You give medieval a bad name!

Why is it that the word “medieval” always get bandied about with negative connotations. Here’s some examples from the recent news:

Gary McKinnon might avoid extradition

‎Inquirer – Nick Farrell

Some of these problems include the medieval justice system of the former colonials that tends to lock up or kill people for minor offences. 

What’s ‘medieval‘ about stoning people to death?

‎ (blog) – Tim Collard – 9 Jul 2010

In condemning the proposed execution, he called death by stoning a “medievalpunishment”.

Russia is getting medieval on corrupt officials

‎The Moscow News – Evgeniya Chaykovskaya

Corrupt officials should be marked with a medieval-style brand burned on to their left hands, according to 

British veterans of Korean war: ‘It was like stepping into 

The Guardian – 24 Jun 2010

“It was like stepping back into medieval times,” said Hough, who spent 13 months there with the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment. 

Story feedback at Feedbooks and Smashwords

One of my reasons for publishing some short stories on Feedbooks and Smashwords was to get them out to a wider audience and hopefully to elicit some feedback. As a writer I want to write for an audience and not just myself. I confess that it gives me a real buzz when someone says they like something I’ve written.

And finally I’ve had some feedback! My most downloaded story, The Human Factor, with over 800 downloads on Feedbooks and 47 on Smashwords, has now had a comment left.  Diana Trees gave it three stars on Smashwords and commented: “Nice twist on an old subject. Good dialog speeds this along and makes it a decent read. I look forward to more.”

While on Feedbooks Jaydenwoods commented: “Nice twist ending!” for my story The Honor of Rome.

Only a couple of comments, but it’s really good to have them. If anyone else has read the stories and would like to leave feedback, negative or positive, then please do.

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Chateaux Trogoff and Tonquedec: Sources for Bisclavret (The Werewolf)

This is another post about my short story Bisclavret (The Werewolf). The story is set in Brittany in the 1360s, a time when John, Duke of Brittany had gained his duchy with the help of English armies. The story is set in a remote and dilapidated castle in the midst of Brittany’s forests. As well as Marie de France‘s original Bisclavret, my other inspiration was a Breton legendary ballad called the Ward of Guesclin, a famous French general. Here’s the opening verse:

TROGOFF’S strong tower in English hands
Has been this many a year,
Rising above its subject-lands
And held in hate and fear.
That rosy gleam upon the sward
Is not the sun’s last kiss;
It is the blood of an English lord
Who ruled the land amiss.

The poem tells a tale of a Breton woman forced by the new English lord of the castle to accept his kiss as a toll for passage. In my story the castle has become Trigoff, and I based the actual appearance of the castle on Chateau Tonquedec. See the pretty image below – really a wonderful setting for a werewolf story, right in the middle of a forest.

Here’s how I mapped out the castle and it’s estate for the purposes of planning the story:

Castle and Estate of Trigoff
Castle and Estate of Trigoff

Please excuse the terrible drawing and handwriting!

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Alt Hist Facebook page for lovers of historical fiction

Alt Hist Image
Alt Hist Image

New Alt Hist Facebook Page

As you may have realised if you occasionally read this blog, I am really into historical fiction and historical fantasy fiction, and also Alternate History as well. I always find it surprising that there are few outlets for discussion of historical fiction compared to science fiction and the various aspects of fantasy fiction. In particular short stories seem to be very badly served. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps historical fiction is regarded as part of the mainstream, either at the literary level with Booker Prize winners such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, or at the more mass market mainstream level with the likes of Bernard Cornwell. But I always think of historical fiction as genre writing first and foremost. Especially when writers start to bend history and imagine what might have been.

I thought it might be a good idea therefore to experiment with the creation of a community of readers and aspiring writers in historical fiction.  So I have created a Facebook page to facilitate discussion and the spreading of news. My plan is to allow users to post their own news and even post links to their own historical short stories wherever these maybe located. At some point I am thinking of perhaps setting up a regular magazine to publish historical short stories, reviews and features, but that maybe some way down the line yet.

Please let me know what you think of the page and the idea behind it, either here or over at Facebook.

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Making up history: a Medieval English Postal Service

I am currently working on the chapter summaries for my novel Hell has its Demons, which is a recently interesting process as I find out that I need to flesh out more details of the setting for the novel (England in 1376). One of these details was how one of my main characters, Jake, was going to send a letter for his master, Roger, from Oxford to St. Brett’s Abbey. (St. Brett’s is a fictional place, but is roughly 20-30 miles north of London.)

Medieval Postal Services

When I had written the synopsis none of this seemed like a problem, but then I realised that I didn’t know how a private individual would get a letter sent somewhere in the country. I did a bit of internet research and nothing much came up. The only information I found was that some of the Italian banks had their own courier networks that extended throughout the major centres of Europe. I imagine that the government, probably organized by the Chancery, would also have a means for sending letters to various officials such as Sheriffs around the kingdom, no doubt employing a number of fast riders with the ability to purvey horses as and when required on their journeys.

But what about individuals’ letters?

But what about private individuals wanting to send letters between towns in England. Perhaps if my characters wanted to send a letter from London to Paris they could use the Italian banks network, paying a fee to do this? Then I read in some of my research on Abbeys that the Benedictine monasteries were connected by their own communication network. This seemed a better option as Benedictine Abbeys were so widespread around England that there were bound to be one near to most towns in the country. I found that the nearest one to Oxford was Abingdon Abbey, just about 7 miles from Oxford, and of course St. Brett’s Abbey was also Benedictine. So that perhaps would be a solution. As well as sending their own correspondence the Benedictine monks might also be willing to make some money on the side and send letters for paying individuals as well.

Making up a Postal Service based on Benedictine Abbeys

But how would it all work? How often would couriers travel, what would be their route and how could you know if your letter was going to be delivered. This is the system that I came up, which I hope isn’t too unlikely:

Routes: I decided that Abingdon would be on a route that ran from the West of England to London. I imagined that there might be other routes coming from the Midlands, North-West, East Anglia and the North-East – a bit like a modern train map of England.

Couriers: These would be individuals retained by the Benedictine’s to carry letters. I thought perhaps there would be two or three operating on this route.

Schedule: It would probably take about a day’s fastish riding to ride from Abingdon to London, so a total journey of a week from Cornwall to London didn’t seem unrealistic.

Payment: I’m not sure how much they would pay yet. The courier would be paid twice for each letter delivered: once when they took receipt of the letter and once when the delivered the letter at an agreed time. They would only receive their full delivery payment if the letter was safely delivered and to the time agreed by the sender. This would ensure that they were incentivized to travel quickly and to keep their letters safe.

I thought that split tallies, which were used by the Exchequer and by merchants to record monies owed, would be a perfect means of recording who the letter for and when it was supposed to be delivered. The receiver of the letter would also be passed the tally stick by the courier and when they confirmed that the letter had been delivered on time they would pay them the full amount. Perhaps a lesser amount would be paid if delivery was delayed, and this could be agreed and noted on the tally stick as well.

Hopefully this is a sensible option for solving what seems to be a gap in the history we have for the means of sending letters in medieval times. Another possibility might be that individuals would approach travelling merchants and ask them to take letters, although this might be a lot slower and a less reliable option.

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Medieval Telescopes and the importance of research

Image via Wikipedia

Telescopes weren’t invented until 1608, although lenses for eyeglasses were available from the thirteenth century onwards.

This was news to me. For some reason I just sort of assumed that astronomers maybe going back to ancient times would have had some sort of telescopes available. Quite naive of me I think, but it just goes to show that when researching a historical novel, or alternative history etc, you really need to check out your assumptions.

One of the main characters of my Hell has its Demons novel is an astronomer/astrologer by the name of Roger. Currently I am working on the plan for an early chapter of the book in which we meet Roger for the first time. As this is partly and introduction to the character I wanted the reader seeing him do what he does best – looking at the stars. Initially I thought he would be able to do this using a telescope and perhaps he would have some reference material like a book (Ptolemy‘s Almagest for instance). I even found another use he could make of the telescope later in the chapter that allowed to spy on events in a nearby village.

But… I realised that actually telescopes weren’t around then and in fact wouldn’t be until 1608. So what did astronomers use? Basically their eyes. They tended to look for good observational platforms and they also had gadgets to assist them with working out where stars should be in the sky, but that was pretty much it.

The main gadget of the astronomer was actually the astrolabe. There’s a wealth of information available about this on the internet including simulation of how it worked. This TED talk video is a particularly good introduction:

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Hell has its Demons update and a question about flashbacks

I am happy to announce that I am progressing at a reasonably steady pace on Hell has its Demons. I have finished my character dossiers and I am now on the pleasant task of writing chapter summaries. Each of these includes notes on what happens in the chapter, what the main conflicts are, how the character arcs develop, and also notes on any minor characters or settings that I haven’t already detailed. At the moment I am doing about one of these a day, although I suspect this may slow a bit when I get to scenes with more complicated settings, such as the Abbey, and/or those scenes with more minor characters.

I came across an interesting challenge in scene/chapter 4 this week. I posted about it over at sffchronicles. Here’s the problem I was having:

I‘ve got a writing issue that I want to resolve. I want one of my characters to tell another character about his past, but without him just telling the other character – I want to make the back story dramatic if possible, so I guess a flash back might be a way of doing that, but then that doesn’t fit very well with one character telling the other character.

Any ideas? I’m currently a little bit stuck on how to manage this part of my narrative.

I have already had a couple of good suggestions left on the forum, but if any readers of this blog have some good suggestions I would be happy to hear them, and you never know you could get a namecheck in my book if/when it comes out!

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Three Favourite Werewolf Films

Although there have been a number of werewolf films over the years, for me only three really stand out (I haven’t seen the recent remaking of the The Wolfman, so can’t comment on that!):

The Company of Wolves

American Werewolf in London (classic scene when they enter that pub in the sticks)

and Ladyhawke

I like Ladyhawke quite a bit because of the historical fantasy setting, but it does look a bit dated now.  The Company of Wolves though is by far my favourite and doesn’t look dated at all, despite being 25 years old. Based on Angela Carter‘s short stories, the film is a fantastic retelling of fairy tales combined with werewolf legend. It’s a beautiful and powerful film.

Here’s the trailer:

My historical-fantasy short story Bisclavret (The Werewolf) is available at Smashwords. You can see a free preview or buy the whole thing for $0.99.

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My Top 5 iPhone App Author Wish List

The Art of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Pa...
Image via Wikipedia

So now there’s a super duper Iain Banks iPhone App available, which other Science Fiction and Fantasy authors would merit there very own app? Well my top 5 would be:

Dan Simmons

His novels have such a rich background to them  that I am sure there are plenty of background notes which could be digitised and provided as extra features. There’s already iPhone versions of his novels Drood and Terror, but as far as I can tell these don’t have extra features on them.

Jack Vance

A compendium of spells (such as The Spell of Forlorn Encystment) from his Dying Earth stories together with nice illustrations of them would be awesome! I think though this would be a labour of love and I can’t seen anyone except a very dedicated fan producing something like this.

Gene Wolfe

There is an encyclopedia available for his New Sun books already, and something that accessed this information would be a good starting point for an iPhone App. Again not sure anyone would do it now.

Neal Stephenson

Well he does have an interactive App coming for his Mongolaid book, to be published sometime this year I hope. It seems that this will allow fans of the book to submit their own content which will then become part of the App. Sounds amazing!

Terry Pratchett

And lastly the Godfather of comic fantasy. There’s a huge amount of non-fiction material available for his Discworld books already, so I am sure this must be on the cards as well. I have seen what looks like an unauthorised App, which apparently analyses each of the Discworld books, so not exactly special features about the author and his writing, but interesting nevertheless.

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The Original Bisclavret

Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript
Image via Wikipedia

I have recently published a short story called Bisclavret (The Werewolf) on Smashwords and at the Kindle Store. My story is a retelling of Marie de France‘s Bisclavret, one of her 12 lais (a French syllabic verse form used for narrative poems)  based on lais sung by Breton minstrels. Marie was writing in the late 12th and it is likely that her works were based on Breton/Celtic stories of an earlier origin.

My version of Bisclavret takes the story to the second half of the fourteenth century and makes the protagonists an English knight and his Breton wife, living in her ancestral castle in Brittany, surrounded by forests and decaying estates ravaged into poverty by the hundred years war.

I would encourage anyone interested in werewolves, fantasy and medieval literature to read all of Marie’s work. I personally find it very instructive to go back to the core myths and legends that act as the source material for today’s fantasy fiction.

If you want to read the original Bisclavret I would recommend the following sites:

A good verse translation at a University of Florida site

The Project Gutenberg version taken from a 1911 edition.

Or a cheap and good quality eBook version of the lais of Marie de France based on the 1911 edition.

You can get a sample of my short story Bisclavret (The Werewolf) at Smashwords, or at the Kindle Store.

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