My White Wolves

November 11th, 2015

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.


When he was Boo

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.


Shadow on the couch

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

New winners of Sunne book drawing and fun in Denver

August 8th, 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

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!

David, Sharon, & Broadsword

Sharon holding a broadsword with David Blixt

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


June 1st, 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.
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


April 21st, 2015


Sunne in Splendour

Sunne in Splendour

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


March 11th, 2015

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 or Priscilla at
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. 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!
*      *      *      *      *
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.

*     *      *      *      *
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


February 6th, 2015

I am delighted to be able to interview my friend and fellow historical novelist, Priscilla Royal, whose newest mystery, Satan’s Lullaby, is now available for sale on-line and in brick and mortar bookstores, assuming you can find one; you can buy it in hardcover or paperback and it will be out as an e-book, too, very soon.    This is the eleventh novel in Priscilla’s series set in 13th century England, so for any of you who have not yet read one of her books, you have a book-lover’s blessing awaiting you; what is more fun than finding a new, wonderful author and then discovering that they have an extensive backlist waiting patiently for you?   I have been reading Priscilla’s books since the first one, Wine of Violence, but I remember how excited I was when I read the fifth book in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series, Death of Kings, and then realized I could read the first four books without having to endure those interminable delays between books.

One of the joys of a historical series is that we get to escape into a fictional world that is both familiar and foreign.  We have come to care about Prioress Eleanor, highborn and high principled, Brother Thomas, the kind-hearted, conflicted monk, Sister Anne the healer, the prickly crowner, Ralf, and his new wife, Gytha, the cocky Arthur, the feline king of the convent.    But there is much about the thirteenth century that is alien to us; we never forget for a moment that these are men and women of another age, and better than any other author I know, Priscilla is able to demonstrate how important religion was to medieval people, how closely their faith was integrated into their daily lives—even the sinners, and every mystery has sinners.

I am also pleased to announce that Priscilla has generously agreed to donate a signed copy of Satan’s Lullaby to one fortunate reader.  As with past book drawings, anyone who posts a comment on this blog is eligible to win.  Good luck!

But it is always better to let authors speak for themselves.   And so here is Priscilla Royal, a kindred spirit who shares our fascination with the past.

Tell us about your newest book.

Satan’s Lullaby was born of a discussion I had with another reader at an author’s tea at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale AZ. She asked if I had ever read the 13th century Archbishop Eudes Rigaud of Rouen. He recorded his tours of monastic houses in Normandy where he examined the state of their infrastructure as well as their obedience to vows and rules. I knew I had to put Prioress Eleanor through this wonderfully annoying investigative review. She has won great repute, not only as a solver of crimes, but also as a successful priory business manager. This was bound to make someone jealous enough to want to damage her reputation. In addition, she always traveled with Brother Thomas. The question might be asked: was she sleeping with him? Oh, joy, I thought, she will be so miserable and have to solve murders too! There was a difference between most Orders and the Order of Fontevraud, however. Fontevraud was under the authority of Rome so no local archbishop would do this investigation. The Abbess was allowed to arrange them herself, which meant, if the few surviving records are correct, not many were done. This fact made it even more troubling when Abbess Isabeau sends her own brother, soon to be a bishop, to do the review. I also threw in that Crowner Ralf and his wife, Gytha, are expecting the imminent birth of their first child; Gracia is settling into her role as maid to the prioress; and Eleanor’s nemesis, Sub-Prioress Ruth, is suffering from gout. If anyone wants to kill in this book, it should be the latter, but I promise she doesn’t.

You have written eleven books in your series. Some authors begin to get bored with their characters. I hope you aren’t.

None of my characters, major or minor, have begun to bore me. But authors are always concerned that the characters are starting to bore readers. Long series can remain fresh. I don’t think anyone ever found Brother Cadfael boring, and Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks is as exciting today as he was 23 books ago. But I have read series books where the main character has become a talking shell. Successfully or not, I try to make sure my characters change with their experiences and as they get older. That may bother some readers, for example, who liked Prioress Eleanor as a 20 year old, falling passionately in love with Brother Thomas, but don’t like how she is learning to deal with this love. Others enjoy the evolution. But no one stays exactly the same, and, if the person is a dear friend, we love them just as much (if not more) at 60 than we did at 20. So I have chosen to replicate real life in the series and hope there are others who find the evolution just as much fun as I do.

Have you considered where you might end the series?

I am trying to come up with a contract arrangement with some attorney, specializing in afterlife rights, so I can continue these books after my death. If I am successful, I would like to take Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas into, perhaps just through, the reign of Edward II. They would be in their late 70s at that time, but monastics often lived longer than seculars and in pretty good health. But I suspect both would want to retire from murder and mayhem after that! In the meantime, I have many more ideas on what to put my two beloved sleuths through.

You often include medical issues in your books. In Forsaken Soul you have an older woman with osteoporosis. In The Killing Season, it was leprosy. Sanctity of Hate has a description of a difficult childbirth. Now you talk about gout. Is there a reason?

I love medicine. At one point in my naïve youth, I considered becoming a doctor or a medical researcher, then realized in high school that I would never pass the classes required for any of that. So now I devour books by such authors as Professor Carole Rawcliffe. It is fun debunking some of the assumptions about medieval medicine, although I do show how people suffered without the treatments available today to those who can afford care. Medieval medicine was often barbaric and they knew nothing about sterilizing or bacteria, but careful observation produced some surprising results. The accurate diagnosis rate by physicians for leprosy surprised me. There was a remedy for gout, although it was dangerous to use. Battlefield physicians learned a lot about wound treatment, and Christian doctors gained much from the Muslims during the crusades. Were it not for curious medieval men and, yes, women who bucked entrenched ignorance and rampant prohibitions to seek facts, we would not be benefiting now from our greater knowledge of illness.

What are you working on next?

This new book, Land of Shadows, takes place in early 1279 and involves a generational change. Until now, Eleanor and her eldest brother, Hugh, have been defined as the children of Baron Adam, who was a close friend and advisor to Henry III. But Edward I has been king for seven years. It is time for Hugh to take on his own hereditary responsibility, a change that will also increase Eleanor’s influence as a baron’s sister, not his child. My other sub-plot is the coin-clipping pogrom against the Jewish community. For a king called “the lawyer king” or “the English Justinian”, this episode points out the flaws of such marketing. When it came to hanging members of the Jewish community, Edward showed little interest in fair trials or the likelihood of false accusations. Needless to say, other murders happen in this story and at the worst possible time for my prioress. She is beginning to hate me…

How can readers contact you?

Should anyone have questions about my books, they can reach me through my website at It has just been redone, and I am delighted with it. I am also one of several mystery writers blogging on The Lady Killers at

Thank you so much, Sharon, for so generously inviting me to post on your blog. Had it not been for your beautifully written and well-researched books, I would not have been inspired to try historical fiction.

Thank you, Priscilla, for agreeing to this interview and for giving so many of us so many hours of reading pleasure.   The Book Giveaway is now officially open.    And for those who want to read Satan’s Lullaby straightaway, here is a link to Amazon.

February 6, 2015


January 22nd, 2015

My Facebook readers and friends know that in the last few years, I have been sharing my home with a deadline dragon, who has any number of annoying habits; he sheds scales all over the house, scorches the furniture with his fiery breath, and never lets me forget that ticking clock, by his very presence reminding me that time was running out for Lionheart, A King’s Ransom, and now for Outremer.   Sadly, this is the way of publishing nowadays; writers are expected to write faster than the proverbial speeding bullet, even writers whose books require extensive research.    Because of this sort of pressure, I’ve all but given up reading for pleasure, a painful sacrifice for someone who loves to read as much as I do.   The result is that my To Be Read List is as long as any of my own novels; I figure that to read all of the books on that list, I’ll need to live to be 150 or so.    One of the books on that list is Edward II, The Unconventional King, by Kathryn Warner.   After you read our interview, I am sure that large numbers of you will want to add her book to your own TBR lists.
Edward II was as controversial as he was unconventional, but much of what people think they know about him is often wildly inaccurate for he was also one of the most maligned of the English kings.   That is what makes Kathryn’s biography of such value, and Edward was very fortunate to have attracted the attention of this dedicated historian.    She candidly admits that he was a failure as king, while arguing persuasively that Edward the man was as interesting and multi-dimensional as any of the Plantagenets.    Many of you are already familiar with her blog about Edward and his times, which I consider one of the best historical blogs on the Internet.   So I am very pleased that she has agreed to do this interview.

Can you introduce us to Edward II?

He was the son of Longshanks, but please don’t hold that against him.  :-)  Edward II was a very different man to his father.  He was born in Caernarfon, North Wales on 25 April 1284  - six and a half months after his father had Dafydd ap Gruffydd executed - as the youngest child of Edward I and his first Spanish queen, Eleanor of Castile.  He was at least their fourteenth child, perhaps even fifteenth or sixteenth, though only he and five older sisters (Eleanor, Joan of Acre, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth of Rhuddlan) survived childhood.  Edward was only six when his mother Queen Eleanor died in November 1290, and he succeeded his father as king of England in July 1307, when the sixty-eight-year-old Longshanks died at Burgh-by-Sands near Carlisle on his way to a military campaign against Robert Bruce in Scotland.  Via his mother Eleanor, Edward II was the grandson of Fernando III, king of Castile and Leon, who was canonised as San Fernando in 1671.

What’s your background, and how long have you been studying Edward II?

I studied medieval history and literature at the University of Manchester in the north of England, where I gained a BA and an MA with Distinction. I wrote an essay about Edward II in my second year of university, but only started studying him and his reign in earnest some years later in 2004, and began a website about him in 2005. In 2011, I had an article about him published in the prestigious English Historical Review, and around the same time began researching and writing my biography.  In June 2014, I appeared in the BBC documentary The Quest for Bannockburn as an expert on Edward. I first became passionately interested in him when I read a novel in 2004 which mentioned his great-uncle Richard of Cornwall (Henry III’s brother), and started looking up and reading all about Richard and his family.  It somehow struck me, seeing Edward II on the family tree, how little I felt I knew about him (despite my university essay about him), and I resolved to put that right, and started reading whatever I could find about him. Within days, I was lost. It was as though I’d found what I was meant to be doing in life, and my interest – obsession! – has continued ever since.

What is it about Edward that you like so much more than any other character in history? What is the most surprising or unusual thing you have found out about him?

He was so utterly unconventional for the time he lived in, and this fascinates me, though it exasperated his contemporaries! He liked ‘rustic pursuits’ such as hedging, digging ditches, thatching roofs and shoeing horses, and was enormously strong, healthy and fit. Edward enjoyed or preferred the company of his low-born subjects: in 1315 he went rowing and swimming in the Fens with a ‘great company of common people’, according to a distinctly unimpressed chronicler, and there are numerous references in his household accounts to his spending time with the low-born, such as his giving a pound to a woman he drank with in Newcastle in 1310, watching a group of men fishing near Doncaster in 1322, passing the time at a wedding in 1326 with a servant who ‘made the king laugh very greatly’, and inviting a group of shipwrights to come and visit him at Kenilworth Castle the same year. There are numerous other examples in the records of his chatting with fishermen, blacksmiths, carpenters, sailors, ditchers and so on. In August 1326, he himself joined a group of men hired to make hedges and a ditch in the park of Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire (which had once belonged to his great-uncle Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester), and gave money to the one of the men working with him in the ditch, so that he could buy himself new shoes.

Edward had a great sense of humour, as well as the typical Plantagenet vile temper, and his vivid and flawed personality comes right out of the pages of history at me 700 years later. His surviving chamber accounts of the 1320s are far and away my favourite source for his reign, full of the most delightful little snippets of information about him, such as giving generous sums of money to numerous people who had brought him gifts of fish, chickens and ale as he sailed along the Thames and his staff having to buy a key for a chest of money to replace one ‘which the king himself lost’. It’s true that Edward was a disastrous ruler and war leader, so much so that he was the first king of England forced to abdicate his throne, but he was a fascinating man, and there is so much more to him than the one-dimensional and crude stereotype we still see today in Braveheart and in much historical fiction - and even non-fiction.

Edward has been considerably maligned over the centuries. What is the worst thing you have found that anyone has ever said about him?

I would never deny that Edward was an incompetent king, but some of the things said about him are totally unfair and unreasonable. One seventeenth-century writer, for example, said he was ‘worthy never to have been born’. What perhaps upsets me most is the modern notion, popularised by Braveheart, that he wasn’t the real father of his son Edward III. Several novelists have also written this nonsense into their stories (not a shred of contemporary evidence exists for the notion, and it wasn’t invented until 1982, in one of Paul Doherty’s novels). It amazes me that in the twenty-first century there is still so much contempt for Edward’s non-heterosexuality – I’ve lost count of how many prejudiced, bigoted and unkind statements I’ve seen about him in this respect. I once had the misfortune to read a romance novel featuring Edward as a character, and the hatred and revulsion the author showed for him literally made me feel ill – he was a flabby, effeminate and repulsive worm of a man, everyone including his own lover loathed him and he made people shudder with disgust, he didn’t care about his children and refused to pay their expenses, and he was called ‘perverted’ and ‘unnatural’ because of his sexuality frequently throughout the novel, in a way which made it obvious that the author was expecting her readers to share this opinion rather than expressing the prejudices of the early fourteenth century. The way the writer gloated in her author’s note over the ‘red-hot poker’ story of Edward’s murder in 1327 (which she presented as fact, although it most certainly isn’t) and called it ‘ingenious’ was just the final straw.

Certain modern novelists and even non-fiction writers, apparently in the belief that Edward II just hasn’t been maligned enough for the last 700 years, seem to be falling over themselves to invent new slurs to hurl at him that are based on no evidence at all. In recent years, he’s been said to have committed ‘atrocities’ in Wales (nope, never; he wasn’t his father), to have had Jewish people who set foot in England murdered (definitely not), to have allowed his ‘favourite’ Hugh Despenser to rape his queen (not a shred of evidence), to have been ‘extraordinarily stupid’ (he may not have been a Mensa candidate, but he founded colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge, borrowed books from a monks’ library in Canterbury and was a cultured man who enjoyed music and plays), and to have not cared about his children to the extent that he could barely remember their names (the evidence strongly suggests he was actually a loving, caring father). And there are at least four novels I can think of where another man is put forward as the real father of his children, although he and Isabella were certainly together at the right time to conceive all four of them and there is absolutely no reason at all to think that he might not have been their father (see this post here):
I find this extremely disrespectful, both to Edward and to Isabella.

Was he really murdered with a red-hot poker?

Definitely not.  This is the number one thing many people think they know about Edward II, and it’s 99.9% sure to be an absolute myth.  It’s not even certain that he was murdered at Berkeley Castle on 21 September 1327 at all - plenty of influential people at the time, including the archbishop of York, the bishop and mayor of London and several earls, believed he was still alive years later and acted on this belief - and if he was, it’s far more likely to have been suffocation than this sadistic method.  Fourteenth-century chroniclers gave a wide variety of causes of death, from natural causes to illness to grief to a fall to suffocation, and more.  Many admitted they didn’t know how he had died.  The red-hot poker is just one of the stories, but probably because it’s so lurid and horrifying, it’s become the standard accepted version of Edward II’s death over the centuries, and was popularised in the late sixteenth century by the playwright Christopher Marlowe.

On your blog and in your new book, you sift through all the negative tales about Edward and put them into context. How do readers react?

I try not to whitewash Edward, but to present him as honestly as possible.  I would never say that he was a good king or military leader – no king ends his reign the way he did, or suffers as many military setbacks, without making a long series of horrible mistakes.  But there’s far more to him and his reign than a one-dimensional disaster sandwiched between the much longer and much more successful reigns of his father Edward I and son Edward III.  I’ve been delighted with the overwhelmingly positive response from my readers – I’d say that 99% of all the feedback I get is supportive and interested, and yes, many people are surprised to learn that there’s a lot more to his character and reign than they’d thought.  Although there will always be people for whom Edward II will never be anything more than the effete gay prince who loses at Bannockburn and gets a poker up the behind, I’d like to think my blog and Facebook page have gone some small way to presenting a more rounded and positive view of him. And I’m so delighted that my book has now come out to set the record straight still further.

Can you recommend any really good Edward II books?

My The Unconventional King, of course! :)  Professor Seymour Phillips published a magnificent biography of Edward in 2010, in the Yale English Monarchs series, which I can’t recommend highly enough.  Professor Roy Martin Haines also wrote a very good biography of Edward in 2003, though it’s perhaps a little too academic for a general audience, and as far as popular histories go, Caroline Bingham’s 1973 work on Edward is excellent and gorgeously illustrated (though necessarily dated now, of course).  The only novels about Edward that I would unhesitatingly recommend are Susan Higginbotham’s The Traitor’s Wife and Brenda Honeyman’s The King’s Minions and The Queen and Mortimer.  Sadly, the latter two are very hard to find these days.  There are a few other novels about Edward and Isabella which aren’t bad either, such as Margaret Campbell Barnes’ Isabel the Fair, Pamela Bennetts’ The She-Wolf and Hilda Lewis’s Harlot Queen.

Kathryn, thank you so much for this enlightening interview.  It definitely inspired me to cheat a bit and move your biography of Edward  much higher on my TBR list.

Kathryn’s Edward II blog can be found at:

Her book Edward II: The Unconventional King, with a foreword by Ian Mortimer, can be bought from Amazon, Book Depository or directly from Amberley, the publisher:

January 22, 2015


January 7th, 2015

Empty Throne

Empty Throne

It is well known that I am one of Bernard Cornwell’s most devoted fans, so it is with great pleasure that I am able to post this interview with BC upon the publication of his latest book in his Saxon series, The Empty Throne.   I’d always assumed that his Sharpe series would remain my all-time favorite, but then I encountered the war lord, Uhtred, in The Death of Kings.  I am not sure how I had not yet read any of the Saxon books, but after I chose The Death of Kings for an article I was doing for NPR about the Best Historical Fiction of 2011, I fell completely under Uhtred’s spell.   Needless to say, real life screeched to a halt while I scrambled to get the first five books in the series and then happily immersed myself in 9th century England with Uhtred as my guide.

He is a marvelous character—clever, courageous, stubborn, sardonic, and reckless.  He is a man of honor, loyal to the oath he swore to the Lady of Mercia, Athelflaed, his long-time lover.   He is also so very human;  often in the books, he is faced with the temptation to do something rash, like braining an annoying priest.  He knows very well that he shouldn’t do it, that it will cause him no end of trouble, but more often than not, he goes ahead and does it anyway.  Like Richard the Lionheart, he is all but invincible in battle, but none of us can defeat time and he has begun to feel his years.  As difficult as this is for Uhtred, it is a challenge for his creator, too, and BC deals with this inevitable aging by letting Uhtred’s now-grown children spend some time on center stage with him.   The Empty Throne is a splendid book, Bernard Cornwell at his best, which is very good, indeed.   And so, without further delay, I give you the best historical novelist writing today.
Q.: You have now written eight books in the Saxon Tales series. How many more are planned?  What is next in store for the characters?
I wish I knew!  I can’t plan a book, let alone a series, so every new tale is an adventure. I’ve always thought the joy of reading a book is ‘to see what happens’, and that’s also the pleasure of writing one. I usually have no idea what will happen in the next chapter, and the only way to find out is to write it! That said, there are one or two obvious pointers in the books so far – Uhtred will regain Bebbanburg and a new country, called England, will emerge from the long wars. Essentially the Saxon series is about that; the creation of a nation. Americans have a precise birthdate, July 4th 1776, but the English have no such luxury and are strangely ignorant about how their nation was formed.
When you start out writing a history-based series, do you know where the chronicle will go, or does each novel take shape as you write it?
I wish I could plan a novel; it would probably make life a lot easier. It seems to me there are two basic methods of novel writing; those who plan their books meticulously and have this wonderful outline to flesh out, and those like me who just start and stagger on till the story is told. I think it was E.L. Doctorow who said that writing a novel is like driving at night down an unfamiliar country road and you can only see as far ahead as your rather dim headlights allow. That’s me. Dim. I reached the last chapter of The Empty Throne and genuinely had no idea what would happen, but was delighted when I found out!
Q.: Unlike in your Sharpe or Starbuck series, here you are writing about a historical period that is much less documented. How do you conduct your research?
Read, read, read, then read some more.  Research takes a lifetime of reading. I suppose you soak yourself in a period until it exists in the imagination.
Q.: Is this lack of historical data a handicap or does it free you as a writer of fiction?
It’s wonderfully liberating! I love the shadowed parts of history that have no explanations because that gives me the freedom to fill in the gaps. For instance we know that someone called Uhtred was the lord of Bebbanburg in the 9th Century, and we know he was Saxon even though all the land about him was ruled by the Danes, but beyond that nothing! So how did he keep his land? The true answer, probably, is that he collaborated, but that’s dull so I can invent other explanations.
Q.: One of the seminal questions at the heart of THE EMPTY THRONE is will Athelflaed, sister to King Edward of Wessex, widow of Æthelred, become Queen? Do you think history would have been different if she had been Queen?
She was effectually the Queen of Mercia, so no, I don’t think history would have been different.  She ruled Mercia very successfully, but always in concert with her brother who was the King of Wessex. History might have been different if she had started a dynasty, but her only child was a daughter who appears to have inherited none of her mother’s abilities. I think the sad thing about Æthelflaed is that she’s been forgotten. She took a crucial lead in the creation of England and deserves to be remembered for that.
Q.: One of the themes in the early books was Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s resistance of Alfred’s Christianity. Now that Alfred is dead, does religion still play a role in this new book?
Probably! The wars that ravaged Britain in the ninth and tenth centuries were not just about land and who should rule, but were also religious. The Danes and the Norsemen were, by and large, pagan, the Saxons (and Angles) were Christian, and the Christians undoubtedly saw their struggle as a crusade. They were doing God’s work! In the end, of course, Christianity prevailed and that did not stop the wars, but they were not to know that. And Uhtred, stubborn as he is, will not abandon his paganism so yes, the religious themes will continue!
Q.: The Saxon Tales, like most of your fifty-plus books – from the Sharpe books and the Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles to your stand-alone novels – are centered on war and set on the battlefield. What attracts you to viewing history through the lens of war?
War is a wonderful background for any adventure story, mainly because history provides you with a ready-made background of mayhem and conflict. What interests me more is the character’s reaction to war. Every society has a moral basis, and almost all condemn murder and manslaughter (‘Thou shalt not kill’), but those moral constraints are lifted by wartime and men (mostly men) are encouraged to flout this basic rule. So how do they react? Some misuse the freedom it offers, other have a more nuanced reaction, and that offers enormous scope for storytelling.
Q.: It was recently announced that the Saxon Tales will be adapted for television by BBC America. How far into the series will the adaptation go?
I have no idea! I guess I depends how successful the first series is.
Q.: Are you involved in the adaptation and filming?
Not even slightly, nor do I want to be. I worked in television for a decade, as a producer of News and Current Affairs, and I learned that I know nothing about producing television drama, so I stay well away. Leave it to the experts!  If they want me to be a cheerleader for them then I’ll happily get out the pom-poms, but other than that? Nothing.
Q.: You are soon publishing your first non-fiction book, Waterloo. Did you find it different writing history as non-fiction rather than fiction?  How so?
The biggest difference was not having to devise a plot!  Plot drives a novel and the hardest thing about writing a novel is discovering that plot, but that burden is entirely taken away. The book still needed shaping, but the story of Waterloo is so compelling that essentially it shapes itself – it all takes place in a very short time (the campaign is just four days), and in a very small space (the battlefield was very restricted) and it has compelling major characters; Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington who were acknowledged as the two greatest soldiers of the age, but who had never fought against each other.  The story of Waterloo has everything, even an amazing cliff-hanging ending. So the ‘plot’ was handed to me on a plate by history, so the hard work was to discover memoirs, diaries and letters that conveyed the real horror of that dreadful day, and I wanted those eye-witness accounts to come from all sides, French, Prussian, Dutch and British, so there was an enormous amount of research and editing to do. I love the book, but am not sure I want to write any more non-fiction!
Bernard, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.  It is very reassuring to know that we can look forward to more Uhtred adventures.
January 7, 2015

My Trip to Outremer

December 8th, 2014

Its history goes back almost to the dawn of time and it has been known by different names down through the ages.  It was called the Land of Israel in the biblical era.   The Babylonians knew it as the Kingdom of Judah. The ancient Greeks called it Palestine.  As a Roman province, it was Syria Palaestina.  It has been called Canaan, the Levant, the Promised Land.   Since 1948, it has been the State of Israel.  But in the twelfth century, it was known throughout Christendom as the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and Outremer, a Norman-French term that translates as “The land beyond the sea.”

I’d always been fortunate enough to visit the places I write about.  While it might not have been absolutely necessary, especially in the age of the Internet, I think I benefited by walking the peaceful pastures that had once been bloody battlefields, by exploring the haunting ruins of once- powerful medieval castles, and by following in the footsteps of Welsh princes, Yorkist kings, and a remarkable Duchess of Aquitaine.  It helped, of course, that these trips were tax-deductible for me!

Lionheart was the first book in which this pattern was broken.  I managed to visualize the places I was writing about, thanks to videos and YouTube.  For example, while looking for information about Arsuf, I was delighted to discover that paragliding is a favorite sport in the area, and there were quite a few videos that offered excellent views of the cliffs of Arsuf.  But I still felt cheated at being denied the opportunity to see these cliffs, cities, and castles for myself, and vowed that I would find a way to do on-site research for my novel about the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The trip seemed snake-bit from the first, though, for the timing was not good.   This past spring, I did a book tour for A King’s Ransom, and while it was great fun, it was also exhausting.  My heart does not even start beating before nine AM on most days, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed having to get up in the middle of the night to catch a dawn flight.   Sleep is always in short supply on book tours and by the time I got home, I was ready to hibernate till the summer.  Instead, I came down with pneumonia, most likely a souvenir from one of my ten flights during the tour; ever since I caught whooping cough, of all ailments, on a flight from London last year, I’ve begun to view planes as flying petri dishes.   The pneumonia flattened me for more than seven weeks and after my doctor told me that it would be foolish to attempt another strenuous, demanding trip in the span of five months, I reluctantly cancelled our second Richard III tour scheduled for September.  That was quite disappointing, but I eventually realized that I should still be able to make the trip to Israel, for I would be able to set the pace, to avoid any obscenely early mornings, and to go back to my hotel to rest if need be, none of which I could do on book or travel tours.

I’d planned to make the trip to Israel with a Colorado friend, Enda Junkins, and when we learned that our Australian friend, Paula Mildenhall, would be in the US in October, I invited her to join us.   For the first time, it began to look as if the trip would really happen—and then war broke out.   We could only wait and watch and hope for a cease fire—not just for us but for all of the Israelis and Palestinians caught up in this maelstrom.  When a cease-fire finally held, we decided to make the trip even though the US State Department was still advising against all non-essential travel.  Since so many people expressed concern about our trip, I want to stress that we felt perfectly safe the entire time we were there, although after we returned home, there was another tragic outbreak of the violence that so often stalks this part of the world.

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in late afternoon on October 8th, and reached Jerusalem as twilight was settling over this ancient city, sacred to three of the world’s major religions.   On our first evening, we discovered the café that would become a favorite for the rest of our stay. The Etz Café is non-profit, run by a Jerusalem charity, Voice of Many Waters.  The food was excellent, their lemonanas were great thirst-quenchers, the staff was young and enthusiastic, and the weather was warm enough to eat at one of their outside tables; Jerusalem has as many outdoor cafes as Paris!   Here is the Facebook page for the Etz Café for any of you planning a trip to Jerusalem or simply curious about a non-profit restaurant.
The café also had what we at first took to be a mascot, a friendly, skinny little cat who greeted us as if he were the host; he kept jumping up on empty seats only to be gently shooed off  by one of the staff, but he’d hop right back as soon as the waiter went inside again.   It turned out that this confident little guy was a stray, one of dozens that we saw during our stay in the city.  They were remarkably friendly for strays, not at all skittish or wary, probably because many Israelis put out food for them, and they were everywhere—even in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre!

We hadn’t realized that we’d be arriving at the start of a holiday called Sukkot, a joyful festival that commemorates the forty years wandering in the desert.  We soon noticed small structures in the city, obviously temporary, and were quite curious until our Israeli friends explained that Leviticus states that “all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths,” as their ancestors did in the wilderness.   They said that today it is enough to eat meals in these sukkots; many families erect them in their own backyards, others are set up for apartment dwellers, and the ones we saw were provided for those who did not have access to sukkots of their own.   I found this quite interesting, so I am including a link here for those of my readers who’d like to know more about this festival. It did create a few problems for us as some places were closed or had limited hours, but if we hadn’t come during Sukkot, we might not have gotten to see our friend, Koby Itzhak, who is serving in the Israeli army; armies the world over tend to be stingy about giving soldiers much free time.   So it was well worth a few minor inconveniences to be able to meet Koby in Jaffa, Akko/Acre, and Sepphoris.

Tower of David

Tower of David

None of you will be surprised to hear that we spent our entire time in Jerusalem in the Old City.  At the top of my To See List was the Tower of David, also known as the citadel.  It is now a museum and their website shows why it is not to be missed for anyone visiting Jerusalem. It dates back to the second century BC, is over two thousand years old!   Naturally it changed as it passed into the hands of the various conquerors of the city; the present structure dates primarily from the 14th century. It became known as the Tower of David during the occupation by the Byzantines, who thought it was the site of the palace of King David.  The citadel was briefly a royal residence after the city fell to the Christian crusaders in 1099, but their kings soon built a large palace to the south of the citadel; sadly, no trace of this royal palace remains.

I was especially interested in seeing what is today called Phasael’s Tower; the original had been built by King Herod, who named it after his brother, Phasael.  It was very important during the crusader period, and it appeared on the royal seal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem; it was here that the terrified citizens took refuge when they feared Jerusalem might be attacked by Saladin in 1177.   I’d already set a key scene in my novel, Outremer, here, as the High Court members gathered to elect a new king after the unexpected death of King Amalric in 1174, so you can imagine how gratifying it was to visit the tower for myself.  The view of the Old City from the roof is absolutely spectacular.  We were fortunate enough to attend one of the Light and Sound shows that are performed in the citadel’s courtyard several evenings a week.   It rained briefly, but it was so warm we didn’t mind, and the show was great fun; it looked as if the crusader knights were going to ride their steeds right into the audience!    You can download a free audio guide of the museum to your computers or other devices; just go to the website link above, click onto Audio Guide and follow the instructions.

The following day was the first of our meetings with one of our Facebook friends.  Elke Weiss is a young American who holds dual citizenship; she is currently working for the Israeli government and she generously offered to give us a personal tour of the Old City.   We got to stroll the narrow, crowded streets of the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian quarters, some of them covered just as they were in the MA.   These modern souks (markets) evoke atmospheric echoes of their medieval counterparts.  In fact, the Muslim and Christian quarters comprise one large souk, with some of their streets devoted to specific wares: David Street for tourist souvenirs, Christian Quarter Road for more upmarket goods, the Muristan for leather, and the Via Dolorosa for religious items.   And yes, we succumbed to the courteous but persistent entreaties of the vendors and did some shopping.  Paula, in particular, did much to energize the Israeli economy.   I think it is safe to say that our families and friends can expect many Jerusalem-themed gifts for Christmas.

I tend to be laser-focused when I travel and hone in on sites that will surface in my books, which means the modern world gets short shrift.   Although I have probably been in London at least 25 times over the years, I have never watched the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and am not likely ever to do so.  But I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to the Tower or Westminster Abbey.     So we paid several visits to Jerusalem’s citadel. We admired the magnificent Damascus and Jaffa Gates, erected on the sites of the medieval gates.  We visited the Western Wall, built by King Herod and Judaism’s holiest site, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.

The first basilica dates from the 4th century.  It was rebuilt at various times in the centuries that followed, greatly enlarged by the crusaders in the years between 1114 and 1170, becoming the burial place of the kings of Jerusalem, but it suffered considerable damage in a 1808 fire and an earthquake in 1927. It has always been a holy pilgrimage site for Christians and was very crowded the day that we were there, with people waiting patiently for hours to be able to enter Christ’s Tomb and view the rock upon which Jesus’s body is believed to have been lain.   The church was fought over by various Christian sects until an Ottoman decree in 1852 divided its custody among the Armenians, Greeks, Copts, Roman Catholics, Ethiopians, and Syrians, and today Jerusalem has four patriarchs, those of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Greek Catholic, and Latin or Roman Catholic churches.  Remarkably, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ceremonially unlocked every morning by a Muslim Key Holder, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, whose family has been entrusted with this duty for hundreds of years; one tradition dates it from the 7th century, while another one traces it to 1192, when Salah al-Din (known to the West as Saladin) and Richard Coeur de Lion agreed that Christians would be permitted to worship again in the city.  Here is a link to a fascinating story about the current Key Holder.

Israeli Sunset

Israeli Sunset

We were not able to see all that was on my list, although we did get to celebrate Paula’s birthday during our stay, having dinner at the Rooftop Restaurant, which gave us a dazzling view of the Old City.  But we had to prioritize since we had such limited time in Jerusalem.  We were not permitted to visit the Dome of the Rock, the  magnificent mosque that dates back to the 7th century, for the huge esplanade known as the Temple Mount and Haram esh-Sharif, Arabic for the “Noble Sanctuary,” was off-limits to non-Muslims because of security concerns.  And unfortunately, my back problems flared up after two days and I had to take frequent breathers for the pain eases up when I sit down; all those Jerusalem outdoor cafes definitely came in handy.  I would have loved to see the 12th century crusader Church of St Anne, which was turned into a Muslim theological school by Saladin.  But I was in so much discomfort by then that I had to give up; Elke kindly offered to visit the church on my behalf and take photos for me.

I was looking forward to walking the ramparts and so it was very disappointing when they were closed on Saturday for what we assume were security threats.   Elke volunteered to take Sunday morning off to accompany us and we decided to delay our departure for Jaffa, hoping they would be open then, as they were.   The walls date from the 16th century, built mainly upon the site of the medieval walls; two sections are open to the public, from the Jaffa Gate to St Stephen’s Gate and then from Jaffa Gate to the Dung Gate—yes, that is actually its name, for medievals liked to call a spade a spade.  There were some very steep steps and it was such rough going in patches that guide books cautioned it was not for the elderly or the infirm, which I thought was a good description of me by the time I hit the half-way point.   It was well worth the effort, though, for it was easy to gaze from the ramparts and imagine Balian d’Ibelin doing the same thing, looking down upon the Saracen army and knowing that he and he alone stood between the terrified citizens and death or slavery. How many men throughout history have been able to save thousands of lives?  You’d think Balian would get more credit for his heroics, but instead he got obscurity and even worse, The Kingdom of Heaven.

We could not have had a better tour guide than Elke, and I am so glad that we were able to meet—thanks to the magic of Facebook.   Over the years, I have heard some marvelous stories from friends and readers about their experiences reading my books.   One of my favorites came from a woman who wrote that she was about half-way through The Sunne in Splendour  when it all came together for her; she said she shot upright in bed and screamed, “Oh, my God!   This is the Richard III!”  Her husband, who’d been peacefully sleeping beside her, was less than thrilled.    I heard from an Australian reader who wrote to tell me that she’d loved Sunne but could not enjoy Here be Dragons because Llywelyn reminded her too much of a former lover.    A friend confided that after reading the scene in which Llywelyn and Joanna consummated their marriage, she went upstairs and—in her words—“gave my husband the best night of our marriage.”     But I don’t think it is possible to top Elke’s story.

She read Sunne when she was only eight years old, which surely sets a record in itself.  But because she was so young, she’d never heard of Richard III or the Wars of the Roses.  So can you imagine what a horrible shock it was to her when she reached the chapter at Bosworth Field?     She told me that she came to her mother in tears, wanting to know why I’d let Richard die!     She did forgive me in time, and Sunne has remained one of her favorite books despite those psychic scars it inflicted upon her eight-year-old self, and when we were in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she said a prayer for Richard’s soul, which touched me deeply.

We left Jerusalem with regret, for it is truly one of the world’s great cities.  Because my back pain was still rather bad, we arranged with our hotel for a taxi since that would be easier for me than public transportation.   During our stay, we found the Israelis to be very friendly and willing to go out of their way to help hapless tourists, as was proved when we arrived in Jaffa, which is today a suburb of Tel Aviv.  A red flag went up when our taxi driver had trouble finding the hotel and when he finally located the address, it was closed up, with no signs of life.   He sought help from passers-by, to no avail.  I’d rented a phone for our visit and of course it wasn’t working; my dead zone apparently recognizes no borders.  With some assistance from our driver, Paula was able to reach a hotel representative, and we learned that there was no one on the premises and we should have been sent codes to allow us to enter the building and then our apts, none of which was mentioned on the website.   We did eventually get in, and were very pleased with the spacious accommodations; I would definitely go back—as long as the entrance codes were provided in advance.  But we were grateful to our good-hearted taxi driver, for he could easily have shrugged and left us to fend for ourselves; even the passers-by waited around to be sure we’d not be stranded.

There is not much left of medieval Jaffa; the crusader castle has long been dust on the wind.  But I wanted to walk in the Old City, to see the harbor, and envision how it was during the heyday of the kingdom of Outremer.  I’d never really seen the Mediterranean before, just a glimpse of a distant blue haze from a train through the south of France, so I enjoyed our “cruise” up the coast toward Tel Aviv and then back to Jaffa, although it took more imagination than I possessed to put us into a medieval galley, sailing with Richard’s small fleet as they desperately sought to reach Jaffa before it fell to Saladin.

For us, the highpoint of our time in Jaffa was getting to meet my friend Koby, who’d been my cyberspace pen-pal for several years.  We spent an afternoon exploring the Old City with Koby as our guide; he was in uniform and attracted quite a few smiles from passersby for soldiers are highly respected in Israel. We had fun discussing medieval events and battles, although Koby did also try to convince us that those cute, cuddly koalas in Paula’s Australia are actually dangerous stealth ninjas who like to pounce upon people from tree camouflage.

On the following day, I rented a car and we drove up the coast to Acre, known now to the Israelis as Akko.  Enda offered to drive and I gladly took her up on that, for we’d have been returning to Jaffa after dark and my night vision is…..well, let’s just say that I could benefit from a seeing eye dog while driving at night on unfamiliar roads.   I was excited about visiting the subterranean crusader city buried beneath 18th century Akko, which was rebuilt by Daher el-Amar after lying in ruins for centuries.  Excavations that began in 1954 revealed and restored some of the halls in what had been the Hospitaller compound, and I’d been looking forward to seeing them.   But upon our arrival in Akko-Acre, we found that it was closed to the public for the Akko Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre was holding a four day festival and this was where their plays were being performed.    Here is a link to a website that shows some of the photos of the excavated knightly halls, so you can see why we were disappointed.

Aside from this unexpected setback, our day was filled with laughter and memories in the making.   We were able to connect with Koby again, and this time we also got to meet some of his family–his mother, Susan, who grew up on Long Island, and his younger sisters, Kinneret and Merav.  They share his love of history, so the 21st century receded into the distance as we talked enthusiastically about the past.  Akko is a historian’s gem, more than four thousand years old, with one of the world’s oldest ports, and during the crusader period, it was notorious for its diverse population, its raucous vitality, and its multitude of opportunities for bad behavior.  It is surprising how many famous men found their way to Acre—Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, St Francis of Assisi, St Louis, Napoleon, who suffered a rare military defeat there.  We smiled to see a street named after Salah al-Din.    There is one named after Richard the Lionheart, too, which I am sure would please him, although I doubt he’d be happy to know that his nemesis, the French king, also has a street of his own.

After a leisurely lunch with Koby’s family, they departed and he and Paula, Enda, and I strolled through the narrow streets of the Old City down to the harbor, where we took another brief cruise, thinking of all the conquerors and would-be conquerors who had crowded to the prows of their ships, eager for their first sight of the city called Akka by the Egyptians, Ptolemais by the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines, Akka  again after the Muslim conquest, and St Jean d’Acre by the crusaders.

Our last day in Israel was, for me, the most memorable.  Another of our Israeli Facebook friends, Valerie Bendavid, had offered to drive us out to see the battlefield at the Horns of Hattin, where Saladin had destroyed the army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Valerie suggested we make a few stops on the way, so we got to see the impressive ruins of the Hospitaller Castle of Belvoir, which is the best-preserved crusader castle in Israel, and another site that I’d already written about in an early Outremer chapter.  After Hattin, it held out against a siege by Saladin for a year and a half, and that is easy to understand after studying its plans, for it was in effect two castles, with  rectangular outer walls, reinforced with square towers, that surrounded a  square inner enclosure that also had four corner towers.  In the 12th century, it was poetically described by Muslim historians as “a nest of eagles and the dwelling place of the moon.”

Belvoir Castle

Sharon and Valerie at Belvoir Castle

We got our first view of the famous River Jordan and were surprised to find that it was not at all like the raging torrent I’d always envisioned it to be.  The Sea of Galilee was quite impressive; the largest fresh-water lake in Israel, it is about 21 miles long and 8 miles wide, and yes, I looked that up.  Many of Jesus’s miracles were said to have happened here.  During the years when the Kingdom of Jerusalem flourished, it was the site of an important castle at Tiberias, which would be used as bait by Saladin to lure the crusader army to its doom at Hattin.

Our last stop before the battlefield was another place with multiple names.  Today it is called Zippori, but its original Greek name was Sepphoris; during the period when it was under Muslim control, it was known as Saffiyura, and in the time of the crusaders, it was called Le Sephorie.  It was already a strongly fortified city in 100 BC; Herod the Great had a palace here.  Nero renamed it Eirenopolis Neronias—Nero’s City of Peace; who knew Nero had a sense of irony?   A famous Jewish scholar, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi lived there c. 200 AD.   We could easily have spent several days in Sepphoris, for there was so much to see.  The remains of the ancient city include the street gridlock, ruins of the Roman theatre and bathhouses, a synagogue, several churches, private dwellings, a crusader fortress.   Here is a brief video on YouTube that shows you what an amazing site it is, a treasure trove for lovers of history or archaeology.

My main interest was the crusader citadel, a two story dwelling that dates from the 12th century, although there were some modifications under the Ottomans.   Le Sephorie was a place of great significance to Outremer, for it is one of history’s most intriguing What Ifs.   The army of the kingdom had gathered here in June, 1187 to discuss Saladin’s invasion.   He was laying siege to the castle at Tiberias, which was being defended by the Lady Eschiva, wife of  the Count of Tripoli.  But the count argued against rushing to her rescue, pointing out that that they’d have to march through a parched territory without water.  He insisted Saladin would not harm his wife, that he was using the siege to lure them into fighting a battle on his terms, on terrain he chose, a battle they were not likely to win.  Their greatest successes had occurred when they adopted a defensive strategy, and he urged them to follow it now, to remain at Le Sephorie and its springs.   For once, Guy de Lusignan, the unpopular king of Outremer, listened to reason, and when the other lords supported the count, he agreed that they would not move on Tiberias.   But later that night, Gerard de Ridefort, the Grand Master of the Templars, paid a stealth visit to Guy, warning him that his manhood would be impugned and he’d become a figure of mockery if he failed to take action against Saladin.

The Templar leader seems to have had the strategic sense of a Benedictine abbess, for this was not the first time he’d urged a military action that would result in disaster.  He was also motivated by malice, by a burning hatred of the Count of Tripoli.  According to chroniclers, the count had promised an heiress to Gerard, and then reneged when a Pisan merchant offered him the lady’s weight in gold.  Gerard stormed off to join the Templars and devoted the rest of his life to revenge.  Guy had a fatal flaw—he would heed the last man to offer him advice, and so he allowed himself to be persuaded by Gerard, announcing the next morning that they would leave Le Sephorie and march on Tiberias, after all.
Quite a few historians have called this one of history’s most boneheaded military blunders, and I totally agree.   The army marched out of Le Sephorie the next morning and the result was the battle at Hattin, which was an overwhelming victory for Saladin, who then took the castle at Tiberias, and chivalrously provided the Lady Eschiva with an escort to her husband’s lands in Tripoli, just as the count had predicted he’d do.    All of the Hospitallers and Templars who survived the battle were executed at Saladin’s command–all save one, Gerard de Ridefort, who was allowed to ransom himself.   Even if Dante did not mention him, I like to think he is roasting in one of the Inferno’s circles of Hell.
While at Sepphoria, we were able to see Koby again and to meet his older sister, Levav.  I can only hope she didn’t think I was rude, for Koby and I got into such an animated discussion of the battle at Hattin that we were soon back in the 12th century and lost all sense of time or place or other people; I doubt we’d even have noticed if we’d encountered a unicorn.

Our last stop was the battlefield.  The Horns of Hattin is an extinct volcano, with twin peaks overlooking the plain of Hattin.   It was here that I experienced a minor miracle of my own.   Despite my back brace (my medieval armor) and setting a measured pace, my back had continued to give me grief.  But when we reached Hattin, the pain suddenly eased dramatically, allowing me to reach the top.   I had not expected the terrain to be so rough, so rock-strewn.  It is a wonder that the legs of the horses did not snap like matchsticks, and it was easy to see why the Count of Tripoli could not have forced his way back up the slope to rejoin the army after his charge failed.

I always find battlefields to be sad places; too many ghosts.  Hattin is particularly bleak and desolate, and it took very little imagination to envision it wreathed in the smoke of the brushfires set by the Saracens, sweltering in the summer heat, the sky darkening with clouds of arrows, the wind echoing with the battle cries and screams of the dying men and horses.  I will never forget the sight of the Sea of Galilee shimmering along the horizon; to men suffering from severe thirst and heat, it must have seemed like a heartbreaking mirage, so close and yet so far.   When it comes time for me to fight this battle in Outremer, I will have some very vivid memories to draw upon.

Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee from Hattin

One final thought on this land often called the cradle of civilization.   I am very glad Paula, Enda, and I were able to make this trip, and I am grateful to Koby, Valerie, and Elke for their advice, assistance, and the pleasure of their company.  When I lived in Hawaii years ago, the word Aloha was multi-purpose, used for greetings and farewell and as an expression of love.    I’d like to end this blog with the beautiful Hebrew word Shalom, which—like Aloha– has various meanings, including a blessing for peace, which we wish for all the Israelis and Palestinians who call it home.
December 8, 2014

PS  My blog is balking again at letting me insert photos; I thought we’d resolved this problem, but apparently not.  I am going to post it as is and then will put up some photos once we exorcise these new demons.


September 25th, 2014

I ended my book tour for A King’s Ransom at the Tucson Festival of Books, which was a delightful experience and one I recommend highly to all my fellow book-lovers.  While in Tucson, I met and became friends with a gifted writer who shares my passion for the past, Judith Starkston.  When I learned that she was completing Hand of Fire, a novel about the Trojan princess Briseis, famously captured by Achilles during the siege of Troy, I was fascinated; I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Troy.   Judith kindly sent me an ARC to read, but neither of us expected that I’d suddenly find myself needing to have my cataract surgery performed sooner rather than later.  I was delighted with the results of the surgery; I would not go so far as to say I was viewing the world in black and white and it suddenly flamed into vivid technicolor, but there is no doubt that everything is brighter and sharper now.  But the surgery wreaked havoc on my schedule and I have had to postpone reading Hand of Fire.   Fortunately, I can still introduce Judith and her story of Briseis and Achilles to my readers.

What inspired you to write this book?

It may sound strange, but I began to write in order to answer a question that had bothered me for a long time. For years I’d taught the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, and kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles.

The Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave Achilles.

I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome.

What drew you to historical fiction?

I loved ancient history and literature as a student while I earned my Classics degrees. That is the base that trained me.

Many years ago, I walked through the British Museum with my toddler son on my shoulders. I was retelling the myths painted on the Greek vases in front of us. We were happily lost in our imaginative world. I turned to go to another display case and discovered a crowd behind me listening in. So I think I’ve been “writing” historical tales for a long time.

Tell us about Hand of Fire.

Hand of Fire is partly a romance—Briseis and Achilles fall in love but in an unconventional manner that includes a mystical element. Achilles is half-immortal and I made full use of that half of his conflicted personality.

In addition to the romantic element, Hand of Fire explores why some people, women especially, can survive great tragedy and violence against them, even managing to take delight in what life still has to offer.

It is a coming of age tale featuring a smart, strong-willed teenage woman in an ancient culture that, counter to our modern stereotypes of the past, expects Briseis to be powerful, literate and a leader. Briseis succeeds in rising to those expectations despite the circumstances arrayed against her—and she’s strong enough to take on the mightiest of the Greek heroes.

Can you tell us a little about your main character?

Briseis is essential to the plot of the Iliad, and yet we only know that she was a princess captured by Achilles. To develop who she was I needed both an understanding of what she could plausibly have done in the course her life and her inner psychology.

Intriguingly, the world Briseis lived in—the details of its everyday life, religious beliefs, language, etc. have only come to light recently—dug from the earth by contemporary archaeologists. The cuneiform libraries of ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Hittite Empire, where Troy and Briseis’s city of Lyrnessos were situated, have begun to be translated and provided the material I needed. I discovered in the evidence a powerful role for Briseis, that of a healing priestess, called in Hittite a hasawa.

That role made perfect sense for a woman who fell in love with Achilles, the warrior who is also a healer and a bard. The stories—one taken from clay-recorded history and one from mythology—meshed and a strong-willed redhead began to form in my imagination.

Would you classify your writing more as plot driven or character driven?

Hand of Fire is very much character driven. I wanted to figure out who Briseis could have been—after a while she became very real to me and when I found myself struggling with a scene it usually meant I was trying to make Briseis do something that simply wasn’t in her nature. Characters are a very bossy lot once you let them get into your imagination.

Achilles stumped me for the longest time. He’s larger than life, half-immortal and deeply conflicted. In an early version I had him as one of the point-of-view characters, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t hear his voice. I finally wrote his part of the story as epic poetry in iambic pentameter, which is the closest I could get in English to the hexameter verse of Homer. Once I used a medium that was mythological and writ large, he gradually revealed himself. Later I used that understanding to remove the poetry and slide in his character in the more standard format of scenes.

Which is more important in “historical fiction”: the historical or the fiction? How important is it to get the history right?

I think you have to tell a compelling story first, but also get the history right. I feel a special obligation to do that with Hand of Fire because Bronze Age Turkey is still a new field.

Until recently, various prejudices and giant blanks in our knowledge led scholars to assume the Trojans were culturally Greeks, but now we know Troy and all the area now called Turkey, which in the Bronze Age was made up of various kingdoms but dominated by the Hittites, had its own language, cultural traditions and style, quite distinct from the Greeks.  Older novels set in the Trojan War focus only on myth or follow the belief the Trojans were Greek.

In addition to my research via books, academic journals and archaeological site reports, I have travelled in Turkey, spent hours studying museum collections, talked with archaeologists, and experienced firsthand the geography of the settings of my book.

However, none of that desire to get the history right is worth anything if you don’t tell a story that your reader can’t put down.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

Despite being a book about war with a lot of death and violence, the fundamental theme of Hand of Fire is one of hope. I think people will come away with a renewed sense of the resiliency of humanity and of women in particular.

Also, my aim was to build the Bronze Age world of these Greeks and Trojans vividly enough that readers feel like they’ve lived there. For most people, that’s a new and exotic world and yet it will feel surprisingly familiar in some ways. I guess you could call Hand of Fire historical escapism with a positive message.

Can you tell us about your future projects?

I’m in the middle of a historical mystery featuring the Hittite Queen Puduhepa as “sleuth.” She would be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried by the sands of time. Her seal is on the first extant peace treaty in history next to her foe, Pharaoh Ramses II. Now that she’s been dug out, I’ve taken her remarkable personality, which seems perfectly suited for solving mysteries, and I am writing a series. She ruled from her teens until she was at least eighty, so I think this series may outlast me.

Hand of Fire will be followed by at least one sequel and possibly a prequel of sorts focusing on Iphigenia and Achilles. This spring I made a research trip to Cyprus because the sequel to Hand of Fire will end up there—but it’d be a spoiler if I revealed how or why. (Also I’d have to know the answer to both of those and I’m not entirely sure yet…) Suffice to say Cyprus is a beautiful and dramatic island with a density of Bronze Age archaeological sites that is almost alarming. My husband and I had a delightful trip and maybe that’s reason enough.

Thank you, Judith, for a very illuminating interview.  My readers love it when writers lift the veil, allowing them to glimpse how a novel takes form and offering a view into the author’s inner world.  Hand of Fire is sure to appeal to anyone interested in history in general and the ancient world in particular.  I am looking forward to reading it.   Here is the link to Judith’s website.

This may be my last blog for a while, as I am soon to leave on a research trip to Israel.  I felt very cheated that I was unable to follow in the Lionheart’s footsteps when I was writing my account of his crusade.  So I am very excited that I will be able to track the shadows of Balian d’Ibelin, his Greek queen, and the tragic young king, Baldwin IV, through the streets of Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Acre.

September 25, 2014