Thursday, September 25

Sisters in Crime September Blog Hop

Yes, I write historical thrillers. Much of what I blog about is the historical part, less so the thriller part. Not any more! For I have been tagged by fellow Sister in Crime Member, H.A. Somerled as part of the September SinC-Up. You can read her post on her musical muses here.

The blog co-ordinators at SinC posed some great questions, so here's my choices.

1. Which authors have inspired you?

For thrillers, it has to be Tess Gerritsen. She's a thriller writer that I read and think, 'Damn! Why can't I do that?' She writes great female protagonists that have their feet firmly on the ground yet can really piss people off too. (yay, Detective Jane Rizzoli!)There's no pink, no wittering on about shoes and no needing men to rescue them.

One of my all-time favourite novels is Robert Harris's Pompeii. You don't get many water engineers who are heroes, but Marius Attilius Primus most certainly is. Harris showed me in this book the thrilling story telling that can result when ordinary (fictional!) people are caught up in extraordinary historical events.
2. If someone said 'Nothing against women writers, but all of my favourite crime fiction authors happen to be men', how would you respond?

Tess Gerritsen. Kathy Reichs. Tana French. Karin Slaughter. Agatha Christie. Patricia Cornwell.Val McDermid. I got those ones out in one breath. And I have plenty more breath left.

3. What's the best part of the writing process for you? What's the most challenging?

The best part is those wonderful scenes that just pour out as if someone else is doing it. Finding a solution to a plot problem that is far, far more entertaining (and grisly!) than in the original synopsis.

The most challenging is when it doesn't fly. When the writing is sat there like a muddy lump and I am boring even myself. I carry on, then delete. I should learn to delete faster.

4. If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

Learn your craft. Like any apprenticeship, you need to learn which nuts and bolts fit together. If you don't, nothing works quite right. Worse case scenario, it falls apart.

Use the fantastic resources that are writers' organisations. Like Sisters in Crime. Like Romance Writers of America. Like the Historical Novel Society. Whatever your genre/cross-genre is, there will be an organisation for you. The support, the expertise, the sharing the frustrations, the generosity of other members: all this will help you greatly.

Yes, it costs to join. But not a great deal. And they're worth their weight in gold!

I'm now tagging fellow SinC member, Judith Starkston to write her September SinC-Up post. Judith writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire.

Her novel, Hand of Fire (Fireship Press September 2014), tells Briseis's story, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad. There was more to her than the handful of lines Homer gave her. Imagine a woman who can both challenge and love that most conflicted of heroes, the half-immortal Achilles.

Visit Judith's website at:

The Fifth Knight is a #1 Bestselling historical thriller. Find it here on and here on The sequel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight will be published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1st 2015. Find it here!

Thursday, September 18

Book Review: Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700

Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History (Middle Ages Series)Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History by Alan Charles Kors
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When writing historical fiction, it's always important to access historical research that's as accurate as possible. My fiction is set in twelfth century England and research into events or issues can present challenges with the passage of some eight centuries.

I wished to include the issue of witchcraft or, to be more accurate, sorcery in my current novel. Many books on witchcraft/sorcery tend to concentrate on later centuries but I was thrilled to find entries in this book that covered the time period I needed.

This book chronicles the rise and fall of witchcraft in Europe over 1,300 years, starting (as per the title)in 400 A.D. It presents contemporary accounts and primary documents. While of course these are at times more challenging to follow, the translations are accessible for the non-expert (such as me!).

There are notes on each entry, along with meticulous attribution of sources. There are also suggestions for further reading.

My only quibble would be the lack of an index as it makes finding specific issues a bit more laborious. But it is a minor criticism and certainly should not put off anyone who is interested in reading reliable information on the subject.

View all my reviews

Sunday, September 14

The Joy of Re-enactment: Medieval Clothing

As a historical fiction writer, so much research is done through written materials or inanimate objects stored in museums. Such resources are of course marvellous but there is one type of research that is very special in bringing history to life. I am talking of course about re-enactment.

Earlier this summer, I was very fortunate in meeting a group of medieval re-encators, Historia Normannis. Historia Normannis is a 12th century re-enactment group, focusing primarily on the events between the reign of Henry I and King John and they bring history to life in a historically accurate, engaging and exciting way. And not only that, they were unfailingly patient and generous in giving me lots of time and answering innumerable questions.

One of the topics we discussed was the clothing of the period. They had so much valuable information and were very happy to share it via this blog.

Medieval Society

To give an indication of how clothing differed across the classes, the re-enactors provided this striking line-up. As we pan from left to right, we first see the peasants with plain or non-dyed clothing. The colours and materials of the clothing become ever more sumptuous and expensive as we rise up the ranks to the right. We end the line with an Earl, the most richly-dressed of all.

Earl in full robes
The fabrics are linen and silk, and his long belt is dyed red. Originally, this would have been genuine ox-blood leather, taking its name from the dye used.

He is bare-headed with no coif or head-covering, as that helps to show his status.

The detail of the embroidery on his mantle shows a lion. But it's a twelfth century lion. Norman lions were depicted with no manes as most people had only ever seen lionesses.
Norman lion

Next we have lesser nobles, still dressed expensively.

To modern eyes, a black cloak may look unremarkable but black dye was costly, coming as it did from the iris root. It would take a whole field of irises to yield enough dye for one cloak. The black favoured by monks was actually more a dark brown, coming from the natural black wool of Welsh sheep.

The length of the cloaks may look impractical but were designed to shield the wearer from the weather. Worn when riding a horse, only the head got wet. The lanolin in the wool would have acted as a water repellent.

I also got to try one on (no, no pictures!) and they are incredibly heavy.

Again, the details are so beautifully done.

And  noblewomen of course also displayed their high status through their clothing.

Noblewomen's dress

The woman on the left wears a linen and not a wool dress. The colour is lighter as linen takes up dye less than wool. Blues and purples (from woad and clam shell dye/murex) were among the most expensive, with murex costing more than gold. Both women are wearing clothes that use colour contrast to add to their striking appearance. Necklines are high, with dresses laced tight at either side to follow the curves of a woman's body.

Their dresses have pendulum sleeves, which were a favourite fashion of noblewomen. The design was a way of demonstrating wealth (as the sleeves used extra fabric) as well as demonstrating that the wearer did not engage in any kind of manual work.

Again we see that she has a thick, beautifully decorated cloak. Her wimple, secured with a decorated pin, is white. All wimples were white as it demonstrated purity.She also has a hefty set of keys on her belt along with her Pater Noster beads.The keys suggest she has been left in charge of the estate by her husband, which occurred frequently.

Historia Normannis's sweetest re-enactor!

One of the most junior re-enactors was willing to be included too!

She a little bemused by the woman in hiking boots and raincoat asking her lots of questions. But she was so charming and polite, and I think she wins a special prize for utterly looking the part.

Still charming and polite (but perhaps not quite so sweet!), came our knights.

Mercenary knights

These  two would be considered mercenaries. They would own their chain mail, a horse, a shield and a sword and their ambition would be to try and serve in a household, thus guaranteeing them a living.

Set of armour and weapons
Chain mail of course gives protection against a blade and is flexible when fighting in. Well, I say flexible. I tried to pick up the mail coat in the picture and could hardly get it off the ground!

With full armour weighing in at about four stone, I guess flexibility is subjective. I was assured by the re-enactors that one develops muscles to cope with wearing it. Mail of course didn't protect against blows, and men could suffer massive bruising in battle.

Mail also picked up all sorts of unmentionable debris in battle, ground into the small metal links. It was the unenviable task of a squire to clean it using only a barrel of sand.

And last, but not least, for he was doing an awful lot of the actual work, we have our peasant.


He is dressed in his rough, plain-dyed wool, with his coif or hood to protect him against all weathers. One suspects he was probably a bit muddier in real life, but even so, his contrast to the wealth of the nobles could not be more stark.

It was a fascinating day and such an opportunity to get up close and personal with history. Historia Normannis are such a welcoming and enthusiastic group. You can find out more about them and see many more fascinating pictures of them in action at
I first published this post or an edited version of it on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on September 13th 2014.

Tuesday, September 9

My Historical Novel Society Conference 2014

Okay, it's finished. I'm back from HNS London 2014. I'm over-tired and fractious plus very cranky that it's all over. A bit like a toddler post-birthday party, except perhaps not quite so sticky. Perhaps.

In order to keep the magic alive, I'm posting my highlights. There could conceivably be hundreds but I'll confine myself to these few.

Highlight #1: The Poppies at the Tower of London

I made some time to go and see the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower. It's one of the commemorations to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. It is truly inspiring and moving. These are words that have had their currency severely devalued in recent years. In this case, they properly apply.

Highlight #2: Imaginary Friends:

We writers all love our social media, don't we? We warble on for hours to each other, directing our warbling to a photograph of a person whom we hope is real. 

Anna Belfrage @Anna_Belfrage
Mark Patton @markpatton1
& Lisa J Yarde @lisajyarde

But guess what? You go to an event like #HNSLondon14 and find out that THEY ARE!

And they're even nicer in real life than they are in cyberspace. That's a tall order, for in cyberspace they are unfailingly generous and supportive in their sharing and tweeting and mentioning of my stuff.
Derek Birks @Feud_writer
Mary Tod

Michael Dean @MichaelDeanAuth
& Stephanie dos Santos @ByStephRenee
Charlie Farrow manages to do this while also organising and running the conference. And she was always charming and smiling like this:
Charlie Farrow @charliefarrow1
All weekend. Personally, I would have been throwing furniture by Sunday p.m.

Highlight #3: Meeting Cathy Rentzenbrink (@CathyReadsBooks)

Cathy is well known as director of adult literacy champions Quick Reads and associate editor of The Bookseller. During her fascinating Reaching Out to Readers workshop, she talked about being the first reviewer for major titles. That responsibility would have me sitting in a comer with a towel over my head, but she was utterly modest.

I also had the good fortune to speak with her writer-to-writer. She has the most heart-breaking memoir coming out in 2015. It's about the catastrophic injury suffered by her brother as a teenager and the unimaginable decisions her family had to take about ending his life. No, it's not historical, and no, it's not fiction. But I'll be reading it.

Highlight #4: Being a Loser:

Yes, I was long listed for the Short Story award. No, I didn't win. Lorna Fergusson was the very worthy recipient. I was just happy to be among fellow losers (heh) Christopher W. Cevasco and Laura Purcell. 
Mr. Cevasco does not possess a Twitter handle. Call the writing police!
Laura Purcell @Laura_D_Purcell

Highlight #5: Gin & Syphilis:

For the panel 'My Era is Better than Yours', the audience voted for the Georgians. One strongly suspects that a fondness for gin and syphilis is some kind of mass wish-fulfilment on behalf of authors. 

Highlight #6: Happy Pitchers:

This has to be the best part of the whole conference. I met so many writers who had pitched to editors and agents and who had had a 'yes' for fulls, partials and proposals. In an industry that can be 'no', 'no' and 'no' for years, getting the Y-word is such an achievement and an enormous confidence booster. I can't wait to hear how everyone gets on!

Till next time, all. I'm going for a lie-down...

The Fifth Knight is a #1 Bestselling historical thriller. Find it here on and here on The sequel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight will be published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1st 2015. Find it here!

Thursday, September 4

A Beginner's Guide to the HNS Conference 2014

Yes, it's finally nearly here! Just the one more sleep before the Historical Novel Society's London 2014 Conference kicks off. From Friday 05 to Sunday 07 September 2014, all #histfic roads lead to the University of Westminster. Exciting times, yes?

But I'm sure there will be some folk attending who haven't quite yet achieved excitement. Probably more like a heady mix of dread/terror. For if you are a conference newbie/first-timer, the prospect can be absolutely terrifying.

Us writers are, by the virtue of what we do, a fairly solitary lot. We like to be alone, doing the words on a page thing. We may poke our heads above the parapet on social media. A bit. But the advantage of that is you don't even have to leave the house. Heck, if you choose your social medium (look, correct singular) wisely, you don't even have to get dressed.

Not so with the dreaded conference. You, as a newbie, have chosen to spend three days among living, breathing, sweating human beings. Lots of them. That you've never met. Who will all ignore you for three days and nights, and you will spend any free time alone in your teeny-tiny room, weeping for the time when you can back to being...alone.

Now, that would be just silly. And as a writer, you're probably able to conjure up far more elaborately hideous circumstances than that. Which would be a great shame and will keep you awake all night tonight.

This will be my third HNS conference. I may have done a bit of fretting prior to my first one.

So in the spirit of HNS support and co-operation, here are my pointers for a successful conference:

  • Everyone will be labelled. Even you.Not in a judgy way, but as in a wearing a name tag way. This really helps in that initial panic of trying to remember the names of multiple strangers.  And it means that people will know your name, too! (It also helps with identification gaffes. I once attended a classical music concert where I hassled a polite man into fetching me a chair. Turned out he was the conductor.)
  • Say hello to whoever is sitting next to you. They won't bite. If they do, change seats.
  • I write across genres, so go to different conferences. Thriller conferences tend to be a little testosterone-heavy. Romance ones favour oestrogen. HNS is more likely to have people arguing for hours about who first invented hormones. It's nice. And very relaxed.
  • There will be beards. The men will have some too. (I include myself in this particular heh-heh. My tweezers are packed.)
  • But if you have forgotten your tweezers/tights/good shirt/herbal tea bags: don't panic. The conference is in London. There are shops. 
  • Special notes for those travelling from abroad. For my countrymen and women travelling from Ireland: DO NOT BRING FOOD. No matter how many times your Mammy put rashers/sausages/brown bread in your suitcase, you need to now stop. London has food. It really does. For those coming from the US/Canada: you can drink the water. There will be no ice. At least no communal ice. People would just steal it.
  • If you're pitching to an editor or agent, try to remain calm.They are not waiting to catch you out or pour scorn on you. They want to hear about your book. Having said that, you might want to have something else in the locker as well. I pitched to Marcy Posner (a sweet, gracious lady) at the 2010 conference. I had honed those words to memorised perfection. Arrived in, every syllable ready. She smiled and said: 'Tell me about yourself.' I couldn't remember. The label came in handy. 
  • There will usually be weapons. 
  • If you have chosen an amusing Twitter handle like @Henrysseventhwife or @Historywhore or @Colossalmeatsword, I appreciate you never contemplated having to say it aloud. But you have nobody to blame except yourself. 
  • If you don't have arrangements for evening meal times, ask someone if you can come along with them/their group. That is a completely accepted way of doing things at conference. (Just not at home time).
  • Tell Richard Lee he's a good egg.
  • Enjoy spending time with a group of like-minded, enthusiastic individuals who love this marvellous thing that is Historical Fiction.

Simple, eh? See you there!
- See more at: