Through my picture window

 

 

Recently, I was asked how living in Spain has influenced my writing. Thinking about it, I realised it isn’t only being in Spain that has affected my fiction, it’s all the other places I’ve lived, studied and worked in as well. Setting aside my time at an American university in what now feels like a previous existence, the cumulative effect is that I have been Latinized. I’m still old-fashioned British at heart, but with something of a Latin outlook.

From my desk here in the Province of Málaga I can see the Sierra de Las Nieves. This was where the Moors of Al-Ándalus used to harvest snow to be collected in summer for sherbet and to keep medicines cool. To the right out of a large picture window is the bandalero country of The Empress Emerald; to the left, beyond  mauve-shaded mountains, are ancient fishing villages now known as the Costa del Sol, but once prey to the Barbary corsairs featured in The Chosen Man Trilogy.

On warm days with the window open, there’s that special Mediterranean dry-earth, peppery smell described so well by Laurie Lee in his Spanish memoirs. Today, I can hear a kestrel screaming at her mate from our roof terrace. This view, as you may imagine, is very conducive to creative time travel. If I ignore a nearby road, I can be back in any century I choose.

The Empress Emerald, includes the story of Davina, a naive English girl who leaves Cornwall to live in Jerez during the 1920s. People say a debut novel is always autobiographical, this one certainly isn’t, but some scenes were developed out of my first encounter with my husband’s traditional Andaluz home. This is how I fictionalised it:

They turned a corner into a street of tall grey buildings that appeared to grow out of one another. There was no green save the painted railings of high, narrow balconies. It felt austere, grim, closed in.

The driver stopped the car outside two vast doors, blackened with age and reinforced with iron. They reminded Davina of an illustration in one of her childhood picture-books, Bluebeard’s castle. As if by some sinister magic, a door swung open. Alfonso ushered her into a fern-infested patio. It smelt dank and uninviting. She looked up and around her. The patio was open to the sky, but on all four sides above there were windows. She sensed watching eyes and lowered her gaze.

Before coming to Spain I lived on the Ligurian coast of Italy – hence Ludo da Portovenere in The Chosen Man. The Genoese coastline and the Cinque Terre often crept into Ludo’s narrative – these historical thrillers could so easily have turned into travel brochures.

Portovenere, or Porto Venere, was once the site of a Roman temple to Venus: the perfect romantic location to conclude Ludo’s story in By Force of Circumstance.

It’s a tourist souvenir destination these days, but through my picture window I could easily visualise it in the 17th century.

Reviewers comment that my books are ‘visual’, which is probably due to my exile’s eye. I’m not a tourist, but I don’t belong either. This was evident when we were posted to the Hague (my husband is a Spanish naval officer). The Dutch way of life was not so different to my English upbringing, the flat, grey landscapes and shut-indoors domesticity, however, came to me after years of a Latin lifestyle. Seeing Holland from this point of view helped when I was writing the first Ludo story, his comments on the rain in Amsterdam come from a Latin heart:

Ludo wove his way listlessly through the crowds, his lack of purpose at odds with the activity around him. Amsterdam teemed with people the way it teemed with rain: quiet, persistent, always there. Not like the tremendous skin-soaking downpours in Liguria that gave way to bright sunshine. The weather in Italy had a sense of drama.

Being a permanent exile can lead to rose-tinted nostalgia of course. Something I exploit in my Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries, but only to a certain extent. If you’ve ever seen a derelict farm (Private Lives) or been on bleak moorland in a tearing wind, which is how Courting Danger begins,  you’ll understand that.

Despite my somewhat Latinized outlook, though, what I see through my Spanish  picture window when I am at my desk in Málaga is still with a realistic Englishwoman’s eyes.

Mostly. . .

 

 

Good books for summer reads 

If, like me, you enjoy novels that takes you into the past and/or far away,  check out the excellent Bristish historical fiction author, Deborah Swift. She has a new novel set in 17th century Italy out now, too.

http://author.to/DeborahSwift

 

 

If you enjoy gritty, contemporary British police crime fiction, try B.A.  Morton’s frightening, heart-rending ‘Crime on the Tyne’.

http://mybook.to/thefavourbank 

 

 

 

You can find me and more about my books on the following sites:

Web page:  https://www.jgharlond.com

Blog – Reading & Writing: https://wp-harlond.jgharlond.com/

Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneGHarlond

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JaneGHarlond

My books: https://www.amazon.com/J.-G.-Harlond/e/B007PDA1Z4

 

 

For debut historical crime writers

Secondary and Minor Characters in Historical Crime Fictional

Secondary and minor characters help to establish the main character’s personality and develop the storyline in any fiction genre. In historical crime fiction they are also a useful means of conveying information about the epoch and location. This means no matter how lowly your minor characters need to be more than walk-on players in costume. To achieve this, ensure they have identifiable personalities, strengths, foibles or flaws that readers can relate to, so what they say and do is more meaningful.

If you are using a secondary character to provide a motive for a crime or to show what happens to your protagonist(s), that person’s agenda needs to be evident. This means creating a biography or backstory for all your characters at the planning stage, and ensuring they reflect the lifestyle, morals or zeitgeist of the period. Fiction requires readers to suspend disbelief, to engage in another world, to fear for, empathise or sympathise with the protagonist, and this is where your supporting cast play an important role. They not only demonstrate what life was like then, they show what was considered right and wrong, and therefore why your hero is special and the villain so reprehensible.

Golden age crime writers often included the victim’s ill-treatment of relatives and servants to show what may have led to their death, and why there is more than one suspect. This required creating backstories for all the suspects and using those details to feed in clues but without deviating too far from the main thrust of the story. Readers want to know why someone turns a blind eye to the crime; why someone refuse to help the authorities; or why a neighbour, for example, fabricates evidence.

As to the villain – a crime story or thriller becomes a lot deeper when the kindness of strangers highlights the vicious nature of the baddie. Readers turn pages to in crime stories to see how the wicked get caught; they turn them faster in thrillers if they not only fear for the main character but also for the little people caught up in the drama. Very few people in real life are wholly good or bad, though. A fact skilful authors exploit to the maximum. Each suspect, be it cozy crime or a blood bath, should be capable of committing the crime given enough reason.

Whatever the epoch, minor characters’ upbringing and moral codes inform their actions, which can be included in well-chosen cameo scenes. The gentler side of the wrong-doer or the darker side of the victim or detective can be demonstrated by showing how they interact in these situations. Whether you use these scenes as red herrings to mislead readers or to emphasise clues as to who-dunnit, secondary characters should be interesting and complex, and minor characters there in the story for a specific reason. To be sure of this, create mini-biographies at the planning stage. Whether you actually use these backstories (very sparingly) or not, the fact that you have thought about why Milly won’t tell, why Old Tom is digging the master’s garden at eighty, or why a senior officer overlooks a terrible error of judgment, will enrich your tale and leaven the plot.

Here are two examples of how I have used a secondary and minor characters to establish a seventeenth-century anti-hero’s complex identity and to provide information on the setting and location of a twentieth century wartime murder mystery. Each scene is directly relevant to the plot and includes details on the historic background.

The first extract is from Book 1 of The Chosen Man Trilogy. It is 1635, charismatic Genoese merchant Ludovico da Portovenere (Ludo) is engaged in a conspiracy to inflate the tulip market in what became known as tulip fever. At this stage, readers are not sure whether Ludo is to be trusted, whether he’s a goodie or a baddie. How he handles his young Spanish servant Marcos here suggests he exploits people for his own ends. The dialogue also carries vital details about ‘tulipmania’.

Ludo’s lodgings, Amsterdam, 1635

Marcos rubbed at the heel of the shoe (he was cleaning) and without looking up, said, “Is it this selling that’s made you rich?”

“This selling? What selling? What are you saying boy?”

“It’s that I don’t exactly understand what you’re doing, sir.”

“And why do you need to understand? It’s none of your damned business. You only latched onto me as a means of finding your long-lost father, who you seem to have forgotten in the most unfilial manner.”

“That’s not true!” Marcos replied, hurt by the Italian’s tone. “It’s just that I want to learn and go back home with more than I came with – if I can’t find my father – and if what they say in the streets and taverns is true, that’s probably what’s going to happen. I want to go home rich.” He paused, regretting his words, “Richer than when I came,” he held up the shoe and turned it in the air for inspection, “so I was sort of wondering if perhaps you could let me have a loan, and I could buy some of what you have and sell it.”

“At a profit?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what I want to do – make a profit, like they talk about with these flowers. There’s hundreds of profit, they say, buying and selling your flowers.”

“‘Hundreds of profit’. Interesting concept. Are you going to embalm that piece of footwear or get my breakfast?”

“Oh, yes, sorry. There’s some bread from yesterday and some ham and some beer. Do you want some of that tea stuff?”

“That ‘tea stuff ’ is very expensive merchandise, show some respect.”

“Sorry. Do you?”

“Tea? No!”

Marcos busied himself in the kitchen area and picked up on the conversation he wanted to continue. “So, what I was thinking was ...”

“You want me to give you some bulbs so you can sell them and make hundreds of profit. And what will you give me in return?”

Marcos put a plate and a tankard down in front of the merchant and looked him in the eye, confused, “I don’t understand? What do I have to give you in return?”

Ludo sighed, looked at the warm, flat beer and settled back in his chair. “I think we had better begin with the basics of commerce. Cut me some of that bread and ham – but wash your hands first.”

(. . .) Marcos listened intently then said, “But why are these Dutchies buying things they’ve never seen and don’t need with money they haven’t got.”

“Explain,” said Ludo.

“Well, last night I was in the Red Cockerel and a lot of odd bods were sneaking into a room at the back, so I sneaked in too. They were having some sort of sale, but there were only a few of those plant things you’ve got in your case. The rest were signing bits of paper for flowers that didn’t exist. Least ways I didn’t see them, I s’pose they might be in people’s gardens.”

Ludo raised an eyebrow, “Well done. And how exactly did you follow these transactions? You said you had no Dutch.”

Marcos lifted one of his master boots and started to shine it with the linen towel. “Numbers are numbers, not difficult to guess. These are the softest boots I’ve ever touched.”

“And these men, who would you say they were?”

“Oh, that’s easy, butchers and bakers, they still had their aprons on. Some toffs as well. I followed one in like his servant. He didn’t notice. There were a couple of gents like the one you were with a few days ago. The man that owns the Cockerel was running the show. They have a special code for when they go into the room – they go ‘cock-a-doodle-do’. Sounds really stupid. I bet if you want to do business in the Golden Lion you have to go ‘grrrrr’.”

Ludo sat and stared at the boy for a moment then said, “The answer is ‘yes’. I will let you have a loan and some goods at rock bottom prices – and you are going to make us hundreds of profit with a cock-a-doodle-do.” Then he got up and went into his room to wash, saying, “And in the meantime I’m going to make thousands of profit with numbers on bits of paper.”


There is a hint here that Ludo is not all bad; he is trying to help Marcos improve his status or at least educate him. From this point on, I wanted readers to have personal opinions on what Ludo is doing and why, for them to be more actively engaged in his wrong-doing and, later, fear for him when he tries to escape his evil antagonist. I was also using a secondary character to show how and why ordinary men and women traded tulip bulbs at outrageous prices, and how some (including the feisty heroine of the story) fell victim to Ludo’s wicked charm, and suffered for it.

The second scene comes from my new Bob Robbins Home Front Mystery, Courting Danger (to be released March, 2021 – this is the working cover only). Here, I am using two minor characters to tell readers about two suspects in a murder enquiry, and show how the wartime restrictions were affecting ordinary people.

Cornwall, England, 1943.

Shem Placket and his wife Violet were obliged to vacate their farmhouse home when the local landowner Charles Kittoe and his sophisticated wife moved to Cornwall during the blitz. The Kittoes have now left. Shem and Violet are discussing how this affects them, and whether the Kittoes are involved in the death of a local young doctor.

“They expect too much of you.” Mrs Placket tipped fluffy white potatoes into a dish and slapped on bright yellow butter.

“It works to our favour, my dear. Gives us more peace than most farm managers get.”

“Do you think we ought to say something?” Mrs Placket asked, removing her pinny before they sat down to eat.

“Say something about what? This smells good, Violet, where’s the meat?”

“Seek and ye shall find.” Violet ladled gravy over three types of root vegetable. “What I’m saying is, should we tell that police detective what we know?”

“If he comes asking, I might mention something. We don’t want to risk our place here, though, do we? Not at our age. You’ll have that fancy big kitchen to cook in again now.”

“Nothing wrong with the old range. Got to learn all new-fangled gas timings and settings and Lor’ knows what.”

Shem Placket looked at his wife: she had been pretty, once upon a time. “No point rockin’ the boat. They might let us have this cottage when I retire. No, if the police come knocking, I’ll tell what needs to be said. If they ask. Nothing more.”

Violet Placket met her husband’s eye, “But you know what’s happenin’ up in that cave.”

“I don’t for sure, Violet. Not for certain. But you know me: I speak when spoken to, and not before.”

“They could be taking pills or magic potions and acting out old rituals then lying spark out in the dark like they said they did when we were young’uns.”

“Far as I know it wasn’t breaking the law then, and if that’s still going on – well, it b’aint killed anyone yet.”

“It might have killed that young doctor. Why didn’t you tell me it was him in the pool?”

“Didn’t know it was. Don’t know as I’ve ever met the boy face to face. And we don’t know he was up to no good in that ol’ cave neither.”

“He spent enough time with Mrs Kittoe . . .”

Shem raised a calloused, warning hand. “That is enough, wife. If they ask . . .” he removed a woody stalk from between his front teeth, “you can tell them about Mrs K and her carryings on, but keep Mr Kittoe out of it or we’ll be looking for a shed to live in. If anyone’s been up to no good it’s her, in my opinion.” Despite his need to protect his family, Shem had a very Wesleyan attitude to life. “You understand what I’m saying?”
The trick in historical crime writing is to maximise the use of secondary and minor characters to provide information on the epoch and details on the crime(s).

Whether you are at the planning stage or into your first draft, write out a cast list and make a note next to each name to say what that character brings to the story.

 

Remember, in e.books it is harder to turn back to remind yourself who’s who, so make sure each person in your story is memorable and there for a reason.

Enjoy your writing! JGH

 

Review of ‘No Man’s Land’, Book 1 in The Reschen Valley Series by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

She wants her home. He wants control. The Fascist regime wants both.

Life in the mountains of the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s is hard and uncertain. The climate and poor soil conspire against the farmers on the mountains, while politicians in their city offices conspire to take their very land from them. This is a novel about national and personal identity, about the importance of family, love and loyalty, and about how the livelihoods of individuals are at the mercy of those who do not even know their names. Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger has created a thoroughly good read that shows how the re-drawing of Austria’s border after the Great War affected humble folk, robbing them of their province’s autonomy, forcing them to adopt Italian as their working language and even Latinise their names.
Central to the story are Tyrolean Katharina Thaler, whose ambition is to own her grandfather’s farm, and Angelo Grimani, who is doing his best to avoid the tentacles of Mussolini’s fascists. Angelo owes Katharina his life, but his father, ‘the Colonel’ is determined to steal her valley for a vast hydro-electric damn.
Lucyk-Berger gives us Katharina’s daily life in well-chosen detail. Sparingly, we see her milking cows, separating the curds and whey, then we see how she faces real dangers such as a marauding wolf after a new-born calf, and how she is unafraid to go out trapping animals for the pot knowing there is a desperate criminal on the loose. Katharina is strong-willed and brave, yet naïve and unsure of herself in matters of the heart. So, when she saves Angelo’s life and immediately falls under his spell, setting in motion a chain of events that link her remote farm to Rome, we know we are in for a deeply satisfying saga.
No Man’s Land is the first book in the Reschen Valley series. As soon as I had finished it, I started Book 2. All the characters, and there are many, are well-drawn. The main characters are complex and convincing; they each have flaws so one understands their doubts and joys better. The residents of the valley are each given a back-story, so one can understand their reaction to what Katharina does, and how and why they resent the incoming Italians. Lucyk-Berger’s writing is economical and so right that the story seems real – which to a degree I know it is because I have visited that part of the Tyrol. At some points I felt I ought to check to see if the characters were genuine as well. This book would make an excellent television series. It is also an appropriate topic for these days. History repeats itself as we currently face another rise in heartless, nationalist populism.
If you are looking for a thumping good historical saga, this is a great summer read; well-researched with a star-crossed love story; absolute political villains versus a village of sympathetic characters you’ll want to succeed. Definitely a Discovered Diamond.

Find this review and many more historical fiction reviews on the Discovering Diamonds Blogspot: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=No+Man%27s+Land+

© J.G. Harlond

 

A Place in Past – the Reschen Valley

Many years ago, while we were living in Italy, I visited the Alto Adige, or the Südtirol as it is known in German. We returned on various occasions, winter and summer, and I fell in love with the scenery: the only word for it is ‘dramatic’. But so is the history half-hidden among the ancient alpine passes and modern ski resorts; the difficult past that must have been so hard to bear for people who felt themselves to be Austrian or Tyrolean – not Italian. For this reason, I was drawn to Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger’s award-winning Reschen Valley series.

If you have not come across this writer before, Lucyk-Berger is an American ex-pat living in western Austria. Her natural storytelling skills, and her innate curiosity about how the past shapes our present have formed her into a successful historical fiction writer.

Here is some historical background and a very brief summary of the storyline for the series.
After the Great War, a new conflict in Europe began. When Austria’s Tyrolean province was split in two, the southern half was annexed by Italy. In The Reschen Valley Series, two families cross paths: the Thalers, a Tyrolean farming family, and the Grimanis, an Italian industrial family racing to develop Italy’s new frontiers before a second war breaks out. When the Fascists reveal plans to flood a valley that would drown out the Thalers’ family, both sides must weave their way through a labyrinth of corruption, prejudice and greed.

Q: I asked Chrystyna why she was drawn to write about the Reschen Valley? What was it about the location that caught her interest or imagination?

A: The Reschen Valley is actually called Oberer Vinschgau/Reschia. Imagine driving south over an alpine pass, crossing from Austria into Italy. You might expect Italian restaurants, Italian signs, and Italian architecture, but that’s not what happens. It still looks like the Austrian Tyrol with a few Italian names and the German language is very present.

Keep driving, because here it comes: spread out before you, a beautiful aquamarine-blue reservoir nestled between the Alpine peaks and spreading some four miles into the southern horizon. It takes your breath away. You pass the first town and quickly come upon the next one called Graun / Curon Venosta. And then there it is. Off to the right, some 50 feet from the lakeshore, is a fully intact medieval church tower rising straight out of the water. The valley beneath the lake is the setting of my Reschen Valley series.

It took me almost five years and a lot of German improvement to figure out what the heck happened. The deeper into the history I went, the more mysterious and thrilling the story became, especially in regard to how the reservoir was built.

I was making two or three trips a year there, spending a lot of time in the province and getting to know two cultures: the Austrian Tyrolean one and the northern Italian one. By the time I visited the Reschen Lake reservoir for the tenth time, a whole slew of characters had risen above its surface: a young farmer woman, a sassy innkeeper, an Italian engineer, a German carpenter, a dog. A Fascist colonel. They clambered into my Nissan Micra and never let go.

The real history reads like a thriller. There was an awful lot of planning, and this was years before the European conflict broke out. The risorgimento was a nationalist movement and their belief was that Italy’s borders had been pre-destined by Dante. The nationalists were delighted when England, France and Russia came with a proposal in 1915, the secret Treaty of London, proposing: “Please help us to win the war.”
“Sure,” the Italian nationalists said, “and when we win, we get these territories, especially that Brenner Pass line.”
After WWI, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was completely perplexed by the Italy’s claim to territories inhabited by Slav and German-speaking citizens. It was fully against his proposed 14 points! But that’s another long and tragic story.

Q: You have four of six books completed for the series, and a couple of WW2 novels, too, when will the last two books be finished, and what’s next?

The next book in the series, Two Fatherlands is a monster of a novel but it will be published — come hell or high water — end of October or possibly delaying it to early November to mark the 100 years since South Tyrol’s annexation to Italy. Either way, I will decide in July when I’ve delivered the manuscript. I had to send the book into the corner last November and give it a break. It helped a lot. I’m back on it and in between, I wrote what I thought was just going to be a reader’s magnet, and has turned into a celebrated collection. Souvenirs from Kiev is based on my relatives’ histories during WWII in Ukraine and takes readers on a perilous journey from the Underground to the DP camps of Germany. That release has opened new doors for me!
Also while struggling with Two Fatherlands last fall, I had agreed to join a project with five other authors to put together a collection of novels for the 75th anniversary of the end of WW2. Magda’s Mark appears in the The Road to Liberation collection this May. It is based on a true story about my friend’s husband. Her father-in-law was a district SS officer in Moravia (Czechsolovakia/Sudetenland). When his son was born, the baby was returned to the mother circumcised. Now, can you imagine the repercussions?

As soon as I start asking questions about how, who, what drove them . . . I know I have something I need to write. And a new place to visit. I always travel to the settings of my books.

Q: When this current lockdown comes to an end and we are able to travel again, do you have any specific plans regarding visiting your settings?

Definitely, I will return to Litomerice again before Magda’s Mark is republished as a standalone title, and of course I’ll go to South Tyrol as soon as I can (we were supposed to stop by in June on our way south…) And I hope to return to the Carpathians of Ukraine very soon to write another WWII novel. That is going to be another juicy one. And then I will finish the last book in the Reschen Valley Series. If all goes well, I expect The Rising to release latest at the end of next year.

 

You can read my review of The Reschen Valley Series (written for Discovering Diamonds Reviews) in the Book Review section of this blog.

 

Find out more about Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger and her books on the following links:

 

 

Facebook: www.facebook.com/inktreks
Twitter: @ckalyna
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/ckalyna
Subscribe to her Newsletter: https://www.subscribepage.com/RSV
Homepage: www.inktreks.com

Reschen Valley Box Set
https://www.books2read.com/u/bppvLg
Souvenirs from Kiev
mybook.to/Souvenirs
Road to Liberation (Featuring Magda’s Mark)
books2read.com/RoadtoLiberation

© JG Harlond & Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger (April 2020)

A Place in History – Scotland

A Sense of Place

Scottish author Marie Macpherson explains how her native county of East Lothian provided the foundations for a trilogy.

 

 

 

Hailes Castle

 

The mist-covered mountains of the Scottish Highlands may have cast a spell over many romantic novelists, but my heart lies in the Central Lowlands where most of Scotland’s political struggles and bloody conflicts took place. The early 16th century during the turbulent period of the Reformation and the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, has inspired my trilogy based on the life of the Reformer, John Knox.

The rich history of my birthplace has fascinated me, not surprising perhaps, since I was brought up on a battlefield – the Battle of Pinkie fought in 1547 (we lost) – and within sight of Fa’side Castle from where Mary Stewart set off for her last confrontation as Queen of Scots at Carberry Hill (she lost). Digging in the back garden became an archaeological excavation to find buried treasure or the bones of slain soldiers. Other blood-soaked battlefields were within easy reach; Prestonpans (we won), Dunbar (we lost, twice), Athelstaneford, birthplace of the Scottish flag, the Saltire (we won). There’s hardly an inch of turf in the Lothians untrodden by a marauding army and hardly a castle or stately home that is not haunted by a ghost. This instilled in me a strong sense of the past and urged me to explore more deeply the stirring history of my native county. Writing fiction gives my imagination free rein as I attempt to conjure up what life was like for the inhabitants of those now ruined castles and deserted abbeys. Exploring the personal relationships and often hidden motivations of historical characters drive my curiosity.

My journey started off with a very small step, almost a footnote in history, The Treaty of Haddington signed in 1548 which betrothed Mary, Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin and this intrigued me. Several sources mention that this significant event took place at the abbey and for years this was assumed t to be St Mary’s Collegiate Church as there was no abbey in Haddington – except there was – or had been. Sadly, St Mary’s Cistercian Priory, a victim of the Reformation, had been erased from history and memory for centuries. Only a few stones and place names – Abbey Mill, the Abbey Bridge – recorded its existence. Yet, as I discovered, this long-lost priory had been one of the wealthiest religious houses in Britain, presided over by some very unorthodox prioresses, including Elisabeth Hepburn, the reluctant nun, who became my heroine.

Another nugget I unearthed concerned the playwright and makar, Sir David Lindsay, who wrote a scathing satire on the corrupt Roman Catholic clergy. He had been exiled to his estate at Garleton Castle, near Haddington, now a forgotten ruin set amidst farm buildings. Speculating that the fates of the poet and the prioress might be intertwined became the starting point of The First Blast of the Trumpet.

Digital StillCamera

The historic town of Haddington was also the birthplace of another religious figure, the fiery Reformer, John Knox. Because he called himself Giffordiensis, it was assumed he was born in Gifford, a village that did not exist at the time: he was more likely to have been born in Gifford Gate, Haddington.

 

 

There was also confusion about his birthdate. 1505 is inscribed on the commemorative plaque beside the oak tree planted by the great Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, whereas Knox was probably born around 1513/14. After studying at St Andrews, he returned to Haddington to serve as a Roman Catholic priest and notary. He was ‘pulled from the puddle of papistry’ by the charismatic preacher, George Wishart, who was arrested in St Mary’s Church, despite Knox standing at the foot of the pulpit bearing a two-handed sword to defend him. While Wishart was taken to St Andrews and burnt at the stake, Knox was arrested as a heretic and sentenced to toil for 19 months in the French galleys. Which fate was worse? Knox’s survival from certain death convinced him that God had intervened to save him to become His divine messenger. The First Blast of the Trumpet ends after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington when Queen Mary sails off to France in a galley, possibly rowed by the slave John Knox.

Hailes Castle sets the scene for opening of The First Blast of the Trumpet.

At midnight on a doom-laden Hallowe’en three young lasses sit round the hearth in the West Tower, gazing into the flames trying to divine their future. From this fortress perched high on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the River Tyne, accessible only by a narrow farm track, the powerful Hepburn family, the Earls of Bothwell, controlled the lands of East Lothian. Though now a ruin, this hidden gem retains many features still recognisable enough to fire the novelist’s imagination. In the Great Hall, the earls would host grand banquets prepared in the vaulted kitchen underneath where scullions would turn spits over huge fires; children would scamper up and down the turnpike staircases of the three towers, and prisoners would languish in the two pit prisons or oubliettes – one of which is said to have contained George Wishart after his arrest. What must it have been like to have been lowered down into a pit and left in complete darkness on a freezing winter’s night?

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, brought Mary, Queen of Scots to Hailes at least twice – if not three times. Firstly, when he abducted her after the murder of her husband Darnley, secondly on their way to Edinburgh to be married and possibly a third time before the stand-off at Carberry Hill where she surrendered to the Confederate lords and he fled into exile.

No self-respecting Scottish castle is without a ghost and Hailes is said to have at least two. The spirit of a man who starved to death in the pit prison because he had fallen in love with the laird’s wife, and a White Lady, said to be Mary, Queen of Scots, reputedly haunt the castle. Although local people claim to have sighted these spirits, I’ve still to experience any ghostly presence. However, wandering about the jagged ruins does send shivers up my spine. If only those stone walls could talk.

The Second Blast of the Trumpet follows the release of Knox into exile, firstly in England and then to Calvin’s Geneva, Frankfurt and Dieppe. Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Prioress Elisabeth Hepburn stands by the Regent, Queen Marie de Guise, in her struggle to hold the throne for her daughter against the oncoming tide of Reformation, led by the Protestant Lords of the Congregation. As they travel round the various royal residences, I try to give a flavour of what life was like in a Renaissance palace such as Falkland or Holyrood, or a fortified castle like Stirling or Edinburgh (none of which were a rocky grotto or bat cave as portrayed in the recent film!).

I’m working on the third part of the trilogy, The Last Blast of the Trumpet, which takes place mainly in Edinburgh where I lived for a time as a student and which has a special place in my heart. The medieval Old Town of Auld Reekie, a labyrinth of cobbled streets, narrow wynds and hidden courtyards, is amazingly well preserved and positively reeks of history, although the steaming midden heaps have long gone. John Knox House, where the reformer lived for a short time before his death, retains many medieval features. The dark oak panelling and painted ceilings make it particularly atmospheric, transporting me back in time to see Knox at his desk writing his fire-breathing sermons to be thundered from the pulpit in St Giles’ Kirk. Every stone and cobble from Edinburgh Castle down the spine of the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace has witnessed conflict and chaos, corruption and cruelty through the centuries. I consider myself very fortunate to have all this history on my doorstep to inspire me as I strive to breathe life into Scotland’s rich past.

About Marie Macpherson

Marie Macpherson hails from from the historic town of Musselburgh, six miles from the Scottish capital Edinburgh, but left the Honest Toun to study Russian at Strathclyde University. She spent a year in the former Soviet Union to research her PhD thesis on the 19th century Russian writer, Mikhail Lermontov, said to be descended from the poet and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.

 

After a career teaching languages and literature from Moscow to Madrid, she has found her niche in writing historical fiction which combines her academic’s love of research with a passion for storytelling.

The First Blast of the Trumpet and The Second Blast of the Trumpet are published by Penmore Press. She’s currently working on the third part of the trilogy, The Last Blast of the Trumpet.

Connect with Marie on:

Penmore Press Page: https://www.penmorepress.com/penmore_authors_/marie-macpherson.html

https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B007WAY5NE?_encoding=UTF8&redirectedFromKindleDbs=true&ref_=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1&rfkd=1&shoppingPortalEnabled=true

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5404227.Marie_Macpherson

WordPress: https://mariemacpherson.wordpress.com/about/

Twitter: @MGMacpherson

Facebook author page: Marie Macpherson

https://www.facebook.com/marie.macpherson.96

Watch the mini-documentary on YouTube:
John Knox and the Birth of the Scottish Reformation:  http://youtu.be/40PV0rll6dw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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/

 

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