Horses in historical fiction

Writing about shying, bolting, and unfortunate equine accidents

As prey animals, instinct tells equines to run at a whiff of danger. They shy at what we may consider to be imaginary objects, this is because their eyes can detect movements to the side of them, which we do not see, and their ears can pick up signals we do not hear.

The moment the horse decides to take off to get away from a perceived threat, it lowers its rump to get a power start from the hind legs. (Watch the start of a horse race and you’ll see what I mean.) In a hist-fic story, this can result in a pillion rider sliding straight off. The next action is for the horse to lower its head and stretch out its neck, meaning a rider taken unawares will be pitched forward, assuming the frightened animal doesn’t swerve off to one side, in which case the rider hits the ground hard.

Riders can be jolted out of a saddle and if they are not careful a foot can be caught in a stirrup, meaning they will get dragged and possibly kicked as well. A friend of mine became deaf due to an accident like this on hard terrain.

More often, though, with a bolting horse, the rider is pitched forward onto the horse’s neck, which sends the creature into an even greater frenzy. From this moment it may gallop flat out with no heed to trees, traffic or other hazards. The rider struggling to stay on will grab for the mane, but this pinching action on the horse’s neck is like a wolf’s jaws and quite literally anything can happen after that.

Even placid ponies have crazy moments. Trotting along an open stretch of countryside a dog shoots out of nowhere, the startled pony drops its hind-quarters to canter away or turns too fast and child or cart and cargo get tipped in the process. Dragging an over-turned cart will make the pony even more hysterical. That sort of thing happens. In real life, freak, silly accidents cause the most damage, but this sort of incident will have to be used with care in fiction so it does not look over-contrived.

The fallen horse

Horses stumble and slip on loose pebbles and rough terrain. They get stones lodged into their hooves making them go lame and forcing a rider to dismount to remove the stone. The bigger danger here is that if a horse slips badly and goes down the rider can become trapped underneath its body. I’ve seen and been in this sort of accident.

When a horse goes down, it may lie still for what seems an age while it gets its senses back then will scramble to its feet, fore-legs first. Horses generally avoid stepping on a living creature knowingly (except rats & snakes), but in this situation the rider on the ground is in danger of getting an iron-shod hoof pressed down on shoulder or head. My husband was in an accident when his 17 hand mare slipped backwards into a deep ditch trapping him in the saddle underneath her. After lying still for sufficient time to make me think they were both dead, she finally started to right herself. Eventually she scrambled out, and I managed to get down to see if my husband was still alive. He was, but very battered with various broken ribs, but his horse had done what she could to avoid trampling him. The ditch was full of dead brambles and undergrowth, which made getting out more difficult, but probably saved my husband’s life A very scary accident.

Golconda diamonds – long ago, far away

Writing about real diamonds in historical fiction

Once upon a time, I had gap year job in a jewellery and antique shop. I was taken to their workshop to see how jewels were cut and set, and gradually learned what sort of antiques sold to what sort of customer. It was a pleasant job, but not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Looking back, however, much of what I learned then has come in very handy for my historical fiction.

Budding authors are advised to write what they know: my first novel, The Magpie, subsequently re-written as The Empress Emerald, is about Leo Kazan, a young man in colonial Bombay who has a fascination for all things shiny. I had a basic knowledge of the gems, and what I knew about India during the Raj came from tales of a great uncle who loved his time in India. In writing this novel – and without giving it any thought – I was combining the far away and long ago with personal experience. A technique I extended for The Chosen Man trilogy, drawing on my time living in Italy, the Netherlands and Spain with events that happened centuries ago.

While preparing for my new release, A Turning Wind, (Book 2 in The Chosen Man trilogy), I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689). In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India he quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene of A Turning Wind, it also sets the scene for what is to come later perfectly.

Goa, India, September 1639

It was a ramshackle affair for such valuable goods. A makeshift marketplace created out of crimson and brightly striped awnings. Lengths of scarlet, orange, turquoise, purple and blue formed curtains between trees; sheltering the splendid commodities from the late summer sun. Vendors were still laying out their wares when Ludo arrived: gems and trinkets in copper and gold, ivory combs and bangles, shimmering sari silk and embroidered fringed shawls, all transported from one coast of India to the other on heads and shoulders. The costly cargo had passed through the famous alluvial diamond valleys of Golconda, the human caravan collecting ever more precious gems along the way – a cargo now watched over by guards with arm muscles that rippled ‘beware’ and vicious knives tucked in wide belts.

Curious, colourful, magnificent . . . everything Ludo had hoped for. He was delighted. Yet, wandering among the displays, he began to wonder why he had come – what, apart from uncut diamonds, he was actually seeking.

As he finished his first circuit, a white bullock ambled in pulling a cart laden with clay flagons. Happily over-paying an urchin for a drink of water then returning the cup, Ludo strolled back among the folding tables, trestles and floor mats, this time stopping to examine a miniature chest of drawers decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl for women’s trinkets. It was pretty, but no, not special enough to add to his ship’s cargo. Moving on, he encountered an awkward Englishman dabbing at his forehead with a sodden handkerchief. The pink-faced sahib was struggling to keep up with an Indian agent’s heavily accented sales patter without losing his cherished dignity.

“Let me tell you how they are found,” the Goan agent was saying as he ran a hand seductively through a wide lacquered bowl of uncut diamonds. “When it rains, water rushes down the mountains, taking these precious stones with it and leaving them trapped at the bottom of gorges and in caverns. When the dry season comes and there is not one drop of water to be had, when the heat is enough to kill an Englishman as he walks from his door, brave men risk their lives to collect the stones. But they must go where wild serpents thrive. Venomous serpents and vast – serpents that crush and swallow men whole . . .”

Ludo shuddered along with the Englishman: snakes were another of the reasons he had made no attempt to travel inland during his stay in Goa.

“. . . but these diamonds are precious not only for the means by which they are obtained, not only for their special rarity, but for their quality. Look, sahib, see how fine they are, how they bring light into our lives. Each one is perfect, flawless . . .”

The Englishman put a forefinger in the bowl and peered at a stone the size of a sparrow’s egg, then at another the shape and form of a woman’s fingernail. The Goan agent took his hand and placed an uncut stone in the sweating palm then exchanged it for a cushion-cut diamond ring magicked from among his robes saying quietly, “This is not for everyone to know, sahib, but I should tell you, there may not be many more of these diamonds. Each year there are fewer. It is said the serpents now eat them to preserve their heritage.”

Ludo swallowed a grin and gestured with a hand to attract the agent’s attention. Half-convinced, half-enthralled, and knowingly walking into an enticement worthy of his own invention, Ludo stepped forward and cocked his head to one side enquiringly. The agent retrieved the ring from the Englishman and put it in Ludo’s open palm then whisked a heart-shaped ruby from thin air and put it next to the ring.

Ludo’s hand was broad but there was barely room for the two wonderful gemstones. The agent picked the ring from Ludo’s hand, leaving only the ruby to burn through his palm in the warm light of the coloured awnings.

“A gem worthy of a queen, sahib,” the agent murmured.

“Worthy of a queen . . . it is indeed,” Ludo murmured. This was what he wanted: this ruby. “But it is too much for a humble merchant such as me.”

“No, sahib, this ruby is for you. This is what you seek.”

Ludo shot him a surprised glance. The agent’s expression was open, generous, but two black-bead eyes under a startlingly white turban bore into him, hypnotising him, holding his gaze.

“You must know, sahib, a ruby of this quality has such virtues from the Sun that a man living in ignorance or consumed by sin, or pursued by mortal enemies, is saved by its wearing. When stones such as this are found they are named: this is Rani Saahasi’. There is no perfect translation that I know in Portuguese: in English you could call it ‘Queen of Courage’.

Ludo forced himself to look away, shook his head to clear his vision and pulled himself back to the multi-coloured market place. But his fingers clenched the ruby of their own accord: the stone, as red as pomegranate seeds, as cool as the waters of Kashmir, sang in his palm. He had to have it.

“No,” he said. “No, I cannot risk my small income on a bauble such as this.”

The Englishman’s jaw dropped. Ludo willed him to move away, not wanting to risk haggling against the flushed-faced mister as well. The Englishman stayed exactly where he was.

Reluctantly, Ludo held out the ruby saying, “I seek smaller, uncut gems . . .” As he spoke a set of long-nailed, hairy fingers plucked the stone from his palm and the thief escaped round the trunk of the nearest tree.

A troop of other practised thieves appeared above, peering with the faces of buffoons between the different coloured awnings then scrambling helter-skelter from branches or shimmying like circus performers down supporting wooden props. The Goan agent screeched not unlike the unwanted visitors and grabbed the corners of his open cloth on the low table behind him, hugging the rapid sack to his bony chest so no more of his valuable goods could be taken. Suddenly there was a commotion around the bullock cart carrying water; a thief had upturned the clay cups and made off with a jug, carrying it awkwardly on three legs for she had a baby on her back. Her sister, meanwhile, discovered a display of brass incense holders and bells. Seizing as many as she could, she began to juggle; the bells ringing into the air then clanging to the soft mud beneath her feet. Then up went a candlestick, and then another and another, caught by one cousin and tossed to an uncle who, brandishing it as trophy, bared his teeth at the buyers and headed for home.

But as he went, more of his clan arrived, targeting push-carts, floor mats and head-rolls; some stealing arm bangles and pushing them up their thin, hairy arms before running back up the tree trunks into the branches and awnings, or jumping on tables, scattering wares that had crossed perilous oceans and scorching plains to be brought undamaged, intact across mountains and marshes down to Goa.

Ludo started to laugh at the shock and surprise of the invasion, then stopped as if the scene were frozen in time when the ruby he so coveted dropped to his feet from above.

“Choke on it, choke on it!” the monkey cursed, for it was inedible and he did not want it.

Slowly, slowly, hardly believing his luck, Ludo bent to pick up the gem. His right hand closed over it and it was his.

But it was not.

He started to walk out of the covered square, but his legs would not move. The ruby held him to the spot, telling him perhaps that a man living in ignorance or consumed by sin, or worse – pursued by a mortal enemy – is saved by its wearing. Ludo did not believe he was consumed by sin or that he lived in a state of ignorance, but he was pursued by enemies, one, possibly two, or even three if you counted the ridiculous Count Hawk – but he was no thief. No common thief, anyway.

***

‘Write about what you know’ and what you pick up along the way . . . My research has taken me down all manner of exotic rabbit holes, and (reported) truth can be much stranger than fiction. Quoting Marco Polo again, Tavernier explains how diamond gatherers supposedly avoided serpents to harvest precious stones:

“Now it is so happens that these mountains are inhabited by a great many white eagles, which prey on the serpents. When these eagles spy the flesh (raw meat men have flung into the valley) lying at the bottom of the valley, down they swoop and seize the lumps and carry them off. The men observe attentively where the eagles go, and as soon as they see that a bird has alighted and has swallowed the flesh, they rush to the spot as fast as they can. (…) When eagles eat the flesh, they also eat − that is, they swallow − the diamonds. Then at night, when the eagle comes back, it deposits the diamonds it has swallowed with its droppings. So men come and collect these droppings, and there they find diamonds in plenty.”

‘Diamonds in plenty’ – at seventeen I couldn’t see a future in them; now I cannot imagine how at least two of my novels could have been written without them.

©J.G. Harlond

This post was written for Helen Hollick’s Discovering Diamonds blog. You can read a review of ‘A Turning Wind’ on: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=A+Turning+Wind

Snakes and Ladders

Themes in fiction can be subtle or more evident, sometimes, I find, they creep in while the book is a work-in-progress. This happened with the ‘snakes and ladders’ motif in the third story in The Chosen Man Trilogy. I came across the origins of the game while researching the background to By Force of Circumstance and it fitted what was happening to the wily, unreliable Ludo da Portovenere so perfectly I knew I had to include it in the narrative.

There are various theories and dates for how the game ‘snakes and ladders’ came about, but its origins are ancient and almost certainly ancient Asian. Originally called Mokshapat it was played with cowrie shells and dices. The ladders represented virtues, the snakes indicated vices, and the game demonstrated how good deeds take people to heaven and evil to the cycle of re-birth. An early version was devised or described by the 13th century poet Gyandev, but apart from its original intrinsic meaning, which has been lost, the game has undergone few modifications. The underlying meaning remained the same until it reached the west, where the more philosophical and didactic meaning was condensed to the chance and risk element of landing on a snake and slithering down to start all over again.

Snakes and ladders was played in India as one of many board and dice games, including pachisi (modern day Ludo), where it was known as moksha patam or vaikunthapaali or paramapada sopaanam, meaning the ‘ladder to salvation’ and emphasizing the role of fate or karma. A Jain version, Gyanbazi, has been dated back to the 16th century: a version called Leela reflects the Hindu concept of ‘consciousness’ in everyday life.

I came upon all this as I was reading and researching the historical background for my second story in The Chosen Man trilogy, which opens in 17th century Portuguese Goa. The original, ancient game fitted so perfectly with the story it became one of the main themes – the wily, unreliable Ludo is trying to make his fortune as a merchant, but he is also trying to find a meaning and focus for his life in general – so I knew I had to include it.

In the scene that follows, Ludo is on a trading voyage from Goa to Plymouth, his ship has anchored off an Omani beach and he has gone ashore to purchase pearls. Ludo sees two exquisite Arabian mares with their foals and finds his way to the local sheik intending to purchase them. Instead of the horse trading he’s expecting, however, he gets a lesson in destiny and desire.

*

1*

The sheik was seated on cushions in a high-ceilinged room. There were no intricate tiles such as those of the Arab homes Ludo knew in North Africa, only brightly coloured wall-hangings and mats, and on a low oblong table a large patchwork cloth.

Ludo was led up to the sheik, who peered at him through unsmiling eyes then said, “You wish to take my joy from me and transport it across the world.”

“That is so, Excellency,” Ludo replied, wondering how he had divined where he wanted to take the mares having not thought it through himself.

The sheik stared at him until Ludo was forced to look away. Across the unfurnished room an eagle owl blinked, surprised perhaps to see a stranger. A small hawk chained to another perch shook its jesses. The owl had the same amber eyes as its master. Ludo shifted from one foot to the other, not unlike the smaller bird then, aware of what he had done and how it might be interpreted, stood straight, folding his arms across his chest.

The sheik, an elderly man similar in appearance to the pearl trader in a flowing white robe and square-set head cloth, tapped his beak-like nose. It was flattened at the tip. As Ludo’s vision became more accustomed to the low indoor light, he tried to decide if the flattening were natural or the result of an accident or fight, then chastised himself for becoming distracted and wondered how the sheik might be reading his features: the newly-grown beard that still itched, his Indian cotton pyjamas, his swollen, reddened hands from helping on deck after a long period of living in comfort.

Breaking the tension, the sheik snapped his fingers and a servant brought in a tray of sherbet and sugary date and almond morsels. He then indicated a cushion and invited Ludo to sit at the low table covered in a cloth with yellow and gold, white and red squares. Appliquéd onto the squares were fat, winding snakes and unstable ladders that tilted up and across the cloth. Words and phrases had been embroidered into certain squares in black but Ludo couldn’t read them.

“It was brought to my father’s father or perhaps his father’s father, many years ago from India,” the sheik said. “It is called moksha patam.” He placed two ebony white-spotted dice on the middle of the cloth.

“Ah, it is a game, like parchis.”

“Yes and no. Parchis requires a certain skill; moksha patam depends to a greater degree on the fall of the dice – and an individual’s luck.”

“A game of chance.”

“More than mere chance, my friend: truly it is a study in karma and kama; destiny and desire. We shall play together.”

“For the horses? If I win, I may take them?”

“No.”

“Then forgive my bad manners, Excellency, but I have no time for games.”

The sheik handed Ludo the dice. “As a guest you may throw first.”

Ludo delayed his response, taking a sip of sherbet to hide his annoyance; he was not in the mood for mystical games of chance, time wasted here could put his ship in jeopardy. If Tulip’s pursuers found their hiding place and he was not aboard . . . Ludo closed his eyes, not wanting to complete the thought, and rattled the dice in his accommodating palm out of sheer habit.

The sheik pointed to a ladder. “The ladders take you up to the end of the cloth and finally, if you win, bring you to ‘salvation’. The snakes take you down through your earthly vices. Look,” he pointed at the words stitched into the cloth, “your first chance to rise is through ‘faith’, then ‘reliability’, ‘generosity’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘asceticism’. But you can be brought back down again by ‘disobedience’, ‘vanity’, ‘vulgarity’, ‘drunkenness’ and ‘debt’. The longest and therefore the worst of these snakes are these which bring you back or near to the beginning, meaning you must start your climb all over again: watch out for ‘rage’ and ‘greed’, ‘pride’, ‘murder’ and ‘lust’. This one fat serpent here crossing the entire cloth is ‘lying’ – telling that which is not true.”

“There are fewer ladders than snakes,” Ludo said.

“Such is life.”

Ludo jiggled the dice. “And there is no one ladder that can take you straight to the top; but this snake up here can take me right back to the beginning.”

“No one single virtue is sufficient for salvation. What good is generosity if you are unreliable and guilty of greed and self-love?”

Trapped, Ludo tried to relax and indicated he was ready to begin. It was after all, only a game, although as the sheik had pointed out, not exactly a game for once he had begun he couldn’t help but wish for more virtues and lament his vices. In parchis, with a bit of cunning and friendly dice you could win within an hour. Not so here.

Ludo lost, devoured by the serpent of ‘disobedience’ twice, then ‘greed’ when he was close to finishing. He wanted to blame the sheik, who had maintained his scrutiny of his guest throughout, unnerving Ludo each time he threw.

Glad that it was over, Ludo tried to pull on his old mask of bonhomie and said cheerily, “Is there a prize for you, Excellency?”

“Is salvation not a prize?”

“I doubt I will ever find out, Excellency. Where I come from there’s no point even trying. And as I am no Hindustani I do not have to worry about the Wheel of Re-incarnation.” Across the room, the eagle owl glowered.

“Neither am I of Hind my friend, but I do believe a better life is attainable while we are on God’s earth. Only a complete fool dismisses the possibility of returning – being condemned on the Wheel.” The sheik drank from his cup of sherbet and ate a sweetmeat, taking his time.

Ludo forced himself not to squirm, pondering whether the actions related to ‘whim’ should be classified as a vice. Then his blood ran cold: on a whim he had walked into a trap. He had made himself a prisoner while the sheik’s men were unloading his ship. Rapidly he cast about for a guard but saw only the owl and the hawk; wisdom and aggression.

“You are nervous my friend. You fear I shall not let you go. You fear we shall take your cargo. It is within our power, but I would have hoped this past hour had shown you we are aware of the penalty of greed. Not that we have no need of your cargo. Spices from India, silks and tea from Cathay? You have tasted our sweetmeats: cinnamon from Ceylon would be most welcome here. Perhaps on your next voyage you will allow me to purchase from you?”

“Gladly, Excellency.” Ludo endeavoured to keep relief from his voice.

*

The game Ludo is playing here (and his name, shortened from Ludovico, is no accident) is far more complex than our children’s ‘Ludo’ or parchis, but the combination of skill and luck remain the same. The original game was a tool or means for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad. As in this scene, the ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices of lust, anger, murder, and theft. The moral to be learned was that a person can attain salvation (moksha) through doing good: doing evil one will lead to re-birth. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that the path to salvation is full of obstacles and should be trod with caution. There were fewer ladders than snakes; as the sheik here says, such is life. In the game he and Ludo are playing, the squares of virtue are faith (12), reliability (51), generosity (57), knowledge (76), and asceticism (78). The squares of vice or evil are disobedience (41), vanity (44), vulgarity (49), theft (52), lying (58), drunkenness (62), debt (69), rage (84), greed (92), pride (95), murder (73), and lust (99); number 100 was salvation.

Ludo leaves the sheik a somewhat confused man without the mares he wished to buy. In the rest of the story we see him climb numerous ladders both physical and metaphorical, only to slip back down the fat snakes of ‘disobedience’, ‘greed’ and even ‘theft’ until chance, skill and luck redeem him and take him where he had not planned to be: a place offering the peace and contentment he didn’t know he was seeking.

*(1)The image above and some information on the of snakes and ladders comes from: http://iseeindia.com/2011/09/11/the-origin-of-snakes-and-ladders (accessed 23rd April, 2018 @ 11:21)

The Chosen Man and A Turning Wind are available from book stores and on-line retailers. The Amazon UK link for books by J.G. Harlond is: https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=+j.g.+harlond&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3A+j.g.+harlond&ajr=0

This post was originally written for Antoine Vanner’s Dawlish Chronicles Blog: https://dawlishchronicles.com

al-Andalus: Joan Fallon’s ‘Shining City’ trilogy

For my series on the places that inspire authors, Joan Fallon tells us about Medinat al-Zahra, and why a ruin not far from the ancient city of Córdoba in southern Spain provided the foundations for a trilogy.

The al-Andalus trilogy and the story behind it

by Joan Fallon

The al-Andalus trilogy is set in Córdoba and its surrounding countryside. 
It is 10th century Spain, the Golden Age of Moorish rule, the time of the great caliphs, when Córdoba was considered the centre of cultural and learning for the western world.

For many years I have been fascinated by this beautiful city and when I heard about the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra which were only just outside its boundaries, I knew I had to go to visit them. This was the city of al-Rahman III, the greatest of all the caliphs and more than that, I was intrigued by the idea that a palace-city of such magnificence should have lasted for such a short time.  Civilisations come and go, as any reader of history knows, but for it to last no more than 75 years seemed a tragedy.

It was the summer of 2001. I picked up a leaflet about an exhibition that was to be held in the museum at Madinat al-Zahra.  It was entitled The Splendour of the Cordovan Umayyads.  So we drove across from Málaga, on a blistering hot day to see what it was all about.

I have been back many times since and the place holds a fascination for me; so much so that it inspired me to write a novel.  I decided to tell the story of the city through a family that lived there; I had the bare bones of my novel before me, in the stone walls and paved paths, in the narrow passages ways, the ornate gardens, the artefacts in the museum.  All I needed to do was to make the city come alive through my characters.  I called the novel The Shining City because ‘Madinat’ (or medina) is the word for town and ‘Zahra’ means shining or brilliant.  It’s said that the caliph called the city al-Zahra because, at the time it was being built, he was in love with a slave girl called Zahra.  It could be true; there are certainly written references to a concubine of that name, but personally I think ‘Zahra’ referred to the magnificence of the city itself.  As the principle character in my book, Omar, tells his nephew:

‘It means shining, glistening, brilliant.  Possibly his concubine glittered and shone with all the jewels and beautiful silks he showered upon her but then so did the city.  It was indeed the Shining City.  When visitors entered through the Grand Portico, passing beneath its enormous, red and white arches, when they climbed the ramped streets that were paved with blocks of dark mountain stone, passing the lines of uniformed guards in their scarlet jackets and the richly robed civil servants that flanked their way, when they reached the royal residence and saw the golden inlay on the ceilings, the marble pillars, the richly woven rugs scattered across the floors and the brilliant silk tapestries, when they saw the moving tank of mercury in the great reception pavilion that caught the sunlight and dazzled all who beheld it, then they indeed knew that they were in the Shining City.’

Of course today, looking at the ruined paths, the piles of broken tiles, the reconstructed arches and pillars, we need to use our imagination to see it as it once was.

The construction of the city of Madinat al-Zahra was begun in the year 939 AD by Abd al-Rahman III and took forty years to complete.  Having declared himself the caliph of al-Andalus in 929 AD and with the country more or less at peace he wanted to follow in the tradition of previous caliphs in the East and build himself a palace-city, grander than anything that had been built before.  The site he chose was eight kilometres to the west of Córdoba, in present day Andalusia, and measured one and a half kilometres by almost a kilometre.  It was sheltered from the north winds by the mountains behind it and had an excellent vantage point from which to see who was approaching the city.  It was well supplied with water from an old Roman aqueduct and surrounded by rich farming land.  It had good roads to communicate with Córdoba and there was even a stone quarry close by.

The caliph left much of the responsibility for the construction of the city to his son al-Hakam, who continued work on it after his father’s death.

One of the most curious questions about Madinat al-Zahra is why, despite its importance as the capital of the Omeyyad dynasty in al-Andalus, this magnificent city endured no more than seventy-five years.  When al-Hakam died in 976 AD the city was thriving; all the most important people in the land lived there.  The army, the Mint, the law courts, the government and the caliph were there; the city boasted public baths, universities, libraries, workshops and ceremonial reception halls to receive the caliph’s visitors.  But al-Hakam’s heir was a boy of eleven-years old.  The new boy-caliph was too young to rule, so a regent was appointed, the Prime Minister, al-Mansur, an ambitious and ruthless man.  Gradually the Prime Minister moved the whole court, the Mint, the army and all the administrative functions back to Córdoba, leaving the new caliph in Madinat al-Zahra, ruling over an empty shell.

Once the seat of power had been removed from Madinat al-Zahra, the city went into decline.  The wealthy citizens left, quickly followed by the artisans, builders, merchants and local businessmen.  Its beautiful buildings were looted and stripped of their treasures and the buildings were destroyed to provide materials for other uses.  Today you can find artefacts from the city in Málaga, Granada, and elsewhere.

 

Marble pillars that once graced the caliph’s palace now support the roofs of houses in Córdoba.  Ashlars that were part of the city’s walls have been used to build cow sheds.

Excavation of the site of Madinat al-Zahra began in 1911 by Riocardo Velázquez Bosco, the curator of the mosque in Córdoba.  The work was slow and hampered by the fact that the ruins were on private property.  Landowners were not keen to co-operate and eventually the State had to purchase the land before the excavations could begin.  The work progressed slowly but gradually over the years a number of government acts were passed which resulted in the site being designated as an Asset of Cultural Interest and in 1998 a Special Protection Plan was drawn up to give full weight to the importance of the ruins.  Today the site is open to the public and has an excellent visitor centre and museum.

THE SHINING CITY became the first book in a trilogy about al-Andalus and 10th century Spain in particular. I decided to write a second book about the boy-caliph, al-Hisham II whose life was dominated by his mother and her lover. This one I entitled THE EYE OF THE FALCON.

After some hesitation—I was unsure if I would find enough material for a third book—I wrote the third book in the series, THE RING OF FLAMES. This brings the story up to the end of the Golden Age and the demise of the Omayyad dynasty, and gives some clue to the eventual fate of al-Hisham II, the forgotten caliph.

The trilogy is available in paperback and on Kindle.

For more information see: www.joanfallon.co.uk

 

A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett

‘The historical novelists’ historical novelist’ . . .

A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett (1923–2001)

There are two sets of Dorothy Dunnett’s two historical novel series on my bookshelves, plus two copies of King Hereafter: a few are hardbacks the rest are now dry, cracked-spine paperbacks, whose pages are so yellow and print so small that I struggle to read them – but I still do. I’ve bought a few replacements over the past forty years, but somehow can’t bring myself to throw or even give away the originals. The other curious thing about these old books is something very modern. Without strapping any box to my head or standing in any man-made cubicle wearing black goggles they produce a form of virtual reality. Just by looking at a title I can see scenes. Stills and moving images hang in the air: a joyous youth riding an ostrich, the same man now older rides a silken-hide camel; a little boy with sturdy legs runs through apricots drying on a rooftop; a vast eagle swoops across a snowy waste onto an arm; a mad, brave youth runs across moving oars and marries a woman with ‘spawn-like’ eyes . . .

If you recognise any of these scenes you probably qualify as a Dorothy Dunnett fan, and are very likely a ‘historical fiction junkie’. That’s what I was told Dunnett fans were a few years ago. There are currently three Facebook groups for Dunnett fans that I know of. I dip in now and again and am always rewarded by some insight into a bit of history or details on one of the many locations. The news on one today is from a student in Australia who is writing her MA dissertation on Dunnett.

Dame Hilary Mantel’s recent Reith Lectures on creating fiction out of past events makes this tribute particularly timely for Dunnett did not have access to the Internet to check details as we do. She conjured the past from hours of very serious reading then wove fact through her fiction, writing long into the night. By her own admission her investigations were time consuming. Speaking with Isolde Martyn in March 2,000, Dunnett said,

My notes for my early novels are in ledgers. My studio is lined with bookcases. I buy a huge number of reference books and I subscribe to about twenty periodicals so I can keep myself informed about what is available.

If Dunnett’s background reading into real events, people and facts was rigorous, her readers are also expected to keep up. Writing in the New York Times in December, 2000, Anne Malcolm said: ‘(Her) novels are unusual in their erudition; Dunnett’s characters are apt to address one another in quotations from Renaissance verse (in several languages, generally untranslated), and the ground is thick with classical allusions. Using a vocabulary that sometimes outstrips the resources of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the books lavishly evoke the intellectual furnishings of the 16th century.’

In this regard Dunnett ignored the rules would-be authors are advised to follow nowadays because they also have hundreds of characters, both fictional and those ‘mentioned in history’. And the books are difficult. Readers have to think. We witness what Lymond, Thorfinn and Niccolò are up to from multiple and often conflicting viewpoints. There are no revealing internal monologues from these flawed heroes to help predict what is to come or confirm what has just happened. Plots are intricate, onion-skinned intrigues – one layer reveals another then another then another. As Alaya Johnson said in 2014, ‘If a writer wants to depict political intrigue and misdirection, Lymond is the template of hidden agendas and the benchmark of single-minded ruthlessness’.

There are a few so-called rules for modern writing Dunnett does observe, however: the opening ‘hook’; the flawed hero, and ‘show, don’t tell’. The Ringed Castle opens with: ‘Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin.’ Try putting that one back on the library shelf! Regarding her charismatic, flawed hero Lymond, Dunnett is quoted as saying:

Ian Fleming was a friend of ours and he told me he was going to write a novel about ‘a spy to end all spies’ and he went ahead and created James Bond, and I decided, ‘Right, then, if he can do it, so can I! I am going to create the hero to end all heroes.’

Before becoming an author, Dunnett was a successful portrait artist, which may explain how and why she shows us personalities through significant details or scenes. Take this as an example:

‘Each in its nest of gauze and gilt thread, of tissue and taffeta, swathed in silver and satin, in velvet and white fur sugared with diamonds, each face painted, each brow plucked, hair hidden by sparkling hair of raw silk, the well-born of France sat in waxlight and flowers like half a hundred candied sweets in a basket. Last at the last table, soggy gristle next the sugar plums, sat Thady Boy Ballagh.’

‘Soggy gristle’ Thady Boy Ballagh is Lymond in disguise, but we also see aspects of minor and secondary characters’ personalities and private histories via significant scenes. In the first novel in the Niccolò stories, Katalina van Borselen, a key figure in Niccolò’s life, is shown to be afraid of night-flying insects. In the third story Race of Scorpions set on Cyprus, her cold demeanour is completely undermined when dusk falls and moths gather around a lantern. We are reminded of what happened in Bruges in Book One and what has happened to her since with a few artful brush strokes.

In the same story we learn of the wantonly cruel nature of a Mameluke commander not through his violence towards other men but from what happens to a hundred innocent, many-hued monastery cats. I’m not a cat person but the image of those cats when they are first presented in their warm and subtle, multi-coloured hues stayed with me for years, so much so that when I was in an Italian mountain-top village a long time later and they re-appeared weaving patterns around me I had to go home and write about them.

As a reader I continue to be enthralled by these stories, but as an author I am permanently in awe. Dorothy Dunnett set the bar very high.

© J.G Harlond

This post first appeared as a Discovering Diamonds (@DDRevs) Mid-month Special. See: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/search?q=A+tribute+to+Dorothy+Dunnett

Writing secondary characters

Riddle: How does an author use historical fact to create and describe secondary or minor characters in historical fictional?

 Secondary characters are often used to develop the main character(s) and/or move the plot. Whether or not the protagonist was a real person these characters are frequently fictional constructs, and, like minor characters, in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable; meaning they should develop or change during the course of the novel, and have identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws readers can relate to.

An example of this is the character Marcos Alonso Almendro in The Chosen Man (Penmore Press, 2015).

Here’s a scene from the novel where the main character, wicked, wily Genovese merchant Ludo da Portovenere is making his first moves to manipulate the tulip market in Holland during the 1630s. He and Marcos, who is acting as his servant, are in a tavern. This is where Marcos is introduced to his first taste of coffee.

Amsterdam, early June 1635

‘Leaving a glorious day of bright summer sunshine, Marcos followed Ludo through a door and stepped into a netherworld of peat-filled grates and dark afternoons. It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of Dutch taverns he had already come to know – that particular hush broken by hearty guffaws and back-slapping camaraderie – this place was a composite of scents and sounds he could not name. There was one odour in particular, a pleasant aroma but not the usual malty smell of warm beer, nor the clear liquid that they served in thumb-sized tumblers that smelled like a woman’s perfume. He stopped and inhaled.

“Coffee,” said Ludo. “Like it?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“Doesn’t taste as good as it smells, but you can add it to your list of new accomplishments.”

Marcos gulped, the bastard knew about his journal. He knew everything – all the time! But the Italian wasn’t interested in him, his eyes were scanning the darkness: an eagle-owl detecting its prey in the half-light.

Groups of men smoking curled-stem pipes were gathered around circular tables. Above, on a balcony, six or seven burghers huddled in negotiation. One smaller table was occupied by a single client. Ludo put a hand on Marcos’ shoulder and steered him towards a corner. A stub of candle stuck in a wine bottle flickered as they disturbed the heavy air.

“Why’s it so dark?” Marcos asked.

“So people can’t see each other I expect.”

Ludo removed his wide brimmed hat and placed it conspicuously on top of his miniature sea chest in the centre of their table (. . .) settled himself into a chair and leaning back in his customary manner, gazed around him. “Dark is what they are used to,” he said. “Light is a special commodity in the Low Countries and your average Dutchman is too tight-fisted to waste money on candles. Candles offer no material return by definition.”

“You don’t like the Dutch, do you?”

“On the contrary, I enjoy them greatly: trying to out-manoeuvre them is one of my favourite pastimes. Successful strategy is the finer point of profit, Marcos. If you don’t like …” He was interrupted by the serving girl.

Marcos watched the way the plump wench looked at Ludo. What did women see in him? He wasn’t good-looking. Could they smell his money?

“I’ve ordered coffee for you to try, but not at this table. You’re my servant remember, you should be over there.” Ludo nodded in the direction of the kitchen area. “But stay close and keep an eye out for onlookers. I’m expecting company and I want to know who sees us talking. If you notice anyone taking a special interest, follow him. Find out who he is, and where he lives if you can. I’ll see you back at the lodging tonight if we are separated.”

“Yes sir.” Marcos got up and doffed his soft cloth hat. It wasn’t a fatuous move, Ludo’s tone was too serious for that.

“Chat up the waitress,” added his master, “see if that man up there by himself is a regular or if he just came in today.”

“How shall I do that? I don’t speak Dutch – or French – and she won’t have any Latin.”

“You’ll manage. Languages are only an obstacle to people with no imagination. Do you have an imagination, Marcos?” . . .

Marcos leaned against the high trestle table that acted as a bar at the back of the tavern. The waitress placed a small white china cup beside him and smiled. He winked and lifted the cup. Keeping his eyes on the girl’s blue gaze he gulped the hot brown liquid. The wench smiled as his eyes opened in shock and surprise. He would have spat out the foul tasting stuff immediately but she was in his direct line of fire: she’d put herself there on purpose. He moved the scalding, bitter liquid around his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The cheeky wench laughed, said something incomprehensible and raised a hand holding a bowl of brown granules. With her free hand she spooned some into his cup and stirred. Marcos stared at the brown poison. He was going to have to drink it. The girl mimicked his wink and waited until he had the cup to his lips again before skipping off to serve new customers.

Marcos took just a very small sip. It tasted better. In fact it was quite nice. Crossing one leg in front of the other and leaning sideways with an elbow on the high bench behind him, in what he considered the appropriate stance for a coffee habitué, he took in his murky surroundings. The door to the street opened and in that instant of light something on the balcony caught his eye, he glanced up. Something had glinted. That something was a pair of round spectacles on the round face of a gnome-like creature from a children’s fairy tale; a shoemaker, a tailor. Whoever and whatever he was, he was bending down observing Ludo through the balcony railings with far too much interest. Marcos looked for the girl; now he needed to find out about two men. But exactly how he was going to learn anything at all was quite beyond his imagination.’

***

Without knowing it at the time, this scene follows author Helen Hollick’s tips for writing historical fiction. I tried to put myself into the setting to create the atmosphere and imagined what it must have been like in a Dutch tavern in 1635. I needed the secondary character, Marcos, to start acting on his own, and I needed to show the protagonist, Ludo, was not to be trusted. Fact in historical fiction is vital: accuracy in setting and detail is essential. But when it comes to the plot and fictional characters take Hollick’s advice, “Don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get on with writing your story”.

Avoiding ‘gadzooks vocabulary’ is both easy and difficult: employing diction that is appropriate to the time and setting, while also being in the modern lexicon sometimes means looking up words to find out when they were first used, and making some surprising and disappointing discoveries. In this scene I use the word ‘waitress’. It sounds like a relatively modern term for the setting, but I wasn’t happy about using ‘serving girl’ all the time, it was awkward; and the idea of ‘serving wench’ carries vulgar implications that distracted from what was happening. The term ‘waitress’ slipped in and felt appropriate because it reduces the girl to her function, making her less relevant to the incident and maintaining the focus on what Marcos is doing, and is about to do.

When I did finally check ‘waitress’, I was delighted to find the term waiter goes back to the 14th century and was used for males waiting at tables in taverns in the 17th. Unfortunately, the term waitress wasn’t in common use until the early 19th century – but it might have been . . .

(This was originally written for the Hoydens and Firebrands blog.)

Historical Novel Society Review of The Chosen Man November, 2015

Be prepared to be immersed in this book. The research into the tulip trade in 1636 (the story is based on a true event) and the manor house life of 17th-century England add depth to the storyline.  A well-written period novel that I highly recommend. Jeff Westerhoff for the HNS.
See the review.

Click on this link for Amazon preview

J.G. Harlond

See: www.jgharlond.com

 

For sale – the Crown Jewels

King Charles 1st and his French Queen, Henrietta Maria by Anthony Van Dyck

 

Henrietta Maria and the English Crown Jewels

Who owns the British Crown Jewels? If asked, what would you say: the monarchy; the reigning monarch of the time; the State or the people of Great Britain?

The question itself represents just about everything in dispute in the United Kingdom during the period leading up to the English Civil War (1642-1646), a time when ‘ordinary people’ were trying to limit the power of a monarchy that considered it reigned through ‘divine right’. Charles 1st believed he could rule without Parliament and had the right to raise taxes as he saw fit to cover his expenses. That is an over-simplification, but it is how many commoners in towns and villages interpreted his actions. Ongoing disputes finally led to a vicious war between Parliamentarians, known as Roundheads because of their short hair, and Royalists, who fought to keep Charles 1st on the throne.

As a means of raising funds for the Royalist cause and her husband in particular, King Charles I’s French-born Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), tried to pawn and sell a large part of the Crown Jewels during the early 1640s. Her attitude was that they were the property of the reigning monarch, not the State. When considering Henrietta Maria’s attitude one must bear in mind that she was the youngest daughter of Henry IV of France and the much loathed Marie de Medici, and that she was married to a Stuart, who, as mentioned above, believed entirely in the divine right of kings. Other factors that may have led Henrietta Maria to take financial matters into her own hands were the knowledge that her husband was not ‘good with money’ and her Medici ancestry. Needless to say, her actions met with major opposition from the British Parliament. But it became more than a question of ethics as Parliament actively tried to thwart Henrietta Maria’s attempts to finance the Royalists.

In July 1641, a year prior to the actual start of the war, the House of Commons drew the attention of King Charles to the fact:

That the House of Commons have received Information of great Quantities of Treasure, in Jewels, Plate, and ready Money, packed up, to be conveyed away with the Queen, not only in such a Proportion as the present Occasions, with due respects to Her Majesty’s Honour, may seem to require; but a far greater Quantity; and that divers Papists, and others, under the Pretence of Her Majesty’s Goods, are like to convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace. (JHC 2: 15 July 1641)

It was already evident to Parliamentarians that Henrietta Maria was in the process of obtaining money or credit with the aim of acquiring guns, ammunition and mercenary support for the Royalists. The view of the Commons was that all gemstones, regalia and plate in the possession of a monarch were part of the Crown Jewels, ‘owned’ not by the monarchy but by the State.

This was just the beginning. On 11 March, 1642, Henrietta Maria arrived in The Hague and set about selling and pawning precious objects she had brought with her from England. One contemporary report placed a total value of 1,265,300 guilders on the various items. (To get a perspective on this sum, an artisan and his family could live reasonably well for a year on the 300 guilders). The jewels, silver and gold came from three interlinked sources: items belonging to King Charles, jewels belonging to Henrietta Maria, and items forming part of the State collection known as the Crown Jewels. But while being astute in money matters Henrietta Maria had overlooked one important fact – her ardent Catholicism. As David Humphreys says in ‘To Sell the Crown Jewels’ *

“The sale of precious objects by an English Catholic (albeit not an English Catholic of average status) in Protestant Holland, under circumstances clearly motivated by political needs, was a task of enormous difficulty at best. That fact was brought home to Henrietta Maria when the first formal viewing of the items for would-be buyers was conducted at the New Palace in The Hague’s Staedt Straat in mid-March 1642. Many of those who attended were pro-Parliament in sympathy and questioned the queen’s right to sell any of the items on show—particularly those items considered to be specifically from the Crown Jewels collection. The queen insisted she had rights of ownership and could prove them with a document signed by King Charles and, therefore, had the right to sell. Those present baulked at the enormous sums expected for the most magnificent of the items on show: two collars, one of which was described as the ‘ruby collar’. Their response grew even more negative when it was made clear that payment for items was expected in specie.”

The Queen did manage to pawn a number of items while in The Hague, but the most valuable remained unsold. In the end she was only able to raise funds on that which was clearly in her personal possession. Unwilling to accept defeat, she then tried to pawn items on the Antwerp and Amsterdam markets, then either sell or pawn the larger of two hugely valuable ruby and pearl collars to the King of Denmark.

A letter dated 2 June, 1642, sent from Amsterdam, was read to the House of Commons on the 11 June by Sir Walter Erle:

That there were Jewels brought to Amsterdam, certain Collars of Pearl; which were sold; and the Product of them is the Sixteen thousand Pounds sent over hither; and the Residue is kept there, to pay for the Arms and Ammunition bespoken there. One great Collar of Rubies. The Jewels called the Three Brethren; Four or Five great Diamonds; with divers other Parcels; but no Money got upon them yet. … (JHC 2: 11 June 1642).

Another letter from an unnamed correspondent but someone close to the Queen was later read to the House of Lords.

I cannot learn that any Jewels more are pawned than I have formerly expressed, neither of the Sale of any jewels, save divers Collars of Pearls. (…) In writing hereof I understand, by an eyewitness, that all the jewels are brought here again to be pawned and amongst them the great collar fetched from Hamb. Also the three Brethren, four or five great diamonds, with divers more; but no money to be had thereupon in this place, as the party imployed therin doth tell me. (JHL 5: 11 June 1642).

Henrietta Maria did succeed in raising some finance, though. In Amsterdam a man named Webster advanced 140,000 guilders on her rubies and pendant pearls, the Burgomaster of Rotterdam offered 40,000 guilders on unnamed items and Fletchers of The Hague 126,000 guilders. Compared to what the Dutch had been spending on tulip bulbs between 1635 and 1637 these were not vast sums. By January 1643, Henrietta Maria eventually disposed of or pledged most if not all of the items considered to be her own, but when she set sail from Holland a month later she still had many of the items taken out of England, including the famed Three Brethren jewel.

The Three Brethren comprised of a massive pyramid-cut wine-yellow diamond surrounded by three square-cut spinel rubies and three large pearls set in pronged brackets rather than in elaborate goldwork. The centre diamond, of a most unusual cut, weighed approximately 30 carats. In the early 15th century it had been described as the largest faceted diamond in Europe. The jewel was said to have been commissioned as a shoulder-clasp for John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy from 1404 to his assassination in 1419. His grandson, Charles the Bold, owned it in 1467 when his inventory describes it as “Un Gros Dyamant Pointé a Fass”. It was then possibly sold to or via a banker called Fugger, and came into the possession of Henry VIII in England circa 1546. In 1551 it belonged to Henry’s only son, Edward VI.

On Edward’s death, the magnificent Three Brethren passed into the hands of his elder sister Mary, then became a favourite jewel of Elizabeth I. It features in several of her portraits including the famous ‘ermine portrait’. Subsequent portraits of James 1st of England, VI of Scotland show him wearing the Three Brethren as well.

 

What happened to the Three Brethren during the Civil War is uncertain. Various theories suggest it was sold, or pawned but not retrieved, in Amsterdam or Antwerp; that three more diamonds were added to it and it was renamed the Three Sisters; that Cardinal Mazarin, who collected valuable gemstones, acquired it along with the debts he purchased from Henrietta Maria. One theory says the jewel was adapted and offered for sale through Henrietta Maria’s agent, a ‘Monsieur Cletstex’ of the Bank of Lombardy in Rotterdam. What really happened to the Three Brethren is open for speculation . . . and this is where the third story in the Ludo da Portovenere trilogy begins.

In 1644, Henrietta Maria gave birth to her last child in England then, gravely ill, returned to her homeland of France. Despite ill-health and lack of a permanent home (she was not welcome in Paris at the time and moved between various towns until finally allotted a suite in St Germaine) she continued to pawn and/or sell items considered to be the Crown Jewels to raise funds for the floundering Royalist army in England. Parliament maintained watchful spies but Henrietta succeeded in raising money and credit in various European markets until her husband was imprisoned.

The remaining items of royal regalia left in England were broken up to finance the Roundheads, or melted down to be made into more useful items. The very last of the valuables kept in the Tower of London were then nearly lost forever in 1671 when the infamous Colonel Blood made a daring attempt to steal them, only to be captured at the east gate with the crown, sceptre and orb in a sack.

Numerous authors have incorporated these deeds into historical fiction, not least because somewhere there are antique, now priceless gemstones that once belonged to the English monarchy – or ‘the people’ – in private hands.

JGH

This post was originally hosted on the English Historical Authors’ blog in September, 2017. See:  http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com.es

http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com.es/2017/09/henrietta-maria-and-english-crown-jewels.html

  • *For a more detailed analysis of Henrietta Maria’s attempts to raise money for Charles 1st see: To Sell England’s Jewels: Queen Henrietta Maria’s visits to the Continent, 1642 and 1644 by David HUMPHREY: https://erea.revues.org/3715

Review of Charlatan by Kate Braithwaite

In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV. Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges. At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin. (Amazon)

This clever novel has been skillfully crafted from seventeenth century French prison archive material and official transcripts resulting from hours and hours, years and years of interrogations into what one might loosely term ‘witchcraft’.

The story opens with a flashback to a black mass, where a priest is conducting a ceremony over the body of a naked female. The reader witnesses the scene from different points of view and from that moment we are aware that a practised charlatan is at work. We are also invited to guess the identities of an aristocratic observer and her servant, although this is called into question later. Much is called into question later as little by little we come to know the people involved in this scene; their fears and motivations, their personalities and ambitions.

The story follows three principal players in the investigation into La Voisin’s trade, for she is who is far more than a mere fortune-teller: Bezons, a young, somewhat naïve police agent; the daughter of the fortune-teller, Marie Montvoisin; and Madame de Montespan, one-time mistress of the King of France and mother to seven of his children. As the story unfolds, we learn about these three very real people and start to understand what drives them, and this is where Kate Braithwaite’s skill lies. Madame de Montespan wants – needs – far more than a simple return to the King’s favours; she has her extended family’s future to consider – as her demanding sister constantly reminds her. She also wants the King to legitimize their children. It calls into question just how far she is prepared to go to achieve all this. Marie’s situation is less complex but far sadder, something the initially innocent young policemen picks up on, to his detriment. He feels sorry for the girl, allows himself to be seduced by her then begins to doubt how far she is prepared to go to achieve her freedom. Behind the scenes and acting almost as a running commentary on the events is the self-confessed charlatan, Lesage, whose cynical world view informs on what is happening in the prison.

Chateau de Versailles

Apart from the sinister background to the trials, there is no overly-dramatic action in this novel and at times it feels rather static. Madame de Montespan moves between royal apartments and a convent; Marie and Bezons’ interaction takes place in a prison room. Initially, I wondered when the story was going to get started, but then realised that the narrative is a form of trial or examination in itself. The dialogue is handled with such finesse that as I learned certain details I simply had to read on to confirm my suspicions. The characters are complex, and there are definite turning points, but on the whole this is a quiet, contemplative novel. Kate Braithwaite has crafted a compelling and convincing piece of writing out of a real-life scandal. I look forward to reading more of her work.

(This review was originally published for Discovering Diamonds on 5th June, 2017: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/p/our-reviewers.html)

A Tudor Trilogy

Interview with Tony Riches, author of ‘HENRY’

Book Three of The Tudor Trilogy

My guest today is Tudor specialist Tony Riches, author of the best-selling Tudor Trilogy.

 

 

 

 

Tony, where did the idea for writing the Tudor trilogy come from?

I began looking into the life of Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married a queen, and was surprised to discover his amazing story. As my research progressed I began to collect fascinating details of the lives of Owen’s sons, Edmund and Jasper. I realised that if I planned it as a trilogy, Henry Tudor would be born in the first book, come of age in the second and become King of England in the final book.

 Why do you think this is the first full-length novel about Henry Tudor?

Everyone from Shakespeare to Alison Weir has written about Henry, but this trilogy is the first time his full story has been told through historical fiction. Even at the Bosworth re-enactment you would hardly believe Henry was victorious, as ‘Ricardians’ outnumber Tudor supporters by more than ten to one. Schools and TV historians can’t wait to get on to Henry VIII and his six wives, and Henry has too often been dismissed as the ‘miserly’ king. The truth is, as so often the case, far more complex and his story deserves to be told.

 What surprised you about the ‘real’ Henry Tudor?

Far from being ‘miserly’ I found Henry loved gambling with cards and dice and lost huge sums more often than he won. He also kept detailed records of who he’d played against (which included his wife, Elizabeth of York) and how much he’d lost. As well as lions and other dangerous animals, which he kept at the Tower of London, he kept a pet monkey, thought to be a marmoset, in his private chambers. (One day he discovered it had torn up his detailed diary, so there is a gap in his meticulous records.) I’m certain he loved Elizabeth of York but when the pretender Perkin Warbeck was finally captured, Henry was so enamoured of Warbeck’s wife, Lady Katheryn Gordon, he kept them both in his household – but wouldn’t let them sleep together. He also bought Lady Katheryn expensive dresses and she became a close companion and confidante, even after Henry had her husband executed!

 What did you find most difficult about the research for this book?

Henry escaped to exile in Brittany at the age of fourteen and remained there until he sailed to take the throne with his invasion fleet at the age of twenty-eight. I struggled to understand how he spent those formative years (often described as ‘uneventful’) so decided to follow in his footsteps, all the way from Pembroke Castle to the remote Forteresse de Largoët, deep in the forest outside the town of Elven in Brittany.

Amazingly, I was able to climb the Dungeon Tower through a dark high stairway lit only by small window openings. Henry Tudor’s rooms were full of cobwebs and signs in French warned of a danger of falling masonry, but this first hand research really helped me understand what Henry’s life there might have been like. Although it was called the ‘dungeon tower’, in subsequent research I discovered intriguing details at the National Library of Wales which suggest Henry Tudor enjoyed more freedom at this time than is generally imagined. The papers claim that, ‘by a Breton lady’, Henry Tudor fathered a son, Roland Velville, whom he knighted after coming to the throne.

 What will you write next, now you’ve completed the Tudor trilogy?

I’ve moved on one generation of Tudors for each of the past three years, so thought it would be interesting to write about the life of Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor. Reputed to be a great beauty, Mary was only eighteen when she became Queen of France, married off by her brother Henry VIII to the fifty-two-year-old King Louis XII. I’m also looking forward to writing about her womanising second husband, one of the last true Tudor knights and Henry VIII’s lifelong friend, Charles Brandon. The Tudor trilogy may be completed – but the story of the Tudors continues!

About the Author

Tony Riches is a full time author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, with his wife and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

Tony Riches’ books can be found on: Amazon UK  Amazon US and Amazon AU

 

“You write what you read . . .”

I recently heard a comment that an author writes what he or she reads. This is possibly true, but herein lies something of a dilemma for modern fiction authors, because these days, to be successful – it is said – one is supposed to choose a genre and stick to it. To become a ‘popular author’ one is advised to write a whole series in a specific genre.

But if we write what we read, how many of us only read one genre? And even if we do, within any category there are all sorts of sub-genres. Up to now my books can all be classified as historical fiction, but they include various types of crime, international espionage, Vatican intrigue and financial skulduggery, swash-buckling pirate scenes and stately royal scandals, and recently, a World War II murder mystery based on the highly secret British Resistance movement set in a Cornish village. And now, to add to this motley list I have to add ‘fantasy’ because it is based on part of the ancient Norse Volsung Saga and includes a shape-shifting, evil-minded dragon. So as you can see, my own reading and research has ranged pretty far and wide. I only wish it had dawned on me to put it all in a series and call it something like a Game of Thrones.

Setting aside the genre dilemma, I will confess to trying to write some of what I have read. This might explain how and why, after ten years as a full-time fiction author, I came to finish (I’d been writing it on and off for years) The Doomsong Sword, which began life as part of a school series on traditional tales – a project that was cancelled during the financial crisis.

I loved, and still enjoy high fantasy with dragons and arch-mages and shape-shifters. As a child, I gobbled up all manner of classic tales and folklore from Narcissus and Theseus to The Little Fool Ivan and the Knights of the Round Table. Later, as a student I dabbled in the academic side of traditional tales and read the Russian folklore analyst, Vladimir Propp. I devoured Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, and then enjoyed it all over again reading it to my own children. Throughout the years of this type of reading, I suppose I have been most influenced by the blurred text where history meets magic: T.E. White’s Once and Future King, Tolkein’s use of Norse tales, and Beowulf, especially Heaney’s translation.

I can’t say all this consciously inspired me to re-write The Doomsong Sword as a novel, but I was motivated in part by the desire to create a meaningful story out of an old tale for a new generation – my newborn grandson in particular. Davor, the reluctant hero in the story, is an ordinary boy in an extra-ordinary situation: he is lazy and dreams up wild stories to get out of doing his chores. But then he begins to live one, and it is a story more fantastical than he has ever concocted. He not only has to survive alone in the cold Dark Age North with only a wolf-cub for company, but confront all manner of dreadful and frankly outrageous situations, such as finding himself in the home of a three-headed troll and evading the vicious Dwarf, Andvari, under a waterfall. The sword in the title is named ‘Anger, Doomsong and Truth-teller’ in the saga and I had huge fun writing this into my story, although the manuscript went through many, many drafts before it felt right. Weaving bits of Norse mythology into the basic Sigurd, the Dragonslayer legend to create something new – a coming-of-age story that has meaning for a 21st century reader – was not easy. Nevertheless, as soon as I’ve finished the third book in my wily Ludo da Portovenere (17th century) trilogy I’ll be back in the old, cold North to write the ‘Doomsong’ sequel.

This brings me back to being accepted as an author writing in different genres. ‘Genre’ is a convenient concept for online retailers and librarians, but many fiction authors bring elements from a whole range of genres into their new works. The joy of creative writing surely stems from the joy of having been taken into other worlds by other authors; living in past epochs, walking in another person’s shoes in numerous, different types of book. Yes – we probably do write what we read. This is also why children need to read all manner of stories – and daydream. They need to imagine other lives, experience, albeit vicariously, other people’s cultures and world views so that they are better prepared for some of the odd, difficult and perhaps even dangerous things that may befall them in the future. All-powerful dragons and three-headed trolls come in many guises, especially nowadays.

This post first appeared on Tony Riches’ blog on 25th April, 2017, The Writing Desk: http://tonyriches.blogspot.com.es

*Image of Odin and the sword named Gram (Anger), Doomsong and Truth-teller from the Volsung Saga is the woodcut ‘Sigmund’s Swert’ by Johannes Gehrts, 1889.