Writing fiction using historical fact

Secret Agents, Tulips, and the English Crown Jewels

The real history behind The Chosen Man Trilogy

Some authors are irritated by the question ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ but I see it as perfectly valid. Knowing the genesis of a good story can deepen its enjoyment or appreciation. In my case, however, it’s rather chicken and egg. Which came first, the idea for The Chosen Man and what became a trilogy, or the ideas generated out of the research? Historical fiction authors can probably relate to this; they may also agree that while research can take you down fascinating rabbit holes, some of the best bits have to be left out because readers almost certainly won’t believe it. This is what happened when I started gathering material about the first financial bubble known as tulipmania or tulip fever and Vatican secret agents for The Chosen Man. All of which was fascinating, but in many respects almost beggared belief.

But where did the idea come from? Well, the story began with a combination of events, one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele, a British National Trust property on the River Tamar in Cornwall and the model for the fictional house ‘Crimphele’ in my first novel. Wandering around the house mentally preparing the sequel to The Empress Emerald (set early 20th Century), I was beset by characters living in the 17th Century. To start with, the evil-minded McNab walked out of a wall, crossed the Great Hall and disappeared, then re-appeared later crossing the courtyard. He made my skin crawl, but he was not to be ignored. The portrait of a Stuart harridan gave me the unpleasant mother-in-law, and then to top it all, while I was gazing down at the Tamar Estuary from the roof of the Tudor tower I ‘saw’ Ludo da Portovenere arrive on a boat – much as he does at the end of the first book in the trilogy. So, I went home, set aside my original notes and started a new book entirely.

The story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA and I was reminded of the Dutch tulip bubble. During the 1630s in the Netherlands, or the United Provinces as the country was known then, tulip bulbs were worth more than their weight in gold. A virus which attacked the bulbs resulted in exotic stripes or ‘flames’ on petals, and a single rare bulb could cost three times the annual wage of a skilled artisan or even the price of an elegant house in Amsterdam. This was a period of intense political and religious intrigue in Europe. Spain was heavily involved in the Thirty Years War to regain Flanders; Pope Urban VIII was outwardly supporting Spain while conspiring to limit the size and power of the Holy Roman Empire, to which Habsburg Spain belonged; and France was playing both sides against the middle, harrying Spanish ships and playing double games with Rome. Having lived in the Netherlands I was well acquainted with the tulipmania, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo might be employed as an agent provocateur in a conspiracy to undermine the burgeoning Protestant Dutch economy. Charismatic, wily Ludo is fictional, but he serves to show how just one man can create financial mayhem and ruin the lives of humble men and women in the process. Acting on behalf of the Spanish monarch and a Vatican cardinal, Ludo encourages and facilitates speculation on tulip bulbs.

The conspiracy theory behind Ludo’s actions is unproven, but the tulip bubble was very well documented at the time. Contemporary reports and records of sales transactions demonstrate the outrageous escalating prices paid up to 1637, when the bubble burst.

The question is why did otherwise sober, thrifty Dutch men and women engage in what was basically gambling with flowers that for most of the year could not even be seen? The answer lies in a combination of factors overshadowed by the knowledge that Death was quite literally on their doorstep.

Amsterdam in 1635 was a thriving city driven by what we call the ‘work ethic’. Frippery and ostentation were frowned upon, so what could people who by their very thrift have acquired surplus income spend their money on? It had to be something that was not a visible luxury. Some people became patrons to up and coming artists, some became tulip connoisseurs. These exotic flowers, introduced into Holland from the land of the infidel, were defined as a ‘connoisseur item’ and were named after famous admirals and towns, and coveted. Within no time, otherwise sensible men and women began gambling on bulbs doubling or tripling their value in the space of a year, a month, a week – by 1636 prices were going up by the day. Men of both the professional and artisan classes, and many women, were spending their entire savings on bulbs, because money must not lie idle, and plague could kill an entire family in the space of one day.

One pamphlet of the time recorded the items and their value which were traded for a single Viceroy bulb. As you read, bear in mind the family of a shoemaker or baker lived on between 250 and 350 guilders* a year.

Item Value
(florins*)
Two lasts of wheat 448
Four lasts of rye 558
Four fat oxen 480
Eight fat swine 240
Twelve fat sheep 120
Two hogsheads of wine 70
Four casks of beer 32
Two tons of butter 192
A complete bed 100
A suit of clothes 80
A silver drinking cup 60
Total 2,500

(Guilders and florins* – the name of the currency used at this time varied from province to province. I opted to use guilders because it is the modern word for the currency.)

At its height, in the early spring of 1637, a Dutch merchant paid 6,650 guilders for a dozen tulip bulbs. Artisans pawned or sold their tools to ‘invest’ – largely thanks to Ludo da Portovenere, who brings bulbs from Constantinople then facilitates a futures market so humble men and women can participate in the fun. Ludo had access to the forbidden city because he was once a Barbary corsair and speaks the language.

As the trilogy progresses, Ludo gradually reveals his identity, or lack of it. His mother, a Doria, daughter of the Doge of Genoa, was captured by corsairs. Ludo was born in the Berber stronghold of Salé and raised by Murat Reïs, a renegade Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who went into history as the infamous Murat Reïs the Younger, illustrious ancestor of the American Vanderbilt family, Jackie Onassis and Sir Winston Churchill.

In Book 2, A Turning Wind, Ludo moves into the Portuguese Goan spice trade, but he is still pursued by the Vatican agent, Rogelio, who must destroy any evidence of the tulip conspiracy. Rogelio is part of the Vatican Black Order, sinister operatives and secret agents tasked with eliminating those who oppose or threaten the power of Rome. Here again, my background reading supplied much of the story – although this is where I also chose to leave out quite lot. The real history behind the Holy Alliance and the Black Order is hair-raising.

To write this second book I had to read about taxes and tariffs on cargoes from the East, about gems and silks, and secret treaties between England and Spain. Ludo becomes involved in delicate personal missions for two monarchs and sets in motion his vendetta on the Doria clan, who rejected his mother on her return to Liguria and exiled her to the castle in Porto Venere.

Agostino Doria was Doge of Genoa from 1600-1603. His family tree names each of his sons, but there is also an un-named daughter (who became Ludo’s mother). Having lived across the Gulf of La Spezia in Lerici, I knew a fair amount about Porto Venere. Each of the scenes there is written with the place very clearly in mind. Ludo, we learn is illegitimate, he is also ambitious and determined to get recompense for the way his mother was treated by her brothers, which is exactly what would have happened to any woman of ‘gentle birth’ who had been captured by corsairs: she could never hope to make a good marriage after that, her name was sullied.

As the story progresses, Ludo is sent to the Spanish court, which is passing the summer in El Escorial. He has been engaged by Charles Stuart to seek support from Catholic Spain for the coming Civil War in England. He is also charged by King Charles’ wife, the French Henrietta Maria, to help her sister Isabel, Queen of Spain. Both these commissions are based on real, albeit perhaps little-known affairs. During the early 1640s Spanish and English Ambassadors were drawing up a treaty that would enable Spanish troops to cross southern England as a land bridge to Flanders to avoid being attacked by the French. It was a tricky issue, the Protestant English celebrated the failure of Catholic Spain to invade Britain in 1588, the Spanish would not have been welcome, despite the fact that the West Country mainly favoured the Royalists during the subsequent war. Ludo becomes involved in these negotiations, and also in the Spanish queen’s private battle for control over her husband Felipe IV with his valido (First Minister and favourite) the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares, and his Gorgon of a wife, Inez.

This became another moment where researching documented history uncovered details begging to be turned into fiction. The Conde-Duque was difficult, dangerous and spectacularly ugly. And in each respect, he and his wife were well-matched. Writing scenes involving these two real characters was as entertaining as it was challenging. A lot has been written (in Spanish) about both, so I had to choose my words carefully.

While researching Goa and the uncut-gem trade, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) while preparing for A Turning Wind. In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier 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. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza. This is where having lived in different countries and travelled pretty widely came in useful too. We had lived near El Escorial in the province of Madrid for a number of years, and I had visited Lisbon, Portugal, on various occasions.

Imagining these places in the past was not difficult, although Lisbon was effectively destroyed during a major earthquake in the 18th century, which made describing the old city rather more creative than factual.

 

Book 3, By Force of Circumstance, was helped along by a visit to a gin distillery in Plymouth (important research here!) and some astonishing facts relating to how Queen Henrietta Maria tried to raise money for Charles Stuart during the English Civil War. On a more serious level, one of the main themes in the trilogy shows how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. What happens to the main characters, Ludo, Alina and Marcos, is determined by a conflict not of their making, in a country not their own. Their efforts to safeguard their families was probably little different to what real people in their social circumstances experienced.

To write this part of the story I needed to find out what happened to certain gems, brooches, necklaces and pearl-studded hatbands belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn these royal heirlooms was well documented at the time, although a few, including the spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the jewels is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. It became a matter of ‘what if . . .’ combined with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.

This final story takes Ludo back Porto Venere. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. I’d had the final scene of the trilogy in mind for a very long time, but writing it brought tears to my eyes. Ludo and Alina had become real people for me.

You can read more about the origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, Tavernier’s description of how men used eagles to acquire diamonds from pythons, and about the missing items belonging to the English Crown Jewels here in this blog.

Each of the books in The Chosen Man Trilogy is a Readers’ Favorite 5*. If you have enjoyed the stories, please leave a review on your retailer’s site.

 

 

 

 

The Chosen Man Trilogy completed!

Mission accomplished! The trilogy I promised Penmore Press is now complete. It’s exciting, and I will admit to a considerable sense of satisfaction, but there’s also to a sense of loss: I shall miss my voyages with Ludo. I shall also miss doing the research behind each story; it was both enjoyable and enlightening. Each of the books involved a good deal of background reading and investigation despite being based on topics familiar to me and set in places I know.
To give you an idea of what I have learned while writing the trilogy here are a few details on how each story began and what I needed to know about before I could actually start.

The Chosen Man – Tulips, Vatican intrigue and a financial scandal

The first Ludo story was inspired by a combination of two events; one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, other-worldly, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele in Cornwall (while preparing for another book altogether). Cotehele, a National Trust property on the River Tamar, became the fictional house Crimphele, then the story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA. I had lived in the Netherlands, was acquainted with the tulip bubble, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo (the infamous ancestor of Leo Kazan in The Empress Emerald) might be employed as an agent provocateur acting for Habsburg Spain and, supposedly, for Rome. After fitting these elements together, I then had to learn some hard facts behind ‘tulip mania’ and some of the vaguer, barely credible history behind Vatican espionage and secret agents. It took a good two years to write The Chosen Man, fortunately reviews show it was all worthwhile.

A Turning Wind – Gems, Snakes and Ladders and the Queen of Spain

A long, long time ago I had a gap year job in a jewellery and antique shop, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I learnt a lot and it helped greatly while preparing notes for A Turning Wind. During my research, 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, Tavernier 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. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza, and a little known, unrealized treaty between Charles 1st and Felipe IV of Spain. Having spent many years living near El Escorial, the scenes set there with the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares and Velazquez were easy to write.

By Force of Circumstance (2019).- The English Civil War, Barbary corsairs, Doria family secrets and Portovenere

One of my aims while writing this trilogy was to show how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. This story in particular shows how one’s personal destiny can be determined by events far beyond one’s control. The over-riding circumstance here is a civil war. What happens to Ludo, Alina and Marcos is determined by a conflict not of their making in a country not their own and their efforts to safeguard their families. Regrettably, it is something many readers can relate to nowadays.
What I specifically needed to learn about for this book, though, was what happened to certain gems belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn exquisite necklaces, hatbands and brooches – royal heirlooms – was well documented at the time, although a few, including the famous spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the gems is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. All I really had to do was say, ‘What if . . .’ and combine it with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.
This final story takes Ludo back to Portovenere in Liguria, Italy – a place I have visited many times. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus; and there’s a Doria castle there too. Agustin, the Doria Doge of Genoa of the epoch, had a daughter, she is un-named in the Doria family tree but she may have lived there. Barbary corsairs constantly raided the Ligurian coast – so again, what if . . .?
And that brings Ludo’s adventures to an end, although he does have two impish daughters who might well set to sea in a galleon named ‘Tulip’ in the not too distant future.

If you would like to know more about some of the history mentioned here you will find it here in my blog.

Ancient Iberia

As part of my ‘places in the past’ series, guest author Glenn Bauer has written a fascinating post on why he writes about ancient Iberia.

Iberia, cradle of heroes

A couple of weeks ago, Jane kindly invited me to explain why I was motivated to write about Iberia. There was the obvious explanation of Iberia is where Hannibal Barca stepped into his father’s sandals, but that was not the whole reason or even a large part of it. Why Iberia? To help explain my motives, I should start with a very short summary of the Sons of Iberia series, which is of course set primarily in Iberia.

I self-published the first title, Warhorn – Sons of Iberia, in 2013 and the fourth will be available in the Spring of 2019. The series is set during the 2nd Punic War which was fought between Carthage and Rome between 218BC and 202BC.

The central characters are native Iberians, the people who were caught between two empires, one old and mercantile, the other young and martial.

You might know this war from tales of Hannibal Barca leading his elephants across the Alps, splitting great boulders with fire and vinegar, and the crushing defeats he inflicted on Rome. Fewer readers will know that this war was sparked by a minor conflict at the walls of an Iberian city made rich by trade and home to a large population of Greeks.

This city was named Saguntum and exists now as Sagunto, a small town just a half hour’s drive to the north of modern-day Valencia. Today, a more recent castle complex guards the long hill on which Saguntum once stood. In exploring the history of Saguntum, known as Arse by the native Iberians, it becomes evident that the people of Iberia experienced successive waves of immigrants washing up on their eastern shore and migrating from north of the Pyrenees. From the diaspora of the people of Troy to the expansion of Phoenician trade colonies, there was an inexorable growth in interaction which benefited the Iberians and the newcomers.

The Iberians of old, were tribal people and regrettably very little is known about them as they did not appear to have developed writing until after contact with Phoenicians and Greeks. What little we do know, is thanks in large part to the ancient historians Livy and Polybius who documented the 2nd Punic War. We know the Latinised names of the tribes such as the Bastetani (South East), the Turdetani (South) and Illergete (North East). Of all the tribes, the most enduring appear to be the Vascones whose principal town, Iruna, is the site of modern-day Pamplona. The Vascones appeared to have managed to thrive and expand and from them derive today’s Basque people.

Modern archaeology has also contributed to our knowledge with unearthed ruins and artifacts that bare testimony to a people who valued art, built with stone and were talented metalsmiths.

All this is grist to the mill for a writer and if you consider the dearth of contemporary English literature set in ancient Iberia, makes for a compelling reason to write a series of books set on the peninsula.

While the ancient people of Iberia are long gone, their land remains largely unchanged and just as dramatic. The river Tagus which flows a thousand kilometers across Spain and Portugal to the Atlantic from its wellspring in the Fuente de García. The wild coast of the Costa Brava. The moon-like Bardenas Reales. Interesting local settings are vital in creating depth and atmosphere in any tale and from the beautiful blue coastal waters of the Mediterranean to the high mountains of the Pyrenees, Iberia offers a palette of landscapes in which countless deeds of heroism wait to unfold.

The varied Iberian landscape is complemented by an abundance of fauna and flora. Even today, centuries after the industrialization of farming, Portugal and Spain still boast many species that have gone extinct elsewhere in Europe. One such species is the Great Bustard, one of the heaviest flying birds alive and a species that was hunted to extinction in England, the last specimen being shot in 1832. A project to reintroduce Great Bustards to Wiltshire, England began in 2004 and in 2014, fifty-four fertilized eggs were imported from Spain which has the largest pool of these marvelous birds in Europe.

Other wonderful creatures that still roam the wilds of Iberia include the endangered Iberian lynx, brown bear, and Spanish Ibex. The Iberian lynx often features in Sons of Iberia and I begin the series through the eyes of a lynx.

“She would need to move soon despite having just given birth. The mountains were dangerous with winter-hungry wolves. The scent of the afterbirth could easily draw these powerful foes to her newborn. She was young and strong but would be no match for such a pack.”

To experience nature such as the ancient Iberians might have, there are fortunately many incredible nature reserves and protected areas such as the Doñana National Park in southern Spain, a huge swathe of wetlands that offers sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

In conclusion, Iberia and its people were pivotal in the 2nd Punic War and yet so little is told of the Iberian people or how the war was fought there. For me, the opportunity to give a voice to an ancient people in the settings gifted by the Iberian Peninsula was one I could not decline.

Glenn Bauer – Sources and links:

Sons of Iberia on Amazon:     http://bit.ly/JGlennBauer_AllTitles_UK

Great Bustard Group: http://greatbustard.org/

Doñana National Park :          https://www.miteco.gob.es/es/red-parques-nacionales/nuestros-parques/donana/#section

Domus dels Peixos–An archaeological museum in Sagunto: http://www.ceice.gva.es/va/web/patrimonio-cultural-y-museos/museo-arqueologico-de-sagunto

Titus Livy–The History of Rome:        http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/3707

Author J. Glenn Bauer:           https://www.jglennbauer.co.uk/

 

A Tribute to Daphne du Maurier

It is 80 years now since Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was first released. Back in 1938, du Maurier’s publishers were nervous about the novel’s future, but the story has become a classic: a world-wide favourite, a play, a television series, even an iconic black and white movie. For a while, back in the 90s, new editions of du Maurier’s novels were hard to obtain, but with the recent film version of My Cousin Rachel she is very much back in the public eye.

Which is as it should be, because Daphne du Maurier was a very accomplished novelist.

Despite her success, du Maurier would probably make a modern publisher nervous, too. She did not, or would not, stick to one genre. Worse: she wrote books that were the antithesis of best sellers. The Glass-blowers (a fictionalised version of her French family history) was written in direct opposition to the hugely popular Scarlet Pimpernel and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. In this novel it is the skilled artisan not the aristocrat who takes centre stage: the novel tells not of heroes but of ordinary people striving to survive and make a future for their children during the French Revolution. And this, I think, is why many new readers are being drawn to du Maurier’s fiction. Despite Hollywood casting’s best efforts to the contrary, her protagonists are real people. They are ordinary men and women confused by events, over-awed by more glamourous or charismatic people around them, caught up in situations beyond their control. They may triumph in the end, but it is never a certain or perfect ending.

We may not be like the timid heroine of Rebecca or Rachel’s doubting, bewitched young man, we aren’t the frightened girl in Jamaica Inn or the bored wife in Frenchman’s Creek, but we understand their worries and motivations. Hungry Hill includes extra-ordinary events, but what happens is grounded in normal family life.

Reading the Glass-blowers recently, I was struck by this, and the simple wisdom in the story. Du Maurier understands the difficulties her characters face. Like real people (like us) they may present one facet of their personality to the world, but underneath, inside, they are much more complex. As was du Maurier herself.

There is also a sense that no matter how fantastical or exciting the plot, and most stories are page-turners, there is something very ‘lived’ in each book. Du Maurier was classified as a Romantic Novelist, and I’m not belittling romantic fiction, far from it, but the sum of her writing goes well beyond that genre description. In an article on the anniversary of Rebecca in the Guardian (23rd February, 2018) the writer Olivia Laing says:

‘What really startled (du Maurier) was that everyone seemed to think she’d written a romantic novel. She believed Rebecca was about jealousy, and that all the relationships in it – including the marriage between De Winter and his shy second wife – were dark and unsettling. (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” hardly betokened love between equals.) The idea had emerged out of her own jealousy about the woman to whom her husband, Tommy “Boy” Browning, had briefly been engaged. She had looked at their love letters, and the big elegant “R” with which Jan Ricardo signed her name had made her painfully aware of her own shortcomings as a woman and a wife.’

Many of du Maurier’s books address the past like this, they take on our concerns and confusions related to ‘what happened when’. Her writing examines what Laing calls the ‘oddities of time’. Regarding these ‘oddities of time’, I remember with absolute clarity reading the time-slip novel The House on the Strand during the course of a family Christmas day. The paperback transported me out of a modern household into an ancient house on a tidal reach, out of the 20th century into the 14th century. Listening to the story on the radio some months ago, I was taken back to those three time periods: that Christmas day and the two epochs in the novel. Some weeks later I picked up a battered hardback of My Cousin Rachel and remembered worrying about the laburnum seeds in our garden. I have now re-read most of du Maurier’s novels. On each occasion, opening the first page I have a clear vision of a place and/or moment in the story, and how it affected me the first time I read it. I remember reading the end of Frenchman’s Creek during the last lesson of a rainy Friday afternoon when I was about 16 – I remember feeling the tears on my cheeks. The teacher confiscated the book, naturally. I’ve read that story twice since then, and each time I’ve seen something new in it; I relate to something I hadn’t recognized before, but each time I have been taken back to that classroom. It is a curious experience. A good historical fiction author can take a reader back in time in the space of a paragraph, but I wonder how many can mark their readers for life like this.

Was du Maurier aware that she had this skill, this gift to transport readers through time and into other lives? I don’t know. Accounts of her own life tell of a troubled woman at odds with her gender and circumstances; a woman trapped in a troubled marriage with a man who had a breakdown because he was having two extra-marital affairs simultaneously. She is often linked to the house named Menabilly on the Cornish coast, where she apparently went to escape the real world.

Big houses, full of private tragedies and secret histories, feature in many of her novels. Looking at photographs of Menabilly I wonder if that house stands as a metaphor for her fiction – as full of conflicting emotions, versions of the past and fantasies as the house on the strand. Such thoughts and ideas are only suggested, it is up to each reader to interpret them of course, and as in real life we interpret them according to our own way of thinking and personal experiences. Readers bring their own baggage to any book.

Not all is what it seems in du Maurier’s novels, though, and they can’t be limited by a genre label. “Don’t look now,” we are told in that famous story about grieving parents in Venice, but if and when you do, you will find something disturbing, a theme that is both honest yet fantastical. For me, du Maurier’s novels are like a haunted room full not of ghosts but of real lives from the past – and the present.

This post first appeared in the Discovering Diamonds blog: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=A+Tribute+to+Daphne+Du+Maurier

© J.G. Harlond

 

 

A Cornish backwater near Jamaica Inn.

 

Horses in Historical Fiction 2: Making journeys in the past

Making long journeys on horseback

A number of people have asked me now about how far a horse can go in a day. The simple answer is: ‘that depends’.

It depends on the age and skill of the rider, the age, type and fitness of the horse, and the terrain they have to cover.

Healthy, well-trained horses entered in modern long-distance races, sometimes called endurance races (for a very good reason) can cover up to 100 miles in a day. The favoured breed is the Arabian, but while the type of breed matters, it’s the training that is important. Each mount has to be prepared for these distances over a long period of time, and this includes getting used to eating hard fodder at different times of the day, which many horses do not or will not do.

In the wild, equines graze for most of the day and night; kept in stables they become accustomed to eating and drinking water at certain times of the day. Breaking that routine with stabled horses can lead to colic. Horses that are being prepared for long distances need not only to have excellent physical stamina and good leg bones, they need to learn to feed and drink on a completely different basis.

Basically, this means if you have characters in a book covering long distances you need to take into account that horses are not machines. They also lose shoes and go lame, which can slow a journey if not bring it to a halt altogether. Here are three sample questions on this topic with my answers:

Q: My characters hire livery horses to cross open territory to get to a remote village, taking about four days on the journey. One character is an excellent horseman but the rest have limited experience. They take their food, equipment and weapons. What do I also need to mention or include?

Your characters will need to hire sound, sturdy horses at the livery stable – cross breeds probably. Do not include any mention of English Thoroughbreds, they are not well-suited to rough terrain. Each horse will need its own properly fitting saddle and bridle, plus a head collar with a rope line and/or hobbles. Ill-fitting saddles can cause a lot of damage: the wrong size bit can destroy the animal’s mouth and make it unresponsive or downright difficult. Your group should also hire at least one pack mule for their equipment, and they may need to take fodder for their horses as well, unless they are crossing lush terrain. Think about water, too: horses can survive a day without food, but not without water. Remember that one person will have to have the mule’s leading rein, so it doesn’t try to run back home.

If your group are travelling for four days and there is no great haste, one mount per person, plus a pack mule should be all right, but a spare mount would be useful in case one of the horses loses a shoe or steps in a rabbit hole, which happens surprisingly easily. Horses stumble and ‘twist their ankles’ much the same as we do. They have numerous small bones in the foot and hock and can go lame for a while. The hock area may swell up, but then the beast may recover after a rest.

What sort of horses do you need for a long journey? Does gender matter? Gender doesn’t matter as long as no stallion is present. A stallion is easily distracted by a mare; if she’s in season he can become uncontrollable. Some, (but not all) stallions also challenge or try to attack geldings, this can include biting and striking out with front legs. Geldings are generally more reliable, but mares and geldings can be equally difficult depending on age and temperament. I have an aging gelding with an appalling imagination: he’s quite capable of seeing mortal danger in the flight of a bird or a falling leaf if the mood takes him, or if it’s a windy day. High winds confuse horses’ olfactory and auditory signals. Mares can often get awkward when they come into season.

I’ve read that horses don’t need as much sleep as we do and that a mini herd takes turns sleeping throughout the night. Could my characters sleep through the night knowing that horse is on guard against predators and will alert them?

Horses, being prey animals are always on guard. They can sleep standing up using a bone-locking device so, if necessary, they can make a quick getaway. This means they are often dozing on the hoof and from a distance it looks as if they are awake. Most horses only lie down to sleep if they feel very safe in their surroundings. They might be unsettled in strange terrain and more restless if there are predators around. I’m not sure about individuals taking turns to be on guard in a herd, but I think your human characters need to take shifts to stay alert during the night in open country.

A common way to hobble horses in the past, and still used in rural areas of Spain, is to tie the front legs together at the hock so they can move sufficiently while grazing but not trot or gallop, so they can’t get very far. Tying horses to trees or lines as they do in the movies is unreliable because they can break their tethers if they choose to. A horse tied to a tree can break its reins, bridle or head collar very easily – I’ve seen it done more than once. Smarter horses can rub their heads against the tree to get out of bridles and head collars, too. I had a mare who could get herself out of just about anything except her saddle.

Remember that while horses are usually gentle and willing, they do have immense strength when need be. You also need to take into account that restless horses can be very hard to tack up and they make each other nervous.

As to distances, here is a general guide to equine miles per hour, but please remember, horses are sprinters; keeping up fast pace for a long period can tax or even destroy the healthiest animal. The rest depends on the age and condition of the horse, its load and the rider.

Walk: 4 mph

Trot: 8 to 12 mph

Canter: 12 to 15 mph

Gallop: 25 to 30 mph

A final word: these blog posts are written from my personal experience of a life-time caring for and training horses. If you go to other on-line sources you may find conflicting or differing information.

JGH

Málaga, 5th November, 2018

 

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