Wednesday, October 9

Macular Degeneration & Me


Thursday 11 October 2018 is  World Sight Day. WSD is a global event that focuses on bringing attention to blindness and visual impairment. It’s observed on the second Thursday of October each year. You can find out lots more about it here. I don't need a WSD to remind me of the preciousness of my sight. This is my story of sight loss. And don't be like me: if you think something's not right, go get it checked. Okay?
So, here's what happened with Macular Degeneration & Me...

“Isn’t that rainbow gorgeous?” Loading her shopping in the car next to mine in an Oldham car park, a woman points towards the high moors. Trouble is, she’s pointing to what I am getting used to calling my blind side. Out of politeness I glance around, smile and nod.

She drives away and I test out the rainbow with each eye in turn. My right sees a picture book arc across wet hills; my left a nightmarish smear of jumbled greys. It is Maundy Thursday 2005. I have ‘Wet’ Macular Degeneration in this eye. Shorthand in the media for this condition is usually AMD, with the A standing for Age Related. 40% of sufferers are over seventy-five. Not in my case. I’m thirty-nine years old. I’m going blind because I have very short sight.

Rewind to October 2004. The trip of a lifetime to Disneyland is planned for my husband and I, and our five-year-old daughter. We are due to fly out on a Thursday. Work has been hugely pressurised. I’m exhausted, really need this holiday. I wake late on the Saturday before. In the bathroom, still in the pre-contacts fuzz of the severely myopic, I notice a strange dark patch in the upper right quadrant of my vision. It stays there too long after a blink. It’s like the flashes you see after looking into bright light. But those are reddish and fade. The dark patch stays there, no matter how hard I blink. 

Conscious of a long haul flight in a matter of days, I go to see a local chain opticians to have it checked. The young woman says all is fine, nothing untoward. I leave relieved. I’m just tired. Asked to check some small print figures on a work computer, I find I can’t read them. I must get my contacts checked. Work colleagues faces look a bit strange, as if their right hand features are exaggerated. I’m just tired.

The Mouse and friends live up to expectations. But I’m frantic. The patch seems to have got bigger. When I go to wind down the window of the hire car, the smooth line of the top of the glass seems wavy. I touch it. It’s perfectly straight. On day four, I get up and walk to the kiosk to buy some juice. Through my right eye, the huge palm trees are straight. Through the left, the trunks squiggle in exaggerated curves. Time to tell my husband. As daughter plays around life size Toy Story soldiers, I blurt out what’s happened.

The local hospital is in the Disney Town of Celebration, USA, even more surreal than the theme park. I go to ER (carpets, plants, empty of patients), then to a consultant ophthalmologist (carpets, plants, waiting man in Stetson who offers a game of cards). The consultant examines me, declares he probably knows what it is, tells me to see someone as an emergency when I get back to the UK.

One ruined holiday later, my GP sees me immediately and I am referred to a local eye clinic the same day. They haven’t the equipment to do a full scan so they do a quick exam and make a scan appointment for a couple of weeks’ time at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital. Returning home, my left eye can no longer see from 12 to 2 on my kitchen clock. It’s a grey patch.

Appointment at the Royal. Fiercely stinging eye drops and injections of fluorescent yellow dye so they can take pictures of my retinas. The nurses are supportive, the technician doing the scan is very thorough. I ask him what he’s seen. He says something can be done, but it must be quick. His report back to the local hospital in Bury will be marked urgent. I am to call Bury in a week. Meanwhile, I pee yellow marker pen for forty-eight hours.

I call Bury. The secretary is sniffy. Nothing urgent about what’s come back. I can wait till December. I wait. More of clock face disappears. Horribly, what I can see of human faces starts to distort. People turn into fairground mirrors, into caricatures with features stretched and twisted.

December appointment at Bury. I am rigid with hope. The middle-aged, arrogant, slightly grubby SHO produces a model of an eye. He explains to me that the eye is a like a jelly and it shrinks as we get older. This is causing my sight loss. There is nothing they can do. Just hope it doesn’t spread to the other eye. Behind him is a twelve-step poster on how to administer bad news. The December afternoon is black with rain. I phone my husband to come and take me home. I’m crying so hard he can’t make out a word.

That evening, I watch my six-year-old daughter as she drinks her supper milk. My right eye sees her soft curls, the perfect peach of her cheeks. She looks up at me with her smile that makes my heart surge. I try with the left. I can only glimpse her at the edges of my vision. I can no longer see her face.

February 2005. A work colleague inquires how I am. I tell him. His response is immediate: get my care transferred to the Royal. If anyone can help, they can. I contact my GP. He listens, as ever, and says he will do what he can.

After I’ve gone, he picks up the phone to the Royal and tracks down the technician who did my scan. The technician explains my condition can be treated but urgency is greater then ever. Brief hiccup while referral gets lost. GP persists with another.

I receive an urgent call from the Royal. Come next week. I do. I am tested by the optometrist. I have lost the last five rows of his chart in my left eye. More drops and yellow dye, more scans. The consultant ophthalmologist confirms I have ‘Wet’ Macular Degeneration. It is caused by the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the retina which can leak and lead to scarring and loss of central vision.  The scan shows the back of my eye as huge red planet, with the leak a tiny white space ship slap bang on the macula. He says he will try Photo Dynamic Therapy, a type of cold laser that works with a dye (Visudyne) to eliminate the new blood vessel. They can probably halt the progress of the sight loss, but not improve it. I ask if I should avoid any risk of pregnancy with such chemicals. He looks startled. To be fair, a nurse had told me the average age in the clinic is seventy-eight.

Monday of Easter week, day of the treatment. I am weighed and measured so they can calculate the correct amount of Visudyne. I am hooked up to the computer that will administer it. My nurse stays with me, a gentle hand rubbing my shoulder as the blue liquid enters my veins. An alarm link tells the consultant exactly when I must have the laser. It is administered for precisely fifty seconds. I leave the clinic covered from head to foot, including hat and gloves. I cannot be in direct daylight for forty-eight hours as it would trigger a reaction with the dye that would burn my skin. By night two, I am utterly fed up and have several large glasses of wine. My liver is already dealing with Visudyne. I have the worst hangover of my life the next day.

I return to work to lots of vampire jokes, relieved to only have two days of work before the Easter break. Shopping at Sainsbury’s, I’m asked to look at that rainbow. I wish.  

Easter Saturday morning, I go to write a note on the wall planner. Hang on. I can see the tip of the pencil on the paper. With my left eye. It’s cloudy, but it’s there. I drive to the shops. Telegraph poles are straightening. Still curvy, but no more zigzags.

It clears. It all clears over the next couple of weeks. Faces come back. Proper, real, faces. No fairground mirrors. In June, I return to the Royal for the next set of treatment. The cheery optometrist goes to assess my sight. I tell him it’s better. He nods, but I can tell he doesn’t believe me. Then tests. I get a ‘gosh’. I’ve regained all five lost lines of the chart. My left eye is now better than my right. The Royal have done it. They fixed me.

Saint Lucy, Patron Saint of the Blind14th C, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Postscript, October 2018
PDT has since been taken over by more effective treatments. In 2005, it was the best chance. A very special hospital full of experts gave me the best they had, and it worked. Fourteen years on, I can see my daughter’s face, my husband’s. I’ve been able to carry on writing, reading, driving, seeing the most amazing parts of the world. Living. And living to the best quality of life, not condemned to a preventable disability. The only reminders are a very slight wave on straight lines and a twice-weekly check by looking at an Amsler Grid.
Yes, I got lucky. But I also got the right treatment. Your eyes are precious. If something isn’t looking right, get it checked. Okay?

Monday, September 9

Guest Interview & Giveaway: Carlyle Clark, author of The Black Song Inside

Tuesday 10 September 2013 has a little red circle on my calendar. That’s the day that my #1 Amazon bestselling medieval thriller, The Fifth Knight, is released on Audio. (You can find it here!) That’s very exciting for me. But another Thomas & Mercer thriller writer, the wonderful Carlyle Clark, is having his debut on the same day. I asked him to stop by so we could celebrate our red letter day together. Oh- and there’s a giveaway: check the end of this post!
Fellow Thomas & Mercer author, Carlyle Clark

E.M. Powell: Welcome, Carlyle! Tell us all about your debut, The Black Song Inside

Carlyle Clark: The Black Song Inside features Atticus Wynn and Rosemary Sanchez, a pair of newly engaged PIs who find themselves ensnared in the violent border drug war in San Diego shortly after Atticus’s ex-lover blackmails him with a secret about Rosemary that even Rosemary doesn’t know. The story is filled with action and dark humor and hopefully some very memorable and compelling characters.
EMP: That’s an intriguing pitch and promises a heck of a story. Love the cover, too. What first attracted you the thriller/crime/mystery genre? Have you written in other genres? 

CC: What turned me on to the genre must have been that as a kid I stumbled onto thirty-odd stories from the series The Three Investigators YA books. I read and reread them constantly. My loyalty to them even had me sneering dismissively at the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries with such certainty that I never even bothered to read them to see what I was dismissing. I showed ‘em!

EMP: Another Three Investigators fan! It’s been years since I heard anyone mention that series. I absolutely loved it. I did venture into Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew territory, but they could never hold a candle to Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews.
The Three Investigators- we're both fans!

EMP: But I’m interrupting (as usual)- other genres?    

CC: Yes, I have co-written YA Sci-Fi dystopia and Fantasy. In fact this dovetails nicely into your next question!

EMP: Yup, the inevitable co-writing question! I’ve heard you co-write with your wife, Suki Michelle Clark. How does that work? Do you ever have disagreements about a novel? If so, who has the last word? 

CC: Although it seems, at times, the word “work” is a wildly optimistic description, it’s worth it because the end product is always better than either of us could have done on our own. We often have disagreements, and we don’t really have any set pattern on how they’re resolved other than who is the most passionate about the issue. Our mutual respect as writers greatly helps in the process.

EMP: Have you any advice for authors who might be considering co-writing?

CC: Think it through multiple times and try to talk yourself out of it. If that doesn’t work, both of you have to understand that there is major compromise involved. If possible, work out a synopsis or, even better, an outline. Discuss in-depth where you want the novel to go, what you want it to evoke, and what “tone” you want to have. Ideally, you’ve read something by your co-author that shows she or he can write in the tone you’re both looking for. The more of a stylist either of you is, the harder it might be to match tone. Lastly, have a “pre-nuptial.” What are you going to do if you each work six months and have irreconcilable differences, but one or both of you want to finish the project on your own?

EMP: That’s really good advice about a writing pre-nup. I would think that would help to keep things above board and save a load of potential conflict. And of course it’s not needed when things have gone as well as they have for you and Suki.

CC: Co-writing can be TREMENDOUSLY rewarding and exciting when it goes well, at least it was for me. I have a talented and dynamic co-writer, my wife Suki Michelle, who focuses on making as strong a story as possible. No matter how experienced you are, sometimes you just can’t see issues with your own story. Each of us has another set of eyes and a somewhat objective perspective on the other’s ideas and drafts, which can save a lot of time killing unworkable plot points, character developments, and ideas. Each writer has their own strengths and weaknesses. The benefit is that often the other writer’s strength is your weakness. That allows for the novel to be much stronger overall, which is the case with Suki and me.

EMP: And how strong it is! You create intriguing characters like ‘The Priest’, a former child soldier for a Colombian rebel group. How do you make these characters so believable? Do you do a lot of research? 

CC: I do a lot of research to get the general details of the character’s life correct, but I’ve found is that the thing that makes a character believable is the richness of their inner world. For that, I focus on the tapping into what makes them human and relatable, so no matter how twisted they are like the Priest, or wild they are like Tornancy, you can understand them and “feel” them. For instance, in Silence of the Lambs you may not approve of Hannibal Lecter’s plans to have his sadistic former “warden” for dinner, but you understand his motivation and would have wanted some revenge yourself (though hopefully not topped by cannibalism).
One Revenge Option (though not for Carlyle!)
EMP: Every writer has one thing they find the most difficult when writing a novel. What’s yours?

CC: For me the most difficult thing is the first revision where I may still make major changes. I know I should take copious notes, and storyboard, and use index cards like other authors do, but I’m sporadic at best when it comes to that. I have to old the entire novel in my head and it’s nerve wracking making a change and then mentally working the change through the book, only to discover that the whole book now doesn’t work because of that change. However, after I’ve waded through the wreckage, what I’ve pieced together has always been much stronger than what was there before, so I never “leave well enough alone.”

EMP: “Wading through the wreckage”: that’s one of the best descriptions I’ve heard about revision! Do you enjoy getting feedback from readers through reviews etc.? Do you have a favorite review that you received? 

CC: I love getting reviews because it’s such an honor that someone took the time to share their experience (hopefully positive) with my story. At the On the Lam Conference, Thomas and Mercer author Gregory Widen who is also a screenwriter (Backdraft) and director (The Prophecy starring Christopher Walken) talked about how great it was to go to the theater just to watch the audiences react to his work in real time. As a novelist you don’t get that, so reviews are as close as I can come. I value them immensely.

I do have a favorite review from ABDbalou on Amazon because the reader really got the nature of the humor and noticed that there was character development with the villains as well as the heroes.

However, I am always immensely tickled by my beta readers and critiquers who—some with very diplomatic sidling and others just flat out—ask if I meant X, Y, or Z scene to be funny because they found it hilarious. Fortunately, so far the humor has always turned out to be intentional.

EMP: I’m sure it has. Anyone who can write such a funny bio must surely translate that to fiction! Carlyle, best of luck with The Black Song Inside. I’m sure it’ll be a great success. Thank you so much for joining me.


Atticus Wynn and Rosemary Sanchez, newly engaged private investigators, have seen the dark and violent side of life. Nothing, though, has prepared them for an explosive murder investigation that threatens to tear their relationship apart as they struggle to solve a case that could leave them in prison or dead.
Atticus’s manipulative ex-girlfriend bursts back into their lives wielding a secret about Rosemary’s family that she exploits to force the couple into investigating the execution-style slaying of her lover. The case thrusts Atticus and Rosemary headlong into the world of human trafficking and drug smuggling, while rendering them pawns in Tijuana Cartel captain Armando Villanueva’s bloody bid to take over the cartel.
The Black Song Inside is a vivid crime thriller rife with murder and madness, melded with gallows humor and the heroism of two flawed and compelling protagonists who, if they can save themselves, may learn the nature of redemption and the ability to forgive.

Carlyle Clark was raised in Poway, a city just north of San Diego, but is now a proud Chicagolander working in the field of Corporate Security and writing crime and fantasy fiction. He has flailed ineffectually at performing the writer's requisite myriad of random jobs: pizza deliverer, curb address painter, sweatshop laborer, day laborer, night laborer, security guard, campus police, Gallup pollster, medical courier, vehicle procurer, and signature-for-petitions-getter.
He is a married man with two cats and a dog. He is also a martial arts enthusiast and a CrossFit endurer who enjoys fishing, sports, movies, TV series with continuing storylines, and of course, reading. Most inconsequentially, he holds the unrecognized distinction of being one of the few people in the world who have been paid to watch concrete dry in the dark. Tragically, that is a true statement.


Twitter Handle: @Carlyle_Clark
Carlyle is offering a free Kindle copy of The Black Song Inside. To enter, leave a comment on this post. He will choose a comment at random. Comments posted by Tuesday 17 September 2013 will be eligible. 

Thursday, September 5

On the Lam with Thomas & Mercer

You know when you get an e-mail that seems too good to be true? Well, in the true genre of Nigerian princes, permanent tumescence and unexpected lottery wins, I received one on 26 April 2013. The subject line was 'You’re Invited – Thomas & Mercer’s On the Lam 2013'. It was an invite from my publishers, Thomas & Mercer to a weekend conference in their home town of Seattle from 22 to 25 August. And they were picking up the tab. The entire tab. I read through the whole e-mail, waiting for the line where I just had to provide them with my bank details and they would be able to book a place for my Esteemed And Valuable And Notable Customer Thank You. But it never came. The e-mail was from Jacque Ben-Zekry, in her role as Author Relations Manager. It was legit. 22 to 25 August has come and gone. I have indeed been On the Lam. Authors more organised than I such as Jo Chumas and Lee Goldberg have already done great posts. I'm not as organised or as articulate as them. I think in Top Tens. So here's mine: my Top Ten On the Lam.

1. Where's My Sodding Phone! (Or,The Flight to Seattle from Amsterdam):
Damn, I should have pictures. It was a day flight- with no clouds. I saw Greenland (Oh my God! It really is green! But with glaciers! Huge ones!). Newfoundland & Quebec, all exposed brown rock and deep, deep blue ocean and lakes, looking just like the map in my school atlas. The Rockies. More ice and snow and remote lakes that would shame a sapphire. Mount Rainier in the afternoon sun as we flew in. But my phone was stranded in an inaccessible bag and I would have had to climb over at least two sleeping strangers to get it. I'm not that brave. Sigh. 

2. Be Careful When Mentioning Nuns (Or, Starbucks Coffee):
Given the city I was staying in, it was hardly a surprise that the hotel room coffee machine was provided by Them. 
Unsurprising (But Nice) Coffee
But I did learn over the weekend (on a nifty boat cruise put on by T&M) that Starbucks was not the original name choice. No. To my quiet joy, it was Pequods. On such decisions  fortunes are made and lost. Going for a Pequods (for me) implies a) Tentacles b) A certain fishiness. And I should know about the delicacy of this naming business. It was suggested to me at one point pre-publication that my medieval thriller, The Fifth Knight, should be called The Nun's Tale. I still feel chilly when I think about that. Readers would've been expecting Audrey Hepburn or, at a push, Julie Andrews. I think I might have lost them by page 38. Skull-shattering belongs in a different genre.

3. Amazon Publishers are Real People! (1)
Yes, they actually are! Trouble is, when you are several thousand miles away and communication is by e-mail, it can sometimes feel a bit like having imaginary friends. But no: they really exist and I finally got to say hi in person, which was wonderful. Here I am with Jacque Ben-Zekry, sender of that auspicious e-mail and erstwhile Author Liaison manager- and responsible for making the incredible On the Lam weekend happen.
In person, Jacque is very (very) petite but with energy you could run batteries off. For shorthand, think Turbo-Charged Tinkerbell and you might be partly there.

4. Amazon Publishers are Real People! (2)
Cue Andy Bartlett, the then editor at Thomas & Mercer who said, yes, he'd like to buy The Fifth Knight. 
Andy Bartlett- Has a Great Taste in Books

If Jacque is Tinkerbell, the Andy is surely the Fairy Godmother (if you/he will pardon the metaphor). Even when I said hi for the first time, he produced a goody bag containing nice things. A granola bar, bottles of water, a T&M notebook...oh, and a sparkly new Kindle Paperwhite with T&M leather cover. See what I mean? But without him, The Fifth Knight might never have made it to publication. Being able to say thank you in person was wonderful. I think once I'd said it for the 402nd time, he got the message. I hope.

5. The Space Needle
Iconic, of course, but so cool, whether you're up it, beside it, or (as I was one evening) underneath it.
The Space Needle at Night
6. Meeting Other Kindle Serials Authors (Or: I Was Such a Fan Girl):
My path to publication was through the Kindle serials route. Many Serials authors are T&M authors. I'd seen their book covers along with The Fifth Knight's many times. (This wasn't because I was checking my Amazon ranking or anything but out of passing interest.) So to meet so many of them in person was amazing. Andrew Peterson (creator of the hugely successful Nathan McBride series) was one, and Daniel Judson was another. Daniel is the author of the Serial The Betrayer. More importantly, he is the rescuer of a handbag (Trans: purse) when my exit from the town car was less elegant than I had hoped.
Daniel Judson- off of Kindle Serials
7. Teaching Ex-CIA How To Swear Correctly:
I don't think this was on the official itinerary but it happened anyway. Suffice to say Barry Eisler now knows how to pronounce a word with the correct Hibernian cadence. The word rhymes with 'kite'. That is all that needs to be said.
Barry Eisler- Learned a New Skill
8. Visiting Chief Seattle's Statue:
At university in Cork in the 1980s, I joined a tiny organisation called the Ecology Party. Some people thought was hilarious that there was an organisation that was concerned about the environment. Most thought we were eejits (Trans: bonkers). My late father was convinced they were ill-disguised Communists. The prevailing view was that the environment was just fine. It clearly was and is not. But of course Chief Seattle was someone who was referenced by our small group. How wonderful that I got to see his statue in Tilikum Place in person. And even more lovely that someone had left him flowers. Seattle is so great.
Chief Seattle
And as coincidences go, this pleased me: I found out on my return that his statue was unveiled on 13 November 1912. The Fifth Knight was released on 13 November 2012. I like when things connect.

9. Taking Part in a Panel (Or, Oh My God, I Hope I Don't Mess this Up):
I had the huge privilege of being asked to take part in a panel, 'Setting: Time & Place Boundaries in Fiction.' Chaired by T&M editor Alison Dasho, the rest of the line up was Charlotte Elkins, Dan Mayland, Jim Fusilli, Audrey Braun and John Enright. No pressure then. As it turned out, it was fine. Erin Havel did a great write up for the Huff Post too, which was such a lovely added bonus. But the credit for holding it together can't be all mine. As well as Alison's effortless chairing, it always helps if there's a friendly face in the room. One that I remember, with his great smile and loads of encouraging nods, was the charming William Lashner.
Weekend's Best Smile- from William Lashner
As well as being a New York Times bestselling author, Bill had a previous life as a prosecutor with the Department of Justice in Washington. When I asked him for the highlight of his previous career, I was told: 'Prosecuting a Nazi.' I think was can all agree that Bill is an all-round Good Egg.

10. Why An Umbrella Is Essential Kit:
I've already mentioned the T&M goody bag. IMHO, the best thing in there was a customised T&M umbrella. It was a nice touch, given Seattle's reputation for rain. I live in Manchester in the UK, which is also wet through most of the time. I expect to be reminded of my Seattle trip frequently when walking the dog.
Poppy Tests Out the T&M Umbrella
I would say one thing about the weather claims. Yes, Seattle, you might beat Manchester on rainfall, with your 38.6 inches a year to our 31.76. But I'm from Cork in Ireland, where we are unfazed by a whopping 47.5 inches a year. (And yes, that is indeed why it's so green).
So what can I say? 'Goodnight Seattle, we love you.'? Trouble is, i think someone's said that before. Just can't think who.

Sunday, June 2

Summer Banquet Blog Hop: Medieval Monks' Meals

Welcome to my post in the Summer Banquet Blog Hop! In my medieval thriller, The Fifth Knight, food plays its part. There is a pivotal scene where the five knights, including the hero, Sir Benedict Palmer, feast lavishly upon their arrival at Knaresborough Castle. It is due to his overindulgence at this feast that Palmer discovers the true nature of his mission for the ringleader, Sir Reginald Fitzurse. But for this post, I'm going to look at the eating habits of another Benedict- as well as the eating habits of men and women inspired by this second Benedict. 
For it was Saint Benedict who was a key figure in starting the monastic movement in the early Christian Church. Benedict was a Roman nobleman who in around 500 AD, choose to leave Rome and worship Christ in an isolated setting. Hie popularity grew and he founded his own monastery, writing his famous Benedictine Rule. The Rule is a set of regulations for those in the monastic life and shaped almost every aspect of that life in the medieval period. 
Saint Benedict did not approve of personal possessions, he proscribed how many hours a monk should sleep. And the Rule also laid down what monks should eat and the quantities of food that should be eaten.Benedict was a fan of black bread, plain water, greens and vegetables. He believed that monks should eat once a day in winter and have a second lighter meal in summer in the evenings when days were longer. His plan was that monks should have a choice of two cooked meals, vegetable or cereal based and which could include a modest amount of fish or some egg. Meat was only for those who were ill. On feast days, monks could be allowed a supplementary treat known as a 'pittance'. A pittance might be better quality bread or wine instead of beer. 
Dressed Peacock- not what Saint Benedict would have had in mind.
The rationale behind Benedict's Rule was to support one of the three monastic vows: chastity. There was a belief that a rich diets inflamed the senses, incited greed and lust. A full monk was a sleepy monk, and so would not be in a fit state to pray for hours at a time. Benedict did acknowledge that monks needed to have extra treats every now and then. Brothers were allowed to eat more if they were invited to the Abbot's table. 
But as with all good intentions, the Rule was adapted over the centuries. A special room called the misericord was built for infirm monks. This was separate to the main refectory (dining room), so meat could be eaten here. Yet monks in full health would retire there to consume meat. By 1336, Pope Benedict XII (yes, another Benedict!) permitted meat on four days outside of fast days. And what meat: records show the consumption of beef, mutton, pork, veal, suckling pig. Poultry and game were also popular: monks consumed swan, cygnet, chicken, duck, goose. 
Medieval Butchers at Work
It has been calculated that some monks could have been consuming up to 7000 calories a day. Astonishing when you think that today, the recommended calorie intake for an adult male is 2500 calories. What is also of note is that as much as one fifth of these calories could have come from alcohol. Monks had access to beer (as did the rest of the population: it was safer to drink than water) but also wine.
Monks' reputation for Gluttony 
Fish was also popular, especially as no-one was allowed to eat meat on a Friday. Earlier in the medieval period, Wednesdays and Saturdays were also non-meat days, as well as the dietary restrictions imposed for Lent and Advent. That didn't stop the monks. With another bit of monastic Rule tweaking, certain types of geese and puffins were deemed to be fish because of their close association with water. A monastic feast day (of which there was about one a week) could consist of a couple of dozen dishes.
And of course, these huge levels of consumption were taking place in a society where the vast majority of people were at the brink of starvation or were actually starving. Ordinary people began to deeply resent the excesses of the privileged religious, as the picture above shows.The stereotype of the overfed monk, portly in his robes, immune from poverty, became one focus for discontent with the established church. By the fourteenth century there were poems and ballads mocking the monastic life and the over-privileged monks. 
As for my Benedict, Sir Benedict Palmer? Despite the thrill of attending his first banquet, he too  has doubts about the wealth of the church while ordinary people go without. Why not check out his story here
If you would like the chance of winning a signed copy of The Fifth Knight, (the #1 Amazon Bestseller in Action & Adventure and Historical) leave a comment at the end of this blog.
And make sure you check out the rest of the posts on this Blog Hop- you'll find great posts and giveaways!
Congratulations to Shelly Hammond whose comment was chosen at random to win a copy of The Fifth Knight. Hope you enjoy the read, Shelly!
Blog Hop Participants
  1. Random Bits of Fascination (Maria Grace)
  2. Pillings Writing Corner (David Pilling)
  3. Anna Belfrage
  4. Debra Brown
  5.  Lauren Gilbert
  6. Gillian Bagwell
  7. Julie K. Rose
  8. Donna Russo Morin
  9. Regina Jeffers
  10. Shauna Roberts
  11. Tinney S. Heath
  12. Grace Elliot
  13. Diane Scott Lewis
  14. Ginger Myrick
  15. Helen Hollick
  16. Heather Domin
  17. Margaret Skea
  18. Yves Fey
  19. JL Oakley
  20. Shannon Winslow
  21. Evangeline Holland
  22. Cora Lee
  23. Laura Purcell
  24. P. O. Dixon
  25. E.M. Powell
  26. Sharon Lathan
  27. Sally Smith O’Rourke
  28. Allison Bruning
  29. Violet Bedford
  30. Sue Millard
  31. Kim Rendfeld

Monday, May 27

Guest Interview: Melissa F Olson, Author of Trail of Dead

E.M. Powell: I’ve been a guest blogger for a number of great sites. But today I get to host a guest on mine for the first time. Most of you will probably be expecting an author of historical fiction, because my novel The Fifth Knight is in that genre. But of course The Fifth Knight is also a thriller and I love my thrillers. So I’m delighted that my first guest is also a thriller/mystery writer who writes urban fantasy. Welcome, Melissa F Olson, author of Trail of Dead!

Melissa F Olson: Thank you very much! I’m happy to be here. I think it’s so much fun when you can combine a thriller plot with other genres or settings.

EMP.  So tell us, what’s Trail of Dead about?

MFO: Trail of Dead follows the story of Scarlett Bernard, a young woman in LA who has a unique ability: She nullifies supernatural powers. If a magically inclined creature like a vampire or a werewolf gets close to her, they revert back to human. In my world, vampires are dead during the day, and werewolves struggle with their inner beast, which makes Scarlett’s ability a unique commodity to the supernatural. She also makes her living cleaning up supernatural crime scenes, so she has strong ties to the magical community even though what she does is basically undoing magic.

EMP: But this isn’t the first time we meet your kick-ass heroine, Scarlett Bernard, is it?

MFO. Nope, Trail of Dead is the sequel to Dead Spots, which was published in October 2012 and introduced Scarlett and her world. Dead Spots opens with Scarlett arriving late to a grisly crime scene, and getting caught by a police officer who eventually blackmails her into helping him solve the crime. The two of them work together again in Trail of Dead.

EMP. I love her name. What inspired it? Did she have any other names before you settled on this one?

MFO: Thank you! Names are important to me – almost every name in my books has some significance, even if it’s just a private one in my head.  When I was casting about for a name for my lead character, I wanted a name that was unique, strong, and sort of badass. The series originally had a somewhat different setup, with a heroine whose superpower was finding lost things or people. Her name was Runa, short for Aliruna, a Norse goddess who found lost things. I came up with Runa’s whole character, but never felt like I could connect with her. I kept tinkering, and came up with my current protagonist, Scarlett Bernard.  “Scarlett” is often associated with the stubborn, melodramatic heroine of Gone With the Wind, but the Scarlett in my own life was actually a two-year-old, the daughter of one of my closest friends. Even at two this Scarlett was terrifyingly strong-willed, unpredictable, and independent-minded. She’s almost five now, but I’m still in awe/somewhat afraid of that little girl. I named my protagonist Scarlett in honor of her, and the second I had the name, it was like I knew the character. I didn’t completely retire Runa, though – she pops up in Trail of Dead as a foil for Scarlett’s love interest, Jesse!

EMP. Mini-Scarlett sounds amazing! And I know what you mean about name significance- I do the same with my characters. As a historical writer, I have to do a lot of research to make sure I’m being as true to the time period as I can. You write paranormal. Do you have to devote a lot of time and effort to world-building in the same way?

MFO. Oh, yes! Worldbuilding is the most complicated, frustrating, wonderfully fun part of writing urban fantasy, because your reader’s enjoyment of the book depends entirely on how much they’re willing to suspend their disbelief. I think you have to mix in believable, logical information when you create new worlds, because it gives the reader an anchor. Before I wrote a word of Dead Spots I sat down and wrote a sort of blueprint of the way magic works in Scarlett’s world, and how it adhered itself to evolutionary processes that ended up creating these creatures we know and love. I eventually posted the blueprint on my website, so my readers can use it as a reference just like I do.

EMP. Have other writers/TV shows/movies given you ideas? Where else do you get your ideas from?

MFO. I think Scarlett owes a lot to Buffy, of course. I try to bring some of Buffy’s attitude to the character, just in the way she approaches really tough situations: with a “let’s go to work” sigh and a quip. My protagonist is emotionally quite damaged, which I loved in urban fantasy series like Jim Butcher’s and Rob Thurman’s. And I often get structural elements from works I admire. For example, I read a really cool twist ending in one of Thurman’s books, and wanted to try it out with Dead Spots. I’ve always liked the movie Batman Returns because I think it does a really neat job balancing two villains, which I did in Trail of Dead. In both of those cases it was like seeing someone perform a really neat skateboard trick and decide you want to try it yourself: you might fall on your butt, but you might also make it your own. Hopefully I pull off the latter.

EMP: Hey, we have a genre collision- actor Anthony Head was ace in Buffy- and he showed up as Uther Pendragon in the BBC Merlin series!
Anthony Head + Chainmail. Welcome to my world!

EMP: Being a writer is very strange profession. We essentially lock ourselves away and make up stories in our heads about imaginary friends. My imaginary friends have chain mail, yours have fangs and excess body hair. What do your family and friends think about what you do?

MFO: The locking-yourself-away thing is one of the reasons I’ve come to enjoy conferences, readings, and signings so much – getting to actually go out and talk about these things that have just been exploding out of your head is so refreshing. I’m also extremely lucky in this area because I have a remarkable support structure who backs me up every step of the way. My husband is my biggest fan, which sounds sappy but is completely true. He gets more excited about where the books are going than I do! My sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even my grandparents all come to my signings and talk up my books whenever possible. The urban fantasy genre throws them off a bit sometimes – mostly my family reads John Sandford and James Patterson – but they would cheer me on if I was writing, for example, an index to the New York City yellow pages. I always say I’d probably be a much better writer if I didn’t have such a great family, because a lot of great writing comes from terrible childhoods, but I still wouldn’t trade my family for anything!

EMP: And then of course there’s our readers, the people who buy our stories of imaginary friends. You’ve had some terrific reader reviews for the first Scarlett Bernard novel, Dead Spots. Do you read your reviews? Do bad reviews bother you?

MFO: Oh, boy. Yes and yes. I try not to read the reviews, but it’s so hard to stay away. As a writer, getting a book published can be a long, difficult process, and the whole goal is to simply put your book in front of other people – so when it finally does get published, it’s hard not to wonder what everyone thinks. But I’m the kind of person who never really processes compliments, but agonizes over every criticism, so reading reviews aren’t always healthy for me. The silly thing is that a lot of reviews will complain about something that the very next review praises, so you can make yourself crazy trying to please everyone.  I do my best not to let my reviews on a past book influence my work on a new book, but it can be quite difficult.

EMP: Historical writers (nearly) always get asked which historical figure they would like to meet. So, as a writer of urban fantasy: if you could choose for a day, would you choose to be a vampire or a werewolf? And why did you make your choice? (I know- completely unfair last question!)

MFO: Can I have the historical figure question instead? Just kidding. Within my own books’ mythology, I think I’d actually prefer to be a witch. They lead the most normal lives, while still wielding magical powers. If I had to choose between vampire or werewolf, though, I’d probably go with werewolf. The third Scarlett Bernard novel will focus heavily on the werewolf world, and I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into real wolves’ pack behaviours and interactions. I’m pretty confident that I could fit right into a wolf pack at this point!

EMP: Melissa, thanks for stopping by! It’s been an absolute pleasure.

MFO: Thank you! I’m so glad we could do this.

Trail of Dead is published by 47North on 04 June 2013 and is available for pre-order here. In the exciting sequel to the paranormal thriller Dead Spots, scrappy Scarlett Bernard must track down her old mentor and use her supernatural gift to stop a killer who is leaving dead witches throughout Los Angeles.

We also have a giveaway! Melissa is offering a free copy chosen at random. To enter, leave a comment on this post. The winner will be chosen at random. Post your comment by 09 June 2013 to be eligible to enter.
Author Melissa F. Olson

Melissa F. Olson was born and raised in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and studied film and literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After graduation, and a brief stint bouncing around the Hollywood studio system, Melissa moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she eventually acquired a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, a husband, a mortgage, two kids, and two comically oversize dogs—not at all in that order. She is the author of Dead Spots and Trail of Dead.

Tuesday, May 21

How to Organise a Book Festival

Every writer will tell you how there aren’t enough hours in the day, how hard it is to fit in actual writing with editing, proofreading, promotion, publicity. Not to mention maintaining a website, a Facebook page, Pinterest boards, a Twitter feed, a blog. Oh, and there’s the day job. Like the rest of us, author Ebba Brooks faces all those time challenges. But unlike the rest of us, Ebba also has a very large item on her to-do list: ‘Organise & run Prestwich Book Festival.’ 
Ta-dah! Looks easy, doesn't it?

Yes, you read that right: a book festival. This year, Prestwich Book Festival runs from 14 May to the 15 June, with 20 writers fronting 14 events. Happily, I’m one of those authors presenting one of those events. (You can find details here or at the end of this post). I’m attending others as an avid reader and book fan: I love to hear writers discuss their work. Yet as someone who goes to lots of writing-related festivals and conferences, I haven’t the first idea of how to go about organising one. I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to pick Ebba’s brains and see just how it’s done. She’s very kindly taken time out from PBF 2013 to share her wisdom.

Hi Ebba and thanks for stopping by. PBF 2013 kicked off on 14 May and is now in full swing, with some sold-out events. When did you start planning for your May 2013 deadline?

Back in June last year, as soon as the 2012 festival ended, I got a steering group together and we kicked some ideas around which have formed the basis of this year’s programme. But there have been a few twists and turns along the way as funding to support any kind of arts activity isn’t easy to come by. I eventually secured Arts Council Grants for the Arts funding in March this year (for which I am hugely grateful) and that’s when putting the plans into action kicked into gear.

As well as a terrific line-up, you’ve got some noteworthy Patrons for the festival: Howard Jacobson, Sherry Ashworth, and performance poet John Cooper Clarke. How did you persuade them to lend their support? What’s the role of a Patron in a festival?
Howard Jacobson- Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize & Patron of PBF
A patron is a figurehead for a festival, who gives a certain amount of credibility to it by lending their official support. It’s fantastic to have the seal of approval from the likes of Howard Jacobson, and John Cooper Clarke as well as the tireless Sherry Ashworth who is also on the steering group and has been very actively involved in making the festival happen. None of them took much persuading: the festival sold itself.

Prestwich Book Festival has a great new look this year, made possible by your artist-in-residence is Dave Kirkwood. Dave has also been responsible for an incredible project, 3hundredand65. Can you tell us a bit more about 3hundredand65?
Dave Kirkwood's PBF illustration for Paul Cookson, poet-in-residence at the National Football Museum

Dave is  a very talented artist, marketer and designer: last year he jointly ran the project which aimed to create a book in 365 tweets, each one by a different author, but all illustrated by Dave, in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust, from his home in Prestwich. It started small but by the end of the year had attracted some major celebrities to take part: Terry Pratchett, Simon Pegg, Jonathan Ross, Danny Baker, Jennifer Saunders, Minnie Driver, Stephen Fry and many, many more contributed. This year it’s being turned into a graphic novel.

Your strapline for 2013 is: ‘This year, we celebrate food, faith and football.’ What inspired it?

The interests and passions of local people. Pretty much everyone round here has an interest in at least one of these three themes!

Your line-up includes a Booker shortlisted author, a Glastonbury poet, an award winning Guardian journalist and an award winning food critic. How did you approach people in the first instance?
Award-winning Guardian journalist David Conn's latest book.
I asked them very politely, using people with personal connections where they existed.

The thorny question about funding! The website credits Arts Council England, which is really good to see. But applying for grants and funding often turns people off trying to do what you’ve done. What was that process like?

Hard work, and probably the least enjoyable aspect of the whole process. But once you start researching, you realise there are actually quite a lot of funding sources out there, it’s just a matter of tapping into them (which takes a lot of time and effort).

You’ve got a number of excellent venues: Manchester Jewish Museum, The Irish World Heritage Centre, Prestwich library, St Hilda’s church (among others!). All are very different and will have their own atmosphere and potential. How do you decide about venues? Is it a deal breaker if you can’t get a particular venue?
Manchester Jewish Museum
I love venues that add something extra to an event, and when you get the right balance of venue and artist it’s amazing. We’ve got lots of interesting venues right here on our doorstep (the newly refurbished British Legion, for example) and it’s great to encourage people to discover what’s under their noses.

What are your three favourite things about organising a book festival?

1) Bagging a big name. Shallow, yes, but very exciting
2) Knowing, just knowing, that an event is going to be extraordinary
3) Making a contribution to the community: enjoying so many great events on my own doorstep, and knowing that many other people have too

What are your three biggest headaches from organising a book festival?

1) Money: I’m not a natural accountant, but am having to force myself to keep spreadsheets to account for every penny. Yuck.
2) General paranoia: what if no one shows up?
3) Trying to fit it in with family life, my writing and my two other jobs...

If anybody reading this is thinking they’d like to have a go at organising author events or are ambitious enough to go for a whole festival or conference, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to share?

You need to combine seeing the big picture (ie a vision of what you want to do) with being very detail oriented – because getting the details right is what event organising is all about.
PBF Food Birds!
And your own writing? What’s in the pipeline that you’d like to share?

My ambition for this year is to start submitting short pieces to journals and competitions as my writing has been fallow for much too long. And now I’ve said it in print, I’ve got to do it...

Ebba, many thanks and best of luck for the rest of the festival.
Thank you!

When she's not organising PBF, Ebba Brooks blogs as Jenny Wren & Bella Wilfer. You can find her here.
I too will be appearing at PBF at St Hilda's Church on Tuesday 28 May 2013 to talk about my #1 Amazon Bestseller, The Fifth Knight. I'll be sharing the evening with fellow Historical Fiction author, Deborah Swift. Our evening is titled Knights, nuns and sisters on the run and is a tribute to the late historical fiction author, Beverley Hughesdon.

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