What is a comma splice

Comma Splice

… and how have I remained in happy ignorance

of them for all these years? I’m sure Miss Redford never mentioned splicing when she was teaching us how to parse sentences in P6. But then the memory fades – I’ve just had to look up how to parse a sentence. And Miss Redford would certainly have never countenanced beginning a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’.

And there’s another thing the dash – well that’s what I always knew it as, but it would appear that we have an abundance of dashes and using the wrong one in the wrong way brings down the punctuation police. I understand, I really do. If you know your grammar it must be annoying to see lazy, arbitrary slap-dashing (and get in the way of the story, which is certainly not what a writer wants). Actually overusing brackets gets in the reader’s way too, must remember that! And the horrible overuse of exclamation marks these days has spoilt it for when they are appropriate.

Where was I …

So to clarify on the dash … there are three types (she writes using an ellipsis – I never knew that dot, dot, dot were called an ellipsis until recently, and I think I prefer saying dot, dot dot anyway) oops brackets again. And I’ve only just discovered that ellipsis have a specific use and should not be scattered arbitrarily and liberally like confetti throughout my books … yet another bad, and wrong, habit to correct.

Back to the dash – so we have:

The hyphen – the wee shortie
The en dash – little bit longer
The em dash — the stretchy one

But it’s easy really. The em dash is described by some as an Americanism so this British writer can discard it, the hyphen is for linking two words together and the en dash is for any other dashing required. See I can do grammar.

Now back to the comma splice, I don’t fully understand it.

And the sentence above is an example of a comma splice which happens, I am reliably advised, when two independent clauses are joined together by the incorrect application of a comma. One solution is to make them into two sentences, another is to bring in a joining word – which is a correct application for and or but. Yet another is to make use of colons … but I’ll leave it to another day to get to grips with them.

If you’d like to test yourself on recognising a comma splice click here.

Ps The above is how I make sense of grammar, I’m no expert. (Oops just spliced another comma )

Wonderful insights into early 16th century Spain: Guest Post by M Lynes

I was delighted to have a blether with Michael Lynes, who writes The Isaac Alvarez Mysteries under the pen name M Lynes, about his inspiration for writing, and his next in series Heretic’s Daughter which is about to be released.

Your novels are set in Spain. What drew you to write about this period in Spanish history?

I’ve always been fascinated by periods of immense social and political change. And the turn of the 16th century was an extremely turbulent time in Spain’s history. It’s a very rich period to set a series of historical mysteries in. But I also wanted to explore what that meant for a specific family. I was really drawn to the period after learning some of the human stories when I visited Andalusia in 2013 and was inspired by the passion and expertise of Moisés Hassán-Anselem who showed me around the Jewish quarter of Seville.

Jewish Quarter

It was fascinating to hear the story of the blood libel which I used as a seed for the first book and then created the Alvarez family from there. Moisés very kindly read the book for me to check the historical accuracy. If you are ever in Seville he is a wonderful guide… http://www.jewishsevilla.com.

The first book, Blood Libel , tells the story of the Alvarez family focusing very much on Isaac’s point of view. The second book, The Heretic’s Daughter , which will be published in May, continues the story in Granada and focuses more on Isabel’s view of events.

The characters you write about are sometimes blood-thirsty and cruel. How do you make them appealing to the reader (and to you as the writer)?

Some of the characters are blood-thirsty and cruel but there are also acts of great kindness and sacrifice. The reader spends time with each member of the Alvarez family getting to know them as individuals and, I hope, empathising with their situation. Their moral dilemmas are set in far more dangerous times than our own, but I think their concerns are universal and have contemporary resonance.

Sentencing

I tried hard not to make the two central antagonists in Blood Libel – Alonso and Torquemada – just pantomime villains. I spent a lot of time in their heads looking at it from their point of view, which wasn’t always a comfortable place to be. They believed that the Inquisition’s mission was to save souls. They saw themselves as shepherds protecting their flock and ensuring that as many of them as possible would get to heaven. Were they misguided and did they do great damage to many families? Absolutely. By putting the Inquisition’s side of the story, I hope the reader will get a more nuanced, three-dimensional view. But I certainly don’t downplay how unjust and repugnant the Inquisition was.

What’s the biggest challenge in writing about people and events from over 500 years ago, and what’s the most fun part?

If you write historical fiction then you have to do a lot of research, which I did. I’m still trying to persuade my wife that I desperately need to return to Andalusia to do some more ‘research’ into the wine and food of the region …

Alcazar – The Royal Palace

But once you start writing you need to let a lot of the detail go. I found that very difficult in my early drafts where I was guilty of trying to show off how much I knew. I think I’ve become better at taking a much lighter touch. Now that I’ve got an established world and set of characters it is fun thinking about what they might do next. And I’m at the point now where they are starting to surprise me, which makes writing really enjoyable. I think of the characters as just people who loved, laughed and worried in much the same way as we do. But they just did it in a very different context, particularly religiously.

La Giralda – the cathedral clock tower, formerly where the muezzin would call the Muslim faithful to prayer

Would you give us a wee peek into what you’re working on now?

I’ve just completed The Heretic’s Daughter which I’m really excited about. I think the cover design by Jennie Rawlings, ( http://www.serifim.com ) is stunning.

The Heretic's Daughter by M LYnes

The Heretic’s Daughter is available for pre-order at a special price until the end of April, https://books2read.com/u/mKpnDE .

I’ll be particularly interested to hear from readers about how they feel about the ending of the book. There are a lot of changes in store for the Alvarez family. This book naturally leads on to the third instalment which I can exclusively reveal is provisionally entitled, The Last Apothecary of Granada.

Blood Libel is available here amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B08TMHRPYW .

Blood Libel by Michael Lynes blog post VEH Masters

You can find out more about Michael at, www.michaellynes.com , where you can sign up for his newsletter and receive a free short story.

You can also write to him at michael@michaellynes.com

shepherds protecting their flock and ensuring that as many of them as possible would get to heaven. Were they misguided and did they do great damage to many families? Absolutely. By putting the Inquisition’s side of the story, I hope the reader will get a more nuanced, three-dimensional view. But I certainly don’t downplay how unjust and repugnant the Inquisition was. 3.

Why did men wear codpieces?

I went to see the rock group Jethro Tull perform on several occasions when I was a lot younger. The front man, Ian Anderson, would stand on one leg playing the flute, which was fairly impressive, but what really drew the eye was the glittering codpiece he wore while doing so.

Ian Anderson lead singer, Jethro Tull

The next time I encountered a codpiece was many years later amongst the dressing up clothes at Stirling Castle. This was on a whole different level to Anderson’s which seemed remarkably discrete by comparison. Indeed, to my 21st century eyes, it was so immodestly large and protruding I was embarrassed to be caught staring at it, and moved swiftly on.

Stirling Castle’s display model

When I came to write my first novel I debated whether my characters should don them or not and wondered if they were indeed commonly worn by the men of Scotland in 1546. I decided to delve, metaphorically, into the codpiece further.

Cod, in this instance, has nothing to do with fish but was the slang for scrotum. Codpieces began as something quite practical to fill the space between tunic and hose and preserve men’s modesty. But as the fashion in doublets became shorter, greater covering was required and the codpiece became a fashion statement of itself, and a sign of virility in the early 1500s.

Pietro Maria Rossi, Museo Nacionale del Prado, Madrid

Often they were decorated with tassels, bows or jewels. Some were large enough to store coins, a handkerchief or even a handy snack. The increased padding provided protection from swords, lances and other implements of war. Here’s King Henry VIII’s armour, with protective appendage

King Henry VIII’s armour

But the era of the cod piece was also the period when the pox was rife throughout Europe. Treating syphilis involved a range of herbs, sticky unguents and decoctions. Containing it all within a large codpiece helped protect clothing from stains, as well as keeping the poultice in place.

By late 16th century the cod piece had had its day and was replaced by the well padded stomach, known as a peascod belly; the codpiece beneath gradually shrinking in size.

Pointed Peascod Belly, Rijksmuseum

As for why Ian Anderson sported one I suspect it was a piece of flamboyant fun that fitted with the overall romance of the clothes of the 1970s. And his was modest by comparison with the ‘packages’ some other rock stars were creating.

And did I have my male characters sport codpieces… they have gone unmentioned so far, but in book 3 one does pop up.

References:

Grace Vicary, Visual Art as Social Data: The Renaissance Codpiece

https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/what-goes-up-must-come-down-a-brief-history-of-the-codpiece

Who was La Belle Écossaise?

La Belle Ecossaise, complete with face mask, in Mary of Guise's throne room
La Belle Ecossaise, complete with face mask, in Mary of Guise’s throne room

On a recent visit to Stirling Castle I met La Belle Écossaise hovering in Queen Mary of Guise’s chambers. She was not as discrete as one would expect from a lady in waiting and even told me that the queen holds her most intimate audiences in her bed chamber, where she chats from behind a screen as she washes and dresses. The queen, she said, does not sleep there but in a much smaller room up a private staircase. I was wild with curiosity to be shown the secret room but on this The Beautiful Scotswoman’s (doesn’t it sound much better in French) lips were sealed.

Stirling Castle

My character Will (in The Conversos) also has sight of La Belle Écossaise while he is a galley slave on the ship that transports the infant Mary Queen of Scots to France. La Belle Écossaise was amongst the wee queen’s retinue, even though as she herself told me, she could not speak French. Yet she is quite the demanding lady as Will observes.

After three days of riding at anchor during the storm La Belle Écossaise is seen arguing with the Captain. ‘It is too much, this swinging aimlessly in the sea. Take us ashore.’

The captain shrugs, Will doubts if he even understands what she says since she speaks in Scots. A gust of rain sends her scurrying undercover.


She’s back the next day demanding, ‘let me off this boat immediately. I must repose myself, and the children too.’


The captain evidently does understand Scots for he bows low saying, ‘I give you the choice my lady. You can either stay on board, or leave and drown.’


She stands for a moment clearly not believing what she’s heard, then the ship lurches rocked by a large wave. She staggers and is only saved from falling overboard by Logie who has appeared in time to catch her. He escorts her below, and Will can see she has much to say.

Unicorn above the fireplace

Some remarkable restoration work has been carried out at Stirling Castle and the rooms are bright with colour, the tapestries have been recreated based on what would have hung there during the time of James V and Mary of Guise. The symbolism is everywhere as powerful images were used to convey the king’s droit de seigneur. The unicorn above is sign of purity and strength.

Carved Head of James V

Other restoration work includes the carved heads found on ceilings – and a replica of every known head has been hand carved in oak and then painted after the worn originals were studied in detail. The imagery and choice of heads including Julius Caesar is again all about underlining James’s power as king.

Outside the block which contained the Great Hall has been magnificently restored. It was used (and rather abused ) by the army for many many years, and they inserted sash windows, removed others and cut holes in wall.

Now repaired and painted in ochre mixed with lime, as it would have been when La Belle Écossaise walked these courtyards, giving a soft golden hue – and the gold confirmed the king’s wealth. It’s fascinating to see the contrast with how faded the rest of the buildings are.

The statutes which line the outside walls would also once have been colourfully painted. The castle is a dull place nowadays in comparison to its one time splendour.

Statute of James V which would once have been brightly painted – with lots of gold leaf

As for La Belle Écossaise she was Lady Janet Fleming who caught the attention of King Henri II of France while she was in attendance on the infant Mary Queen of Scots – despite her lack of French… but then it wasn’t her language skills the king was interested in.

Lady Fleming

She had a son by him, but was decidedly indiscrete about it which led to the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, and the king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, uniting in their dislike and arranging for Lady Fleming to be shipped back to Scotland, without her son. The rather unkind nickname of The King’s Whore was bestowed upon her. The king however did make sure this son was well provided for.

Ps If you are in Scotland and only have time to visit one castle then make it Stirling Castle – the restoration is remarkable and gives a fantastic sense of time and place …and the actors are a lot of fun.

Ref: Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser

Why is it called a Thunderbox?

Recently we had the absolute pleasure of a few days stay for a family celebration at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott – one of Scotland’s most famous writers. Among the many wondrous things of this wondrous house was the thunderbox, found amid the maze of corridors off the kitchen.

Thunderbox at Abbotsford
Thunderbox at Abbotsford

An object of fascination and some fear for the children of the party, they were curious as to why it was called a thunderbox. The answer was much more mundane than I expected. It is a thunderbox because of …er… the noise it makes when in use. I’ll leave the rest to my reader’s imagination, although I do have one final thought to add – which you’ll find at the end (appropriately enough) of the blog.

The Guest’s Staircase

There were three staircases in this maze of a house and according to my fitbit I managed to climb 111 floors in three days. It felt like much more. By the final day I was beginning to get some sense of the layout but the chances of getting lost on any journey between lower ground floor kitchen and top floor bedroom were always considerable. The kids loved it – actually we all did.

Bath at Hope Scott Wing Abbotsford home of Sir Walter Scott
Quirky bath

The house was designed by Sir Walter Scott and, after his death in 1832, was opened to the public who came in their droves. We stayed in a wing which includes the oldest part of the building, as well as the library where Scott worked before the main house was built. Of course I went there to write and actually had quite a productive time – I’d like to think I was channelling Scott …who knows!

The Library Sir Walteer Scott Abbotsford
Scott’s library before the main house was built

The house is built with all Scott’s vivid imagination, baronial splendour and love of Scotland. Below is a door he rescued from the old Tollbooth in Edinburgh, demolished in 1817, and which he had inserted high into the wall of his home.

Door rescued from demolished Tollbooth in Edinburgh

In the garden there are several sculptures including this of  Morris, one of the characters from Rob Roy. Morris is on his knees begging forgiveness from Helen MacGregor-Campbell after betraying her husband, the eponymous Rob Roy, to the authorities. The hands are still a solid block because the sculptor, John Greenfield, died before he could finish the work.

Morris begs for forgiveness

But his determination to create his dream house, gardens and estate (he was an early conservationist and planted hundreds of trees) nearly destroyed Scott. He ended up in debt to the tune of £10 million in today’s money.

And my buy of the short break was a tea towel with some quotes from Scott’s novels which are now common parlance…

Some famous sayings from Scott's writing
Some famous sayings from Scott’s writing

This is a magical place to stay, lovingly cared for and remarkably warm for an old house during a storm ridden few days in February.

Sir Walter Scott

PS The original thunderboxes, in the days before indoor plumbing, would have consisted of a metal bucket beneath the seat – which no doubt made a fairly thunderous noise when used!

The Perils of making an Audiobook

My good friend Marian is both a great hillwalker and a great lover of books – and manages to combine the two perfectly thanks to audiobooks. Indeed she’s such a big consumer of audio that she rarely reads. During lockdown when her walks were restricted to the local streets she says, ‘having an audiobook made it much less boring’.  

Marian Larsen audiobook The Castilians by VEH Masters

So when I was considering making an audio version of The Castilians and narrating it myself, who better to ask for advice than Marian. I am nothing if not a demanding friend, so I sent her a, fortunately short, recording of me reading a couple of pages.

Marian phoned the next day. 

   ‘I’m not sure it’s a good idea,’ she said. She’s nothing if not an honest friend.
   ‘Why not?’ I asked, trying to control the rising note of indignation in my voice. ‘I’ve listened to loads of podcasts and read lots about how you can record your own audiobook.’
   ‘Your voice is good, your pacing’s good, your Scottish accent is of course excellent but… it’s the dialogue. The listener needs to know which character is speaking when.’
   ‘Ah, I get it,’ I said, indignation fading. ‘It’s probably okay to do-it-yourself if it’s non fiction, like a self-help book.
   ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that would be okay.’ I could hear the relief in her voice that she didn’t have to devote any more time to soothing ruffled feathers.

So I contacted my friend Beverley who is a fabulous singer and actor – and who was actually available since the pandemic meant that all the work she had lined up was either postponed or cancelled.

Beverley Wright narrator of The Castilians by VEH Masters
Beverley Wright narrator of The Castilians

Bev, after studying the book, soon told me that there were at least 24 different characters therein who had dialogue to say – clearly some considerably more than others. We spent time discussing the motivation, age and background to the main characters for Bev considered this the lynchpin, and the biggest challenge, to getting the recording right so the story becomes real. 

She says, ‘it helps when you like the book and care about what happens to the characters. I read it aloud several times and marked anything that was a problem such as a change in tone or feeling or emotions. Then I would memorise where those changes were so that it flowed’.

Bev’s advice to anyone narrating for the first time is don’t be afraid, enjoy the experience. And the most important thing is to make sure the writer is happy and be open to suggestions from them – which is something I very much appreciated about Bev’s approach.

Beverley Wright narrator of The Castilians by VEH Masters

My husband, Mike has a home recording setup already, so it was straightforward getting the studio configured for producing the audio tracks. He found lots of advice online including techniques for avoiding pops and clicks when the narrator speaks. Minimising background noise is always a challenge, so care with cabling helps reducing signal noises like mains hum. Perhaps the hardest part of the exercise was meeting the Findaway Voices and ACX specifications for sound loudness and peak levels. His advice to anyone thinking of recording their own book is to go to Findaway and ACX, read the info about preparing audio files to make sure it is something you’ll be comfortable doing – before you begin!

Here’s a short extract for you to listen to and hear the quality of Bev’s work. You can win a free copy by subscribing to my newsletter https://vehmasters.com/newsletter. You can unsubscribe at any time.


Best wishes for 2022

It’s been a good work year, despite all the global challenges. Great to get the second book The Conversos out and the audio version of The Castilians.

The Castilians ebook is on offer from Christmas Evening until close of play on 30 December at 99p/99c and, as ever, Free on Kindle Unlimited.

We managed a wee trip to Yorkshire in October and I was in castle heaven. The most dramatic place we visited was Rievaulx Abbey.

Rievaulx Abbey High Altar facing Jerusalem
High Altar facing Jerusalem

I was aware that most churches (and certainly in medieval times) were built in the shape of a cross. But didn’t realise that they were also built with the top of the cross facing Jerusalem and the East – how did I not know that!

The detailing, the work of the stone masons, all done to glorify God is stunning and yet the monks lived a simple life.

Rievaulx Abbey detailing
Rievaulx Abbey detailing

The number of monks fell dramatically during the Black Death in the late 1300s. By 1538 King Henry VIII had his beady eye upon the rich pickings to be gleaned from the Catholic Church.

Rievaulx Abbey

Henry sold the land and the buildings but kept the plate, abbey bells and the lead from the roof for himself. It’s remarkable that these building have been without roofs for nearly five hundred years and yet the immense walls are still standing.

Of course I had to investigate the sanitation…

The monks’ latrines, known as the reredorters, were to be found at the top of a three-storey building conveniently connected to their dormitory – but a very long drop if you were stumbling about in the dark at night.

Sanitation at Rievaulx Abbey
The sewer three stories beneath the latrine, which drained into the River Rye

A line of privies were set over the drain and the monks sat on removable wooden seats. The brethren were permitted to use the toilets whenever necessary but must exercise modesty at all times: they had to cover their faces with their hoods, fold their hands in front of them and ensure that their cowls reached the floor.

Before Matins a check was made that no monk was still in bed or had fallen asleep on the privy.

see The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc, ed. and tr. D. Knowles, rev. C. N. L. Brooke (Oxford, 2002), pp. 117-119.]

Thanks for reading this and hope you have a great 2022

The Castilians is on offer for 99c/99p until the 30 December

The Castilians on offer for 99c/99p for a limited time only

Pit Prisons and the Bottle Dungeon

I always assumed that the dungeon at St Andrews Castle, carved out of rock and worn smooth by its many occupants, was unique.

Named the bottle dungeon for reasons which are soon obvious to any visitor, it is indeed unique – in shape. But the principle of keeping prisoners in a pit prison was fairly universal.

There were of course others forms of punishment, often about humiliation more than pain

masks of shame the castilians
Masks of Shame displayed in Mdina, Malta

Cardinal Beaton, who was instrumental in the death of George Wishart was himself held prisoner at Blackness Castle

Blackness Castle

but, as a rich and powerful man, Cardinal Beaton’s incarceration was quite different from that of general prisoners

Cardinal Beaton's prison accommodation at Blackness was spread over three floors
Cardinal Beaton’s prison accommodation at Blackness was spread over three floors

Of course Beaton had to pay for his comfortable living, but then any prisoner had to rely on family or friends to provide food, heat, bedding, bribes and a ransom…so if you were poor you were in desperate straits.

The Cardinal did end up in the bottle dungeon a few years later, where the Lairds who murdered him are said to have kept his mutilated body…

Leslie wants the Cardinal’s body brought out of the dungeon and laid to rest somewhere more fitting. Will hangs his head over the bottle neck and quickly hauls it out again. The smell is bad: dank, airless and putrid. Surely the Cardinal can’t still be rotting after more than a year pickled in salt.

bottle dungeon St Andrews Castle

The men below shout up; they need help. Will sighs, grasps a rope and slides down to join them. No doubt they will soon be imprisoned here themselves, and he would prefer it if the Cardinal was first removed.

They balance awkwardly on the curve of the hollowed-out floor of the dungeon. The coffin slips and crashes to the ground. The ill-fitting lid slides open.

Will looks down upon the tightly packed body and the Cardinal’s face stares up at him. He steps back with a sharp intake of breath, and he’s not the only one. He rubs his eyes hard, God’s blood, he would swear on his life he saw Beaton’s unquiet spirit escape.

They ram the lid back on and get the coffin tied up, and hauled to the surface without any further mishap. He climbs back up the rope and the group, staggering under the weight as they slip and slither in the muck, take it in turns to carry it across the rain-soaked, cannon- blasted courtyard. Will notices that Norman Leslie takes no further part in proceedings.’

The Castilians , currently on the Amazon BEST SELLER List, is on offer until 16 September.

The sequel, The Conversos, will be released on 30 November.

And a final postscript…I love chatting to readers and, if you’d like to join in and receive infrequent updates on research, sneak peeks into what new books I’m working on and the occasional giveaways then please do sign up to my newsletter.

You can unsubscribe at any time and I promise to write out only occasionally and not to clog up your inbox.

The Sea Yett and the Perilous Climb

When I was plotting The Castilians I had to work out how I was going to sneak its heroine, Bethia, inside St Andrews Castle. The obvious way – through the gate in the curtain wall, and across the drawbridge — wasn’t going to work.

Main entrance to St Andrews Castle – although it was re-positioned here during the re-building work after the Siege.

Although around 2500 people lived in St Andrews in the 1500s (there were 60 bakers alone), the chances of Bethia, as the daughter of the well-kent Merchant Seton,  being observed by someone who knew her were high. 

A solution was for her to gain entry by a gate on the seaward side and, in the ruins of the castle, such a gate still exists.…

The Sea Yett – there is some debate as to when it was knocked through, however I’m going with those chroniclers who think it was already there in the time of the Siege. It would’ve been essential for the off-loading of Cardinal Beaton’s rich supplies, especially as it was much easier and cheaper to transport goods by sea.

Problem solved.

But how is she going to get in here? The castle sits perched on a cliff. Last summer I realised I needed to get a good look at the castle from the sea, but this is COVID times and there were no boats going out. Instead I went at low tide and scrambled over the rocks in a most precarious, and undignified, manner.

Wow, the castle is impressive from the seaward side. Shame about the graffiti halfway up, which rather destroys the atmosphere.

It’s also high – how am I going to get Bethia safely in and out of there, especially if the sea is rough?

Stormy Seas seen from St Andrews Castle

They reach their destination sooner than she expects, bumping up against smooth rocks which form a jetty below the cliff. Geordie leaps out and offers his hand to steady her. She tips her head back; the crumbling sandstone is soothing to the eye, but the castle wall rising over it is grey and forbidding.  She can see a small gate high above, but she can’t see any way to reach it.

Geordie shouts and after a few moments a face peers through the bars of the yett. Geordie sniffs, ‘They must be thinking God is keeping watch for them, since they’re no bothering.’

‘Bethia Seton, what are you doing here?’

She sees James of Nydie’s blonde head and frowning face looking down.

‘Is there a way up, I need to speak with Will.’

‘There is a ladder but it’s not an easy climb.’

‘I’ll manage,’ she calls, voice quivering.

A rope ladder is unraveled and hangs, swinging in the breeze. Geordie grabs the end and she goes to step on.

‘Wait,’ cries James and the end of a rope comes slithering down. ‘Tie it around you.’

Up she goes, the ladder swaying and banging off the cliff. She keeps her eyes fixed on the uneven rock close to her face, so close in places that her nose and knees bump off it, and her knuckles scrape over it. Her skirts catch around her legs, restricting movement. Her breathing is loud in her ears, fluttering and panicked. She’s grateful to James for the rope, doesn’t think she could have done it otherwise.

Ye’d better no be long,’ Geordie shouts, as she’s crawling through the gate. ‘If the tide gets too far out the boat will be stuck till it rises again.’

One day recently I visited Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick. Castles served different purposes and St Andrews Castle is really a wee fortified bishop’s palace. Tantallon is a BIG castle on a GRAND scale.

Tantallon Castle

And there I found the perfect explanation of how goods would be lifted from the deck of a ship a long, long way below and hoisted into the castle.

Drawing of the winch for bringing goods up from a ship and/or jetty at Tantallon Castle

Perhaps Bethia could have been hauled up this way— but I suspect she’d prefer to stay with the ladder, rather than being swung around in the air in a most unsafe, wind-tossed ascent.

Ps Do note the walkways around Tantallon – all without barriers. Terrifying!!

And a final postscript…I love chatting to readers and, if you’d like to join in and receive infrequent updates on research, sneak peeks into what new books I’m working on and the occasional giveaways then please do sign up to my newsletter.

You can unsubscribe at any time and I promise to write out only occasionally and not to clog up your inbox.

Usurper King – Guest Post

It’s a great moment for a newbie author to have her first guest post and I’m delighted to welcome Mercedes Rochelle who has been kind enough to answer the three short questions I posed. Mercedes has recently published book three of her Plantagenet Series, Usurper King to add to what is a growing list of previously published books, both fiction and non fiction.

Mercedes was born in Missouri but now lives in New Jersey and I was curious as to what drew her to become a writer of medieval historical fiction.

Your novels are all set in England. What got you hooked about English History?

It seems like an accident, but I keep bumping into Shakespeare as inspiration for my novels. The first, HEIR TO A PROPHECY was actually inspired by “the Scottish play”, but most of the action is in England anyway. Could it be because most of us Americans have a soft spot for our ancestors? I feel that I can relate to the English, and the Plantagenets really call to me. My thirty years as a medieval reenactor probably has much to do with it, too.

The characters you write about were often blood-thirsty and cruel. How do you make them appealing to the reader (and to you as the writer)?

I would say that the middle ages were pretty blood-thirsty and cruel in general, though they probably didn’t see themselves that way. Regardless, I’m a firm believer that good fiction thrives on conflict. I also believe that nobody is 100% evil. After all, the villain is the hero of his own story!

So part of the conflict, as I see it, is the innate contradiction between a character’s good and bad side. Does the protagonist always have to be a hero? Trying to see past the actions to the man inside keeps me interested. King Richard II was a prime example. He did so many questionable things! Of course, that’s why he lost his crown.

At the same time, he was very kind to his wives and to children. He wasn’t a bad man—just traumatized by events in his minority. I don’t think he could help himself. I hope that the circumstances surrounding his fall made up for the fact that he wasn’t particularly sympathetic. I didn’t want to whitewash him, so explaining his actions rather than excusing them was my solution.

Henry Bolingbroke with Richard II at Flint Castle from Jean Creton’s The Capture and Death of King Richard. Harleian Collection, British Library

What’s the biggest challenge in writing about people and events from over 700 years ago, and what’s the most fun part?

In essence, I don’t think people were all that different than today. One of my challenges is the language. Idioms are anathema, and at the same time we often don’t even realize we are using them. I always have an etymological dictionary running in the background and look up words that sound modern to me. If the word was first used in the 17th century, for example, I’ll find something else. It limits my vocabulary!

The other thing I struggle with is travel time. Often and again I’ll read a history that claims so-and-so traveled in an impossibly short time (Harold Godwineson from London to Stamford Bridge in 1066, for example. I wrote a blog post about it.) Under the best of circumstances, a man probably wouldn’t travel more than 50 miles in a day; the average was more like thirty. How about the second day? Without a relay, the horse would give out. I really don’t think they had relay, or posting stations before the 18th century (except for the Romans). So I also have a map running in the background so I don’t screw up my distances.

My enjoyment comes from deciphering the events I’m reading about. We almost never learn exactly what, why, or how a person decides to do something. We just learn about the fact. When a character acts “out of character”, it’s quite a challenge trying to sort out a reasonable explanation. Why did Hotspur rebel against the king, when he had so much to lose? Why did his father, the formidable Henry Percy, fail to show up for the Battle of Shrewsbury? Why did King Richard go to Ireland immediately after he took away Henry Bolingbroke’s inheritance? To me, these are the things that make historical fiction rock!!

THE USURPER KING

First, he led his own uprising. Then he captured a forsaken king. Henry had no intention of taking the crown for himself; it was given to him by popular acclaim. Alas, it didn’t take long to realize that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it. Only three months after his coronation, Henry IV had to face a rebellion led by Richard’s disgruntled favorites.

Repressive measures led to more discontent. His own supporters turned against him, demanding more than he could give. The haughty Percies precipitated the Battle of Shrewsbury which nearly cost him the throne—and his life. To make matters worse, even after Richard II’s funeral, the deposed monarch was rumored to be in Scotland, planning his return. The king just wouldn’t stay down and malcontents wanted him back.

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ps. Mercedes writes a very informative blog, fascinating to any history buff.

pps. Her books are available in Audible too.