Tuesday, November 27

One Born Every Minute

Exactly twenty years ago today, our beautiful daughter came into the world. And my goodness, we had a battle getting there. Don’t worry- there will be no detail: although childbirth detail is fascinating to women, it is run-out-the-door-screaming to (most) men. It’s enough to say that there had to be an emergency section, and all turned out well in the end.

But without modern medicine, it would have been entirely the opposite. Had we inhabited the world of the 12th century, then we would both have died. That’s not an over-dramatic statement. Childbirth always has been and probably always will be a risky process for humans. The statistics for the medieval period are stark: in the 1400s (which is one of the earliest records), 14.4 maternal deaths for every 1,000 live births. Other records state two percent. That doesn’t sound a lot, but statistics are a funny old thing.

Ian Mortimer, in ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’, sums it up brilliantly:
‘That statistic- one in fifty- does not sound a high proportion, but most married women give birth more than once, and many loyal wives do so more than a dozen times. Every single pregnancy is thus like a game of Russian Roulette, played with a fifty-barrel gun. A dozen children is like firing that fifty barrel gun a dozen times. Twenty-two percent of women will not survive that number of pregnancies.’

Now that we have the medical knowledge to understand childbirth and to make it as safe as we can, the medieval interventions seem in turn hilarious and tragic. Hilarious is the idea that ‘twenty pangs’ is all that’s needed for a natural birth. Not hilarious, but definitely one to raise a wry smile (among women anyway), was the medieval patron saint of childbirth. She was Saint Margaret, and never actually gave birth herself. Instead, she was martyred for her faith. Part of her torture was being swallowed, then spat out by, a dragon. Listening to readings of her ordeal was apparently a comfort to women in labour. Hmm. Ladies: dragon swallowing or three days of contractions? You decide.

Miniature of Margaret emerging from the back of a camel-like dragon.
1401-1415, British Library
The medicinal treatments were not a lot better, when we think about what women faced. Henrietta Leyser’s ‘Medieval Women’ provides a fascinating insight. For post-partum haemorrhage, she cites records that state various herbs and plants should be boiled in wine. Then the instructions for the ailing woman: ‘And let her sit over the smoke of them, so that it reaches her privy member.’ For those of you who are wondering, a ‘privy member’ is precisely what you are imagining. As for that particular balancing act, I have no idea.

And of course with every difficult or unsuccessful birth, there is more than likely to be the other tragedy: the death of a baby. Many, many medieval children died before the age of five. The figure is estimated to be as high as one in five. For a child who died during childbirth, the medieval imperative was to baptise her or him to save them from the fate of Limbo. Any soul who was not baptised was shut out from heaven, staying instead in Limbo for eternity. So medieval midwifes were trained in emergency baptism. Fresh water needed to be at hand, and they could perform the sacrament in the absence of a priest, as could any lay person. Incredible as it may seem, the concept of Limbo was only abolished by the Catholic Church in 2007. As a child in a convent school in Ireland in the 1970s, the nuns instructed us in how to perform an emergency baptism, just like the medieval midwives.

But fortunately for me and my girl, there was no tragedy. And holding her in my arms for the first time, twenty years ago today, was the best moment of my life. You could have offered me the sun, moon and stars (and a Lottery win) in return for her and you’d have had no chance. Still wouldn’t. She’s the light of our lives, and we have that joy because of when and where we live.

I’m sure medieval women would be unable to believe that they no longer have to call to St Margaret or crouch over a pot of steaming herbs. But I said earlier that statistics are a funny old thing. Well, for the UK, maternal mortality is around 8 per 100,000. The US is around 16. It doesn’t matter that they’re low. Each of those figures will represent deep, profound loss and grief. And for those at the bottom of the global list? The figures are these: Central African Republic, 1570 per 100,000. Afghanistan, 1575. For some women, it’s still a medieval world.

Saturday, November 24

Five Guys Named Sir

            When you write a novel, identifying your hero and heroine is the easy part. If you write thrillers, like me, identifying your arch- villain is pretty straightforward too. A lot of writers like to give physical descriptions of their characters, others say it doesn’t matter and include very little. Either technique is fine, so long as it works for the reader. A reader must be able to identify who is who. And as well as the major characters, that has to apply to the secondary characters too.
Now, a secondary character cannot have the same page space as your hero/heroine/villain. In a visual medium like film or TV, it’s a straightforward process. How many times have you watched an action movie where the hero has several sidekicks? You’re unlikely to remember them all by name, but you use a physical identifier. Think of the climax of Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker was trying to blow up the Death Star along with his squadron. Die-hard Star Wars fans will, I’m sure, know what every single one of those characters was called. For the rest of us, we could pick out the carefully constructed physical differences of each of those pilots: the fat one, the dark-haired one. We could recognize them as individuals. And we had to, because knowing who was being picked off added to the tension and made Luke’s situation even more desperate.
So far, so Lucas. What about us writers, who only have the written word as our medium? And what about this writer, who has five knights and has to make sure readers can tell one from another in quick time? Well, happily, one of them is my hero. I knew I could be pretty sure that readers would be fine to identify him.
What of the other four? This proved a lot harder to do. It’s quite a high number, but they all have to be there and they all have to have a handle so readers can tell them apart. So I looked around for some famous foursomes that I could base them on, to help me lock in on them.
There are a surprising number of Famous Fours out there, but not all of them provided a good starting point. I tried the Beatles. Could they translate into four medieval knights? John Lennon, yes. George Harrison, probably. Paul McCartney (who, ironically, is a Sir!), probably not. And Ringo Starr…. So I sacked that idea. Sex and The City gals? No, no, no and no. The Fantastic Four? Better, but too fantasy based.
Then I found them, my Four. The Four Evangelists, who wrote the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now, I’m not saying for one second that they as human beings could be in any way similar to four brutal murderers. But in Christianity, the four evangelists have been represented for hundreds of years by symbols. Matthew is represented by a winged man, or angel. Mark, a lion. Luke an ox and John, an eagle. This gave me a great starting point for the physical appearance and characteristics of my four other knights.
Sir Reginald Fitzurse, my arch-villain, has ‘fine features’ like Matthew as an angel. That is, of course, the only angelic thing about him. Sir William de Tracy is Mark’s lion: loud, muscular. Even his red hair and thick beard give a nod to a lion’s coat and mane. Sir Richard le Bret, with his ‘huge, hulking frame’ is Luke’s ox, with the associated huge strength but not a huge amount of intelligence. Sir Hugh de Morville is John’s eagle, with his ‘scrawny calves’ and spare frame.
They are, as Thomas Becket says in chapter three, ‘a shameful crew’. But they’re also a murderous crew. They take Becket’s life in the most horrific way, and then have their sights set on Sister Theodosia, a young defenceless nun. Only my fifth knight, Sir Benedict Palmer stands in their way.
And what does Benedict look like? Dark hair and broad build. Naturally. He’s my hero!

The Fifth Knight is published by Thomas & Mercer and is a #1 Bestseller in Action & Adventure and Historical on Amazon.com. Amazon.com customers can purchase it here. Amazon.co.uk customers can purchase it here.

Saturday, November 17

A Dead Man's Tongue

            I write medieval. 1170 medieval, which is when The Fifth Knight is set. A lot of people said that it wasn’t a good time period. Too far back. Too remote. Readers wouldn’t engage. Hmm. I’ve never been sure about that. Because people were still people, even in 1170. While there have of course been huge changes to us and our world in the last 800 years, many things remain the same. As people, we have our loves, our hates, our struggles to deal with whatever the world throws at us.
And boy, can the world throw stuff. War, disease, famine and death is still a pretty good summary of what people have to face across the world of 2012. You can also add in tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes. Same as it was in 1170. And for all of these terrifying things that happen, we don’t fear them or react to them in a detached way. We fear them because we fear for our loved ones, for ourselves. The desire to protect, to keep safe is as old as humanity.
            (Those of you who have stopped by to find out about the Dead Man’s Tongue are probably by now getting restless. Don’t worry, you’ve not been mis-sold.)
One of ways medieval people tried to keep themselves safe, to ward evil and harm from them was to appeal to the saints. The medieval church had a very strong culture of sainthood. The saints had been born ordinary people, but had lived their lives and died with such devotion to and sacrifice for God that the church had canonised them.
A pillar of the culture of sainthood was the concept of relics. In modern day Catholicism, you have classes of relics. First class relics are the bodies of saints or parts of their bodies, including bones, soft tissue and hair, and yes, a tongue. Such relics are housed in churches built and dedicated to that saint and are the subject of great devotion.  Second class relics are taken from the clothing of the saint. Third class relics include anything touched by the saint, or by touching an object to a first or second class relic. The belief is that people who pray to  these relics can be granted favours by God.
And did medieval people ever need those favours. In 1170, people lived a harsh live, with a life expectancy of late forties for the wealthy (and considerably lower for the poor). Things we (at least we in the privileged western world) take for granted were enormously risky for our 1170 dweller, who had access only to herbal medicine.  Childbirth, a chest infection, a broken limb, a bad dose of food poisoning: the vast majority of us, thank goodness, can come through all these in one piece. Modern medicine sees to that. But without modern medicine, so much becomes life threatening.
If illness weren’t enough, there were risks of crop failure and starvation. Famines and food shortages were a regular feature of medieval life. Throw in wars and conflict, where just one injury could be enough to end a life and we begin to see why people sought protection where they could. For many, their devotion to the saints was all they had. So to have relics, to have a link to a saint in your possession, was hugely valued.
The containers used to keep relics in are called reliquaries. Those containing first class relics are fabulously made of gold, silver and precious stones and can be found today in churches across the world. But in my research for The Fifth Knight, I came across the far less grand thread-boxes. Archaeologists have found at least three dozen of these in women’s graves going back as far as the seventh century. Tiny boxes, with scraps of material and herbs, a defence against harm. Heartbreakingly, one of the finds was in a baby’s grave.
You could argue that such practice is consigned to the history books and has no relevance today. But pay a visit to a church such as the magnificent Saint Anthony’s Basilica in Padua, Italy and you will see devotion to a saint’s relics as real as it would have been in 1170. Saint Anthony’s tongue is indeed on display in a magnificent gold reliquary. It may be shrivelled and black, but it is still recognisably a tongue.
Many would think it strange that thousands of people go to see it every year. Under normal circumstances, most of us would turn down the opportunity to see a human body part. But it’s when you look around the church, you see it’s not about that. There is photo after photo of loved ones. People have placed them there, asking for the saint’s help. In the remarkable Museum of Popular Devotion next door, there are hundreds of exhibits people have submitted to show their prayers being answered. Many of these are in picture form and have no words to explain them. They don’t need to. They show people ill, in car accidents, in peril at sea. Child after child falling from a balcony, a window. One even shows a burning TV! But in all, Saint Anthony is represented as having intervened, as saving the loved one.
I think the women who kept their thread-boxes would understand  those pictures immediately, no matter how many centuries separated them. A hope, a plea, that loved ones will be kept safe from harm, that they can be kept safe from peril. I don’t think that ever changes. So yes, I write medieval. But it doesn’t feel remote to me.
If you’d like to read a story about thread-boxes, and a woman who kept one, have a look at the tale of The Red Cap in Fifth Knight Tales. These are free short stories about other characters in the world of The Fifth Knight.
And if you read The Fifth Knight, you’ll find out if her prayers were answered.

Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.

Wednesday, November 14

Writing Through Cancer

 15 November 2013: Another year on- and I'm still here!          
 Time’s a funny thing. As I said in a previous post, on 13 November 2012, I got to live a dream. My novel, The Fifth Knight, was published by Thomas & Mercer. There it was, on Amazon.com. But exactly seven years ago, in November 2005, I wasn't living the dream at all. I was starting to live a big ol’ nightmare. An emergency admission to hospital had me lined up for some major surgery. Surgery that would reveal I did, in fact, have ovarian cancer at the age of 40. I got the diagnosis two weeks before Christmas.  I’m not going to dwell on the ins and outs of this horrible disease and its treatment. The fact that I’m typing this seven (Now eight!!) years later gives you a pretty good idea of how it all turned out. (Homage to the amazing National Health Service).
            A cancer diagnosis takes your life and everything you know, throws it up in the air and stomps all over it. Everything’s affected: your physical health, your mental well-being, your loved ones, your friends, your career, your income, and a whole lot more. No surprises there.
But for me, there was something that was uniquely mine that was also being destroyed. I was three years into writing novels, trying to achieve that ridiculous dream of publication. After diagnosis, I wouldn't say my Muse deserted me. I would say I found my Muse in a motel with another muse, with a stack of used muse condoms, laughing in my face while it waved muse divorce papers at me and demanded I sign here.
Every time I went to write a single word, my Muse would be nowhere to be found. The only company I had was the Cancer Genie. Cancer Genie isn't very loud, but is astonishingly persuasive. Look, here’s the Internet- why not read some survival stats! Hey, I just found some re-occurrence symptoms! Time I should have been writing, doing the thing I love, was spent in fear. My dream was shattered, as was I.
But somebody stepped in and held that dream for me, kept it alive and nourished it until it was time to hand it back. And it’s somebody I've never met, or even spoken to. Step forward, Pat Sider, a critique partner who is half a world away from me in Canada. Once she heard of my illness, she did the all the right things. She stopped e-mailing about writing. Instead, she e-mailed often about other things. She sent silly links and pretty e-cards to cheer me up and to show to my daughter (who was seven at the time). During those early, impossible weeks, Pat never mentioned writing. She just sent a whole pile of kindness.
Things looked much, much better by the end of January. But by then, Cancer Genie had his feet firmly under the table and I didn't have a word. Cancer Genie hadn't reckoned on Pat, however. First, she asked gentle questions, gave tactful prompts. How was the writing? Had I gone back to it? Then, when was I sending her some? When I did (and it was awful, though she never said so), when was I sending more? Where was the next bit? She is one persistent lady.
After a few months, guess who was back? My Muse. Looking very sheepish, smelling of another muse’s perfume, and with a suitcase full of dirty washing under its arm. Cancer Genie got in a filthy sulk and decided to go quiet, saving the onslaughts for check-up time. My Muse couldn't care less. It was back to business as usual, sat picking its nose and ignoring me some days, yawning its head off on others. Every now and then, it pays attention and I remember why I tolerate it being around in the first place.
As for Pat Sider, she’s my online angel and keeper of my dreams. Without her, I would never have got The Fifth Knight to publication. She has my everlasting gratitude. It’s only right the world gets to know what she did.
The Fifth Knight is a #1 Amazon Bestseller in Action & Adventure and Historical. You can find it here on Amazon.com or here on Amazon.co.uk

Tuesday, November 13

I've Lost Two Letters & I Don't Care!

Two letters. I've lost them. They’re gone. And the process of losing them turns me into something completely different. I speak of course of those pesky letters ‘u’ and ‘n’. The ones that used to sit in front of word ‘published’, acting like a dead weight on my hopes and ambitions.
‘Unpublished.’ It’s such a gloomy, dispiriting  word. My copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary refuses to even allow it a definition of its own. It simply states (with a weariness that has no business being in a typeface), ‘see –UN2_’. Trailing back to –UN2_, we find a separate box devoted to it. The OED is pleased to announce that ‘This prefix has limitless applications in English. -UN2-  conveys the absence of a quality. Just sayin’.’  OK, it doesn't really state the last two words. But it might as well.
Because it’s the published writer that interests everyone. The first question I get asked when people hear I am a writer is  not, ‘What do you write?’ but, ‘Are you published?’ Here’s a selection of answers I've used to that second, difficult question:
10. I hope to be. (meaning: No.)
9. Trying to be! (meaning: No.)
8. Not yet. (meaning: No.)
7. Hopefully, I will be. (meaning: No.)
6. That’s what I’m trying to achieve. (meaning : No)
5. I’m actively pursuing publication (meaning: No.)
4. No, but I've won a few contests. (meaning: No.)
3. No, but I've won several contests. (meaning: No.)
2. No, but I've had a few full manuscript requests from agents. (Meaning: No.)
1. No, but I've got an agent. (Meaning: No.)
And however I dressed any of those answers up, they essentially meant the same thing, the ‘absence of a quality’ the OED states in its devastating simplicity. They meant, ‘No.’ I was unpublished.
But all that changed today and changed forever. Today, I got to trash the dreaded ‘u’ and ‘n’. Today, I became a published writer. From now on, when someone asks, ‘Are you published?’ I only need one word. ‘Yes.’ It will be a long, long time before I get tired of that reply. And today? Shrieking ‘Yes!’ a lot. But not in answer to any question. The dog looks bewildered, but she’ll get over it. Doubt if I will.

Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.

Monday, November 12

Your Heroine is a What?

Every aspiring author is told that their work has to have a hook. That it has to stand out from all the other books aimed at the same market. That it has to have something different. But there’s a further piece of advice. Make sure it’s not too different. Make sure it’s something people can relate to. In my quest for publication, the ‘too different’ charge was often levelled at The Fifth Knight. I was told over and over  that no-one would relate to my heroine, Sister Theodosia Bertrand. For, as her title implies, she is a nun. (Oh, Julie Andrews, you have a lot to answer for.) And not only is Theodosia a nun, she is an anchoress. To echo the title of this post: ‘A what?’
Well, an anchoress is a nun that lives in isolation and solitude. And fortunately for me, my agent and my publishers took the view that readers would be just fine in understanding the concept. Granted, it is not a common occupation and never was. When I first came across it a few years back, I was intrigued.  I visited a remote church in Lancashire, where I was shown an anchoress’s cell (‘A what? I asked. By now, you get the picture) that had survived for hundreds of years. Hearing that a woman had voluntarily been locked in that tiny stone room, and all for the purposes of glorifying God and saving the souls of others, had my interest caught.
As I researched the role of an anchoress more, it became even more fascinating. The religious ceremony that took place when an anchoress took her final vows included singing of Psalms from the Office of the Dead. She was sprinkled with dust before entering her cell and the door was closed after her. Some cells were as little as eight feet square. With others, even the door was bricked up. There was a tiny window left through which the anchoress would hear the prayers of others. But she always had to be screened from view, as to be seen was considered a sin. An anchoress could be enclosed for twenty years and there are records of fifty years of enclosure. A guide for anchoresses written at the turn of the twelfth century, the Ancrene Riwle, advises them to daily scrape up the earth from the floor of their cells, as a reminder that the earth will form their graves ‘in which they will rot.’ Eve, the sister of Aelred, twelfth century abbot of the abbey of Rievaulx, was brought up from the age of seven at the convent of Wilton before becoming an anchoress. And every day, these girls and woman spent hours in prayer, devotion and physical deprivation for the sake of the souls of others.
I imagine that the strains of ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’ have probably died away by now. The life of an anchoress was hugely demanding  and challenging. Yet what better background for an interesting heroine? When we meet her at the beginning of The Fifth Knight, nineteen-year-old Theodosia is struggling with her choice and with the challenges that choice throws at her. But she’s not giving in. Trouble is, there’s even bigger challenges coming her way. Challenges she could never have imagined, that put her life on the line.
And, hand on heart, I promise you she never, ever makes a set of kids’ clothes out of a pair of curtains. Go see what she does instead.

Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.

Thursday, November 8

One Launch or Six?

Starting next week, I get to live the dream. As a debut author, my first novel, The Fifth Knight, will be published by Thomas & Mercer. Exciting times, and something I’ve worked towards for a decade.
It’s a fairly typical story of the road to publication- up to now. A completely, utterly and absolutely dreadful first novel. One that was 150,000 words long. Or rather, 150,000 words too long. The dawn of realization (despite a couple of partial requests from agents) that Novel #1 had to be forever consigned to a box in the attic, its back-up copy on a set of carefully labelled floppies. (Under 25? Look that one up). Oh, and I did rewrite the whole thing along the way. Twice. It was still awful.
            But, hey, Novel #2 would be the one! It started as Novel #1 had. No proper structure, a lot of enthusiasm. Then I ran out of steam a third of the way in. I realized I wasn’t a pantser, but a plotter. One outline and one complete rewrite later, there it was. And at a modest 85,000 words. It attracted quite a few agent partial requests and (one of the most exciting days of my life), a full. But it wasn’t to be. The agent who requested the full sent me a lovely, personalised rejection, giving me invaluable advice. By the time the rejection arrived, I was deep into Novel #3: the novel which would become The Fifth Knight. The agent had asked me to send her anything else I wrote. So I finished Novel #3 and off it went. Still no.
            More re-writes, more submissions. Critique partners with immense patience and wisdom. Entering contests, getting feedback. Judging contests and giving other writers advice, then realizing I should be taking that advice myself. A face-to-face pitch with yet another agent at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2010. She requested a full. Still no dice. A contest win in 2011 that got another full request . Reading through my MS before I sent it off, I realized that at least 30,000 words had to be rewritten. So I did.
            I finished re-writing in early 2012, ten whole years since I started this crazy pursuit. Then, in a ridiculously short space of time, three offers of representation. Josh Getzler of HSG was my choice. What can I say? He’s been a tireless champion of The Fifth Knight, putting boundless energy into finding a publisher for it. And what a find- Andy Bartlett of Thomas & Mercer. Sometimes good things happen, eh?
            But this is where it ceases to become typical. Publication day on 13th November next week isn’t a one-off. The Fifth Knight goes out first in serialized format on Kindle Serials. It’s to be published in six episodes, each two weeks apart. Readers will have it automatically sent to their Kindles for a one-off purchase. There’ll be a link to Kindle Forums, a customer’s discussion forum for the book on Amazon.com. That means I get to engage with readers as the episodes go out, which is amazing.
            Is this scary? Yep. Looking at the Kindle Serials home page, you’ll see that readers can get free serials of Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers. They were originally published in serial format, so readers are being offered that original experience. Erm, that would be Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers as written by Charles Dickens. My link to my debut serialized novel will sit on the same page. Told you it was scary.
            So, scary- yes. Typical? No. But it’s exciting. Exciting not only to be published, but to be part of the changing landscape of how books are published and are read. Ironically, The Fifth Knight is a medieval thriller, set nearly 300 years before the invention of the printing press and over 800 years before the Kindle. But I forgive Thomas & Mercer for not putting it out on historically accurate vellum manuscript.
Like I said, they’re making my dream come true.
            And if you fancy an additional extra to the serial, check out the Fifth Knight Tales page on my website. Here you’ll find stories of other characters that appear in the novel. There’ll be one per episode. The first one is a taster of what’s to come: the tale of The Red Cap.

Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.
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