Sunday, 13 August 2017

Mary Arden - Shakespeare's Mother

Mary Arden – a Tudor woman.

Mary Arden's son William
This is the story of a peasant’s daughter who rose to wealth and status, who buried three of her children and lived through four changes of her country’s religion, who survived the plague and gave birth to one of the world’s best known playwrights and poets. This is the story of Mary Arden, William Shakespeare’s mother.

Mary Arden was born into a time of change and turmoil, a time of radical transformation in both history and society. It was a time of war and violence, of class conflict and the tumult of the reformation overturning a thousand years of religious history and English Christianity in just twenty years.
What could it have been like to live through those times for any one, let alone a woman?

Mary Arden was one of eight daughters born to an old farming family in the heart of Warwickshire but Mary married out of life on the land for the challenges of the new world of the Tudor middle class.

Her children would become haberdashers and glovers, two even made names for themselves in the entertainment industry in London! and so Mary Arden’s own story can be likened to a mirror reflecting the changing times of the Tudor era.
Tudor England was a small country with only two and a half million people, ninety percent of whom worked on the land. Life expectancy was just 38! and a third of all children died before their tenth birthday. Mary’s father farmed in Wilmcote, just outside Stratford on Avon in the parish of Aston Cantlow.

The Farm

The Forest of Arden is still a name on the map and it was this place that gave Mary’s family her name. Although Mary’s father Robert was just a husbandman - a well to do peasant - her family could be traced back to before the Norman Conquest. Robert was born around 1480 effectively making him a man from the old world, whose daughters and descendants would welcome the new. Robert built his house in Wilmcote in 1515 and amazingly, under the skin of modernity, it is still surprisingly intact. Originally it was a traditional farming house, open to the ceiling, but the need for space, necessitated it being divided into an up and down stairs.

Mary Arden's House

 Robert and Mary’s mother, whose name is lost to history, were married in 1517 or 18 and the children started to appear very soon. Mary was the youngest of eight children: Agnes, Joan, Katherine, Margaret, Joyce, Elizabeth, Alice and then Mary, in about 1535 (some sources say as late as 1537) and was baptised in Aston Cantlow.  Although religiously it was a country in flux, England was still a Catholic country then and Mary could have been named after the Virgin Mary. The West Midlands is and was a deeply conservative area and religious change came slower there than to many places but after 1540 all this changed. In Aston Cantlow, the local guild was stripped of its silver plate and land. When the monasteries were dissolved all treasures and artefacts were confiscated to raise revenue for the king and realm. The change was also secular as the dissolution flooded the country with land and money, allowing the rise of a new middle class.

By a huge stroke of fortune a list of contents of Mary’s family house in Wilmcote survived, giving us a picture of her life at home. Animals, crops, 8 oxen, 2 bullocks, 7 cows, feather beds and mattresses, cushions, eleven painted cloths for the walls, miscellaneous chattels, total valuation £77 11 10
Mary grew up, as all girls did, multi skilling and was taught to do  essential tasks around the house hold, looking after children, cattle, swine, hens and sheep, then baking, brewing, making cheese, malting and all aspect of housekeeping.  Women and girls were also required to do harder labour, like helping with shearing, ploughing, gathering and threshing corn.
At meals, Mary and her sisters would sit on benches/forms as chairs were a sign of status. Robert, however, had three - one for him, one for his wife and one for an honoured guest. Her aesthetic sense would have been stimulated by the murals in the church, depicting religious scenes and almost three-d representations of ‘what would happen if you were bad’. These were whitewashed over when she was in her twenties, but revealed, still bright, in 1804. A favourite mural was also a pageant often enacted by the guilds at Stratford and that was St George and the Dragon and most people saw this at least once in their lifetime. In 1517 Robert joined the guild.
In 1547 King Henry VIII died and was followed by his pious but cold hearted son, Edward VI, who was surrounded by Protestant fundamentalists who would change the world forever. It was the beginning of the 'commotion time'. When Mary was in her teens, Mass was abolished and all the old rites and festivities were abolished.  The Ardens remained quietly loyal to the old faith. When Mary was about 12, Mary’s mother died and Robert remarried a younger widow, Agnes Hill, who brought he own brood of four children to live at Wilmcote. Joyce and Alice and Mary were still living at home . Living space was cramped and tensions ran high, so Robert drew up 'leases' to ensure his own daughters to ensure if he died they would still inherit.

In 1553, when Mary was about 18, Edward suddenly died and Mary Tudor came to the throne; she was a Catholic who was determined to turn the clock back!

In 1556 Mary’s father fell ill with what may be a fatal flu. He assembles his will. He invokes Virgin Mary and leaves his wordly good, surprisingly provides Mary with land and money - £6 13 4 ( a bit more than a skilled carpenter would earn in a year – roughly equating to £30,000 today.) Even more surprisingly  as she is the youngest, she is named as one of his executors, together with Alice, showing respect and trust and by implication, an acknowledgement that Mary is intelligent and honest. 

Amongst other items showing his generous and thoughtful nature, he leaves 4d to everyone in Aston Cantlow  who didn’t have a team of oxen

As legal executrix  she almost certainly had basic reading skills, but could she write? On later legal documents  she makes her signature with a beautiful calligraphy M. Her wax  seal has her personal emblem , a horse (some say a running horse.) The evidence suggests that she may have known how to write.  She would have been an attractive marriage proposition. There may have been a match already in mind with the son of one of her father’s tenants, John Shakespeare. John had moved from Snitterfield to Stratford  in the early 50s. He had done a 7 year  apprenticeship with a master glover Tom Dixon. He was a young man with prospects and would be an ideal catch. In Oct 1556 he buys 2 freehold properties in town.

Within weeks of his purchase he married Mary Arden in 1557. He was in his late 20s, she was about 22. Stratford then was a small market town with maybe 1200 people and a growing middle class serviced by tailors, and hatters and glovers. 'Home' at that point was just beginning to be a venue for social display and ambition... (i.e. beginning the keep up with the Joneses)  and he needed house to fit status.
They presumably wanted to start a family, but sadly Mary’s first two children died - little Joan aged just 2 months  and Margaret aged 1.

It may have been a comfort, who can tell how she would feel after the death of her babies? but at least her husband was doing well. His freehold in Henley Street entitled him join the corporation. Corporations had replaced the guilds in 1547 and they ran the town. His civic duties ranged from constable to ale taster and charity hand out to the poor. He was a man of credit. Someone they could trust.

In 1558 Mary Tudor died and Elizabeth came to throne, but she was Church of England and so the fourth change of religion in 20 years began. Soon there were risings against her religious policies and the government responded by removing all trappings of Catholicism. In 1563 Stratford council had to do the government bidding and in winter 2/- was paid for defacing images in the chapel so no memory of them remained and the chamberlain, John Shakespeare had to sign off the job.

In April 1564 William was born. On 28th May, Mary was purified at church, but when he was 3 months old the plague came to Stratford. Soon the town was living in fear. At the end of August the corporation held their meeting in the open air, but by then the situation was desperate.  With baby William it was best to get out if she could and Mary rode out to her sister in Wilmcote, 5 miles away where there were no deaths. Luckily William and his parents survived.  

After William, other babies born  and remained healthy; Joan, Anne, Gilbert and Richard and Mary spent time teaching them their ABC and reading prior to them going to school and telling them stories. Years later William would remember  tales of their legendry ancestor, Guy of Warwick. There is also a strong possibility that William would have seen the mystery plays that were still held.

John continued his rise in the council and in 1568 he was elected as mayor, making Mary was the wife of Alderman and High Bailiff, Mr. John Shakespeare.

Now they set out to use John’s position to make real money, investing in wool. It was the mainstay of the economy and was government controlled to prevent illegal dealers undercutting the market – and that is just what John was doing.

John’s web of contacts spread from the Cotswolds to Nottingham and down to Wiltshire. Mary would have dealt with business contacts in an informal capacity. It worked because of trust. But trust was a big issue in Elizabethan England and Elizabeth’s network of spies recorded John’s activities in the Exchequer Memoranda Roll 1572. A government informer, James Langrake, informed on John. This was not the first  time that  Langrake informed on John. The first time he informed about his illegal money lending and then in 1571 he reported him for a wool scam to the value of £210. When you  bear in mind that a waged labourer earned maybe £10 per annum and a house could be bought for £30, it shows just what an enormous sum of money is involved. This time John was able to pay off the informaer and got off with it.

Meanwhile as an alderman John was able to send his son to the Grammar school, the gateway of to university. In late 1570s the government suddenly turned on the illegal wool dealers with the whole force of the law and John’s whole informal network collapsed. Suddenly he had a network of debt everywhere with no network of income!

As the financial difficulties piled up, in 1570 their 7 yr old Anne died. The corporation book has an insight into the tragedy: 'for the bell and pall for Mr Shakespeare’s daughter for her funeral, 8d (pence)'.

Desperate to save money William was taken out of school to help John, losing him the opportunity of University.

Soon they were trying to raise money any way they could. They borrowed from friends and neighbours, inlaws and relatives. Then they start selling off land, including Mary’s 30 or 40 acre and cottage inheritance. John even divided the house up and leased half of it to neighbours who open a pub! Using the house called Asbie’s as security Mary raises £40 from her brother in law, but could not pay it back regrettably she had to forfeit the property.
Four months after Anne’s death she got pregnant again  and although by then in her mid forties, gave birth to Edmund. A couple of years later the teenage William got a 26 year old girl, Anne Hathaway, pregnant first with a daughter and then twins. The family was then squeezed into a third of their old house with William’s new wife and four new children to feed.
Worse was to follow 1583 the government discovered a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, the instigator being Edward Arden, a relative of Mary. Edward was head of the most important Catholic family in Warwickshire and after his arrest was put into the chamber called ‘The little Ease’ where you could neither stand up nor lie down and then all the men were tortured on the rack and condemned to death.

Around Stratford the secret police interrogated suspected Catholics and as Mary was an Arden and married to an ex mayor her household was almost certainly one of them. In 1586, having been protected by his fellow councillors for 10 years, John was struck off for non attendance. Mary’s family was now ruined

But there is a twist to the plot. William went to London to try to make it in the theatre. How he did it, we do not know, but in autumn, 1592 a famous metropolitan critic Robert Green poured scorn on the country boy taking the stage by storm. There is no such thing as bad publicity and suddenly William had made it and his box office earnings restored the family fortunes. In 1596 he bought a coat of arms for his father to make him a gentlemen, with (of course) a few rewrites of history, saying of Mary that she had been the daughter and heiress of Robert Arden Esq. and gentleman.
The family could hold their heads high again. William bought the big house near the chapel and John and Mary lived out their days in Henley street with their daughter Joan and her children. Mary had lived from Henry VIIIs reign, through Edward’s, Mary’s, Lady Jane Gray’s, Elizabeth’s and on into James’. She had known grief and disappointment but had held her family together during the commotion time. John died in 1601

John's death recorded in the Parish record

and Mary followed him in 1608, in her early 70s and was buried in the churchyard in Stratford.
Shortly after her death William finally published poems he had worked on for most of his life. The poems are imbued with a sense of the destructive power of time and the redeeming power of love. It is tempting to think that it was his mother who taught him how to feel the emotions contained within.
This biography of Mary Arden was written from copious notes taken whilst watching a fascinating documentary about Mary Arden, presented by Michael Wood.

Photographs from: 

© Diana Milne August 2017

Saturday, 12 August 2017

A blast from the past! Looking back to the first ever *Diana talks...!* Diana talks to Liz Harris.

Last year I was fortunate enough to attend HNS16 at Oxford. This is the conference for the Historical Novel Society and it was a wonderful experience.

Although she was constantly busy and often going in the opposite direction, I  managed to catch up with author Liz Harris whilst we were stuffing 'goody bags' for the delegates and I asked her a few questions.

I tried to make the questions unusual!

 If your latest book, THE LOST GIRL, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?

The two main characters are Joe Walker, who, when seven years old, found a new-born baby lying beside her dead Chinese mother at the edge of a mining town in SW Wyoming, and Charity, the name given to the Chinese baby, whom Joe persuaded his reluctant family to take in.
As an adult, Joe would be lean and attractive, with warmth in his eyes, and I can easily see Robert Pattinson, made famous in the Twilight series of films, as Joe.

(Note from Diana: Hmmm. Maybe I had better have another look. 

And another!)

Charity must look 100% Chinese, and the Chinese actress, Liu Yifei, would be very good as the adult Charity.  Liu Yifei is not yet particularly well known in the UK, but she would be after she’d played Charity!

Liu Yifei

If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!)  you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?

Of the six novels I’ve had published, four are historical and two contemporary.  I’ve loved writing in both of those genres, but your question has made me wonder if there’s another I’d also like.  I’d only want to write in a genre that I read and enjoy, and as I don’t really like science fiction or fantasy and paranormal, I’d avoid those.

However, I love crime novels and am an avid reader, and I’ve suddenly realised that I’d enjoy writing a crime novel.  This hadn’t occurred to me before, but now you’ve got me thinking.  I don’t have a plotline in mind at the moment, this being a new idea, but I’ve a feeling that I’ll be working on one from now on.  Watch this space!

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??

I prefer to write in total silence – I never listen to music. My musical preference, classical music, would fill my mind and make me soar on the back of its wonderful emotion, and I fear I’d leave my written words behind.  Generally, it’s better when author and words are united!

Having said that about silence, I can work very well in a cafĂ©.  This isn’t as contradictory as it sounds: I can block out all sound around me and hear only my characters’ voices, see only their setting, and lose myself in the conflict that faces them, so it’s as if I am alone. 

But sitting by myself in my study, in total silence, is my ideal working condition.

What is the worse book you have ever read? What made it unreadable for you?

May I slightly qualify the question and replace ‘worst book’ with ‘the book you’ve least enjoyed’?  Worst is subjective, and I’m aware that someone, particularly if the novel was published in the days before self-publishing, must have thought the novel worth publishing for it to have appeared in print.  This doesn’t mean that it’s to my taste, though.

I’ve picked a novel that I tried to read long before I started writing myself, but found totally unreadable - Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce.

This took a mind-boggling 17 years to write, finally being published in 1939, and was James Joyce's final work. It’s written in an experimental, idiosyncratic language, with large passages of stream of consciousness, which was, to me, incomprehensible.

I think reading a novel should be an enjoyable experience, one in which the reader can easily lose him/herself in the world created by the novelist, not something which demonstrates the author’s erudition, but of which the meaning is a struggle to grasp.

Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

To be an actress.  My mother was an actress, and from her I’ve inherited a love of the theatre and cinema. Before I had a family, I did a lot of amateur dramatics, which I enjoyed enormously.  Whenever I’m writing a book, I see the scene I’m depicting, and when I plan a chapter, I always think, as you’ll just have noticed, in scenes.

Coffee or tea? Red or white?

It depends upon the time of day.  After breakfast, it’s time for a mug of tea, and also late in the afternoon. In between that, I have coffee just about every hour on the hour.  That’s not as unhealthy as it sounds as I drink it quite weak!

For lunch, I’d probably choose white wine, but I’d always have red in the evening.

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

I automatically use Times New Roman, size 12, for books, messages and everything else.  I got into the habit of writing in this font and size when I found that it was the preference of most publishers.  It now feels strange to use any other font and size.

You’ll see, however, that I’m not such a die-hard conservative that I can’t cope with a different font - I resisted the instinctive urge to change the font in which your questions were printed, and I stayed with your choice! 

(Note from Diana: Thank you!!)

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

I’m lucky in that a large number of the Wyoming newspapers from the 1800s are online, and I’ve been able to read them.  There’s nothing I’ve felt that I needed to read, but been unable to access.  When I struggled to find the minutiae of the life of a second generation homesteader in the 1870s and 1880s, I solved the problem by going to Wyoming myself and interviewing the people who could help me.

Historical fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?

I write novels set in a historical period, with an authentic historical and geographical background, but my characters are fictional.  I have never yet included a ‘real’ character, and I think I’m unlikely to do so (I’d never say never!). 

Generally, I prefer to read books where all the characters are fictional, but I must confess to loving the novels of Georgette Heyer, which occasionally feature real characters, although they’re not usually central to the story line.

If I did include ‘real’ characters, I’d remain true to the known facts of their lives.  If those facts were inconvenient, I’d work around them, but I wouldn’t alter them.  I can’t see them spoiling the plot because I’d have plotted so as to incorporate what is known about their lives, and I’d have used those facts to enhance the story.

Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?

No, I can’t see myself doing this.  When writing something historical, I think we should get the history right.  I prefer to make the story fit the facts, rather than jiggle with facts in order to make them fit a preconceived story.  As I research the history for my novel, I develop the story line(s) – these grow out of what I find.  For example, when researching the background to The Lost Girl, the moment I read about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, I knew I had a story line.

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this, probably because my characters are fictional creations. The only blurring is between what is real and what is unreal: my characters, as I grow to know them, become real people to me.

When I went to Wyoming to research A Bargain Struck, the first of my three novels set in Wyoming Territory in the 1880s, I followed the 100 mile route from Rawlins to Baggs that my character, Ellen, took in a stagecoach.  I stepped out of my air-conditioned car at the very spot where Ellen stepped out of the stagecoach.  I’m breathing the air Ellen breathed, I thought, and I’m standing on the actual ground where she stood.  And I burst into tears.  Re-living Ellen’s route, albeit in a slightly more comfortable manner, was highly emotional because Ellen was so real to me.

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?

I’m always interested in them, and care about them, and enjoy reading what they do, whether it’s something good or bad, but I can’t say that I’ve ever hated them or fallen in love with them. Because I give the ‘hero’ characteristics I admire, if I met him in real life, maybe. As for the ‘bad guy’, I try to make him at least two-dimensional so, although I dislike what he does, I understand and pity him, rather than hate him.

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

I read every kind of book, except for science fiction (although I have read and enjoyed John Wyndham) and fantasy (although I loved Dracula, by Bram Stoker).  I have just finished the Booker Prize Winner, The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, and loved that, and before that I read and really enjoyed a crime novel by Jane Casey.  I’m an eclectic reader, in other words, and always have been, but my all-time favourite author will always be Jane Austen.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book, THE LOST GIRL?

Nothing alcoholic!  When I happened upon the history behind The Lost Girl, I was appalled by the treatment of the Chinese by the Americans, although I understood how it came about.  By knowing what happened in the past, we are, hopefully, less likely to repeat those same mistakes in the present.  Alcohol (very pleasantly) dulls the senses, and I want the reader to be alert at all times as to how the tensions of the period, similar to those today, impacted on the lives of Joe, his family and Charity.

Last but not least... favourite historical author?
As a teenager, I read every single novel by W. Harrison Ainsworth, to whose works my mother introduced me.  I loved them all. My interest in history began with him.
To come to a more recent favourite historical author, on the top of the pile of books I want to read is At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier.  I absolutely loved The Last Runaway and I can’t wait to read this, her latest novel.
Thank you very much for interviewing me, Diana.  These were interesting questions, and I’ve enjoyed answering them.  I’m now going away to think about a plot for a crime novel!

Liz's wonderful study. Who would not dream of working here?

 Thank you very much, Liz, for the care and thought you put into the answers and the time spent away from the conference. I really appreciate it as will our readers.

About Liz:
After graduating in Law in the UK, Liz moved to California where she led a very varied life - from cocktail waitressing on Sunset Strip to CEO of a large Japanese trading company. Upon returning to England, she completed a degree in English and then taught for a number of years before developing her writing career.

She is published by Choc Lit. Her debut novel, THE ROAD BACK, was voted Book of the Year 2012 by US Coffee Time & Romance, and in the same year, EVIE UNDERCOVER was published, first on kindle, and recently in paperback.

A BARGAIN STRUCK, published in September 2013, was shortlisted for the RoNA for Best Romantic Historical, and later in the year, THE ART OF DECEPTION, a contemporary novel set in Italy, was published digitally.

A WESTERN HEART, a novella set in Wyoming 1880, was published digitally in spring 2014. THE LOST GIRL, her most recent full-length novel, was brought out in 2015.

Liz has a story in each of Choc Lit's anthologies: ANGEL CAKE in Choc Lit Love Match, and CUPCAKE in Kisses & Cupcakes. Each anthology is a collection of short stories by Choc Lit authors, with a recipe accompanying each story.

© Diana Milne July 2016

© Liz Harris September 2016

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Rob Reviews - The Scathing (King's Bane Book 3) by CR May

Today Rob reviews The Scathing (Kings Bane Book 3) by C R May, a brilliant story set during the genesis of England. The author is kindly offering a paperback copy for the giveaway. To enter and be in with a chance of winning this excellent book simply comment below or leave a comment on our facebook page. A name will be drawn from the horned helmet of destiny on the 15th August, may your wyrd guide you true!

“That’s all that we can ask of the gods, lord. To give us an ending worthy of a man when the old girls hover over our life thread with their shears.”

Norns - weavers of men's fates - deviantArt (lucreciamortishia)

If you’ve read the previous two books in this excellent King’s Bane series, you’ll now know that Eofer Wonreding has been instrumental in convincing King Eomer Engeltheowing that the future of the English lies not in old Engeln but in the new lands of Anglia in the old Roman province of Britannia. This is where we catch up with the King’s Bane. He and his hearth troop are part of the king’s consolidation of the English settlement, now that  old Engeln has been abandoned in favour of this new land of opportunity. The King’s son, Icel, has a plan to expand into what will become the English Midlands as shown in the rather wonderful map, which, as ever in the King's Bane series, is quite a work of art in itself.

Scathing map by Simon Walpole - reproduced by kind permission of the author.

This is a frontier world, contested between the Welsh kingdoms of Powys, under their king Cynlas Goch, in the west, the kingdom of the peaks to the north ruled by Sawyl Penuchel, and the Anglo-Welsh Lindisware to the north west. Powys is eager to expand its power and territory at the expense of English settlers and the Kingdom of the Peaks. The long established Lindisware should be a natural ally to the English, but harbours doubts over the ability of the English to weather the approaching storm from Powys and fears retaliation, should they openly declare for Anglia.

To the south are Saxons, newly arrived Germanic immigrants like the English. Although they have a shared culture and tongue they have always been rivals and the Saxons are keen to keep on good terms with Powys, offering their services as Mercenaries as the Germanic newcomers have done since Roman times.

Angles - Angus McBride

Recent studies and genetic mapping seems to indicate that there was far more of a racial fusion between the Germanic incomers and the native British than the previously supposed ethnic cleansing. Indeed this is borne out in many English place names that carry show both Brythonic and Germanic roots. The Scathing mirrors this; this isn’t a case of Welsh versus English, the reality is far more fluid and complex than that. This is a world where a warlord (whether he be Briton or Angle) can carve out a kingdom and perhaps found a dynasty.
As a stand alone book this novel offers superb characterisation and in its creation of the dark age world. As book three of the series, it builds upon all that has gone before, as we see the birth of Mercia, what will become the English heartland. Eofer, his hearth troop, and his British allies under Ioan the rustler, will be instrumental in bringing this new kingdom into the world. Robbed of their snacca (ships) by geography, Eofer and his duguth take to horseback to mount weakening raids and reconnoitre deep into disputed territory, while Icel gathers his forces for the decisive clash of arms that must surely fall between him and Cynlas. In the midst of his campaign Eofer receives word from his brother-in-law, Heardred, king of the Geats, requesting help. Adventure overseas beckons but first he must serve his lord, Icel.
As ever the author gently introduces Anglo-Saxon terms into the story, words whose meaning quickly becomes known to the reader. The result is that the reader becomes utterly immersed in this honourable, yet savage, world, where fickle gods are all too real and omens can’t be easily ignored. Now that we are in Britain of course, Mr May introduces a Welsh Brythonic element into the mix.

The result is an absolute treat and a joy to read. We meet the historical figure of Gildas along the way, the British priest famous for his accounts of the time and his dislike of the invader. It just might be that we discover the reason for his animosity within these pages! The wind-ups and drunken banter between warriors is very amusing, proving as ever that people don’t really change. I don’t think I’ll think of beer as just beer ever again, after enjoying Mr May's prose!

The ale was weaving its spell. Soon the father of the gods would enter their minds and the giddinesss would be upon them. Rank and seniority would be forgotten, and Eofer would discover the true feelings of his men.

To my mind The Scathing must surely cement Mr May’s reputation as one of the premier authors of this fascinating period of history. His skill in bringing this time period to life is second to none, being easily on a par, if not arguably superior, to some of his better known contemporaries. Within these pages  you sense the exhilaration and fear of the shield wall, see the world through the claustrophobic eyeholes of the warrior’s grimhelm, smell the metallic tang of spilled blood and taste the thirst quenching ale enjoyed by the victors. In actual fact I would go further; such is the author's skill that when you read this, you begin to think of the world like one of his protagonists; was there meaning in that crow's call? Was there meaning in that distant rumble of thunder?

Sutton Hoo helmet

All too soon Snarly Yowl - Blaecce Shucca - heralds change and brings the tale to its end as threads are cut by the Norns, the old girls overlooking men’s fates. Be warned, unlike some authors, Mr May is fearless and unpredictable in this regard. Yet threads remain in the warp and weft of this series with which to weave another tale; this reader waits expectantly. Brilliant work Mr May!

Black Shuck - Arkanimalcentre

C.R. May was born in Bow, East London before his family moved to South Ockendon, Essex. After hearing that Ockendon translated as Wocca's Hill in Saxon, a lifelong passion in history was kindled, which has taken him from Berlin to the site of the battle of Little Big Horn (via Erik the Red's Icelandic hall!). The influx of Germanic adventurers was recorded in the place names around him and, inspired one day, he decided to weave his own stories into this history. You can read and discover more information at his blog and the author may be found at Facebook

Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his own fantasy series. Information on his writing projects can be found at Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Diana talks to Derek Birks

Hi Derek, thank you for joining me. I am sure that you are tired of being asked the usual questions that would-be interviewers ask authors, so hopefully this interview is an interview with a difference and I have come up with some unusual questions!
First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!
Well, I’d like someone to ask me what sort of historical fiction I set out to write because I did have some specific ideas in mind.
The answer would be that I wanted to write: ‘historical fiction, Jim, but not as we know it.’[Star Trek reference]
It had to have loads of non-stop action, several young main protagonists - both male and female. It would aim to keep the reader guessing what would happen next and almost no character would be safe from oblivion.
If your latest book, Scars From the Past, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
I was asked this question once about my first book, Feud, and I still think that a young Sean Bean would have been an excellent Ned Elder. For Scars, I think his son, John Elder, who is a more brooding individual, might be played by a younger Tom Hardy. And his rather woman-friendly cousin, Will, by Santiago Cabrera, who played Aramis in the Musketeers.
What made you choose this genre?
I chose historical fiction for 2 reasons:
Firstly, I’ve always enjoyed reading it, so it’s very familiar to me. More importantly, my background is in history – some would say I’m still living in the past…
My degree was in history and I taught the subject for 35 years. So, in terms of writing what you know, it was a no-brainer.
How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
Ideas for plots? God knows! People often ask but it’s not easy to explain. Ideas just sort of creep into my head – usually when I’m not trying to think of plot ideas!
Characters are, I think, rather more deliberately conceived at the start. But even then, some characters just appear, fully fledged at a random point in the writing process. I quite like that.
If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!) you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
I’ve considered writing fantasy before or perhaps a thriller. It would be quite liberating to write either, because historical fiction does have quite strict parameters. The research might be a little less complicated too.
Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
When I was about 17 or 18, I started writing. I always had creative ideas for stories, but I was also into writing music too. Let’s face it when you’re 18 you don’t know what you’re going to do next, do you?
Anyway, I wrote about 100 pages – longhand, no computers back then! I suppose it was a sort of dystopian thriller - though not very thrilling… Let’s be honest, it was rubbish and I thought: I just don’t know enough about people to write a good story.
So I went to university and then I developed a theatrical bent - which can be painful, you know! ((Giggle.)) Once I started teaching, I didn’t have much time to write. Much, much later on, I felt the need to discover whether I really could write. So I took early retirement and gave it a try.
Marmite? Love it or hate it?
Marmite? Absolutely loathe the stuff! It should definitely be listed as a dangerous substance.
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
Well, I do tend to follow a routine. I write in the mornings mostly, with frequent injections of coffee – I mean, not literally injections… I generally drink my coffee from my Most Brilliant Dad in the World mug… jury’s still out on that one…
I often write to a soundtrack of music and frequently add new tracks to the list, so there’s well over a hundred now.
I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
No question, when I’m writing, I’m not really bothered about much else. Unless it’s an emergency, my family know not to disturb me –though, of course, my wife and daughter haven’t really bought into that convention…
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
I think international playboy sounds good, or beach bum – or film director – but being a writer is pretty great!
Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Coffee – I don’t drink tea at all.
And red, always. White wine makes me sneeze…
Red wine is a genuine enhancement to life.
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I plan a framework for the story at the start, but much of what I write is quite spontaneous. I also make big changes as I go along, especially in terms of how characters develop. This helps to impart a certain unpredictability to the story.
If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
Fonts? They’re a bit of a mystery to me – I mean serifs, what are they for anyway? I think my books are printed in Garamond, unless that’s an island in the Pacific…
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
Virtually anything in the fifteenth century! It’s almost as if they all got together and said: right, what will folk want to know in the future? OK. Let’s destroy all the records about those things – that’ll fool the buggers!
Seriously though, I want Richard of Gloucester’s ‘to-do list’ in 1483. ((Yes!!))
Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
It might be easier to say when my characters don’t shock me! They’re always going ‘off piste’. I’ve tried a few coping strategies, but by far the best one is to kill them off! ((Brutal!))
How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
I do an enormous amount of research: with documents, secondary sources and online, but also with site visits. I’ve dragged my longsuffering wife around many, many historical sites. Mostly, there’s something of interest there but on one occasion we visited a hill outside Tewkesbury where there was nothing at all. I stood surveying the bare landscape and said: do you think I should put the castle over here or over there?
But site visits are essential for me.
Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
Real characters? No I don’t want to kill any of them off. I think the challenge is to weave your story around them. To do that, I feel I need to understand them as much as any historian does.
Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
I never stray from the known facts because the accuracy of the history is so important to me.
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
Yes, the lines can get blurred because, inevitably, I am making things up. Edward IV never interacted with any of my fictional characters, so when, in my books, he does meet Ned Elder, I’m writing fiction. However much I use my knowledge of Edward IV, the motives and attitudes I attribute to him must also be fictional. So yes, it can get very blurred.
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
Hated, no, but I have been in love with one of my characters from the start. Readers will not be surprised to discover that it’s Eleanor Elder. She just rocks – and continues to rock! I don’t think I’m alone in this either…
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I generally read historical fiction and thrillers with the odd crime or fantasy.
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
I would always recommend red wine for any occasion, but there might be a few times when a stiff whisky, or gin and tonic, would be helpful…
Last but not least... favourite author?
Living, would be Bernard Cornwell.
Dead, would be Alexandre Dumas.
These two between them have inspired me a lot.

The handsome and charming Derek Birks.

An unwelcome legacy. An impossible love. A relentless enemy.

By 1481, England has been free from civil war for ten years.
The Elder family have found a fragile peace after their part in the bloody struggle for the throne, yet the scars remain with them all. And close to home, in Ludlow, trouble is stirring once more.

Born out of the carnage of the Wars of the Roses, young John Elder is now the heir to his father’s legacy, but he finds it a poisonous one. After a brutal fight with an outlaw, John abandons his home and inheritance to become a mercenary in Flanders. But, in his absence, the Elder family must face his ruthless outlaw enemy alone.

When the young Edward, Prince of Wales, is caught up in their bitter struggle, the life of the heir to the throne hangs in the balance. To save the prince, all other lives must be put at risk, but will John Elder return in time to help?

Only if the Elders can leave the scars of the past behind them, is there any hope of survival.
Sharon's review of this brilliant book can be found here. Please note that the competition is now closed.

© Diana Milne January 2017 © Derek Birks 2017