“We have to hope that our characters will forgive us…”

“…because we’re doing the best that we can.” Margaret George, Historical Novel Society conference, 2016.

Sign out conference hall HNS OXFORD 16

I’ve never been to the Historical Novel Society conference before, but after last weekend I’m wondering why. It was splendid. If you want to read a well thought-out blog piece about it, there’s one in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want a few photos, some scrappy notes and some Anglo-Saxons banging their shields and yelling, then, dear reader, you are in the right place.

The problem with reporting on writing events is that my photos are often – quite frankly – a bit boring. They’re mostly:Tracey Chevalier giving a talk

Panels – a row of people behind a row of tables.

Discussions – two or three people looking at each other across a low table.

Talks – one person behind a lectern. Or standing beside a table. Could be anybody, because they’re too far away to tell. On the right: Tracey Chevalier, Richard Lee of the HNS, an illegible screen and the backs of two heads.  Luckily the talk was much better than my photography.

The Dinner – lots of people leaning against each other and looking cheerful around a big table.

After the dinner–  people standing around clutching drinks and looking very cheerful, despite the absence of tables.

Whilst these sort of pictures are fine if you know the people involved, or if you have always wondered what the person who wrote that hideous torture scene might look like, they aren’t exciting. So, I have vowed to take (or at least show) no more of them.

In future, any panel that can’t come up to the standard of Paula Lofting and Regia Anglorum‘s “How to Build a Shield Wall” isn’t going to get a look-in.

Photo of re-enactors with shields and javelins

Although they might get a quote, because some things are too good not to pass on.

For instance, Jo Baker‘s contention that “Books start to be historical when the clothes start to be vintage.”

Melvyn Bragg‘s “History and fiction have been intermingled for ever. Herodotus made up the speeches for his Histories.”

Gillian Bagwell‘s hints on “Giving your writing the reading it deserves” including, Memorize the first line so you can look at the audience. (I’d never thought of that.)

Rory Clements on “Writing the Historical Thriller” – “If you find it easy, you are not putting enough effort in. You could do more.”

Hazel Gaynor on reclusive writers engaging with booksellers – “I’m putting my Brave Trousers on, and I’m going out!”

Carole Blake‘s sage advice to aspiring writers – “Ask around – don’t be so grateful that you accept an offer regardless.”

But where, you may be asking by now, are the Anglo-Saxons beating their shields? Was that them, above? No, there’s more. We’ll get there in a minute. First, I’d like to celebrate the glorious Battle of Fulford tapestry. (Not, as I inadvertently called it on Twitter, “the Battle of Fulford Tapestry,” an otherwise unknown medieval skirmish over needlework). It’s six metres long, it was displayed at the conference by its designer, Chas Jones, and you can find out all about it on this website. You may recognise the style.

Work in the style of the Bayeux tapestry

 

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And this is how they got those lovely colours for the wool. I tried to turn all the labels around the right way before taking the photo, so with luck you can zoom in and read most of them.

Skeins of wool dyed with natural materials

There was, of course, a very fine Gala Dinner on the Saturday night.The guests included Queen Boudica, an elf, a witch, a monk, Tilla (or rather me, wearing her clothes), a gondolier, and Mrs Lincoln. On looking at the photos it’s clear that Tilla enjoyed the evening a little too much and all the photos she took were a bit blurry. This is her best effort at Mary Todd Lincoln, whose splendid outfit won first prize in the costume pageant.

Photo of lady dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln

So that, gentle reader, was a very brief roundup of some of the highlights of the HNS conference. In the year that marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, we will leave the final word to Harold Godwinson’s men. Some of whom are women. But as they say about historical fiction, it’s all lies anyway.

 

 

Competition fever!

There’s competition fever here at Downie Towers, with the caption competition running till the end of July, plus two more chances to win goodies. Apologies to those who’ve heard this all before, but in case you haven’t…

First, a chance to stock up your summer reading bag with books of your choice, or to win one of the splendid titles on offer:

Graphic showing titles on offer for Summer of History draw

Would you rather visit ancient Greece, or go to Tang Dynasty China? Meet the Jeffersons at Monticello, or travel to Paris in the 1920’s?  How about Ireland, or Alcatraz? To help you choose, there are links to all the authors and their books below.

Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Vicky Alvear ShecterCatherine Lloyd, Elisabeth Storrs, David Blixt, Sophie Perinot, Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn, Weina Randel, Jennifer Robson, Donna Russo Morin, Eliza Knight, Heather Webb, Allison Pataki, Stephanie Thornton, Kristina McMorris, Greer MaCallister, and Sarah McCoy

Books can be sent to winners in any country within reach of The Book Depository, which is all of these, so pretty much everyone can enter. Do it by 1 August!

Secondly, as of this moment there’s still time for US readers to enter the Goodreads giveaway draw for one of five free copies of VITA BREVIS. Go for it by 28 July!

Vita Brevis goodreads

 

Eboracum Roman Festival – counting down to 1 June!

Poster for Eboracum Roman FestivalI know… no blog posts for ages, and then two in a row. But just in case anyone’s missed the publicity so far… Eboracum Roman Festival is coming very soon, and it’s going to be spectacular.

There’s a splendid programme of events for all ages, and much of the festival is freely open to the public. Clicking here will take you to the page where you can book for the things that aren’t. There’s also more detail about individual events on the Facebook page.

I’ll be around over the weekend, sharing the Novelists’ Table with  fellow-scribes including SJA Turney, and giving a talk on Saturday afternoon in York Explore – the library and archive centre. Come and say hello, enter the draw to win a free book, and admire my lovely nearly-new Roman shoes, of which I’m very proud!

 

 

 

 

 

Badly dressed for the Bard

Big thanks to Fiona and the staff at the lovely Walter Henry’s bookshop in Bideford, who marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday with tea and cake and fine hospitality. The collective noun for a gathering of  local readers, writers and historians should probably be ‘a gossip’ but we fell respectfully silent to listen to a sonnet by the late Bard, read by his living namesake, writer Liz Shakespeare.

Peter Christie explained why he believes Shakespeare came to Bideford: we know (I didn’t, but I do now) that the King’s Company came all the way to Barnstaple to flee the plague in 1605, so having travelled that far, surely they would travel down the road and play the only other big town in the area? Whose plays were being watched in contemporary accounts of money being ‘wasted’ on the theatre?

Finally Janet Braund Few entertained us with a demonstration of Elizabethan costume and manners. Something we clearly needed, since several of the wenches present had turned up wearing men’s breeches and in a further assault upon modesty, not one of the married ladies present had her head covered.  We had all, as the saying goes, let our hair down.

Rather than shock any sensitive readers with photographs of this scandalous attire, here is a picture of a bag.

Bag with pic of Shakespeare and "The Bard is my Bag" printed on it.

And here’s the book I bought to go inside it, recommended to me by children’s author and farmer (so she should know),   Victoria Eveleigh.

IMG_20160425_132950412_HDR

 

 

An honour!

Thrilled to hear that TABULA RASA is included on Nancy Pearl’s list of reads for 2015!  You can see the full list of recommendations here. Also, warm congratulations to Mick Herron, another British crime writer who’s doubly honoured by having TWO of his books on the list – a real achievement!

All this is rather nicely timed as it coincides with the launch of the paperback edition in the UK today, under its smart new cover:

TABULA RASA paperback cover

A Year of Ravens – Rebellion is stirring!

“Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Briton . . . and these are their stories.”

Cover of A Year of Ravens

Seven authors, seven styles, seven tales – all fitting together to tell the story of the Boudican revolt as you’ve never heard it before. It’s been a privilege to be involved with this project, and I’m delighted to announce that A YEAR OF RAVENS will be published on 17 November.

Here’s where to find out more:

Amazon UK

Amazon USA  

Kobo

Apple

Nook

Print copies, USA

A YEAR OF RAVENS: A NOVEL OF BOUDICA

Lest anyone should think absolutely nothing’s been happening at Downie Towers while the  editor was drafting her feedback on Ruso 7 – here’s news of a completely independent project. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the award-nominated team who put together A Day of Fire last year, and this is what we’ve been up to:

A YEAR OF RAVENS: a novel of Boudica

Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Celt . . . and these are their stories. 

A novel in seven parts by Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, SJA Turney, and Russell Whitfield, overlapping stories of warriors and peacemakers, queens and slaves, Romans and Celts who cross paths during Boudica’s epic rebellion. But who will survive to see the dawn of a new Britannia, and who will fall to feed the ravens?

Due for release November 2015.

There’s a page for the Facebook-savvy here where you can find out the latest. Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions of what the great queen might have looked like. I can’t help thinking they tell us as much about their creators as they do about the woman herself.

According to Dio Cassius, Boudica was “very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh;  a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.”

Here’s an eighteenth century take from John Opie:

Boadicea Haranguing The Britons.  John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.
Boadicea Haranguing The Britons. John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.

 

Thomas Thornycroft’s Victorian version is on the Embankment in London:

Statue of Boadicea Boudicca Queen of the Iceni who died AD 61 after leading her people against the Roman invader in UK
Statue of Boadicea Boudicca Queen of the Iceni who died AD 61 after leading her people against the Roman invader in UK

 

And here’s one created this very morning!

Layout 1

The pleasure of being a guest

I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest twice this week – first on a virtual trip across to Alison Morton’s blog, where I was sharing a few mental meanderings about historical truth and donkey poo.  Alison is the author of the Roma Nova series, set in a world where the Roman Empire hasn’t fallen – so ‘historical truth’ is an interesting issue.

Then, while practially every other writer of historical fiction in the entire universe was at Harrogate (again, Alison’s blog will give you the low-down) I had the privilege of joining a group of visitors from the US on a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Just as we were turning to leave Sewingshields (near Vindolanda) the sun came out, the rain began, and magic happened.

 

.Rainbow over cliffs at Hadrians Wall

Blog tour: My writing process

Thanks to Judi Moore, multi-talented author of “Is death really necessary?” for inviting me to join the blog tour that hunts out the answers to four questions. Mercifully, “Is death really necessary?” isn’t one of them.

Judi’s answers can be found here.  Mine are below. I’m charged with handing on the baton, and have contacted a couple of writer friends, but the rules say you can offer up to three links – so if anyone fancies joining in, let me know.

1.      What am I working on?Cover of TABULA RASA

The seventh Ruso novel, provisionally called HABEAS CORPUS, and set in Rome. Thus my head will be in entirely the wrong place when the sixth, TABULA RASA, comes out later this year – that one’s set on the northern border of Britannia and will look very much like the cover on the right. (I believe that’s Hercules clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)

2.      How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Its genre is “Roman Crime” and there’s a surprising amount of it about. I’d normally reply that I’m more interested than most in the Romano/British tensions, having a leading character from each side and setting the books out in the far reaches of the Western Empire. Although of course Jane Finnis and Rosemary Rowe both set their crime novels in Roman Britain.

Setting HABEAS CORPUS in Rome is going to be a bit of a step in the dark, both for me and for Ruso and Tilla, who will have to be careful not to trip over the descendants of other fictional characters.

3.      Why do I write what I do?

Out of fascination with the era – so much ‘like us’ and yet so different. Also, the problem of how to get along with people who don’t share our culture is universal, and it’s especially acute during a military occupation. In a sense it’s easy for the people at the extremes. Their thinking isn’t challenged. It’s the people who rub shoulders every day with individuals from the ‘other side’ who have to make crucial decisions on how to behave, what risks to take and how much trust to offer. Peacemakers may be ‘blessed’ but they don’t have easy lives.

4.      How does your writing process work?

I know several writers who sit down at the desk and produce between 1000 and 5000 words a day. Clearly their brains work much faster than mine, and they have much better self-discipline.

Often the only way to make progress is to spend a lot of time getting it frustratingly wrong, then to go for a lone walk only to realise (on a good day) what I should have written. Thus many hours are spent producing words that end up in the ‘dump’ file the next morning. I keep a running total of the word count on a virtual sticky note on the desktop, just to reassure myself that I am making progress, if rather inefficiently.

What about planning, you may be asking? Oh, I can show you plans. Official synopses. Splendid creations in multi-coloured felt-tip. Photographs on whiteboards. Photographs of whiteboards. Maps with pins and stickers. Spreadsheets. Character lists. Charts drawn up using special software. Then you can wonder, as I do when these things resurface during a clear-up, what on earth most of them have to do with what’s in the book.

 

 

Io, Saturnalia!

‘Tis now the season, so in search of something appropriate to share, I turned to Macrobius’s “Saturnalia. ” This is not as jolly as the name might suggest, being largely a discussion on Roman culture, but there is a section of “witticisms”. Below is the best I could find. Please don’t build your hopes up.

Caninius Rebilius was consul (supposedly a year-long post) for a single day. “We have a watchful consult in Caninius,” observed Cicero. “He didn’t see a moment’s sleep during his term.”

Augustus, on noting that one Vettius had ploughed under his father’s memorial stone: “Now that’s what I call cultivating your father’s memory.” (Unusually, this is a pun that works in translation)

By way of excuse, I should point out that Husband owns a book called “Freud on Jokes” and that is not funny either.

You may be relieved to know that Mary Beard is currently working on a book about Roman humour.  It doesn’t seem to be out yet but it promises to be a lot more entertaining than Macrobius. There’s a taster here.

(Quotes are based on Robert Kaster's translation for the Loeb edition of Macrobius: tweaks and errors are mine.)