Thursday, June 19

Guest Post & Audio Giveaway: Steven A. McKay- Author of The Forest Lord Series

Today I’m welcoming a great guest to my blog. It’s another medieval writer, Steven A. McKay, author of Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and The Raven.
Steven A, McKay

The novels have a hero that everyone has heard of: Robin Hood. Both books are having a debut at the same time: Wolf’s Head has just been released on Audio and The Wolf and The Raven came out in April 2014. Steven is also including a Giveaway with his visit. Leave a comment at the end of this post to be in with a chance!

Welcome, Steven! Can you tell us a bit about your take on the Robin Hood legend in your novels?

Wolf's Head on Audio
Enter a comment- you might win!
When I first started thinking about writing a novel with Robin as the central character I knew I would have to do something different. The legend these days seems to centre around certain things, like the time period being the 1190's and the setting being Sherwood Forest. My research suggested that the original Robin, the “real” one if you like, actually lived around the early 14th century and was based in Barnsdale Forest in Yorkshire. Also, most modern versions of the legend have Robin as a displaced nobleman, but he was far more likely to have been a regular guy. So, with all that in mind I was able to put a fresh slant on one of our most enduring folk heroes.

What made you originally decide to pick Robin Hood as a hero?

I wanted to do something similar to what Bernard Cornwell had done with King Arthur, but couldn't think what road to go down. I knew I wanted to keep it within Britain, but I had no idea how. I'd just started to think about it and was close to giving up on the idea when I drove past a house with the name “Sherwood”. Divine Providence! Of course, when I saw that sign the idea of using Robin Hood as my main character seemed ideal and, from an author's point of view, it really has been. He, and his mates, are so much fun to write!

(C) E.M. Powell
Writing's great when it's fun, isn't it? But I think every writer has an area they find most difficult. For me, plotting came easily but it took me a while to really get to grips with characterisation. What area challenges you the most?

Starting a book is hard for me. It's a slow process because I don't really plan things out very much. I have a basic idea of how things are going to pan out, but, until I really get a good few thousand words down and the characters have shown me where they want to go, I struggle. I'm just starting the next book in the series now and, because I work a full-time job and have a young family, I don't have much time to write so...I'm not getting much done. Once I get about 15,000 words things will start to move quicker, I hope.

Now, we both write medieval and that involves hours of research. I have traipsed my family around innumerable castles as well as hours ploughing through written material. How do you approach research?

I was always into history, but mostly classical, so when I decided to write about the 14th century I had to really look at the politics, culture and people of the time. As well as the usual textbooks, I used things like Medieval Lives by Terry Jones which is a really fun book and gave me a real insight into some of the stranger sides of the people of that period. Books on the Robin Hood legend were very useful in providing plot ideas as well as an idea of the sort of weaponry the outlaws would have had available to them.

Robin of Sherwood

Books are all well and good, of course, but my favourite piece of research was watching all the DVDs of the old 80's TV show, Robin of Sherwood. It's not very historically accurate, or realistic, but the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood between the gang of outlaws really helped me get a feel for how things might have been for these men, forced to live like animals in the forests of England, with the law always trying to kill them. Such a life would have been incredibly stressful, and, as a result, powerful bonds of friendship and loyalty would have formed between them. I'm a huge fan of that show now.

I always love to visit castles of course, I even worked in the one in Dumbarton for a while which was a good experience.

And I believe you have taken delivery of your own bow. Who’s a better shot- you or Robin?

I'm rubbish, just a beginner! In my defence, though, I didn't start shooting a bow as a child, like Robin would have. I did manage to hit a bullseye the first time I tried archery, but modern recurve bows are much easier to use than the huge longbows Robin and his men would have been shooting. An archer friend made me some period-correct arrows and I was shocked at the size of them. Even a knight in plate armour wouldn't have been safe from these things, they're massive. Even just holding one you get a sense of the potential deadly energy emanating from it.
13th Century Conwy- a damn fine castle!
(C) E.M. Powell
 You’re a keen musician as well. Do you have a playlist for when you’re writing?

Yeah, black metal or death metal! I did a guest post for Roz Morris recently about this. I can't write to most of the music I like because it's too distracting. Iron Maiden or Jethro Tull or something like that has too many hooks so when I listen to them I want to play guitar or sing along and it makes focusing on writing impossible. So, before I settle down to begin a writing session I put on something by Behemoth, Enslaved or Bathory because they're a lot less melodic than most rock or metal and it acts almost like a Gregorian chant or someone meditating to the word “om”, allowing me to block out the outside world and really lose myself in my novel.

There’s been some great reviews for both books. Do you read your reviews? Is there anything you’d like to say to reviewers?

Yes, I read every review and, although I've probably had more than 300 in total so far, I still get butterflies when I notice there's a new one, wondering if it will be good or bad. I find them mostly helpful. If someone makes a valid point about my writing, and I think they're right, I'll try to do something about it. One guy wanted to see more variation in the combat, so that's something I'll actively strive for in book three.

The main thing I'd say to those who've left good reviews of my books is: “thank you so much for taking time to leave such positive feedback.” It really gives me a good feeling when I read a new 4 or 5 star review and the person has obviously enjoyed my work – it's amazing to know you've been able to entertain someone for a few hours and they've liked it enough to tell the world.

The one thing I get a bit annoyed about is when reviewers say, “people didn't use the F-word in medieval times!” or, “The dialogue is too modern, they didn't talk like that back then, it's not realistic!” Well, what do you want? If I wrote the book using the language people actually spoke back then no one nowadays would understand it, and that would make for a really crap novel.  
I'm writing for a modern audience, I want my books to be easy to understand and that means using language we all use today,  including the F-word. Did people not curse back then, even when a big hairy-arsed outlaw was trying to shove a sword through their face? Of course they did and, to get the same sense of danger or anger or whatever across to a modern audience, it is, to me, acceptable to use the swear words we use today, especially one like the F-word which probably was in use in medieval times.
Hmm...outlaw? Or re-enactor?
(c) E.M. Powell

You have two books in The Forest Lord series. Are there going to be any more?

Yes, I was planning on it being a trilogy but the second book went off in its own direction which left me with a lot of things I still wanted to write about. So there will be four books in total now. After that, I'm not sure where I'll go. A few of my characters seem like they could “star” in novels of their own, particularly Sir Richard-at-Lee, the Knight Hospitaller, so I have a few options. For now, though, I'm just aiming to have the next book in this series out around early 2015, with, hopefully, the audiobook version of The Wolf and the Raven ready to go before that.

June is Audiobook month. To celebrate that, you have Audiobook/download copies of Wolf’s Head to give away to readers of this post. What do people have to do to win a copy?

Easy, just share this post on Facebook or Twitter and leave a comment here to say they've done so! A winner will be chosen at random by 30 June 2014.

Many thanks, Steven. And best of luck with the next stage of the saga of The Forest Lord!

Thanks for having me Elaine, it's been fun!

Steven A. McKay was born in 1977, near Glasgow in Scotland. He lives in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children.
His second book, The Wolf and the Raven was released on April 7th 2014, at the London Book Fair where he was part of the Amazon stand. His début novel, Wolf's Head, was also released the same day as an Audiobook. 
Wolf's Head is a Kindle top 20 best-seller and The Wolf and the Raven was the “War” chart number 1.

He plays lead guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

Amazon Author Page:

Blog/official website:
 Social media:

 The Fifth Knight is a #1 Bestselling historical thriller. Find it here on Amazon.comand here on The sequel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight will be published by Thomas & Mercer on December 09 2014. Find it here! 

Monday, June 16

The Medieval Anchoress

The Poor Clare Sisters are part of the Franciscan family and the Order has existed for over eight hundred years. They are an austere, contemplative Order, devoting their lives to prayer. As well as taking the vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, the sisters take a fourth: the vow of Enclosure. This means that a Poor Clare nun would never leave the monastery, except in exceptional circumstances.

(c) E.M.Powell
Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, I used to attend Mass regularly at the local Poor Clare convent. The sisters would take part in the Mass behind a wooden grille to the side of the altar. Their voices could be heard in prayer and song, yet they could only be glimpsed as indistinct shadowy figures. The one time the grille was opened was when the nuns received Communion. But it opened outwards to make a screen to shield the women from the congregation's sight. Only a pale hand to pull the screen back in was visible.

The trips to this chapel used to fascinate me, and I found the idea of withdrawing from the world intriguing. But at the time of the foundation of the Poor Clare Order in 1212, there were other women who followed an even more austere and demanding form of enclosed religious life: that of the anchoress.

An anchoress was a nun who lived in isolation and solitude. They were very highly regarded in medieval society, with the widespread belief that their prayers and devotion brought salvation to those who supported them. The Christian Church already had a tradition of women who sought out the life of the religious recluse.

Saint Madelberte
(Image is in Public Domain)
Saint Madelberte was an eighth-century anchoress at the convent of Maulbeuge in France. Her call to the religious life is said to have been inspired by Saint Ghislain, himself an anchorite. In the picture above, we see a demonic figure disturbing her while at prayer. Distraction from her devotion and how to counteract it is a feature of much of the literature on the life of the anchoress.

Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (born c1110) is known as one of the great monastic teachers and educators of the early medieval period. His approach to the religious life was a radical one.

The Rule of Saint Benedict cautioned monks against 'particular friendships.' Aelred saw them as a way to experience God's love. He wrote of his ideas in his work Spiritual Friendship.

He didn't always find monastic life easy, with references to his 'many temptations' as a young man. One of his solutions to temptation was to take numerous cold baths. There is a record of him having forty in one day!
Rievaulx Abbey
(c) Paul Fogarty- Private Collection
But while Aelred encouraged friendships within his own monastery, he took quite a different approach with his sister, who was an anchoress. He repeatedly warned her against friendships with anyone at all- male or female, insisting on this so she could maintain her purity.

The spiritual demands placed on the anchoress were challenging enough, but the physical and emotional demands were equally so. 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 anchorholds were cells 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.

(c) E.M. Powell
An anchoress could be enclosed for twenty years and there are records of fifty years of enclosure. The Anglo-Saxon Eve of Wilton was brought up from the age of seven at a convent before becoming an anchoress.

Aelred's advice to his sister heavily influenced a guide for anchoresses written in the late twelfth/early thirteenth century, the Ancrene Riwle or Ancrene Wisse. It lists the many, many types of sin that the anchoress may commit and ways to avoid those.

A frugal diet and little sleep are encouraged. One of the warnings is about contact with men. The author warns he would 'rather hang on a gibbet' than witness an anchoress kiss a man. Touching with hands is also frowned upon, along with a warning to anchoresses not to admire their white hands. He 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.’

 Koninklijke Bibliotheek/National Library of the Netherlands

Many anchoresses never left their cells and were buried in them. The author of Ancrene Rule says that 'True anchoresses are called birds..and will fly upwards towards heaven.' Given the sacrifice that these girls and women made for others, it is to be hoped that they have.


Aelred of Rievaulx: Spiritual Friendship, Cistercian Publications Inc. (1977)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Leyser, Henrietta: Medieval Women, Orion (1995)
Warren, Ann K.: Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England, University of California Press (1985)
White, Hugh: Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses (Penguin Classics), Penguin (1993)
I first wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in June 2014. 

Monday, June 2

Writing a Sequel

As every writer knows, it's the small things that make our day. Coffee. A few uninterrupted hours in which to write. A 5* review from a reader. Getting paid. (note: this list is in random order and not in order of importance. You get the picture). One of the biggies is the state of Having Written. You've done it again, produced a 100,000 words that hang together into something coherent and maybe, just maybe, quite good. But for me at this moment in time, it's not just the HW. It's Having Written a Sequel. 

Now, for those of you who've never written a sequel, you'll be thinking "What's the big deal? It's just another novel and novel writing is hard. Full stop." Just what I thought. Until I started to write one and found that there is a whole weight of expectations and problems attached to writing a second novel. I have other (unpublished) novels under my belt, so it's not like I can't produce novels. Let me explain.

1. Second Novel Syndrome

As an unpublished writer, I believed the hard climbs were to 1. Get an agent (done) 2. Get a publishing deal (done). 3. Have great sales (done). Once I had achieved those three, then the rest would be easy. Nobody told me about Second Novel Syndrome. The thing that happens when a second novel isn't as good as the first. When it fails to deliver the promise of the sparkling debut. When you basically, as a writer, fall on your behind and it's clear to all that yes, you had a novel in you. But it was just the one. 

So with your second book, the game is on. You absolutely have to get it right. And weirdly, the more successful your debut, the more pressure there is for the next one to be as good and ideally, better. Oh, and other thing, said the sage advice I found online: don't try and do it with a sequel. Because writing a decent sequel is really difficult.  Problem was, my historical thriller The Fifth Knight was a #1 Bestseller on charts on different Amazon sites. It had loads of 5* and 4* reviews. And I was trying to write a sequel to it, called The Blood of The Fifth Knight. Oh, indeed.

Same Again, Please

2. Of Course I Can Do It Again. (Or, Oh, No You Can't.)

What cheered me about being an agented, published author was that I no longer had to produce the whole novel before it could go out on submission. All I needed was 30,000 words and a detailed synopsis. Easy-peasy. I always do a basic scene by scene synopsis, but not this time. No. I was going to write a beautifully constructed three-act synopsis. I was going to show detailed character development, perfect plot arcs. I was going to develop my skills in my genre of historical thrillers and make this a weighty read. I wrote said synopsis. And a tiny voice in my head whispered: "This is boring." "Hah!" I replied to the voice in my head. "It is not boring at all. See, how authentic and gritty and...historical and proper it is."

So I wrote my 30,000 words based faithfully on said synopsis. I sent both to my agent and the second I pressed send, I admitted to the voice. "Yep. it's boring." I hoped my agent wouldn't notice. I allowed my spouse the first read simultaneously. He said it was frequently boring. My agent was more tactful (Great writing, but...) But yes, it's boring. So he had noticed. Damn. But my agent was also spot on in reflecting back the bits that weren't boring at all. That worked for him as a reader. That were true to The Fifth Knight. I had to do more of that. Much more. And he wasn't sending it anywhere until I had. 

My delete button took care of 20,000 words. And I couldn't have been happier. I stopped trying to write what I thought I should write and wrote what I enjoyed. Out went a famine. In came a leopard. (Yes, really. Historical fact. I promise). And we were back on.

3. How To Make  A Rod For Your Own Back:

Most of the action in The Fifth Knight took place in December 1170/January 1171, with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and its aftermath. I added a nice epilogue from July 1174, with King Henry II doing penance on the streets of Canterbury for his murder. I had included that because a sequel hadn't been on my mind then. 

But the sequel takes up where that scene left off, with an enormous amount of political upheaval that had taken place in the preceding years. And I had characters that had to start off from this three-years-later point. And I had to incorporate a credible story line about what had happened in those intervening years as well as start a brand new premise for the new novel. It was the singularly most complex plotting exercise that I had ever done. I must have redone that plotting jigsaw dozens of times.

One jump from the dog and it would've been disaster.

If I had left that epilogue out, I would have had far more freedom to move to the next story. My turn for sage advice: leave the narrative door a bit further open for the next stage of a story. You may well be glad you did.

And I fretted and fretted over those complexities, the time shifts, the points of view. Was this now really working or was I boring everyone again? Admittedly the tiny voice in my head had gone quiet, but it might have just fallen asleep. Agent and spouse reported back, very happy, as did beta-readers. But all of that is for naught unless an editor likes it.

4. Thank You, Writing Gods.

So the e-mail from the editor comes, as it inevitably does. I don't know how you read something with your eyes screwed shut, but I did. And she said: 
"Congratulations – this is a brilliant historical thriller, I absolutely loved it and was drawn in from the first page. The action is exciting, the plot is twisty and you create a brilliant sense of the period... I really enjoyed reading it and don’t think that you need to do very much work here at all."
 Yes, not only have I managed to write a sequel to my #1 selling historical thriller The Fifth Knight, I have managed to write one that the editor really likes. Let there be dancing, happiness and above all, a colossal sigh of relief. As for not needing to do very much work on it? I think I'm best described as a front loader.
Update from April 2016: The Blood of the Fifth Knight has so far sold over 30,000 copies. Thank you indeed, Writing Gods. And thank you, readers, an awful lot more!

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