterate commoner? Or that Eleanor of Castile had a half-brother, Felipe, already a bishop when he threw his ecclesiastic career out of the window to marry a Norwegian princess?

Neither here nor there for the purpose of this post – except to highlight that I am as happy as a calf in a field of juicy clover writing historical fiction.

You can research your setting and the era you’ve chosen until you’re blue in the face. That in itself will not result in a page-turning novel. In fact, sometimes too much research produces a major info-dump instead – you know, books in which the author expends pages and pages on showcasing their own knowledge of the period, thereby effectively killing pace.

A skilled writer of historical fiction inserts DETAILS, not paragraphs. A skilled writer – no matter genre – also knows that if you want the story you write to resonate with the reader, your novel must deliver some sort of insight into the commonalities of being human. Therefore, for a novel to come alive, it requires characters that are vibrant and complex, real enough to step out of the pages, no matter if they ever existed or not.

People have not changed all that much through the centuries. We are still needy creatures, both on a physical and emotional level. Think Maslow, and I guess we all agree humans have physiological needs, a desire to feel safe, to belong. We do in this day and age, they did back in historic (and pre-historic) times as well.

It is therefore a safe bet to assume human emotions and reactions are relatively constant throughout the ages. Someone betrays you, the visceral rage you feel is probably identical to the one your 12th century ancestor felt when he realised he’d been set up. Loving someone probably feels the same – maybe with the caveat that these days, we consider it a borderline human right to be loved and love. Back in the darker and grimmer eras that precede ours, love was something of a luxury: if you had food and a roof over your head, if you were safe and your children set up for surviving, you could live with not falling into throes of passion at the sight of your husband/wife. Truth is, you didn’t EXPECT to love your spouse – you married for reasons on the lower lever of the Maslow pyramid. But this doesn’t preclude that IF you fell in love, it would feel exactly the same way as it feels today.

All of us have personal experience of feelings and emotions. As these are the most important aspects to convey in a novel, we could all, potentially, carry a budding writer within. There is, however, a major difference between experiencing an emotion and describing it – plus, once again, it is a fine balancing act between describing too much and too little. Readers enjoy filling in the blanks. Writers don’t want them to fill in the blanks with the wrong stuff, so writers have to leave enough hints to steer the reader in the right direction. This is the major difference between “show” and “tell” writing – as in “She was so devastated and confused she had no idea what to do next” (the writer informs – tells – the reader of what the protagonist is experiencing) or “She couldn’t quite focus: her hands shook, her mouth was the texture of paper, her brain a total blank” (the writers presents the protagonist’s reactions which the reader analyses before concluding she is in a bad way, probably in some sort of shock).

Whatever the case, it is my opinion that to write a novel one must be fascinated by humanity, in all its diverse forms. It is only by presenting the reader with a mirror in which they can recognise their own emotions that a writer succeeds in hooking them. And once the reader has swallowed the bait, it doesn’t really matter if the book is set in the future, the past or the present. What matters is that the reader is willing to take a ride through the imagined landscapes produced by the writer, hand in hand with the protagonist.

Write what you love, they say. And I do, combining my endless curiosity as to what makes people tick with my love for the past. Do I write historical fiction? I guess I do – but more importantly, I write novels that explore the human condition. An exercise in self-exploration? Maybe. An attempt to exorcise personal experiences? Rarely. A fulfilling experience? Always.

The Critical Friend – a friend indeed!

friends-old-images-050Us creative types have somewhat sensitive egos. We invest so much of ourselves in our creations that we can’t quite separate our work from ourselves, leaving us very prickly when it comes to criticism.If the critic says “this was a bad book”, the sensitive writer will rationally tell themselves that one can’t please everyone, but inside, our fragile author will be weeping blood at being so brutally rejected.

Over time, writers learn that just because someone hates their book this doesn’t mean they would hate the writer per se. Mind you, most writers aren’t that interested in even attempting to get to know someone who dismissed their magnum opus as “badly written” or “bland”. Over time, writers get reconciled to receiving bad reviews – but hate them all the same. That feeling of being eviscerated upon reading someone’s scathing comments just never goes away.

In some cases, the negative reviews reflect a difference in taste. Where the writer loves pink and fluffy endings, the reviewer can’t abide this unrealistic nonsense. In most cases, reviews point at things the writer needs to work with. Some reviews are just spiteful and should be totally ignored. Others highlight the fact that this particular writer did not have a Critical Friend.

A classic, if non-writing, example of when a Critical Friend is a friend in need, is when people apply to talent shows – such as American Idol. The eager and talent-less applicant is totally torn apart by the jury, and says things like “My mother told me I can sing,” or “my best friend always said I’m the next Whitney Houston.” To judge from the recent performance, mother and BFF are as tone-deaf as the would-be Idol. Or uncomfortable with telling the truth.

We don’t like telling people truths we suspect might hurt them. If someone asks us how they look in something, chances are we’ll tell them they look fine, even if the overall impression is that of a bratwurst about to burst apart. Honesty can kill a friendship unless delivered with enormous tact, and so many of us opt for less of the honesty by making vague approving sounds while not going so far as exclaiming “Wow, you look smoking hot in that!”.

By not telling the truth, chances are we’re doing our friends a major disfavour. That young boy with a voice like a rusty saw would have been better off had he not applied to American Idol, there to make a fool of himself in front of millions of viewers. Our friend that we sent off in that far too tight skirt, would have preferred to hear from us that maybe that skirt was not the most becoming.

Enter the Critical Friend. Now, to be a Critical Friend, you first have to qualify as a friend, which essentially means you’ve proven time and time again that you always have your friend’s best interests at heart. You’ve listened to hourly monologues about cheating partners. You’ve stoically tolerated being yelled at when you’ve stopped your BFF from leaping onto a motorbike with an unknown, if gorgeous, man. You’ve held hands in moments of grief, you’ve danced polka over the kitchen floor to celebrate degrees, jobs, babies, weddings. You’ve sat all night on a bench outside the police station so as to be able to be there when your BFF is released next morning. You’ve dashed across town at four in the morning because your friend woke you up yelling emergency and you were expecting a bloodbath but found him/her crying over their dead hamster. You know, the stuff friends do for each other. Real friends, that is: those friends who also speak the truth when it comes to singing abilities and overly tight suede skirts.

For an author, a Critical Friend is worth their weight in gold. A Critical Friend will deconstruct your tottering plot line before a reviewer does. A Critical Friend will point at plot holes, at unrealistic characters, at pages littered with adverbs. A Critical Friend will tell you this story will never fly, because there isn’t anyone in the world but you interested in a book featuring a worm and a pine cone. Even when you try to explain the worm and the pine cone are symbolic, Critical BFF will be unimpressed, thereby saving you from publishing a book that would have you squirming on a hook some years from now.

I have a Critical Friend. I have a person who loves me enough to look at me and say “hmmm.” I know what that means: it means whatever she is presently reading is really, really bad. She only uses a long “hmmm” in such situations. A “huh” indicates she doesn’t buy it, but sees the potential. And when she grins and goes “kssksskss” I know I’ve struck gold.

My Critical Friend told me to hide my first few manuscripts wherever the sun wouldn’t find them and forget about them. My Critical Friend has read my books in version 1 through 10. She sends me cryptic messages along the lines of “what happened to the burlap sack?” at five a.m. and I have to think really hard to identify what burlap sack she might be referring to. My Critical Friend is happy to sit for hours and dissect my characters – and my plotlines. I’m not always thrilled by the outcome of all this dissection, but in general it results in a better product, even if I’ve had to cut out my three most favourite scenes.

Does having a Critical Friend preclude negative reviews? Of course not. But with Critical Friend and Amazing Editor scrutinising my every word, I am pretty confident the book isn’t as bad as the reviewer thinks. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” I’ll say with a bright smile—which doesn’t mean I don’t gnash my teeth and stick pins in my voodoo doll in private. Hey, what can I say? I’m one of those sensitive creative types, remember?