WHY I LOVE BERNARD CORNWELL
Those of you who read my blogs or are my Facebook or Goodreads friends know how much I love Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction. Since he has a new novel out, The Flame Bearer, which may be his best one yet, I thought this would be a good time to discuss why I find his books so compelling.
In 2011, National Public Radio asked me to select the five best historical novels of that year and write an article in which I explained my choices. I soon selected Margaret George’s Elizabeth I, Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife, Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, and Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeeper. The fifth book proved to be more of a challenge. I was familiar, of course, with BC’s writing; I’d loved his Sharpe series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and enjoyed his Grail Quest trilogy. But somehow I’d not gotten around to reading any of the books in his Saxon series, possibly because I knew very little about this period in British history. As it happened, he’d just published a new book in this series, Death of Kings, and I decided this was worth checking out.
My only concern was that Death of Kings was the sixth book in the series and I needed to be sure it could be read as a stand-alone, too. I’ve often been down this particular road, doing a trilogy about Wales and England in the thirteenth century, and what Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen once called “Sharon’s five book trilogy about the Angevins.” It is a tricky balancing act, for you are writing for two audiences, new readers who know nothing of what came before and those readers who know enough that you risk boring them with too much repetition. So it was with some hesitancy that I settled down with Death of Kings.
I need not have worried; I was riveted from the very first page. I soon realized that BC had created a unique character in Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a man who could be courageous, reckless, insightful, stubborn, sardonic, generous, vengeful, and playful—sometimes all in the course of a single day. By the time I’d finished Death of Kings, I was utterly captivated by Uhtred, and real life then came to a screeching halt as I hastened to order all of the earlier books in the Saxon series. Book lovers know that the only joy greater than discovering a new writer is finding that this writer has a healthy backlist waiting to be read. So for those of you who have not yet encountered Uhtred, you have hit the literary lottery. BC has written ten novels about Uhtred, his kings, his women, and his enemies: The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horsemen, The Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land, Death of Kings, the Pagan Lord, The Empty Throne, Warriors of the Storm, and now The Flame Bearer. Just be prepared to become a recluse until you read them all.
Before I was fortunate enough to get my first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, published, I’d been a lawyer, which I considered penance for my sins. I am going to draw upon my legal background now, though, to make the case that Bernard Cornwell is the best historical novelist of our time.
What makes his novels so special? Well, he is a master wordsmith. He can make his words sing or snarl and he can conjure up images so powerful that they will burn into the back of a reader’s brain, not to be forgotten. Writing well may seem such an obvious requirement that it is not worth mentioning. But there are many successful writers whose books are plot driven, their prose pedestrian at best. A Cornwell novel has all the elements that readers look for—suspense, action, colorful characters, etc. It will also be sprinkled with small gems, descriptive phrases that soar and make other writers think, “I wish I’d written that!”
Here are a few examples of BC’s lyricism at work. “The sky to the east was molten gold around a bank of sun-drenched cloud, while the rest was blue. Pale blue to the east and dark blue to the west where night fled toward the unknown lands beyond the distant ocean.” Or “They were either fishing or cargo vessels and they rightly feared a sea wolf seething northward with the waves foaming white at her jaws.” And “The drenching dark crept along the valleys on either side of us as a slither of light crackled wicked and sharp across the northern sky.”
What else makes a BC novel so mesmerizing? Historical accuracy is very important to me, both as a writer and a reader, and he never disappoints. His research is thorough and yet it never gets away from him, always a risk for historical novelists. When I read of a bygone age, I want to know how the people lived, what they wore and ate and believed, but these facts need to be stitched seamlessly into the fabric of the story—the way threads are woven into a tapestry until a pattern eventually emerges. BC’s tapestry tells us of a time when the Son of God was challenging the old Norse gods, a time when warrior kings and lords fought for supremacy and history hovered at a cross-road; would England be pagan or Christian, Danish or English, united or split into numerous petty kingdoms?
As important as it is for a historical novel to have a solid factual foundation, that alone is not enough. It must also have characters who are three-dimensional, vivid, memorable. The major protagonist in the Saxon series towers above them all like the Colossus of Rhodes. Uhtred is uniquely positioned to understand the wars between Saxons and Danes. He is Saxon himself, the son of a Saxon earl, who was abducted as a child and raised by the Danes. He does not love the Christians or their God, but he is a man of honor and fights for them because he’d given his oath to King Alfred and then to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed.
He is also a man of violence, a lethal warlord who glories in the fame he has won in the shield wall and on battlefields soaked in blood. He is cynical, sarcastic, and impulsive. He is often his own worst enemy, realizing that he would be foolish to insult a Danish raider, to alienate a king, to offend a bishop with his notorious lack of tact. Almost every time, though, he then goes ahead and does it anyway. Definitely a man with flaws, but BC makes us care so deeply for him that those flaws don’t matter; we are always willing to forgive him even when his foes do not.
He is surrounded by other characters who seem very real to us, even those we find loathsome or contemptible. We do not always like King Alfred; I certainly did not. But we understand, as Uhtred does, that Alfred’s vision is a powerful one, the dream of a country called England. We mourn for those who die and rejoice when others survive. Uhtred’s world becomes our own, at least for three hundred pages or so, and when we finish that last page, we feel a sense of loss.
Another of BC’s strengths is how well he writes of women. As strange as it may sound, some publishers continue to harbor an odd bias—the belief that male authors cannot write convincingly of women and vice versa. I’d never encountered this bias myself, but I have writer friends who’ve not been as fortunate. For anyone who still clings to this outdated notion, read one of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon novels. Meet the women who matter to Uhtred. Gisela, beguiling and bold, the love of his life. Stiorra, his daughter, who proves that the apple does not fall far from the tree. The courageous Abbess Hild, who loves God and Uhtred. The sorrowful Welsh shadow-queen, Iseult. His women need not be sympathetic to be unforgettable. There is his sultry bedmate, Skade, whose capacity for cruelty is horrifying, and Brida, his childhood friend and lover, who turns into a monster in the course of the series. Or Aethelflaed, whose youthful joy is leached from her soul by the burdens of queenship and a wretched marriage. BC breathes life into each and every one of these disparate women and when they are on-stage, even Uhtred finds it hard to compete with their star power.
I’ve already mentioned one of the other strengths of the Saxon series books, but it is worth stressing. BC is very good at the sharp-edged male banter that is the coin of their realm and Uhtred’s sardonic sense of humor is a wicked delight, often surfacing at the most unlikely times. Any book that can make me laugh aloud goes at once to my Favorites List.
Lastly, there are the battles. I’ve often said that no writer in the world does better battle scenes than Bernard Cornwell. George R.R. Martin, no slouch himself at spilling blood, agrees with me. So does any writer who has ever turned his or her hand at fighting a fictional battle and then reads one of BC’s books.
When we frequently write about battles, we must constantly look for ways to make each battle fresh and original. When I had to fight a battle in the Llyn Peninsula between the Welsh prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and his brothers, Owain and Davydd, I went to the Caernarfonshire Archives for help, as almost nothing was known of this particular battle. They dragged out maps and translated several passages for me, and then I drove out to explore the battlefield for myself. I’d been very pleased to find a river on the map, thinking I could let some of the soldiers drown when they tried to flee. Much to my disappointment, I discovered that the river was so shallow a snake could not have drowned in it. But then I saw a sign warning of quicksand. When writing that scene, I resisted the temptation to go hopelessly Hollywood and so my characters merely blundered into the quagmire and then lost all interest in bashing each other until they could get back on solid ground.
My favorite battles are those that were out of the ordinary, for that made them more dramatic and easier to write: the fog at Barnet Heath, the ambush at Tewkesbury, the Lionheart’s encounter with a huge Saracen ship as he sailed for Acre. But BC fights so many battles that he has to invent most of them out of whole cloth, and his imagination never runs dry. Uhtred is always one jump ahead of his foes. Who else would think to use sails in the assault upon an enemy fort? Or beehives? Or horses as a temporary dam to enable his soldiers to ford a river? Uhtred and his alter-ego author could match wits with Caesar, the Lionheart, or Napoleon, with any of history’s most celebrated battle commanders, and more than hold their own.
What he does is all the more remarkable because his soldiers and their wars span so many centuries. Uhtred’s shield wall in tenth century England. The battles of Poitiers and Crecy in fourteenth century France. Richard Sharpe and his Chosen Men at the siege of Badajoz in nineteenth century Spain. He shows us how men fought and what they felt when they were fighting and this alone would make his books well worth reading.
His legions of fans most likely know already that his tenth novel in the Saxon series, The Flame Bearer, was published in the U.K. in October and in the U.S. in November. For writers, it can be challenging to keep a series fresh and innovative, to prevent it from becoming stale and repetitive. Many writers struggle with this, no matter how talented they are. But a few of them not only meet the challenge, they transcend it.
Three of my favorite authors at once come to mind. Dana Stabenow has written twenty Kate Shugak mysteries set in her native Alaska, each one a joy to read. Priscilla Royal has written thirteen medieval mysteries that also defy the passage of time, and in P.F. Chisholm’s eight Elizabethan mysteries about Robert Carey, a real-life cousin of Elizabeth I, he continues to thrive. Their characters are not stagnant or static; they mature and grow, their lives and relationships changing as the years go by. That may be the secret of a successful series; if so, it is one that Bernard Cornwell understands, too. The Flame Bearer, his tenth Saxon novel, in which Uhtred continues his quest to recover his family legacy—Bebbanburg Castle–is as spellbinding as The Last Kingdom, in which we meet ten year old Uhtred for the first time. I am already looking forward to the eleventh book.
January 12, 2017
WHY I LOVE BERNARD CORNWELL
I am sorry that it has taken me so long to write a new blog, but as many of you know from reading my Facebook and Goodreads posts, I have been dealing with an injury that has forced me to severely limit my time at the computer. This, of course, wreaked havoc upon my deadline, gave unholy glee to my unwelcome roommate, the Deadline Dragon, and caused a lot to just slip through the cracks. I am—I hope—on the mend now, though.
In my last blog, I promised to hold a drawing for all of my readers who posted comments about any of my mysteries on that blog. I finally was able to do that drawing and the winner is Chris Torrance. I can give you a hardcover edition of Prince of Darkness or Dragon’s Lair, Chris; just let me know which one you prefer. I started thinking about it after you emerged as the winner and remembered that the first four horses in a race receive prizes. That seemed like a good idea so I drew three more names. Sara, I will be happy to give you a copy of Prince of Darkness, too; you mentioned that you would like to read that one. Rosemary and Thomas Greene , you are also winners. I am afraid you’ll have to settle for paperback editions, but you both can choose between Dragon’s Lair and Prince of Darkness. Unfortunately, I’ve about run out of copies of The Queen’s Man and Cruel as the Grave. Please contact me through my Contact Sharon feature on my website and once I have your addresses, I can send the books out.
I really enjoyed the reader responses to my last blog. So many of you provided wonderful first sentences from books you enjoyed and all of them made me want to read those books. Of course at this point, my TBR list is so long that I’d need nine lives like a cat in order to read them all. That is true for virtually all book lovers. This is why the saddest Twilight Zone episode ever was the one about the librarian who somehow survived a catastrophe, emerging to find NYC was intact but all the people were gone. I saw it as a child, so I am very fuzzy on the details. All I remember is the ending. He was naturally stunned at first, but then realized he could spend the rest of his life reading. But as he sat on the steps of the New York City library, he dropped his glasses and they broke. I think I cried when that happened.
I still have to pace myself when it comes to using the computer, so this will probably be my shortest blog ever. Not surprisingly, it is book-themed. Here is my question: What was the book you read this year that truly resonated with you, one you will long remember? This is sure to give us all dozens of new books to add to our TBR lists as we go happily off into book bankruptcy together.
For me, it was The Underdogs: children, dogs, and the power of unconditional love by Melissa Fay Greene. This was one of the most moving and inspirational stories I’ve ever read. The author tells the true story of Karen Shirk, a young woman stricken at age 24 with a neuromuscular disease that put her in a wheel chair and made her dependent upon a ventilator. She was turned down by every service dog agency in the country because she was “too disabled.” Instead of despairing, she trained her own service dog, but she was haunted by the thought of all the people who were being denied the service dogs that would have enabled them to lead productive lives, especially children.
The result was 4 Paws for Ability, the service dog academy that she founded and runs today in Ohio. The Underdogs tells the story of how this came to be, interspersed with heartbreaking glimpses into the lives of overwhelmed parents struggling desperately to help their stricken children, families whose lives would be transformed by the service dogs that Karen selected for them. As I read this remarkable book, I could only marvel at the resiliency of the human spirit and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The Amazon description of The Underdogs says it better than I could: “Written with characteristic insight, humanity, humor, and irrepressible joy, what could have been merely touching is a penetrating, compassionate exploration of larger questions about our attachments to dogs, what constitutes a productive life, and what can be accomplished with unconditional love.” I have decided that if I am ever lucky enough to win the lottery, a good portion of those winnings will go to Karen Shirk and 4 Paws for Ability. It costs over $16,000 to train one of her service dogs, most of which she finds in shelters; she helps the families to raise the money. But if ever anyone deserved a financial good angel, this is the woman.
I’d like to close by calling a few books to your attention. I do this from time to time, for even though I have not read these novels, I think they might be of interest to my history-loving, book-loving readers and friends. I will start with Samantha Wilcoxson, who has written two intriguing novels about historical figures we have come to care about. Her newest is Faithful Traitor: the story of Margaret Pole. Margaret was the daughter of George of Clarence, who was murdered—no other word for it—by Henry VIII and would later by beatified by the Catholic Church. Her second novel tells the story of a woman familiar to any readers of The Sunne in Splendour, titled Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: the story of Elizabeth of York.
Moving back to the twelfth century, Hilary Benford has just written a novel about Richard I’s sister, Joanna, titled Sister of the Lionheart. I really enjoyed writing about Joanna and can well understand the magnetic pull she exerted upon Hilary. And Charlene Newcomb is continuing the story of two fictional young knights who accompanied the Lionheart to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade. The first book was titled Men of the Cross and her new one is called For King and Country. All of these books are available on Amazon’s mother ship and its satellite sites and the last time I checked, they were garnering some very enthusiastic reviews.
Lastly, there is finally a biography out of the eldest surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor, known to history as the young king and to readers of my books as Hal. It has proven to be harder to hunt down than a unicorn; I am still waiting for my copy to arrive from Amazon. But the young king’s eloquent and devoted champion, Kasia Ogrodnik, has just received her copy, I think from Book Depository. I am looking forward to reading it, albeit feeling a bit frustrated that it was not available when I was writing Devil’s Brood. I have a few reservations simply because I wonder if there was enough extant material on the young king to support a full-scale biography.
Dr Judith Everhard, the highly-regarded scholar who wrote the brilliant Brittany and the Angevins, once told me that she’d initially meant to do a biography about the “forgotten” son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, only to discover that there was not enough material to warrant a biography. She wisely expanded the scope of her project to include the other Angevins, especially Henry, and I will be forever grateful to her for that, as she is the first historian to study Geoffrey and his too-brief reign in Brittany. The author of Henry, the Young King is another noted historian, Matthew Strickland, whose previous books I enjoyed greatly and found very helpful in my own writing. So if anyone can do justice to a biography of the young king, this is the man.
Well, so much for this being a brief blog. You’d think I’d know better by now. One final thought; here is the link to Kasia’s always interesting blog about the young king and his flamboyant family. http://henrytheyoungking.blogspot.com/
July 31, 2016
I am sorry it has taken me so long to do a new blog, but it is never a good thing to anger a deadline dragon; they make awful roommates. I am trying very hard to get back on track for The Land Beyond the Sea, not easy since I often have to deal with computer sabotage from the aptly-named Diablo; just last week, he suddenly made all the tool bars vanish in Word, right in the middle of a chapter. To add insult to injury, he ignored all my efforts to restore them, and I finally had to contact the Geek Squad. Never doubt that computers have a malicious sense of humor.
I was trying to think of a good blog topic, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to discuss opening lines in novels that we like. I’m sure many of you have your favorites, too, and I’d love to hear about them. I think my all-time favorite is the beginning of The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Probably the most quoted first line is from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Below, in no particular order, are opening lines that caught my fancy—at least the ones that first popped into my head when I began this blog.
I am a huge fan of P.F. Chisholm’s marvelous Elizabethan mysteries which revolve around Sir Robert Carey, a cousin of the queen. If you are not familiar with this series, you are in for a treat. This is from Plague of Angels: “You could always tell when you were nearing a town from the bodies hanging on the gibbets by the main road, thought Sergeant Dodd.”
Another writer I love is Khaled Hosseini. This is from The Kite Runner: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
Full disclosure: I am a friend of Stephanie Churchill. But I cannot imagine anyone reading the opening line of her novel The Scribe’s Daughter without wanting to continue reading. “I never imagined my life would end this way.”
Here is the opening line of the first book of Diana Gabaldon’s celebrated Outlander series: “People disappear all the time.”
This next entry is also by a friend, Priscilla Royal, whose atmospheric mystery series set in thirteenth century England is also highly recommended. This is the first line from the first book in her series, Wine of Violence: “During the dark morning hours of a winter day in the year 1270, the aged prioress realized she was dying.” How can you not want to know more?
I’ve always been partial to the opening of John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” The rest of the paragraph conjures up an unforgettable image of a dying land in the midst of a devastating drought. Just in passing, I think his East of Eden is one of the best book titles ever. That might make a good topic for a future blog, no?
One of my all-time favorite books is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I remember browbeating my mom into reading it, and for the first hundred pages or so, she kept complaining, “Are they ever going to get off that porch?” When they finally did, it was “Fasten your seatbelts” time, with readers happily going along for the wild ride. This is the opening sentence: “When Augustus came out on the porch, the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—a small one.” This foreshadows so much—the humor, the sense of time and place, and even the violence; after all, that didn’t end well for the rattlesnake.
Another of my favorite novels is Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeeper, which I think is her finest novel, and considering the quality of her books, that is really saying something. Here is the first sentence: “We came like doves across the desert.”
Probably one of the most famous opening lines comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” I have to confess, though, that Moby Dick is not a favorite of mine. I know it is a classic, but Master Melville told me more about whaling than I wanted to know. I recently saw a spoof of great books, and had to laugh at the summary of the plot of Moby Dick: “Man vs Fish. The fish wins.”
David Blixt is another writer friend of mine; I was completely captivated last year by his Star-Cross’d series set in 14th century Italy. The line I am about to quote must be taken in context, for by itself, it does not seem all that startling. But for readers of the first book, The Master of Verona, the opening sentence in the second book, Voice of the Falconer, was quite shocking: “The greyhound is dead!” The greyhound referred to one of the most intriguing and outrageous and compelling characters I’ve encountered in historical fiction, Francesco della Scalla, aka Cangrande. I told David that Cangrande had quite a few traits in common with Richard the Lionheart, the same swagger, sardonic humor, utter fearlessness, and arrogance tempered by great ability. I once used a wonderful line from a Johnny Cash song to describe Richard: “He was a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” That phrase applies as well to Cangrande, a real-life medieval lord brought to unforgettable life in David’s series. These books are filled with fascinating characters—the great poet, Dante, among others—yet Cangrande managed to overshadow them all. So that opening line of the second novel caused me to gasp in surprise, followed by disappointment. I’d not expected to lose Cangrande so soon. But since David was writing of a man who actually lived, I understood that he was following a road map that was not of his making. Historical novelists are fortunate in that we do get to start our books with these road maps; unfortunately, they often take us places we’d rather not go. So I assumed this was the case with Cangrande. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, so I can only say that things are not always as they seem, either in the real world or the realm of fiction. A very unexpected twist lay ahead for the readers, all the more devilishly delightful because it was absolutely true.
I am going to quote the first two lines from Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight, for the second sentence deserves the highest praise one writer can give to another, a stab of envy and a wistful, “I wish I’d written that.” The first sentence nicely sets the scene, too. “In the dark hours before dawn, all the shutters in the great hall were closed against the evil vapors of the night. Under the heavy curfew, the fire was a quenched dragon’s eye.” See what I mean?
Some of you may not have heard yet of the recent death of Roberta Gellis, whose medieval-themed novels won her fans beyond counting over the years, including me. She is perhaps best known for the Roselynde Chronicles, but I also enjoyed the series she wrote later, about an enigmatic, strong-willed woman who ran a high-class brothel in 12th century London. This sentence begins the second book in that series, A Personal Demon. “The woman was screaming again.”
I love the writing of Dana Stabenow. She is amazingly prolific; in addition to her brilliant Kate Shugak mysteries, she has written stand-alones, another series set in Alaska, and a historical trilogy set in the 14th century which focuses upon the granddaughter of Marco Polo. Here is the opening line from one of the Kate Shugak mysteries, Though not Dead: “The black death did not get to Alaska till November.”
This turned out to be more fun than I anticipated. But since even I don’t want to write a blog that rivals a novel in length, I think I’d best end the fun here. If I may, I’ll do that by revealing my favorite opening lines of my own books. Writers spend a lot of time crafting the beginnings of our books, for they may determine whether a reader puts the book back on the shelf or buys it, so I am reasonably satisfied with all of the opening sentences of my novels. I do have a special fondness for the beginning of Sunne, that being my first book: “Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods.” I also like the opening of Time and Chance: “It began with a shipwreck on a bitter-cold November eve in God’s Year 1120.” And the opening paragraph of When Christ and His Saints Slept: “Stephen was never to forget his fifth birthday, for that was the day he lost his father. In actual fact, that wasn’t precisely so. But childhood memories are not woven from facts alone, and that was how he would remember it.”
I think openings are even more important for mysteries than for historical novels. Here are the opening sentences of my four medieval mysteries. The Queen’s Man: “Do you think the king is dead?” Cruel as the Grave: “They were intimate enemies, bound by blood.” Dragon’s Lair: “The English king was dying. Despite the bone-biting chill of the dungeon, he was drenched in sweat and so gaunt and wasted that his brother barely recognized him.” Lastly, at least until I can write another one, Prince of Darkness: “They came together on a damp December evening in a pirate’s den.” I think I’d choose that one as most likely to hook a new reader. Do you agree? Anyone who posts an opinion about one of my mysteries will be entered in a drawing, the winner to get a personalized copy of Prince of Darkness.
Now comes the best part. Please let me know your own favorite first lines. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever resonates with you, including any of my books, she hints.
May 16, 2016
I am sorry for the delay in posting this sequel to my blog about my white shepherd, Shadow, but I’ve had some pain issues that limited my time at the computer. I am having a better day , so I am going to see if I can tell Tristan’s story. After Shadow’s death, I was not sure I’d ever be ready to adopt another shepherd. Several months later, that wound was still very raw, but I did want to take in another dog, knowing how many there are in desperate need of good homes. So I finally decided to adopt a dog unlikely to find a family. I began to check the Echo White Shepherds Rescue page and there I found Tristan, then called Hank. He did not sound as if people would be banging down the doors to adopt him for he was nine, which is elderly for a shepherd, and not in good health, so skinny you could count his ribs and unsteady on his feet; his coat was also very thin in patches. All in all, he looked rather bedraggled. I contacted Joan, the woman who’d rescued him from a high-kill FLA shelter, and she told me his sad story. She pulled him from the shelter on his very last day and the shelter staff tried to talk her out of taking him, suggesting she take a younger, healthier dog. Luckily for Tristan, she paid them no heed; I came to consider her Tris’s Echo Angel and I daresay he’d have agreed with me.
We did not know his history, of course; he’d been found as a stray. He was so emaciated that he may have been on his own for quite a while; either that or he’d been owned by someone who’d not bothered to feed him very often. His behavior made it obvious that he’d not been an indoor dog, probably chained up in a backyard, the sad fate of far too many dogs. Joan was able to find someone who agreed to take him in temporarily as a foster; she had half a dozen dogs at her own house then, so there was simply no room. My main concern was that he was friendly with other dogs, as I still had my poodle, Chelsea, and Joan was able to assure me that he was getting along well with his foster family’s dog. So I applied, was approved, and then we set about planning to get Tristan from FLA to NJ.
What followed was a fascinating odyssey. Echo White Shepherd Rescue—an amazing organization—lined up thirteen kind-hearted volunteers, each one to drive Tris for an hour or two. They kept me informed of his progress and I shared it on Facebook: He is now in SC, he has reached Raleigh, etc. His pilgrimage was followed with great enthusiasm, and I could only marvel that this dog, who’d come within an hour of being euthanized, was now being cheered on by people all over the globe. One of my readers said it was like tracking Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve, but my favorite comment came from my Australian friend, Glenne, who said it was like passing the Olympic Torch. My friend Rachael and I drove down to MD to meet his final escorts, a delightful couple named Lizbeth and Paul. Tristan must have been bewildered, but I was told he’d endured the travel with equanimity, and when we were ready to go, he hopped willingly into the back seat of my car. We then drove right into a monsoon, the most intense rainstorm I’d encountered in years, so bad we had to keep pulling off the road since at times I could not even be sure we were still on it. I could only hope that this was not an ill omen.
My new shepherd was now renamed Tristan; surely no one is surprised that I picked a medieval name? He showed himself to be friendly to Chelsea, who was used to living with dogs who towered above her like redwood trees dwarfing a sapling. A visit to my vet revealed that he weighed only sixty-four pounds, had some arthritis in his spine, and was likely between eight and nine years old. I would later learn that he was fearful of thunderstorms and whenever he’d creep to my side and tremble as the heavens roared overhead, I felt such sadness, imaging how terrifying it must have been for him in FLA, a state that has some of the most savage storms in the country.
He was quite intelligent, as most shepherds are, although he was not at all interested in the traditional dog obedience class; I suspect he found it boring to keep walking in circles and repeating the same commands. I eventually took him for private lessons and there he excelled. For probably the first time in years, he was getting enough to eat and he began to thrive. His limp disappeared and his skimpy coat became so plush and thick that a polar bear might well have envied it. And to my surprise, this frail senior citizen morphed into Godzilla, going from that emaciated sixty-four pounds to a robust ninety-five pounds, increasing his body weight by fully a third. I hope to be able to add a few photos, as my blog is still balking at that. I would like to share one of Tristan and Holly and one of Tris, looking like the lord of the manor.
Tristan loved to play with toys, perhaps because he’d never had any, his favorite being a stuffed duck that my friend Jim kindly sent him—addressed to Tristan Penman! He loved riding in the car, going for walks in the woods, and catching balls or toys in his mouth; no matter how high they were thrown, he never missed a single one. He was not pals with my poodle, Chelsea, but they got along well. She was quite ill by then, for she’d gone into kidney failure the same week that Shadow had died, and there was only so much the vet could do. She died in May and Tristan became an only child—until I was browsing Petfinder in December and came across a little spaniel up for adoption at Last Chance Ranch in Quakertown, PA.
It was love at first sight and I was delighted when they approved me to adopt her. She’d been found wandering the streets of Philadelphia, with no collar or microchip, and when no one came to claim her, she was turned over to Last Chance. She was still so friendly and trusting that we assumed she could not have been on her own for too long, but the rest of her history remains a mystery. I decided Tristan was too old for a two hundred mile round trip, and so I left him home when I drove up to get Holly, thinking there’d be no trouble since he’d been fine with Chelsea. It did not quite turn out that way, though.
I knew that dogs should meet on neutral ground, so I parked by a small park across the street from my house, then went to introduce Tristan to his new roommate. Holly was very friendly. He was not. He did not growl. He did not bristle or stiffen. There were no overt signs of hostility. But I was picking up a bad vibe. So did Holly, for she suddenly shrieked and dove under the car. Once I got them into the house, I put her in Tristan’s crate, which he’d only used for the first few days. I was quite upset, for I was already smitten with this little girl and did not want to have to return her to the rescue group. Yet unless I could be sure she’d be safe with Tristan, I’d have no choice.
Tristan had apparently decided he liked being an only child, for he regarded this interloper quite coolly. He’d showed no signs of aggression, though, so I soon felt it was safe to let them interact under my supervision. What followed was hilarious. Spaniels are sweet dogs, if not considered the sharpest knives in the drawer, but Holly was blessed with brains as well as beauty, and she set about winning him over. Tristan would be lying on his bed and she’d come over to snuggle next to him. He’d get up and stalk away, for all the world like an elderly uncle who does not want to babysit the kids. She was not daunted by his rejections, continued her campaign. When he felt she was being too pushy, he’d give a low, warning growl. She’d immediately flip over onto her back in the submissive puppy pose and bat those long golden lashes up at him. Watching, I would think, “Tristan, you’re toast.” And sure enough, in less than a week, she had him right where she wanted him, under one of her feathery, delicate paws. He was too old and too large for them to be genuine playmates, but their mutual affection was quite touching and I am sure they enjoyed each other’s company. As much as dogs bond with people, most of them need time with their own tribe, too.
Those of you who have friended me on Facebook already know the end of Tristan’s story. My vet had been treating his arthritis of the spine, using acupuncture and chiropractic as well as more traditional methods. But in November of 2012, he suddenly began to experience considerable pain in his spine. Nothing seemed to help. I did not realize how serious it was, though, until he started to have difficulty walking. To show you what an excellent doctor my friend John Phillips is, he diagnosed Tristan’s condition as a collapse of his spinal column, and that from three thousand miles away in England. He was right. My vet tried a massive dose of steroids as a Hail Mary pass, to no avail. Tristan died on November 16, 2012. I’d only had him for twenty months, but it was a comfort to know that those were probably the best months of his life.
March 9, 2016
I am very pleased to welcome Priscilla Royal back to my blog for a discussion of her latest novel, Land of Shadows, the twelfth book in her mystery series set in thirteenth century England. This is good news for any readers who’ve not yet discovered her books; finding a new author who has an extensive backlist is always a blessing for book lovers. In the interest of full disclosure, Priscilla is a long-time friend. She is also a very gifted writer who shares our deep-rooted love of history, understanding that our past was someone else’s present; credit where due to the historian David McCullough for that apt turn of phrase. Priscilla has also generously agreed to offer a signed copy of Land of Shadows for a book drawing; anyone who posts a comment on this blog is automatically entered and eligible to win.
Tell us about your latest book.
Land of Shadows is a mystery, but it is also a tale of generational change, the complications that brings, and the tragedy of condemning the innocent along with the guilty. In March 1279, the queen has just given birth at Woodstock Manor, while Prioress Eleanor’s father is dying. Richard, her nephew, anticipates the arrival of his own father, a man he hardly knows, and dreads divulging a secret that will set them further apart. Brother Thomas is horrified to discover that Father Eliduc, his nemesis, has a troubling hold over young Richard. Elsewhere in England, hundreds of Jewish families also mourn, their loved ones accused of money clipping and hanged with little concern for truth. With their property looted and confiscated to enrich King Edward, poverty sharpens the agony of their loss. Violence always begets violence. When one of the queen’s ladies is found hanged, Prioress Eleanor and her monk are dragged away from their own sorrows to right a wrong and find a killer before another innocent is hanged for a crime not committed. Sons struggle with sons. Power shifts from one generation to another. What is the meaning of justice in a world turned upside down?
Why did you choose this particular point in history?
History is full of periods when prejudice is used for political gain. In the late 1270s, the mood of Christian Europe turned ugly as the crusades went badly, and the Jewish community became a scapegoat. Jews were hated as avaricious money lenders, foreign, and stubborn in refusing to convert from their faith. Politics joined hands with bigotry as kings sought to gain favor with popes and barons by persecuting the Jews, and Edward I wasn’t about to be left behind. In Sanctity of Hate, I dealt with one of his first anti-Semitic laws, but the sweeping night arrests for the treasonous act of coin clipping was lethal in 1278 and 1279. There was no doubt that some Jews did clip coins, but 13th century English Christians, who also committed the crime, suffered only token punishment. Hundreds of English Jews, men and women, were hanged with little regard for the truth of their circumstances. When the king discovered that many had been condemned based on planted evidence, he did stop the executions although he still made sure he benefited financially for such mercy.
You have said in the past that you would never write a real historical character. Yet Edward’s wife, Queen Eleanor, has a cameo appearance in this book. What made you change your mind?
Well, you have been hinting subtly! I also wrote my way into a corner and was unable to escape giving the queen a brief appearance. The murders in Woodstock occur when Eleanor of Castile is recovering from childbirth. Would she really not bother to thank Prioress Eleanor, a woman who left her own father’s death bed to catch a dangerous murderer? Maybe this meeting could have been done off-stage, but somehow that seemed like a cheap trick. So the two Eleanors meet, an event that gives my prioress pause even when she knows she has been honored. Although Eleanor of Castile was a charming woman, she also knew how best to use others to her advantage. Iron hand in velvet glove and all that. So my Eleanor has reason to worry about the future, now that the queen has met and evaluated her for future use.
Brother Thomas’ evolution in the series has been interesting. Would you talk a bit about the changes your auburn-haired monk has gone through?
In the beginning, Brother Thomas presented a problem. He was an excellent co-sleuth for Prioress Eleanor, but I was beginning to fear they were too perfect a couple. I did not want my two religious to discover a less than chaste joy in the monastic hayloft. Dear Thomas solved this for me by whispering in my ear as I fell asleep one night: “Don’t worry. I’m gay!” Fully awake, I turned to my fictional character, who was very chuffed with himself, and replied: “Do you have any idea how much research this forces me to do?” But the reading and pondering has been fascinating because medieval sexuality was primarily centered on who was supposed to do what to whom and when. The term “sodomy” covered a multitude of unacceptable sexual acts, and the concept of homosexuality simply didn’t exist. Gay men and women often did contract the obligatory marriages while doing what heterosexuals did to ease unsatisfying unions: they found sexual and emotional outlets elsewhere. After several books, Brother Thomas has finally recovered from the emotional trauma described early on and may have finally found a man who loves him. But Thomas is still a monk and honors his vows. Durant allows himself to “sin” with men anonymously, but “seducing” a monk is a “sin” he cannot countenance. It is a complex situation I’ll find challenging to resolve without resorting to pat answers. In the end, the realities of the era must be honored, but I promised my auburn-haired monk I would not provide a resolution that that did not respect the ways gay men and women have always found to “hide in plain sight”.
Why did you choose clerical sleuths and the Order you did?
First, I love to share surprises I discover while reading about the Middle Ages. I picked the Order of Fontevraud because it was a double house of men and woman, run by a woman. In the medieval era, women were not the equal of men. They were there to serve. So why was such an Order, and a very successful one at that, allowed to exist and how would a woman rule men effectively? Prioress Eleanor illustrates. I also chose religious sleuths over secular ones because the liege lord of a secular sleuth is a noble or a king. Religious sleuths speak to a higher authority. The Church and State were in constant war over power and wealth, but each usually respected the other’s traditional authority. Prioress Eleanor has the power of justice over those in her fiefdom, the priory. Outside, the monastic walls, she has moral authority. In the world of Edward I’s England, the rule of law was just beginning to be codified. Some leeway was possible for individual punishment. Like Brother Cadfael, the inspiration for my sleuths, Eleanor and Thomas seek a more perfect justice because their God is perfect.
What are you working on next?
With each new book in a long series comes the worry that it will not be fresh enough or very good. But I try to avoid that by posing myself a plot or character problem in each mystery. With the current work-in-progress, now called The Proud Sinner, I was inspired by Agatha Christie’s book, And Then There Were None, in which all the suspects die. Of course, there is no way I could match the mastery of a plot genius, but I loved her misdirections and wanted to try some of my own. My new story is a winter tale of seven abbots, all of whom dislike each other, who are stranded at Tyndal Priory after one falls ill and dies. Much to Prioress Eleanor’s horror, others begin to die as well, and even Sister Anne is perplexed. Of course, there are other problems in the book besides the murders. Crowner Ralf must deal with his hated brother, Abbot Odo, who is in the abbatial party and may be a suspect. Gracia, Eleanor’s maid, must decide whether to leave the priory or take vows. Brother Thomas has been dealt yet another emotional blow. But I have shown some mercy to characters in the book. All is well with Prioress Eleanor’s cat…
How can readers contact you?
Should anyone have questions about my books, they can reach me through my website at www.priscillaroyal.com. And I am one of several mystery writers blogging on The Lady Killers at www.theladykillers.typepad.com.
Thank you so much, Sharon, for inviting me to your blog. Your books have been an inspiration and a pleasure for so long. I am honored to be one of your interviewees!
Thank you, Priscilla, for agreeing to do this interview. By now, reading one of your novels is like visiting with old friends, with the added suspense of knowing there is a murderer in our midst. I had to read Land of Shadows in one sitting, and I will wager that most of you will do the same.
February 8, 2016
After I lost my shepherd Cody, I found it helped to write a blog about this remarkable dog. But it will be four years in January since the death of my shepherd Shadow and until now I have not been able to write about him. Perhaps it was because he was young and I’d never lost a young dog before; it is easier to accept the death of a beloved pet if he or she lived out their natural life span. Perhaps it was because Shadow’s history was so tragic. Or because I still miss him so much.
In the past, when I’d lost a dog or cat, I’d always gotten another one, in part because it made the grieving easier and in part because I knew so many pets are in such desperate need of homes. But after Cody’s death, I found it difficult to bring another shepherd into my home and my life. I almost adopted a very nice shepherd mix from Echo White Shepherd Rescue, only realizing at the eleventh hour that I was not ready. So I waited, occasionally checking out the shepherds on Petfinder. But on the night that I found Shadow, I was not yet looking for a dog to adopt. I’d just read an article about training shepherds and there at the bottom of the page was a photo of the saddest shepherd I’d ever seen. He was painfully skinny and his eyes held nothing but despair and fear. When I clicked onto his photo, I learned that he was called Boo and he’d been picked up by animal control as a stray. Because he was a shepherd and because he was so obviously terrified, the shelter employees were wary of him, understanding that a fearful dog could sometimes be a dangerous one. But Shadow’s luck was about to change; one of the shelter employees worked with the Burlington County Rescue Alliance and she was drawn to this frightened young dog. Susan entered his cage and sat down quietly. After a while, he crawled over and put his head in her lap. She took him home with her that night.
She soon discovered how horribly he’d been abused. He was afraid of leashes, belts, brooms, anything that triggered memories of being beaten. If she raised her hand near his head, he flinched and whimpered. Once she happened to lift her foot in his vicinity and he pancaked, dropped flat, and began to tremble. Dogs may not have the power of speech, but he was offering compelling and heartbreaking testimony that he’d been beaten and kicked by his previous owners, subjected to so much cruelty that he’d come to expect such treatment, even though he could not understand why that was so. And yet in the two weeks that she fostered him, she never saw him show any sign of aggression, even fear-driven aggression. So her rescue group put him up for adoption on Petfinder.
I did not think I was ready to adopt again, but I was haunted by his sorrowful eyes and I felt compelled to contact her. A week later, I was driving up to meet him. I’d been approved to adopt him and while I realized it would be a challenge to gain the trust of a dog so abused, I could never have driven away without him. So after the papers were signed and I’d written a check, she coaxed him into my car and his new life began.
It did not get off to the best of starts; he was understandably scared to death, and then scared me when he squeezed into the front seat and tried to crouch down at my feet, this while we were going fifty miles an hour. By the time we got home, we both were exhausted. My poodle Chelsea offered a friendly greeting, but it didn’t help. He fled into the guest bedroom and huddled against the door leading into the garage, shaking like a leaf. I let him stay there, coming to sit beside him from time to time and talk soothingly. He did eat and I thought that was a good sign, but I wondered if I’d be able to forge a bond with this traumatized boy.
In the days that followed, I spoke softly and let him progress at his own pace. I’d heard stories from friends in rescue work of dogs that took months to overcome their fear; some never could. But Boo—now renamed Shadow—was desperately eager to please. He’d obviously never had toys before and was soon playing happily with them. Judging from his appearance, he may never have been given enough to eat, and he began to show great enthusiasm for mealtimes. In a surprisingly brief time, he literally became my shadow, always wanting to be with me, preferably touching me, pillowing his head on my foot as I worked. He began to put on weight. The first time he barked at the mailman, I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He got along with Chelsea, began to enjoy riding in the car, and watched me constantly. And then he had an epiphany. He realized that he need never be afraid again, and he was filled with joy.
I’ve had many wonderful dogs over the years, but I l do not think any dog loved me as much as Shadow did. Once he became convinced that he would not be hurt again, that he could trust me, he was so grateful for that. I was surprised that this transformation had happened so quickly, and even more surprised by the way he began to respond to other people. No longer so painfully skinny—he went from 63 pounds to 80—and with a plush white coat that looked like ermine, he was a stunningly beautiful dog and whenever I walked him, he attracted attention. It was like going out with a rock star, for most people have never seen a white German shepherd and they reacted as if he were a unicorn. I’ve had shepherds all my life, and they have been bred to be one-person or one-family dogs. As long as they’ve been trained, they are civil with strangers, but somewhat aloof. Not Shadow. When his admirers flocked around him, he was delighted; I joked that he’d begun to channel his inner golden retriever. I understood why he’d come to love me so quickly and wholeheartedly; I was the first person to give him love. I was amazed, though, that he was willing to trust others, too, this dog who’d never been given any reason for trust. But for the first time in his life, he felt safe and loved and he blossomed in his new world.
We soon developed routines. He was always sitting by my bed in the morning, waiting for me to awake. He insisted upon coming into the bathroom when I took a bath, determined to protect me from drowning or the infamous land shark. Every night he followed me upstairs, where he hopped on my bed and wriggled around like a silver dolphin. Then he’d jump down and pad next door to the spare bedroom that he’d claimed as his own, stretching out on the bed and putting his head on the pillow with a sigh of contentment; some mornings I discovered that he’d even pulled the blanket up over his shoulders in his sleep. I wish I’d thought to take photos of Shadow’s bedtime ritual, but I never imagined our time would be so limited.
I’d adopted him in early May. As the year turned cold, his appetite began to falter, and my vet was as puzzled as I was by this. He did not seem sick or in pain, but I sensed something was wrong. My vet did some diagnostic tests, and eventually an ultrasound revealed a mass in his liver. At my vet’s recommendation, I immediately took Shadow to a clinic in North Jersey that specialized in cancer treatment.
I was fearing the worst, but an x-ray revealed an unexpected and hopeful diagnosis. Not cancer. He had a severe diaphragmatic hernia, caused by blunt force trauma. When I told the vets that we strongly suspected he’d been kicked, they confirmed that was the likely cause of his injury. We arranged for surgery the next day. While they warned me that it was possible the surgery would fail, they felt there was an excellent chance that he’d make a full recovery. It was hard to leave him, for he looked stricken when they took him away, letting out a little moan of protest, yet without the surgery, he would die. It was as simple as that.
The surgery went very well and two days later, I was allowed to take him home to convalesce. What occurred next was remarkable. At the time, I was deeply touched; now it hurts to remember. When they led Shadow into the vet’s office and he saw me, he began to talk. That is the only way I can describe it. Overcome with joy that I’d come back for him, he wanted to tell me about his ordeal, how frightened he’d been, fearing I’d abandoned him. For more than ten minutes, he “talked” to me, not barking or growling or whining. His tone rose and fell exactly as our voices do when we converse with others. I’d never seen a dog do this, and neither had the vet; she even called in some of her colleagues to listen to him.
I don’t know who was happier, me or Shadow. He was in some discomfort for it had been major surgery. But he was so excited to be home that it did not seem to matter. At least not for three days. I’d gone to get him on a Monday. On Thursday there was a sudden change in his breathing; it became very fast and shallow. I at once rushed him to my vet, where they discovered that his lungs were filling with fluid. They drained it and he seemed better, so I was able to take him home.
But the next night, his breathing became labored again. By the time I got him to my vet, he could barely breathe. After consulting with the clinic surgeon, my vet took an x-ray that confirmed his fears—pulmonary edema. There was nothing we could do except end his suffering. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and when I got home, the house felt as empty as my heart.
Anyone who has lost a beloved pet knows how much it hurts. Even knowing that I’d done all I could for him did not help. He proved to be as loyal in death as he was in life, always hovering on the far edges of memory, my faithful silver ghost. It was the injustice that I found hardest to accept. He’d enduring so much fear and misery in his young life, only having nine brief months in which he felt safe and cherished. A friend reminded me that dogs do not experience time in the way that we do, that they live utterly in the moment. So for Shadow, he said, those nine months were infinite. I so hope he is right.
Shadow’s story touched many of my friends and readers, and I like to think that some of them may have been moved to adopt from shelters or rescue groups. In my case, the road eventually led to Florida and another white shepherd, Tristan, whose history will be related in My White Wolves, Part II.
November 11, 2015
I have waited for over two months for the winner of my Sunne book giveaway, Laurie Spencer, to contact me, having no way to contact her myself. But to no avail, so I finally decided it was only fair to do the drawing over again; that probably means that Laurie will surface as soon as the new blog is posted….sigh. I can provide a signed paperback edition, though, as a consolation prize when she does. Meanwhile, there are two new winners in the re-drawing for the commemorative hardcover edition of Sunne, for when I pulled out one number, another one had attached to it, like a limpet to a ship’s hull. Since they emerged at the same time, it seemed only right to call them both winners. So…..Anna Kallumpram and Chris Torrance, please contact me so I can arrange to personalize and mail your copies to you. You can post a comment on this blog, use the Contact Sharon feature on my website, go to one of my Facebook pages, or e-mail me at email@example.com.
I have a very important battle scene looming in the next Outremer chapter and am really looking forward to it. At the risk of sounding bloodthirsty, I enjoy fighting battles, find it very therapeutic—unless a favorite character has to die, of course. Fortunately, that is not the case in this battle. But because of this coming bloodshed, I will have to keep this blog shorter than usual.
I love Colorado in general and Denver in particular; in the good old days, they used to send me to the Tattered Cover on every book tour, but sadly, that has not been the case in recent years. So I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Historical Novel Society convention in Denver last June, and I am so glad I did. One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes is a commentary on the anti-social tendencies of authors; he claimed that most writers dragged themselves about in public like gut-shot grizzly bears. Not always true, though, for I had a wonderful time attending panel discussions and catching up with friends like Priscilla Royal, Barbara Peters, Margaret George, Anne Easter Smith, Judith Starkey, Mary Tod, and David Blixt, among others; I also enjoyed meeting Charlene Newcomb, who has written a novel set during the Third Crusade, Men of the Cross. Because this was the largest of the HNS conventions to date, with over 450 writers and aspiring writers attending, it was inevitable that some of us would be like ships passing in the night; for example, Helen Hollick and I missed each other altogether and Christopher Gortner and I got to exchange hugs, but had no time to chat. As an added bonus, I got to meet some of my Facebook friends at a book signing that was open to the public, and Karen King, a very gifted artist, gave me a beautiful portfolio of paintings she’d done of several of my characters: Llywelyn and Joanna, Richard III and Anne Neville, and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. My blog continues to make it very difficult to insert images into the narrative—one reason why we will soon be moving it—but I will do my best to include one of Karen’s paintings for you all to see.
For me, the highlights of the weekend were David Blixt’s swordplay sessions on Friday. David and his actor friend, Brandon, put on a phenomenal show, first showing us how to kill with medieval swords and axes, and then how to kill with rapiers and other Renaissance weapons…..often while playing out scenes from Shakespeare! David and Brandon are experienced Shakespearean actors and would have been superb soldiers in the armies of the Lionheart, the Yorkist kings, or Cangrande della Scala, Lord of Verona in David’s magnificent Star-Cross’d series set in 14th century Italy. After showing us how it is done, David and Brandon then offered lessons in how to lop off heads and skewer evil-doers. Most of those in the class happily gave it a try, but I played the “senior citizen with a bad back card” and watched just as happily from the sidelines. You’ll understand if I am able to include a photo from that session; you’ll notice that the broadsword I am holding is almost as tall as I am!
I stayed over in Denver after the convention ended in order to visit with a Colorado friend, Enda Junkins, who’d accompanied Paula Mildenhall and me on our memorable trip to Israel last year. We had a very enjoyable dinner with Mary Tod and Margaret George and the next day Enda enabled me to cross Pike’s Peak off my Bucket List by driving me up to the top of that summit. Well, it actually was not on my Bucket List, but it should have been, for the views were spectacular. Only one slight problem—I found I couldn’t breathe very well at 14, 0000 feet! Apart from a train trip through the Alps many years ago, I’d never been at such a height, for the highest peak in my beloved Snowdonia is less than 4,000 feet. But the journey was well worth being out of breath and I highly recommend it for those of you visiting Colorado in the future.
The trip would have been perfect if only I’d been able to ask Scotty to beam me up or had my own private jet or a dragon to ride like Danni in Game of Thrones. I was stuck flying United, though, with all the attendant joys that flying offers us these days. Delays, bad weather, an almost-diversion to Colorado Springs, more delays, a cancelled flight, and during the actual time trapped in the flying tuna cans, all the comforts enjoyed by Roman galley slaves chained to their oars. I know, travel is still easier for us than it was for people for most of history, but that is not always much consolation at 35,000 feet when we find ourselves forced to get very up close and personal with our seatmates because airlines keep shrinking the seats in order to squeeze even more into every row.
Okay, end of rant; it did help. I will be waiting to hear from you, Anna and Chris. And I promise to hold another drawing for the hardcover edition of Sunne before the end of the year. Meanwhile, please wish me luck with the upcoming battle.
August 8, 2015
I would like to thank all of you who entered the drawing and posted such lovely comments about Sunne. That meant so much to me; I never imagined that Sunne would resonate so strongly with so many or that it would continue to attract new readers three decades and counting after its initial publication. And I certainly never imagined that Richard’s lost grave would be found or that he’d be re-interred at Leicester Cathedral with such ceremony and world-wide attention. Richard the rock star? No, I definitely did not see that one coming!
I am happy to announce that the winner of a signed hardcover copy of the new British edition of Sunne is Laurie Spencer. And the runner-up winner of a signed paperback edition is Cynthia Fuller. As soon as I get mailing addresses from you both, I will put your copies in the post. I know many of you will be disappointed, so I promise to hold another Sunne book drawing before the year is out.
When I was listing all the unexpected developments concerning Richard and Sunne, I neglected to mention the remarkable fact that we now know what he looked like, thanks to that forensic reconstruction of his face. I do not see him as a blond, though. I do not doubt that his hair was that shade as a small child, but I think it darkened as he grew into maturity. My own hair was the color of sunlight until I was about three or so, and then it darkened, too, as is usually the case. I suppose it is possible that his hair did not, but I am not yet willing to surrender the mental image of Richard that served as inspiration during the twelve years that it took me to write Sunne. So I can say with certainty that my Richard was not a blond! At least his youthful appearance has been restored; he was not yet thirty-three at the time of his death, but the portraits—all done after Bosworth when it was highly advisable to portray him in as sinister a light as possible—made him appear as if he had one foot in the grave.
We rarely get detailed descriptions of the medieval dead in the years before the age of portrait painting. Until the 16th century, we must depend upon the chroniclers, and they were notoriously indifferent to the needs of future historical novelists. The best we can usually hope for is a throw-away line or two. We know that Randulph de Blundeville, the Earl of Chester in Here be Dragons, and Robert Beaumont, the Earl of Leicester in Lionheart and Ransom, were both shorter than average, for they were praised for the valor of their spirits in such small bodies. We know that Llywelyn ab Iorwerth’s rebellious son, Gruffydd, was a big man and had put on weight during his captivity in the Tower of London, for a chronicler tells us that this was a contributing factor in his death; he was so heavy that his makeshift sheet-rope broke, hurling him to his doom. We know that Balian d’Ibelin, the major character in my current work, Outremer, was very tall, for a chronicler reports that he was chosen to carry the young child-king, Baldwin V, to his coronation because he was the tallest man in the kingdom.
The chroniclers of that same kingdom rather unkindly describe Renaud, Lord of Sidon, as very ugly, while lauding his intelligence. But that is positively benign compared to one Saracen chronicler’s comments about the controversial and brilliant Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, son of the Lionheart’s nemesis, Heinrich von Hohenstaufen, and his unhappy consort, Constance de Hauteville, Queen of Sicily in her own right. According to Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi, “The Emperor was covered with red hair, was bald and myopic. Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at market.” It is only fair to include a more favorable description of Frederick from the Cronica of Salimbene: “He could read, write, sing, and compose music and songs. He was a handsome man, well-built but of medium stature.” Which one was right? Who knows?
William, the Archbishop of Tyre, tutor to the young king Baldwin, and author of Deeds Beyond the Sea, which is considered by many to be the finest history written by a man of the Middle Ages, provides some remarkably detailed descriptions of the highborn lords of their kingdom. William of Montferrat was the elder brother of Conrad of Montferrat, the latter a character in Lionheart, whose fate haunted Richard in A King’s Ransom. William came to Jerusalem to wed Sybilla, Baldwin’s sister, with the expectation that he and she would rule once Baldwin’s leprosy incapacitated or killed him. William of Tyre brings him vividly to life in his chronicle, telling us that he was tall and handsome with blond hair, that he was “exceedingly irascible but very generous and of an open disposition and manly courage. He never concealed any purpose but showed frankly just what he thought in his own mind. He was fond of eating and altogether too devoted to drinking, although not to such an extent to as to injure his mind.”
William offers an even more remarkable description of King Amalric, father to the tragic Baldwin and uncle to our Henry II; Amalric’s father, Fulk of Anjou, was Henry’s grandfather. It is worth quoting in full:
“He was a man endowed with worldly experience, very shrewd and circumspect in his deeds. He had a slight impediment of the tongue, not so much that could be considered a defect, but so that he had no elegance in spontaneous, flowing speech… His body was of pleasing stature, as if it had been measured proportionally so that he was taller than the average, but smaller than the very tall… His face was attractive… His eyes were bright, and somewhat protruding; his nose, like his brother’s, aquiline; his hair yellow, and slightly receding; his beard covered his cheeks and chin with pleasing fullness. However, he had an uncontrollable laugh, which made him shake all over… He was fat beyond measure, in such a way that he had breasts like a woman, hanging down to his belt…”
William also tells us of Amalric’s shrewdness, his ambition and courage, his greed, his taciturn nature, and his indifference to the boundaries of matrimony. He may not have been loved by his subjects, but he commanded their respect, and if not for his untimely death, at age thirty-eight, the history of his kingdom might have been far different.
William saw Amalric clearly, aware of both his vices and his virtues, but he loved Amalric’s son. It was William who first discovered the symptoms of that dreaded disease when Baldwin was only about ten or eleven. Here is his description of the young leper king:
“I cannot keep my eyes dry while speaking of it. For as he began to reach the age of puberty, it became apparent that he was suffering from that most terrible disease, leprosy. Each day he grew more ill. The extremities and the face were most affected, so that the hearts of his faithful men were touched by compassion when they looked at him. Baldwin was adept at literary studies. Daily he grew more promising and developed a more loving disposition. He was handsome for his age and he was quick to learn to ride and handle horses — more so than his ancestors. He had a tenacious memory and loved to talk. He was economical, but he well remembered both favors and injuries. He resembled his father, not only in his face, but in his whole appearance. He was also like his father in his walk and in the timbre of his voice. He had a quick mind, but his speech was slow. He was, like his father, an avid listener to history and he was very willing to follow good advice.”
If only William had been so generous in his descriptions of the highborn women of Outremer. He apparently took his vows of chastity seriously, for he says not a word about the appearances of any of them. He calls Queen Melisende, mother to Amalric, whom he admired, “sparse.” He says of Baldwin’s mother, Agnes de Courtenay, whom he loathed, that she was “detestable to God.” And that is it.
Fortunately one of the Saracen chroniclers was more verbose, at least when describing Baldwin’s youngest sister, Isabella, who would one day rule as queen and, as readers of Lionheart will remember, married Henri, the Count of Champagne, only days after the murder of her husband, Conrad of Montferrat, by two Assassins as he rode through the streets of Tyre. Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, a member of Saladin’s inner circle, seems to have been rather smitten by Isabella, describing her poetically, as follows:
“…one of the daughters of heaven; her face, shining white, appeared like the morning in the night of her very black hair.”
Moving on to Baldwin’s Angevin cousins, we have very detailed descriptions of Henry II. We know that his hair was red, but greyed as he aged, that he kept it cropped short because he worried about going bald. We are told that he had grey, bloodshot eyes that were “dove-like” when he was feeling peaceful but “gleamed like fire” when he was in a temper. He was of “medium height,” and powerfully built, with a broad chest and a boxer’s arms; he was also bow-legged, which they ascribed to the long hours he spent in the saddle. He was said to be “a man blessed with sound limbs and a handsome countenance, one upon whom men gazed a thousand times, yet took occasion to return.” The chroniclers lauded his intelligence, his memory, his sardonic humor, and his “knowledge of all tongues spoken from the coasts of France to the River Jordan, but making use of only Latin and French.”
We know that Henry’s two eldest sons, the Young King (Hal in my books) and Richard, were taller than average, and his two youngest sons, Geoffrey and John, were shorter than average but handsome. Thanks to an invasion of John’s tomb at Worcester Cathedral, we know that he was five feet, six inches tall, so that fits with the guess of historians that Henry would have been about five feet, nine inches, and Hal and Richard over six feet. One who knew Richard said that “He was tall, of elegant build; the color of his hair was between red and gold; his limbs were supple and straight. He had long arms suited to wielding a sword. His long legs matched the rest of his body.” As for Richard’s neglected wife, Berengaria, it is believed that she was only five feet, based upon a discovery of bones thought to be hers at the abbey she founded. The most famous description of her comes from the acid pen of Richard of Devizes, who deemed her “more prudent than pretty.” Very catchy, so it is not surprising it has been so often quoted, but Richard of Devizes never laid eyes upon her. One chronicler who did, Ambroise, tells us she was very fair and lovely. We do know that her younger sister was thought to be quite beautiful, so my guess is that she would not have scared any children had she ventured out without a veil. I don’t think the breakdown of her marriage to Richard had anything to do with her appearance; they had much more serious differences to deal with, as I hope I was able to portray convincingly in Ransom.
Henry’s daughters, Mathilda and Joanna and Eleanora were all said to be lovely, and of course not a single chronicler thought to mention the hair or eye color of their celebrated mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. This lapse has led to some unintentional humor on the part of Eleanor’s biographers, with one assuring us that she had golden hair and blue eyes while another one tells us with equal certainty that she had black hair and eyes and a voluptuous figure.
As a dynasty, the Plantagenets seem to have been a good-looking lot, but it is such a pity that we have no portraits of any of them that are comparable to the portraits done of the Tudors. We do have some fascinating reconstructions, though. Click onto this YouTube link if you’ve not seen Eleanor and Richard, brought to mesmerizing life by Jude Maris, based upon their effigies at Fontevrault Abbey. Watching them “wake up” from their long sleep is both amazing and a bit eerie. She also does Henry II, Elizabeth Woodville, and the six wives of Henry VIII. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVOFwLfchWA
Lastly, here is the link to ten very interesting historical forensic reconstructions which are, of course, much more reliable than those that are done from effigies. Here you will find Richard III in his blond incarnation and Mary, Queen of Scots, among others. Well worth a look.
Again, thank you all for participating in the drawing, and congratulations to the winners.
June 1, 2015
SUNNE IN SPLENDOUR BOOK GIVEAWAY
When Pan-Macmillan, my British publisher, recently ran a book giveaway for Sunne on their website to coincide with Richard’s remarkable re-interment in Leicester, some of my readers felt left-out since it was open only to my British readers. I promised that I would hold one of my own for everyone as soon as I got the chance. It took a while, thanks to the antics of the Deadline Dragon and to my dealings with the Grim Reaper—I had to kill a character and since we do not know his fatal disease, I had to choose one and then run it past several good-natured doctor friends of mine. This happens surprisingly often, unless a character was thoughtful enough to die on the battlefield or in childbirth. Occasionally, a chronicler will actually know what illness killed someone and wins the hearts of historical novelists by writing it down. For example, we know that Henry II’s son, Hal, AKA the Young King, died of dehydration caused by dysentery. Henry II most likely died of septicemia. The Lionheart died of gangrene and I’ve always thought that Edward IV caught a fatal case of pneumonia, which was a deadly disease in the MA—and still is in many areas of the world today. The Black Prince seems to have died of cancer, as did Llywelyn Fawr’s son, Davydd. I usually attempt to choose a disease that was a common cause of medieval deaths; for example, peritonitis for Joanna’s husband, the King of Sicily, typhus for John the Scot, Earl of Chester, and pneumonia for Llywelyn’s Joanna. This latest Grim Reaper brought typhoid into my last chapter, which was known as hectic fever back then.
I did not mean to go off on such a morbid tangent—sorry. I am still marveling at the events in Leicester, turning a controversial medieval king into a media rock star; who could ever have predicted that? So I am giving away a signed hardcover copy of Sunne, brought out by Macmillan in September, 2013 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Sunne’s publication in the UK—and no, I never imagined that Sunne would still be so popular and attracting new readers, some of them not even born when I was working on Sunne. In order to be eligible, you simply have to post a comment on this blog. Anyone on the planet can enter, and the winner will get the hardcover edition. I am offering a consolation prize, too, a copy of the new British paperback edition of Sunne. I would also have offered a copy of the American paperback of Sunne, but it does not have the new Author’s Note that I wrote about the discovery of Richard’s lost grave or the corrections and minor dialogue changes that I made in the hardcover edition of Sunne. For that, you must buy the e-book edition, and I haven’t yet figured out a way to sign a Kindle—although I was once asked to autograph a Kindle cover on a book tour!
Speaking of book tours, many writers fear that they are on the endangered species list. Publishers have been cutting back, focusing more on regional tours if they do book tours at all. The turmoil in publishing plays a role in this, the Internet even more so. It is so much easier to reach out to readers than it was even ten years ago, thanks to social media like Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter, just to name a few. I admit I have not ventured onto Twitter myself; a woman who writes 800 page books does not take naturally to expressing herself in just 140 characters—and yes, there are actually on-line calculators for that very purpose. I am curious; how many of you use Twitter? Do you think writers should use it? Would you follow your favorite writers on Twitter?
And while we are at it, what do you all think about book tours? Would you enjoy going to a bookstore to attend a book signing and reading? I know that some publishers think book tours will eventually become obsolete, believing that there are more efficient means today of promoting a book. I do not agree, for I would really miss these opportunities to meet my readers, especially those I have been interacting with on Facebook on a daily basis. But then it is difficult to imagine what changes lie ahead for the publishing industry. It has certainly been transformed in the thirty-three years that I’ve been a published writer. Who knows what it will be like in another thirty-three years. It has even been suggested that books could disappear entirely, at least in their present formats. If that does ever happen, I hope I’ll be dead by then!
Okay, the book drawing is officially open.
April 21, 20015
SIX WORDS OR LESS—AGAIN
I’d like to thank all of you who participated in the book giveaway for Priscilla Royal’s new mystery, Satan’s Lullaby. The lucky winner is Anne; if you have not done so already, Anne, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Priscilla at email@example.com
I am doing something unusual for this blog, recycling a past one. This was In Six Words or Less, which addressed the six word memoirs fad. As I explained in that blog, when Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story in just six words, he delivered a knockout punch: “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.” In my blog, I cited some clever or poignant efforts by those inspired by Ernest. “Came, saw, conquered. Had second thoughts.” “Like an angel. The fallen kind.” And “Everyone who loved me is dead.”
I then moved on to some of our favorite historical characters and tried my hand at reducing their larger-than-life histories to six words or less. Here are a few examples that I came up with in that blog. Henry II: “Happier if I’d only had daughters.” Richard I at Chalus: “Damn! Should have worn my armor.” Thomas Becket: “A saint now. I win, Henry.” I came up with six word memoirs for almost all of my major characters—the Welsh princes and their wives, Simon de Montfort, and the Yorkists. And I concluded by challenging my readers to come up with six word memoirs of their own—for themselves, for historical characters, whomever came to mind. And they really responded, crafting some wonderful responses. Unfortunately, those stellar efforts won’t show up on this blog. But for any of you curious to read them, here is the link to that earlier blog. http://sharonkaypenman.com/blog/?p=356 It was posted over two and a half years ago, in October of 2012, the major reason why I decided to rerun it; I realized that I have so many more Facebook friends now that many of them probably never saw it. So here is the challenge again. Read the blog below and then try your own hands at it. Good luck!
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IN SIX WORDS OR LESS—OCTOBER 21, 2012
Some of you may remember a few years ago when six-word memoirs became the rage. Supposedly this trend could be traced to an anecdote about Ernest Hemingway. Challenged to write a short story in just six words, he sat down and scribbled: “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.” Whether that was true or not, many people were inspired to take a shot at it, and at least one book of their split-second memoirs was published. I thought it might be fun to try it for historical figures. But first let me give you some examples from Six-word Memoirs. They are funny, ironic, wry, poignant, tragic, playful, disillusioned, clever —in other words, they run the gambit of human emotions.
Here are some I found sad: “I still make coffee for two.” “I like girls. Girls like boys.” “I hope to outlive my regrets.” “Everyone who loved me is dead.” “Was father. Boys died. Still sad.” “So devastated. No babies for me.” “Coulda, woulda, shoulda. A regretful life.”
Here are some I thought were clever or amusing or thought-provoking. “Verbal hemophilia; why can’t I clot?’ “Woman seeks men; high pain threshold.” “Perpetual work in progress. Need editor.” “Memory was my drug of choice.” “Came, saw, conquered. Had second thoughts.” “Always working on the next chapter.” “Lapsed Catholic. Failed poet. Unpublished prayers.” “Like an angel. The fallen kind.” “Giraffe born to a farm family.” “Tried not believing everything I thought.” “The militant who became a monk.”
Okay, everyone ready to play? How about this one for Henry II, a bit trite but true: “Happier if I’d had only daughters.” Or Richard, musing on his deathbed at Chalus. “Damn! Should have worn my armor.” Eleanor: “Rebellion? Probably not a good idea.” John: “Why do people not trust me?” Hal: “I was king; no one cared.” Geoffrey: “I was always the forgotten son.” Thomas Becket: “A saint now. I win, Henry.” The Empress Maude: “I was cheated of my destiny.” Eleanor and Henry’s daughter, Leonora: “I couldn’t live without my husband.” Berengaria: “If only I’d had a child.” Joanna: “I found love, but too late.” The French king Philippe: “God rot all those accursed Angevins.” His unhappy queen, Ingeborg: “Why did I ever leave Denmark?” King Stephen: “The crown brought me little happiness.” Here’s another one for Henry, which probably crossed his mind during his last days at Chinon: “Betrayed by all whom I loved.” Rosamund Clifford: “Loved by Henry, forgiven by God.” Henry’s illegitimate son Geoff, the Archbishop of York: “I never wanted to take vows!” Richard again, “The Lionheart legend lives on, Philippe!” Eleanor: “A mother shouldn’t outlive her children.” Geoffrey of Anjou, who died within a month after Bernard of Clairvaux prophesied his death: “Don’t let Bernard gloat about this.” Or Maude again, maybe wistfully this time: “I’d have been a good queen.” Her brother Robert, barred by illegitimacy from the throne: “I’d have been a better king.” And I’m going to cheat now and give John the last word, this one from Here Be Dragons: “I always knew I’d die alone.”
Moving on to Llywelyn Fawr: “Poor Wales, so close to England.” Joanna: “I loved him; he forgave me.” William de Braose, who was hanged by Llywelyn for his infidelity with Joanna: “Hellfire, no woman is worth this.” Llywelyn’s son Gruffydd, about to escape from the Tower: “Now if only the sheet holds.” Llywelyn’s grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd: “God help Wales once I’m dead.” His wife, Ellen de Montfort: “But we had so little time together.” Their daughter Gwenllian: “Tell me, please, where is Wales?” Davydd ap Gruffydd: “Could not live with my regrets.” His wife Elizabeth de Ferrers: “My crime? That I loved Davydd.” Their son Owen, imprisoned from the age of three by Edward: “Why am I being held here?”
Edward I: “For me, more was never enough.” Henry III: “Westminster Abbey was my true legacy.” Simon de Montfort: “I died for a just cause.” Also, “My brother-in-law was such a fool.” His wife, Nell: “I’d do it all over again.” Their son Bran: “Never enough wine to drown memories.” Guy de Montfort, who committed suicide in a Sicilian dungeon after Edward I blocked a ransom: “Please God, let me go mad.”
Edward IV: “Burned my candle at both ends.” Richard III: “Please bury me at York Minster.” Anne Neville: “I wanted Middleham, not Westminster Palace.” Elizabeth Woodville: “I should have known—damn Edward!” Edmund, 17 year old Earl of Rutland: “This cannot be happening to me.” Marguerite d’Anjou: “My life? Much grief, few joys.” Cecily Neville: “My life? It lasted too long.” Elizabeth of York: “My life? I did my duty.” Henry Tudor: “Tudors lay claim to Hollywood next.” George of Clarence: “What’s that? A butt of malmsey?”
Okay, how about everyone else giving it a try? You can choose any historical character, though Henry VIII and his wives might be too easy. You can write your own memoirs instead, if you wish. (You may notice that I cravenly ducked that one.) Have fun.
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I hope you all agree with me that this was worth redoing. And here is more information on the book I cited in that blog, which was great fun to read. Not Quite What I was Planning; six word memoirs, edited by Rachael Fershleiser and Larry Smith.
PS. How ironic is it that I created this six word memoir for Richard III in that earlier blog: “Please bury me at York Minster.”
March 11, 2015